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Human Eggs Developed to Maturity in the Lab for the First Time

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 08:44 AM PST

For the first time, scientists have successfully taken human eggs from their earliest stages to maturity in a lab setting. This accomplishment is set to give us new insight into how human eggs develop, and it could potentially offer a compelling new option to individuals who are at risk of fertility loss.

For the study, researchers at the University of Edinburgh took ovarian tissue from 10 people in their late 20s and 30s. Using various nutrients, they encouraged eggs to develop to maturity, the point at which they could be fertilized. A total of 48 eggs reached the final stage of the process, and of those, nine reached full maturity.

Currently, individuals at risk of infertility due to radiotherapy or chemotherapy can have ovarian tissue removed ahead of treatment and re-implanted at a later date. For young people who haven’t yet gone through puberty and aren’t yet producing eggs, this is the only option for preserving fertility, Evelyn Telfer, co-author of the research, told The Guardian.

That process raises concerns that re-implanting tissue taken prior to cancer treatment might reintroduce cancer cells into an individual’s body. The new procedure alleviates those concerns because instead of implanting tissue, the doctor would implant an embryo, according to Telfer.

Researchers still have much more work to do before this procedure could be used in practice. At the very least, it will take a number of years to ensure that the mature eggs produced are healthy.

According to the researchers, the eggs they grew developed faster than they would have in the body, which begs further investigation. Moreover, a small cell known as a polar body grew to an unusually large size during the process, which could indicate developmental abnormalities. The team wants to attempt to fertilize the eggs, so it can perform tests on the embryos.

Still, this is a major milestone in fertility research, and it could give new hope to those who may not have had any before.

The post Human Eggs Developed to Maturity in the Lab for the First Time appeared first on Futurism.

Secret iOS Source Code Has Leaked Onto the Internet

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 08:26 AM PST

Leak Alert

Apple has bad news for their more than 700 million iPhone users around the globe. A version of the code that allows iOS devices like iPhones and iPads to boot-up has been leaked on the web-based hosting service GitHub. Apple just about confirmed the leak by sending GitHub a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice and making the site remove the code just 13 hours after Motherboard broke the news on February 7, 2018.

The leak released the source code for iBoot, the very first program that runs when a device is turned on. The source of the leak is unknown, but you can imagine Apple will be cleaning house to find the culprit. The code’s widespread availability on GitHub means that hackers likely already have their hands on it.

Image credit: Markus Spiske/pexels
Image credit: Markus Spiske/pexels.

Is this this leak really such a big deal, given that computer-savvy folks are able to reverse engineer code all the time? The unfortunate answer is yes. Apple tends to keep its source code secret, because the code can provide insight into system vulnerabilities.

What’s the Damage?

While the leak certainly isn’t good for Apple, it could be worse. The version posted on GitHub was supposedly iOS 9, a previous version of Apple’s operating system. This means that updated devices are not completely at risk to vulnerabilities hackers might find in the source code. However, Apple could have co-opted elements of its previous operating systems in the current software, so parts of the iOS 9 code may be used in iOS 11.

Exactly what hackers are able to do with the leaked iBoot will depend on what security flaws are present in the source code, if those flaws have been retained in new versions of the operating systems, and whether those flaws can be exploited.

More than likely, hackers may have an easier time jailbreaking, or removing imposed software restrictions, on iOS devices. Again, the typical iPhone user is probably not in any danger, thanks to Apple’s recent security upgrades on their devices.

In an increasingly digital age, keeping our devices — and the private data we entrust them with — safe needs to be a top priority. There have been a number of high profile hacks in recent memory, so news like this will certainly cause Apple a lot of grief. Here’s hoping they plug the leak before something like the iOS 11 source code makes its way onto the internet.

The post Secret iOS Source Code Has Leaked Onto the Internet appeared first on Futurism.

In 1918 We Faced the Flu Pandemic. Today, We’re Still Fighting the War.

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 08:00 AM PST

 1918: The War We Lost

In 1918, the United States fought two wars. One it lost, and one it won.

You may have learned about World War I in history class, or even from your relatives. As a member of the Allied Forces, the United States defeated the Central Powers — a victory touted by history books, movies, and novels.

The second war, however, had a more elusive opponent. It descended perniciously, quietly claiming lives while armies concerned themselves with foxholes and mustard gas. In the first six months, this enemy killed 25 million people worldwide.

Ultimately, between 50 and 100 million lives — five percent of the world's population at the time — would be lost as a result of the conflict.

This second enemy was, of course, the flu virus. By the time Americans realized that the country was under siege, it was too late to stop it. The flu made its way through the U.S., Europe, and Asia with terrifying speed; people who had been well in the morning dropped dead in the street by dinner time. Families that had already lost sons, fathers, and brothers to the war abroad dwindled as the virus attacked them, affecting the remaining young and healthy. In just one year, the average life expectancy for an American dropped by 12 years.

