SCI COMMUN SCIENTISTS' TERM LIMITS The Trump administration moved to impose 5-year term limits on top scientists at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The rule, released on 15 January, requires that directors of seven centers at the Food and Drug Administration, as well as 17 positions at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, undergo a performance review that could lead to a new 5-year appointment, or to the staffer's transfer. A 2016 law mandates such 5-year reviews for institute and center directors at the National Institutes of Health. But some current and former officials worry the term limits will subject such positions to political interference from the White House, and they could face legal challenges, Politico reported. GLOBAL WARMING A surprise Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule finalized last week would effectively ban the government from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from heavy industries other than power plants. The agency substantially rewrote a draft rule originally focused on regulating carbon emissions from new power plants, expanding it to exempt other “stationary” sources, such as refineries and oil and gas wells. The exemption covers an entire class of sources if its collective emissions are less than 3% of the U.S. total. Only power plants, which produce 27% of U.S. carbon emissions, exceed that bar. Analysts say the rule is vulnerable to a court challenge, and the Biden administration can likely suspend its implementation. SPOTTED OWLS The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service slashed protections for the endangered northern spotted owl on 13 January, declaring more than 1.4 million hectares of Pacific Northwest forests would no longer be considered critical habitat for the bird. The decision comes despite findings by agency scientists that the owl's population is declining and that it warrants stricter protection. The habitat reduction is part of a move by the outgoing Trump administration to settle a lawsuit by the timber industry and counties that earn revenue from logging. The land area is 17 times the amount that the agency initially proposed to remove from protections in August 2020. TRANSGENIC ANIMALS A push by the White House would essentially eliminate the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) authority to regulate genetically modified animals and put the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge. The two agencies had been negotiating on dividing the task, and critics of the White House move say it would put USDA in the problematic position of both promoting and regulating genetically modified animals. FDA opposes the shift, Politico reported. ARCTIC OIL DRILLING The first-ever auction of oil drilling rights inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a policy priority for the Trump administration, met with a tepid response this month. Just three bidders paid $14.4 million to claim 11 parcels covering 220,000 hectares—about half of the land up for auction. In an unusual move, a state agency, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, won bids for nine of the parcels. It joined the auction in part because the agency fears the Biden administration will slow or block further leasing, reducing the state's potential economic gains. The leases must still be finalized by the Bureau of Land Management. Wildlife scientists have warned that the drilling could harm caribou herds and other parts of the ecosystem. FETAL TISSUE RESEARCH Scientists who use fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions would need to comply with new rules under a proposal released by the Trump administration on 13 January. Among other changes, the policy would add new requirements to forms used to obtain informed consent from women who donate tissue for research. It would also limit the source of fetal tissue, which often comes from nonprofit clinics, to federally or state funded hospitals or academic medical centers. In 2019, Trump's administration banned fetal tissue research by federal researchers and required a new ethics review for studies by scientists receiving federal grants; research groups have urged the Biden administration to reverse that policy. The new proposal, which is open for comment for 30 days, is not expected to move forward. CENSUS FIGHT The Trump administration last week abandoned a 2-year effort to prod the Census Bureau to provide a separate tally of undocumented U.S. residents as part of the 2020 census. In 2019, the president had ordered that the separate tally, and a rushed compilation of the decennial head count used for apportioning the 435 seats of the U.S. House of Representatives, be delivered before he left office. Most demographers said it could not be done and called the directive political interference. On 11 January, U.S. government lawyers told a federal judge that the apportionment numbers would not be ready until 6 March. Civil rights organizations want Census Director Steven Dillingham to resign before his term ends in December, saying he has failed to uphold the agency's high standards for data quality. ### Leadership President Joe Biden on 15 January named Eric Lander to be his science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. A mathematician turned molecular biologist, the 63-year-old Lander will take leave from his post as president and founding director of the Broad Institute, jointly run by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The first biologist to hold the job, Lander spent 8 years as co-chair of the nation's top science advisory panel under former President Barack Obama. He also co-led the public Human Genome Project, which completed its first draft in 2001. Biden has picked chemistry Nobel laureate Frances Arnold and MIT's Maria Zuber to lead his science advisory panel. He named David Kessler, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to direct Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to speed development of COVID-19 vaccines. And Biden said Francis Collins has agreed to remain as director of the National Institutes of Health. ### Conservation To study one of Europe's rarest butterflies, researchers pioneered a new method of observation: rappelling down vertiginous mountainsides along the border of Italy and Switzerland. Scientists first described the orange-and-brown Raetzer's ringlet ( Erebia christi ) more than 100 years ago, but its dangerous, inaccessible habitat complicated population