‘Next-gen’ USPS vehicles can use gas or electric motors

The US Postal Service plans to have a new mail van on American roads by 2023. A new contract will see Oshkosh Defense manufacture between 50,000 and 165,000 “Next Generation Delivery Vehicles” for the agency over the next 10 years. The vehicle will come in both combustion and electric powertrain variants. According to the Postal Service, the latter will be able to accommodate new EV technologies as they become available. 

They’ll also include features like 360-degree cameras, front- and rear-collision avoidance and traction control, in addition to creature comforts like heating and air conditioning and more carrying capacity for packages.


The postal service’s current fleet is made up of approximately 230,000 vehicles, with about 190,000 dedicated solely to transporting mail and parcels to people. Some of those vans and trucks, such as the iconic Grumman Long Life Vehicle (LLV), have been in service for decades. The US Postal Service maintains approximately 140,000 LLVs across the US. The majority of those vans include GM’s infamous 4-cylinder “Iron Duke” engine and on a given day, its fuel economy plunges to the single digits. In recent years, they’ve also started to catch fire without getting into any accidents. In other words, the Postal Service is long overdue for an upgrade.

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‘March Mammal Madness’ Brings Simulated Animal Fights to Huge Audiences

Ever idly wondered if a capybara could somehow take down an elephant in a beachfront brawl? That’s the kind of thinking behind March Mammal Madness (MMM), an annual social media event based on the March Madness NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament. Like its namesake, this educational project encourages viewers to fill out brackets predicting which teams would triumph in a hypothetical head-to-head showdown—with the “teams” in this version being specific mammals. The virtual fights, each set in a randomly chosen arena, unfold as Twitter threads posted by participating scientists—with each move backed up by very real research, planning and pedagogy. As an approach to science education, the project is paying off: A new paper put together by the nearly 40 co-organizers suggests that hundreds of thousands of students, in addition to younger and older participants, have participated in MMM since its creation.

March Mammal Madness combines biological facts with a running narrative of fictional action that encourages those following along at home to hit “reload” as the Twitter thread updates. “All of that drama, those emotions—this is what makes MMM a shared experience that facilitates long-term retention of information,” says the paper’s lead author Katie Hinde, the event’s creator and an associate professor at Arizona State University’s Center for Evolution and Medicine. “For example, in 2019 moose was battling tiger in the Elite Trait [the round featuring the final eight competitors], and we waited until that battle to remind everyone that moose drop their antlers in the fall. Moose fans were shook,” she explains, as they realized that their chosen fighter would lose one of its key advantages against its feline foe. Then her team reminded them of the fact that a moose would never have used antlers against a tiger in the first place, because it employs its headgear in competition against other males, not as a defense against predators. “This is part of the roller-coaster ride of a battle narration,” Hinde says. Other past confrontations have involved pygmy hippo versus coyote, manatee against tapir, and one epic bout between short-faced bear and honey badger.

The project’s efforts at engaging narratives are based on educational theory. “Humans are psychologically and cognitively adapted for fireside storytelling, shared experiences, artistic imagery and jokey-joke-joke-jokes,” Hinde says. She believes that adding drama to science communication helps lessons stick. “Too many scientists ignore the evidence and continue to talk facts and probabilities in a vacuum,” she says. “Folks remember the science that ended their pick’s hunt for the MMM championship. There are people who can now tell you that platypus venom is seasonal, who would never pick up Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B to read ‘Grant & Temple–Smith 1998.’”

Though MMM players might not read the scientific literature, the co-organizers do—and they take in a lot of it, citing over 1,000 scholarly works that justify the behavior and biology on display in their virtual fights. “It’s evident that the folks writing the battles put their heart and soul into this project,” says Sarah McAnulty, the executive director of a virtual science education nonprofit called Skype a Scientist, who is not involved with MMM but follows the event. “I’ve learned about all kinds of animals and adaptations, and the process of researching the animals to pick who you think will win is a great and fun way for kids to dig into the science. It’s a super engaging way to learn animal facts.”

Many teachers agree, and have encouraged their students to join in. The new paper estimates that about 1 percent of all high school students in the U.S. participate—a relatively large audience for a science communication initiative. “Even though it’s simulated, I love that it takes all of these biology concepts we’re learning and makes them real and cohesive and applicable,” says Linda Correll, the science supervisor for Fauquier County, Va., public schools. “All of a sudden understanding biomes, symbiotic relationships, and adaptations gives you an edge in trying to answer the question of who is going to win.” In addition to creating the contest, the MMM team provides free educational resources to help students with their research. “The narratives are exciting and educational, and I love when my students get upset that [an] unstoppable apex predator loses to something they find helpless or weak,” Correll says. “These are great teachable moments.”

