Fifteen languages, multiple platforms and one great institution: that is Scientific American , which celebrates its 168th year in August. I had another occasion to appreciate all of the above recently when we held our annual meeting of the international editions in New York City for the first time in many years. The multicultural mix, I have always thought, simply reflects the global collaborative nature of science itself.[More]
Two weeks ago, the Guardian published PowerPoint slides detailing a previously unknown, sweeping surveillance program by the National Security Administration. Shortly thereafter, the source of those leaks revealed himself to be Edward Snowden, a former security contractor now seeking asylum in Hong Kong. Yesterday he held an online question-and-answer session at the Guardian. Here are the six most important things we learned:
1. The NSA stores people's calls.
A leak revealed that the NSA had collected three months of phone records on all Verizon customers. Early analysis focused on the role of metadata, like when the call was and to what number, thinking that warrants protected the actual voice content of a call from being read. Snowden disagreed:
Snowden was straightforward about NSA spying on the voice content of phone calls, which are stored automatically and accessed with warrants passed by the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court, which Snowden called a rubber stamp.
2. The extent of the NSA's access to tech company information is still unclear.
PRISM is a program that involves the NSA having access to information stored by nine major American internet technology companies. The most contested part of that program was a claim about the NSA having "direct access" to tech company servers, which most organizations named in the program have explicitly denied. According to Snowden:
SIGINT is short for signals intelligence, which just means electronic communication. By this account, phone and email communications are stored and accessed by government agencies when needed. Left unanswered is how or where this information is stored; the best theory so far involves tech companies uploading raw data to specific NSA servers when asked. Snowden promised further revelations were forthcoming.
3. Snowden sought refuge in Hong Kong deliberately.
Fearing persecution and treatment similar to that of WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning, he chose to flee the United States. Why Hong Kong and not popular bastion of freedom Iceland?
4. Snowden is confused by where cyberespionage starts and cyberwar begins.Congress hasn't declared war on the countries - the majority of them are our allies - but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people.
This is a confusing division! Snowden is attempting to describe cyberwar, but cyberwar is such a weird vague term that what he's actually describing here is mostly just espionage. The NSA is trying to track how people are connected, for reasons of national security, without the consent of foreign governments. That's sketchy, but that's because it is spy work, and all spy work is sketchy. Nations never feel the need to declare war before they start spying, and the U.S. has only ever declared war five times, which makes it a bad metric.
Snowden also objects to cyberattacks against civilian institutions, universities, and private businesses. It's worth noting that Snowden himself was working as a civilian in private business doing work for government on a contract. The lines between government, business, and private blur when it comes to online security. As cyber becomes a bigger part of the future, it's important to understand how the rules and norms of war will change. A great place to start is NATO's Tallinn Manual, a non-binding statement by legal experts on how the laws of war apply in cyberspace.
5. Snowden is disappointed in the TMZ-style coverage of him, instead of a larger conversation about the leak.
Stories that have focused on Snowden's girlfriend, his 19-year-old online profile, and a modeling photoshoot all detract from what was supposed to be a national debate about sweeping government surveillance powers. This is true! But the public's ability to put a face and a personality to the source of the leaks is perhaps what has made this already-compelling story that much more powerful.
6. Snowden thinks that "being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American."
He's also disappointed in Obama, noting:
Researchers in Switzerland recently developed a concept to use a swarm of UAVs as a local communication network for emergency workers in disaster areas.
Fight is freedom. The power to rise into the air and reach a destination unshackles us from gravity, distance, topography, and time. This is why we, as a publication, return to flight so often. It is humanity's greatest victory against the limitations of being human.
It can also, at its fringe at least, seem a bit fantastical. For example, I recently shook hands with Bertrand Piccard, adventurer and pilot of the Solar Impulse, just before he set off from California on the first cross-country flight of a sun-powered plane. I pointed out that the craft seemed a bit rickety. In order to make it on today's meager batteries, it needs to be unbelievably light. Piccard smiled brilliantly. "When the Wright Brothers went up, no one could have imagined a plane carrying 300 people," he said. He's right. Dreaming far beyond today's limitations made flight possible.
