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Hellish Landscape

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Tar Sands’ hellish landscape of ruined Earth and toxic tailing ponds. Image source Occupy.

Tar Sands’ hellish landscape of ruined Earth and toxic tailing ponds. Image source Occupy.

Source: GarryRogersNature Read the original article

Car Runs 1 Million Miles on 8 Grams of Thorium

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In breaking news on the energy and technology front, Laser Power Systems, a U.S. company based out of  Connecticut is developing a method of automotive propulsion using the element thorium to produce electricity. The results far surpass anything currently powering automobiles. To put it in perspective, 8 grams of Thorium produce enough power for a car to drive 1 million miles.

Extinct Species of Crocodilian Using 3D

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Reconstructing a Newly Discovered Extinct Species of Crocodilian Using 3D Printing & Scanning

Image: David Killpack

Image: David Killpack

Stephen Hawking: Beware smart machines

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Still waiting for Skynet to become self-aware

Dismissing the implications of highly intelligent machines could be humankind’s “worst mistake in history”, write astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, computer scientist Stuart Russell, and physicists Max Tegmark and Frank Wilczek in the Independent.

“Self-aware” machines have received the Hollywood treatment in the Johnny Depp film Transcendence, but the subject should receive serious consideration, they say.

Successfully creating artificial intelligence would be “the biggest event in human history”, they write, and the possible benefits for everyday human life are enormous. There could come a time, however, when machines outpace human achievement. If and when that day arrives, they wonder, will the best interest of humans still factor into their calculations?

“One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand,” they write. “Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”

And what are we humans doing to address these concerns, they ask. Nothing.

“All of us should ask ourselves what we can do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks,” they conclude.

A while back, we wondered about the implications of machine journalists. But maybe we should just be thankful that at least something will be around to write long-form essays on the last days of humankind.

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Is this true?

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I wouldn’t try this without verifying it.

It may be too late

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Microsoft’s $2.5bn question: what if it doesn’t release Office for the iPad?

Software firm makes huge profits from Office suite – but is losing chance to capture younger companies which have sprung up in mobile-first world

Growing numbers of people and businesses are choosing to buy tablets such as the iPad – which poses a problem for Microsoft Office. Photograph: Anthony Upton/REX

It may be one of Microsoft’s biggest squandered opportunities.

Tired of waiting for Office to be optimised for their mobile gadgets, a growing contingent of younger companies is turning to cheaper, simpler and touch-friendly apps that can perform word processing and other tasks in the “cloud” – on internet-based systems.

Take Artivest Holdings, a New York-based financial services startup that sells alternative investment products. The New York-based company uses an app called Quip, which combines word processing and messaging, to handle all but the most sensitive legal and financial files.

“There are no more Microsoft Word documents being circulated. If someone emails me a Word document, I’ll tell them to put it in Quip,” said Artivest’s chief investment officer David Levine.

“If I’m walking to and from home, or going to an appointment, I can review or edit on my iPad. Not being tied to my desk, that’s a big pro,” he said.

The speed with which apps like Quip have been adopted is forcing Microsoft to intensify its efforts to bring the powerful but ageing Office software suite to tablets and smartphones, according to people close to the company.

Microsoft already has a full iPhone and iPad version of Office ready for release, the sources said. The only question is when chief executive Satya Nadella, who took over in February, will pull the trigger.

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Skynet???

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2029: the year when robots will have the power to outsmart their makers

Ray Kurzweil, Google expert in artificial intelligence, predicts that by 2029 robots will make jokes and flirt

Garry Kasparov versus Deep Blue in 1997. The computer won – as Ray Kurzweil predicted. Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Computers will be cleverer than humans by 2029, according to Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering.

The entrepreneur and futurologist has predicted that in 15 years’ time computers will be more intelligent than we are and will be able to understand what we say, learn from experience, make jokes, tell stories and even flirt.

Kurzweil, 66, who is considered by some to be the world’s leading artificial intelligence (AI) visionary, is recognised by technologists for popularising the idea of “the singularity” – the moment in the future when men and machines will supposedly converge. Google hired him at the end of 2012 to work on the company’s next breakthrough: an artificially intelligent search engine that knows us better than we know ourselves.

In an interview in today’s ObserverNew Review, Kurzweil says that the company hasn’t given him a particular set of instructions, apart from helping to bring natural language understanding to Google.

