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Google’s Artificial Intelligence Built an AI That Outperforms Any Made by Humans

Posted: 01 Dec 2017 10:27 AM PST

An AI That Can Build AI

In May 2017, researchers at Google Brain announced the creation of AutoML, an artificial intelligence (AI) that’s capable of generating its own AIs. More recently, they decided to present AutoML with its biggest challenge to date, and the AI that can build AI created a “child” that outperformed all of its human-made counterparts.

The Google researchers automated the design of machine learning models using an approach called reinforcement learning. AutoML acts as a controller neural network that develops a child AI network for a specific task. For this particular child AI, which the researchers called NASNet, the task was recognizing objects — people, cars, traffic lights, handbags, backpacks, etc. — in a video in real-time.

artificial intelligence machine learning reinforcement learning automl
Image Credit: Google Research

AutoML would evaluate NASNet’s performance and use that information to improve its child AI, repeating the process thousands of times. When tested on the ImageNet image classification and COCO object detection data sets, which the Google researchers call "two of the most respected large-scale academic data sets in computer vision," NASNet outperformed all other computer vision systems.

According to the researchers, NASNet was 82.7 percent accurate at predicting images on ImageNet’s validation set. This is 1.2 percent better than any previously published results, and the system is also 4 percent more efficient, with a 43.1 percent mean Average Precision (mAP). Additionally, a less computationally demanding version of NASNet outperformed the best similarly sized models for mobile platforms by 3.1 percent.

A View of the Future

Machine learning is what gives many AI systems their ability to perform specific tasks. Although the concept behind it is fairly simple — an algorithm learns by being fed a ton of data — the process requires a huge amount of time and effort. By automating the process of creating accurate, efficient AI systems, an AI that can build AI takes on the brunt of that work. Ultimately, that means AutoML could open up the field of machine learning and AI to non-experts.

As for NASNet specifically, accurate, efficient computer vision algorithms are highly sought after due to the number of potential applications. They could be used to create sophisticated, AI-powered robots or to help visually impaired people regain sight, as one researcher suggested. They could also help designers improve self-driving vehicle technologies. The faster an autonomous vehicle can recognize objects in its path, the faster it can react to them, thereby increasing the safety of such vehicles.

The Technologies That Power Self-Driving Cars [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

The Google researchers acknowledge that NASNet could prove useful for a wide range of applications and have open-sourced the AI for inference on image classification and object detection. “We hope that the larger machine learning community will be able to build on these models to address multitudes of computer vision problems we have not yet imagined,” they wrote in their blog post.

Though the applications for NASNet and AutoML are plentiful, the creation of an AI that can build AI does raise some concerns. For instance, what’s to prevent the parent from passing down unwanted biases to its child? What if AutoML creates systems so fast that society can’t keep up? It’s not very difficult to see how NASNet could be employed in automated surveillance systems in the near future, perhaps sooner than regulations could be put in place to control such systems.

Thankfully, world leaders are working fast to ensure such systems don’t lead to any sort of dystopian future.

Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and several others are all members of the Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society, an organization focused on the responsible development of AI. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEE) has proposed ethical standards for AI, and DeepMind, a research company owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, recently announced the creation of group focused on the moral and ethical implications of AI.

Various governments are also working on regulations to prevent the use of AI for dangerous purposes, such as autonomous weapons, and so long as humans maintain control of the overall direction of AI development, the benefits of having an AI that can build AI should far outweigh any potential pitfalls.

The post Google’s Artificial Intelligence Built an AI That Outperforms Any Made by Humans appeared first on Futurism.

NASA Scientist Says We Need to Stop Worrying About the Apocalypse

Posted: 01 Dec 2017 10:22 AM PST

Phantom Planet

For over twenty years, rumors have circulated about a celestial body known as Nibiru or Planet X that could supposedly spell doom for Earth. Unfortunately (conspiracy theorists at least) there’s simply no truth to the idea.

Several different theories exist concerning how Nibiru might threaten our planet. It’s been argued that it could smash into us, or throw off our orbit, or bring forth a cavalcade of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tidal waves. However, all of this seems rather unlikely, given that the scientific consensus — which is that Nibiru doesn’t exist. A point NASA scientist David Morrison recently attempted to drive home in a podcast interview with Science Alert.

“Nibiru, I don’t know any scientists, any astronomers, who take that very seriously,” Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the SETI Institute, told Futurism. “If that planet existed, the evidence would be very obvious that it exists. There is no such evidence. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, what happened in my dream, it’s probably real.’ Unless you have better evidence than having a dream about it, it’s probably not real.”

Brian Koberlein, an astrophysicist and physics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, added that not only is there no evidence in support of the planet’s existence – there’s actually evidence against it. As he told Futurism, “We’ve done sky surveys that absolutely prove that there isn’t something like that.”

“It’s pretty easy to demonstrate that the idea that there’s a very large planet – as large as the Earth, or larger – that visits the inner solar system every several thousand years, that’s pretty easy to disprove,” said Shostak. “That would have disrupted the orbits of planets of the inner solar system a long, long time ago. Billions of years ago. They would still be disrupted, you would still see the effects of that. Not only that, but you’d have a good chance of just seeing it, and nobody has.”

Koberlein puts Nibiru in the same category as flat Earth theories. “There is a movement of pushing back against scientific ideas,” he explained. Koberlein believes part of the problem is the way scientific findings are presented; at times sensationalized or misrepresented.

“I think it’s more of an attitude of anti-scientific elitism,” said Koberlein. “I think it does have some implications in terms of, the more those ideas are fed, the less likely people are to pay their taxes toward scientific research or something like that, and that does impact us.”

Apocalypse: Cancelled

While it might be human to get caught up worrying about doomsday scenarios we can’t control — not least of all those involving some mysterious celestial body capable of causing death and destruction —everything we know about the cosmos suggests that Nibiru is little more than a scary story.

“In terms of the present moment, there is no ‘doomsday scenario from the skies’ that is coming. If you’re talking about Nibiru, or a large rock coming to Earth, anything large enough to have a global impact is so large that we know it’s not there. We can rule out any of it.”

Koberlein acknowledges that it is possible a rock large enough to destroy a town or even a small city could be overlooked: for instance, if the Chelyabinsk meteorite had hit at a steeper angle, the damage could have been quite serious. However, the chances of an event like that are still very slim, as these celestial objects gone astray typically hit non-populated areas, and rarely hit the ground.

“We haven’t found everything, but we know that big impacts occur, and we know that it’s possible,” Koberlein told Futurism, adding that “In terms of anything of size that’s large-scale, there’s nothing out there that’s going to hit us, or anything similar to that – there’s no supernova that’s close enough to fry the Earth, we don’t have some star collision, there’s not any gravity waves that’s gonna kill us or anything like that. To the best of our knowledge, we’re safe.”

Given that there are serious threats to the Earth’s well-being that we can prove, and for which there is abundant scientific evidence, we have plenty to worry about.

The post NASA Scientist Says We Need to Stop Worrying About the Apocalypse appeared first on Futurism.

Tesla’s Giant Battery in South Australia Is Officially Switched On

Posted: 01 Dec 2017 09:49 AM PST

A Successful Bet

Recently, Elon Musk won a $50 million bet when he completed the building of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery in less than 100 days for the southern Australian outback. This was a move to support the lacking, local grid to prevent future blackouts. As of December 1, this Australian mega-battery has officially been switched on.

