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Soon California’s Autonomous Cars Will Drive All on Their Own

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 10:10 AM PST

Fully Driverless Vehicles

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is making it easier for carmakers to test their driverless cars on state roads. On February 26, the DMV’s Office of Administrative Law (OAL) approved new regulations allowing companies to test fully driverless vehicles without a human behind the wheel.

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

Since September 2014, California has granted 50 autonomous vehicle manufacturers permits to test their self-driving cars with a person behind the wheel. The new rules lifting those restrictions go into effect on April 2, 2018, at which point the DMV can officially start handing out permits to interested manufacturers.

“This is a major step forward for autonomous technology in California,” Jean Shiomoto, the state’s DMV director, said in a press release. “Safety is our top concern, and we are ready to begin working with manufacturers that are prepared to test fully driverless vehicles in California.”

Risks and Rewards

California isn’t the only state where carmakers can test their self-driving vehicles, nor will it be the first to permit testing without human drivers. Some manufacturers, including Google parent company Alphabet’s Waymo, have already tested cars without “safety” drivers behind the wheel in Arizona, where the practice isn’t prohibited.

Many state and federal regulators have been fairly accommodating of autonomous vehicle testing, and now that California is making the leap to truly driverless cars, other states could follow their lead.

Self-driving cars are expected to dramatically reduce the number of accidents and injuries on the road. Those in support of the vehicles assert that tougher regulations could hinder their development. Based on past studies, involvement from human drivers only serves to make the vehicles less safe.

Some carmakers already have plans in place for cars that wouldn’t give humans the option of taking control, and they’re now asking federal and state DMVs to change safety rules to allow them to test these fully autonomous cars. If testing of cars without human drivers goes well in California, cars without steering wheels or pedals could be next.

The post Soon California’s Autonomous Cars Will Drive All on Their Own appeared first on Futurism.

Thermal Resonator Generates Electricity From Thin Air

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 09:30 AM PST

We might not always notice it, but the air around us is constantly heating up and cooling down. Now scientists at MIT have decided to put these temperature changes to good use, with a device that turns them into electricity.

Their device, called “thermal resonator” improves on conventional thermoelectric generators, which work by converting a temperature differential into electrical power. This particular system doesn’t require two different temperature inputs – instead, it uses a special material that guarantees a slow radiation of heat, so the temperature of one side of the device always lags behind the other.

The researchers, who described their work in the journal Nature Communications, wanted to develop a material with strong “thermal effusivity”, namely the combination of how quickly heat can travel through a substance, and how effectively it can be stored. Typically, if one of these properties is high, the other one is low.

The thermal resonator avoids that outcome by combining a metal foam made from copper of nickel with a layer of graphene to enhance its conductivity. It’s then infused with a phase-change material called octadecane, which is capable of storing and releasing a huge amount of heat.

One side of the device captures heat, which is then slowly transported to the other side. The material is very good at holding on to the heat, but can also move it around effectively, facilitating the differential required to generate electricity.

The researchers ran initial tests using the 24-hour cycle of ambient air temperature. However they think that the device could also harvest electricity from other temperature variations, such as those produced by on-off cycling of everything from a domestic refrigerator to industrial machinery.

However exciting, the system still has significant limitations. Its modest power levels mean that it can only charge tools that don’t require lots of electricity, like remote sensors. We are unlikely to see such system powering our home appliances anytime soon, but this idea adds to an array of innovations that provide alternatives to more mainstreams sources of clean energy, such as wind or the sun. And to wean ourselves off fossil fuels every small step counts.

The post Thermal Resonator Generates Electricity From Thin Air appeared first on Futurism.

Depression in the Long Term Permanently Changes the Brain

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 09:19 AM PST

Depression Inflammation

New research from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto has revealed something remarkable about mental illness: years of persistent depression-caused inflammation permanently and physically alter the brain. This may dramatically affect how we understand mental illness and how it progresses over time. 

In a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, researchers found that those who had untreated depression for over a decade had significantly more inflammation in their brains, when compared to those with untreated clinical depression for less than a decade. This work jumps off of senior author Jeff Meyer’s previous work, in which he found the first concrete evidence that those with clinical depression experience inflammation of the brain.

This study went even further, proving for the first time that long-term depression can cause extensive and permanent changes in the brain. Dr. Meyer thinks that this study could be used to create treatments for different stages in depression. This is important because now it is clear that treating depression immediately after diagnosis should be significantly different than treatment after 10 years with the illness.

Improving Understanding

Once a doctor and patient find a treatments for depression that works for the patient, treatment typically remains static throughout the course of the patient’s life. Taking this new study into account, this might not be the most effective method.

A PET image of a slice of human brain, showing areas of blue and red coloring. This method was used to measure depression-caused inflammation in this study.
A PET image of a slice of human brain. Image Credit: Jens Maus

This study examined a total of 25 patients who have had depression for over a decade, 25 who had the illness for less time, and 30 people without clinical depression as a control group. The researchers measured depression-caused inflammation using positron emission tomography (PET), which can pick out the protein markers, called TSPO, that the brain immune cells produce due to inflammation. Those with long-lasting depression had about 30 percent higher levels of TSPO when compared to those with shorter periods of depression, as well as higher levels than the control group.

Many misunderstand mental illness to be entirely separate from physical symptoms, but this study shows just how severe those symptoms can be. These findings could spark similar studies with other mental illnesses.

It is even possible that depression might now be treated as a degenerative disease, as it affects the brain progressively over time: “Greater inflammation in the brain is a common response with degenerative brain diseases as they progress, such as with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease,” Meyer said in a press release.

The post Depression in the Long Term Permanently Changes the Brain appeared first on Futurism.

To Kick Bots off Social Media, Congress Might Have to Get Involved

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 08:59 AM PST

A Social (Media) Issue

Most website traffic comes not from humans, but from bots — software programs designed to do automated tasks on the internet like refresh Facebook feeds or sort Google search results. But oftentimes bots are used for not-so-nice purposes, like harvesting email addresses or impersonating internet users.