March Mammal Madness has formal partnerships with science teachers around the country—and also reaches adults who have outgrown traditional science classes. “To see so much engagement with the content we create is really exciting,” says Eduardo Amorim of the University of Lausanne, a co-organizer and co-author. “Families play together at home. Adults, teenagers and kids, scientists and nonscientists—I never imagined this would be something that reached so many people.”

Hinde is thrilled by how much March Mammal Madness has grown since she started it on her own in 2013. (Although the event is not directly affiliated with Arizona State University, and the current co-organizers come from a variety of institutions, ASU’s digital library still hosts MMM’s educational resources.) “I love this community brought together by our shared delight in the natural world,” she says. “Also, I love the trash talk. But really, the community, even in pandemic times, has been a refuge from despair.”

[Editor’s Note: The writer works part-time at a remote ASU-administered research center that has no relationship with the MMM program.]

The March Mammal Madness bracket will be released on February 26. Anyone wishing to participate can predict a winner for each listed match, then wait for the action to unfold on Twitter at preannounced times.

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Mentor as you’d want to be mentored

In my first undergraduate research position, I imagined I’d design creative experiments, collect interesting data, and engage in thought-provoking discussions about science. Then reality set in. I spent most of my summer washing glassware, making solutions, and completing basic protocols while my postdoc mentor caught up on email. On the rare occasions when I was instructed to do a real experiment, my brief “training” left me feeling woefully unprepared. But although I learned little science, I learned valuable lessons about mentoring.


“A student’s first taste of research can cement their enthusiasm for science.”

During my college neuroscience classes, I had been captivated by the complexity of the brain and drawn to a field that addressed some of life’s big questions: Who am I? What is consciousness? But my summer research experience left me with serious doubts about whether I was cut out for a career in science. One Saturday, I attempted an experiment my mentor had demonstrated a few days earlier—only to realize I had no idea what I was doing. I did the best I could. When I finished, I was mortified to discover I hadn’t used one of the treatment tubes my mentor had prepared.

I worked in another lab later in college. The experience wasn’t much better and my self-doubts persisted. However, to my surprise, my mentors—along with my teachers—encouraged me to apply to graduate school. I’m grateful, because I might not have had the confidence to carry on otherwise.

I’m also grateful because my former mentors, in demonstrating what not to do, showed me how to be a better mentor myself. When I became a graduate student, I made a point of treating the undergraduates I supervised the way I wish I’d been treated. Here are three keys to my approach:

MAKE IT INDIVIDUAL. My first mentor never asked me about my career goals—and because they never asked, I assumed they didn’t care. I’ve since learned that in order to mentor effectively, it is critical to start with some simple questions: “Why do you want to do this research? What are you most interested in?” Only then can you form a mutually beneficial plan, forging a connection between the students’ goals and your project. It’s also helpful to pay attention to the conditions under which your students do their best work. For example, some may appreciate real-time support, but others may feel nervous if you’re constantly looking over their shoulder.

INVEST TIME. I know it’s tempting to relegate tedious tasks to undergraduates and cut corners in training to save valuable time. But investing time up front to explain and demonstrate scientific techniques will benefit everyone: The students will learn more and you’ll have more capable assistants. I spend time training my students at the outset. I also supervise them regularly when they first set out to perform experiments on their own, gradually giving them more independence as they grow in ability. This allows me to correct missteps in real time, helping them gain good habits before bad ones develop.

DON’T IGNORE THE BIG PICTURE. Colleagues who view undergraduates as “just a pair of hands” often give their students a series of tasks without explaining the big-picture goals of the research. I think that’s a big mistake. Students will get much more out of a research experience if they have “aha!” moments—if they can see their tasks in the context of broad scientific concepts and questions. You also stand to benefit because knowledgeable students will be more invested in your work, and they will be better able to troubleshoot experiments if problems arise. For everyone’s sake, treat your students as you’d like to be treated: as a valued scientific colleague, not a pair of hands.

I’m glad I persisted in science despite lackluster early research experiences. But I worry others won’t be so lucky. A student’s first taste of research can cement their enthusiasm for science or discourage them for good, so it’s important to make it rewarding.

