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This Week in Tech: Apr 21 – Apr 27, 2018

Posted: 28 Apr 2018 04:00 AM PDT

Never Want To Tour With Your Band Again? Send Your Hologram Instead, Like ABBA Is Doing.

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 03:15 PM PDT

What do the late Tupac Shakur and Swedish pop group ABBA have in common? Seems like not much. But thanks to virtual reality, that’s changing.

In a statement posted to Instagram on Friday, ABBA confirmed a “virtual tour” — one that was originally announced in October 2016.

The group also announced the release of the first new material since 1982. It seems like plans for the virtual tour inspired them to record a couple of new tracks on top of it.

The future of live concerts promises to be vastly different than what we’re used to. Soon, holograms and giant screens will replace live performers, making you wonder why you got a ticket in the first place.

On Instagram, the band muses: “it was like time had stood still and that we only had been away on a short holiday. An extremely joyful experience!”

But it’s not their physical Scandinavian faces that will grace the stage at the NBC and BBC co-produced production that will be broadcasting in December — it will be their “digital selves.”

It’s not yet clear, however, what kind of digital entities we’re talking about. Will it be giant disembodied heads floating around on stage, or a projection-based affair a la Gorillaz? Even a projection of Michael Jackson performed at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, except that he was… well, already gone.

ABBA, on the contrary, is still kicking around, and by the sound of it, they are willing to record music together, too. So what’s stopping them from showing up on stage, themselves?

It’s pretty much because they don’t want to. Since it broke up in 1982, the band has refused many requests to reunite on stage IRL.

The December broadcast is being put together by Simon Fuller, the guy you have to thank for American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. According to a 2016 post on ABBA’s Facebook page, the event will feature “the very latest in digital and virtual reality technology.” Except that that was two years ago, and no further details have emerged, except for this announcement of new material.

But let’s have ABBA Take A Chance on this new venture. Appearing in a virtual tour is quite the gamble — reception seems to be pretty mixed, when it comes to virtual concert appearances. But in the end, the winner takes it all.

The post Never Want To Tour With Your Band Again? Send Your Hologram Instead, Like ABBA Is Doing. appeared first on Futurism.

You Know That Romaine-Linked Outbreak? DNA Tech Is Fixing It.

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 02:30 PM PDT

Sorry, salad lovers. Unless you like it with a side of E. coli, romaine lettuce simply isn’t on the menu right now.

Yes, the E. coli outbreak spread by romaine lettuce that started on April 13 still isn’t fully contained, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC’s) latest update. Thanks to advances in genetic sequencing, though, we may soon have the ability to end food-borne outbreaks way faster — maybe even before anyone gets sick.

We haven’t always been great at addressing outbreaks of food-borne illness. In the past, we typically only knew something was wrong when a lot of people got sick at the same time or in the same area. Investigators would interview these people, looking for connections between them — maybe they all ate food from the same restaurant, or bought the same brand of groceries.

This approach was both time-consuming and imprecise.

In the 1990s, researchers turned to genetics to help investigate food-borne outbreaks. They’d analyze clumps of DNA from microbes gathered from the people who had gotten ill using a technique called pulsed-field gel electrophoresis. This let researchers create a “fingerprint” for various bacterias.

If samples from two or more ill people contained germs with the same genetic fingerprint, researchers would know their cases shared a connection. They could then look for the same fingerprint in food samples, from a restaurant or processing plant, for example. Find another match, and they’d know they’d found their outbreak source.

This worked better than just asking people. But it was still time-consuming and could miss related cases, according to the CDC.

Then, in 2013, investigators across the nation began using whole genome sequencing to look at a microbe’s entire DNA profile, not just bits of it.

Whole genome sequencing is more precise than other methods, and it just keeps getting faster and cheaper. Joel Sevinsky, head of the Molecular Science Laboratory at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), told the Associated Press his lab can sequence the genome of a suspected pathogen in less than 72 hours.

foodborne outbreaks
Image Credit: CDC

Whole genome sequencing is already helping researchers address food-borne outbreaks, including a 2017 salmonella outbreak that stretched across 21 states, and the current romaine outbreak.