surveys. Drawing on decades of climbing experience, independent biologists Andrea Battisti and Matteo Gabaglio slid down ropes to count butterflies in several areas during the past 6 years. It was “like being an explorer … going where nobody has ever [gone],” Gabaglio says. Researchers sighted the ringlet 177 times at two key sites in Italy, they reported this month in the Journal of Insect Conservation . That's good news, they add: The ringlet appears to be more abundant that previous studies suggested. But because of climate change and other threats, they recommend reclassifying the species as endangered rather than vulnerable. ### Policy President Joe Biden announced a sweeping, $400 billion plan last week to tackle the “dismal failure” of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, safely reopen schools by March, and ramp up testing people for the pandemic coronavirus. The measures are part of an ambitious, $1.9 billion “American Rescue Plan” unveiled by Biden ahead of his inauguration to help people who are struggling financially because of the pandemic—a proposal that depends on Congress providing the money. The federal government would pay for 100,000 new public health workers to assist states in vaccination and other pandemic response efforts. Biden promised to invoke the Defense Production Act to provide vaccinemakers with whatever they need to increase production. Biden's administration would also work more closely with pharmacies to move vaccines from freezers into arms. “The more people we vaccinate and the faster we do it, the sooner we can put this pandemic behind us,” Biden said. ### Infectious diseases All eight gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park were exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and at least two have begun to cough, zoo officials said last week. Tests of fecal samples showed that two were infected, marking the first known cases in nonhuman apes. The officials suspect the western lowland gorillas caught the virus from an asymptomatic staff member who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2; the zoo has been closed to the public for weeks because of the pandemic. The news confirmed fears that the virus can infect endangered great apes. Human respiratory viruses are already a leading cause of death for chimpanzees in the wild. ### COVID-19 High virus levels in saliva are correlated with later hospitalization, serious illness, or death from COVID-19, raising the prospect that testing saliva for the coronavirus that causes the disease will help identify patients most at risk, a study has found. The standard test to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus analyzes samples of nasal mucus taken with nasopharyngeal (NP) swabs. But patients with the worst outcomes were more likely to have high virus loads in their saliva, but not in their NP swabs, report Akiko Iwasaki of Yale University and colleagues in a 10 January preprint. That may reflect that nasal mucus comes from the upper respiratory tract, whereas severe disease is associated with damage deep in the lungs; coughing regularly brings up viral particles to the throat, where they can pervade saliva. If the results are confirmed, saliva tests could help doctors prioritize which patients in the early stages of the disease should receive medicines that drive down levels of the virus. ### Planetary science The Red Planet has claimed another robot. Scientists at NASA and the German Aerospace Center last week called off a 2-year effort to rescue the failed rod-shaped heat probe, or “mole,” of the InSight lander. The mole was designed to burrow 5 meters into the martian soil and tease out how quickly heat escapes from Mars—a clue to how the planet formed. But soil compacted instead of crumbling as the rod tried to dig in, leaving it stuck at the surface. Even after engineers used InSight's robotic arm to push the probe down and scraped dirt on top, the probe failed a final attempt this month to dig on its own, leaving the mole buried in a shallow grave. InSight's other primary instrument, a seismometer, continues to function normally. ### Foreign influences The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has added another prominent scientist to its crackdown on U.S.-based academics with allegedly undisclosed ties to China. On 14 January, police arrested nanotechnologist Gang Chen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at his Cambridge home, charging him with violating federal wire fraud, banking, and tax laws. DOJ alleges Chen held various appointments with Chinese institutions and provided technical advice, “often in exchange for financial compensation and awards.” He allegedly failed to disclose these affiliations as required when applying for U.S. Department of Energy grants, and did not tell tax authorities about a bank account in China. MIT said, “We take seriously concerns about improper influence in U.S. research.” Chen was born in China and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and fellow of AAAS (which publishes Science ). ### History of science Fans of Mary Anning are hoping to raise £33,000 by next month to fund a statue honoring the paleontological pioneer, who discovered and interpreted key fossils along England's Jurassic Coast. Anning, who lived in Lyme Regis in the early 1800s, was the first to correctly identify an ichthyosaur, and discovered England's first pterosaur. Her discoveries were profoundly influential, but as a self-taught, working-class woman she was excluded from meetings of the Geological Society of London. Its members discussed and built on her discoveries, but often failed to acknowledge her. The £100,000 statue project was inspired by 13-year-old local Evie Swire. Organizers hope the cause will be helped by the film Ammonite , starring Kate Winslet as Anning, which opened in U.S. theaters in November 2020. ### Publishing AAAS, which publishes the Science family of journals, said last week it will offer its authors a free way to comply with funder requirements that their papers be open access on publication. Under a new policy, authors may deposit near-final, peer-reviewed versions of papers accepted by paywalled Science titles in public repositories where they are free to read. This “green open-access” route will apply for now only to authors of papers funded by Coalition S, a group of mostly European funders and foundations behind a mandate for immediate open access that takes effect this month. AAAS said it will pilot the new policy for 1 year.
