California cities now have the worst air pollution on Earth as smoke blows into town

A couple wearing masks in San Francisco on Nov. 16, 2018.
A couple wearing masks in San Francisco on Nov. 16, 2018.
Image: Eric Risberg/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Oakland, a Northern California city with a population of over 425,000, had the worst air quality in the world Saturday morning.

Wildfire smoke wafting over from the still-growing Camp Fire — by far the deadliest wildfire in state history — had inundated many heavily-populated California cities and towns with small bits of pollution thinner than the width of a human hair, called Particulate Matter 2.5, or PM 2.5.

Berkeley Earth, a scientific climate organization, keeps tabs on air pollution around the globe. As of Nov. 17 at 9:30 a.m. ET, Oakland topped the global list with particle concentrations of 167 μg/m3  (meaning micrograms per cubic meter) — which are levels deemed “Very Unhealthy” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Coming in a distant second is Kanpur, India with particulate levels of 132. 

For reference, air pollution experts consider India to have the worst air pollution on the planet. Last week, air pollution levels in India’s capital city of New Delhi were literally off the charts

The Northern California cities of San Francisco and Oakland also placed in the top five, as of Saturday morning. Friday, the air pollution was no better, with the five top spots all taken by heavily-populated California cities: Stockton, Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. 

Increasing amounts of unhealthy to hazardous air pollution in the U.S. are one of the most well-understood and predicted consequences of climate change, as warmer climes produce larger wildfires.

It’s also well understood that particulate air pollution doesn’t just make it difficult to breathe in the short term, but it’s linked to serious heart disease.  A recent 10-year-long Environmental Protection Agency study observed some 6,000 people and found exposure to this particulate matter (PM 2.5) accelerated the build-up of plaque inside the walls of blood vessels, which leads to heart attacks, strokes, and even death.  

California’s sustained air quality woes have been further aided by a common weather phenomenon known as an inversion layer, wherein air pollution gets trapped under a layer of warm air, trapping the cooler air below.  

Climate scientists expect California to experience more smoke-filled autumns as the century progresses, specifically because falls are expected to be drier. This sets the stage for profoundly dry grasslands, scrublands, and forest, which are likely to ignite with any spark

The parched Golden State, however, may get a reprieve from fires around Thanksgiving: Wet storms from Alaska may pour rain over the ashy, smoke-ridden land. 

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A Planned FDA Study Could Clear the Way for Fewer Dogs Used and Killed in Animal Research

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Dogs have been everything we’ve ever needed them to be, including volunteers for clinical trials of drugs meant for both people and pooches. Sadly, these furry test subjects are sometimes euthanized at the end of these experiments, because it’s deemed the only way to get the accurate test results scientists are…

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A beginner’s guide to AI: Human-level machine intelligence

Welcome to TNW’s beginner’s guide to AI. This (currently) five part feature should provide you with a very basic understanding of what AI is, what it can do, and how it works. The guide contains articles on (in order published) neural networks, computer vision, natural language processing, algorithms, and artificial general intelligence. 

There are few technologies that inspire the imagination like artificial intelligence. And, in the field of AI, the Holy Grail is living machines.

The quest to imbue machines with the spark of life is an ancient one. The golem of Jewish folklore is an early example of an automaton, as well as Pygmalion’s Galatea. But, rather than bring machines to life, we’ve so far only imitated intelligence.

Modern AI, mostly, appears in the form of deep learning. Computer vision, natural language processing, and other machine learning-based technologies have revolutionized the field, seemingly overnight, but it’s hard to cut through the hyperbole and figure out what’s really going on.

You’ll hear and read a lot of different terms being thrown around to describe concepts that seem the same, with few people able to explain the differences. Worse, the experts using these terms often quibble over their definitions.

To clear things up, we need to sort through the nomenclature. The term artificial general intelligence (AGI) is, perhaps, the most popular one for the concept. But there are many others:

  • Sentient machines
  • Conscious AI (CAI)
  • General Artificial Intelligence (GAI)
  • Strong AI
  • General AI
  • Human-level AI
  • The Singularity

And there are even terms for machines that are more intelligent than humans: superintelligence and super-intelligent AI (SAI).