That was the spirit with which we undertook our survey of the Future of Flight . We want to provide a showcase for all that could be when you strip limitations away. Likewise, it was with this same spirit that we undertook an experiment.
Modern life looks a lot like the dreams of the past century. Why not ask today's best sci-fi minds what they dream about?As Hollywood's summer flood of rockets and phasers began, we asked sci-fi writers and artists people whose award-winning work will undoubtedly be optioned soon, at which point they'll stop emailing us back) to take on a few big topics. Cities. Work. Space travel. The self. Modern life looks a lot like the dreams of the past century. Why not ask today's best sci-fi minds what they dream about? We've also included whole chapters of out-there, visionary sci-fi in our digital edition. And on your tablet, July includes my conversation with M. Night Shyamalan, who reinvented our planet as it might look 1,000 years from now in his first space opera, After Earth. You'll also find a hard-core geek-out between writers Dan Engber and Erik Sofge, who dissect the jetpacks and robot interfaces of summer blockbusters in this issue. Please let us know if you enjoy our effort to forecast tomorrow based on today's dreams. Because we just might do it again.
Latin America and the Caribbean could meet 100 percent of their electricity needs with renewable energy, a new Inter-American Development Bank study finds.[More]
Women who live in areas with polluted air are up to twice as likely to have an autistic child than those living in communities with cleaner air, according to a new study published today.[More]
Wikimedia CommonsAll human voices, not just the annoying ones.
The causes, symptoms, and effects of autism are some of the most puzzling mysteries in all of psychology and neuroscience, but researchers at Stanford University may have connected a few of the dots. They dove deep into the brains (not literally) of a selection of kids with and without autism, and found that those with autism respond differently to the human voice than those without.
The researchers took 20 kids with similar IQs and reading abilities, 10 with high-functioning autism and 10 without any sign of autism, and examined activity between several parts of the brain. There is a theory, says the lead researcher, that social cues don't interact with the brain's reward system in the same way as in non-autistic people. This study supports that: it found that in the brains of the kids with autism, there's a significantly weaker connection between the parts of the brain that interprets voices and the part that doles out pleasure. In other words, the sound of the human voice gives those with autism less joy.
There's also a weaker link between those voice-processing centers and the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that deals in emotion. That suggests a neurological reason for an autistic person's inability or disinterest in social cues--their brains don't reward them for caring about these things.
The study doesn't have any immediate ramifications for the treatment or even diagnosis of autism, and it only tested one very particular segment of those on the autism spectrum. Still, it's pretty fascinating, and may lead these or other researchers down a path that could help treat or diagnose autism in the future.
WrigleyMannitol, a plant-produced sweetener used in gum and candies, has proven effective at blocking production of a Parkinson's-related protein.
A sweetener produced by most plants could hold the key to treating Parkinson's disease, a recent paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry asserts.
Mannitol, a sugar alcohol found in plants and fungi, is used as a sweetener for candies and jams, as well as as the dusting powder on chewing gum and in chewable pharmaceutical tablets. Researchers from Tel Aviv University have found it can also prevent a protein called α-synuclein from clumping in the brain, which has been associated with Parkinson's Disease.
After discovering that mannitol could effectively prevent the protein from clumping in test tubes in the lab, the researchers studied the locomotive abilities of fruit flies that had been genetically altered to carry the gene for α-synuclein by watching their climbing behavior in a test tube. Only 38 percent of the transgenic flies could climb up a test tube at first, versus 72 percent of normal flies.
After eating food laced with mannitol for almost a month, 70 percent of the transgenic flies could then climb up the tube. The protein's presence in the brain had also been reduced by 70 percent.
One of the study's authors, Daniel Segal, a professor of molecular microbiology and biotechnology at Tel Aviv University, suggests that combining mannitol with other Parkinson's medications may help the other treatments break through the blood/brain barrier.
Mannitol would be an attractive treatment option because it's already approved for various medical uses by the FDA, as a diuretic and as a rinsing agent during certain surgical procedures.
N'DJAMENA (Reuters) - Authorities in Chad have arrested a suspected member of a poaching gang accused of slaughtering nearly 200 elephants and killing five Cameroonian park rangers, the environment minister said on Tuesday.