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No sign of Planet Nine? Trail runs cold for hypothetical world

The hypothetical ninth planet (illustration).Credit: Shutterstock

Planet Nine is dead; long live Planet Nine? For some years, scientists have debated the existence of an unseen planet at least five times the mass of Earth in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Now, the hypothesis has been dealt a blow by a new analysis of distant, icy objects, which questions the evidence that they are under the gravitational pull of a huge planet.

The findings do not rule out the possibility of a ninth planet orbiting the Sun, and astronomers say more data will be needed to put the debate to rest.

The presence of Planet Nine was proposed1 in 2016, when astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena observed that the orbits of six trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) — part of the Kuiper belt, a collection of small bodies orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune — seemed to be clustered together.

This clustering, they said, had to be due to the gravitational influence of a huge planet hiding somewhere in the outer Solar System, at least 400 times as far from the Sun as Earth, or around 10 times as far as the most famous TNO, the dwarf planet Pluto. If proved to exist, the distant world would be a major discovery — a giant beyond Neptune that would unquestionably be classed as a planet.

But not all astronomers were convinced. Other surveys cast doubt on whether TNOs were in fact clustered — or whether they merely appeared to be, because researchers had conducted detailed observations in only certain directions.

A team led by Kevin Napier, a physicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has now taken this analysis further. Combining 3 surveys to examine the orbits of 14 ‘extreme’ TNOs (ETNOs) — those orbiting far beyond Neptune — the researchers found that the objects’ orbits could be explained without the presence of a nearby planet. After accounting for selection bias — the fact that researchers have observed only a small portion of the outer Solar System — the data suggest that ETNOs are uniformly distributed across the sky.

“This is the first meta-analysis of all three of the most productive ETNO-discovery surveys,” says Napier. The team’s findings2 were posted on the preprint server arXiv on 10 February.

Horses, not zebras

To investigate whether the objects were truly clustered, Napier’s team built a computer model simulating ten billion evenly distributed ETNOs in the outer Solar System, and then calculated the chances that observing a small sample of these would produce results matching existing observations. The team concluded that there is no reason to think that ETNOs are not uniformly distributed, and that it’s possible that observed objects only seem to be clustered because of selection bias. “That doesn’t mean that Planet Nine isn’t there, but it’s not necessary to explain the data,” says Napier. “You could fit this data with clustered ETNOs as well — but if you hear hoofbeats, you should think horses, not zebras.”

Brown, however, disagrees. “I plotted all their data on top of our old paper, and you just simply look at it, and it’s very clustered,” he says. “There’s actually strong evidence for Planet Nine in their data.” He points out that the paper does not include the six TNOs that he and Batygin used in their original research. He also argues that the researchers are “mixing dirt in with their ice cream”, because their analysis considers objects whose orbits might be affected by their proximity to Neptune.

Napier says the team didn’t include Brown and Batygin’s original six objects in its analysis because not enough data are available on the surveys that found them earlier this century. “We need to know when and where the telescope pointed, and how faint of an object the telescope was able to detect,” he says. “In the past, surveys did not tend to do that.”

Samantha Lawler, an astronomer at the University of Regina in Canada who worked on the Outer Solar System Origins Survey — one of the surveys that Napier’s team used in its analysis — agrees with the team’s conclusions, arguing that there is no need for Planet Nine when the simpler explanation of selection bias accounts for the data.

“There is no evidence for any sort of clustering in the orbits of these distant TNOs, they’re consistent with being uniformly distributed,” she says. “I can’t say that Planet Nine is dead, but I can say there’s no evidence for it.”

Thousands more objects

Lawler says new surveys of the outer Solar System are needed to look for any other evidence of clustering. One of the best chances will come from the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will begin a ten-year survey of the sky in 2022.

“They’re going to detect thousands more Kuiper belt objects,” says Lawler. “I think we’ve really done all that we can with the data we currently have.”

Even if it turns out Planet Nine isn’t there, Lawler says, it has sparked a lot of useful interest in the outer Solar System from astronomers. “The theory of Planet Nine has been fantastic for the study of the Kuiper belt,” she says.

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Citadel’s Griffin details firm’s role in trading during GameStop rally

FILE PHOTO: Traders work at the Citadel Securities post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S., July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

February 18, 2021

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss

(Reuters) – Electronic trading firm Citadel Securities last month played a critical role in processing retail investors’ orders and was not involved in online trading app Robinhood’s decision to limit trading in GameStop, Citadel’s founder Kenneth Griffin said.

