“Planet Earth Report” –Top Science Breakthroughs of 2017, AI as Miracle Rx, Top Experts Ask Should We Expect Aliens

 

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Tuesday, December 26, 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.


 

Top Seven Breakthroughs of 2017 That Prove We’re Living in the Future

 

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In 2017, researchers turned science fiction into science fact – from developments in gene editing technologies, to improvements in artificial intelligence and quantum computing – this has certainly been a year full of breakthroughs. To that end, we’ve compiled a list of the most impactful developments this year that are pushing boundaries toward a brighter future.

Lamb in a Bag, Artificial Womb Sustains Life, An Embryo was Edited, Gene Editing Inside a Human Body, LHCs Five New Particles, SpaceX and Era if Reusable Rockets (image above), Trappist 1 and Finding Earth 2.0

 

 

 

 

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The Pentagon Ran a Secret Program to Find UFOs. Should We Expect Aliens?

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Sightings of aircraft moving at high speeds with no visible signs of propulsion. Objects hovering over the sea without any apparent means of lift. Military operators exchanging nervous messages as they try to make sense of what they are recording. These scenes are part of an unprecedented disclosure from the New York Times, one that outlined details about a top secret Pentagon program devoted to the investigation of UFOs.

Between 2007 and 2012, the United States government spent $22 million of its annual $600 billion defense budget on the so-called Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program. This is the first time the Government has admitted the existence of such operations. According to Pentagon spokesperson Laura Ochoa, the programs were terminated because “there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding.”

According to the New York Times, the scheme, now defunded, still exists in a more informal fashion. “The Department of Defence takes seriously all threats and potential threats to our people, our assets, and our mission and takes action whenever credible information is developed,” Ochoa said.

So does this revelation signal the existence of alien life visiting Earth? Is the program just a political pet project?  A panel of scientists and analysts  weighed in on the significance (or lack thereof) of this revelation.

Below are their thoughts regarding what the Pentagon’s secret UFO program means in terms of international relations, scientific advancement, the existence of UFOs, and our search for life in the cosmos.

 

Andrew Siemion, Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley

My opinion as a scientist is that any objective description of any phenomena should be backed up by evidence and, despite many decades of reports of various UFO and abduction phenomena, we have only personal anecdotes and ambiguous photography. Moreover, astronomers spend their lives looking at the sky with a wide variety of telescopes and techniques, and we have never snapped a picture of a spaceship. For the moment, our searches for radio and laser signals from intelligent life and investigation of astrophysical anomalies (SETI) offer us the best opportunity to detect extraterrestrial intelligence, should it exist.

All of that said, the possibility that, in the past, our solar system could have been visited by an advanced extraterrestrial species, or that we may be visited in the future, is real. We know that intelligent life capable of interstellar travel arose at least once in our Universe, and it might have arisen many, many times.

Trey Menefee, Independent Researcher, Open Source Intelligence Expert, Former Lecturer at the Hong Kong Institute of Education:

I think the US Navy and Air Force have a lot of weird videos and stories to tell. I think the issue is not unreliable narrators, but unreliable interpreters of confusing, conflicting, and otherwise baffling data and presumed facts.

I think the secrecy and closed-door nature of the investigations means that they likely fall victim to the same cognitive traps the Chilean Navy fell into where they didn’t question the ‘priors,’ the assumptions that underpinned their analysis and came to ‘unidentifiable’ conclusions. If the military released all the data, OSINT [Open Source Intelligence] researchers would likely figure what happened better and faster than these classified investigations.

Peter Garnavich, Chair of the Department of Astrophysics and Cosmology Physics at the University of Notre Dame:

As a scientist, I am skeptical of UFOs. They have been talked about since before I was born, yet all we ever have for evidence are grainy images and dubious eyewitnesses. The vast distances between stars and what we know about space travel make these sighting unlikely to be alien life.

As a person, I love the idea of UFOs. They are mysterious and exciting. They embody the science fiction of Star Trek and Star Wars and the idea that humans are worth visiting. So I am not surprised that the defense department had a UFO office, and I am not surprised that they are closing it. Although they could find worse ways to spend that money.

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How Accurate Were Tom DeLonge's Alien Claims? An Investigation

 

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By Jason Koebler

I compared DeLonge's claims from two years ago with the New York Times's bombshell UFO report.

Last weekend the New York Times published a thrilling expose about a secret Department of Defense program dedicated to the investigation of unidentified flying objects. The report, coauthored by three Times journalists including two Pulitzer Prize winners, has on-the-record statements by the man who ran the program, videos of UFOs filmed by the Pentagon, and confirmation of its existence and purpose from former Senator Harry Reid, who earmarked $22 million for the program.

It also has tantalizing details about possible alien alloys in the possession of the Department of Defense that, as Deadspin notes, went curiously un-freaked-out about as America collectively ho-hummed at this truly wild revelation. I, too, was busy and realize this post is a bit late, but I don't want to live in a society in which the statute of limitations on possible extraterrestrials is less than a week.

As I read the Times story and listened to The Daily podcast interview with reporter Helene Cooper and Luis Elizondo, the man who headed the Pentagon program until he resigned earlier this year, I was struck by how similar the story is to one former Blink 182 frontman Tom DeLonge told Motherboard on our podcast more than two years ago. DeLonge, you’ll remember, quit the band to focus on studying UFOs full-time. He was called a kook at the time, but much of his story checks out. DeLonge is credible enough that Elizondo and two other former DOD officials who worked on the program recently joined his To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences, which is producing fiction and nonfiction books about UFOs.

