Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –Secret Electrical Language of Cells, Aztec Map of the Universe, Search for Alien Life in Antarctica

 
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January 5, 2018. Links to today's 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. Today's coverage includes Human Hibernation Could Get Us to Mars, Six Scientific Mysteries We Still Haven’t Solved, Hidden Human Workforce Powering AI, Joe Rogan Podcast on AI Conspiracy Theories.

There’s Healing Power in the Secret Electrical Language of Our Cells

 

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Why can we heal a wound, but not grow back a severed limb? Michael Levin thinks the key lies in the secret electrical language our cells use to talk to one another, and he thinks we’re not far from cracking the code.

Levin, the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University, has carried out some hair-raising experiments, getting worms to grow back with two heads and frogs to grow extra limbs. While most would assume this took some outlandish genetic engineering, Levin instead manipulates the bioelectric signals that help dictate an animal’s body plan.

The hope is that if we can learn to understand and control these signals we may eventually be able to help humans regenerate damaged limbs and organs, repair birth defects, or even reprogram cancer.

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The Search for Aliens Starts Now—in Antarctica

 

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When you need to recreate the frozen temperatures of Jupiter's Europa, few places on Earth will do. It's hard to get over putting your life's work in harm's way. Britney Schmidt hasn't. The Georgia Tech researcher has tested the limits of underwater robots swimming beneath Antarctic ice shelves, a dry run for looking for life in outer space, and it hasn't gotten any easier.

“Anytime you take your whole program's work and dangle it off of a fiber optic cable through meters of ice…it's a little unnerving,” Schmidt tells Popular Mechanics, emailing from the Antarctic research station on the south tip of Ross Island.

This week, Schmidt and her team of researchers are leaving the Antarctic after a busy three months at the far end of the Earth. They are testing Icefin, a drone built to explore the extreme ecosystems lurking beneath thick ice. The waters beneath our planet's ice sheet are fascinating, turning up species few people have ever laid eyes on. But they are not the final target of this chase.

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Human Hibernation Could Get Us to Mars

 

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Journeying to Mars is seldom out of the news these days. From Elon Musk releasing plans for his new rocket to allow SpaceX to colonize Mars, to NASA announcing another rover as part of the Mars 2020 mission, both private and public organizations are racing to the red planet.

But human spaceflight is an exponentially bigger task than sending robots and experiments beyond Earth. Not only do you have to get the engineering of the rocket, the calculations of the launch, the plans for zero-gravity travel and the remotely operated Martian landing perfect, but you’d also have to keep a crew of humans alive for six months without any outside help.

There are questions around how to pack enough food and water to sustain the crew without making the rocket too heavy and around how much physical space would be left for the crew to live in. There are questions about what happens if someone gets dangerously ill and about what a claustrophobic half-year in these circumstances would do to the mental health of the Martian explorers.

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It’s 2018. Here Are Six Scientific Mysteries We Still Haven’t Solved

 

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Humans have made a staggering amount of scientific and technological progress over the past century. We’ve created technology that has transformed our society; scientific advances have helped us answer fundamental questions about who we are and the world that we inhabit. And, yet, mysteries persist.

Why are we compelled to sleep every night? Why are we still not able to “see” dark matter? And where the heck are all the aliens?

People have debated questions like these for decades — sometimes centuries. Fortunately, our unfaltering will to uncover the world’s mysteries has brought us closer to some answers than ever before. Here are six mysteries that still keep scientists up at night, and how close they are to solving them.

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Ancient Aztec Map of Universe Found on Mexican Volcano

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While our modern ability to shoot rockets into space and beam photos of distant planets back to Earth might make us feel like we have a pretty good understanding of the universe, it's worth remembering that humanity has been studying the stars, and contemplating their origins, for thousands of years.

An archeological dig site inside a volcano in Mexico is a testament to this—a team of excavators believes they've uncovered an ancient map of the universe, as it was understood by its Aztec creators.

While the "tetzacualco" stone sanctuary hasn't been uncovered in its entirety, from the description that's been provided by archeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), this probably looked utterly breathtaking in its heyday.

Apparently, the stones that make up the various navigational points within the universe in this map have been placed in a small, secluded pool of still water, which reflects up the image of the sky above, making it appear that the stones are all floating in nothingness. This, apparently, is important to the Aztec creation myth, and their idea of the early universe being made up of small pockets of land that float independently in the great waters of the universe.