Over the century that followed, Americans would face three more pandemic flus, but none of them like the one in 1918. The 1957 pandemic flu killed roughly 1.1 million people worldwide; another in 1968 wiped out about another million globally. Most recently, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic flu killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people worldwide, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Today, a century after the 1918 pandemic, we know much more about the virus — how it spreads, how it kills. We now have influenza vaccines — unheard of in 1918 — that provide us with (albeit limited) protection. And sophisticated tracking mechanisms help us predict which flu viruses we might encounter in a given year.

We have not, however, completely vanquished the flu. In this particularly bad flu season in the U.S., we need little reminder that the virus is hardy and evolves rapidly. The flu that ravaged humanity in 1918 is not the same strain making headlines in 2018. Likewise, if another global pandemic flu is inevitable, we can't assume the virus will be one we've seen before.

Today, our relationship with the flu has shifted from an adversarial, bellicose one, to one of competition; we are running a race, no longer fighting a war. To survive another century, or another season, public health experts will need stay one step ahead, armed with an artillery provided by science and a war plan drafted from the history of the battle we lost.

Image Credit: State Library of Queensland/Illustration by Victor Tangermann

Why (and How) the Flu Still Kills

A high fever, fluid in the lungs, crushing fatigue, and body aches — if you've ever come down with influenza, it likely needs no introduction. It's often easy to distinguish the full-blown flu from the common cold because the flu's symptoms tend to come on suddenly and with an intensity that makes it hard to deny.

When a person is infected by any pathogen — a virus or bacteria — they usually won't know it until that pathogen has started damaging cells. That kicks the immune system into gear, making you start to feel sick. The fever, aches, and mucus all too familiar to flu-sufferers aren't from the virus itself, but rather are the side effects of the body's attempt to vanquish it.

Even though our immune systems respond rapidly and with such force, they aren't always successful in stopping the microbes wreaking havoc on the body's cells. While most of us who get the flu just stay home and rest, the flu makes some people seriously ill — they have to be hospitalized. Some even die as a result of complications from the flu.

(The flu doesn't directly cause death. Instead, the virus can induce an infection like pneumonia, or exacerbate an underlying condition. But oddly enough, it's usually the body's too-aggressive immune response to the flu that ultimately kills people).

A flu virus spreads when a healthy person ingests or inhales virus-infected droplets flung into the air by a sick person's cough, sneeze, or mere breath. The CDC does not know exactly how many people get the flu each year. The agency doesn't know how many people die from it either. People who come down with the flu don't always seek medical attention. Even when they do, doctors don't always test for it.

Those caveats make the data on this year's flu season more striking: as of the first week of February, the number of flu cases in the United States was the highest since the 2009 pandemic. The most people have been hospitalized at this stage in the flu season since the CDC started tracking, in 2005. Both numbers are still climbing.

When we talk about the flu, we aren't talking about a single virus. There are four types of influenza viruses — but only two of them cause serious illness in humans, Catherine Beauchemin, an associate professor of virophysics at Ryerson University in Toronto, explained to Futurism. You might remember hearing about H1N1 (the flu type that hit us in 2009) and H3N2 (the type of flu causing problems this year) — those Hs and Ns stand for hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, proteins found on virus' surfaces that help either enter cells (H) or separate from cells to go infect another cell (N). The numbers identify groups of strains with similar Hs and Ns.

The flu mutates remarkably quickly, changing dramatically to dodge our antibodies in the span of a flu season or two. That means it can infect people who previously contracted it.

That's why we get flu shots every year. Even though researchers have a sophisticated global tracking system to anticipate which strain might affect a region in a given year, there's still a surprising amount of guesswork involved.

Flu seasons typically occur during the colder months, when people are more likely to congregate indoors. Because the flu season is opposite in Australia, the CDC's Epidemiology and Prevention Branch in the Influenza Division can track that country's flu season about six months before flu season arrives in North America. As travelers move the virus from Australia to Europe, Asia, and the U.S., public health experts can anticipate which strain will likely be the one to make people sick in the northern hemisphere that year.

The system, and the vaccine made from it, is far from perfect though. "The issue is that the recommendations have to be made some six months before the vaccine is actually used," Richard Webby, Director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and a member of the Department of Infectious Disease at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, told Futurism. Researchers need that time to analyze data from Australia's flu season, then manufacture and distribute the vaccines.

For a virus that evolves so quickly, that lead time can also be problematic. "There have been instances where the viruses have changed between when the recommendations have been made and when the vaccine has been administered, leading to suboptimal performance." Webby added. For example, the latest data on this year's flu vaccine shows it's around 17 percent effective, though that may change before the flu season ends.

