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We Now Have Artificial Embryos So Lifelike, They Initiate Pregnancy In Mice

Posted: 03 May 2018 09:01 AM PDT

For a fetus to develop into a healthy baby, those early stages of pregnancy are critical. If things go wrong, the pregnancy might not come to term, or the baby might develop health problems later in life.

Here’s the thing, though: right now, doctors have no idea how to intervene if problems like that come up. They can’t see what’s happening with an embryo just after fertilization, let alone develop treatments to address any problems.

But that could soon change, thanks to a new model of an early-stage artificial embryo. Researchers from Maastricht University and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) created the model, which they detail their study in a paper published Wednesday in Nature.

artificial embryo
An illustration of a blastoid. The green cells are the trophoblast stem cells. The red cells are the embryonic stem cells. Image Credit: Nicolas Rivron

To understand why that’s important, let’s first go over a little background. In mammals, a blastocyst is a hollow sphere made of fewer than 100 cells that forms within a days after an egg is fertilized. Once implanted in a uterus, the cells within the blastocyst (embryonic cells) become the embryo and the cells forming the sphere (trophoblast cells) become the placenta.

Nicolas Rivron, lead researcher on the Dutch study, told Research Gate that researchers already knew how to create the inner and outer parts of blastocysts using stem cells, but they hadn’t been able to combine the two. Another lab had successfully created models from later in an embryo’s development (post-implantation models called “gastruloids”), but his team is the first to produce a pre-implantation artificial embryo with trophoblasts — those cells that become the placenta. They call their model a “blastoid.”

To create these blastoids, Rivron’s team first grew embryonic and trophoblast stem cells separately. Then they introduced the two types of cells within a mixture of molecules that prompted them to communicate and self-organize.

When it was transferred to a mouse’s uterus, the artificial embryo implanted just like a natural one would during pregnancy. The cells divided and began fusing with the mother’s blood vessels.

In humans, a blastocyst forms just five days after fertilization. The cell development that takes place during the blastocyst stage can influence the success of a pregnancy and the resulting baby’s health post-birth.

Because researchers could create blastoids from stem cells en masse, they could have unprecedented access to this crucial stage of development. And that could make a huge difference for would-be moms worldwide.

“For the first time, we can study these phenomena in great detail and run drug screens to find medicines that could prevent infertility, find better contraceptives, or limit the appearance of epigenetic marks that appear in the blastocyst and lead to diseases during adult life,” Rivron told Research Gate.

Of course, mice and humans are very different. Would a human uterus respond in the same way to these blastoids? We don’t know yet. But the discoveries it yields could help everyone — mother, fetus, and the baby it becomes  be healthier.

The post We Now Have Artificial Embryos So Lifelike, They Initiate Pregnancy In Mice appeared first on Futurism.

The FCC May Penalize Companies That Launch Tiny Rogue Satellites, After All

Posted: 02 May 2018 02:54 PM PDT

The United States government doesn’t exactly love it when you fire rogue satellites into the atmosphere without their permission. It may not have liked it, but there was legally nothing the government could do about it.

That might soon change.

In January, a company called Swarm Technologies launched four small satellites called SpaceBEEs on an Indian rocket, after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) denied it permission to launch in the U.S. Quartz reports that the FCC has just completed an inquiry into that launch, and given its enforcement bureau permission to act on it.

The FCC hasn’t yet announced how Swarm will be penalized; the agency could choose to fine the company, or even ban it and its individuals from satellite operations altogether. Unfortunately for Swarm, the FCC may choose to make an example of the company. But that’s mostly so that the U.S. doesn’t get in trouble with its allies.