It’s even identifying contaminated food before it even reaches the public. According to the AP, inspectors used genome sequencing to find pathogens that could have caused outbreaks when they inspected food plants. They were able to recall the tainted products before they ever reached grocery stores or restaurants, preventing countless people from being sickened.

Today, states without the necessary lab capabilities send their samples to the CDC lab in Atlanta for whole genome sequencing. But soon, they won’t have to.

The CDC is spending $12 million to help state and city health departments set up their own whole genome sequencing labs. By the end of 2018, they expect every state will be able to conduct its own tests, so they can track pathogens from salmonella to E. coli.

We couldn’t avoid this romaine outbreak, it seems. But with more tools for detection, we might be able to prevent the next one.

The post You Know That Romaine-Linked Outbreak? DNA Tech Is Fixing It. appeared first on Futurism.

A Genealogy Website Led to a Suspected Killer’s Arrest. Here’s What We Know.

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 02:16 PM PDT

Joseph James DeAngelo, the 72-year-old former police officer suspected to be the notorious Golden State Killer (aka the Original Night Stalker and the East Area Rapist), was arrested this week.

That’s pretty good news for the California communities terrorized by the Golden State Killer, who committed 51 rapes and 12 murders in California between 1974 and 1986.

But, arguably, the biggest news: For the first time, a commercial genealogy website led to the suspect’s arrest.

That’s raising some ethical questions about how we use that kind of genetic information. Here’s a breakdown of we know, and what we don’t.

What genealogy site did investigators use to identify DeAngelo?

The main tool: a site called GEDmatch. It isn’t quite like 23andMe or Ancestry. It’s a place where people can share their genetic information publicly – which means there are no legal hurdles for the authorities if they want the data. It’s possible investigators also used other genealogy sites to help identify DeAngelo. But the Sacramento County DA’s office isn’t offering specifics. 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and Family Tree DNA all claimed to not be involved, according to BuzzFeed News.

How, exactly, did they use that to track down DeAngelo?

GEDmatch contained genetic information from one of DeAngelo’s relatives, Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi told The Sacramento Bee. "[Investigators] then followed clues to individuals in the family trees to determine whether they were potential suspects," the Bee reported. "We found a person that was the right age and lived in this area — and that was Mr. DeAngelo," said Grippi told The New York Times.

We don’t know what DeAngelo’s relative was hoping to find out from a genetic test. Maybe it was more about their ancestors, or potential medical risks. What they did in the end, though, may have been to help close one of the most notorious serial killer cases in the U.S.

And investigators got DNA from DeAngelo, too?

Yes, but it’s a little sketchy. Investigators set up surveillance around DeAngelo’s home and got what Anne Marie Schubert, the Sacramento district attorney, called "abandoned" DNA samples — genetic material pulled from something DeAngelo discarded. Law enfrocement corroborated this with a second sample, which matched the full DNA profile. “The second sample was astronomical evidence that it was him,” Schubert told The Bee, adding, “There were a whole lot of holy s— moments.”

What does GEDmatch have to say about the whole thing?

GEDmatch claims it wasn’t aware of the investigation: "Although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, it has always been GEDmatch's policy to inform users that the database could be used for other uses, as set forth in the Site Policy," according to a statement reported by The Verge. 

"While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes."

Is it legal for a genealogy site to give my information to the police?

Did you read the terms and conditions before you swabbed your cheek? No? Well, let us clue you in: most companies will hand over a customer’s genetic information if law enforcement demands it, and has a warrant.

What are the pros and cons of using these familial databases to identify criminals?

Let’s start with the positive. Doing this catches bad guys. Law enforcement has used familial DNA searches to solve a murder cases in the past. The LA Times names several individuals, including “The Grim Sleeper,” who were apprehended in a similar manner.

"I don't want to be cavalier about privacy issues," Robert Green, a medical geneticist and professor at Harvard Medical School, told Buzzfeed. "But if this was a legally approved use of a public database, or a legally issued subpoena or warrant for a private database, and it successfully identified a horrible criminal, I think that's a really exciting and creative use of genealogical data."

However, this technique has also led law enforcement down the wrong path.That was what happened to Michael Usry, who, in 2014, was wrongly accused of committing a 1996 murder, according to the LA Times.

What sort of legal regulation is in place to protect my genetic privacy?

