This Week’s “Planet Earth” Report –China’s Facial Recognition Database to Neanderthal’s Link to Modern Disease and When Robots Rule Earth




This week's link to headlines around the world on the threats, opportunities, and dangers facing our fragile planet –along with an occasional dash of humor, popular culture, and intriguing conspiracy.

Asteroid 2012 TC4 Flew ‘Damn Close’ to Earth – But How Prepared are We for a Strike?



An asteroid the size of a house was being watched carefully this morning by astrophysicists as it hurtled “damn close” to Earth. The large space rock, named 2012 TC4, was first spotted five years ago by the Pan-STARRS telescope at the Haleakala Observatory, in Hawaii, before disappearing as it orbits the sun. It then reemerged in July on a trajectory well inside our lunar orbit.

Scientists said the asteroid swung by Earth about 6:42am BST, passing over Antarctica, and posed no threat.
However it did present space agencies with a rare opportunity to test the planet’s space defences and wargame what they would do if a larger, more threatening asteroid was detected heading straight for Earth.

How close did TC4 come to Earth? TC4 is between 50 to 100ft in diameter and travelling through space at roughly 16,000 mph – 4.5 miles a second. It is past within 27,000 miles of Antarctica. This may sound like a long way away, yet it’s a short distance in planetary terms and around one eighth of the distance between the Earth and the Moon. It is also just above the distance our satellites orbit.

Rolf Densing, who heads the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany said: “It's damn close. The farthest satellites are 36,000 kilometres [22,000 miles] out, so this is indeed a close miss. “TC4 poses absolutely no threat to the planet, but it does afford a chance to test our asteroid tracking and space defence capabilities”.

Earth has been struck by asteroids and meteors repeatedly over its 4.5 billion year lifespan, however the chances of a serious incident happening again in our lifetime are remote.

TC4 does afford space agencies across the globe an opportunity to wargame the planet's space defences for a scenario where Earth was in the path of a more dangerous asteroid. If an asteroid the size of TC4 or slightly bigger was on course to hit a populated area, agencies such as the ESA and NASA would look to warn people and work with relevant governments to potentially start an evacuation.

However if the agencies detected an object over 130ft approaching they would need to start thinking about deflecting the asteroid from Earth's path.

To do this space agencies would fire a satellite into the asteroid in an attempt to shift its trajectory, in what is known as a "kinetic impactor" method. The asteroid would need to be hit when it was at least two years away to give it time alter its trajectory and clear Earth.

Image with thanks to Getty Images

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China Plans Giant Facial Recognition Database of Its 1.3 Billion People




China is building the world's most powerful facial recognition system with the power to identify any one of its 1.3 billion citizens within three seconds. The goal is for the system to able to match someone's face to their ID photo with about 90 per cent accuracy. The project, launched by the Ministry of Public Security in 2015, is under development in conjunction with a security company based in Shanghai.

The system can be connected to surveillance camera networks and will use cloud facilities to connect with data storage and processing centres distributed across the country, according to people familiar with the project.

However, some researchers said it was unclear when the system would be completed, as the development was encountering many difficulties due to the technical limits of facial recognition technology and the large population base.

At present, similar systems operate on a smaller level, including police databases and city or provincial ID pools. But these operate separately and are on a much smaller scale. There is also a national database of police suspects and people of interest to the government. These may continue to be used independently after the national system is established.

The core data set for the national system, containing the portrait information of each Chinese citizen, amounts to 13 terabytes.

With a smile or blink of the eyes to a camera, students can now enter their university halls, travellers can board planes without using a boarding pass and diners can pay for a meal at KFC. Some restaurants have even offered discounts to customers based on a machine that ranks their looks according to an algorithm. Customers with "beautiful" characteristics – such as symmetrical features – get better scores than those with noses that are "too big" or "too small" and those that get better scores will get cheaper meals. Some public lavatories in Beijing also use facial recognition so that the automatic dispensing machines will deny toilet paper to people who ask for it more than once within a given period.

Facial recognition could supersede other personal identification methods that are used to make payments such as scanning fingerprints or QR codes on a mobile phone. But the government project has prompted controversy among artificial intelligence experts.