This year's flu virus, H3N2, isn't like other strains that have circulated in recent years. It binds to cells differently, and seems to be mutating more rapidly, making it difficult to study and create a vaccine against. The strain also doesn't grow well in eggs, where bacteria are most commonly grown before being put into vaccines.

"We don't have a flu vaccine problem so much as we have an H3N2 vaccine problem," Ed Belongia, a vaccine researcher and director of the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Population Health at Wisconsin's Marshfield Clinic, recently told STAT News.

Although we can identify and classify them, track them, and create vaccines to defend against them, the viruses continue to evade us, evolving faster than we can keep up — sickening or killing people in the process.

Image Credit: CDC/Illustration by Victor Tangermann

Fighting the Flu of the Future

In 1918, many of the treatments we have today for secondary infections like pneumonia or strep throat either didn't exist or were not yet widely available. That partially explains why the epidemic killed so many.

Today, the antiviral Tamiflu can quell symptoms within the first 48 hours of their onset, or even prevent them in the first place. But it's pricey (a five-day course costs $100 minimum) and comes with risks, especially for children and teens, who are more likely to experience serious psychological side effects and "seizures, confusion, or abnormal behavior early during their illness," according to the CDC.

In 1918, many people felt that the flu descended upon their community out of nowhere. Today, we can at the very least see the flu coming so our doctors and emergency rooms can be prepared — even if we don't have weapons powerful enough to completely stop it yet.

One elegant solution is to gather data from smart devices sick people usually use to track the spread of the flu. Smart thermometer company Kinsa does just that. Over the past six years, the device's 1 million users gather real-time data to track infectious disease with the help of "smart thermometers" and a smartphone app. Though it may seem counter-intuitive that a relatively small number of users could track how many people have the flu and where, the flu-tracking data over the past two years has lined up with CDC data — and the app is gathering it much more quickly than public health agencies are able. Nationally, the number of people with the flu is 39 percent higher than it was at this time last year, according to Kinsa’s most recent report.

Some are thinking bigger than treating or tracking the flu. The holy grail for flu treatment would be a vaccine that doesn't change from year to year depending on the annual strain. If everyone could just get the vaccine once to protect us from all strains of flu for our entire lives, hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved every year.

We're talking, of course, about a universal flu vaccine.

A team of researchers out of UCLA is genetically-engineering flu viruses that could become candidates for a universal vaccine. The researchers engineered flu cells to stimulate a bigger, more targeted immune response than the real-life strains. So far, the team has only developed the potential vaccine in the lab; the researchers hope to test two strains in animal models before moving into human trials.

Pharma company BiondVax Pharmaceuticals recently completed Phase 3 clinical trials for its universal vaccine candidate, which incorporates synthetic compounds. It has already received a patent in India. This type of vaccine targets specific areas on the surface of a flu virus that determine the phase and severity of the immune response. Being able to "ramp up" or "tamp down" different aspects of that process in animal models has convinced researchers that the vaccine could be useful in preventing other infectious disease beyond the flu, such as HIV and malaria.

FluGen, a startup out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is also working with a genetically-mutated form of the virus to make a universal vaccine. According to FluGen's website, the company’s genetically-altered  viruses have had a gene deleted so that they "can infect cells, express the entire spectrum of influenza RNA and proteins, yet cannot produce any infectious virus particles."

But to get there, the researchers encountered substantial controversy. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet; to create a vaccine against mutating flu viruses, you'll have to mutate a few flu viruses. Researchers worked to avoid creating some kind of super-virus. When the researchers mutated the H1N1 virus from the 2009 pandemic, and when they recreated the 1918 pandemic flu, the global scientific community called their methods and safety into question.

Other researchers, like those on a team at Georgia State University, are harnessing nanoparticles to facilitate a universal vaccine. Most vaccines target the outside surface of a virus's protein, which varies across different viruses. But if nanoparticles could target further down, on a part of the protein called the stalk, a vaccine could have broader efficacy. In experiments detailed in a study published in Nature Communications in January 2018, mice inoculated with nanoparticles containing the protein to elicit an immune system response were completely immune to four different strains of the flu, including this year's H3N2. They will need to conduct more animal studies — first in ferrets, as their respiratory systems are quite similar to those of humans — before testing the vaccine on humans.

There are other logistical hurdles to a universal vaccine. There's little financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop vaccines, much less universal ones only administered once in a person's life. Distribution of vaccines can be challenging and shortages are not uncommon. Plus, people just love to find reasons why they shouldn't get the jab.

But these challenges are not insurmountable. A universal vaccine could be possible within a generation. How well it works, well, that’s another question.

As 1918 came to a close, the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association published its final edition for the year. The editors reflected on what could be learned from the two wars humanity fought that year, then turned their attention to the future.

"Medical science for four and one-half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there," they wrote. "Now, it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all — infectious disease." In another century, perhaps the flu of today — the damage it causes, the lives lost to it — will seem equally distant, perhaps even innocuous.

