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Stephen Hawking’s Final Theory Tackles the Multiverse

Posted: 02 May 2018 08:02 AM PDT

Stephen Hawking may have died on March 14, but he’s still pushing physics forward.

Today, the peer-reviewed Journal of High Energy Physics (JHEP) published Hawking’s final theory on the universe’s origin, titled “A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation?” The famed physicist wrote the paper in collaboration with Thomas Hertog, a professor at Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven), and it presents a multiverse theory unlike any other.

Here’s a (really) simplified explanation of (one) multiverse theory. The Big Bang happened. The universe expanded. In some places, it kept expanding. In others, it stopped. In the places where it stopped, universes formed — ours, and a potentially infinite number of others.

According to Hertog, Hawking was never a big fan of the multiverse theory, but he knew it was hard to avoid.

“Pretty much any reasonable model of the Big Bang which we could come up with led us to a multiverse,” Hertog told CBC in March. “If anything is possible — if a multiverse is too gigantic, too wild — then our theory won’t say anything about our own universe, and so it’s useless as a scientific theory.”

Hawking wanted a theory that would let researchers “control the multiverse,” said Hertog. Enter this newest paper: “A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation?”

Hertog first announced this theory at a July 2017 event to celebrate Hawking’s 75th birthday. Two weeks before Hawking’s death, he submitted his most up-to-date version of the theory, which led to today’s publication in JHEP.

In their paper, Hawking and Hertog use a mix of string theory, holographic principle, and math problems that resemble hieroglyphics to arrive at a multiverse theory that’s less unwieldy than the current standard.

“We are not down to a single, unique universe, but our findings imply a significant reduction of the multiverse, to a much smaller range of possible universes,” said Hawking, according to a Cambridge University press release.

“These ideas offer the breathtaking prospect of finding evidence for the existence of other universes,” Carlos Frenk, a professor of cosmology at Durham University who saw an early version of Hawking’s final theory, told The Times. “This would profoundly change our perception of our place in the cosmos.”

Hetzog plans to test the theory’s assumptions in the “real world” by using space telescopes to study gravitational waves. While Hawking won’t be able to continue this work alongside his partner, he seemed satisfied with what he accomplished during his lifetime.

“It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research into theoretical physics,” he said during his 75th birthday celebration back in July. “Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the last 50 years, and I’m happy if I’ve made a small contribution.”

With today’s publication of Hawking’s final theory, that “small” contribution just got a little bigger.

The post Stephen Hawking’s Final Theory Tackles the Multiverse appeared first on Futurism.

States Sue to Stop Trump’s EPA From Stripping Vehicle Emissions Rules

Posted: 02 May 2018 07:27 AM PDT

The Trump administration seems to be striving to undo every regulation put in place by the Obama administration. That’s especially true for environmental regulations —earlier this year, the Trump administration released a plan to roll back rules limiting auto emissions.

But states won’t stand for that.

Eighteen of them are suing the EPA on the grounds that the agency acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in deciding to change auto emissions regulations.

The Obama-era agreement, passed in 2011, requires that all cars have an efficiency of about 50 miles per gallon by 2025. States are free to pass even stricter regulations, which California has done.

The EPA, under Trump, claims those requirements are “based on outdated information” and “may be too stringent” based on current data. Instead, the National Highway and Safety Administration has drafted a plan that would freeze fuel-efficiency standards between 2021 until at least 2026 (instead of updating them every year). And that plan could prevent states from setting their own efficiency rules.

The states’ lawsuit holds that the EPA’s move is unlawful, both because it run contrary to the EPA’s own thoroughly-vetted regulations, and because it violates the Clean Air Act.

"The states joining today's lawsuit represent 140 million people who simply want cleaner and more efficient cars," California governor Edmund G. Brown said in a statement. "This phalanx of states will defend the nation's clean car standards to boost gas mileage and curb toxic air pollution."

In the United States, the fight to protect the environment has officially gone local. As the Trump administration has begun dismantling national commitments to various environmental policies, state and municipal governments have stepped up to renew their own.