Cheng Mingming, a professor of computer science at Nankai University in Tianjin, said that despite the scale of the project, technological advances meant that all the information could be stored in small, portable drives – which raised the risk of data theft. He said a palm-sized commercial hard drive nowadays could store 10 terabytes or more of data and you could "pack it in a suitcase and board a flight. If the facial data and related personal information is stolen and put on the internet, it will cause big problems."

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"Safe Spaces" –Landscape Architects Now Design for Mass Shootings




The new bulletproof Sandy Hook Elementary School Robert Benson Photography courtesy Svigals + Partners

With mass shootings on the rise, an unexpected group of professionals is trying to make it easier for people to avoid getting killed in the melee: landscape architects. These are the people who place just so many oversized planters on a pedestrian thoroughfare to prevent an attack by car bomb from hitting the crowd or the buildings behind the barricades. And one of their first design challenges is the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, built to replace the site of the infamous 2012 massacre.

During the school day, visitors have to pass through the gap in a rain garden to get to the hardened entrance, and they can be observed from inside during the approach, thanks to the Svigals + Partners design. Once inside, the doors close, and classroom doors deadbolt automatically. Windows are coated with a special hardened glaze, so that even if the window is shot, it would take an attacker 10 to 15 minutes with a sledgehammer to force open a hole big enough to crawl through. Delay animates everything about the design, to buy time for the people inside and mitigate the harm an attacker can commit while waiting for rescuers to arrive.

While urban planners and architects can’t hope to stop all the forces that lead to a mass shooting, they can understand how the crowd flees. And they can design spaces to discourage crimes of opportunity and reduce the damage an attacker can do, as this elementary school has. When people have to shelter in place, it is the past work of architects that determines just how safe those places are. Outdoor spaces designed by architects and built with crowd dynamics in mind might save lives when the next concert suddenly turns into a bloodbath.

Landscape architecture already adapted to the post–9/11 fear of terror attacks. In 2004, the American Society of Landscape Architects held a symposium on this new reality, called “Safe Spaces: Designing for Security and Civic Values..” The symposium featured experts talking about everything from “hardening historic walls without sacrificing original materials” to using dense clusters of trees as a barrier for cars that wouldn’t stop people on foot from walking around.

When it comes to outdoor spaces, security focuses on what happened in the past. That can mean large barricades to stop cars from entering, bomb-sniffing dogs to check abandoned backpacks, and bag checks at gated entrances. Yet, all these defenses share a failure in common: there are protections against what previously worked, against ways past attackers entered schools or ambushed marathons or scattered concerts and hurt people. It is hard to prepare for new attacks, from novel directions. Like the attack in Las Vegas, where a man on the 32nd floor of a hotel with a room overlooking a concert used almost two dozen semi-automatic rifles to shoot people on the ground below.

“Whatever risks we evaluate, people get crazier and crazier, or cleverer and cleverer,” says Jay Brotman, a partner at Svigals + Partners. “Vegas is a good example. They probably had all these layers of barriers, people watching everything else, but somebody did something totally different that took them all totally out of play.”

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Machines have been displacing humans on job tasks for several centuries, and for seventy years many of these machines have been controlled by computers. While the raw abilities of these computers have improved at an exponential rate over many orders of magnitude, the rate at which human jobs have been displaced has remained modest and relatively constant. This is reasonably because human jobs vary enormously in the computing power required to do those jobs adequately. This suggests that the rate of future job displacement may remain mild and relatively constant even if computing power continues to improve exponentially over a great many more orders of magnitude.

Even if it takes many centuries, however, eventually robots may plausibly do pretty much all the jobs that need doing. A future world dominated by robots could in principle evolve gradually from a world dominated by humans. The basic nature, divisions, and distributions of cities, nations, industries, professions, and firms need not change greatly as machines slowly displace humans on jobs. That is, machines might fit into the social slots that humans had previously occupied.

However, there could also be much larger changes in the organization of a robot society if, as seems plausible, machines are different enough from humans in their relative costs or productivity so as to make substantially different arrangements more efficient.

How might one try to influence such a robot future? One straightforward approach is to accumulate resources, and entrust them to appropriate organizations. Perhaps you dislike the overall nature or structure that a robot society would likely have in a decentralized world with only weak global coordination. In this case, you might try to promote large-scale political institutions, and encourage them to adopt sufficiently strong regulations.

