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AI Weekly: In a chaotic year, AI is quietly accelerating the pace of space exploration

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The year 2020 continues to be difficult here on Earth, where the pandemic is exploding again in regions of the world that were once successful in containing it. Germany reported a record number of cases this week alongside Poland and the Czech Republic, as the U.S. counted 500,000 new cases. It's the backdrop to a tumultuous U.S. election, which experts fear will turn violent on election day. Meanwhile, Western and Southern states like Oregon, Washington, California, and Louisiana are reeling from historically destructive wildfires, severe droughts, and hurricanes. Things are calmer in outer space, where scientists are applying AI to make exciting new finds.


News at a glance

Science

SCI COMMUN### Computer science The United States will establish a dozen centers to study artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum information science (QIS), the White House announced last week. The seven university-based AI centers will receive $20 million each over 5 years from the National Science Foundation or the Department of Agriculture and will use AI—algorithms that can learn to recognize patterns—to tackle problems in areas ranging from farming to particle physics. The five centers on QIS, located at the Department of Energy's national laboratories, will focus on topics such as developing quantum computers that could solve challenges that would overwhelm conventional computers. Each of these centers will receive $125 million over 5 years, as Congress called for in the 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act. ### Archaeology Tiny parasitic worms known as helminths cause malnutrition and developmental disorders in some 1.5 billion people around the world, mostly in developing countries. Scientists now report new evidence that better sanitation can alleviate this scourge. During the Middle Ages and for centuries after, worm infections were as prevalent among Europeans as they are today in people living in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and East Asia, the authors report in a paper published on 27 August in PLOS Neglected Tropical Disease . They based the conclusion on an analysis of 589 samples from skeletons in medieval cemeteries in the Czech Republic, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Because such worms were eradicated in Europe before effective antiparasite drugs were developed, the results reinforce the idea that improvements to water supplies, sanitation, and hygiene can dramatically reduce the disease burden they cause today. ### Disasters When it roared ashore last week in Louisiana, Hurricane Laura packed a double whammy, endangering public safety with its wind and water and slowing efforts to stem the COVID-19 pandemic. Its top wind speed at landfall, 241 kilometers per hour, was the fifth highest documented for any U.S. hurricane. Laura tied a record for the fastest intensifying storm in the Gulf of Mexico, with its wind increasing on 26 August by 105 kilometers per hour in just 24 hours; the causes of such rapid strengthening are little understood. The storm led to at least 19 deaths in Louisiana and Texas. It also threatened to accelerate the spread of COVID-19; testing centers were temporarily closed, and residents of southwest Louisiana, which bore the storm's brunt and had been recording some of the state's highest rates of positive test results, evacuated elsewhere. Seven hurricanes and tropical storms have hit the United States so far this year, one of the most active seasons on record. ### Agriculture The Dutch government last week decided to end mink farming to prevent the animals from becoming sources of the virus that causes COVID-19. More than 40 mink farms in the Netherlands—almost one in three—have had outbreaks of the virus since late April, triggering massive culls. A Dutch law adopted in 2012 banned mink farming by 2024 for ethical reasons, but now the remaining farms must close by March 2021. The government has set aside €182 million to indemnify farmers. Although farms implemented hygiene rules, scientists suspect infected people carried the virus into them. Denmark, Spain, and the United States have seen outbreaks at mink farms as well. ### Public health By testing dormitory wastewater for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the University of Arizona may have stamped out a potential outbreak before it could spread. Several countries, U.S. municipalities, and some universities have been checking sewage for RNA from the virus, which can signal infections shortly before clinical cases and deaths are recorded. In Arizona, officials announced last week that wastewater from a student dormitory contained the viral RNA just days after students had moved into their rooms in August; all 311 residents and dorm workers had previously tested negative on a mandatory test for COVID-19. The university retested all of them and found two students who were asymptomatic but positive for the virus; they were then quarantined. ### Diagnostics The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week issued an emergency use authorization to Abbott, a laboratory company, for a 15-minute test for the COVID-19 virus that could help expand the number of Americans regularly tested. The new diagnostic, called BinaxNOW, detects proteins, or antigens, that are unique to the virus with high accuracy and at a cost of only $5 each. Other coronavirus tests that identify genetic material unique to the virus typically cost $100, and laboratories often take days to provide results. The genetic tests and other, antigen-based ones require specialized lab equipment; Abbott's does not, although a health care professional must administer it. The company says it plans to produce 50 million tests in October. Last week, the Trump administration announced it would buy 150 million. The United States currently conducts about 700,000 tests for the virus per day. ### Policy The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) drew criticism last week for revising its guidelines to state that people exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 “do not necessarily need a test” if they lack symptoms and do not have medical conditions that make them vulnerable. Scientists and public health specialists slammed the 24 August revision, noting that people who do not feel sick can still spread the virus and that the United States continues to lead the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Trump administration officials have said too many people have been getting tested out of fear and tests should be reserved for those at highest risk, The New York Times reported. But CDC Director Robert Redfield appeared to muddy the message when he said on 26 August that testing “may be considered for all close contacts of confirmed or probable COVID-19 patients.” ### Infectious diseases The EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit whose highly scored grant to study bat coronaviruses that could jump to humans in China was summarily defunded after President Donald Trump targeted it, has received new