Today’s “Planet Earth Report” — Antarctica Danger, #TheTruthIsOutThere, Society-Shifting Power of AI

 
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 December 18, 2017: Today's links to headline stories from around the world on the threats, opportunities, and dangers facing our fragile planet –along with an occasional dash of humor, popular culture, and an intriguing conspiracy theory or two.

In “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Luke Skywalker Finally Becomes Cool

 

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Long stranded in the public imagination as portraying an earnest do-gooder, Mark Hamill, in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” gets the scene-stealing lines and relatable interactions he’s always deserved. Photograph by Lucasfilm / Everett

The film critic Pauline Kael, in her brief review of “Star Wars,” in 1977, wrote that George Lucas “has got the tone of bad movies down pat: you never catch the actors deliberately acting badly, they just seem to be bad actors.” Kael didn’t single out any of the young performers, but it’s safe to assume that her assessment included Mark Hamill, who played the hero Luke Skywalker.

All the actors complained to Lucas about the stiff dialogue that he made them speak, but Hamill was especially ill-served in the original movie and its two sequels. “But I was going in to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters,” he brays, when we first meet him. He whines to Obi-Wan Kenobi and whinges at Yoda. Even in his grandest moments, as when, in “The Empire Strikes Back,” he learns that Darth Vader is his father, he sounds like a surly teen who’s been grounded: “That’s not true. That’s impossible.”

By the opening scene of “Return of the Jedi,” in 1983, age and experience had lent Hamill (and Luke Skywalker) some gravitas, but he’s quickly put in his place by the gangster worm Jabba the Hutt, who simply laughs at the character when he claims to be a Jedi warrior. Luke was the dreadfully earnest one, the do-gooder, the orphan who longed for approval and love, the harmless guy whom Leia could kiss to make Han Solo jealous. Han got the best lines, the crackerjack adventures, and the Millennium Falcon; Luke, meanwhile, came across like the first millennial.

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John Podesta's UFO Disclosure –Pentagon UFO Program Follow Up

 

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nselor to President Barack Obama, tweeted a call for openness about aliens and UFOs after details of the Department of Defense Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification $22 million program investigating the threat posed by UFOs were revealed this weekend.

On his departure from Barack Obama's administration, Poesta tweeted his "biggest failure" was "not securing the #disclosure" of the UFO files.

 

 

 

Read his Tweets Here 

Unruly Antarctica could change sea-level outlook without much warning

 

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Sea-level rise is one of the more challenging effects of climate change to project. It’s not that the direction of the change is unclear—sea level will rise as the planet warms—but it’s extraordinarily difficult to know when which sections of which glaciers will slide into the sea. Many factors are involved besides temperatures, including ocean currents and the topography of the bedrock below ice sheets.

As a result, the projections of sea-level rise presented to entities like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been heavily caveated and have changed significantly over time. The 2013 IPCC report, for example, projected considerably higher sea-level rise than the 2007 report, which explained that it was leaving out important ice-sheet processes that needed more research. And the recent 2017 US National Climate Assessment again increased projections of sea-level rise based on the current state of the science.

A new study from a group of researchers led by Rutgers’ Bob Kopp has made for splashy headlines in recent days, some of which claimed the study showed that sea-level rise will be “worse than thought” or that the study confidently predicted how many people would be inundated by rising seas this century. Neither description is really true, as there is nothing new about the sea-level rise scenarios shown. In fact, Kopp also helped put together the sea-level chapter of the US National Climate Assessment, and the numbers in the new study obviously match those in the report.

 

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This Year the World Woke Up to the Society-Shifting Power of Artificial Intelligence

 

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In less than five years, a 2012 academic breakthrough in artificial intelligence evolved into the technology responsible for making healthcare decisions, deciding whether prisoners should go free, and determining what we see on the internet.

Machine learning is beginning to invisibly touch nearly every aspect of our lives; its ability to automate decision making challenges the future roles of experts and unskilled laborers alike. Hospitals might need fewer doctors, thanks to automated treatment planning, and truck drivers might not be required by 2030.

But it’s not just about jobs. Serious questions are starting to be raised about whether the decisions made by AI can be trusted. Research suggests that these algorithms are easily biased by the data from which they learn, meaning societal biases are reinforced and magnified in the code. That could mean certain job applicants get excluded from consideration when AI hiring software is used to scan resumes. Even more, the decision-making process of these algorithms is so complex that AI researchers can’t definitively say why one decision was made over another. And while that may be disconcerting to laymen, there’s an industry debate over how valuable knowing those internal mechanisms really is, meaning research may very well forge ahead with the understanding that we simply don’t need to understand AI.

“Everything we love about civilization is a product of intelligence, so amplifying our human intelligence with artificial intelligence has the potential of helping civilization flourish like never before – as long as we manage to keep the technology beneficial.“ ~Max Tegmark, President of the Future of Life Institute

Image with thanks to Future of Life.org

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The Rise and Fall of Baby Einstein

 

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In 1996, Julie Aigner-Clark was a stay-at-home mom in Colorado frustrated by a lack of sufficiently educational entertainment for her 18-month-old daughter. She shot the first Baby Einstein video in her own basement with a borrowed camcorder, a few puppets, and an $18,000 budget. Five years later, she sold the company to Disney for a reported $25 million. Aigner-Clark appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and President Bush praised her as representing “the great enterprising spirit of America” in a State of the Union address. In 2009, however, the jig was up: Disney was forced to admit that the videos had no educational value and offered full refunds to parents who had bought them. What a dramatic rise and fall! It was like something out of Baby Shakespeare.