"South Australia is now leading the world in dispatchable renewable energy," said state Premier Jay Weatherill at the official launch of the battery at the Hornsdale wind farm, Reuters reports.

The 129-megawatt-hour battery has garnered significant press for both its size and the nature by which it was acquired. Some have called the battery a "Hollywood solution," which likely stems from the flashy nature of the battery’s creation in a country that does still rely partly on fossil fuels.

Yet there are still many supporters of this move, who argue that the region could seriously benefit from the battery which could stabilize the grid. This is especially important given that this state gets a whopping 40 percent of its electricity from wind energy. That’s great news for a transition to renewables, but the wind is not always blowing; over the past 18 months, the region has suffered a series of blackouts. This is where the battery comes into play.

"Storage can respond within a fraction of a second. It can address those stability issues very quickly without needing to resort to using large power plants," said Praveen Kathpal, the vice president of AES Energy, who also bid for the battery contract.

Tesla Powerpacks in South Australia, which make up about half of the new Australian mega-battery.
Tesla Powerpacks in South Australia, which make up about half of the new Australian mega-battery. (Image Credit: Tesla)

Energy Solutions

The state still has yet to reveal exactly how much it is paying Tesla for this battery, which has been seated 225 kilometers (141 miles) north of the state capital Adelaide. But Musk did say that this installation was “just the beginning.”

The battery is part of the state’s AUS $510 million (US $385 million) plan to improve the grid. This well-funded mission includes, in addition to the battery, diesel-powered turbines — so the plan is not entirely renewable.

Yet overall, the state is taking steps towards replacing existing dependence on fossil fuels with a new reliance on renewable resources. Kathpal, who is also chairman of the U.S. Energy Storage Association, has said that investing so heavily in energy storage is an important piece of Australia’s continued commitment to renewable energy. He told Reuters, "We think that's what's really going to accelerate the uptake of energy storage in Australia.”

South Australians have also invested big in rooftop solar. The state is taking serious strides to both become independent of fossil fuels and create a much more stable grid. Between household solar panels, a robust wind farm, diesel-powered turbines, and this mega-battery, the state is well on its way to achieving these goals.

Tesla’s Australian mega-battery will undergo regulatory testing until it can be fully implemented in the energy system. But, if the speed of progress thus far is to continue, it won’t be long before this region is powered sustainably and and reliably.

The post Tesla’s Giant Battery in South Australia Is Officially Switched On appeared first on Futurism.

Where Is Alien Life? Six Of The Top Theories

Posted: 01 Dec 2017 08:00 AM PST

We have accomplished a lot in our (relatively) short time on Earth. We’ve sent humans to the Moon and to live in space, developed massive and sophisticated telescopes to see the farthest reaches of the cosmos, and even rocketed rovers to Mars and probes to the edge of our solar system. However, a number of organizations have taken humanity’s voyage into the final frontier a step farther. NASA, the European Space Agency, and the research collective behind the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) have been working tirelessly to find out if we are alone, once and for all.

Already, a number of projects exist that scan the stars for signs of intelligent life. And despite the fact that many of them have been looking to the skies for decades, we have yet to make contact. And that’s a bit of a problem.

The Paradox That Started It All

To put it mildly, our solar system is very old. In fact, scientists are still figuring out just how old — clues gathered from meteorites suggest it is almost 5 billion years old, and surrounding star systems are likely billions of years older. While interstellar travel still seems to be a distant dream, new technology is born every year that allows us to scan the skies for signals from civilizations in the most distant corners of the cosmos. The number of known alien worlds and star systems discovered through these technologies continues to rise, but our creative methods of listening to space have not yet revealed anything that resembles extraterrestrial communications or civilizations.

Given the size and age of our universe, it seems like we should have made contact. We, of course, have not.

In the early 20th century, physicist Enrico Fermi asked himself a now-famous question: Given the scope of our universe, why haven’t we found intelligent extraterrestrial life yet (or why haven’t they found us)? This is sometimes called the Fermi Paradox or the Great Silence. Scientists have floated many possible answers in the century since Fermi first asked this question. Here are some of the most plausible reasons why he haven’t made first contact.

Image Credit: NASA


Basic probability asserts that alien life must exist. Since we haven’t made contact yet, one theory goes, there must be something barring life from interstellar travel or, at least, barring it from communicating with other alien species. This barrier is known as the “Great Filter,” and it is a force or event that stops a civilization from getting to the aforementioned point of interstellar travel or communication.

If the theory holds true, there are two primary reasons that we haven’t made contact: Because societies kill themselves off before they reach a state advanced enough to explore the stars or interstellar travel is simply not possible on a technological scale. Neither option is particularly pleasing.

And according to the experts behind the work, the filter event is of equal or greater probability than the existence of alien life itself. This is the point argued by Robin Hanson, a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, in his discussion of the topic.

No alien civilizations have substantially colonized our solar system or systems nearby. Thus among the billion trillion stars in our past universe, none has reached the level of technology and growth that we may soon reach. This one data point implies that a Great Filter stands between ordinary dead matter and advanced exploding lasting life.

Since we have not been able to detect alien life (or leave the solar system much, for that matter), how far are we from being caught up in some event that would bar us from ever finding aliens? “The easier it was for life to evolve to our stage, the bleaker our future chances probably are,” Hanson writes. In other words, the more life there is in the cosmos, the greater the likeliness that we are about to reach a cataclysmic, life-ending event or reach the cosmic limits of technological advancement.

Do Not Disturb the Aliens

Another hypothesis asserts that alien civilizations certainly exist, but they’re simply inactive. That’s the “aestivation hypothesis” (aestivation refers to an organism’s state of prolonged inactivity, similar to a bear hibernating or a frog that buries itself in sand during hot weather), which was put forth by researchers from Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute and the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade.

The theory, published in a paper in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 2017, states that aliens may be “hibernating” until the environmental conditions are just right to become active and build their super society. The researchers argue that the laws of thermodynamics directly limit computation, as computing technologies need to be cooled in order to function. This makes it exceedingly difficult to create advanced technologies, as keeping them cool at scale quickly becomes prohibitively difficult. So the aliens are falling into a dormant until, to be blunt, the universe cools.

But distilling the development of a civilization to the kinds of conditions that our current, and somewhat imperfect, models can predict could be reductive. What if intelligent extraterrestrial life has found a way around the thermodynamic conditions that limit its ability to compute? “What if there are other forms of value that can be generated?” the study authors write. If they’re wrong about the relationship between thermodynamics and technology, the aestivation hypothesis would be moot. In this case, perhaps one of the other ideas here holds true.

A “Gaian”-tic Bottleneck

Image Credit: Creative Commons

According to the “Gaian Bottleneck” hypothesis, life needs particular environmental conditions to develop, and they’re not so common. Astrobiologists at the Australian National University penned their explanation to the Fermi Paradox in 2016.

Extinction is “the cosmic default for most life that has ever emerged on the surfaces of wet rocky planets in the Universe,” the researchers wrote. That’s because a planet has to be actually inhabited for it to be habitable, because organisms change the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A Catch-22 emerges: no life without habitability, no habitability without life.

For alien life to persist, the researchers write, it must hang on: “like trying to ride a wild bull. Most life falls off.” Life can only take place with the presence of an unlikely feedback loop. In this case, Earth is the exception to the rule.