Farms and other agricultural operations in certain rural areas in the US can now use robotic drones to take images of or gather data on their crops. The FAA has approved Massachusetts-based American Robotics' request to be able to deploy automated drones without human pilots and spotters on site. As The Wall Street Journal notes, commercial drone flights typically require the physical presence of licensed pilots making them a costly undertaking. AR's machine eliminates the need for on-site personnel, though each automated flight will still need to be overseen by a remote human pilot. According to the relevant documents (via The Verge) the FAA has uploaded on its website, the pilot "who is not co-located with the aircraft" will have to conduct pre-flight safety checks to ensure the drone is in working condition.
You can officially claim autonomous commercial drones for your 2021 bingo card. On Friday, Massachusetts-based industrial drone developer American Robotics announced it had received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate its fully-automated "Scout" drones without any humans on-site. It's the first waiver of its kind, as the FAA has previously approved the use of autonomous commercial drones exclusively under the condition that human observers be present along the flight path -- or that risk of collision be mitigated through otherwise hyper-strict limitations. Advocates of drone technology say those restrictions have long held the industry back. "Decades worth of promise and projection are finally coming to fruition," CEO and co-founder of American Robotics Reese Mozer said in a press release.
U.S. aviation regulators have approved the first fully automated commercial drone flights, granting a small Massachusetts-based company permission to operate drones without hands-on piloting or direct observation by human controllers or observers. The decision by the Federal Aviation Administration limits operation of automated drones to rural areas and altitudes below 400 feet, but is a potentially significant step in expanding commercial applications of drones for farmers, utilities, mining companies and other customers. It also represents another step in the FAA's broader effort to authorize widespread flights by shifting away from case-by-case exemptions for specific vehicles performing specific tasks. In approval documents posted on a government website Thursday, the FAA said that once such automated drone operations are conducted on a wider scale, they could mean "efficiencies to many of the industries that fuel our economy such as agriculture, mining, transportation" and certain manufacturing segments. The FAA previously allowed drones to inspect railroad tracks, pipelines and some industrial sites beyond the sight of pilots or spotters on the ground as long as such individuals were located relatively close by.