When it comes to bots pretending to be real people, and say, participating in politics, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have a serious problem — it turns out that 20 percent of tweets about the heated 2016 U.S. Presidential election came from bots.

The problem of so many bots flooding these sites is that they are powerful enough to sway discourse through the sheer number of (non-human) opinions they churn out.  Twitter has been trying to figure out a better way to handle the multitude of bots that tweet on a regular basis. The company has also started cracking down on users with multiple accounts, according to a recent announcement.

These efforts might not be enough, according to some lawmakers. Speaking at NBC’s “Meet the Press” earlier this week, senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) suggested that Congress slap social media giants like Facebook and Twitter with fines if the companies fail to root out their bot problems.

"I think that would be a great idea," said Klobuchar, and it’s one that we don’t hear lawmakers consider often enough. "But then you need Congress to act. There are too many people that are afraid of doing something about this because we know these sites are popular."

Automated bots are designed to interact with human users as if they themselves were actually human,  so tracing which tweets are penned by bots and which profiles represent people who aren’t real is challenging. Levying fines, would perhaps be a catalyst to start the crack-down, but it would still be up to Facebook and Twitter to root out fake accounts and users.

One solution would be to implement protocols that require approval for new applications, as well as those that force bots to identify themselves and adhere to clear-cut bot policies. Considering how these social media companies are among the biggest names in tech, handling the bot problem shouldn’t be that difficult. Right?

"These are the most sophisticated companies in America," Klobuchar pointed out. "They have brilliant people working there. They've got to put more resources — maybe it means making less profits off of ads and other things — but they've got to put the resources into Facebook and Twitter to stop these bots from dominating the accounts."

The post To Kick Bots off Social Media, Congress Might Have to Get Involved appeared first on Futurism.

The Verdict Is In: AI Outperforms Human Lawyers in Reviewing Legal Documents

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 08:27 AM PST

AI v. Human Lawyers

It’s hard to ignore the ways artificial intelligence (AI) has already bested humans, from making incredibly convincing internet videos to beating humanity’s best Go players. AI is expected to outpace humans in a number of occupations; some of which might be a little unexpected.

A new study released this week from LawGeex, a leading AI contract review platform, has revealed a new area in which AI outperforms us: Law. Specifically, reviewing Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) and accurately spotting risks within the legal documentation.

For the study, 20 human attorneys were pitted against LawGeex’s AI in reviewing 5 NDAs. The controlled conditions of the study were designed to resemble how lawyers would typically review and approve everyday contracts.

image credit: Lawgeex (click for the full infographic)

After two months of testing, the results were in: the AI finished the test with an average accuracy rating of 94 percent, while the lawyers achieved an average of 85 percent. The AI’s highest accuracy rating on an individual test was 100 percent, while the highest rating a human lawyer achieved on a single contract was 97 percent.

As far as accuracy goes, the study showed that humans can (for the most part) keep up with AI in reviewing contracts. The same couldn’t be said when it came to speed, however.

On average, the lawyers took 92 minutes to finish reviewing the contracts. The longest time taken by an individual lawyer was 156 minutes and the shortest 51 minutes.

LawGeex’s AI, on the other hand, only needed 26 seconds.

Law & Order: AI

Gillian K. Hadfield, Professor of Law and Economics at the University of Southern California, and one of the consultants on the study says the efficiency gap between the two groups may be even wider than we realize. In the study, the lawyers were completely and singularly focused on the task at hand. In the real world, however, they would have other responsibilities to tend to, distractions, and interruptions which would likely increase the actual time it takes them to review contracts.

“This experiment may actually understate the gain from AI in the legal profession,” says Hadfield. “The lawyers who reviewed these documents were fully focused on the task: it didn't sink to the bottom of a to-do list, it didn't get rushed through while waiting for a plane or with one eye on the clock to get out the door to pick up the kids.”

While law might be a fairly new domain for AI, it’s hardly the only area in which AI has been shown to outperform humans in terms of accuracy and efficiency. Medicine, too, has demonstrated the many potential applications for AI. For example, researchers from the John Radcliffe Hospital and the startup Optellum are working on AI systems that can diagnose heart disease and lung cancer earlier and more accurately than human doctors. At the Singapore National Eye Center, researchers have created an AI that can spot eye disease sooner than human doctors can.

The medical field isn’t the last stop for AI, either. In February, AI proved capable of detecting more earthquakes in Oklahoma than traditional methods. And as this year’s Winter Olympics wrapped up, the International Gymnastics Federation announced it intends to use AI to assist judges during the 2020 Olympics.

AI still has to prove itself in many areas, so it’s hardly “case closed” — but for attorneys who might be looking to hand off some of their administrative drudgeries, there’s a clear verdict on AI’s usefulness in the law office, at least.

The post The Verdict Is In: AI Outperforms Human Lawyers in Reviewing Legal Documents appeared first on Futurism.

Self-Driving Cars Are Smart, But Car Washes Stump Them

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 08:16 AM PST

High-Pressure Rivalry

Autonomous vehicles aren’t just the future; they’ve already hit the road in many cities around the world. But one place you aren’t apt to find a self-driving car is in an automatic car wash. Not because the vehicle doesn’t need to be cleaned, though. It turns out the self-driving car and its vehicular spa don’t exactly play nice.

While autonomous cars can navigate many a complex route, it turns out that the relatively straight-shot of a drive-thru car wash is actually wildly complex — if not potentially dangerous.

Automated car washes have been around for many years, much longer than automated vehicles. Not unlike self-driving cars, the car wash takes the human element out of the equation when it comes to vehicular upkeep. This has worked wonderfully for us, so long as our manually operated cars have been subservient to the automation of the car wash.

But in the era of cars that can, in a way, think for themselves, competition for dominance could turn the “high-pressure rinse” into a “high-pressure rivalry.”

Car washes can blind autonomous vehicles’ external sensors. Credit: Pixabay.