Trapped in Deep Oceans

In 2015, after nearly a decade in transit, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft became the first to do a close flyby of Pluto. It offered humanity its first look at its icy surface and raised questions about the possibility of subsurface oceans of water, and lots of methane and nitrogen. These questions put Pluto on a short but growing list of worlds with buried oceans trapped under a thick crust of ice and rock (some of the other worlds are Saturn’s moons Europa, Callisto, Enceladus and Ganymede, as well as Jupiter’s moon Titan).

Those oceans figure prominently into another theory of where life might be lurking, one that Alan Stern, the principal investigator for New Horizons, touches on. Since buried oceans form a much more stable ecosystem than flowing surface streams, changes such as altering tides and dissipation take place over a longer time period. A hard outer shell protects hypothetical life in the oceans from a harsh climate and a lethal mix of gases on the surface. “Impacts and solar flares, and nearby supernovae, and what orbit you’re in, and whether you have a magnetosphere, and whether there’s a poisonous atmosphere — none of those things matter,” Stern told Space.com.

Any intelligent alien life that forms in these deep oceans would have to overcome a big hurdle to reach inhabitants of other worlds: drilling through that thick, protective crust. All that work would only get them to the surface — sending signals to other planets become even more unlikely.

Missed Signals

The Allen Telescope Array, Image Credit: National Science Foundation

For the past eighty years or so, we’ve been listening for signs of extraterrestrial life with  radio technology. The Allen Telescope Array, situated 470 km (290 miles) northeast of San Francisco, is one of the biggest — since 2007, 42 dishes have stood at the ready to scan the skies regularly in the hope of receiving radio signals from extraterrestrial life.

But what if extraterrestrial life doesn’t operate on those frequencies? Attempts at contact could simply be passing us by simply because we don’t comprehend the right wavelengths.

Instead of using telescope arrays and scanning the skies for radio signals, Duncan Forgan at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland suggests creating a galactic communications network. The same way we blink our high beams to send a signal to other drivers, we could use the shadow that Earth creates when it passes in front of the Sun to send a message to our fellow inhabitants of the universe. Forgan suggests that we build powerful lasers that contain those encoded messages, which are sent out as we pass in front of the Sun.

"If you want to communicate with someone on the other side of the galactic centre, there's lots of stuff in the way – dust, stars, a big black hole – so you can take the long way around using the network," Forgan tells New Scientist. Rather than letting intergalactic messages get lost in the vastness of space, civilizations in different galaxies could agree to use this “galactic communications network” to ensure their messages get to their intended recipients – a unified system to cut through the chatter.

We are Being Impatient

We’ve only been actively reaching out for alien life for about a century — a mere blip in the long history of the solar system and of the universe overall. Evan Solomonides, an astrophysics and mathematics undergrad and researcher at Cornell University, suggests that it could take a while — about 1,500 years from now, to be precise — before we hear from any extraterrestrials.

In a paper submitted to the American Astronomical Society, Solomonides examines the probability of finding life. “We predict that under 1 percent of the galaxy has been reached at all thus far, and we do not anticipate to be reached until approximately half of the stars/planets have been reached.” Solomonides believes that we will have explore around half of the Milky Way galaxy before we hear anything, which will take a while since we’ve barely explored our own galactic neighborhood.

Solomonides is careful to note that the 1,500 years is not a deadline. "This is not to say that we must be reached by then or else we are, in fact, alone. We simply claim that it is somewhat unlikely that we will not hear anything before that time.”

The post Where Is Alien Life? Six Of The Top Theories appeared first on Futurism.

Bitcoin Futures Trading Just Got the Green Light From U.S. Regulators

Posted: 01 Dec 2017 07:48 AM PST

Look to the Futures

The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has announced plans to permit bitcoin futures trading across three exchanges. This will allow individuals to bet on the value of the cryptocurrency without investing in it directly.

The Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the CBOE Futures Exchange (CFE) have already self-certified contracts for bitcoin futures, with the former setting a start date of December 18. Meanwhile, the Cantor Exchange has self-certified a contract pertaining to bitcoin binary options.

“Bitcoin, a virtual currency, is a commodity unlike any the Commission has dealt with in the past,” said J. Christopher Giancarlo, the chairman of the CFTC, in a statement. “As a result, we have had extensive discussions with the exchanges regarding the proposed contracts, and CME, CFE, and Cantor have agreed to significant enhancements to protect customers and maintain orderly markets. In working with the Commission, CME, CFE and Cantor have set an appropriate standard for oversight over these bitcoin contracts given the CFTC's limited statutory ability to oversee the cash market for bitcoin.”

Laying Down the Law

Bitcoin has had a very prosperous year, and its value stands to be bolstered by this news. CME’s initial announcement of its intention to pursue futures trading helped the cryptocurrency rise above the $6,000 mark; a rise that has only continued — as it’s now surpassed the $11,000 mark.

This most recent development is expected to be a good one overall for bitcoin, but it’s also likely to accelerate federal regulation regarding cryptocurrency trading. The exchanges involved have agreed to assist the CFTC in helping surveil the market, according to a report from Bloomberg.

That said, cryptocurrency is under scrutiny by authorities: a federal judge in San Francisco recently ordered Coinbase to supply the IRS with details of more than 10,000 traders, and the establishment of futures trading will likely tack on the additional need for oversight.

Disclosure: Several members of the Futurism team, including the editors of this piece, are personal investors in cryptocurrency markets. Their personal investment perspectives have no impact on editorial content.

The post Bitcoin Futures Trading Just Got the Green Light From U.S. Regulators appeared first on Futurism.

A Probe Detected a Mysterious Signal That Physics Can’t Explain

Posted: 01 Dec 2017 07:15 AM PST

China’s Dark Matter Foray

Amidst seemingly endless advances in quantum physics and the hunt for dark matter by American and European scientists, China continues to close the gap in scientific prowess. A China-led space mission has revealed auspicious signs of dark matter, according to recently reported results. Although no direct evidence of dark matter was found, this is the first observational data provided by China’s very first mission designed exclusively for astrophysics. The mission represents China’s continued progression as a world-power in astrophysics.

The hunt for dark matter has haunted the dreams of astrophysicists for centuries. Ever since Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky first discovered that the mass of all particles in the Coma cluster of galaxies constituted a mere one percent of the mass required to generate sufficient gravity needed to prevent the galaxy cluster from dissembling. Physicists have since inferred dark matter’s existence from this necessary yet unseen gravitational effect on visible matter.

Image credit: Judy Schmidt

Named the Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE), the Chinese spacecraft was designed to seek out an indirect decay signal of long-hypothesized dark matter — known as weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs). DAMPE was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, roughly 1,600 km (994 miles) west of Beijing, back in December 2015. Its primary tool is a stack of thin, crisscrossing detector strips that assume a common arrangement which allows it to combine observations in one direction. It’s also able to observe the energy, vector, and electric charge of particles making up cosmic rays — especially electrons and positrons (the former’s antimatter counterpart).

Forces of Cosmic Darkness

Cosmic rays originate from normal astrophysical phenomena, e.g., supernovae elsewhere in the galaxy. However, if dark matter is made of WIMPs, these particles would sporadically annihilate one another and create electron-positron pairs. These pairs are then detectable as an excess quantity of matter amid the amalgam of particles hailing from traditional astrophysical objects.

In its first 530 days, DAMPE detected 1.5 million cosmic ray electrons and positrons above a specific energy threshold. Researchers ordinarily expect to see a smooth curve of particles-to-energy, but previous experiments suggested an anomalous disruption in that curve.

This data is important because it confirmed that deviation.