The post In 1918 We Faced the Flu Pandemic. Today, We’re Still Fighting the War. appeared first on Futurism.

A New Test Can Read Your Future Child’s Genome While They’re Still in the Womb

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 07:51 AM PST

Prenatal testing is hardly a new concept — in fact, for parents-to-be, it’s standard practice throughout the course of a normal pregnancy. The gamut of tests available range from routine screenings to highly specific panels that can determine the overall health of the developing fetus, as well as assess its risk for a growing number of genetic conditions. In fact, by using the parents’ genomes, researchers have been able to construct a complete genetic portrait of a developing fetus for nearly a decade. Since the process is invasive, complicated, and costly, it hasn’t yet become commonplace for expectant parents to have their future child’s genome sequenced and analyzed as part of routine prenatal care. But that could be changing.

A new blood-based fetal genetic test, developed by a team at the Beijing Genomics Institute in China, is much simpler than existing methods and can be performed as early as the first trimester of pregnancy. When a person is pregnant, fetal cells can be detected in their blood. The new method scours a sample of the pregnant person’s blood for the most intact-appearing fetal cells, then sequences the DNA.

The team published their research in the journal Prenatal Diagnosis earlier this week. Using the new technique, they successfully sequenced the genomes of two fetuses in the womb. One was found to have gene variants that have been linked to cancer of the bowel, intestinal disorders, and liver disease. The other had a gene variant that’s been linked to a salt imbalance disorder.

A graphic of a strand of DNA colored turquoise blue, on a blue and black background. A new fetal genetic test could bring an unborn fetus' DNA into such close focus.
Image Credit: Creative Commons

While the technique certainly improves upon the previous one, there is concern that the technology may be advancing more rapidly than the general public’s understanding of genetic risk. The impact a gene variant has on an individual’s risk for developing a condition in their lifetime varies depending on other factors — like environment and lifestyle. Discovering the presence of some genetic variants in a fetus who has not yet been exposed to the world, or developed any kind of lifestyle may ultimately carry a very small risk. But in other cases the presence of some variants, like those tied to childhood cancers, could be significant enough that parents-to-be decide to terminate the pregnancy.

Developmental disorders, which are not necessarily life-threatening, would be found somewhere between these two extremes on the spectrum of risk; such knowledge could influence a couple's decision over whether to continue a pregnancy. These less-well-defined places on the spectrum have been central to the debate over prenatal testing since its inception. Even if this new technique succeeds in making whole-genome testing of fetuses more widely accessible, it likely won’t do much to quell that debate.

For many, the true test of a prenatal screening’s value is its ability to detect a condition that can be remedied or mitigated before birth or very soon after. Experimental in-utero treatments have been progressing parallel to prenatal testing for years, and CRISPR continues to expand our options for treating diseases long believed to be untreatable. While there are still many aspects that remain murky, one thing is abundantly clear: a new era of prenatal testing has been born.

The post A New Test Can Read Your Future Child’s Genome While They’re Still in the Womb appeared first on Futurism.

Intel is Trying to Make Smart Glasses a Thing, And Hit Your Retinas with a Laser

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 04:55 AM PST

First there was Google Glass, then, Snapchat Spectacles. Both were supposed to change the world by bringing the power of the internet as close to our faces as technology can get without actually being inside of it. Both ultimately failed — too expensive, too easy to steal, too ugly — disappearing softly into the graveyard of failed technology, alongside Segways and K-cups.

Now, another company stands at the foot of the mountain upon which so many others have failed. Intel, maker of (sometimes problematic) computer chips recently announced its own set of smart glasses.

There is, of course, a chance Intel could succeed where others found failure. According to The Verge, the Vaunt doesn’t have a camera, speakers, microphones, buttons, or an LCD screen — the goal isn’t to have a smartphone on your face. All of the Vaunt’s electronics are confined to a small area right above the ear. They respond to commands given via head nods, which hopefully will have some sensitivity to not, say, text your ex when you’re nodding along to some tunes in your headphones.

The glasses are flexible and feather-light, weighing in at just 50 grams (just shy of 2 ounces), the equivalent of five Oreos.

The Vaunt may not weigh much, but that doesn’t mean it’s light on tech. The Vaunt is packed with a processor, accelerometer, Bluetooth, and a compass, according to Tech Crunch.

A closer look at the electronics found on the stem of Intel's Vaunt smart glasses. Image Credit: Vjeran Pavic/The Verge
A closer look at the electronics on the stem of Intel’s Vaunt Glasses. Image Credit: Vjeran Pavic/The Verge.