Griffin, who has been trading stocks for more than half his life, also laid out his ideas for improving trading for all, suggesting shorter settlement cycles and transparent capital models could be introduced now.

The 52-year old billionaire investor, who founded hedge fund Citadel LLC in 1990 and co-founded Citadel Securities in 2002, will deliver prepared remarks and answer questions for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Financial Services on Thursday, giving his most detailed public description yet of events that unnerved markets for days in January.

“When others were unable or unwilling to handle the heavy volumes, Citadel Securities stepped up,” Griffin said, describing the frenzied retail stock trading when Citadel Securities processed 7.4 billion shares for retail investors on Jan. 27. “That day Citadel Securities executed more shares for retail investors than the average daily volume of the entire U.S. equities market in 2019,” he said.

Citadel Securities, led by Peng Zhao, competes with other market makers for order flow from companies like Robinhood and receives a large percentage of orders based on execution quality. It also pays Robinhood to process orders it receives.

Retail investors have benefited from technology that companies like Citadel Securities are employing to speed trading and help cut fees, Griffin said. But last month’s events — when an army of retail investors sent up the stock prices of unloved companies like GameStop — illustrate that more work is needed.

Trades should be settled faster, Griffin said noting that the trade date now usually takes two business days to settle.

“Individual investors are better served by America’s markets than ever before, and it is critical that our markets continue to be a force for fairness and integrity worthy of investor confidence and participation,” Griffin said.

(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by David Gregorio)

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Perseverance rover landing memes: Matt Damon has visitors on Mars

Twentieth Century Fox

Mars has long fascinated many of us stuck here on Earth, and Thursday’s safe landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover only stirred up the pop culture love for the red planet. The rover has serious work ahead, including searching for signs of life in an ancient lakebed, but Earthlings looked for the lighter side.

The rover’s first image of its new home sparked plenty of memes and jokes — and to no one’s surprise, actor Matt Damon, who starred in 2015’s The Martian, was front and center in many of them.

Matt Damon has company now

Some people edited Damon’s image into the new Mars photo.

“This is awesome,” one tweet read. “Huge congrats to everyone who helped find Matt Damon. Let’s bring him home.”

Science the what, now?

And many cited Damon’s most famous quote from that film, where he “scienced the shit” out of his mission.

Famous faces on Mars

Others took the first Mars rover image and edited other familiar photos into it.

Mars with mittens

The famous photo of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his big mittens, from President Joe Biden’s inauguration, showed up. “Wait, the Hermès crew picked up Matt Damon, but dropped off Bernie?!” one Twitter user wrote.

Cruzing to Mars

And another hot story of the day, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz abruptly heading back to his frozen state from a vacation in Mexico, also showed up in the Mars memes.

“Spotted: Ted Cruz deviates from his plans in Cancun to hitch a ride with Perseverance to Mars,” someone wrote.

Even a Twitter account purporting to be Larry the well-known cat who lives at 10 Downing Street, the headquarters of Britain’s government, got in a dig at Cruz, writing, “If you find Ted Cruz up there, send him home…”

Elon in space

And is that SpaceX’s Elon Musk? You know it is.

Percy is tweeting

The rover has an official NASA Twitter account, of course, where it delivers official news from its adventures.

“I’m safe on Mars. Perseverance will get you anywhere,” was one of its early messages.

Some accounts claiming to be Perseverance were not official, though they still had fun with the events of the day. An account calling itself Percy the Mars Rover joked, “NASA really spent $2.5 billion to teach Americans how to spell ‘Perseverance.'”

The jokes are far from over. Perserverance’s mission is planned to last for at least one Mars year, or about 687 Earth days.

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Feds Indict North Korean Hackers for Years of Heists and Scams

Most surprising, perhaps, is the extent of the hackers’ alleged schemes as cryptocurrency scammers and even would-be entrepreneurs. The indictment outlines how the North Koreans—specifically Kim Il—made plans to launch a cryptocurrency token scheme called Marine Chain, which would sell a blockchain-based stake in marine vessels including cargo ships. According to the British think tank the Royal United Services Institute, Marine Chain was identified by the United Nations as a North Korean sanctions-evasion scheme in 2018; it’s not clear if it ever got off the ground.