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The Hidden Human Workforce Powering AI

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The tech industry touts its ability to automate tasks and remove slow and expensive humans from the equation. But in the background, a lot of the legwork training machine learning systems, solving problems software can’t, and cleaning up its mistakes is still done by people.

This was highlighted recently when Expensify, which promises to automatically scan photos of receipts to extract data for expense reports, was criticized for sending customers’ personally identifiable receipts to workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) crowdsourcing platform.

The company uses text analysis software to read the receipts, but if the automated system falls down then the images are passed to a human for review. While entrusting this job to random workers on MTurk was maybe not so wise—and the company quickly stopped after the furor—the incident brought to light that this kind of human safety net behind AI-powered services is actually very common.

As Wired notes, similar services like Ibotta and Receipt Hog that collect receipt information for marketing purposes also use crowdsourced workers. In a similar vein, while most users might assume their Facebook newsfeed is governed by faceless algorithms, the company has been ramping up the number of human moderators it employs to catch objectionable content that slips through the net, as has YouTube. Twitter also has thousands of human overseers.

Humans aren’t always witting contributors either. The old text-based reCAPTCHA problems Google used to use to distinguish humans from machines was actually simultaneously helping the company digitize books by getting humans to interpret hard-to-read text.

“Every product that uses AI also uses people,” Jeffrey Bigham, a crowdsourcing expert at Carnegie Mellon University, told Wired. “I wouldn’t even say it’s a backstop so much as a core part of the process.”

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Joe Rogan on "AI Conspiracy Theories"

 Poadcasting super-star Joe Rogan on the threat of Artificial Intelligence. The human species is in a transition from biologigical to intelligent machine life.

 

 

NPR on the UFO Investigations: The Science And The Will To Believe

 

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To close the door on 2017, the strangest year I can remember, there's nothing more appropriate than the revelation in December from the U.S. government that it, indeed, had an office dedicated to the investigation of UFO-related phenomena. It's enough to make X-Files and conspiracy-theory fans rejoice.

Tucked in the fifth floor of the Pentagon, in a remote area known as C Ring, since 2007 the military intelligence officer Luis Elizondo headed the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Although details of the program remain enshrouded in military secrecy, some of its projects have been made public by Elizondo and his associates.

Some $22 million was slated for the office, which officially closed its doors after funding ended in 2012 though, according to Elizondo, the effort continues. The funding was obtained at the request of Nevada's then-Sen. Harry Reid. Elizondo told The New York Times that he continued to meet with military and intelligence officers until his resignation this past October. Most of the funds went to billionaire entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, according to the Times report, who owns the Las Vegas-based aerospace company contracted by the Defense Department to analyze reports of sightings and even materials said to be of alien origin.

Among the reports studied were sightings of high-speed flying objects that showed no signs of a propulsion mechanism or others that were able to hover, as if by magic. A striking one is the video shot in 2004 near San Diego by two Navy F/A-18F jets showing an oval-shaped flying object the size of a conventional aircraft.

Reports of UFOs are not new, of course, starting with the famous Roswell incident of July 1947, where supposedly a "flying disk" crashed in the desert to much sensational news, including the capture of the dead (or living?) alien pilots that were then whisked to the equally mysterious Area 51, an Air Force base of shadowy reputation. You can watch a video of the whole incident from the Roswell Museum website. According to the official military version, though, it was simply a weather balloon.

That same year, the Air Force started a program to investigate what amounted to more than 12,000 sightings or reports of encounters with UFOs. Under the name Project Blue Book, the studies concluded that the majority of sightings were stars, clouds or conventional spy aircraft reflecting the sun or moon. Some 701 events remained unexplained by the program's end in 1969.

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Marc Maron "WTF" Podacst with the late "Aliens" and "Apollo 13" Star Bill Paxton

 

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Podcasting star Marc Maron with Bill Paxton. If Bill Paxton hadn't suffered from rheumatic fever when he was growing up in Texas, he might not be in show business. Bill tells Marc some great stories about some of his most memorable work in things like Weird Science, Aliens, Big Love and his TV show Training Day.

Physicist Jim Al-Khalili Talks About the Prospects for Finding Life in Space

 

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Listen: As 21st-century telescopes transform the hunt for extraterrestrials from SF to hard science, physicist Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, examines the prospects for finding life in space.

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