It also has a laser that projects a tiny image directly onto the corner of your retina. That image acts as a screen, presenting notifications from your phone, showing you walking directions, or reminding you to call your mother on her birthday. And if having a laser shot on your eyeball doesn’t hold appear, Mark Eastwood, industrial design director for Intel’s New Device Group, assured skeptics: “It is so low-power that it's at the very bottom end of a class one laser.” That means, according to standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it’s 100 percent safe to stare into this kind of laser for extended periods of time.

Perhaps more importantly, the Vaunt doesn’t look like a pair of smart glasses. They’re more James Bond than Robocop. It’s pretty much doing the work of a smartwatch, but on your face, saving you the milliseconds it takes to raise a wrist to a face.

Whether or not they’ll sell isn’t the question so much as whether or not Intel will even be able to bring these successfully to market — the company has not yet set a release date, nor a price. But Intel said it’s more likely to partner with other companies to do the actual marketing and selling, rather than trying to shill the glasses itself. Really, it might be one of the cannier moves from Intel’s corner, which is to say, better to let someone else take this whole lasers-in-your-eyeballs press situation off them.

The post Intel is Trying to Make Smart Glasses a Thing, And Hit Your Retinas with a Laser appeared first on Futurism.

This Week in Science: Feb 3 – Feb 9, 2018

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 04:00 AM PST

If You Think McDonald’s Fries Will Cure Baldness, Sorry, But You Don’t Deserve Hair

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 02:45 PM PST

French fries are delicious. Like the fact that we’re slowly freezing and getting farther from any other life that may exist, it’s a fairly irrefutable truth. They’re great when you’re young, old, sober, drunk. You can eat them for any meal, and it’s a relatively reasonable proposition. They are, as far as foodstuffs go, a thing of Great Utility. When it comes to eating.

When it comes to anything else—like, say, curing baldness? Not so much. But somehow, several articles this week claimed otherwise. If their headlines are to be believed, fries are somehow a baldness miracle cure! But these headlines are, uh, misleading. Also, idiotic.

All this came about because a team of Japanese researchers published a study in the journal Biomaterials that showed that a particular chemical compound can cause fallow follicles to sprout healthy hair. And, as someone uninvolved in the research realized, that compound can be found in the oil in which McDonald’s cooks its fries (it’s also found in nail polish and sunscreen).

Image Credit: Futurism Cartoons
Image Credit: Futurism Cartoons

To be clear, the scientists don’t mention french fries in their study. But their work was still pretty impressive. Some background: Hair grows in hair follicles, which sprout from hair follicle germs (HFGs). If we could grow thousands of these HFGs in labs, we could simply transplant them onto a person’s scalp (or wherever they want hair — we don’t judge). Unwanted hairlessness could become a thing of the past.

For now at least, growing HFGs on a large scale is hard. Researchers can only cultivate about 50 of them at once, which isn’t exactly enough to turn Patrick Stewart’s head into Patrick Dempsey’s (really, not even close). The researchers behind this new study discovered that HFGs grow incredibly well in a chemical called dimethylpolysiloxane. In the study, researchers spread a little of the chemical on the bottom of a petri dish, added stem cells, and after a few days, had a whopping 5,000 HFGs. Again, not exactly enough to cover an entire human head, which has an average of 100,000 hair follicles, but a decent start.

But all the petri dishes full of HFGs don’t help anyone if they can’t be transplanted onto an eager scalp. To see how well these mass-produced HFGs would work on an actual organism, they transplanted them to the backs of mice. Sure enough, the rodents began sprouting hair. Lead researcher Junji Fukuda told AFP he thinks human trials could start in about five years and, if those trial go well, a treatment could be available within a decade.

Still though, mice aren’t humans, and not everything tested on the rodents ends up hitting the market. So in the meantime, stick to your wigs, plugs, and micropigmentation. And keep the fries in your head, not, like, on them.

The post If You Think McDonald’s Fries Will Cure Baldness, Sorry, But You Don’t Deserve Hair appeared first on Futurism.

Chinese Police Add Facial Recognition Glasses to Their Surveillance Arsenal

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 01:12 PM PST

You’ve probably heard of Transitions lenses that can adapt to changing light conditions. Now, get ready for facial recognition lenses.

Police officers in Zhengzhou, China have been spotted wearing sunglasses equipped with facial recognition software that allows them to identify individuals in a crowd. These surveillance sunglasses were actually rolled out last year, but a recent report from China’s QQ published a series of photos of the glasses in action.

China has consistently been ahead of the curve in terms of utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) for surveillance. The country’s CCTV system tracked down a BBC reporter in just seven minutes during a demonstration in 2017. But this new technology, developed by LLVision, takes China’s surveillance efforts to a whole new level. Not just in theory, either — reports from the official People's Daily newspaper seem to indicate that it’s improving police work.

Surveillance That Actually Works

With the Lunar New Year just around the corner, it’s a busy time of year for the country’s many airports, railway stations, and public transportation hubs. Chinese state media has reported that police wearing the specs at the East Railway Station in Zhengzhou have already spotted seven people wanted in connection with major criminal cases and have caught more than 25 people who were using someone else’s identity.