Among those who have recommitted to the environment: thirteen states (plus Puerto Rico) that have formed an alliance to uphold the global Paris climate agreement (despite the fact that the president has removed the United States from that agreement). Other states have levied lawsuits against the Trump administration for opening public lands to drilling, for delaying the implementation of ozone pollution rules, and to force efficiency standards for household appliances; several Native American tribes have done the same in response to the administration’s shrinking of national monuments. According to the Pew Charitable Trust “Stateline” project, state attorneys general filed 36 lawsuits against the White House last year alone.

The federal government may be the most powerful entity in the land, but these efforts have more weight than you might expect. The states sticking to the Paris Accord, for example, represent one third of the U.S. population. The states suing the EPA represent over 40 percent of the nation’s car market (many states are participating in both).

These lawsuits are a powerful statement, but their effectiveness is a bit more hit-or-miss.

“Sometimes those lawsuits work, sometimes they don’t,” Holly Yeager, editor of the “Stateline” project, told the Public News Service. “One thing they definitely do is they slow things down and make it more difficult for the Trump administration to do what it wants to do on some of these issues.”

Delay might be exactly what these states are getting at. Even before the lawsuit, United States wouldn’t be able to formally exit the Paris Agreement until 2020; likewise, Trump’s auto emissions plans aren’t slated take effect until 2021. Lawsuits like this one might be able to delay these changes even longer, perhaps long enough so that a new, more sympathetic administration, is in office.

The post States Sue to Stop Trump’s EPA From Stripping Vehicle Emissions Rules appeared first on Futurism.

The Cryptocurrency Vocabulary You Should Know to Be a Pro

Posted: 02 May 2018 07:00 AM PDT

Cryptocurrency capitalist Anthony Pompliano explains the most important terms you need to know to understand what's going on in the crypto community.

The post The Cryptocurrency Vocabulary You Should Know to Be a Pro appeared first on Futurism.

To Understand Why Animals Behave The Way They Do, Scientists Need AI

Posted: 01 May 2018 02:32 PM PDT

Studying an animal's behavior can be a real pain for researchers. It takes hours of observing an animal in carefully-designed lab environments, or out in the wild, to glean an ounce of insight into how they act and why. For a team of biologists at Columbia University, there seemed to be a better way: set up a camera and let artificial intelligence do the tedious observing.

The researchers recently published a study about their technique in the journal eLife. 

The organism in question is a Hydra vulgaris, a tiny animal related to jellyfish and coral that tends to live in ponds. In the past, the researchers studied the animal's nervous system and figured out which parts of its brain prompt much of its behavior. Now they're using AI to track all of that behavior in hopes of figuring out how the two pair up.

The team used an artificial intelligence algorithm that automatically annotated the behaviors of the wormlike Hydra — all of its wiggles, pivots, stretches, and bends. They learned that the species only really engaged in six basic behaviors, which it did no matter the environmental conditions, such as the amount of light, the temperature, or the amount of food nearby.

Video Credit: Han et al, eLife, 2018

While it may seem obvious to just keep a camera on these animals and record what they do, remember that our knowledge of animal behavior is far from complete. For example, we didn't learn until last June that aardvarks drink water because we had never seen them do it.

Now that they have the animal's basic behaviors as well as an understanding of its neural circuitry, the researchers hope to learn how the two connect. That is: they want to map out Hydra vulgaris' nervous system to understand exactly how it causes behavior, and to determine if (and how) it could learn new ones. Because the Hydra is a relatively simple organism and pretty easy to study, such experimentation is much more feasible (and, probably, ethical) than it would be on an animal like a dog, cat, or person.

Of particular interest: the Hydra's ability to carry on with business as usual, even when the biologists were messing around with its environment. The researchers speculate that, in the distant future, understanding this ability could lead to better machines, and vehicles that could withstand extreme environments.