Science has named nine scientific advances as runners-up for the 2020 Breakthrough of the Year. For 5 decades, scientists have struggled to solve one of biology's biggest challenges: predicting the precise 3D shape a string of amino acids will fold into as it becomes a working protein. This year, they achieved that goal, developing an artificial intelligence (AI) program that predicts most protein structures as accurately as laboratory experiments can map them. Because a protein's precise shape determines its biochemical functions, the new program could help researchers uncover mechanisms of disease, develop new drugs, and even create drought-tolerant plants and cheaper biofuels. Researchers traditionally decipher structures using laborious techniques such as x-ray crystallography and cryo–electron microscopy. But detailed molecular maps only exist for about 170,000 of the 200 million known proteins. Computational biologists have dreamed of simply predicting a protein's structure by modeling the amino acid interactions that govern its 3D shape. But because amino acids can interact in so many ways, the number of possible structures for single protein is astronomical. In 1994, structural biologists launched a biennial competition called the Critical Assessment of Protein Structure Prediction (CASP). Entrants are given amino acid sequences for about 100 proteins with as-yet-unknown structures. Some groups try to predict their structures, while others map the same structures in the lab; afterward, their results are compared. Even in CASP's early years, the predictions for small, simple proteins were on par with experimental observations. But predictions for larger, more challenging proteins lagged far behind. Not anymore. This year, an AI program created by researchers at U.K.-based DeepMind tallied a median score of 92.4 on a 100-point scale, where anything above 90 is considered as accurate as an experimentally derived structure. On the most challenging proteins, the AlphaFold program averaged 87, 25 points ahead of its closest competitor. And because contest rules require competitors to reveal enough of their methods for others to make use of them, organizers say it's only a matter of months before other groups match AlphaFold's success. — Robert F. Service Since the revolutionary genome-snipping tool known as CRISPR burst on the scene in 2012, it has given researchers new power to engineer crops and animals, stirred ethical debates, and earned a Nobel Prize—not to mention Science 's Breakthrough of the Year in 2015. Now, CRISPR is again making waves, scoring its first success in the clinic by treating two inherited blood diseases. People with beta-thalassemia have low levels of the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin protein, leading to weakness and exhaustion; those with sickle cell disease make a defective form of the protein, resulting in sickle-shaped red blood cells that block blood vessels and often cause severe pain, organ damage, and strokes. To treat three sickle cell patients, researchers harvested immature blood cells, known as blood stem cells, from each. They then used CRISPR to disable an “off” switch that—in adults—stops production of the fetal form of hemoglobin, which can counter the effects of the sickling mutation. After the patients received chemotherapy to wipe out their diseased blood stem cells, the CRISPR-treated cells were infused back into their bodies. The patients, treated up to 17 months ago, are now making plentiful fetal hemoglobin, and have not experienced the painful attacks that used to strike every few months, the companies CRISPR Therapeutics and Vertex Pharmaceuticals reported in December. One patient, a young mother of three, says the treatment changed her life. The companies also gave the treatment to seven patients who normally receive blood transfusions for beta-thalassemia. They haven't needed transfusions since, the companies reported in the same paper and meeting presentation. With more testing, the new treatment could rival the success of gene therapies that treat the two diseases by adding hemoglobin DNA to stem cells. But like gene therapy, the CRISPR approach requires high-tech medical care and could cost $1 million or more per patient—putting it out of reach for much of Africa, where most people with sickle cell live. — Jocelyn Kaiser More than 40 years ago, the world's leading climate scientists gathered in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to answer a simple question: How hot would Earth get if humans kept emitting greenhouse gases? Their answer, informed by rudimentary climate models, was broad: If atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) doubled from preindustrial levels, the planet would eventually warm between 1.5°C and 4.5°C, a climate sensitivity range encompassing the merely troubling and the catastrophic. Now, they've finally ruled out the mildest scenarios—and the most dire. Narrowing those bounds has taken decades of scientific advancement. Understanding how clouds trap or reflect heat has been a particular challenge. Depending on their thickness, location, and composition, clouds can amplify warming—or suppress it. Now, high-resolution cloud models, supported by satellite evidence, have shown that global warming thins low, light-blocking clouds: Hotter air dries them out and subdues the turbulence that drives their formation. Longer and better temperature records have also helped narrow the range. Studies of Earth's ancient climate, which estimate paleotemperatures and CO2 levels using ice and ocean sediment cores, suggest how greenhouse gases may have driven previous episodes of warming. And modern global warming has now gone on long enough that surface temperatures, 1.1°C