You might expect that a clunky, decades-old, Wash-o-Matic would be no match for a new self-driving car straight off the assembly line from, say, Tesla. But as it turns out, autonomous vehicles — which rely on external sensors to navigate — can quite easily be “blinded” before they even make it through the pre-soak. Soap residue or water smears left on the sensors could mean the car can’t navigate properly after its foray in the car wash. Or worse, the heavy cleaning brushes that car washes typically use could even dislodge the sensors entirely.

Those sensors are sensitive, after all; a busted one could set you back nearly $100,000. Of course, in addition to keeping their smart whip sparkling, autonomous car owners must commit to keeping those sensitive sensors clean — which means that, in fact, they must wash their car more than someone with a regular car would.

Since they can’t take advantage of the convenience of an automated car wash, that means it’ll be up to drivers to ensure that their self-driving car is washed by hand. Even companies like Waymo, Toyota, and Uber have admitted that humans are employed to wash their autonomous fleets — and that getting “the works” often involves microfiber cloths and special cleansing fluid for the car’s delicate “eyes.”

So, while you might be saving time on the road with a self-driving car, once you’re back home again you’ll need to devote some extra time to keep it clean.

The post Self-Driving Cars Are Smart, But Car Washes Stump Them appeared first on Futurism.

The Olympics Show That Attendees At Any Global Event Risk Being Hacked

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 06:48 AM PST

The 2018 Olympics opening ceremony was hit by a far reaching, remarkably creative cyberattack, which brought down targets from the official website to the ticket printing service. All told, the hackers accessed about 300 computers, distributed malware, and even hacked routers.

While the hackers were initially thought to hail from North Korea, U.S. intelligence soon confirmed that the responsible party was, in fact, Russia. Analysts agree that the motivation behind Russia’s so called "false-flag" operation was likely a retaliation to the International Olympic Committee’s ban of Russian athletes after many were found doping.

The hackers didn’t target South Korea for its politics or policies — it was because the country is hosting this year’s games, featuring prominently on the global stage. The attack showed the world that any global event (or anyone attending it) are at risk of being hacked.

Vladimir Putin addresses Russian athletes prior to the 2018 Olympics. Image Credit: President of Russia

This cyberattack is the most recent in a spate of attacks centered around highly publicized events. At the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) released the drug testing files of high-profile athletes, an effective move to undermine the games’ credibility. And in 2014, hackers accessed personal data of attendees at the G20 assembly, the annual meeting that brings together leaders from 20 of the most powerful nations on Earth. After England qualified for the World Cup, to be held in July 2018 in Russia, the team planned to build up its cybersecurity before the event to prevent a hack.

What, exactly, can be hacked depends on what the hackers are most interested in. If you’re a world leader, perhaps the hackers would like to leak some state secrets. At the PyeongChang games, the hackers wanted to embarrass the organizers on the global stage, experts hypothesize. Or, other times, they just want to wreak havoc and create chaos.

The British soccer team’s anticipation of an attack is hardly the norm — in general, organizations are not prepared enough for the threat of hacking around a particular event. In fact, even when an attack is expected, targets find themselves alone and under-defended. Some experts have pointed out that the Olympics closing ceremony was also vulnerable to attack, to which one U.S. official told the Washington Post: “We're watching it pretty closely. It's essentially a Korean problem. We will help the Koreans as requested."

So, what can those organizing large-scale global events do to prevent such damaging intrusions? For now, it’s unclear. Besides running higher cyber surveillance, our communications systems are simply vulnerable to pretty much anything hackers set out to do, whether it’s for fun or to damage international relations. Perhaps in the future, the heightened security of a quantum communications network might provide a strong enough barrier, but for now officials are still scrambling for answers. And the public is increasingly spooked.

The post The Olympics Show That Attendees At Any Global Event Risk Being Hacked appeared first on Futurism.

A Six-Foot Tall Humanoid Robot Could Come to Your Rescue During a Disaster

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 06:38 AM PST

Your Robot Hero

The Italian Institute of Technology’s (IIT) WALK-MAN robot is one step closer to helping humans in disaster situations.

On February 22, IIT released a video showcasing an upgraded version of the humanoid bot. In the clip, WALK-MAN navigates a validation scenario designed to mimic an industrial plant following an earthquake. The room contains a hypothetical gas leak and fire.

During the video, WALK-MAN performs four specific tasks. First, it opens a door and enters the room. Then, it locates and closes the valve responsible for the gas leak. WALK-MAN then moves debris (in the form of a few pieces of wood) before operating a fire extinguisher.

Improving WALK-MAN

Compared to the first version of WALK-MAN, which IIT unveiled in 2015, this version has a lighter, more compact upper body. It’s 1.85 meters (six feet) tall, weighs 102 kilos (225 pounds), and can carry up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) in each of its two arms.

According to an IIT press release, this design makes it easier for the bot to maintain its balance and navigate through narrow passages. It also improves WALK-MAN’s energy efficiency — the newly designed bot can operate for two hours using a 1 kWh battery.

Image Credit: IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia
Image Credit: IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

Unlike another door-opening robot, Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini, WALK-MAN isn’t fully autonomous. Instead, it functions as an avatar of sorts — a human wearing a suit equipped with sensors controls about 80 percent of its actions, WALK-MAN project lead Nikos Tsagarakis told IEEE Spectrum.

According to Tsagarakis, the IIT team does hope to increase WALK-MAN’s autonomy so that it’ll be able to execute actions more quickly. Time is of the essence in disaster situations, so any improvements they make could have major implications if the robot is ever used during an actual disaster.

However, even in its present form, WALK-MAN could be a valuable addition to disaster teams as it would allow humans to use their intelligence to address a disaster scenario while keeping their bodies out of harm’s way.

The post A Six-Foot Tall Humanoid Robot Could Come to Your Rescue During a Disaster appeared first on Futurism.

Here’s How Blockchain Could Be Used for Gun Control

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 04:55 AM PST

An American Problem

At the time of writing, America is reeling from the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 14 students and 3 teachers dead. By the time you read this, though, another mass shooting will likely be fresher in your mind.

Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there have been 239 school shootings in the U.S., according to Gun Violence Archive (GVA), a nonprofit designed to provide near-real time data about gun violence. Despite comprising just 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for 31 percent of mass shooters. It’s also home to 42 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns.

America has a gun violence problem. It is, unfortunately, not new. But blockchain, a fairly new technology, might present a creative solution.

Many people — including the survivors of the Parkland school shooting — believe we should be doing more to control who can buy or access guns. They assert (with expert backing) that better gun control will lead to fewer tragedies on American soil.

In November 2017, Thomas Heston, a public health professor at Washington State University, published a yet-to-be-peer-reviewed paper suggesting blockchain, the decentralized ledger technology best known as the backbone for cryptocurrency, could improve gun control without actually requiring the government to change any existing laws on who can or can’t own a gun.

With yet another seemingly senseless killing still fresh in our minds, now could be the time to consider the idea. Here’s what you need to know about Heston’s proposal.

How would blockchain be used on guns, exactly?

Blockchain would essentially make up a database to track the manufacture, transfer, and purchase of guns, Heston proposes. The log would also be “accurate, resistant to hacking, and easily accessible” to vendors, purchasers, and regulators, he writes.

This blockchain could also help regulators control who owns a gun. Before each sale, purchasers would pass a background check. The seller and a licensed gun dealer would both have to approve a sale before it happened.

Every gun owner would have what Heston calls an “electronic gun safe.” This wouldn’t be a real, physical safe, but a digital one, comparable to a crypto owner’s digital wallet. The information in the safe is accessible only through the owner’s retina scan, fingerprint, or some other form of biometric data (Heston doesn’t specify how exactly a user would gain access to this information).

These safes would contain information about each of the individual’s guns, identified through ballistic fingerprinting or microstamping. That information would be switched over to a new owner after the gun is sold (and after the purchaser passed the background check).

The electronic gun safe would also contain information about the individual themselves, such as their history of illegal activity, mental health issues, or parole status. Heston notes that some nations might include data from an individual’s internet browsing history within their electronic gun safe, too.

How would that help?

Before someone purchases a gun today, they have to pass a background check — a search of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This system is centralized — it stores all the information in one place — making it vulnerable to hacks and recording errors. According to the FBI’s own records, every year about 3,000 people pass the NICS background check who shouldn’t have, in part because the FBI can be slow to respond to requests for background checks, and is operating from a flawed database.

The blockchain is decentralized, so a database that operates on it would be less vulnerable to hacking and less susceptible to human error because each transaction would be verified by many people.

And gun owners wouldn’t have to worry about the vulnerability of their private information in a government database — others can only access the contents if the owner of the safe provided permission.

Are there any drawbacks?

It may seem promising, but Heston’s blockchain for gun control idea wouldn’t be easy to implement. In fact, it might be impossible.

For Heston’s plan to work, it would need to gain widespread acceptance. One or two states with blockchain gun databases won’t do any good since anyone with a federal firearms license can buy or sell a gun across state lines in the U.S. The system would need to roll out on a national level, and it would cost money to implement, Heston told The Observer. Though he didn’t float an estimate of how much it could cost, he did predict the cost could be prohibitive.

Then, there’s the issue of all the guns already in circulation. Since consensus rarely exists in the United States, it’s unlikely that all of the nation’s gun owners would embrace the system. So tracking every new and transferred gun would only go so far.

The newness of blockchain technology could also work against it. Though organizations are working to apply blockchain in industries from food to energy to politics, the technique hasn’t yet been used on a large scale. Gun control is so controversial that it might be too hot to handle with a technology that has not yet been fully vetted.

How close are we to making this happen?

Not very. In fact, some legislators are actively working to ensure it doesn’t happen.

About seven months before Heston even published his paper, Arizona lawmakers passed a bill banning the use of blockchain or any other decentralized technology to track firearms. Missouri has its own bill in the works, which would make it a felony to track guns on a blockchain.

But this legislative pushback against blockchain-supported gun control doesn’t seem to hinge on the technology itself. It’s more of an opposition against gun control in general.

The overwhelming majority of Americans support at least some changes to gun control laws. But instead of taking action, our representatives seem content blaming the nation’s gun violence problems on video games, movies, and poor mental health — not guns themselves. If we don’t agree on what causes gun violence, it’s hard to see us agreeing on a way to limit it. But maybe, once we’re fed up with the violence, we’ll be ready to hear more creative solutions. Perhaps even one like Heston’s.

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

The post Here’s How Blockchain Could Be Used for Gun Control appeared first on Futurism.

False Alarms From Apple Watches Are Stressing out a California Police Department

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 03:05 PM PST

False Alarm

Apple’s Emergency SOS feature makes it incredibly easy for a person to call for help, but this ease of use could be causing problems for police departments.

In 2017, Apple added a feature called Emergency SOS to their Apple Watch. To contact emergency services, a Watch owner just holds the device’s side button and waits for the triggered countdown to finish. At that point, the device contacts local emergency services.

Wearable Technology
Click to View Full Infographic

Over the past few months, dispatchers for the Elk Grove, California, police department have answered nearly 1,600 emergency calls from a local Apple repair and refurbishment facility. Occasionally, the dispatchers hear the muffled sounds of repair technicians on the other end of the line.

“It started back in October, and we have been averaging about 20 calls per day,” Elk Grove Police Department Public Information Officer Jason Jimenez told Motherboard.

The timing of these calls lines up with the addition of the Emergency SOS feature to Apple Watches, and Jason Carroll, founder of Fruit Fixed, an independent Apple repair shop, believes the Watch’s screen size could be the reason the device is particularly susceptible to false calls. “It would probably [be easier] for a mistake [on the Apple Watch] because the screen is so much smaller,” he told Motherboard.

In a public statement to Mac Rumors, Apple confirmed they are aware of the problem: “We take this seriously and we are working closely with local law enforcement to investigate the cause and ensure this doesn’t continue.”