funding worth $7.5 million over 5 years, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced last week. In April, Trump alleged without evidence that the COVID-19 virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology; the EcoHealth Alliance had collaborated with scientists there on the canceled grant. NIH ended it days later, drawing strong protests from scientists. The newly funded work will not revive the earlier project but instead will focus on risks of animal viruses jumping to humans in Southeast Asia, but not China. The EcoHealth Alliance is one of 11 groups NIH plans to fund with $82 million to study such risks. “It's a relief for us to know that NIH isn't going to blackball our organization because of political interference,” EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak says. ### Funding China continued in 2019 its yearslong run of double-digit annual percentage increases in spending on R&D. But it has not yet reached its long-standing goal of increasing R&D expenditures to 2.5% of gross domestic product (GDP). Total public and private science and technology expenditures in 2019 rose 12.5% to 2.21 trillion Chinese yuan ($322 billion), the National Bureau of Statistics of China reported last week. Most (83%) went to development, while basic research received 6% and applied research 11%. Relative to other countries, China has been spending more on development and less on basic research. Its total R&D spending in 2019 amounted to 2.23% of GDP, still short of the United States's 2.83%. China was the world's second biggest spender on R&D behind the United States in 2018, the latest year for which a comparison is available, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Analysts expect China to continue to close the gap. ### Astronomy Gravitational wave hunters have netted a big fish: the signal from a pair of black holes merging to produce one with a mass of about 142 Suns. That heft makes it the first confirmed intermediate-mass black hole, with a mass between those produced by collapsing stars and the giant black holes at the hearts of galaxies. Detected in May 2019 by the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory facilities in the United States and the Virgo detector in Italy, the merger is also the most distant seen, at 7 billion light-years away, as well as the most powerful, with the mass of eight Suns converted into energy. The masses of the individual black holes—85 and 66 solar masses—before they merged pose a puzzle, as theorists believe it impossible to make a black hole heavier than 65 Suns from the collapse of a single star. The discovery is reported this week in Physical Review Letters and The Astrophysical Journal Letters . ### Nonproliferation After a monthslong impasse, Iran has agreed to allow international inspectors access to two sites that were allegedly part of a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The move preserves, for now, what remains of a multination nuclear deal reached in 2015, from which the Trump administration has withdrawn. The inspections will take place at Abadeh, a testing range for high explosives in central Iran, and at an undisclosed site, which intelligence reports revealed might have contained undeclared nuclear materials and activities. Iran had rebuffed requests from the International Atomic Energy Agency to take samples at the sites; continued stonewalling could have prompted the agency to declare Iran out of compliance with its commitments. The United States maintains that Iran has violated the nuclear deal, and banking and other sanctions lifted after the 2015 accord must automatically resume. But members of the United Nations Security Council last week reiterated their disagreement with that interpretation, and the United States now plans to reimpose those sanctions unilaterally on 20 September. ### Environment The Trump administration on 31 August eased rules on toxic wastewater created by coal-burning power plants, which operators discharge into rivers and streams. The move changes a rule adopted in 2015 by former President Barack Obama's administration requiring plant operators to treat and recycle water used to store coal ash, which contains mercury and arsenic, by 2023. The Trump administration's version instead exempts plants set to close or switch to natural gas by 2028 and allows other plants to delay compliance until that year if they voluntarily adopt advanced biological treatment. The administration says its rule will save the industry money and retain coal-industry jobs while reducing total pollution by 1 million pounds annually, over and above the 1.4 million pound reduction anticipated under the Obama rule. But environmental groups rejected those assertions and predicted that power plants—now the largest contributors of industrial water pollution—will discharge even more. The critics add that the move will prop up coal power, which is responsible for emitting a significant share of global warming gases. ### Conservation A Norwegian wind farm has devised an inexpensive method that may prevent birds from being killed by turbines' rotating blades. By painting only one turbine blade black, the farm reduced bird collisions by more than 70%, say researchers who conducted the first field study of the approach. Fast-moving, monotone blades can be difficult for birds to see; in the United States alone, collisions with wind turbines kill 140,000 to 500,000 birds each year. But a single contrasting black blade makes this rotating obstacle easier for birds to identify and avoid, researchers report in the 27 August issue of Ecology and Evolution . The approach needs further validation, other researchers say. And they note that windmills still rank low on the list of threats to birds: Collisions with power wires and communication towers kill an estimated 32 million birds in the United States annually, for example, and cats are believed to kill 2.4 billion each year. Loss of habitat is another leading threat. ### Infectious diseases Togo is the first African country to have eliminated Human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), better known as sleeping sickness, as a public health problem. The World Health Organization (WHO) on 25 August certified the country as free of HAT, which is caused by two subspecies of the Trypanosoma brucei parasite and spread by tsetse flies. Occurring only in sub-Saharan Africa, HAT causes neurological damage and is fatal when left untreated. Surveillance and control programs have helped bring reported cases down sharply, from more than 25,000 in 2000 to 980 last year. WHO hopes the subspecies T. b. gambiense , which occurs in West and Central Africa and is responsible for more than 98% of cases, can be eliminated altogether by 2030. “I am sure [Togo's] efforts will inspire others,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said in a statement. 3.4 million —Square kilometers of sea floor changed by human activities, such as the construction of ports, communication cables, oil rigs, and wind farms, as of 2018, representing an estimated 1.5% of all coastal areas. ### Why it matters The modified area equals that of cities on land, and its marine ecosystems may have sustained damage ( Nature Sustainability ).