“It may be evidence of dark matter,” however the curve disruption could “be from some other cosmic ray source,” said Chang Jin, leader of the collaboration of the Chinese Academy of Science’s (CAS’s) Purple Mountain Observatory (PMO) in Nanjing, in a recent Science Magazine article.

"We have a compelling anomaly in the high-energy section, it goes up and then goes down again. We didn’t expect this, and it cannot be explained by the existing knowledge of physics,” he added in another report. He also noted that the DAMPE probe, previously slated for a 3-year mission in space, is now expected to last 5 years, thanks to the smooth functioning of both spacecraft and instruments.

Even though there is absolutely no guarantee that DAMPE will answer the dark matter mystery, according to the Science Magazine report and David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University, the Chinese foray into dark matter will inform our understanding of cosmic ray acceleration, and also reveal the underlying physical processes in spatial shocks near supernovae and pulsars.

The post A Probe Detected a Mysterious Signal That Physics Can’t Explain appeared first on Futurism.

A Vaccine for HIV Is About to Be Tested in Thousands of People

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 02:40 PM PST

Treating and Preventing HIV

More than 70 million people have been diagnosed with HIV since the early 1980s, and the virus has claimed the lives of more than 35 million people. Some may argue that the worst is behind us, but HIV is still a death sentence for many people across the globe. Until we find a cure or, at the very least, better treatment and prevention options for the disease, it will continue to claim lives.

Now, two new studies launching in Africa — where HIV/AIDS was once the leading cause of death — just might yield the breakthrough we need.

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has collaborated with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on a two-vaccine combination that it will trial in 2,600 women in southern Africa over the course of the next three years. The first dose of their HIV vaccine primes the immune system, while the second boosts the body's response. The vaccine combines proteins from various HIV strains to create a “mosaic” that will, hopefully, be able to prevent infection from any strain of HIV.

“We're making progress," Paul Stoffels, Chief Scientific Officer at J&J, told Reuters, before explaining he hopes their HIV vaccine can achieve effectiveness above 50 percent. "That is the goal,” said Stoffels. “Hopefully, we get much higher."

The Story of How Vaccines Changed the World
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In November 2016, a trial of another HIV vaccine, HVTN 702, launched in South Africa, and according to Reuters, this is the first time in over a decade that two big HIV vaccines are being tested simultaneously.

In addition to J&J’s vaccine study, a ViiV Healthcare trial also just launched in sub-Saharan Africa. That study will involve 3,200 women, who will be given injections of ViiV’s experimental HIV drug cabotegravir every two months to test its ability to treat HIV. The ViiV initiative is also receiving funding from the NIH and the Gates Foundation, and it is expected to conclude in May 2022.

Promising Developments

Scientists and researchers have been making steady progress in HIV treatments, with 2017 showing potentially the most promise so far.

This year, scientists from the Scripps Research Institute discovered a “functional cure” that was successfully tested on mice, while the NIH conducted a study on an antibody that can kill 99 percent of HIV strains. A drug used to fight cancer could become a new HIV treatment, and CRISPR gene-editing has been used to boost HIV resistances in animals.

Kristen Lanphear, Manager in Community Health Initiatives at Trillium Health, told Futurism that these two new African studies are significant because “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Every successful attempt to prevent HIV infection or slow down its progress could result in millions of people living somewhat normal, healthy lives.

“Both of these developments are super exciting potential new tools in the prevention toolbox,” said Lanphear. “While a cure is still a possibility, prevention is an achievable way to actually end the HIV epidemic. The more tools we have to use, the faster we can reach that goal.”

HIV is unpredictable — the virus doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, it can become resistant to previously effective drugs, and what works against one strain might not work against another. Additionally, many existing treatments must be used continuously to be effective. Fortunately, Lanphear foresees the potential for the J&J vaccine and Viiv drug to avoid some of those issues.

“No one tool is going to be enough to do the job, because every tool doesn't work the same for every person or every country,” said Lanphear. “Both of these developments take some variability out of the equation – they rely less on continued action (taking a daily medication or using condoms consistently, for example) and allow for one-time or episodic commitment to a health behavior.”

Both the HIV vaccine trial and the treatment trial are just kicking off, so we won’t know for some time just how viable they are. Still, they’ll be worth the wait if they can effectively treat or prevent HIV.

The post A Vaccine for HIV Is About to Be Tested in Thousands of People appeared first on Futurism.

Scientists Find That Smartphone Addiction Alters Your Brain Chemistry

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 02:21 PM PST

Life Out of Balance: Smartphones et al.

A study presented at the 2017 meeting of the Radiological Society of North America has found that young people who are addicted to smartphone usage display an imbalance in their brain chemistry.

A group of researchers from Seoul’s Korea University carried out the study, which was led by neuroradiology professor Hyung Suk Seo. They used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to investigate the chemical composition of teenagers who had been diagnosed as having an addition to their smartphones or the internet.

Nineteen youths – nine male and ten female with a mean age of fifteen and a half – were compared with healthy control subjects of the same gender. Twelve of the group received cognitive behavioral therapy, based on a similar program designed to help people addicted to video games.

Standardized tests helped the scientists determine how severe each subject’s addiction was. They were quizzed on how their usage affected their day-to-day activities, ranging from social life to sleeping pattern.

The teenagers who were addicted to their smartphones and the internet, were found to have higher scores for tests that tracked depression, anxiety, the severity of insomnia, and their impulsivity. These subjects were given MRS examinations both before and after their behavioral therapy, while the control patients were examined once to establish a baseline.

The MRS procedure was intended to measure the levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that inhibits or slows down brain signals, and glutamate-glutamine (Glx), which causes neurons to be more electrically excited. It determined that the ratio of GABA to Glx in addicted teens was significantly higher before therapy than those recorded in the control subjects.

Tech Addiction

Statistics published by the Pew Research Center state that 46 percent of Americans claim that they could not live without their smartphones. Young people in particular are often accused of being too wrapped up in their devices and in online interaction – but this study might suggest that there is a medical basis for cutting down on usage. There are hopes that it could contribute to the development of treatments that will address these issues.

8 Smart Technologies that Exist Today
Click to View Full Infographic

“The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions,” said Dr. Seo in a press release.

Too much GABA has been linked to side effects including drowsiness and anxiety. Dr. Seo believes that this imbalance might have some connection to a loss of function in terms of the ability for a person’s cognitive and emotional neural network to process their experiences.

The behavioral therapy utilized in the study certainly seemed to have the desired effect. The ratio of GABA to Glx in the subjects suffering from addiction was found to be substantially lower, or even brought down to normal levels, in the MRS exams that followed the treatment.

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Glowing Dye Helps Surgeons Find and Remove Cancer Cells

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 02:00 PM PST

Removing cancer is much more effective than radiation or chemotherapy.

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Scientists Have Expanded the Genetic Code in Bacteria

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 01:36 PM PST


Every living thing on Earth is built up from the building blocks that are the four genetic bases, which are designated as A, G, C, and T. Now, scientists have successfully added two extra, synthetic bases to a bacterium.

Previously, a team of researchers genetically engineered a bacterium known as Escherichia coli to bear bases dubbed X and Y. However, while the bacteria in that study could store the bacteria and pass them onto cells produced via mitosis, there were limitations – the bases had to be transcribed into molecules of RNA before being translated into proteins.

This new study introduced the X and Y bases into bacterial genes where the standard four bases were already present, thereby expanding the genetic code as we know it.