For now, the algorithm these scientists develop could further our understanding of other animals, and even groups of animals, by keeping a watchful eye over them and categorizing everything they do. In the past, this was one of the most arduous tasks for behavioral analysis. It’s tedious and inherently biased, as all human analysis of animal behavior is, since researchers might project intent onto an animal's behavior, or mis-categorize a particular action.

By handing the keys over to an AI, we can eliminate most of those errors. The result: a better assessment of how, and why, animals do what they do.

The post To Understand Why Animals Behave The Way They Do, Scientists Need AI appeared first on Futurism.

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NASA Just Canceled Its Only Moon Rover Project. That’s Bad News for Trump’s Lunar Plans.

Posted: 01 May 2018 02:06 PM PDT

Good news, Americans: We’re going back to the Moon! That is, if President Donald Trump’s December 2017 directive is to be believed. (Why, from a scientific standpoint, you may ask? Just don’t worry about it).

But looks like we won’t put anything in place to help those future astronauts — NASA just canceled its only program developing a Moon rover.

The rover, dubbed the Resource Prospector (RP) mission, was supposed to explore one of the Moon’s poles in search of water, hydrogen and oxygen, which could be mined and used by future astronauts. The mission has been under development for nearly a decade.

Parts of the RP will still end up on the moon in a series of robotic missions, according to a statement posted on NASA’s Resource Prospector website on April 27. The statement also claims that this “expanded campaign” reinforces Trump’s initial instructions (officially called the President’s Space Policy Directive 1).

The Resource Prospector moon rover prototype, a four-wheeled square vehicle with gold foil at the front and a tall column of instruments at the top.
The Resource Prospector prototype searches for a buried sample tube at the Johnson Space Center rock yard in August 2015. Image Credit: NASA

However, the scientific community seems to disagree that the move will help get us any closer to human boots on lunar soil.

In an open letter to NASA Administrator James Bridenstine, the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) writes that “This action is viewed with both incredulity and dismay by our community, especially as the President’s Space Policy Directive 1 directs NASA to go to the lunar surface.” The letter notes that the Resource Prospector was, in fact, the only polar lander Moon rover being developed by any nation; all of the international missions (there are six planned between now and 2025) planned for the lunar poles are by static landers.

“Therefore, the cancellation of RP could be viewed as NASA not being serious about a return to the lunar surface,” the signers write. Ouch. 

According to the letter, the RP would have been ready for preliminary design review in early 2019. That would have positioned it for a potential launch in the 2020s, which could mean that lunar astronauts could have supplies for drinking water, fuel, and other necessities waiting for them before 2030. Redirecting the pieces of RP to other missions, or starting a new Moon rover program from scratch, would most certainly push those missions further back.

Instead, the LEAG letter recommends that the mission return to its previous management within NASA, and scheduled for a 2022 launch. The authors state that this launch date is critical to demonstrate to Congress that NASA can react quickly to the president’s new space policy. Plus, they argue, other international missions planned for the lunar poles present competition for resources there, and the United States should stake its claim to them.

The letter also suggests that RP could help stimulate the growing commercial space sector, providing data to mining companies that want to produce rocket fuel and other consumables.

Setting up a human presence on the Moon could be a big step for space exploration further out in the universe. The Moon could serve as a waypoint for passing spacecraft, allowing them to fuel up and resupply on essentials like water without the difficult and resource-intensive process of landing on Earth; because the Moon has no atmosphere, a landing there is relatively straightforward.

However, if we want to send humans to Mars and beyond anytime soon, we should support the missions that will help them get there, instead of letting them get bogged down by the gravity of bureaucracy.

The post NASA Just Canceled Its Only Moon Rover Project. That’s Bad News for Trump’s Lunar Plans. appeared first on Futurism.

Facebook Wants to Use All Its Dirt on You to Help You Find Love

Posted: 01 May 2018 01:46 PM PDT

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has embarked on an extended apology tour following the Cambridge Analytica debacle. At today’s Facebook F8 developer’s conference, he predictably took the chance to apologize yet again – then announced a host of new Facebook features. Among a number of insignificant software updates (and the new option to wipe your data history) Facebook revealed the real shocker: it’s building a dating platform.