I revisited our interview with DeLonge and compared it to the details that were included in the Times story to move a step closer to figuring out: How right is Tom DeLonge?

Read more and Listen to Interview

 

The Doctors of Tomorrow Will Be Supercomputers

 

In 2017, we’ve reported on everything from a cancer “kill switch” and AI-assisted cancer detection, to the first tests of a cancer vaccine and the creation of a portable skin cancer detector. These stories were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of exciting developments in cancer research this year.

While most of us would find it a little daunting to try to stay on top of the latest research, every piece of research is valuable. While some papers strike a chord with the media and receive a lot of attention, there are other papers and datasets that are inevitably missed, or deemed “uninteresting” or “irrelevant” to the general public at first pass.

 

 

 

A team of researchers from the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center set out to solve this conundrum, demonstrating their findings back in November.

Their solution involves using cognitive computing to sift through the overwhelming amount of data produced by scientific studies and databases in an attempt to “identify potentially relevant clinical trials or therapeutic options for cancer patients based on the genetics of their tumors.” Put simply, they want to use advanced computing techniques to more effectively identify potentially useful cancer treatments.

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Synthetic Rhino Horns Are Being Created to Flood Markets and Eradicate Poaching

 
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Startup Pembient has proposed fabricating synthetic rhino horns that are indistinguishable from real horns. However, conservationists are worried that flooding the market with fake horns will actually drive up prices for real ones.

Cheating the Black Market: Since 2007, instances of rhino poaching in South Africa have increased by 9,000 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The non-profit conservation group Save the Rhino estimates that 1,054 of the animals were illegally killed in 2016. To battle this horrifying trend, biotech startup Pembient hopes to undermine black market sales by creating synthetic rhino horns that are practically indistinguishable from real horns, down to the molecular level.

Pembient CEO and co-founder Matthew Markus thinks flooding the market with these synthetic rhino horns will be more effective than simply trying to stop rhino poaching.

“If you cordon rhino horn off, you create this prohibition mindset,” he told Business Insider. “And that engenders crime, corruption, and everything else that comes with a black market.” He hopes that by increasing the overall supply of horns, his company’s synthetic horns will lower the incentive for poachers to kill rhinos for real ones.

In part, rhino horns are popular thanks to their perceived medical benefits. Practitioners of traditional Asian medicine use powdered rhino horn for everything from hangover cures to cancer treatments. However, rhino horns are composed primarily of keratin, the same substance that makes up the hair on your head. A tea made from the clippings found on the floor of your local barbershop likely has the same healing properties as one of these horns.

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The Most Perplexing Science Moments of 2017, in Pictures

 

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With 2017 coming to an end, there’s much to reflect on. What was the union dispute that Maz Kanata said she had to deal with? Did she really hook up with the Master Codebreaker? Of course, there’s stuff to think about besides Star Wars as well — galaxies of events in our own world, messy, scary, and beautiful alike. There was also a lot of weird stuff that happened, particularly in the world of science.

We’re here to talk about the weird stuff.

Below is Inverse’s roundup of some of the most perplexing science moments that happened this year, including feces-filled colons, fatbergs, and the discovery of some of our weirdest gilled-and-teethed ancestors. Some of these moments turned out to have wondrous explanations, and others remained just very, very gross. Here’s to hoping that 2018 is just as wonky (okay, maybe a little less wonky).

This Bag-Like Sea Creature May Be Human’s Oldest Ancestor

 

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Hello Papa: The *Saccorhytus coronarius* is an ancient ancestor of humans. In 2017 we learned an incredible amount about human ancestors, one of which was a bit less cute than others: the Saccorhytus coronarius. The bag-like creature, depicted in the artist rendering above, was identified by scientists in January in the journal Nature. Its fossils were found in Shaanxi Providence in central China in the form of 540 million-year-old specimens the size of tiny black grains.

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 2017 was the Year We fell Out of Love with Algorithms

 

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In Februrary, the congregation of digital elite at TED received a warning about “algorithmic overlords” from mathematician Cathy O’Neil, author of the book Weapons of Math Destruction. Algorithms used by Google’s YouTube to curate videos for children earned hostile headlines for censoring inoffensive LBGT content, and steering kids towards disturbing content. Meanwhile, academic researchers demonstrated how machine-vision algorithms can pick up stereotyped views of gender and how governments using algorithms in areas such as criminal justice shroud them in secrecy.

No wonder that when David Axelrod, formerly President Obama’s chief strategist, spoke to the Nieman Journalism Lab last week about his fears for the future of media and politics, the A-word sprang to his lips. “Everything is pushing us toward algorithm-guided, customized offerings,” he said. “That worries me.”

Frank Pasquale, a professor at the University of Maryland, gives Facebook special credit for dragging algorithms through the mud. “The election stuff really got people understanding the implications of the power of algorithmic systems,” he says. The concerns are not entirely new—the debate about Facebook encompassing users inside thought-muffling “filter bubbles” started in 2011. But Pasquale says there’s now a stronger feeling that algorithms can and should be questioned and held to account. One watershed, he says, was a 2014 decision by the European Union’s highest court that granted citizens a “right to be forgotten” by search engines like Google. Pasquale calls that an early “skirmish about the contestability and public obligation of algorithmic systems.”

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