Rising demand for ivory among Asia's newly affluent classes has led to a rise in poaching by well-armed, highly organized criminal gangs that take advantage of Central Africa's security void to prey upon the region's forest elephants.
Idriss Hassan was transporting 124 elephant tusks when he was arrested in the village of Gore, near the border with neighboring Central African Republic.
"Idriss Hassan has operated since 2011 in the Salamat and Guera regions and near the borders between Chad, Cameroon and Central African Republic," Environment Minister Mahamat Issa Halikimi said in a statement published on Tuesday.
The ministry accuses Hassan of belonging to a gang responsible for killing 149 elephants in August 2012 and January this year. [More]
joel.geerling via Wikimedia CommonsIt's 6.5 times bigger than the network Google premiered last year, which has learned to recognize YouTube cats.
Last summer, in conjunction with Stanford researchers, Google[x], the R&D arm where ideas like Project Glass are born, built the world's largest artificial neural network designed to simulate a human brain. Now Andrew Ng, who directs Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Lab and was involved with Google's previous neural endeavor, has taken the project a step further. He and his team have created another neural network, more than six times the size of Google's record-setting achievement.
Artificial neural networks can model mathematically the way biological brains work, allowing the machine to learn to think in the same ways that humans do--making them capable of recognizing things like speech, objects and even cats like we do.
The model Google developed in 2012 was made up of 1.7 billion parameters, the digital version of neural connections. It successfully taught itself to recognize cats in YouTube videos. (Because, what else is the human brain good for?)
Since then, Ng and other Stanford researchers have created an even bigger network, with 11.2 billion parameters, that only requires the computational power of 16 servers with graphics processing unit, or GPU, computing--compared to the 16,000 CPU processors Google's network required. The technology is being presented at the International Conference on Machine Learning in Atlanta this week.
From an AI standpoint, that means we're getting a smidgen closer to being able to give our robots (or drones) human-level intelligence. On the other hand--we should probably just accept the fact that we're that much closer to the sentient-robot takeover. Looking on the bright side, compared to what you're lugging around on top of your neck, 11 billion neural connections isn't that many--the human brain boasts some 100 trillion connections.
By Barbara Lewis and Charlie Dunmore
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Senior members of the German government have warned EU member states that German automakers could scale back or scrap production plans in their countries unless they support weakened carbon emissions rules, according to diplomatic sources.
With EU governments and lawmakers aiming to finalize the rules next week, which most of the 27 member states back, Germany has stepped up the pressure on them to water down limits on vehicle emissions to protect the country's mighty car industry, particularly luxury makers such as BMW and Daimler.
The sources added that some calls warning EU member states of possible consequences have come from members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's office.
Her office declined to comment.
One EU diplomat said Berlin had reminded Lisbon of Portugal's 78 billion euro ($100 billion) euro zone bailout, which was heavily financed by Germany, in its bid to convince the country to drop its opposition to softer limits.
"They have tried everything at the highest level to pressure member states, in particular countries in the bailout club, to support their proposals," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Germany seems hell-bent on pressing its interests. [More]
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia and Egypt cooled talk of war on Tuesday and agreed to more dialogue to resolve a row over a giant dam that the Horn of Africa nation is building on the Nile, on which Egyptians depend on for almost all their water.
Africa's second and third most populous nations have traded barbs in past weeks about Ethiopia's new hydroelectric project, which Egypt fears will reduce a water supply vital for its 84 million people, who mostly live in the Nile valley and delta.
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi said on June 10 he did not want war, but would keep "all options open", prompting Ethiopia to say it was ready to defend its $4.7 billion Great Renaissance Dam, which lies near the border with Sudan.
Ethiopia summoned the Egyptian ambassador this month after politicians in Cairo were shown on television suggesting they supported Ethiopian rebels and military action.
"Some pronouncements were made in the heat of the moment because of emotions. [More]
From Applied DNA Sciences' explanation of how its suspect-tagging technology works
Applied DNA SciencesForget dye packs. Banks and police agencies are trying out some interesting new DNA-based devices.