Tests demonstrated that microbes were able to process this genetic information and transcribe it onto RNA molecules as a result. Those molecules demonstrated the ability to produce green fluorescent protein – a protein that exhibits a bright green glow when exposed to light in the range of blue to ultraviolet – containing unnatural amino acids.

Genetic Code Expansion

This research could offer up a host of new possibilities for scientists and medical professionals. The four standard DNA bases can be combined to produce 20 amino acids, but adding X and Y would allow as many as 152 to be synthesized. They may one day become foundational components for drugs and materials that are currently unobtainable.

“The immediate goal that really drives us, is to use the semi-synthetic organism to create new classes of protein drugs,” Floyd Romesberg, who led the study, told Futurism. “As you probably know, protein drugs have already revolutionized medicine. However, the properties that they have, and thus the diseases that they can be developed to treat, must in some way be limited by what they are made of. Unfortunately, the natural amino acids leave a lot of functionality to be desired.”

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
Click to View Full Infographic

Advances in a field like this can lead to a situation where scientists might be seen as ‘playing God’ without the proper oversight from the authorities or a specific regulatory body. Romesberg stressed that the techniques used in the 2014 study were safe in an interview with the New York Times.

Zhang explained that the semi-synthetic organism at the center of the research had to be fed the unnatural nucleotides, and cannot replicate or decode the unnatural information unless this happens. Furthermore, there’s no risk of the bacteria escaping the lab and causing unforeseen infections.

“If they escape and get out, they will no longer be ‘semi-synthetic’ because the unnatural base pair will mutate to a natural base pair and they will become normal E. coli,” Zhang added. “And there would be so many steps involved in getting the bacteria to make the nucleotides themselves that they could never evolve the ability to do so, especially because they have no incentive to do so.”

Zhang compared the cell to a ‘factory’ designed to create proteins that could be used to treat medical conditions. “The production of therapeutic proteins using bacteria, yeast and mammalian cells is standard and almost all commercial protein drugs are produced this way,” he wrote. “We are simply adding a technology that may make better protein therapeutics using unnatural amino acids.”

So it goes that scientists continue to stand back in awe of nature’s creations, have a thought, and then tweak the details to improve the human condition.

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Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Says Bitcoin “Ought to be Outlawed”

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 01:24 PM PST

Rouge Currency

The 2001 recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, Joseph Stiglitz, voiced some strong opinions about Bitcoin in his latest interview with Bloomberg Television. Stiglitz is a former economic advisor to the Clinton Administration and chief economist of the World Bank; he currently serves as a Professor at Columbia University.

Stiglitz told Bloomberg that “Bitcoin is successful only because of its potential for circumvention, lack of oversight.” He continued, offering a harsh rebuke and recommendation for the future of the world’s most popular and successful cryptocurrency, “So it seems to me it ought to be outlawed. It doesn't serve any socially useful function.”

This interview took place shortly after Bitcoin crossed yet another staggering milestone, surpassing $10,000 and even $11,000 in value. At these levels, Bitcoin is among the 30 largest currencies in the world.

Bitcoin is often a target of experts who predict its wild successes and others who forsee the bubble bursting. This rollercoaster valuation ride often gives each side evidence to support their predictions, yet Stiglitz points to regulation from Washington as a potential sniper’s bullet that could bring the entire currency down.

Intrinsic Value?

Earlier this year, Forbes contributor Jason Bloomberg questioned whether Bitcoin held any intrinsic value, that is, the currency’s value outside of the price tag that the market slaps on each coin. He was hard-pressed to find an answer, with many experts pointing to Bitcoin’s market value as its only real value. This question of value is an important part of determining the overall utility of the currency and either proving or debunking Stiglitz’s claim that Bitcoin lacks function.

Some experts point to various attributes of Bitcoin such as transparency and programmability as facets of Bitcoin’s utility, and therefore, value. However, others do not find this satisfying, Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal writes, "Gold has real value because it's shiny and can be used for jewelry…. But what about Bitcoin? If you ask Bitcoin believers why a bitcoin is worth anything at all, they will tell you about how amazing the technology is, and how it's 'programmable' and how cryptography and pseudoanonymity are so great. But none of these are very satisfying answers."

This volatility surrounding the currency will likely not die down anytime soon. The sheer unpredictable nature of Bitcoin only bolsters the differing sides, with dips allowing opponents to point toward inevitable collapse and spikes allowing the faithful to point out the currency’s resilience. Either way, only time will tell how the currency will fare. The growing pains of Bitcoin will continue to take us on a wild ride.

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New Thought-Controlled Prosthetics Restore the Sensation of Touch

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 01:09 PM PST

Once More With Feeling

Researchers from the University of Utah have developed a mind-controlled robotic hand that can simulate 100 unique touch sensations in the user’s brain. The developers used a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded arm affectionately referred to as the LUKE, so named after Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic arm from the Star Wars films.

The updates developed by the Utah group involve implanting a device into the patient’s residual nerves, along with electrodes implanted in muscles to create a loop of information that is transferred into signals that the brain recognizes as sensations of touch.

According to one of the developers on the project, Jacob George, "People often think of touch as a single sense, but it's actually sub-divided into other senses, such as pressure, vibration, temperature, pain, etc. The high resolution of our device allows us to activate these sub-classes of touch in isolation (i.e., pressure without vibration or pain) in a specific part of the hand." This allows for users to regain a sense of embodiment that they may have lost.

Speaking about a former participant using the system with a computer-generated prosthetic, George said, "It's not that he felt the sensation on his missing hand; it's that he felt the door and it's suddenly him interacting with the environment around him in the first time in 24 years."

Prosthetics and the Bionic Future

The process for preparing the arm for use is arduous at the moment. The team has to map each of the 192 electrodes with each participant’s nervous system so each sensation corresponds with a real stimulus. That is, if pressure is applied to a specific area, like the tip of the thumb, the participant feels that pressure in the thumb of the prosthetic, instead of another area. Once this is completed, the user would be able to control the hand as if it were their own.

The Utah team has tested their new interface with seven participants so far. They are emboldened by the results thus far but are keen on creating a wireless version of the technology within the next year. Functionality is also expected to improve as patients have the opportunity to practice with the interface.

Human augmentation is rapidly innovating to bring functionality back to disabled. Of course, these innovations are not occurring only in the form of enhanced arm prosthetics.

Bionics: The Astonishing Future of the Human Body
Click to View Full Infographic

Mind-controlled prosthetic legs are also being developed to allow people who have lost their lower limbs to live lives more like they did prior to their ordeal. For example, a 31-year-old amputee was able to climb the 103-story Willis Tower with the help of a bionic limb equipped with Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR) technology.

Other technologies are helping people regain non-motor functions like vision. Filmmaker Rob Spence replaced his damaged eye with a custom designed camera, making him one of the world’s first cyborgs, or “Eyeborg,” as he calls himself.

Further innovation in the way our brains interact with machines will continue to allow these kind of augmentations to bring greater functionality back to those who have lost some. Even more, the ability to fine-tune this interaction will also lead to a world where even regular humans are able to enhance their abilities with augmentation.

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Researchers Claim They Created a Substance That Regrows Hair

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 12:48 PM PST

Living With Hair Loss

Some people really love their hair. They love styling it in various ways, dyeing it, braiding it, and just using it as a way to express their personality. For those people, the realization that they’re going bald can be downright devastating, but even for those less enthusiastic about their locks, the loss can be quite alarming. Even more alarming? There’s no cure for baldness.