The structures of a future robot society may realistically result from a gradual evolution over time from structures in the most robot-like parts of our society today. In this case, one might hope to influence future structures via our choices today of structures in computer-intensive parts of our society. And if one feared high levels of firm concentration in a particular industry of a future robot society, one might try to promote low levels of firm concentration in that industry today.

It is possible that a future world will be filled with robots similar to the kinds of robots that we have been building for many decades. However, it is also possible to fill a future with a very different kind of robot: brain emulations, also known as “uploads” or “ems”. To make a brain emulation, one takes a particular human brain, scans it to record its particular cell features and connections, and then builds a computer model that processes signals according to those same features and connections. Like humans, ems can learn, and have friends, lovers, bosses, and colleagues. One might talk with it, and convince it to do useful jobs.

The three technologies required to create ems (computing, scanning, and cell modelling) all seem likely to be ready within roughly a century, well before the two to four centuries estimated for ordinary robots to do almost all jobs.

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Technology Disruption Solution! Coal Miners Shift to Beekeeping





Former coal miners or citizens whose lives have been shaped by the coal mining industry in southern West Virginia spent their summer learning how to establish and operate bee colonies thanks to help from the University of Delaware's Debbie Delaney.

Delaney, associate professor of entomology in UD's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, spent her summer in Summers County working as a consultant through Appalachian Headwaters which is a non-profit organization that formed the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective. Delaney said that the goal was to help get the socioeconomic growth program up and running for displaced miners in 14 counties in southern West Virginia.

"We got about 500 nucleus colonies or nucs, which are small colonies of bees, and a queen and all summer we've been erecting bear fences and creating bee yards so we can grow the colonies over the season and get them through the winter," said Delaney.

Beginning next year, local partners will come on board and get hives which will be a way for them to generate income. Delaney said that how much income will vary depending on what kind of forage is available during that time of year–and that since the initial installation began after foraging season, they have had to feed the bees a lot to get them up to weight to make it through winter.

"Typically, I'd say in that area of West Virginia, if they do things right, they should be able to get close to 200 pounds [of honey] off of each hive," said Delaney.

The way the program operates, the local partners will get the colonies, pull their honey off and bring it to the experts at the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective to extract.

"I've been helping them design a big honey processing building that will be able to process 100,000 pounds of honey and then we will bottle it, we'll market it and we'll sell it to a higher end community," said Delaney. "We're not just selling the honey but also a story which is really cool."

Kate Asquith, program director at Appalachian Headwaters, said that starting a beekeeping operation can be a risky and expensive endeavor and they wanted to help the first-time beekeepers get over those hurdles.

"This is a way to make sure that they're getting as much profit from their beekeeping as they can," said Asquith. "Our hope is that we can help people get a lot more money for the work that they're doing and Debbie is a really big part of all of it. She's been a wonderful piece of helping us plan out the program."

Appalachian Beekeeping Collective is headquartered at an old camp that was once owned and operated by coal mining companies that saw thousands of kids of coal miners go through the camp from different mining states.

Because the people are tied to the land and invested in the history of the area, Delaney said that it made sense to get them involved in beekeeping. "They're native and they've been there for generations and they know every mountain, every hill has a name even though it might not be on a map. Because they're so tied to the land, this operation had to be something that was sustainable and that was also very connected to the environment and beekeeping is definitely both of those things," said Delaney.

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Sex, Disease, and Extinction: What Ancient DNA Tells Us About Humans and Neanderthals


Sapiens_neanderthal_comparison_en_blackbackground.0 (1)


Three new studies uncover details about the sex lives of human ancestors, and the DNA modern humans inherited
Two new genetic analyses help explain the unexpected roles Neanderthals play in modern human life — influencing everything from hair color to mental health. The new research also adds to evidence that Neanderthals lived in small, isolated communities, while a third study suggests that early modern humans may have developed large social networks that facilitated the exchange of mates and ideas.

The findings help explain what exactly Neanderthal DNA is doing in many modern human genomes, and how it affects our health. Piecing together the sex lives of our human ancestors may also help us understand how and when these genes were exchanged. All together, the three studies — published in various journals last week — contribute key clues to the mystery of why humans survived to populate the globe, even as our close cousins, the Neanderthals, died out.