Emergency SOS 2.0

Emergency SOS has already proven effective for its intended purpose – the feature may have even saved the life of a Pennsylvania woman and her child last year after a car accident. Unfortunately, accidental SOS calls could prevent others from receiving the same help when they really need it.

Elk Grove isn’t the only city on the receiving end of these calls. According to Newsweek, Watch owners in Michigan, North Carolina, and other parts of California have accidentally triggered the Emergency SOS feature.

Apple Watch and iPhone owners can adjust their Emergency SOS settings so that they have to drag a slider to make an emergency call, rather than the call going through automatically. This could prevent false calls, but it also creates an added barrier to getting help in a life-or-death situation, and device owners might not want to take that risk.

In the end, Emergency SOS is an incredibly valuable feature – Apple just needs to work out a way to reduce the number of accidental calls without affecting its usability.

“As far as safety goes, having that ability to press a button and reach us and have us be able to respond I think is very important,” said Jimenez. “Once that [issue] is resolved, still having the ability to have emergency help at a push of a button is important.”

Eventually, Apple could apply what they learn from the Watch false alarms to ensure future devices won’t have the same problem. The company is working on self-driving cars, and those are sure to include emergency features that will need to be easily accessible.

The post False Alarms From Apple Watches Are Stressing out a California Police Department appeared first on Futurism.

A New Law Could Force Tech Companies to Turn Over Personal Data Across Borders

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 02:43 PM PST

New Laws

The European Union (E.U.) is preparing new legislation that would radically change how personal data is shared during criminal investigations.

Privacy and the Internet of Things
Click to View Full Infographic

According to Reuters, the E.U. wants to pass legislation forcing any technology company that does business within its territory to turn over a customer’s personal data if requested as part of an investigation into a serious crime. Such crimes are defined as ones that carry a minimum penalty of three years.

The law would apply regardless of the customer’s nationality or the location of the data server. For example, if a country within the E.U. is investigating a serious crime involving an American citizen and the nation believes Google has data stored on an American server that would help with that investigation, the proposed law would force Google to turn over the data.

The legislation will reportedly be ready to go before E.U. lawmakers and member states by the end of March.

International Data

If the previously proposed scenario were to happen today, the European prosecutor would need to contact the U.S. government and obtain a local subpoena or search warrant to obtain the data.

The time required to go through that process could be the difference between stopping a crime before it happened or playing catch-up with the criminals. A faster method could lead to less crime.

Tech companies, however, are resistant to any laws that force them to turn over customer data to foreign nations. Such extraterritorial jurisdiction laws could erode individual privacy rights and undermine consumer trust in cloud services, they argue.

As John Frank, vice president for E.U. government affairs at Microsoft, told Reuters, such laws could also infringe upon national sovereignty, giving E.U. nations police jurisdiction outside their territory.

If the E.U. did pass a new law, it would likely need to work out new international agreements to address this. If a nation didn’t agree to enforce the new law, the E.U. could ban companies from that nation from operating within its borders, but that could upset citizens.

According to Reuters, the E.U. law alone could take a couple of years to complete, so for now, nations will just have to continue to rely on one another for help obtaining the data they need.

The post A New Law Could Force Tech Companies to Turn Over Personal Data Across Borders appeared first on Futurism.

“Genetic Report Cards” Will Be the Future of Predicting Disease Risk

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 02:38 PM PST

The at-home genetic testing boom of the last couple decades has provided us with remarkable insight into who we are, where we come from, and what the future holds for our health. It’s also provided science with invaluable data — and a lot of it.

Millions of people all over the world are swabbing the insides of their cheeks in their living rooms in hopes of improving their understanding of their familial health. Armed with the genetic profiles of these voluntary test subjects, researchers are beginning to glean a more nuanced understanding of conditions that have long defied medical insight, not to mention discovering new ones.

Researchers are also using that data to refine — or develop entirely new — treatments for diseases that science had since proclaimed untreatable. From there, the prospect of curing incurable conditions seems closer than its ever been.

The more such “direct-to-consumer” genetic testing becomes accessible to the general public (that is, the tests become more affordable and easy to use) the more data researchers will have to work with. With all that data is sure to come additional investment. With that investment is sure to come rapid progress towards combatting diseases — not just in what the tests can uncover, but when.

Disease Report Cards

We are closing in on an era when newborns could be sent home with more than a hospital blanket and a knitted cap: Parents could leave with a cost-effective and accurate genetic profile of their child. Amit Khera, a cardiologist and researcher at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts calls this a polygenic score, or more colloquially, a genetic report card of sorts.

"Where I see this going is that at a young age you'll basically get a report card," Khera told the MIT Technology Review. "And it will say for these 10 diseases, here's your score. You are in the 90th percentile for heart disease, 50th for breast cancer, and the lowest 10 percent for diabetes."

Just imagine: A roadmap of risk for your child’s health. Not only for the next few months, or the next few years — but the child’s entire life.

As we uncover more links between our selves and our genes — everything from earwax consistency to personality quirks to taste aversions — we may be able to predict a lot more about a child than just their lifetime risk of heart disease.

Genetic risk for a number of conditions can be mitigated by lifestyle, environment, and other factors over which we can exert some control. While the risk of a condition like Type II diabetes is certainly modifiable, we’re learning (as we are with many other diseases) that there are more than one or two genes we have to keep an eye on. The genetic culprits behind certain diseases number not in the dozens, but the hundreds.

Worth the Risk?

Humans have thousands of genes in varying positions in our genome. When it comes to assessing risk, the presence of genes we know are involved in certain conditions is balanced against the others — usually in percentages — and the risk is reported as an average. As more genes are identified as being linked to certain conditions, these predictions will become more accurate.

Improving risk assessments would matter not just for infants at birth (if not for fetuses when they’re still in the womb) — but the rest of us, too, who may be more at-risk for a condition like heart disease than we realized.