Not only do the surveillance glasses actually work, but they also work better — and faster — than traditional CCTV setups. Security footage is notoriously grainy, and even if cameras are being monitored in real-time, the lag between spotting someone who might be a person of interest and calling authorities can be enough time for that person to make a clean getaway.

The sunglasses are connected to a handheld device that uses facial recognition software to compare who the wearer sees against a pre-loaded database packed with photos of 10,000 suspects. And it does so in just one tenth of a second.

Image Credit: Creative Commons
Image Credit: Creative Commons.

"By making wearable glasses, with AI [artificial intelligence] on the front end, you get instant and accurate feedback," LLVision Chief Executive Wu Fei told the Wall Street Journal. "You can decide right away what the next interaction is going to be." However, Wu did add that the accuracy isn’t perfect. Environmental “noise” in a crowded terminal, for instance, could skew the results.

Skewed results aren’t the only concern that comes with giving law enforcement wearable surveillance: many have also pointed out that the devices could lend themselves to racial profiling, and even more broadly, have the potential to infringe on citizens’ privacy.

As William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said to the Wall Street Journal: "The potential to give individual police officers facial-recognition technology in sunglasses could eventually make China's surveillance state all the more ubiquitous."

Eventually? Given that Chinese law enforcement is already using technology that’s uncomfortably reminiscent of Mission Impossible, it seems like that ubiquity has already arrived.

The post Chinese Police Add Facial Recognition Glasses to Their Surveillance Arsenal appeared first on Futurism.

Reconsidering Space Debris: Can Space Junk Be Useful?

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 12:47 PM PST

Garbage In Our Celestial Backyard

SpaceX just made it through a successful maiden launch for their Falcon Heavy, the biggest rocket yet to have come from Elon Musk’s company. For its first payload, the Heavy jettisoned Musk’s own Tesla Roadster into space, on a path that was intended to bring its “passenger” — nicknamed Starman — into Martian orbit.

Undoubtedly, the event is historic. Some, however, note that Musk may be contributing to the already-growing host of space junk floating around Mars. And speaking of space junk: it’s as good a time as any to re-evaluate the Earth’s own burgeoning collection of space debris. 

Space Junk: The Pollution Problem of Tomorrow
Click to View Full Infographic

At present, there are more than 500,000 pieces of debris floating or orbiting around Earth. These come from various sources, though most originated as parts of satellites and rockets we’ve been sending out to space for the past seven decades or so.

Around 20,000 of these are detectable objects, or those bigger than 10 cm, according to Stuart Grey, a mechanical and aerospace engineering teaching fellow at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde.

Among the detectable objects, “just over half are fragmentation debris resulting from collisions. About a quarter are spacecraft (of which about 1500 are active) and the rest is made up of rocket bodies and mission debris,” Grey told Futurism. The overall picture these fragments paint seems even more distressing: “If instead we look at the mass of the objects in orbit we find that there are about 8000 metric tons of man-made material in orbit around the Earth,” Grey added.

A Recycling Program

In short, there’s just too much litter floating around the planet to be safe in the long term. But what if we could look at space debris in a different light? After all, most of space junk is comprised of the quite-expensive materials that are used to build rockets and satellites. Could space junk therefore be a floating resource that remains un-utilized?

“These objects are made out of very specific materials that are very expensive to produce, and it is tempting to think of them as a resource just waiting to be used,” Grey explained. “The problem with this idea comes from the effort needed to catch and utilize these “resources.””

Grey explained that objects in low Earth orbit move extremely fast, around 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) per second. That makes them difficult to catch; building rockets designed to run down such speedy debris would be too costly for the effort.

This doesn’t mean that these pieces of space junk should just be left floating out there. In fact, various efforts to clean space debris are already in the works. “The mechanisms that are being developed at the moment focus on very simple techniques and echo the techniques used for centuries to catch large wild animals such as harpoons and nets,” Grey explained. “These have still to be tested in orbit but a number of missions are planned in the near future, such as ESA's e.Deorbit.”

Scientists and engineers from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program suggest something similar: using a spacecraft thinner than human hair that can wrap around space debris like a net. Other consider zapping space debris with laser. All of these concepts, as Grey noted, remain largely on the drawing board.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, we’ve got time. Space debris in higher Earth orbit will stay there for quite a while. “While objects in low Earth orbit will de-orbit in a matter of months or years, objects in higher orbits such as [Global Navigation Satellite System] satellites in medium Earth orbit, and satellites in geostationary orbits, will still be in orbit hundreds and even thousands of years into the future,” Grey explained.

The thing is, we continue to contribute to space debris even as we ponder how to resolve it. Whether or not we figure out a way to use space junk as a resource, it’s imperative that we do something about it — perhaps sooner rather than later.