Modern humans, or Homo sapiens, and Neanderthals shared a common ancestor roughly half a million years ago. They then split and evolved in parallel: humans in Africa, and Neanderthals on the Eurasian continent. When humans finally ventured to Eurasia, they had sex with Neanderthals, swapping DNA around. Today, people who aren’t of African descent owe roughly 2 percent of their DNA to their Neanderthal ancestors. “The first question that anyone ever asks is ‘Well, what does it do?’” says Janet Kelso, a bioinformatician who studies genome evolution at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Previous studies have linked Neanderthal DNA to a big range of health conditions in modern-day people, including depression, nicotine addiction, and skin disorders. But it’s not all bad: understanding which stretches of Neanderthal DNA stuck around might also help scientists tease apart which traits might have helped ancient humans survive in Eurasia, like changes to skin and hair, or resistance to certain diseases.

There’s also another mystery to solve: Neanderthals went extinct about 40,000 years ago, while Homo sapiens did not. Why? There are a lot of theories, including that alliances between modern humans and dogs helped humans hunt food better, essentially starving Neanderthals out of Europe. Or, humans might have reproduced faster than Neanderthals, multiplying and edging them out. “It’s still one of those unsolved and really interesting questions,” says Martin Sikora, a geneticist at the University of Denmark. “Were we more successful because we had better technology, or was it just a consequence of pure numbers?”

To piece the story together, scientists are searching for more Neanderthal genomes locked in ancient bones, and for more Neanderthal DNA hiding in present-day genomes. The studies published last week have uncovered both.

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The Last Jedi: Who Will Turn Dark?

The mysterious new Star Wars trailer hints at a new take on the saga’s eternal theme. “I need someone to show me my place in all this,” says Rey, the hero of the new Star Wars trilogy and the presumed good-guy heir to Luke Skywalker.




So ends the latest trailer for The Last Jedi, the eighth film of the main Star Wars saga (not counting efforts like the spin-off Rogue One from last year). Details about Rian Johnson’s sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams and Disney’s record-smashing reboot of the franchise, have been understandably sparse, and the latest preview doesn’t fill in a whole lot of new plot information. It does throw the fandom some prime-cut daydreaming material and merchandise bait: hulking “Gorilla Walkers,” the craggiest glimpse yet at Supreme Leader Snoke, glimmering icicle foxes, a sickeningly adorable Porg. It also hints at some darkly tinged themes—including the prospect of shifting alliances.

If The Force Awakens reused much of the structure of the very first Star Wars film, it stands to reason the follow-up will somehow echo The Empire Strikes Back. Already, some call-backs are obvious. Four-legged war machines descended from the ones that bore down on Hoth in the 1980 film appear, now, on a different sort of white planet: presumably the salt flats of Crait, a location introduced in recent Star Wars books. Luke Skywalker’s training sequence with Yoda on Dagobah would seem to have an analogue in Rey being tutored by a much older Luke on Ahch-To, the water planet where The Force Awakens left off.

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Alien Hunters Discover 'UFO Highway' Across America

37th parallel ufo highway

According to data from the National UFO Reporting Center, UFO sightings around the world have reached an all-time high. Statistics show individuals in the US are more likely to witness a UFO. A brother and sister alien hunting team have discovered a “UFO highway” across America along which hundreds of unexplained events have taken place – from cattle mutilations to alien abductions.



Chuck Zukowski and Debbie Ziegelmeyer have spent years travelling across the US investigating hundreds of UFO sightings and other paranormal occurrences.

The pair believe that the 37th latitude line is a kind of UFO or paranormal “highway” along which extra terrestrial craft enter and exit the earth. Their theory is now the subject of a book called the 37th Parallel – and is about to be made into a Hollywood blockbuster in the next few months.

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On the Ground in Pyongyang: Could Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump Goad Each Other into a Devastating Confrontation?



By Evan Osnos

A military officer at the D.M.Z. This summer, the prospect of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea, the most hermetic power on the globe, entered a realm of psychological calculation reminiscent of the Cold War.