The big idea, before it (mostly) fell apart, was to expose children as young as 6 months to high culture and foreign languages, though many parents, desperate for a shower, seemed to start the curriculum even earlier. When “Baby Einstein” became a hit, Aigner-Clark produced other videos: “Baby Mozart,” “Baby Galileo,” “Baby Van Gogh,” and yes, “Baby Shakespeare.” The videos featured montages of toys, puppets, and simple shapes set to snippets of music and poetry. “We always think of these things as being for adults,” Aigner-Clark told a reporter, “but my theory is you certainly see the beauty in these things if you are exposed to them in the right way, no matter what age you are.”

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These Five Ideas Built the Internet. Then We Left Them Behind

 

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“In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.”

It was 1968, and J.C.R. Licklider, a director at ARPA, had become convinced that humanity was on the cusp of a computing revolution. In a landmark paper called “The Computer as a Communication Device,” he described “a radically new organization of hardware and software, designed to support many more simultaneous users than the current systems, and to offer them… the fast, smooth interaction required for truly effective man-computer partnership.” For Licklider, this wasn’t just a new technology, but a new way for human beings to exist in the world.

You’re reading this on a website, so you know what happened next: the internet. What initially seemed like a new way to transfer information turned into a revolution that rewrote the basic assumptions of society. Entirely new kinds of economic and social organization evolved on these networks, taking root faster than anyone would have thought possible. For an entire generation — my generation — that process is all we’ve ever known.

Now, that vision is fraying. The social fabric of the internet is built on very specific assumptions, many of which are giving way. Licklider envisioned the internet as a patchwork of decentralized networks, with no sense of how it would work when a handful of companies wrote most of its software and managed most of its traffic. Licklider conceived a level playing field for different networks and protocols, with no sense that the same openness could enable a new kind of monopoly power. Most painfully, this new network was imagined as a forum for the free exchange of ideas, with no sense of how predatory and oppressive that exchange would become.

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Intelligent Aliens May Know about Us Well Before We Find Out about Them

 

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Fourteen years ago in Bremen, Germany, astronomer Seth Shostak gave a lecture that included a wager. “I bet everybody in the audience a cup of Starbucks that we would find E.T. within two dozen years,” he told a new audience in October. You don't have to be a Klaatu-level math whiz to calculate that Shostak has 10 years left before he'd have to shell out for a lot of tall drips. I'm talking about the coffee.

Shostak is senior astronomer at the Center for SETI Research based in Mountain View, Calif. SETI stands for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” of course, as the millions who have loaned out their home computer time for the SETI@home project know. He mentioned the wager at a session on the current state of the search for any signs of alien intelligence at the World Conference of Science Journalists in the San Francisco Bay Area. The SETI conversation in question took place on the University of California, Berkeley, campus. No protesters or extraterrestrials attended. Probably.

 

“To have some reasonable chance of success,” Shostak said, “you'd have to look at at least a million star systems.” Which may be possible within the coffee challenge's time parameter, thanks to $100 million from Russian physicist and entrepreneur Yuri Milner in 2015 to establish what is called Breakthrough Listen—an effort to use multiple radio and optical telescopes to survey the million stars closest to us. (It recently came out that in 2015 Milner had invested in a start-up co-owned by Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is a senior White House adviser. Perhaps Milner's SETI funding represented his realization that looking for intelligent life in outer space was a better bet.)

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When Will the North Pole Melt?

In the near future, the North Pole could truly be relegated to the realm of history. Since scientists started measuring winter sea ice, we’ve lost half a million square miles of it—and for every additional ton of carbon dioxide in the air, about 32 square feet of summer sea ice disappears.

 

In this episode of You Are Here, The Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer details the history of the mythical North Pole and its uncertain future.

Interstellar Object May Hold 'Alien' Water'

 

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The first known interstellar asteroid may hold water from another star system in its interior, according to a study. Discovered on 19 October, the object's speed and trajectory strongly suggested it originated beyond our Solar System.

The body showed no signs of "outgassing" as it approached the Sun, strengthening the idea that it held little if any water-ice.But the latest findings suggest water might be trapped under a thick, carbon-rich coating on its surface.

The results come as a project to search for life in the cosmos has been using a radio telescope to check for radio signals coming from the strange, elongated object, named 'Oumuamua.

Astronomers from the Breakthrough Listen initiative have been looking across four different radio frequency bands for anything that might resemble a signal resulting from alien technology. But their preliminary results have drawn a blank. The latest research – along with a previous academic paper – support a natural origin for the cosmic interloper.

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Scientists think Japanese monkeys are practicing sex with deer

 

Japanese monkeys have a close relationship with deer there, often riding them for transportation, while providing the deer grooming or food in exchange. But scientists have recently noticed something else: Female Japanese macaques are climbing onto the deer’s backs and grinding.

 

 

Researchers observed the adolescent monkeys mounting, thrusting, and making sounds that were typical during sexual interactions between monkeys. Most deer were nonchalant, continuing to eat or stand passively during the thrusting. In some cases when the deer walked away, the female monkey “displayed sexually motivated tantrums which consisted of crouching on the ground, body spasms and screaming, while gazing at the deer,” according to the researchers.

For the first time, scientists at the University of Lethbridge in Canada have done a quantitative study into the sexual behavior of macaques toward sika deer in Minoo, Japan. Their findings are published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

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