In April, Slate reported that Swarm’s activities could have accidentally made the U.S. noncompliant with international treaty obligations. Specifically: they may have put the U.S. in breach of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which says that the U.S. is responsible for the activities of its actors (that is, companies hailing from that nation) anywhere in space. And it may be liable for any damage that any satellite caused — like if, say, a SpaceBEE was knocked out of its orbit and punched a hole in another country’s satellite. This is a real threat: given how small SpaceBEEs are (10 by 10 by 2.5 cm), the FCC was indeed concerned that the company would not be able to track the little guys, or be notified if they veered off course. This was the original reason the agency denied Swarm permission to launch.

The United States is also required to coordinate the radio communications of their various satellites with those of other countries, to ensure there is no interference. Because Swarm satellites will need to communicate with their central control, they’ll probably need to use some part of the radio frequency — though Swarm has not yet confirmed this publicly — but do not have an FCC license to use any.

"By continuing their activities without a license, they have implicated U.S. responsibility in a way that is really the first of its kind," Christopher Johnson, a space-law adviser and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, told Slate. "Really kind of unforeseen."

And if the coming slap from the FCC wasn’t enough? Swarm also lost a NASA contract with the Small Spacecraft Technology Program when they were denied their launch license. Quartz reports that Swarm appears to still have a “cooperative research and development agreement” to work on space debris tracking with the US Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, though a Navy spokesperson did not provide Quartz with any more information beyond confirming the agreement existed.

As we reported in April, the FCC is currently working on a rule-making scheme that would improve the process by which small satellites like these are approved. That new process, plus the threat that companies could face whatever it is that happens to Swarm, would make it pretty unlikely that more rogue satellites will pop up anytime soon.

The post The FCC May Penalize Companies That Launch Tiny Rogue Satellites, After All appeared first on Futurism.

SHOCKER: Cambridge Analytica Is Shutting Down. Lol.

Posted: 02 May 2018 02:27 PM PDT

Guys. Did you read the news today? Cambridge Analytica is shutting down.

Looks like an incoming flood tide of legal fees forced the company to shut its doors, effective immediately. Freaking Mark Zuckerberg, am I right?

We, at least, are SHOCKED. Appalled. Really. Could not be more surprised.

Quick refresher, if there’s any chance you haven’t heard of Cambridge Analytica: back in the middle of March the we learned that the company was granted permission to access Facebook user data, but took advantage of that, ultimately stealing information from some 87 million Facebook users. They used the data to create detailed psychological profiles of users, which they sold in an effort to swing democratic elections, including the 2016 presidential election.

Other companies have suffered, of course. Mark Zuckerberg had to lug his cogs to Washington to testify before Congress and is currently in the process of distracting the world with a bunch of software updates, and hollow-sounding apologies.

Poor little Cambridge Analytica did the best it could to stay on course in this massive shitstorm. But its plans to launch an initial coin offering (ICO) for a cryptocurrency that allowed you to sell your online data yourself? Hopelessly dashed. Truly a travesty.

In truth, Cambridge Analytica didn’t see much revenue rolling in since the 2016 election, according to the Wall Street Journal. Not a single U.S. federal political client since then. Do you think they got spooked by the backlash? Maybe no one is doing politics anymore? Honestly, if we could figure it out, we’d tell you.

Employees have reportedly been asked to return their computers and clean up their desks. To them, we have some advice: maybe erase “Cambridge Analytica” from your resume.

The post SHOCKER: Cambridge Analytica Is Shutting Down. Lol. appeared first on Futurism.

Google Street View Images Could Help Us Address a Public Health Crisis

Posted: 02 May 2018 02:20 PM PDT

Pigeon people. Sword fights. Segway gangs.

You can see a lot of Google Street View (GSV). It’s an excellent way to catch a glimpse of modern life in all its weird, wonderful glory. According to a new study, it could also be a great resource for improving public health.

Researchers analyzed thousands of GSV images to determine whether the service could provide accurate data about a population’s transportation habits, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE. They assert this data could help public health officials predict whether new transportation policies could make people healthier.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that physical inactivity causes as many as 3.2 million premature deaths every year. Finding ways to encourage “active transport,” such as walking and cycling, is one way health officials can help increase a population’s activity level and potentially avoid some of those deaths.