If having several terms for the same idea wasn’t difficult enough, there’s no actual consensus anywhere on exactly what any of these terms mean. So, if you’re reading this and getting red in the face over the author’s misuse of a term you clearly know means something different: welcome to the regular conversation.

Some researchers believe AGI — we’ll just go with that term — can be achieved without a machine necessarily being able to do everything a human can (intellectually speaking). Others have a much stricter definition that says all AI is weak unless it can demonstrate consciousness.

And, of course, there’s a distinction between general intelligence and sentience. Many experts are content to think an autonomous contraption that requires no human input to perform a variety of tasks which imitate human-level intelligence (think: a robot that can charge, repair, and upgrade itself but doesn’t feel emotions) clears the bar for AGI, but not for sentience or life.

The counter-argument to that sentiment is: the human brain may be nothing more than a big neural network, and consciousness is a by-product of its robustness. Sentience, some experts claim, is merely a side-effect of the brain’s function. This might sound counter-intuitive, but there’s plenty of research to support it:

So sentience, consciousness, or ‘being alive,’ might not be something we can explain yet in humans or robots. But that doesn’t mean it’s beyond the realm of possibility that we’ll figure it out tomorrow, a year from now, or in 2029 like famous futurologist Ray Kurzweil thinks.

It even seems reasonable to theorize that AI will become sentient not by design, but as a by-product of the development of more advanced neural networks or some machine learning paradigm that hasn’t been invented yet.

At the end of the day (today, at least) defining what AGI actually is might not be the most pressing matter for the general public. Because, no matter what terminology we use, it hasn’t been achieved yet.

It’s probably fair to say nobody is even close to giving a machine human-level intelligence. To use a popular theoretical benchmark: there’s no robot that could walk into your house today and make a pot of coffee using your appliances and dishes. AI simply isn’t powerful enough for that kind of intense decision-making yet.

However, cars can already drive themselves, and you can buy a flying camera that pilots itself today. Those are narrow, or weak AI — meaning they’re only designed to do one or a handful of specific things within certain parameters. But it won’t be long before someone designs a machine that Frankensteins a hundred or so amazing narrow AIs together in a seamless package. Arguably, that’s what Sophia’s creators are trying to do.

Ben Goertzel, CEO of SingularityNET and the person responsible for Sophia the robot’s AI, compares the state of AGI research today to the period when the first automobiles were being designed. “I don’t think we’ve even reached the Model T stage yet, but I think we will soon,” he told TNW.

And, if Sophia is the precursor to the robot version of a Model T, you have to wonder what the AI equivalent of a Tesla would look like.

A few years ago AGI was considered a niche line of research. It was the fodder of professional futurologists like Google’s Ray Kurzweil and philosophers like Oxford’s Nick Bostrum. These days, it’s seeing heavy investment and is considered a lucrative and rewarding field to work in.

Just a handful of the companies and organizations deeply involved in AGI development include:

And that list could also include dozens of startups and hundreds of universities such as MIT, NYU, and Oxford. The development of a human-level artificial intelligence isn’t science fiction, it’s a business strategy.

The bottom line is that AGI, in the limited sense of machines that can operate completely autonomously while performing a series of specific tasks that require human-level intelligence, is something most experts in the field would likely agree is attainable if not inevitable.

Whether or not that aforementioned spark of life — the “Number Five alive!” moment from the movie “Short Circuit” — ever happens, or is even possible, remains a mystery.

Here’s some of our favorite TNW articles featuring the subject of AGI:

And here’s a few resources for when you’re ready to dive a little deeper:


Don’t forget to check out our Artificial Intelligence section for the latest news and analysis from the world of machines that learn.

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The Leonid meteor shower peaks this weekend. Here's how to see it.

The Leonid meteor shower above Vermont.
The Leonid meteor shower above Vermont.
Image: MIKE RIDDELL/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Bundle up and head outside in the wee hours of the morning this weekend to check out some shooting stars. 

The Leonid meteor shower peaks early on Saturday morning. If estimates hold, people in rural areas with little light pollution should be able to see about 15 meteors per hour under good weather conditions. 