hotter than in preindustrial times, can be used to more confidently project trends into the future. This year, these advances enabled 25 scientists affiliated with the World Climate Research Programme to narrow climate sensitivity to a range between 2.6°C and 3.9°C. The study rules out some of the worst-case scenarios—but it all but guarantees warming that will flood coastal cities, escalate extreme heat waves, and displace millions of people. If we're lucky, such clarity might galvanize action. Atmospheric CO2 is already at 420 parts per million—halfway to the doubling point of 560 ppm. Barring more aggressive action on climate change, humanity could reach that threshold by 2060—and lock in the foreseen warming. — Paul Voosen Everyone loves a good mystery. Take fast radio bursts (FRBs)—short, powerful flashes of radio waves from distant galaxies. For 13 years, they tantalized astronomers keen to understand their origins. One running joke said there were more theories explaining what causes FRBs than there were FRBs. (Currently, astronomers know of more than 100.) Now, cosmic sleuths have fingered a likely culprit: magnetars, neutron stars that fizzle and pop with powerful magnetic fields. Because FRBs are so fast, they must come from a small but intense energy source like a magnetar, which are formed when burned-out stars collapse to the size of a city. But although a handful of FRBs had been traced to particular galaxies, no telescope had sharp enough vision to connect them to an individual magnetar at such great distances. Then, in April, an FRB went off in the Milky Way—close enough that astronomers could examine the scene. The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, a pioneering survey telescope in British Columbia responsible for the discovery of many FRBs, narrowed the source to a small area of sky, which was soon confirmed by the U.S. radio array STARE2. Orbiting observatories sensitive to higher frequencies quickly found that a known magnetar in that part of the sky, called SGR 1935+2154, was acting up at the same time, spewing out bursts of x-rays and gamma rays. Although astronomers studying FRBs believe they have finally found their perpetrator, they still don't know exactly how magnetars produce the radio bursts. They could come from close to the magnetar's surface, as magnetic field lines break and reconnect—similar to the Sun's flaring behavior. Or they could come from farther out, as shock waves slam into clouds of charged particles and generate laserlike radio pulses. Stay tuned for a sequel: Crack theorists are on the case. — Daniel Clery More than 40,000 years ago on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, a prehistoric Pablo Picasso ventured into the depths of a cave and sketched a series of fantastic animal-headed hunters cornering wild hogs and buffaloes. The age of the paintings, pinned down just 1 year ago, makes them the earliest known figurative art made by modern humans. In 2017, when an Indonesian researcher chanced across the scene, the figures alone told him he had found something special. The animals appear to be Sulawesi warty pigs and dwarf buffaloes, both of which still live on the island. But it was the animallike features of the eight hunters, armed with spears or ropes, that captivated archaeologists. Several of the hunters seem to have long muzzles or snouts. One sports a tail. Another's mouth resembles a bird beak. It's possible the artist was depicting the hunters wearing masks or camouflage, the researchers say, but they may also represent mythical animal-human hybrids. Such hybrids appear in other ancient works of art, including a 35,000-year-old ivory figurine of a lion-man found in the German Alps. Parts of the paintings were covered in white, bumpy mineral deposits known as cave popcorn. Uranium in this popcorn decays at a fixed rate, which allowed researchers to date minerals on top of the pigment to about 44,000 years ago. The cave scene must be at least that old—about 4000 years older than any other known figurative rock art, they reported in late December 2019. It decisively unseats Europe as the first place where modern humans are known to have created figurative art. If the figures do depict mythical human-animal hunters, their creators may have already passed an important cognitive milestone: the ability to imagine beings that do not exist. That, the researchers say, forms the roots of most modern—and ancient—religions. — Michael Price Within days of a racially charged confrontation between a white dog owner and a Black birdwatcher in New York City's Central Park in late May, scientists flocked to Twitter to celebrate—and support—Black nature enthusiasts. The #BlackBirdersWeek hashtag was soon followed by others, in disciplines from neuroscience to physics, all aiming to create community among Black scientists on Twitter, Zoom, and other platforms. “We're few and far between, so having us come together as a conglomerate in one virtual space—it really helped,” says Ti'Air Riggins, a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student at Michigan State University who helped organize #BlackInNeuro week. The social media events took place against the backdrop of the anguished response to police killings in the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement, and discussions within science about the need to create a more equitable, welcoming environment for people of color. Through those discussions, many scientists hoped to reach colleagues who had paid little attention to these issues in the past. “People of color across the board are struggling,” says Tanisha Williams, a botanist at Bucknell University who spearheaded #BlackBotanistsWeek. “It's a systemic problem.” Although it's too early