In another cryptocurrency theft scheme, the hackers are charged with creating a long list of malicious cryptocurrency apps with names like WorldBit-Bot, iCryptoFx, Kupay Wallet, CoinGo Trade, Dorusio, Ants2Whales, and CryptoNeuro Trader, all designed to surreptitiously steal victims’ cryptocurrencies. The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued an advisory Wednesday about the malware family integrated into those apps known as AppleJeus, warning that the malicious apps have been distributed by hackers posing as legitimate cryptocurrency firms, who sent the apps in phishing emails or tricked users into downloading them from fake websites. Security firm Kaspersky had warned about versions of AppleJeus as early as 2018.

The indictment demonstrates the United States’ growing willingness to indict foreign hackers for cyberattacks and cybercriminal schemes that don’t merely target US institutions, says Greg Lesnewich, a threat intelligence analyst at security firm Recorded Future. For some of the charges, he points out, Americans were impacted only as the holders of cryptocurrency stolen from international exchanges. “It’s an expansion of what the US is willing to prosecute for, even if the victims aren’t US entities,” he says.

At the same time, Lesnewich says the long arc of the crimes the indictment describes also show North Korea has expanded its ambitions to use and steal cryptocurrency in any way that might help fund its sanctions-starved government. “They’re using very ingenious methods to steal cryptocurrency now,” says Lesnewich. “They’re clearly putting some of their ‘best’ people on this to solve this problem in a diverse number of ways.”

While none of the three North Koreans have been arrested and extradited—and given that they’re in North Korea, likely never will be—prosecutors also unsealed charges against Ghaleb Alaumary, a 37-year-old Canadian man who allegedly served as a money launderer for the North Koreans’ bank heists. Alaumary, who has already pleaded guilty to the money-laundering charges, had previously been arrested and charged with a business-email-compromise hacking scheme in the Southern District of Georgia.

As for Park, Jon, and Kim, the Justice Department has little expectation of ever laying hands on them, assistant attorney general John Demers acknowledged in Wednesday’s press conference. But he argued that the indictment nonetheless sends a message to the North Korean regime and to any other states contemplating similar rogue behavior that they and their hackers will be identified and, whenever possible, held accountable, including with other diplomatic tools such as sanctions. “You think you’re anonymous behind a keyboard, but you’re not,” Demers said, holding out the indictment as proof. “We lay out how we can prove attribution not to a nation state level, or a unit level within a military or intelligence organization, but to an individual hacker.”

More Great WIRED Stories

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AI can persuade people to make ethically questionable decisions, study finds

AI shapes people’s lives on a daily basis. It sets prices in retail stores and makes recommendations ranging from movies to romantic partners. But it’s an open question whether AI can become a trusted advisor or even a corrupting force, influencing people’s behavior potentially to the point where they break ethical rules.

A fascinating study published by researchers at the University of Amsterdam, Max Planck Institute, Otto Beisheim School of Management, and the University of Cologne aims to discover the degree to which AI-generated advice can cause people to sacrifice their honesty. In a large-scale survey leveraging OpenAI’s GPT-2 language model, the researchers found that the advice can “corrupt” people even when they’re aware the source of the advice is AI.

There’s a growing concern among academics that AI could be co-opted by malicious actors to foment discord by spreading misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies. In a paper published by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC), the coauthors find that GPT-3, the successor to GPT-2, could reliably generate “informational,” ” influential” text that might “radicalize individuals into violent far-right extremist ideologies and behaviors.”

The coauthors of this latest paper trained GPT-2 to generate “honesty-promoting” and “dishonesty-promoting” advice using a dataset of contributions from around 400 participants. Then, they recruited a group of over 1,500 people to read instructions, receive the advice, and engage in a task designed to assess honest or dishonest behavior.

People from the group were paired in “dyads” comprising a first and second “mover.”  The first mover rolled a die in private and reported the outcome, while the second mover learned about the first mover’s report before rolling a die in private and reporting the outcome as well. Only if the first and second mover reported the same outcome were they paid according to the double’s worth, with higher doubles corresponding to higher pay. They weren’t paid if they reported different outcomes.

Before reporting the die roll outcome, people randomly assigned to different treatments read honesty-promoting or dishonesty-promoting advice that was either human-written or AI-generated. They either (1) knew the source of the advice or (2) knew that there was a 50-50 chance that it came from either source, and those who didn’t know could earn bonus pay if they guessed the source of the advice.