The best time for people in the Northern Hemisphere to head outside should be at around 3 a.m. ET, when moonlight won’t interfere too much with viewing the shower, according to NASA.

“The Leonids are best seen after midnight your local time, once the Moon has set,” NASA said in a skywatching video

The space agency also says that it’s possible to see some Leonids on nights other than the peak if Saturday morning won’t work with your schedule.

“You should also be able to see some Leonids on the 18th, 19th, and 20th,” NASA added in the video. “The maximum for any of these nights is only 10 Leonids per hour.”

The Leonids appear each year when Earth passes through the field of dust left behind by Comet 55P Tempel-Tuttle during its journey around the sun.

Those bits of debris enter Earth’s atmosphere, effectively burning up in the process and creating those streaks we see as shooting stars. 

If you want to head out and see some meteors this weekend, try your best to get to a dark area and let your eyes adjust for about 30 minutes at least. 

Once your eyes are adjusted, look up, lie back, and try to take in as much of the sky as possible, keeping in mind that the radiant point for the shower is the constellation Leo. 

Even if you’re in a light-polluted area, you still might be able to see some meteors during the peak of the shower. If you are in a city, try to get somewhere as dark as possible — like a park — with a clear view of the sky. 

You likely won’t see many meteors from a city, but it’s always worth a try. 

While this year’s Leonid meteor shower will be on the average side, sometimes the shower really puts on a show.

“Every 33 years, or so, viewers on Earth may experience a Leonid storm that can peak with hundreds to thousands of meteors seen per hour depending on the location of the observer,” NASA said.

“A meteor storm versus a shower is defined as having at least 1,000 meteors per hour. Viewers in 1966 experienced a spectacular Leonid storm: thousands of meteors per minute fell through Earth’s atmosphere during a 15 minute period. There were so many meteors seen that they appeared to fall like rain. The last Leonid meteor storm took place in 2002.”

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AI can create synthetic fingerprints that fool biometric scanners


Wipada Wipawin via Getty Images

Researchers from New York University have found a way to produce fake fingerprints using artificial intelligence that could fool biometric scanners (or the human eye) into thinking they’re the real deal. The DeepMasterPrints, as the researchers are calling them, replicated 23 percent of fingerprints in a system that supposedly has an error rate of one in a thousand. When the false match rate was one in a hundred, the DeepMasterPrints were able to mimic real prints 77 percent of the time.

These synthetic prints could be most effective in bypassing a system with many fingerprints stored on it (as opposed to your phone, which probably has a record of a couple of your own digits). An attacker might have more chance of success through trial and error, similar to the way in which hackers run brute force or dictionary attacks against passwords.

Since they don’t wrap around the shape of your finger, most scanners only detect a partial print. That’s why you have to raise and lower your finger, and move it around when setting up TouchID on iOS or fingerprint unlocks on Android — you won’t place your finger on a scanner in exactly the same way every time.

Much of the time, biometric systems don’t merge partial prints together to create a full image of your fingerprint. Instead, they compare scans against the partial records. That increases the likelihood that a bad actor could match a part of your print with a computer-generated one.

Real fingerprints and AI-generated synthetic prints

DeepMasterPrints also take advantage of the fact that, while full fingerprints are unique, they often share attributes. So a synthetic fingerprint that includes many of these common features has more chance of working than one that’s completely randomized.

With those factors in mind, the researchers created a neural network that sought to create prints matching a range of partial fingerprints. They trained a generative adversarial network using a dataset of real prints.

The DeepMasterPrints look convincingly like actual fingerprints, so they could fool humans too. A previous method, MasterPrints, turned out phony prints with spiky, angled edges that would immediately strike a human as fake, even if they could dupe scanners.

The researchers hope their work will prompt companies to make biometric systems more secure. “Without verifying that a biometric comes from a real person, a lot of these adversarial attacks become possible,” Philip Bontrager, of NYU’s engineering school, told Gizmodo. “The real hope of work like this is to push toward liveness detection in biometric sensor.”