“My project is ultimately to base search on really understanding what the language means,” he said. “When you write an article, you’re not creating an interesting collection of words. You have something to say and Google is devoted to intelligently organising and processing the world’s information.

“The message in your article is information, and the computers are not picking up on that. So we would want them to read everything on the web and every page of every book, then be able to engage in intelligent dialogue with the user to be able to answer their questions.”

Kurzweil’s prediction comes hot on the tail of revelations that Google is in the throes of assembling the greatest artificial intelligence laboratory on Earth. The company has bought several machine-learning and robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics, the firm that produces lifelike military robots, for an undisclosed sum; and the smart thermostat maker, Nest Labs, for $3.2bn (£1.9bn).

This month it bought the cutting-edge British artificial intelligence startup DeepMind for £242m and hired Geoffrey Hinton, a British computer scientist and the world’s leading expert on neural networks.

Kurzweil is known for inventing devices that have changed the world – the first flatbed scanner, the first computer program that could recognise a typeface, and the first text-to-speech synthesiser. In 1990 he predicted that a computer would defeat a world chess champion by 1998 (in 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov), and he predicted the future prominence of the world wide web at a time when it was only an obscure system that was used by a few academics.

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Evolution

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evolution

Babies Unbottled

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Odon childbirth device: Car mechanic uncorks a revolution

 

A “potentially revolutionary” device to help women during difficult births has come from an unlikely source – a car mechanic from Argentina, who based the idea on a party trick.

Apart from having five children of his own, Jorge Odon had no connection with the world of obstetrics. He did however have a talent for invention.

“It comes naturally – for instance if I have a problem in my workplace I will go to bed and my head will think it through and I will wake up in the middle of the night with a solution,” he says.

But until 2005, all his patents – eight in total – were in the field of mechanics, stabilisation bars, car suspensions and the like.

All this changed after Odon’s staff at the garage showed him a YouTube video revealing how to extract a loose cork from inside an empty bottle. It’s remarkably simple. You tilt the bottle, stuff a plastic bag down the neck and blow into the opening. The bag balloons inside the bottle, wrapping itself tightly around the cork. Then you just pull it out.

Odon immediately challenged a friend, Carlos Modena, to a bet over dinner. He placed a bottle containing a cork on the dinner table, and laid out several objects, including a bread bag. Thoroughly puzzled, Modena insisted the only way of getting the cork out would be to smash the bottle. So Odon showed him his trick, and won the bet.

But that night, as he slept next to his wife, Odon had a lightbulb moment – what if he used the same principle to help women give birth? At 04:00 he tried to wake her up. “Marcela, this cork trick could make labour easier!” he said. His wife mumbled, “That’s nice,” turned over and went back to sleep.

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The 20 big questions in science

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From the nature of the universe (that’s if there is only one) to the purpose of dreams, there are lots of things we still don’t know – but we might do soon. A new book seeks some answers

What’s at the bottom of a black hole? See question 17. Photograph: Alamy

1 What is the universe made of?

Astronomers face an embarrassing conundrum: they don’t know what 95% of the universe is made of. Atoms, which form everything we see around us, only account for a measly 5%. Over the past 80 years it has become clear that the substantial remainder is comprised of two shadowy entities – dark matter and dark energy. The former, first discovered in 1933, acts as an invisible glue, binding galaxies and galaxy clusters together. Unveiled in 1998, the latter is pushing the universe’s expansion to ever greater speeds. Astronomers are closing in on the true identities of these unseen interlopers.

2 How did life begin?

Four billion years ago, something started stirring in the primordial soup. A few simple chemicals got together and made biology – the first molecules capable of replicating themselves appeared. We humans are linked by evolution to those early biological molecules. But how did the basic chemicals present on early Earth spontaneously arrange themselves into something resembling life? How did we get DNA? What did the first cells look like? More than half a century after the chemist Stanley Miller proposed his “primordial soup” theory, we still can’t agree about what happened. Some say life began in hot pools near volcanoes, others that it was kick-started by meteorites hitting the sea.