to tell whether the events of this year will spur lasting change, many are hopeful. “This year feels different,” says Shirley Malcom, a senior adviser at AAAS (publisher of Science ) who has worked on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues since the 1970s. “All of a sudden, after George Floyd and everything else that came out after that time, you could at least get people's attention,” she says—adding that many scientists now seem more open to the idea that systemic racism is a problem in their community. “I definitely feel like our voices are being heard, and in a different way [than before],” Williams says. “But it's not going to be a quick fix … we have a long road.” — Katie Langin HIV, like all retroviruses, has a nasty feature that allows it to dodge attack: It integrates its genetic material into human chromosomes, creating “reservoirs” where it can hide, undetected by the immune system and invulnerable to antiretroviral drugs. But where it hides may make all the difference. This year, a study of 64 HIV-infected people who have been healthy for years without antiretroviral drugs reveals a link between their unusual success and where the virus has hunkered down in their genomes. Although the new understanding of these “elite controllers” won't lead directly to a cure, it opens up a novel strategy that may routinely allow other infected people to live for decades without treatment. Many studies have examined elite controllers, who make up about 0.5% of the 38 million people living with HIV. But this new work stood apart in size and scope, comparing integrated HIV in the 64 elite controllers with that in 41 HIV-infected people on treatment. HIV does best when it slots itself within genes. When the cell transcribes the genes, the integrated HIV, or “provirus,” can produce new viruses that infect other cells. If it parks in “gene deserts,” portions of chromosomes that rarely transcribe DNA, the provirus sits around like a fully functioning car stuck in a place that doesn't sell gas. The study found that in the elite controllers, 45% of functioning proviruses resided in gene deserts, compared with just 17.8% for the people on treatment. Presumably, immune responses in the elite controllers somehow cleared proviruses from the more dangerous parking spots. Now, the challenge is to figure out interventions that will train the immune systems of the vast majority of people living with HIV to behave similarly. That new insight suggests long-standing, frustrating attempts to cure people by eliminating HIV reservoirs may be too ambitious an approach. Instead, success may depend on shrinking—and then making peace with—these reservoirs, and minding the old real estate dictum of location, location, location. — Jon Cohen Scientists have spent decades searching for materials that conduct electricity without resistance at room temperature. This year they found the first one, a hydrogen- and carbon-containing compound squeezed to a pressure approaching that at the center of Earth. The discovery is setting off a hunt for room temperature superconductors that work at typical surface pressures; such materials could transform technologies and save the vast amounts of energy wasted when electricity moves through wires. Superconductivity got its start in 1911 when physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes found that a mercury wire chilled to 4.2°C above absolute zero, or 4.2 K, conducted electrons without the usual heat-producing friction. In 1986, researchers found the same was true of a family of copper oxide ceramics. Because these superconductors worked above 77 K—the temperature of liquid nitrogen—they spawned a new generation of MRI machines and particle accelerator magnets. There were hints that copper oxides might superconduct at room temperature, but they were never verified. Confirmation now comes from high-pressure physics, in which scientists smash flecks of materials between the flattened points of two diamonds at pressures millions of times higher than those at Earth's surface. With such a diamond anvil, researchers in Germany in 2019 compressed a mix of lanthanum and hydrogen to 170 gigapascals (GPa), yielding superconductivity at temperatures up to 250 K, just under the freezing point of water. This year, researchers in the United States topped that result with a hydrogen, carbon, and sulfur compound compressed to 267 GPa. It conducted without resistance to 287 K, the temperature of a chilly room. So far, the new superconductors fall apart when the pressure is released. But the same isn't true of all high-pressure materials: Diamonds born in the crushing depths of Earth, for example, survive after rising to the surface. Now, researchers hope to find a similarly long-lasting gem for their own field. — Robert F. Service Their eyes are beady and their brains are no bigger than a walnut. But two studies published this year suggest birds have startling mental powers. One reveals that part of the avian brain resembles the human neocortex, the source of human intelligence. The other shows that carrion crows are even more aware than researchers had thought—and may be capable of some conscious thought. In humans, the neocortex consists of horizontal layers laced with interconnected columns of nerve cells, which allow for complex thinking. Bird brains, in contrast, were thought to be arranged in simple clusters of nerve cells. By using a technique called 3D polarized light imaging, neuroanatomists took a closer look at the forebrain of homing pigeons and owls and found that nerves there connect both horizontally—like the layers in the neocortex—and vertically, echoing the columns seen in human brains. Another team of scientists probed this part of the brains of