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Cleaning Your Baby’s Pacifier by Sucking on It Prevents Allergies, New Research Suggests

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It’s a scene parents and caregivers are all too familiar with: an infant’s pacifier falls to the floor. When this happened with my first born, I rushed to clean the soiled soother by boiling it in water or carefully washing it in the sink. But by the time my second child was born, I was considerably more relaxed, and…

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For eco-conscious city dwellers, urban agriculture is one road to real impact

Image: Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Eco-consciousness is a hot trend. It’s become common occurrence to see shoppers with reusable grocery totes at the supermarket. Bamboo straws are flying off shelves as people opt for eco-friendly products. Urban gardening and composting, too, has taken root as consumers try to minimize their carbon footprints.

These small actions are encouraging first steps, but they’re not enough when it comes to tackling agricultural contributions to climate change. Strong-worded warnings from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) detail the potential for climate disasters to worsen if modern consumption patterns don’t change — and soon. 

There’s evidence that reimagining urban environments’ food systems might help reduce carbon emissions. With more than 60% of the global population expected to live in cities by 2030, urban agriculture might be one piece of the puzzle for reducing strain on city resources. The practice typically involves growing food in smaller, city environments such as on rooftops, apartment balconies, or even walls. 

Here’s a look at how urban agriculture innovations might have a positive environmental impact.

The agriculturalist’s dilemma

Image: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

A recent report on global food systems and climate change demonstrates the circular nature of the relationship. Agricultural practices lead to increased carbon emissions. Climate change — resulting in part due to those emissions — makes it more difficult to maintain stable food systems. 

If growth rates continue as projected and lifestyle patterns don’t change by 2050, nearly three Earths will be needed to support the population. 

At the same time, the human population continues to grow at record rates. Each day, another 200,000 people join Earth’s already stressed ecosystem. If growth rates continue as projected and lifestyle patterns don’t change by 2050, nearly three Earths will be needed to support the population. Farmers will also need to produce 70 percent more food to sustain so many people.  

Even though world hunger is a global problem, there is more than enough food to go around today. Inefficient practices, however, mean that much of what is produced is thrown out. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates about a third of the world’s food — or around 1.3 billion tons every year — ends up wasted. 

Urban agriculture presents a simple solution to food waste: Grow food more sustainably, closer to where it’s being consumed. Some concepts that have emerged recently include city gardens in underserved communities — the DC UrbanGreens program in Washington, D.C. is one example. In Mexico City, giant plant pillars intended to improve city air quality have been proposed by a group called ViaVerde. Composting, too, encourages city dwellers to rethink how they dispose of food scraps. At-home composting via products like the Vermicondo, a worm composter designed for modern apartments, are gaining popularity. Many composters use their compost mixture to make fertilizer for gardens on their balcony or in other small spaces. These efforts contribute potential environmental benefits — and could introduce more green space into cities, too.

Startups making a difference

Image: Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

A number of social good ventures focused on eliminating food waste at every link in the supply chain have emerged in recent years. These companies are a natural complement to urban agriculture.

Tristram Stuart, part of the UBS Global Visionary program, founded his company, Feedback, after witnessing the wastefulness of many grocers, restaurants, and stores. He was particularly disturbed by the common practice of throwing out produce that fails to meet aesthetic standards. Stuart’s organization raises awareness about food waste by hosting on-the-ground events. The group also attempts to enact change at the policy level. Feedback’s campaigns include a mix of hard-hitting investigative research, massive public events where “salvaged” food is served, and pilot projects that test out improved food systems.

In 2016, Stuart launched Toast Ale, another startup tackling the issue of food waste with an inventive approach: The company turns surplus bread into beer, and pours its profits back into Feedback and other charities.

Another UBS Global Visionary, Iseult Ward, is the co-founder and CEO of FoodCloud, a tech platform that connects surplus food to charity organizations around the UK. To date, more than 4,000 food and retail partners are donating to more than 9,500 charities through FoodCloud.

In a video on YouTube, Ward discusses the company’s incredible growth in just a few short years. “What started as an idea with two people has now become a movement. That gives us huge confidence as to what we can achieve into the future,” she says.

Refusing plastic bags at the grocery store simply won’t cut it when it comes to real, lasting environmental impact. For those invested in turning the tide of climate change, greater commitment is required — and urban agriculture may be one part of a long-term solution.

Image: UBS x T Brand Studio

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