The question, then, becomes what, if anything, do we do with our knowledge of those disease predictions? What should medical professionals do with that information? If the risk is something that can be mitigated by changing one’s diet, starting a medication, quitting smoking, or even wearing a fitness tracker, the information would be actionable. If the condition is inevitable, then is being able to forecast one’s future medical hardships a blessing or a curse?

This debate is particular important in the realm of predicting neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. If a genetic test indicates someone is likely to develop Alzheimer’s — and even goes so far as to give that person an idea of when they will begin to develop symptoms — it could give them time to prepare. How would the timing of that information impact how a person lived their life?

If an adult was told they would develop the condition within the next decade, they would probably be grateful to have the time to make arrangements with their families and caregivers about certain wants and needs. But what if someone learned that information at age 25? At 15? Or if people had to live their entire lives with the knowledge of their inevitable cognitive decline because they were assigned an “Alzheimer’s score” the day they were born?

These questions will largely be informed by the rate at which effective treatments are developed for the diseases that genetic tests are screening for.

It may be that, by the time we receive a “genetic report card” in childhood, the options for treating (if not reversing) age-related diseases may mean our risk score hardly troubles us at all. But between now and that time, there will be a great deal of uncertainty — thanks to our knowledge of our health fates outpacing our ability to combat those fates.

The post “Genetic Report Cards” Will Be the Future of Predicting Disease Risk appeared first on Futurism.

Crops Are Harvested Without Human Input, Teasing the Future of Agriculture

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 02:27 PM PST

Hands Free Hectare (HFH) is a company based in the United Kingdom that set out to develop automated agriculture — from planting and monitoring, to maintenance and eventual harvesting. The group has accomplished their task with two harvests, one of winter wheat and one of barley, proving autonomous vehicles and drones can handle the farming process without a single person stepping out onto the field.

“We have been able to show the public that this is something that isn’t too far ahead in the future, and it could be happening now,” Martin Abell, one of the researchers at HFH, told ABC Rural. “It has also allowed us to raise the perception of agriculture to the public, so they see it as a forward-thinking industry and something that might attract new people to the industry.”

Including the work done by HFH, nearly every element of farming can be handled by robots, even detecting diseases and killing weeds. And it’s not just crops that are seeing automated agriculture. Chinese farmers have implemented automation and artificial intelligence to keep track of pigs and monitor their health as well as their overall well being. There’s also Aspire, which uses a robotic system to raise crickets that will be used to make mainstream, protein-filled snacks.

If HFH’s work is anything to go by, though, time of day and weather are still factors automation isn’t fully prepared for; for example, when raining, the automated tractor would slip and have a hard time maintaining a straight line.

It’s unclear when, exactly, we’ll see more farms transition to automation here in the U.S. Yet we should expect it to happen in the near future, as companies like John Deere invest in other companies that specialize in applying automation to agriculture. Cricket-farming Aspire also operates out of the United States, and it’s possible their success will inspire others to turn to automated agriculture to raise animals and crops for food.

Hands Free Hectare is hoping they have the same effect. “It's going to take new talent entering the industry to develop this technology,” said the group’s mechatronics researcher, Jonathan Gill, in a press release. “We hope this project helps to inspire people and show them the range of interesting and innovative jobs that are available now in agriculture."

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Oddly Enough, More Snow in Antarctica Could Slow Rising Sea Levels

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 02:17 PM PST

Mass Balance

Climate change affects our world in inscrutable ways, and scientists struggle to capture its interconnected impacts. Antarctica is a good example: global temperatures are known to increase the amount of vapor in the air, and for the frozen deserts of the Southern polar region, this means more snow. A new study has found that as snowfall increases in Eastern Antarctica, ice melt is reduced. In turn, this could potentially help slow down sea level rise.

Does that mean climate change is both causing and slowing ice melt at the same time? Brooke Medley, a NASA research scientist and author of the study published in Geophysical Research Letters, told Scientific American that "there is this kind of balancing act, or a tug of war between the two processes," what scientists call “mass balance:” as more ice melts, more water evaporates and crystallizes, then falls back to Earth as snow once again.

To test the assumption that snowfall is, in fact, increasing (and that climate change is behind it) scientists reconstructed the continent’s ancient history through a huge ice core, which was extracted in Queen Maud Land, an area in East Antarctica. Trapped in the 500-foot-deep core were 2,000 years of snowfall patterns, from which researchers could extrapolate variations that occurred after the industrial revolution.

Interesting, but Inconclusive

While the first part of the equation — climate change increases snowfall — seems well established, the implication that it may reduce ice melt remains up for debate. Scientific American spoke with Anders Levermann, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who was not involved in the study. He pointed out that snow also has the potential to add to sea level rise by falling on more than land: it can also become concentrated on thin floating ice sheets, which it pushes down into the sea. As it does, slopes become steeper and melted ice flows faster towards the water, exacerbating the problem.

Other scientists have noted that, while the study’s results tell an interesting story about the past, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the future. Jonathan Bamber, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol in England, told Scientific American that "how you tell [the story] really does depend on where you are on that temperature curve.” In Greenland, for example, temperatures are rising particularly fast. Studies have found this rapid change causes snow to come down in bigger crystals. This, in turn, means that they tend to absorb more light, which then increases ice melting.

Whether snowfall exacerbates or mitigates sea level rise remains an open question, but one thing is certain: climate change is causing ice to melt at a much faster rate than any mitigating factor could significantly counteract.

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China’s Hypersonic Plane Travels From Bejing to New York in a Few Hours

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 12:13 PM PST

Global powers are pushing flight faster. With Japan looking to reintroduce supersonic speeds to aircraft, China has joined several U.S. companies in working on aircraft capable of achieving hypersonic speeds — and they’re relatively far along.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing successfully tested their “I Plane” (named because it resembles a capital ‘I’ when viewed from the front) in a wind tunnel at speeds ranging from Mach 5 to Mach 7, or than 3,800 to 5,370 miles per hour. In their research, published in the journal Science China Physics, Mechanics & Astronomy, the team explains the hypersonic plane would only need a “couple of hours” to travel from Beijing to New York. For comparison, a commercial airline flight can take at least 14 hours.