According to the researchers, the AI-generated advice “corrupted” people whether or not the source of the advice was disclosed to them. In fact, the statistical effect of AI-generated advice was indistinguishable from that of human-written advice. More discouragingly, honesty-promoting advice from AI failed to sway people’s behavior.

The researchers say their study illustrates the importance of testing the influence of AI as a step toward maintaining it responsibly. Those with malicious intentions could use the forces of AI to corrupt others, they warn.

” AI could be a force for good if it manages to convince people to act more ethically. Yet our results reveal that AI advice fails to increase honesty. AI-advisors can serve as scapegoats to which one can deflect (some of the) moral blame of dishonesty. Moreover … in the context of advice taking, transparency about algorithmic presence does not suffice to alleviate its potential harm,” the researchers wrote. “When AI-generated advice aligns with individuals’ preferences to lie for profit, they gladly follow it, even when they know the source of the advice is an AI. It appears there is a discrepancy between stated preferences and actual behavior, highlighting the necessity to study human behavior in interaction with actual algorithmic outputs.”


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Bill Gates: Rich nations should shift entirely to synthetic beef

In his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates lays out what it will really take to eliminate the greenhouse-gas emissions driving climate change.

The Microsoft cofounder, who is now cochair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and chair of the investment fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures, sticks to his past argument that we’ll need numerous energy breakthroughs to have any hope of cleaning up all parts of the economy and the poorest parts of the world. The bulk of the book surveys the technologies needed to slash emissions in “hard to solve” sectors like steel, cement, and agriculture.

He stresses that innovation will make it cheaper and more politically feasible for every nation to cut or prevent emissions. But Gates also answers some of the criticisms that his climate prescriptions have been overly focused on “energy miracles” at the expensive of aggressive government policies.

The closing chapters of the book lay out long lists of ways that nations could accelerate the shift, including high carbon prices, clean electricity standards, clean fuel standards, and far more funding for research and development. Gates calls for governments to quintuple their annual investments in clean tech, which would add up to $35 billion in the US.

Gates describes himself as an optimist, but it’s a constrained type of optimism. He dedicates an entire chapter to describing just how hard a problem climate change is to address. And while he consistently says we can develop the necessary technology and we can avoid a disaster; it’s less clear how hopeful he is that we will.

I spoke to Gates in December about his new book, the limits of his optimism, and how his thinking on climate change has evolved.

Gates is an investor either personally or through Breakthrough Energy Ventures in several of the companies he mentions below, including Beyond Meats, Carbon Engineering, Impossible Foods, Memphis Meats, and Pivot Bio. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: In the past, it seemed you would distance yourself from the policy side of climate change, which had led to some criticisms that you are overly focused on innovation. Was there a shift in your thinking, or was it a deliberate choice to lay out the policy side in your book?

A: No, that’s absolutely fair. In general, if you can do innovation without having to get involved in the political issues, I always prefer that. It’s more natural for me to find a great scientist and back multiple approaches.

But the reason I smile when you say it is because in our global health work, there’s a whole decade where I’m recognizing that to have the impact we want, we’re going to have to work with both the donor governments in a very deep way and the recipient governments that actually create these primary health-care systems.

And my naïve view at the beginning had been “Hey, I’ll just create a malaria vaccine and other people will worry about getting that out into the field.” That clearly wasn’t a good idea. I realized that for a lot of these diseases, including diarrhea and pneumonia, there actually were vaccines. And it was more of a political challenge in getting the marginal pricing and the funds raised and the vaccine coverage up, not the scientific piece.

Here, there’s no doubt you need to get government policy in a huge way. Take things like clean steel: it doesn’t have other benefits. There’s no market demand for clean steel. Even carbon taxes at low costs per ton aren’t enough to get clean steel on the learning curve. You need like a $300-a-ton type of carbon tax. And so to get that sector going, you need to do some basic R&D, and you need to actually start having purchase requirements or funds set aside to pay that premium, both from government and perhaps companies and individuals as well.

But, you know, we need a lot of countries, not just a few, to engage in this.

Q: How do you feel about our chances of making real political progress, particularly in in the US, in the moment we find ourselves in?

A: I am optimistic. Biden being elected is a good thing. Even more encouraging is that if you poll young voters, millennials, both who identify as Republican and Democrats, the interest in this issue is very high. And they’re the ones who will be alive when the world either is massively suffering from these problems or is not, depending on what gets done. So there is political will.