Before public health officials can craft such policies, though, they need accurate data on existing travel patterns. This study is necessary, the researchers note, because data like this is impractical to gather, done only once every 10 years, and less detailed than what’s possible from GSV. As James Woodcock, MRC Epidemiology Unit and the paper’s senior author, said in a press release, these images are “freely available” and collected “in a more consistent way than many traditional surveys.”

What does exist pretty much everywhere? Google Street View.

GSV includes images from more than 100 nations spanning every continent, including many low- and middle-income countries. Those are where the WHO claims 2.6 million premature deaths caused by physical inactivity occur every year.

The British team focused on 34 cities in the United Kingdom. They pulled 2,000 GSV images taken between 2010 and 2012 from a total of 1,000 random spots in each city. Then, they started counting anything they could link to transportation: pedestrians, parked bicycles, in-use bicycles, motorcycles, buses, and automobiles.

Once they knew how many people were using each method in total, they could compare the "levels" or ratio of each method to the levels documented in the U.K.’s 2011 Census and the Active People Surveys, which focus on physical activity, between 2010 and 2012. This functioned as a control.

The researchers’ estimates for bicycle, public transportation, and motorbike use had a “strong correlation” to the control data. Their walking estimates, though, weren’t quite as accurate, only showing “moderate” agreement. Additionally, they noted “promising results” in a pilot analysis designed to predict gender distribution amongst cyclists.

This data is already available in many parts of the world, so policy makers just have to access and analyze it.

If health officials take advantage of this wealth of data, as the researchers suggest they do, the same service that delivered this creepy shot could help save lives across the globe.

The post Google Street View Images Could Help Us Address a Public Health Crisis appeared first on Futurism.

There Are Better Ways To Serve Journalism Than To Rank Outlets By “Trustworthiness”

Posted: 02 May 2018 12:33 PM PDT

You know what will distract Facebook users after a few months of eroding trust? Some new features.

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg — the same billionaire who founded Facebook and once called people who use it and trust him "dumb fucks" — told a room full of journalists and media executives that he wants to collect data on which media outlets and news sources people interact with the most, and to also ask them whether they think different outlets are trustworthy.

His proposal was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Editors reminded Zuck that objective facts, not a collection of like-minded opinions, make for good journalism, according to The Atlantic.

There are some good reasons to be skeptical. Under Zuck's new proposal, outlets that speak to their audience's existing opinions and beliefs would rule, while a team of the best and most ethical investigative journalists in the world would, apparently, drool. We can’t assess our news outlets objectively  humans are startlingly tribal, and recent research suggests that our brains actually respond to opinions that agree with our own the same as they respond to facts. So no matter how many times Zuck says he has the answer, a simple "do you like Breitbart y/n" probably won't do the trick.

"Like a lot of things Facebook does, I think it's an interesting idea, but poorly executed," Andrew Seaman, the ethics committee chairperson of the Society of Professional Journalists, told Futurism. "I think one problem facing society is that people don't know how to spot trustworthy news sources in today's media environment. So, asking them to help highlight quality information seems foolish."

Media outlets live and die by minor tweaks to algorithms that power Facebook and Google. Seaman suspects that prioritizing outlets just because people are familiar with them would also make it difficult for new news organizations to gather an audience.

Robert Hernandez of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism shared similar concerns. "I am hopeful they will be transparent and fair, but I am also realistic. It's a business [above] all else, so I do expect it won't be perfect," he told Futurism. "And as a journalist who preaches freedom of speech and access to diverse voices, I am worried how exclusive this trustworthy list could be."

What, then, could Facebook actually do to promote genuine journalism and to quiet misinformation?

Seaman suggests features that automatically add more context to any story that appears on Facebook. "If I were to design a solution — with Facebook's resources, I think I'd have related news stories pop up under links to give people additional information and give a more complete picture of events," Seaman said. "Also, if no other organization is reporting that story, I'd have a little box pop up warning readers that they should be skeptical of the information since it [can’t] be verified by additional sources."