According to the American Hair Loss Association (AHLA), androgenetic alopecia — commonly known as male pattern baldness (MPB) — accounts for more than 95 percent of hair loss in men. By the age of 35, an estimated two-thirds of American men will experience some degree of hair loss, and 25 percent are expected to begin the process before they’re 21.

Of course, balding doesn’t only affect men. Forty percent of Americans that experience hair loss are women, and as the AHLA explains on their website, female hair loss is considered less socially acceptable than male hair loss.

The AHLA reports that 99 percent of products marketed in the hair loss treatment industry are ineffective, so most androgenetic alopecia sufferers simply have to learn to live without their hair. However, a team of South Korean scientists now claim they’ve created a biochemical substance that promotes hair growth and could eventually produce a cure for baldness.


While studying hair loss and hair follicles, Choi Kang-yeol from Yonsei University in Seoul and his team discovered that those suffering from the condition had a significant amount of the CXXC5 protein in their scalp. The researchers learned that when that protein combines with the Dishevelled protein, they prevent the regeneration of hair follicles.

To prevent that binding, the team created PTD-DMB.

"We have found a protein that controls the hair growth and developed a new substance that promotes hair regeneration by controlling the function of the protein,” Choi told Business Korea. “We expect that the newly developed substance will contribute to the development of a drug that not only treats hair loss but also regenerate damaged skin tissues."

The team tested PTD-DMB on mice, and after 28 days of applications, they noticed new hair follicle growth on the mice. They are now testing the substance on other animals to determine its toxicity. If those PTD-DMB tests yield positive results, the next step would be to start working toward the development of a drug and human trials.

Though promising, this research has a long ways to go before it could be used by people as a cure for baldness. Still, hair loss can have a devastating impact on one’s self-image and emotional well-being, and anything that could enabled a person to be comfortable with their appearance is absolutely worth exploring.

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What Is Time, and Why Does It Move Forward?

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 12:41 PM PST

Time is more than something humans invented. It’s real.

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What Is Gravity Made Of?

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 12:36 PM PST

Making sense of this could be the key to a "theory of everything."

The post What Is Gravity Made Of? appeared first on Futurism.

Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 12:29 PM PST

Right now, billions of neurons in your brain are working together to generate a conscious experience.

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Michio Kaku: The Multiverse Has 11 Dimensions

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 12:14 PM PST

The physics of our universe may be far stranger than we think.

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The Cities of Tomorrow Will be Populated With “Bio Houses”

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 12:05 PM PST

Traditional buildings are designed to provide protection against a savage world, with us safe on one side and our waste on the other. Architects have long relied on 'hard' materials such as masonry, aluminium and glass, specifically chosen to prevent the outside environment from getting in. Impermeability was, and is, a driving goal.

It is time to rethink that approach. Our current built environment squanders too much fresh water and other vital resources, and tips too many poisonous substances into our surroundings. To develop a more sustainable relationship with the natural world, we need to allow chemical exchanges that take place within our living spaces, and between the inside and the outside. We need to embrace permeability.

Until the rise of modernity, a certain amount of the outside world always leaked into our living spaces, entering through crumbling brickwork, broken seals and open windows and doors. However, with the rapid growth of industrial cities in the mid-19th century, pollution, overcrowding and disease posed new external threats. The remedy was to exert tighter control over our habitats, with the result that buildings became true barriers.

Today's building 'envelopes' seal off our living and working spaces to a degree previously unencountered. In many offices, it is no longer possible to open windows manually to let in a breeze. Automated air-conditioning systems (often answering only to sensors and software) blast summer heat out into scorching walkways, amplifying the urban heat-island effect and contributing to heat-related health risks. Such buildings ignore the metabolism that is the dynamic scaffolding of living systems.

During the 1970s, the ecologists John and Nancy Jack Todd and William McLarney founded the New Alchemy Institute – now the Green Center on Cape Cod in Massachusetts – to reconceive building spaces as part of a self-sustaining human ecosystem. Such spaces would not be hermetically sealed, but rather open to the flow of natural elements. The research institute experimented with integrating a range of sustainable systems, such as solar power, organic agriculture, aquaculture and bio-shelter design, which went hand in hand with the permeability of these living spaces. Their results pointed a promising way forward.

The facade of the BIQ (Bio Intelligent Quotient) house in Hamburg has tanks filled with microalgae that produce biomass used to generate electricity.

Incorporating permeability into architecture begins with a building's composition. In the past 20 years, engineers have developed organic construction materials that have various degrees of permeability. Mycotecture – architectural building blocks that are formed from the fibrous material of fungal roots – are as strong as concrete and as insulating as fibreglass. BioMASON bricks are built by microorganisms; they do not need firing and are as strong as traditional masonry. Bioplastics are produced by bacteria using biogas from landfills and wastewater treatment plants. Since they are not derived from petroleum, bioplastics have lower carbon footprints. Like wood, they are 'farmed' into existence.

Riddled with spaces, these 'soft' materials allow a whole different set of geometries, structural properties and effects than are possible with traditional construction. David Benjamin's Hy-Fi tower, constructed from mycelium (mushroom) bricks, offers a hint of the vast potentials. Yet even when modern builders use the new organic materials, they generally treat them so that they present 'hard' interfaces to the environment.

Fully embracing permeability opens up broad ecological and environmental possibilities. Semi-permeable ceramics in particular can be treated to provide binding surfaces for biofilms, large coordinated colonies of bacteria or other microorganisms. Biofilms can be grown to have semiconductor properties, akin to solar cells or computer circuits. When treated with manganese, biofilms can become filters that regulate the flow of air and water into a building.

Builders are starting to explore the possibilities of strategically placing 'hard' and 'soft' interfaces within a structure to regulate the delivery of resources and organic responses to these inputs. For example, the BIQ House in Hamburg has a façade of thin-walled tanks filled with microalgae. The algae harvest sunlight and carbon dioxide, and produce biomass that can be used to generate electricity. The translucent, living tanks also regulate the building temperature by absorbing more sunshine as the biomass increases. In this case, the glass of the tanks is impermeable to water but lets in sunlight – a different kind of permeability, which is critical for the organic exchanges within the façade.

The Living Architecture (LIAR) project, funded by the European Union among others, is a fruitful effort to create showcases of semi-permeable design. For instance, the project aims to transform bathrooms, kitchens and commercial spaces into environmentally sensitive, productive sites. Wall sections in the rooms are replaced with bioreactors, self-contained microbial systems. One type of bioreactor is a fuel cell that houses anaerobic bacteria to produce electricity and clean water. Another is an algae photobioreactor that produces biomass for fuel or food. The third type is a synthetic bioreactor that can make alcohol or other plant-based materials.

Bioreactor walls are strong enough that they can form interior partitions, but they are also active, functional parts of life inside the building. They can recycle detergents from domestic wastewater, produce fertilisers for the garden, and synthesise new, biodegradable detergents – just from grey water, carbon dioxide and sunlight. Future bioreactors could also generate bioluminescent lighting, produce nutrient-rich food supplements, and remove problematic oestrogen-mimic compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from drinking water. In commercial spaces, living walls could recycle water, fertilise green roofs, and purify air to make building interiors healthier and more like natural environments.

The LIAR project is still in a prototype phase. Quantitative inputs and outputs have not yet been formally established. But project leaders expect to see integrated bioreactor wall systems in real homes within the next 10 years.

Hard, inert interfaces are unlikely to become obsolete any time soon. The real impact of living architecture will be to introduce a new palette of structural and functional systems that change how we think about sustainability and resource management within the built environment. In particular, the LIAR project raises the possibility of a new, active relationship with natural processes.