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed that a suspect’s DNA “…like fingerprinting and photographing, [is] a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

Basically, law enforcement can legally take your DNA without a warrant. Several states, however, have put limits on familial DNA searches. Some, such as Maryland and the District of Columbia, have banned the technique.

At-home DNA tests are becoming cheaper and more easily accessible. And even if you aren’t taking one (DeAngelo didn’t) if relatives are, does that put you at risk? Much like the recent Facebook Cambridge Analytica Scandal, even if you didn’t share your data, a friend might have. It’s easy to imagine a future where everyone knows your genetic code. And you didn’t even willingly contribute.

The post A Genealogy Website Led to a Suspected Killer’s Arrest. Here’s What We Know. appeared first on Futurism.

Cambridge Analytica Tried to Launch a Cryptocoin

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 02:04 PM PDT

“Just because blockchain is a safe, secure, and transparent technology, does not mean anything immediately surrounding it can’t be manipulated.”

The post Cambridge Analytica Tried to Launch a Cryptocoin appeared first on Futurism.

Bill Gates Just Announced a $12 Million Contest for a Universal Flu Vaccine

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 12:39 PM PDT

The real world isn’t like Hollywood. Despite what we might see in TV shows like 24 or movies like Contagion, we don’t have teams of experts ready to spring into action at the first signs of a global outbreak.

But we should, philanthropist Bill Gates emphasized during his Shattuck Lecture for the Massachusetts Medical Society today. And Gates is ready to put up $12 million to help us get there.

Each year, the Massachusetts Medical Society and the New England Journal of Medicine present an event featuring panelists and speakers focused on a specific health-related topic. This year, that topic was epidemics. What better speaker than Bill Gates, whose foundation strives to combat some of the biggest threats to public health, such as HIV and malaria? During his presentation, Gates looked to the past, present, and future of our outbreak preparedness.

The short version: We’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go.

Back in 1889, the Russian flu became the first flu pandemic to spread across continents. A few decades later, the 1918 flu pandemic killed 675,000 people in just five weeks.

Luckily for those of us alive now, today we have vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic tools that help us address outbreaks far more effectively than when those illnesses first took hold.

But we still fall short in so many respect, according to Gates.

He noted the “wake up calls” of the 2009 H1N1 virus and West Africa’s more recent Ebola outbreak. The world didn’t respond quickly enough in either situation. We couldn’t effectively track the diseases as they spread. Our local health systems simply collapsed. People kept dying because we weren’t ready.

“The world needs to prepare for pandemics in the same serious way it prepares for war,” Gates told the audience.

One way to be better prepared for the inevitable next pandemic: to develop better weapons to fight outbreaks. To that end, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has teamed up with the family of Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page to launch the Universal Influenza Vaccine Development Grand Challenge.

The Story of How Vaccines Changed the World
Click to View Full Infographic

According to the challenge website, the goal is to find a “game changing, universal solution” to address both pandemic and seasonal influenza. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 290,000 to 650,000 people die from the latter each year, and while less common, pandemic influenza can be even more deadly.

The Grand Challenge will award $250,000 to $2 million in funding over two years to the most promising proposals for a universal flu vaccine. Then, those projects that “demonstrate promising proof-of-concept data,” such as success in animal models, can apply for a full award of $10 million for additional studies.

The Gates Foundation is thinking big and fast with this challenge. They’re only interested in a universal flu vaccine — not one that might work to address certain strains of the flu or in certain populations — and they want it to be ready for clinical trials by 2021.

We may not meet the Hollywood standard for outbreak preparedness today, but if Bill Gates has anything to say about it, we might in the very near future.

Editors Note: The article was updated to correct the funding range for accepted proposals.

The post Bill Gates Just Announced a $12 Million Contest for a Universal Flu Vaccine appeared first on Futurism.

Yes, Autism Rates Are Rising. No, That Doesn’t Mean More People Have Autism

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 12:23 PM PDT

About one in 59 American eight-year-olds have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This report, which is based on rates from 2014, shows that the prevalence of ASD is about three times higher than was reported in 2000, when the CDC started collected data.

Admittedly, this looks troubling. What scary numbers!