You know DNA makes proteins. It tells living things how to tick. It carries blue eyes and an early receding hairline from father to son (Sorry, son!). But beyond what it does biologically, it's also just a carrier for information-a barcode, but one that can barely be seen even under advanced microscopes.
Now, a few different companies are making devices that use DNA in that way, as an invisible bar code to tag people. The devices allow banks and police officers to spray or splat suspects with millions of copies of a colorless DNA tag at the scene of the crime. For example, Applied DNA Sciences of Stony Brook, New York, advertises a system that is able to spray a room with DNA-laden fog in case someone comes in, demanding money. Later, investigators may identify the criminal from those DNA bits, Discovery News reported.
The DNA tags are made with entirely artificial sequences, so that every tagging device may have a different sequence. The genetic material is difficult to wash off completely and lasts about two weeks, Discovery News reported.
Check out Discovery for some of the specific devices companies have made, from that fog machine to a kind of DNA paint gun.
Before it thought of misting bank robbers with DNA, Applied DNA Sciences also created genetic material-based barcodes for verified genuine luxury goods and for tracking stolen cash.
What Inspires You?
"Astrophotography and shooting landscapes is what I do, and I love photographing the night sky and capturing what can't be seen by the naked eye. That's why I blended this surreal image of a dragon sculpture out in the desert with a series of time exposures of concentric star trails. In my mind I saw the dragon as red so I light painted it. I hope my images inspire people to get out into nature themselves."
What Enables You?
"I stepped up to the full-frame Canon EOS 6D because it expands my creative potential. It captures an extremely wide brightness range and delivers images with amazing detail, vibrant color, and virtually no noise, even in low light and at high ISOs. Its precise and super-sensitive AF system lets me focus on a single star to set my infinity point! And with its enhanced battery capacity I can shoot for hours on a single charge."
Eye-tracking has become the tech trend du jour . Advertisers use data on where you look and when to better capture your attention. Designers employ it to improve products. Game and phone developers utilize it to offer the latest in hands-free interaction .[More]
There's a place in Austin, Texas, where the residents have agreed to be the test subjects for a renewable energy and smart grid future--and it's named after a nut. The Pecan Street demonstration project--part of the newly built 280-hectare neighborhood known as Mueller--has become the largest concentrated community of electric vehicle (EV) owners in the world. The community now has nearly 60 Chevy Volt owners alone, thanks to the demonstration project's commitment to match the federal government's $7,500 rebate incentive, effectively halving the price of the hybrid electric cars. And, in addition to learning where and when EV owners charge up their cars, Volt manufacturer General Motors is hoping to learn from the folks in the Pecan Street project how a residential fleet of electric vehicles might change the electric grid.[More]
Before June 1, 2013 Turkey’s ruling political party and its leader seemed invincible. They were regarded as the architects of a decade-long economic boom and their public support seemed unshakable. This image shattered in less than a week. They were suddenly described as incompetent and backward with an uncertain political future .[More]
By Abhishek Madhukar
DHARAMSALA (Reuters) - Early monsoon rains have swollen the Ganges, India's longest river, swept away houses, killed at least 60 people and left tens of thousands stranded, officials said on Tuesday.
The rains are at least twice as heavy as usual in northwest and central India as the June-September monsoon spreads north, covering the whole country a month faster than normal.
The National Disaster Management Authority said a response force of 12 teams of 45 people each had been in action since Sunday, in addition to the army and border police.
In the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, where officials say at least 60 people had been killed, air force helicopters airdropped commandos to help rescue some of the tens of thousands of people unable to move because of the floods.
"We are on a war footing, we are working day and night," said R. [More]
By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Environmental groups and a dozen states and cities said Monday they will delay planned legal action against the U.S. [More]
Ordinarily, you’d call a pistachio a pistachio. But if you’re, for example, an immigrant from China and you’ve just seen a Ming vase, you might call a pistachio a “happy nut.” Because visual cues can affect language in people with multiple cultural experiences. That’s according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . [Shu Zhang et al, Heritage-culture images disrupt immigrants’ second-language processing through triggering first-language interference ][More]