The timing couldn’t be more conspicuous. After all the leaks, and private information given away without consent, Facebook wants you to trust them with what is arguably your most intimate data?

On paper, it all sounds pretty harmless. The dating platform is going to sit on top of regular Facebook profiles, and is an opt-in feature. You will also only find other Facebook users, who have also opted in. Dating profiles are completely separate from your regular profile, and include any information or images you chose to put on there.

And what sort of data experience should we expect from Zuck? “Long-term relationships, not hookups,” says Zuckerberg on stage at the conference.

Sounds life Facebook has done its homework. Except that it will have to convince its two billion users to throw even more data at it. Unfortunately, if recent trends are anything to go by, Facebook may have yet another data goldmine on its hands — users are easily swayed by Facebook’s lucrative, “how-bad-can-it-really-be?” offerings.

Besides, there’s no beating around the bush, Facebook is a monopoly — it wields immense power over its two billion users. But it’s a social media monopoly. And it’s far from the only online dating site on the web. Ironically, other dating platforms have been actively distancing themselves from Facebook recently. Bumble removed its Facebook login function, and Tinder users had to change their login method after Facebook’s framework updates broke Tinder’s Sign-in-with-Facebook feature.

But there are over two billion Facebook users, and only tens of millions of Tinder users. Statistically, there’s a decent chance you’ll have a friend or two signing up to find “long-term” love.

What Facebook will do with dating data is the next big question – and chances are, it won’t be pretty. And at this point, Facebook can do pretty much whatever it wants (including not paying taxes). A company the size of Facebook, won’t start magically regulating itself.

With Dating, Facebook is carrying on collecting people’s data as if nothing happened. Sure, Zuck apologized (profusely), but are we really ready to move on from this yet? Yes, it’s possible that users could start trusting Facebook again in the future. But where does that leave us? The train has long left the station, and yet another crash is likely right around the corner. It’s a dark future, unless regulators are willing to step in before it’s too late.

The post Facebook Wants to Use All Its Dirt on You to Help You Find Love appeared first on Futurism.

High School Students Helped an AI Learn to Read Old Handwritten Texts

Posted: 01 May 2018 01:10 PM PDT

In Italy, 120 high school students helped solve a centuries-old problem: how to give researchers access to the Vatican Secret Archives, a massive collection of documents detailing the Vatican’s activities as far back as the eighth century.

That should look pretty great on their college applications.

The shelves of the Vatican Secret Archives are about 85 kilometers (53 miles) long and house 35,000 volumes of catalogues. But the documents that researchers have scanned and uploaded take up less than an inch. Transcribed documents searchable via computer? Even rarer. That’s because the Vatican seems to not have wanted to share the information. Not that they could, anyway — even today’s optical-character-recognition (OCR) software simply can’t handle the irregularities of the handwritten text.

So if researchers want to view the documents, they have no choice but to visit the Archives in person (assuming the Vatican approves their request for access).

Now, a team of researchers from the Archives and Roma Tre University have a research project designed to address this problem. And they’re using artificial intelligence (AI) to transcribe the documents. Their research was published in ERCIM News, the magazine for the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics.

Understanding Machine Learning [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

The problem: computers aren’t the best at reading human handwriting. So the first step in the so-called In Codice Ratio project was for the students to train it. Using an online platform built by the researchers, the students “voted” on whether a handwritten character sampled from two pages of the Vatican Registers (a collection of letters to and from the Pope) matched variations of a character identified by paleographers (someone who studies old handwriting).

For example, a student might see what looked like a handwritten letter M, accompanied by a series of expert-approved, handwritten M’s. If the student thought the two sample M’s matched closely enough, they voted “Yes.” If not, “No.” Enough “Yes” votes, and that handwritten character received a label: M. It took the 120 students just a few hours to work through the entire training set.