'Deadly Premonition 2' is a fantastic mystery wrapped up in an ugly game

Mashable

Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is a conflicting experience. On one hand, the game's narrative revolving around the mysterious murder of a young woman in a small Louisiana town is deeply intriguing with its constant twists and surprises that spin an ever-widening web of sadism, death, and terror until the very end. On the other hand, the game looks and plays like shit. As the sequel to perhaps the most critically polarizing game of all time, 2010's Deadly Premonition, this duality fits like a glove and developer SWERY somehow manages to fulfill this game's unique expectations. Both games center around mysteries with similar beginnings that only get more interesting as they go on, but just like its sequel, the first game is also pretty awful to look at, even for 10 years ago. That earlier game follows FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan as he works to solve a murder mystery in the small, rural town Greenvale, Wash. in the mid-2000s. Morgan runs into paranormal threats and wild characters as he divines answers from cups of coffee and frequently converses and consults with a voice in his head named Zach.


How Well Otter.ai Works in Real Life

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Construction worker Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma was deported Friday, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency confirmed. Ramirez survived the partial collapse of the New Orleans Hard Rock hotel in October. He had also been cooperating with a federal safety investigation into the incident.


Rep. Lee Zeldin: Democrats in impeachment probe are cherry-picking what to leak

FOX News

House Democrats leading the Trump impeachment inquiry are "cherry-picking what to leak," House Foreign Affairs committee member Congressman Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., claimed Saturday. Appearing on "Fox & Friends: Weekend" with host Ed Henry, Zeldin said Democrats aren't being upfront with the American public. They're lying about other claims and the American public gets completely deceived as a result of it," he said. At a fiery rally in Louisiana on Friday, the president hit back at Democrats' "witch hunt." This is one of the great con jobs ever. We must never let it happen to another president. This should never be allowed to happen again," he told his crowd of supporters.


Should AI be given control of nuclear weapons?

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Louisiana Tech Research Institute researcher Adam Lowther and Air Force Institute of Technology associate dean Curtis McGiffin say their country needs a "dead hand" on the trigger to the world's largest arsenal of weapons. They argue that giving AI control over the weapons available at America's disposal would drastically reduce the response time needed for a retaliatory strike, something the pair say might be necessary as missiles become faster and harder to detect. Even if there was nobody left alive to order a nuclear strike AI could launch the weapons, guaranteeing mutually assured destruction and eliminating the possibility that your enemies could wipe you out quickly enough to prevent retaliation. It's certainly an idea, even if it sounds dangerously like the prologue of a film set in a future where the human race has been all but wiped out and replaced by robots. With new technologies come new considerations, there's technically nothing wrong with throwing out ideas.