carrion crows—well-known for their intelligence—for clues that they are aware of what they see and do. The researchers first trained lab-raised crows to turn their heads when they saw certain sequences of lights flashing on a computer monitor. Electrodes in the crows' brains detected nerve activity between the moment the birds saw the signal and when they moved their heads. The activity developed even when the lights were barely detectable, suggesting it was not simply a response to sensory input, and it was present regardless of whether the birds reacted. The scientists think the neural chatter represents a kind of awareness—a mental representation of what the birds saw. Such “sensory consciousness” is a rudimentary form of the self-awareness that humans experience. Its presence in both birds and mammals suggests to the researchers that some form of consciousness may date back 320 million years, to our last common ancestor. — Elizabeth Pennisi
Leading researchers discussed which requirements AI algorithms must meet to fight bias in healthcare during the'Artificial Intelligence and Implications for Health Equity: Will AI Improve Equity or Increase Disparities?' session which was held on 1 December. The speakers were: Ziad Obermeyer, associate professor of health policy and management at the Berkeley School of Public Health, CA; Luke Oakden-Rayner, director of medical imaging research at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Australia; Constance Lehman, professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, director of breast imaging, and co-director of the Avon Comprehensive Breast Evaluation Center at Massachusetts General Hospital; and Regina Barzilay, professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science and member of the Computer Science and AI Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The discussion was moderated by Judy Wawira Gichoya, assistant professor in the Department of Radiology at Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta. Artificial intelligence (AI) may unintentionally intensify inequities that already exist in modern healthcare and understanding those biases may help defeat them. Social determinants partly cause poor healthcare outcomes and it is crucial to raise awareness about inequity in access to healthcare, as Prof Sam Shah, founder and director of Faculty of Future Health in London, explained in a keynote during the HIMSS & Health 2.0 European Digital event.
BEGIN ARTICLE PREVIEW: Hyundai is officially purchasing a controlling stake in robot maker Boston Dynamics from SoftBank in a deal that values the company at $1.1 billion, the company announced today. The deal has been in the works for a while, according to recent a report from Bloomberg, and marks a major step into consumer robotics for Hyundai. Hyundai is taking approximately an 80 percent stake in the company while its previous owner, Softbank, will retain around 20 percent through an affiliate. Hyundai says its investment will help its development of service and logistics robots, but that over time it hopes to build more humanoid robots for jobs like “caregiving for patients at hospitals.” Other areas of interest include autonomous driving and smart factories. Boston Dynamics started as a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company has created robots using DARPA funding, like BigDog, but is best known for the viral fame its robots ha
At the start of last November, reports surfaced that Korean carmaker Hyundai was in talks to buy Boston Dynamics, the company that makes those robot dogs that will probably lead the charge when the machines rise up. Now, various reports confirm that a deal has been reached, and it will see Hyundai take over Boston Dynamics from its current owners, Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, for $921 million. As Gizmodo reports, this is the third time in seven years that the unprofitable Boston Dynamics has changed hands. The company spun off from a research unit at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1990s, and operated on its own until Google bought it in 2013. In 2017, SoftBank stepped up and took it off the Big G's hands. Under SoftBank, Boston Dynamics began selling its robotic quadruped to select organizations and individuals so it could gather more data and test it in a more diverse range of scenarios.
As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes ubiquitous in fields such as medicine, education and security, there are significant ethical and technical challenges to overcome. While the credits to Star Wars drew to a close in a 1970s cinema, 10-year-old Cynthia Breazeal remained fixated on C-3PO, the anxious robot. "Typically, when you saw robots in science fiction, they were mindless, but in Star Wars they had rich personalities and could form friendships," says Breazeal, associate director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I assumed these robots would never exist in my lifetime." A pioneer of social robotics and human–robot interaction, Breazeal has made a career of conceptualizing and building robots with personality.
Joy Buolamwini from the MIT Media Lab says facial-recognition software has the highest error rates for darker-skinned females. New applications powered by artificial intelligence (AI) are being embraced by the public and private sectors. Their early uses hint at what's to come. In June 2020, IBM, Amazon and Microsoft announced that they were stepping back from facial-recognition software development amid concerns that it reinforces racial and gender bias. Amazon and Microsoft said they would stop selling facial-recognition software to police until new laws are passed in the United States to address potential human-rights abuses.