Disclaimer: This article has been updated. A previous version stated that there are 200,000 detectable pieces of debris. This has been corrected to 20,000. Futurism regrets the error. 

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Advancing Biotechnology Could Lead to a Future Free of Disease

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 11:58 AM PST

As biotechnology continues to advance, medical procedures and treatments could begin to address diseases and genetic conditions before they become issues.

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California Takes a Stand Against Trump’s Offshore Oil Plan

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 11:31 AM PST

Despite President Trump’s plan to bring jobs back to the fossil fuels industry (and his best attempts to gloss over the industry’s impacts) — oil and gas are not getting any easier to sell to the public.

From issuing permits to drill pristine Arctic reserves to greenlighting offshore drilling across 90 percent of the U.S. coasts, Trump has been aiming to make a business case for fossil fuels. Ultimately, he’s been met with resistance every step of the way.

The latest comes from California, a state that has long opposed Trump’s coal-friendly stance. Not mincing words, the California State Land Commission issued a letter voicing its intention to make the life of any potential oil investors a living nightmare. The letter states that approving lease sales in the area “creates the potential for catastrophic peril” for the local marine environment, economy and natural resources. It also notes that offshore drilling means more refineries being built onshore, which heightens the risk of air pollution and creates an increased burden on the state’s poorest communities.

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom who is currently leading the governor’s race and is the commission’s chair, said:

“President Trump’s offshore oil drilling plan is a step backward in time, toward an energy
policy that blindly handcuffs the nation to an unsustainable future, […]  I am resolved that not a single drop from Trump’s new oil plan ever makes landfall in California, where our leadership in reducing emissions and curbing pollution has enabled exceptional economic growth.

If Newsom were to become the governor this year, his environmental agenda would have a prominent influence on the state’s policies for years to come. Additionally, the political opposition, along with geological challenges posed by offshore drilling and oil price volatility, would be an important red flag that could spook potential new investors.

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Two New Renewable Energy Projects Will Join Tesla’s Mega Battery in Australia

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 11:19 AM PST

Water and Sun

Telsa is about to get some help in transitioning South Australia to a future powered by clean energy. The company’s mega battery will soon be joined by a pumped hydro storage project out of a former quarry in Highbury and a new solar installation complete with its own battery system, which will be connected to an existing wind farm near Snowtown.

The Energy of the Future: Harnessing the Power of Earth
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Energy company Tilt Renewables will operate both projects, and they’ll go a long way toward expanding South Australia’s green energy footprint.

Combined, the projects increase the region’s renewable capacity by 365 MW. Of that, 300 MW will come from the pumped hydro project, 44 MW from the solar farm, and 21 MW from the battery at the solar farm, which gives it a capacity approximately one-fifth that of Tesla’s mega battery.

“More renewable energy means cheaper power for South Australians,” said South Australian Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis in a news release. “This planned new solar and battery farm in the mid-north and pumped hydro power plant in Highbury will add a huge amount of additional competition to our system.”

Renewable Impact

Tesla’s battery has already proven its worth to South Australia a few times over. When a coal plant failure threatened the grid in December, the battery kicked in before the failed plant even finished going offline, taking mere milliseconds to ensure the region wouldn’t be without electricity.

The addition of a pumped hydro storage system will be particularly beneficial to the blackout-plagued region as it can ease the burden on less predictable renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

South Australia is taking bold action when it comes to the innovative storage of renewable energy. If we want to keep expanding renewable energy efforts, we’ll need effective storage systems.

Hopefully, the rest of Australia and other nations around the world learn from the region, taking note of the effectiveness of the burgeoning infrastructure and using South Australia’s success as inspiration for their own projects.

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Last Year Renewables Accounted for Half of the Energy Capacity Added to the U.S.

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 11:12 AM PST

In 2017, renewables accounted for nearly 50 percent of all new energy capacity additions in the United States, according to a newly released report from the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Our Warming World: The Future of Climate Change [INFOGRAPHIC]
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In total, the U.S. added 12,270 megawatts (MW) of biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind energy capacity. Wind and solar accounted for the majority of those additions. Interestingly, the U.S. didn’t add any new coal capacity throughout the year, but did add 11,980 MW of natural gas electricity capacity.

A Promising Trend

This marks the fourth year in a row that renewables outpaced natural gas in terms of energy capacity additions in the U.S. Some are taking the news as a sign that fossil fuels’ days are numbered, despite resistance from the federal government.

"Notwithstanding a year-long effort by the Trump Administration and its congressional allies to prop up coal, nuclear, and natural gas at the expense of renewable energy sources, clean energy technologies have proven themselves to be amazingly resilient," Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the SUN DAY Campaign, told Clean Technica.