But the AI needed more training. Next, the researchers taught their AI to identify the handwritten characters using a method they called “jigsaw segmentation.”

Instead of looking at the handwriting as a series of words, or even a combination of letters, the AI looked for strokes. For example, a handwritten M wouldn’t look like one character — it would be three strokes closely together. Based on what it knew from the data set produced by the high schoolers, these strokes could be M, or perhaps III.

To help the AI “read” these strokes, the researchers fed it a data set of 1.5 million words in Latin, the language in which the texts are written. Then, when it saw the three strokes, it could determine they probably denoted an M, and not III, since the latter wasn’t likely to appear in a Latin word.

When the researchers tested their AI using four pages of the Vatican Registers, it correctly transcribed 65 percent of the words. That’s nowhere near perfect, but it’s not useless, either. According to the researchers, these transcriptions are accurate enough to provide paleographers with “a solid basis” that could expedite the transcription process. And they’re already working to improve the system.

That would be particularly helpful because the Vatican only grants access to something like three documents per day. So a researcher might *think* they know what documents they want to see and visit the Vatican just to realize those documents aren't helpful.

If everything is transcribed, perhaps researchers wordlwide could eventually search the entire collection for a keyword ("Michelangelo," or something) and see what documents include it, then ask for access to those. Or, perhaps, get the information they need from the Vatican Secret Archives without taking a trip to Vatican City.

The post High School Students Helped an AI Learn to Read Old Handwritten Texts appeared first on Futurism.

Governments Keep Trying To Shut Down Messaging Apps, But It Never Works The Way They Hope

Posted: 01 May 2018 12:27 PM PDT

It’s all a big game of whack-a-mole. People living under repressive regimes all over the world organize protests via social media and private messaging apps. Their governments try to squash them. Shutting down those digital platforms where dissidents connect is one more tool at governments’ disposal. But it never really works the way governments intend it to. In fact, it usually just makes protesters dig their heels in deeper.

After protestors in Iran began using Telegram — a popular messaging app that provides server-client encryption, and optional end-to-end encryption to its users — the regime decided to shut it down altogether (it’s still accessible to most Iranians as of Monday, the Wall Street Journal reports). Thousands of Iranians access the news and message others through the app, all without going through the government’s filters first.

By blocking the app, the government is effectively curtailing citizens’ freedom to access unbiased and uncensored information, not to mention limiting their freedom of speech.

Sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it? But the reality isn’t quite so bad.

Other governments around the world have endeavored to shut down platforms that block information from government agencies’ prying eyes. Russia also banned Telegram last month. It did what it was meant to, but also inadvertently knocked out Amazon Web Server (AWS) service for millions of sites. What a mess.

To the Russian and Iran’s governments, Telegram is spreading misinformation, hate, and a call for violence. And while a bit, er, disingenuous, their worries aren’t entirely unwarranted. The messaging app has been used to gather protestors in violent stand-offs with the government. Plus, people need a platform to connect to others while they’re organizing a revolution. Arab Spring demonstrators commonly used social media and messaging apps.

But that was over seven years ago, and the internet has changed since then. Encryption has become a lot more robust, offering users (near) private channels of communication.

So, yes, shutting down messaging apps is a great way for repressive regimes to look like they’re silencing dissidents. But here’s the thing: it almost never works as intended. It’s laughably easy to circumvent these bans in most cases — you can use another app. Or, if you want to keep using the same ones, users just have to make a simple change to Telegram’s proxy settings, or use a conventional VPN. There’s always the tried-and-true method of just protesting anyway: when Egyptian forces unplugged the entire nation from the internet during the Arab Spring, protesters came flooding into the streets instead.

Governments know how much people like using digital platforms, so they decided to often their own, which also happens to make surveillance a whole lot easier. Iran created a Telegram alternative called “Soroush,” which is run by security forces (shocking, I know). Similarly, Russia hopes to goad its citizens to jump on board the “TamTam” train — again, an app run by so-called “Putin cronies.”