Air Force-affiliated researchers want to let AI launch nukes

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A pair of researchers associated with the U.S. Air Force want to give nuclear codes to an artificial intelligence. Air Force Institute of Technology associate dean Curtis McGiffin and Louisiana Tech Research Institute researcher Adam Lowther, also affiliated with the Air Force, co-wrote an article -- with the ominous title "America Needs a'Dead Hand'" -- arguing that the United States needs to develop "an automated strategic response system based on artificial intelligence." In other words, they want to give an AI the nuclear codes. And yes, as the authors admit, it sure sounds a lot like the "Doomsday Machine" from Stanley Kubrick's 1964 satire "Dr. The "Dead Hand" referenced in the title refers to the Soviet Union's semiautomated system that would have launched nuclear weapons if certain conditions were met, including the death of the Union's leader. This time, though, the AI-powered system suggested by Lowther and McGiffin wouldn't even wait for a first strike against the U.S. to occur -- it would know what to do ahead of time. "[I]t may be necessary to develop a system based on artificial intelligence, with predetermined response decisions, that detects, decides, and directs strategic forces with such speed that the attack-time compression challenge does not place the United States in an impossible position," they wrote. The attack-time compression is the phenomenon that modern technologies, including highly sensitive radar and near instantaneous communication, drastically reduced the time between detection and decision time. The challenge: modern weapon technologies, particularly hypersonic cruise missiles and vehicles, cut the window even further. "These new technologies are shrinking America's senior-leader decision time to such a narrow window that it may soon be impossible to effectively detect, decide, and direct nuclear force in time," Lowther and McGiffin argue. The idea is to use an AI-powered solution to negate any surprise capabilities or advantages of retaliatory strikes of the enemy. It would replace what Lowther and McGiffin describe as a "system of systems, processes and people" that "must inevitably be capable of detecting launches anywhere in the world and have the ability to launch a nuclear strike against an adversary." Not surprisingly, points out Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editor Matt Field, handing over the nuclear codes to an AI could have plenty of negative side effects. One of them is automation bias, as Field points out in his piece. People tend to blindly trust what machines are telling them, even favoring automated decision-making over human decision-making. And then there's the simple fact that the AI doesn't have much data to run on, Field argues. That means that most of the data fed to the AI would be simulated data. Strangelove" is anything to go by, as long as all major world powers are made aware of the automated system, it could keep them from attacking the United States.


Top 50 Statistics Blogs of 2019

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Statistics is a branch of mathematics that deals with the interpretation of data. Statisticians work in a wide variety of fields in both the private and the public sectors and can be found anywhere - Nevada, Washington, New Hampshire, Louisiana. They are teachers, consultants, watchdogs, journalists, designers, programmers, and by in large, ordinary people like you and me. In searching for the top statistics blogs on the web we only considered recently active blogs. In deciding which ones to include in our (admittedly unscientific) list of the 50 best statistics blogs we considered a range of factors, including visual appeal/aesthetics, frequency of posts, and accessibility to non-specialists.


Florida Eases Self-Driving Car Rules: Are States And Cities On The Hook For Mishaps?

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Jurisdictions might be on-the-hook for their self-driving car laws that allow autonomous cars and for which might get into mishaps or crashes. Florida just passed a law that widens the door for self-driving driverless cars to roam their public roadways and do so without any human back-up driver involved. Some see dangers afoot, others see progress and excitement. Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, declared that by approving the new bill it showed that "Florida officially has an open-door policy to autonomous vehicle companies." There are now 29 states that have various driverless laws on their books, per the National Conference of State Legislatures: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, plus Washington, D.C. Here's a question that some politicians and regulators are silently grappling with, albeit some think that they have the unarguably "right" answer and thusly have no need to lose sleep over the matter: Should states, counties, cities and townships be eagerly courting self-driving autonomous cars onto their public roadways, or should those jurisdictions be neutral about inviting them into their locales, or should they be highly questioning and require "proof until proven safe" before letting even one such autonomous car onto their turf?


From Eric the robot to Dorothy's slippers: 10 years of Kickstarter

The Guardian

The idea of Kickstarter first formed in the mind of Perry Chen in 2001. A native New Yorker, Chen was 25, living in New Orleans and working as a musician. He wanted to bring a pair of DJs he loved down to perform during Jazz Fest. He sorted out a venue, organised things with their management, but in the end the event didn't happen – Chen didn't have the funds to pay for the show if not enough people turned up. In his frustration, a thought occurred to him: "What if people could go to a website and pledge to buy tickets for a show? And if enough money was pledged, they would be charged and the show would happen. Over the years that followed, Chen held on to that simple idea. He moved back to New York in 2005, still more intent on making music than starting an internet company – he had no background in technology – but the thought wouldn't go away. He became friends with a music journalist, Yancey Strickler, who got sold on the idea, too. They talked about it with, Charles Adler, a designer and DJ, and the three of them formulated ideas and spoke to mates of mates who knew code or to people who might help fund such a thing. Eventually, in April 2009, eight years after the idea had first come to Chen, the three of them launched their website and waited at their laptops to see if other people thought it was a good idea too. In the first few days, a few emails trickled in, from people pitching ideas, wondering how the thing might work. And then, after a couple of weeks, a young singer-songwriter from Athens, Georgia, launched a project to fund her album, Allison Weiss Was Right All Along. "My name is Allison Weiss and I'm recording a new EP this summer.