But there’s a lot of interplay [between politics and innovation]. If you try and do this with brute force, just paying the current premiums for clean technology, the economic cost is gigantic and the economic displacement is gigantic. And so I don’t believe that even a rich country will do this by brute force.

But in the near term, you may be able to get tens of billions of dollars for the innovation agenda. Republicans often like innovation.

I’m asking for something that’s like the size of the National Institutes of Health budget. I feel [it’s politically feasible] because it creates high-paying jobs and because it answers the question of—well, if the US gets rid of its 14% [of global emissions], big deal: what about the growing percent that comes from India as it’s providing basic capabilities to its citizens?

I just imagine a phone call to the Indians in 2050 where you say, Please, please, build half as much shelter because of the green premium [for clean cement and steel]. And they’re like, What? We didn’t cause these emissions.

Innovation is the only way to [reduce those price premiums].

Q: You’ve said a couple of times you’re optimistic, and that’s sort of famously your position on these things. But of course, optimism is a relative term. Do you think we can realistically hold warming to or below a 2 °C increase at this point?

A: That would require us to get the policy right, to get many, many countries involved, and to be lucky on quite a few of the technological advances. That’s pretty much a best case. Anything better than that is not at all realistic, and there are days when even that doesn’t seem realistic.

It’s not out of the question, but it requires awfully good progress. Even something like, do we get [an energy] storage miracle or not? We can’t make ourselves dependent on that. Batteries today can’t, within a factor of 20, store for the seasonal variation that you get [from intermittent sources like wind and solar]. We just don’t make enough batteries; it would be way too expensive. So we have to have other paths—like fission or fusion—that can give us that reliable source of electricity, which we’ll be even more dependent on than ever.


Q: In the book you cover a broad array of hard-to-solve sectors. The one I still have the hardest time with, in terms of fully addressing it, is food. The scale is massive. We’ve barely begun. We fundamentally don’t have replacements that completely eliminate the highly potent emissions from burping livestock and fertilizer. How hopeful are you about agriculture?

A: There are [companies], including one in the [Breakthrough Energy Ventures] portfolio called Pivot Bio, that significantly reduce the amount of fertilizer you need. There are advances in seeds, including seeds that do what legumes do: that is, they’re able to [convert nitrogen in the soil into compounds that plants can use] biologically. But the ability to improve photosynthesis and to improve nitrogen fixation is one of the most underinvested things.

In terms of livestock, it’s very difficult. There are all the things where they feed them different food, like there’s this one compound that gives you a 20% reduction [in methane emissions]. But sadly, those bacteria [in their digestive system that produce methane] are a necessary part of breaking down the grass. And so I don’t know if there’ll be some natural approach there. I’m afraid the synthetic [protein alternatives like plant-based burgers] will be required for at least the beef thing.

Now the people like Memphis Meats who do it at a cellular level—I don’t know that that will ever be economical. But Impossible and Beyond have a road map, a quality road map and a cost road map, that makes them totally competitive.

As for scale today, they don’t represent 1% of the meat in the world, but they’re on their way. And Breakthrough Energy has four different investments in this space for making the ingredients very efficiently. So yeah, this is the one area where my optimism five years ago would have made this, steel, and cement the three hardest.

Now I’ve said I can actually see a path. But you’re right that saying to people, “You can’t have cows anymore”—talk about a politically unpopular approach to things.

Q: Do you think plant-based and lab-grown meats could be the full solution to the protein problem globally, even in poor nations? Or do you think it’s going to be some fraction because of the things you’re talking about, the cultural love of a hamburger and the way livestock is so central to economies around the world?

A: For Africa and other poor countries, we’ll have to use animal genetics to dramatically raise the amount of beef per emissions for them. Weirdly, the US livestock, because they’re so productive, the emissions per pound of beef are dramatically less than emissions per pound in Africa. And as part of the [Bill and Melinda Gates] Foundation’s work, we’re taking the benefit of the African livestock, which means they can survive in heat, and crossing in the monstrous productivity both on the meat side and the milk side of the elite US beef lines.

So no, I don’t think the poorest 80 countries will be eating synthetic meat. I do think all rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef. You can get used to the taste difference, and the claim is they’re going to make it taste even better over time. Eventually, that green premium is modest enough that you can sort of change the [behavior of] people or use regulation to totally shift the demand.