An artist's depection of the I Plane, a hypersonic plane being developed by China. It features a highly pointed nose with two sets of wings.
The I Plane. Image Credit: China Science Press

Testing has been successful so far, with the craft producing low drag and high lift. As reported by the South China Morning Post, the I Plane’s lift was roughly 25 percent of that of a Boeing 737; compared to the 737’s ability to carry up to 20 tonnes, or 200 passengers, an I Plane of the same size could carry 5 tonnes or 50 passengers.

A researcher familiar with the project (who went unnamed) told the SCMP the I Plane could be used to transport bombs as well, saying it could be “something like a hypersonic heavy bomber;" incidentally, China also recently developed hypersonic missiles capable of traveling at speeds above 7,000 mph.

Popular Science notes the I Plane’s development reflects China’s desire to be a leader in the hypersonic arms race. China’s next hypersonic project includes a wind tunnel that can produce speeds of up to Mach 36, making it more capable than the Mach 30 LENX-X in Buffalo, New York.

U.S. Admiral Harry Harris warned congress in February about China delving into hypersonic technology, but it’s not as though the U.S. isn’t working on hypersonic projects of its own.

Researchers from NASA discovered last year that boron nitride nanotubes could be a material that makes hypersonic air travel more feasible, and could allow NASA planes to cross the country in less than an hour. Furthermore, the U.S. Navy is testing hypersonic weapons that could hit anywhere on Earth within an hour, and Lockheed Martin hinted in January the SR-72 — the successor to the SR-71 Blackbird — is already in development, and that this hypersonic plane could be flying by 2030.

It’ll be some time before hypersonic flight comes to commercialized aircraft, but the idea of going hypersonic is already being capitalized on. At this point, it comes to to who can use it more effectively first.

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Ride-Hailing Services Aimed at Cutting Traffic Are Having the Opposite Effect

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 12:08 PM PST

Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft were supposed to make our streets less congested, but studies suggest that they’re having the opposite effect.

A report published by the UCDavis Institute of Transportation Studies in October 2017, which surveyed over 4,000 adults in seven U.S. cities, found that after rolling out one of the two services public transport usage dropped by six percent. More worryingly, the study found that between 49 and 61 percent of journeys made using the likes of Uber and Lyft would have been made on foot, on a bike, on public transport, or not made at all, if those services weren’t available.

This observation was echoed by a new study carried out by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which surveyed 944 ride-hailing passengers in the Boston metro area. Here, 12 percent said that if ride-hailing services weren’t available, they would have walked or cycled, and 42 percent said they would have used public transport.

This stands in stark contrast to comments made by Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick in 2015, when he said “we envision a world where there's no more traffic in Boston in five years.”  According to a report from the Boston Business Journal, he reiterated his point saying that if every car in the city was an Uber, the road network would be way more efficient. The company’s big plan for the future revolves around a self-driving fleet, which they claim could potentially prevent traffic jams.

If once there were hopes that ride-hailing services would work alongside public transport, they seem to have been quashed. “Ride sharing is pulling from and not complementing public transportation,” said Alison Felix, an author of the MAPC report, in an interview with AP News.

But this development doesn’t come as a surprise, not for everyone. Over a year ago, in an article for The Guardian, a senior fellow at the New Cities Foundation Greg Lindsay wrote that Uber was looking to “disrupt the bus.”  If ride-hailing services are going to continue to play a major role in our travel plans, public transport might pay the price.

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Life Exists in the Driest Desert on Earth. It Could Exist on Mars, Too.

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 12:04 PM PST

Atacama Analogue

When we think of the potential for life on planetary bodies besides Earth, we automatically look for water. Whether it be growing at the bottom of Europa’s ocean or swimming in Titan’s methane lakes, we look for liquid because we understand the origins of life on Earth likely hinged on its abundant water. But a new study, led by scientists at Washington State University (WSU), suggests that life could exist with minimal water, even on planets as dry as Mars.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study examined the driest corner of the world’s driest desert — South America’s Atacama Desert. Here, decades pass with no rain, and it’s dry enough to be analogous to the surface of Mars.

A hazy half-eclipsed image of Mars. Mars bacteria could have evolved to be similar to those found in Earth's driest deserts.
Could such a harsh environment sustain life? Image Credit: Aynur_zakirov / Pixabay

Scientists have known that microbes exist in these extremely arid conditions, but they have been previously unsure of whether the microbes actually reside in this environment or are simply temporarily moved there by weather patterns. Within this study, the researchers concluded that this desert actually supports permanent microbial life.

The research team visited the Atacama in 2015 following an extremely rare rainfall, and detected a veritable boom of microbial life in the soil afterwards. When the team returned over the next two years, their samples showed the same microbial communities were still there, but had begun to dry out and go dormant, awaiting the next rain.

Martian Conditions

“It has always fascinated me to go to the places where people don’t think anything could possibly survive and discover that life has somehow found a way to make it work,” said Washington State planetary scientist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, in a press release. Schulze-Makuch led the study as part of his research into Earth’s most extreme organisms, which could tell us something about life through our universe.

Jurassic Park references aside, our research tell us that if life can persist in Earth’s driest environment there is a good chance it could be hanging in there on Mars in a similar fashion,” he said.

This doesn’t mean that Mars is secretly teeming with life. However, it does point to the possibility. Because the Red Planet once held liquid water, Mars bacteria could have developed and then, as the planet dried out, evolved to adapt to a niche below the surface. Because Mars is so much colder, similar communities would likely have to live off the occasional melting of soil ice or snowfall on the surface.

The Washington state team will next be exploring extremely cold and salty locations on Earth to study more environments that could parallel those on Mars.

“There are only a few places left on Earth to go looking for new lifeforms that survive in the kind of environments you would find on Mars,” Schulze-Makuch said. “Our goal is to understand how they are able to do it so we will know what to look for on the Martian surface.”