3 Are we alone in the universe?

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Perhaps not. Astronomers have been scouring the universe for places where water worlds might have given rise to life, from Europa and Mars in our solar system to planets many light years away. Radio telescopes have been eavesdropping on the heavens and in 1977 a signal bearing the potential hallmarks of an alien message was heard. Astronomers are now able to scan the atmospheres of alien worlds for oxygen and water. The next few decades will be an exciting time to be an alien hunter with up to 60bn potentially habitable planets in our Milky Way alone.

4 What makes us human?

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Just looking at your DNA won’t tell you – the human genome is 99% identical to a chimpanzee’s and, for that matter, 50% to a banana’s. We do, however, have bigger brains than most animals – not the biggest, but packed with three times as many neurons as a gorilla (86bn to be exact). A lot of the things we once thought distinguishing about us – language, tool-use, recognising yourself in the mirror – are seen in other animals. Perhaps it’s our culture – and its subsequent effect on our genes (and vice versa) – that makes the difference. Scientists think that cooking and our mastery of fire may have helped us gain big brains. But it’s possible that our capacity for co-operation and skills trade is what really makes this a planet of humans and not apes.

5 What is consciousness?

We’re still not really sure. We do know that it’s to do with different brain regions networked together rather than a single part of the brain. The thinking goes that if we figure out which bits of the brain are involved and how the neural circuitry works, we’ll figure out how consciousness emerges, something that artificial intelligence and attempts to build a brain neuron by neuron may help with. The harder, more philosophical, question is why anything should be conscious in the first place. A good suggestion is that by integrating and processing lots of information, as well as focusing and blocking out rather than reacting to the sensory inputs bombarding us, we can distinguish between what’s real and what’s not and imagine multiple future scenarios that help us adapt and survive.

6 Why do we dream?

We spend around a third of our lives sleeping. Considering how much time we spend doing it, you might think we’d know everything about it. But scientists are still searching for a complete explanation of why we sleep and dream. Subscribers to Sigmund Freud’s views believed dreams were expressions of unfulfilled wishes – often sexual – while others wonder whether dreams are anything but the random firings of a sleeping brain. Animal studies and advances in brain imaging have led us to a more complex understanding that suggests dreaming could play a role in memory, learning and emotions. Rats, for example, have been shown to replay their waking experiences in dreams, apparently helping them to solve complex tasks such as navigating mazes.

7 Why is there stuff?

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You really shouldn’t be here. The “stuff” you’re made of is matter, which has a counterpart called antimatter differing only in electrical charge. When they meet, both disappear in a flash of energy. Our best theories suggest that the big bang created equal amounts of the two, meaning all matter should have since encountered its antimatter counterpart, scuppering them both and leaving the universe awash with only energy. Clearly nature has a subtle bias for matter otherwise you wouldn’t exist. Researchers are sifting data from experiments like the Large Hadron Collider trying to understand why, with supersymmetry and neutrinos the two leading contenders.

8 Are there other universes?

Our universe is a very unlikely place. Alter some of its settings even slightly and life as we know it becomes impossible. In an attempt to unravel this “fine-tuning” problem, physicists are increasingly turning to the notion of other universes. If there is an infinite number of them in a “multiverse” then every combination of settings would be played out somewhere and, of course, you find yourself in the universe where you are able to exist. It may sound crazy, but evidence from cosmology and quantum physics is pointing in that direction.

9 Where do we put all the carbon?

For the past couple of hundred years, we’ve been filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide – unleashing it by burning fossil fuels that once locked away carbon below the Earth’s surface. Now we have to put all that carbon back, or risk the consequences of a warming climate. But how do we do it? One idea is to bury it in old oil and gas fields. Another is to hide it away at the bottom of the sea. But we don’t know how long it will stay there, or what the risks might be. Meanwhile, we have to protect natural, long-lasting stores of carbon, such as forests and peat bogs, and start making energy in a way that doesn’t belch out even more.

10 How do we get more energy from the sun?

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Dwindling supplies of fossil fuels mean we’re in need of a new way to power our planet. Our nearest star offers more than one possible solution. We’re already harnessing the sun’s energy to produce solar power. Another idea is to use the energy in sunlight to split water into its component parts: oxygen, and hydrogen, which could provide a clean fuel for cars of the future. Scientists are also working on an energy solution that depends on recreating the processes going on inside stars themselves – they’re building a nuclear fusion machine. The hope is that these solutions can meet our energy needs.

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