1. The Madman Theory -The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, so there is no embassy in Washington, but for years the two countries have relied on the “New York channel,” an office inside North Korea’s mission to the United Nations, to handle the unavoidable parts of our nonexistent relationship. The office has, among other things, negotiated the release of prisoners and held informal talks about nuclear tensions. In April, I contacted the New York channel and requested permission to visit Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Americans are accustomed to eruptions of hostility with North Korea, but in the past six months the enmity has reached a level rarely seen since the end of the Korean War, in 1953. The crisis has been hastened by fundamental changes in the leadership on both sides. In the six years since Kim Jong Un assumed power, at the age of twenty-seven, he has tested eighty-four missiles—more than double the number that his father and grandfather tested.

Just before Donald Trump took office, in January, he expressed a willingness to wage a “preventive” war in North Korea, a prospect that previous Presidents dismissed because it would risk an enormous loss of life. Trump has said that in his one meeting with Barack Obama, during the transition, Obama predicted that North Korea, more than any other foreign-policy challenge, would test Trump. In private, Trump has told aides, “I will be judged by how I handle this.”

On the Fourth of July, North Korea passed a major threshold: it launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile powerful enough to reach the mainland United States. In response, on July 21st, authorities in Hawaii announced that they would revive a network of Cold War-era sirens, to alert the public in the event of a nuclear strike. Trump said that he hopes to boost spending on missile defense by “many billions of dollars.” On September 3rd, after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon far larger than any it had revealed before—seven times the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, warned that a threat to America or its allies would trigger a “massive military response.”

A few days after the July 4th missile test, Pak told me that I could book a flight to Pyongyang. I submitted a list of people I wanted to interview, including diplomats and Kim Jong Un himself. About the latter, Pak only laughed. (Kim has never given an interview.) After Pak stopped laughing, he said I could talk to other officials. I wanted to understand how North Koreans think about the kind of violence that their country so often threatens. Were the threats serious, or mere posturing? How did they imagine that a war would unfold? Before my arrival in North Korea, I spent time in Washington, Seoul, and Beijing; many people in those places, it turned out, are asking the same things about the United States.

About a week before my flight to Pyongyang, America’s dealings with North Korea deteriorated further. On August 5th, as punishment for the missile test, the U.N. Security Council adopted some of the strongest sanctions against any country in decades, blocking the sale of coal, iron, and other commodities, which represent a third of North Korea’s exports. President Trump, in impromptu remarks at his golf club in New Jersey, said that “any more threats to the United States” will be met “with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A few hours later, North Korea threatened to fire four missiles into the Pacific Ocean near the American territory of Guam, from which warplanes depart for flights over the Korean Peninsula. Trump replied, in a tweet, that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”

Suddenly, the prospect of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the most hermetic power on the globe had entered a realm of psychological calculation reminiscent of the Cold War, and the two men making the existential strategic decisions were not John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev but a senescent real-estate mogul and reality-television star and a young third-generation dictator who has never met another head of state. Between them, they had less than seven years of experience in political leadership.

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Richard Branson: Basic Income Is the 'Least a Country Should Do'



Artificial intelligence is poised to disrupt the economy in the coming years, as machine-learning technology begins to create wealth based on decisions that are today made by humans. The coming displacement of people from their jobs in the financial sector may well have a greater impact than the displacement of the working class from jobs in the service and manufacturing industries, given the salary differential and greater amount of money being moved in finance, compared to blue collar industries being affected by automation.

That job disruption is just around the corner, a prediction made by President Barack Obama during his farewell address: “The next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas,” he said. “It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” (The Trump administration has largely been quiet on automation and AI with a few confusing exceptions).
Outside D.C., a growing number of business leaders and politicians are looking for a way to avoid the pitfalls of widespread employment gaps, and the safety net should be basic income, if you ask Richard Branson, the English business magnate.

In a wide-ranging interview published by Business Insider Nordic last week during the Nordic Business Forum in Helsinki, Finland, Branson reignited his call for exploration of basic income as a social safety net.
“Basic income is going to be all the more important,” Branson said. “If a lot more wealth is created by AI, the least that the country should be able to do … is that a lot of that wealth that is created by AI goes back into making sure that everybody has a safety net.”

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