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Space Catapult Startup Will Soon Launch Into Action

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 11:38 AM PST

A launch startup is hoping to make companies in the spaceflight industry more equal by removing the need for expensive rocket boosters and the fuel that propels them.

With a design that seems more Wile E. Coyotesque than a legitimate space launch plan, a company called SpinLaunch is working on a means of catapulting items into space.

Image Credit: SpinLaunch
Image Credit: SpinLaunch.

The company is working on building a spinning centrifuge — a piece of equipment that rotates an object around a fixed point — which will harness enough momentum to sling a payload into space. Sources told TechCrunch that the centrifuge will be able to launch satellites at hypersonic speeds around 4,800 kilometers per hour (3000 mph).

There is also talk of using supplemental rockets to give the payload an extra boost to help push it through Earth’s atmosphere and into space. Even with the supplemental rockets, the SpinLaunch system could be a means of making launches cheaper and more accessible to smaller companies that want to get satellites or other equipment into orbit.

Hypersonic Speeds

NASA had previously looked into developing a catapult launching system of its own, but discovered that designing a cost-effective catapult wasn’t possible. However, SpinLaunch founder and CEO Jonathan Yaney insists that his company’s proposed method will be different than NASA’s past attempts.

Yaney told TechCrunch, “SpinLaunch employs a rotational acceleration method, harnessing angular momentum to gradually accelerate the vehicle to hypersonic speeds. This approach employs a dramatically lower cost architecture with much lower power.”

TechCrunch reported that two sources said physicists who have looked into the company’s plans foresaw some potential challenges. Air resistance on the cargo may be significant hurdle that SpinLaunch’s catapult has to overcome. If the cargo hits the Earth’s atmosphere without enough momentum, its density could effectively act as a physical barrier to it ever reaching space.

SpinLaunch has a target price of $500,000 per launch, a far cry from SpaceX’s $62 million price tag for a Falcon 9 launch. Even companies and other entities who find cheaper launch alternatives to be too expensive may be able to launch satellites. If the startup is able to deliver on its lofty promises, we could see an entirely new level of democratization in commercial spaceflight.

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Fee-Free Crypto Trading May Lure a New Batch of Traders Into the Market

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 11:32 AM PST

Robinhood, an app that allows users to track and trade stocks for free, has finally made its move into the crypto market. The app is rolling out a new service that allows users to trade 16 different cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin and Ethereum, with no extra fees.

By comparison, Coinbase — the current leader in cryptocurrency trading — charges users in the U.S. between 1.5 and 4 percent for their transactions. While that may not sound like much, when users are potentially trading thousands of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrencies, those fees add up. Robinhood Crypto stands to make a significant dent in Coinbase’s dominance of the cryptocurrency trading market.

When Robinhood originally announced their fee-free plan in January 2018, the platform gained one million users in a single month, expanding their user base from three to four million.

Robinhood runs a relatively lean operation, which allows the app to forego typical trading fees. Unlike similar stock trading services like E*Trade and Scottrade, Robinhood does not employ sales representatives or national marketing campaigns, meaning the platform incurs less overhead costs. The company profits by collecting interest on the money customers give Robinhood to hold. It also sells Robinhood Gold subscriptions, which give customers the ability to borrow money from the company for trades.

Free Trade

The crypto trading app’s rollout will begin with select users living in California, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, and New Hampshire. Interested users can sign up to be placed on a waitlist, and Robinhood has plans to expand into other states.

A limited number of users will also gain access to Robinhood Feed, a platform for users to discuss crypto news and market activity in real time. While not all registered users will have access to free crypto trading or the new platform, they will be able to utilize the app’s crypto monitoring and tracking features.

Predicting what will happen next in the crypto market is usually a fool’s errand — the price of bitcoin just vacillated from a little more than $11,400 down to under $7,000 and back up to $10,200 over the course of a month.

But it’s probably safe to say that increasing the number of people trading in crypto will boost investor confidence. Robinhood’s new app simplifies trading and tracking bitcoin and Ethereum, and further legitimizes digital currencies. Its fee-free service stands to introduce a brand new class of novice traders to the game, giving cryptocurrencies at least a temporary boost.

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

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The Seabin Will Start Cleaning Australian Waterways in March

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 11:01 AM PST

Those who stay on land most of the time might not think about marine pollution all that often, but for anyone that spends their leisure time on the waves, the problem is impossible to ignore. In 2016, Australian surfers Pete Ceglinski and Andrew Turton decided they wanted to do something about the trash they encountered in the water, so they raised $260,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to develop the Seabin.

An Ocean of Plastic [Infographic]
Click to View Full Infographic

The Seabin is a waste receptacle that floats on the water’s surface and uses a pump to attract and trap litter from the surrounding area. The device must be connected to a 110/220 V outlet and is designed to be used in ports, marinas, and other calm bodies of water.

The Seabin can capture just about every type of debris we don’t want floating around in the water: cigarette butts, empty cans, plastic cutlery, food wrappers, and even microplastics as small as two millimeters in diameter.

It can also help with the collection of much bigger items. While 20-liter containers are too large to enter the bin itself, the Seabin’s pump draws them in and prevents them from floating out into open waters.

Each Seabin can collect up to 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of debris every day, and its catch bag can hold up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds). Fish are apparently smart enough to avoid swimming into the Seabin – the project’s Indiegogo page suggests that they prefer to hang out in its shadow.

So, where does all the trash go? Nowhere, until a human comes along. Ideally, the device should be checked twice daily, emptied as required, and cleaned thoroughly once per month. Still, that amount of human labor is far less than what’s required through current clean-up techniques, which revolve around patrolling “trash boats” and maintenance workers using nets closer to the shore.

After successful trials in Europe, the Seabin is set to go to work in its creators’ native Australia next month, according to a report from The Illawarra Mercury. The city of Melbourne has already purchased 10 units, and Sydney, Queensland, and Western Australia have expressed interest in purchasing their own Seabins.

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