We could develop new ways to speak with the living world physically, biologically, mechanically and even electrically. Breaking down the barrier between inside and outside will allow us to choreograph a flow of vital resources such as water and minerals. The end result will be a kind of artificial metabolism for our homes, commercial spaces and cities – a long-overdue realisation of a more ethical and symbiotic relationship between the built and the natural worlds.Aeon counter – do not remove

Rachel Armstrong

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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“Magnetic Sails” May be the Key to Interstellar Spacecraft

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 12:01 PM PST

The number of confirmed extra-solar planets has increased by leaps and bounds in recent years. With every new discovery, the question of when we might be able to explore these planets directly naturally arises. There have been several suggestions so far, ranging from laser-sail driven nanocraft that would travel to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years (Breakthrough Starshot) to slower-moving microcraft equipped with a gene laboratories (The Genesis Project).

But when it comes to braking these craft so that they can slow down and study distant stars and orbit planets, things become a bit more complicated. According to a recent study by the very man who conceived of The Genesis Project – Professor Claudius Gros of the Institute for Theoretical Physics Goethe University Frankfurt – special sails that rely on superconductors to generate magnetic fields could be used for just this purpose.

Starshot and Genesis are similar in that both concepts seek to leverage recent advancements in miniaturization. Today, engineers are able to create sensors, thrusters and cameras that are capable of carrying out computations and other functions, but are a fraction of the size of older instruments. And when it comes to propulsion, there are many options, ranging from conventional rockets and ion drives to laser-driven light sails.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity's first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

Slowing an interstellar mission down, however, has remained a more significant challenge because such a craft cannot be fitted with braking thrusters and fuel without increasing its weight. To address this, Professor Gros suggests using magnetic sails, which would present numerous advantages over other available methods. As Prof. Gros explained to Universe Today via email:

"Classically, you would equip the spacecraft with rocket engines. Normal rocket engines, as we are using them for launching satellites, can change the velocity only by 5-15 km/s. And even that only when using several stages. That is not enough to slow down a craft flying at 1000 km/s (0.3% c) or 100000 km/s (c/3). Fusion or antimatter drives would help a bit, but not substantially."

The sail he envisions would consist of a massive superconducting loop that measures about 50 kilometers in diameter, which would create a magnetic field once a lossless current was induced. Once activated, the ionized hydrogen in the interstellar medium would be reflected off the sail's magnetic field. This would have the effect of transferring the spacecraft's momentum to the interstellar gas, gradually slowing it down.

According to Gros' calculations, this would work for slow-travelling sails despite the extremely low particle density of interstellar space, which works out to 0.005 to 0.1 particles per cubic centimeter. "A magnetic sail trades energy consumption with time," said Gros."If you turn off the engine of your car and let it roll idle, it will slow down due to friction (air, tires). The magnetic sail does the same, where the friction comes from the interstellar gas."

Artist concept of lightsail craft approaching the potentially habitable exoplanet Proxima b. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo

One of the advantages of this method is the fact that can be built using existing technology. The key technology behind the magnetic sail is a Biot Savart loop which, when paired with the same kind of superconducting coils used in high-energy physics, would create a powerful magnetic field. Using such a sail, even heavier spacecraft – those that weight up to 1,500 kilograms (1.5 metric tonnes; 3,307 lbs) – could be decelerated from an interstellar voyage.

The one big drawback is the time such a mission would take. Based on Gros' own calculations, a high speed transit to Proxima Centauri that relied on magnetic momentum braking would require a ship that weighed about 1 million kg (1000 metric tonnes; 1102 tons). However, an interstellar mission involving a 1.5 metric tonne ship would be able to reach TRAPPIST-1 in about 12,000 years. As Gros concludes:

"It takes a long time (because the very low density of the interstellar media). That is bad if you want to see a return (scientific data, exciting pictures) in your lifetime. Magnetic sails work, but only when you are happy to take the (very) long perspective."

In other words, such a system would not work for a nanocraft like that envisioned by Breakthrough Starshot. As Starshot's own Dr. Abraham Loeb explained, the main goal of the project is to achieve the dream of interstellar travel within a generation of the ship's departure. In addition to being the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Dr. Loeb is also the Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee.

A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

As he explained to Universe Today via email:

"[Gros] concludes that breaking on the interstellar gas is feasible only at low speeds (less than a fraction of a percent of the speed of light) and even then one needs a sail that is tens of miles wide, weighting tons. The problem is that with such a low speed, the journey to the nearest stars will take over a thousand years.

"The Breakthrough Starshot initiative aims to launch a spacecraft at a fifth of the speed of light so that it will reach the nearest stars within a human lifetime. It is difficult to get people excited about a journey whose completion will not be witnessed by them. But there is a caveat. If the longevity of people could be extended to millennia by genetic engineering, then designs of the type considered by Gros would certainly be more appealing."

But for missions like The Genesis Project, which Gros originally proposed in 2016, time is not a factor. Such a probe, which would carry single-celled organisms – either encoded in a gene factory or stored as cryogenically-frozen spores – a could take thousands of years to reach a neighboring star system. Once there, it would begin seeding planets that had been identified as "transiently habitable" with single-celled organisms.

For such a mission, travel time is not the all-important factor. What matters is the ability to slow down and establish orbit around a planet. That way, the spacecraft would be able to seed these nearby worlds with terrestrial organisms, which could have the effect of slowly terraforming it in advance of human explorers or settlers.

Given how long it would take for humans to reach even the nearest extra-solar planets, a mission that last a few hundred or a few thousand years is no big deal. In the end, which method we choose to conduct interstellar mission will come down to how much time we're willing to invest. For the sake of exploration, expedience is the key factor, which means lightweight craft and incredibly high speeds.

But where long-term goals – such as seeding other worlds with life and even terraforming them for human settlement – are concerned, the slow and steady approach is best. One thing is for sure: when these types of missions move from the concept stage to realization, it sure will be exciting to witness!

The post "Magnetic Sails" May be the Key to Interstellar Spacecraft appeared first on Futurism.

GM Just Gave the First Public Ride in Its Self-Driving Cars

Posted: 30 Nov 2017 11:54 AM PST

In the race to build autonomous vehicles, General Motors is determined not to be left behind.

Last year, it bought Cruise Automation, a startup based here, to jumpstart its self-driving car efforts. On Tuesday, GM demonstrated what it and Cruise have been working on, giving a select group of reporters a test drive in one of their autonomous vehicles.

“This is a big moment for me, personally, and for General Motors and for Cruise,” Kyle Vogt, Cruise’s CEO, said.

GM plans to mass produce its self-driving cars in a matter of “quarters, not years,” company president Dan Ammann said. He declined to specify when, exactly, the company plans to start selling them.

“Stay tuned,” he said.

In the meantime, Ammann, Vogt, and their colleagues were eager to show off their self-driving cars. Although GM and Cruise have been internally testing prototype vehicles for more than a year, this was the first time the companies had given members of the media or the general public a ride in them.

GM’s self-driving vehicles are basically modified versions of its Bolt electric vehicles. GM has added some 40 sensors to the vehicles, include an assortment of radar and lidar devices, as well as hundreds of pounds and several miles worth of cables.

The automotive giant has designed the vehicles to be mass produced in its Orion, Michigan, factory. It’s already built 180 test vehicles.