"The unmistakable lesson to be drawn from the past five or more years of FERC data is that solar, wind, and the other renewable energy sources are carving out a large and rapidly-expanding share of the nation's electrical generation,” he said.

While it’s true that renewables are on the rise, the aforementioned figures don’t reflect the nation’s total energy capacity — only additions to it. Coal still accounts for roughly 23 percent. Wind and solar energy combined is still less than 10 percent.

The U.S. is second only to China in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing 15 percent of the global total of carbon dioxide emissions in 2015. If the U.S. wants to truly address its role in global warming and climate change, it will need to continue to add more renewable energy capacity, while concurrently phasing out the fossil fuels that are contributing to our planet’s progressive warming.

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Elon Musk Calls Out LIDAR Tech as “A Crutch” in Autonomous Vehicles

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 11:02 AM PST

Vision of the Future

Elon Musk recently reiterated his stance that Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology is not a critical component of autonomous driving systems. On Wednesday, the Tesla CEO described it as a “crutch” during an earnings call on February 7, 2018.

LIDAR calculates how far away a given object is by measuring how long it takes for a pulse of infrared laser light to reach a car and bounce back. Some of Tesla’s biggest rivals rely on it — Waymo is currently in a legal battle with Uber, asserting that the ride-hailing service stole its LIDAR designs  — but Musk has been outspoken in his criticism.

Instead of LIDAR, Tesla’s self-driving system is based on cameras. The cost of cameras continues to go down, even as pixel resolution improves. This could mean that Tesla’s automated vehicles would be more cost-effective, making the technology more accessible to a broader socioeconomic user base in years to come.

“Once you solve cameras for vision, autonomy is solved; if you don't solve vision, it's not solved,” Musk said during a TED Talk in April 2017, as per a report from Electrek. “You can absolutely be superhuman with just cameras.”

Unfortunately, Tesla’s split with camera supplier Mobileye in 2016 threw something of a wrench into the works. After a fatal accident involving Tesla advanced driver assistance technology, or Autopilot, the supplier dissolved its partnership with Musk’s company.

While Tesla has since developed its own replacement for Mobileye’s computer vision technology — aptly named Autopilot 2.0 — experts say it’s missing key pieces of functionality, like being able to read speed limit signs and recognize different kinds of vehicles. These features were included in the original Autopilot, which likely required Mobileye’s computer vision technology to operate.

There have been doubts as to whether Musk will be able to upgrade Tesla vehicles that are currently on the road with enhanced self-driving capabilities. Thousands of owners have already paid for “Enhanced Autopilot” — which doesn’t quite exist yet — but competitors have called out Musk for overselling what Tesla’s hardware and software can accomplish. Musk is also quick to disparage his company’s rivals in the autonomous vehicle industry, but the Tesla CEO could soon find his company falling out of public favor if it can’t deliver on its promises.

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How the United States Plans to Reclaim Its Supercomputer Dominance

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 10:39 AM PST

Race to the Top

For a long while now, there has been a not-so-subtle competition between the United States and China that extends to pretty much everything that both nations do, from solar manufacturing to waste processing. More recently, that race has now come to include scientific research and technological development.

China seems to have overtaken the U.S. in the latter. From research in artificial intelligence to building a quantum network, and now housing the world’s most powerful supercomputers, China now enjoys the number one spot. In fact, its top two supercomputers far outperforms all of the 21 supercomputers in the U.S. operated by the Department of Energy (DOE).

U.S. researchers, however, are keen on reclaiming the top of the league table, and the latest machine in their pipeline could be the key. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, experts are building Summit, the supercomputer that’s said to replace the most powerful machine in the U.S. today. It’s set to be finished some time this 2018.

This isn’t the only one in the works, though. At the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, scientists are planning to build a supercomputer that’s even faster than Summit. Dubbed as the A21, this machine could churn some 1,000 peta floating-point operations per second (petaflop), or 1018 flops, which is the estimated capacity of a human brain. Summit’s theoretical maximum performance is around 200 petaflops.

Getting Their Bearings Straight

With those numbers, both machines would far exceed China’s Sunway TaihuLight — currently the world’s most powerful computer — which is capable of 93 petaflops. The A21 is supposed to be built by 2021, two years ahead of schedule, with the help of Intel and Cray. Scientists are scheduled to meet this week in Knoxville, Tennessee, to examine the first detailed designs for the supercomputer.

This seems like a solid plan to reclaim the top spot, although Science notes that China and maybe even Japan are more likely to launch an exascale (1,000 petaflop) computer first, with the former set to unveil one called the Tianhe-3 by 2020, following their five-year plan.

At the very least, working on Summit and A21 would keep the U.S. from being left in the dust by China’s achievements in supercomputer development. For decades, the U.S. has been the undisputed leader in the field. China snatched the title only in 2013, and have since maintained it. Until now, that is.

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