"I don't know if Facebook should be the one that should determine what news organization is more trustworthy than others, but on their platform they have to do something," Hernandez said. "Just like Google determines what results it first displays after a search, these companies have to do something."

The post There Are Better Ways To Serve Journalism Than To Rank Outlets By “Trustworthiness” appeared first on Futurism.

Some Genetic Tests Apparently Can’t Tell If You’re Dog Or Human

Posted: 02 May 2018 11:51 AM PDT

People who take direct-to-consumer genetic tests like 23andMe often do so to find out about their family history, or maybe what kinds of genetic conditions they might pass on to their children.

But they don’t usually do it to figure out whether or not they’re human. That’s probably a good thing, because a recent experiment showed that some of these tests can’t tell.

A Chicago-based NBC station sent one reporter’s DNA to a handful of home DNA tests to compare the results. And just for kicks, they also sent a sample of DNA from Bailey, a Labrador retriever (it’s unclear who Bailey’s owner is is, but we’re pretty sure Bailey is a very good girl).

While most companies returned the sample as unreadable, one called Orig3n DNA didn’t seem to notice. Instead, they sent back a 7-page report praising Bailey’s cardiac output and muscle force, and recommending that she work with a personal trainer.


"The majority of genetic testing is still a gray area and there's always the possibility of uncertain results," Jessica Stoll, a genetic counselor at the University of Chicago Hospitals, told the station.

Luckily, we couldn’t find any other cases of DNA testing companies mixing up humans and animals. That’s a bit of a relief. And while it’s pretty funny to consider a human genetic testing company seriously recommending a fitness plan to a dog, this incident hints at a deeper, scarier issue: many people have come to think of these easy at-home tests as a replacement for medical advice or counseling.

You’ve heard it before: you shouldn’t put too much stock into at-home genetic tests, or what they tell you about yourself. These services often promise things that DNA can’t really tell you much about, like the wine you should drink or who you should be dating. The medical information DNA provides can be hard to interpret without counseling and even ruinous to your outlook on life. There’s also a chance some tests are giving participants false information.

This canine conundrum shows just how fallible these tests really are.

"I don't find them particularly useful, and in some cases I can actually find them harmful," Stoll said of at-home DNA tests, emphasizing that the context of your medical history incredibly important to use genetic tests to determine risk for medical conditions. “We use very specific clinical tests to determine if there is a very specific gene mutation or a change in a gene that's increasing a person's risk. If we're going to do any testing, we need to base it on your personal and family medical history.”

In other words, if you’re planning to use an at-home test to learn more about yourself, take its results with a very large grain of salt — and consider consulting a professional regardless of what the results say.

And, if you have a pet, maybe keep them away from your spit kit… just in case.

The post Some Genetic Tests Apparently Can’t Tell If You’re Dog Or Human appeared first on Futurism.

Noise-Cancelling Windows Are Perfect For People Already Rich Enough To Find Quiet in the City

Posted: 02 May 2018 11:32 AM PDT

Any city-dweller can tell you that some nights are just too noisy to let you sleep. Your upstairs neighbor erupts into early-morning yells (pigeons on his windowsill maybe? who can tell), while your downstairs neighbor blasts "Shape of You" for the ninth friggin time that night. Yes, hours often reserved for sleep are usually the ones in which a hellish cacophony emerges.

You can’t shut your neighbors up. But researchers out of Singapore's Nanyang Technological University have done the next best thing: they made noise-cancelling windows that can cancel out any harsh noise coming into your home. Picture noise-cancelling headphones, except for the construction going on and the trains or planes that might pass by.

The device is essentially an array of microphones and speakers that register the sound waves of loud noises coming in and cancel them out by playing an inverted version of the same wave — the waves’ peaks matched perfectly to the valleys of the other. When the inverted waveform and the original sound interact, they cancel each other out, leaving just mellow, ambient noise. All in real-time.