But this report does not mean that autism and associated conditions are actually becoming more common. Rather, it suggests that people are getting better at spotting signs of autism, and that social stigmas surrounding ASD may finally be fading as people have become better educated about it.

The prevalence of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (which, scientific evidence suggests, can be higher due to genetic influences, pollutants, infections during pregnancy, and not vaccines) doesn’t seem to be higher than before. But there’s one shift that is clear: more people are receiving diagnoses and attention than in the past.

Even so, there are a number of things that we don't know about ASD that may still be screwing up the official statistics. For example, what was considered to be a “typical” case was based on how autism manifests in white boys. This is a larger trend in medical research, which has led to less effective healthcare for women and people of color. But specifically for autism, boys are diagnosed four times as often as girls, a disparity that hasn’t changed much over the years

It's unlikely that the CDC report reflects everyone who actually has ASD, in part because some physicians might not know what signs to look for in girls or people of color. Until we get more data based on a more comprehensive understanding of the disorder, we won't actually know. For instance, previous reports showed different rates when sorted by race but that difference has lessened over time.

Also mysterious: why there's such discrepancy among states. In the new report, New Jersey showed the highest prevalence — one-in-29 kids with ASD, around twice that of states like Georgia, Colorado, and Tennessee. This is likely because some states keep better data, or the CDC had more access to records in some regions than others. Also, just measuring things in averages makes numbers more variable because high or low concentrations of people with autism might skew the results.

The authors of the report note that several regions likely have higher rates than their numbers indicate, but some information was missing. The two areas with the biggest rise in autism rates since the previous rates are states in which the CDC only just got access to certain educational records.

Ultimately, this report does not mean that autism is becoming more prevalent or common. Rather, the findings suggest that people are getting better at figuring out what autism spectrum disorder looks like, and getting people the support that they need. And contrary to all the ASD fear-mongering that's out there, that's pretty good news.

The post Yes, Autism Rates Are Rising. No, That Doesn't Mean More People Have Autism appeared first on Futurism.

Forget High-Tech Watches; Future Spies May Carry Chemical Passwords On Napkins

Posted: 27 Apr 2018 11:34 AM PDT

Bad news, everyone. "password123" probably isn't going to cut it anymore. While your initials followed by your birth year might be fine to log you in to your Netflix and Seamless accounts (what’s the worst that someone can do, steal your identity?), digital security will always be limited by the strength of the passwords we (or our computers) can concoct. Computers are only so good at this, because they can outsmart one another.

For things that need extra levels of security, we might need a totally different type of encryption, one that relies on the periodic table instead of 0s and 1s. Researchers are working on chemical cryptography, synthesizing specific molecules that serve as highly secure passwords based on their atomic structures.

Important intelligence or embassy secrets might be protected by small samples of molecules absorbed into a napkin instead of a bulletproof briefcase handcuffed to someone's wrist. That might make a pretty boring spy movie, but at least the important stuff would actually be secure.

In order to decrypt whatever message or data is being protected, someone would need to know where to physically obtain the molecule/key (which could be hidden, for example, in a drop of water absorbed into a napkin). The key itself is in the structure of the molecule, When the researchers from Germany's Karlsruher Institut für Technologie synthesize the chemical, they include a bit of information that, once scanned, indicates the molecule is to be used a digital key. The researchers have a library of 500,000 molecular keys that are so structurally diverse that the passwords would be too complicated to guess without the actual sample.

To decode the message, the molecule has to be scanned by the same sorts of equipment that microbiologists use to analyze new compounds in their research.

These chemical tags probably won’t be all that useful for the day-to-day lives of the average person — you probably don't need to worry about buying a mass spectrometer or hiring a microbiologist to keep your neighbors from bumming your Wi-Fi. But they could be a useful tool for people working in national security.

Down the road, the researchers hope to use DNA to do the same thing, which would increase the variety of keys and make the passwords even more secure.

While these chemical keys aren't in use yet, the researchers demonstrated that they can be used to protect information. And as computers improve and truly secure encryption becomes more elusive, a physical encryption key might give people the security they need when dealing with high-stakes intelligence.

The post Forget High-Tech Watches; Future Spies May Carry Chemical Passwords On Napkins appeared first on Futurism.