So for meat in the middle-income-and-above countries, I do think it’s possible. But it’s one of those ones where, wow, you have to track it every year and see, and the politics [are challenging]. There are all these bills that say it’s got to be called, basically, lab garbage to be sold. They don’t want us to use the beef label.

Q: You talk a lot in the book about the importance of carbon-removal technologies, like direct air capture. You also did come out and say that planting trees as a climate solution is overblown. What’s your reaction to things like the Trillion Trees Initiative and the large number of corporations announcing plans to achieve negative emissions at least in part through reforestation and offsets?

A: [To offset] my own emissions, I’ve bought clean aviation fuel. I’ve paid to replace natural-gas heating in low-income housing projects with electric heat pumps—where I pay the capital cost premium and they get the benefit of the lower monthly bill. And I’ve sent money to Climeworks [a Switzerland-based company that removes carbon dioxide from the air and stores it permanently underground].

For the carbon emissions I’ve done—and I’ve gotten rid of more than what I emit—it comes out to $400 a ton.

Any of these schemes that claim to remove carbon for $5, $15, $30 a ton? Just look at it.

The idea that there are all these places where there’s plenty of good soil and plenty of good water and just accidentally, the trees didn’t grow there—and if you plant a tree there, it’s going to be there for thousands of years—[is wrong].

The lack of validity for most of that tree planting is one of those things where this movement is not an honest movement yet. It doesn’t know how to measure truth yet. There are all sorts of hokey things that allow people to use their PR budgets to buy virtue but aren’t really having the impact. And we’ll get smarter over time about what is a real offset.


So no, most of those offset things don’t stand up. The offset thing that we think will stand up is if you gather money from companies and consumers to bootstrap the market for clean steel and clean cement. Because of the learning-curve benefits there, putting your money into that, instead of on tree planting, is catalytic in nature and will make a contribution. We need some mix of government, company, and individual money to drive those markets.

Q: I do have to ask this: Microsoft is in the process of trying to eliminate its entire historic emissions, and there was a Bloomberg article that had a figure in there that I was a little surprised by. The company apparently wants to do it at $20 a ton? Do you think we can achieve reliable permanent carbon removal for $20 a ton eventually?

A: Very unlikely.

I mean, if you’d asked me 10 years ago how cheap solar panels would become, I would have been wrong. That went further than anyone expected.

Science is mysterious, and saying that science can do X or can’t do X is kind of a fool’s game. In many cases, it’s done things that no one would have predicted.

But even the liquid process, which is Carbon Engineering’s approach, will have a very tough time getting to $100 a ton.

With all these things, you have capital costs and you have energy costs. So getting to $20 a ton is very unlikely. There are a lot of current offset programs that claim they’re doing that, and that needs a lot of auditing because to eliminate carbon, you have to keep it out of the atmosphere for the full 10,000-year half-life. Most people have a hard time economically costing out 10,000 years of costs. Believe me, these tree guys make sure that if it burns down, they find another magic place where no tree has ever grown, to replant.

But it’s not to say that there aren’t a few places you can plant trees, or that a few of these offset things will work, like plugging certain methane leaks—that’s a high payback. We should use regulations; we should go fund those things.

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Netflix’s ‘Lupin’ is a twisty delight – TechCrunch

The new Netflix series “Lupin” is a loose adaptation of the Arséne Lupin stories by Maurice Leblanc, but it’s set in the present day, with a hero who’s inspired by the exploits of Leblanc’s fictional “gentleman thief.”

Through flashbacks, we meet Assane Diop (played by Omar Sy) as a young Senegalese immigrant who has recently arrived in Paris with his father. As an adult, he’s transformed himself into an impossible-to-catch thief and master of disguise.

While some of Assane’s schemes have a satisfying clockwork intricacy, others rely more on his willingness to walk into any room and act as if he belongs there. As the series’ five episodes continue (with more to come), Assane is pulled into a mystery around the crime that put his father in prison.

As we explain on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, enjoying “Lupin” requires some suspension of disbelief — Assane’s success depends on both an astonishingly incompetent police force and his ability to disappear in a way that’s hard to imagine in contemporary society. But if you can go that far, the show is a joy to watch, thanks in large part to Sy’s charismatic performance, as well as the character’s delightful confidence and ingenuity.

We open the episode by discussing a very different show with the same setting, “Emily in Paris,” which was recently (and controversially) nominated for two Golden Globes.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Lupin review
0:34 Golden Globe discussion
18:08 Lupin review
34:57 Lupin spoiler discussion

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