This, by the way, is exactly how noise-canceling headphones work. But canceling sounds in a large open area is more challenging than just what’s next to your ear, and requires more sophisticated technology.

For now at least, the prototype covers an entire window. And because it’s so bulky, the device blocks out the light, too, though the researchers plan to make their design more sleek in the future.

So far, the researchers have just made a prototype and not a version of the technology that you can go out and buy. Futurism has reached out to the researchers to learn how much these windows will cost, but as of this article's publication we have not yet heard a response (we will update this post if/when we do).

What we do know? Cost-effectiveness was a major challenge for engineering this gadget in the first place. A technologically-advanced array of smart windows is unlikely to find its way to low-income housing or the noisiest (and most affordable) parts of a city where people likely need them most. Rampant noise pollution and even just the stress of city life can cause health problems, so it's unclear whether these windows will ever reach the people who would benefit from them the most.

Soundproof curtains cost more than $100 per window, which is already cost-prohibitive for those who live in the noisiest parts of a city (not to mention impractical for those that like natural light). It seems like for the immediate future, the ability to get some good peace and quiet will remain a luxury.

The post Noise-Cancelling Windows Are Perfect For People Already Rich Enough To Find Quiet in the City appeared first on Futurism.

Thanks to Contact-wearing Cows, Digital Systems Could Soon Get Much Harder to Hack

Posted: 02 May 2018 10:43 AM PDT

In an effort to protect ourselves from our own idiocy (no, “password123!” is not going to thwart any hackers), our devices and platforms are relying on biometric readings — fingerprints, facial recognition, iris scans — to keep our information secure. Even our bank cards will likely have built-in fingerprint scanners.

But even biometric security systems have their own shortcomings. Fingerprints can be replicated, iris scans have to be stored on a database somewhere, and facial recognition can be spoofed without too much effort.

Now, a team of researchers at the Organic Semiconductor Center at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland are trying to make biometric security safer, by producing tiny stickers that reflect light of a specific wavelength, according to a paper published Tuesday in Nature Communications and covered by IEEE Spectrum. These lasers could make conventional biometric scanners even safer by reading these reflected wavelengths, on top of conventional metrics, like fingerprints, and iris patterns.

Here’s how it would work. A scanner would emit light, directed towards a sticker stuck on anything you’d want to protect  security cards, contact lenses, finger tips. The sticker is made of layers of organic, semiconducting polymers with nanoscale grid of grooves etched on top, which reflects light in just such a way so that it only produces specific wavelengths — the “key,” the equivalent of a password. Each sticker is different because it has different grooves, which emit different wavelengths. Lasers embedded in the scanners then read the wavelength of light, granting access if the sticker credentials are right.

To test their system, the researchers stuck a sticker to a contact lens that was applied to a cow’s eyeball. They shone a light at it, and observed a “well-defined green laser beam emerging from the eye”  exactly what they were looking for. And there’s more good news: the light they shined was low-powered enough to be directed at the eye without damaging it, meaning that the technology could be used in contact lenses for humans.

The researchers are hoping that these stickers could act as a kind of “light barcode,” adding an extra security layer to conventional biometric security methods. For instance, an iris scanner could be outfitted with a low-power laser beam that could read these wavelengths — on top of the conventional near-infrared scans of the iris.

The researchers suggest that these kinds of systems could make counterfeiting banknotes a lot harder, or provide an extra layer of security for fingerprint scanners.

No security system is flawless. It’s a perpetual cat-and-mouse game: security firms develop new technologies, only to have rogue agents find ways around those measures. Biometric security is no exception. The more biometric data we store, the more vulnerable we are, so every additional layer of security will help keeping our data safe.

The post Thanks to Contact-wearing Cows, Digital Systems Could Soon Get Much Harder to Hack appeared first on Futurism.