GM and Cruise rolled out their first generation test vehicles only in May 2016. The version of the car GM and Cruise demonstrated on Tuesday is their second-generation test vehicle, which debuted this past June and includes a complete collection of sensors. They already have a third generation prototype in production; that vehicle, unlike its predecessor, includes redundant systems.

GM’s autonomous car offered a safe — but not smooth — ride

My ride got off to an inauspicious start. For the event, Cruise handed out iPhones that media members could use to summon one of their cars using the company’s app. That app, which works similarly to Uber or Lyft’s ride-haling apps, is actually the same one Cruise employees use to catch a ride with one of its cars. Only in our case, Cruise allowed us to choose from one of several pre-set destinations, rather than setting one on our own.

It took several minutes for my car to arrive in front of the Dogpatch Studio here, where GM was holding the event. But instead of stopping for me, the car drove right on by and returned back to the place it had been parked at before.

So, my Cruise helper summoned another car. That car too passed us by. But after traveling around several blocks, it came back to pick me up.

The car then proceeded to take us on a drive via city streets through the Portrero Hill neighborhood in the eastern part of this city. For about 20 minutes, we went up and down the area’s steep hills before returning to the studio.

Riding in the Cruise vehicle was a little more unnerving than my recent ride in one of Waymo’s latest self-driving cars. Waymo’s demonstration was held at its testing facility in Central California, and even though its car had no driver and had to contend with people driving, walking, and biking, the ride felt staged and artificial.

In this demonstration, a Cruise employee sat behind the steering wheel, ready to take over if anything happened and another sat in the front passenger seat calling out potential obstacles and alerting the driver to the car’s upcoming path. Even so, this was a real-world test and felt like felt like it.

San Francisco is a notoriously difficult city to drive in, thanks to its steep, narrow streets, frequently heavy traffic, and often brazenly incautious bicyclists and pedestrians. Cruise’s car had to navigate around multiple double-parked trucks while contending with oncoming traffic, avoid pedestrians randomly crossing the street, be on the lookout for cars and bicycles as it crested hills, and negotiate four-way intersections where it sometimes encountered cars with impatient drivers.

The car made it through the course without incident — we never came close to an accident, and the Cruise employee behind the wheel never had to take manual control of the car. And that was impressive, far more so than Waymo’s car navigating through a staged course.

But Cruise clearly has some things to work on. The ride, while safe, was anything but smooth.  In fact, it often felt herky-jerky. We would accelerate as we turned a corner, slow down abruptly right after that, speed up soon after until we came close to the next intersection, then brake fairly suddenly at a stop sign.

The car sometimes seemed hesitant

And the car seemed overly cautious, even hesitant at times. In navigating around one double-parked truck, it slowly nudged out to peer around it, then slowly pulled around it in the oncoming lane. In the same situation, a human driver likely would have gone much more quickly in order to avoid any potential oncoming traffic.

General Motors' second generation prototype self-driving vehicle, in which reporter Troy Wolverton got a test ride.
General Motors’ second generation prototype self-driving vehicle, in which I got my test ride. Troy Wolverton

Early on in my ride, the vehicle had to negotiate a particularly challenging stretch. In front of us was a double-parked truck. Just beyond that, on the other side of the street was another double-parked truck. In between and among the trucks were construction workers. And there were cars both behind us waiting for us to go and in front of us, heading the opposite direction.

The Cruise vehicle moved slowly and prudently into the oncoming lane. It nudged out just a bit to better see the traffic heading toward us. When things were clear, it pulled out. But then, while pointed in the wrong direction in the opposite lane, it just stopped. After waiting for two cars to go around the truck on their side and pass us going the other way, it finally went around the truck on our side and proceeded on.

Of course, a human driver might also have struggled with that scenario. But a human driver, even a cautious one, would likely have navigated around the obstacles more smoothly.

Right now, Cruise is far more focused on making its cars safe than worrying about how smoothly they drive, Cruise’s Vogt said. Not only is safety crucial for autonomous vehicles, but it’s a far harder problem to solve, he said.

Vogt expects Cruise to spend more time improving smoothness and polishing other aspects of the rider experience next year as the company nails down the safe driving aspect of the cars.

Making the cars drive more smoothly “Is the easiest part of the process,” he said.

I could see more than the car’s screen showed

Like Waymo’s autonomous cars, Cruise vehicles have screens on the backs of the driver and passenger seats that show in graphical form what the car “sees” around it. Other cars on the road show up as grayish blue boxes, people as blue cylinders.

A screenshot from the screens inside GM's self-driving cars, showing what they see around them.
A screenshot from the screens inside GM’s self-driving cars, showing what they see around them. General Motors/Cruise

Generally, whenever cars or people were close by, they showed up on the screen. You could see rows of boxes representing parked cars and cylinders crossing the street in tandem with the people they represented.

But sometimes the screen didn’t seem to register objects immediately. When we came to an intersection at the top of one hill, it took a while for the screen to show a car parked on the opposite corner, long after I saw it out the window.

More disconcertingly, sometimes the screen didn’t display some objects at all. As we approached one intersection, the screen registered the car coming up the street on our left. But it never showed the car coming up to the intersection from our left. Similarly, the pedestrians walking on the sidewalk that we passed never showed up on the screen, even though they were walking only a few feet away from the parked cars that were displayed.

Cruise’s cars can actually see a lot more than what they show on their screens, Vogt said. The company decided to limit what they display, because it found that when it showed more objects, riders found all the information “overwhelming,” he said.

GM is focusing first on the ride-hailing market

GM sees ride-hailing services as the initial market for these vehicles, Ammann said. The automotive giant is still working out the details of how it will approach that market. GM has invested some $500 million in Lyft, but Ammann said it wouldn’t necessarily partner with that company in all cases to offer ride-hailing services.

In some cases, GM might offer automous ride-hailing services through partnerships; in others, it may offer them by itself, he said. Either way, GM plans to maintain control of the fleet of cars it deploys, he said.

The company’s focus on the ride-hailing market has played into the testing of its autonomous vehicles, Ammann said. It and Cruise are focusing on testing their cars in dense, busy cities in part because those are the biggest markets for ride-hailing services. The companies have already been testing their cars in San Francisco and plan to begin testing them in Manhattan in the first quarter.

GM is one of several major companies developing autonomous vehicles. Among the others are Uber and Google spinoff Waymo. Like GM, those companies see the ride-hailing industry as among the most promising early markets for such cars.

Cruise and GM are concentrating on cities

However, Cruise’s Vogt took pains to differentiate his company’s development effort from that of Waymo. Waymo has undertaken a years-long effort to create autonomous cars and has done much of its real-world testing either in suburban environments such as Mountain View, California, and Chandler, Arizona, or at its testing facility at a decommissioned Air Force base in California’s Central Valley. Collectively, its cars have driven some 4 million miles autonomously, the company announced on Monday.

By contrast, Cruise has gotten to the point it’s at in just 18 months, Vogt noted. And while it also tests its cars in suburban Phoenix, much of its real-world testing is being done in urban environments.

Vogt and other GM officials declined to say how many miles its cars have driven, but they argued that the city miles they’ve driven count for much more than the miles its competitors have logged in the suburbs. That’s because incidents such as having to make a left-hand turn or having to pull into the oncoming lane of traffic to route around a blocked lane occur much more frequently in cities than in the suburbs. In some cases such incidents occur more than 40 times more often in cities than in suburban areas, he said.

That difference “really puts into perspective … the value and challenge in operating in these urban environments,” Vogt said.

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