Honestly, these attempts for governments to take control of information are pretty pathetic. We’re pretty sure no one is fooled. In its effort to ban IPs associated with Telegram, Russia even managed to unintentionally knock out parts of its own alternative, TamTam. Nice work.

Banning platforms where dissidents gather doesn’t stop the dissidents from dissenting. In fact, it usually just stokes the flame of protestors’ fury, exposing the forceful hands of oppressive regimes.

In Iran, tensions are only growing between the government and protesters. The uprising in January that took place across a number of Iranian cities was the biggest in almost a decade. Governments’ feeble attempts at banning encrypted messaging apps won’t silence calls for political reform — it may even amplify them.

The post Governments Keep Trying To Shut Down Messaging Apps, But It Never Works The Way They Hope appeared first on Futurism.

Forcing Elite Female Athletes To Medicate Isn’t The Way To Make Sports More Equal

Posted: 01 May 2018 10:45 AM PDT

Woman runners who compete at the highest levels of the sport will soon have to contend with a new rule: the amount of testosterone in their blood must never rise above 5 nmol/L.

This decision, announced last week by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), is intended to prevent athletes from benefiting from what some see as an unfair advantage but will prevent several elite woman athletes from participating in their sport.

But what really happens is that some women will be faced with biological constraints that could be incongruous with their gender; women with a blood-testosterone level higher than the new limit must choose whether to hormone supplements to maintain a lower level of testosterone, or to compete as a man. What is intended to make sports more fair could, in fact, freeze some women out of competitions.

The organization arrived at that 5 nmol/L limit because that’s three times what any woman would have naturally, the officials note, unless she had “Difference of Sexual Development.” Men with lower levels of testosterone have about 1.5 times the IAAF's new limit.

Some women are simply born with higher levels of testosterone. It can be part of a medical condition, but most of the time it’s just by chance, or genetics.

The IAAF's ruling is based on a scientific study that concluded that women with higher levels of testosterone have a natural advantage over other athletes in some events, and the IAAF argues that its new restrictions will level out the playing field of sports.

"We want athletes to be incentivized to make the huge commitment and sacrifice required to excel in the sport, and to inspire new generations to join the sport and aspire to the same excellence," IAAF President Sebastian Coe said in a press release. Coe seems to think that women won't want to become athletes if the playing field isn’t level — that is, if they would have to compete against women with high levels of testosterone.

But. BUT. The study cited by the IAAF found that testosterone had a greater effect on athlete’s performance in events that won’t be affected by the upcoming restrictions, WIRED reported. Plus, women’s results, no matter their testosterone level, didn’t vary all that much compared to the difference between men and women for the same event (a man will pretty much always run a faster mile, for example).

Ultimately, this is a pretty weird way to impose biological limitations on an athlete's gender identity. It also likens some women’s natural (albeit atypical) sexual development to doping. It’s wouldn’t be the first time — South African runner Caster Semenya of South Africa performed so well in the 2009 World Athletics Championships that some questioned whether she ought to be eligible to compete as a woman, so she was subjected to controversial and humiliating gender testing. Spoiler: she is eligible, though she won’t be once the new IAAF rule goes into place in November.

According to the new rules, athletes like Semenya will be allowed to take estrogen hormone therapy, which comes with a number of side effects like liver damage and increased risk of breast cancer. If they want to continue in the sport to which they've dedicated themselves that is. This restriction would also likely prevent transgender women from competing according to their gender identity, as research suggests hormone medication only brings them down to the expected range about a quarter of the time

If the IAAF wants to truly make running fair, there are so many better ways to do it. It could improve access to athletics for disadvantaged children by sponsoring youth leagues or scholarships. It could help fight the stigma facing transgender athletes who want to compete according to their gender identity, a whole other controversy going on now.

What it should not do? Impose arbitrary limitations that will do nothing but punish incredible athletes for parts of their biology that are out of their control.

The post Forcing Elite Female Athletes To Medicate Isn't The Way To Make Sports More Equal appeared first on Futurism.