Artificial intelligence pioneer says we need to start over - Axios
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Artificial intelligence pioneer says we need to start over

Geoffrey Hinton harbors doubts about AI's current workhorse. (Johnny Guatto / University of Toronto)

In 1986, Geoffrey Hinton co-authored a paper that, three decades later, is central to the explosion of artificial intelligence. But Hinton says his breakthrough method should be dispensed with, and a new path to AI found.

Speaking with Axios on the sidelines of an AI conference in Toronto on Wednesday, Hinton, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and a Google researcher, said he is now "deeply suspicious" of back-propagation, the workhorse method that underlies most of the advances we are seeing in the AI field today, including the capacity to sort through photos and talk to Siri. "My view is throw it all away and start again," he said.

The bottom line: Other scientists at the conference said back-propagation still has a core role in AI's future. But Hinton said that, to push materially ahead, entirely new methods will probably have to be invented. "Max Planck said, 'Science progresses one funeral at a time.' The future depends on some graduate student who is deeply suspicious of everything I have said."

How it works: In back propagation, labels or "weights" are used to represent a photo or voice within a brain-like neural layer. The weights are then adjusted and readjusted, layer by layer, until the network can perform an intelligent function with the fewest possible errors.

But Hinton suggested that, to get to where neural networks are able to become intelligent on their own, what is known as "unsupervised learning," "I suspect that means getting rid of back-propagation."

"I don't think it's how the brain works," he said. "We clearly don't need all the labeled data."

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Federal report shows the Arctic warming at an "unprecedented" rate

An icebergs floats in the Nuup Kangerlua Fjord near Nuuk in southwestern Greenland. Photo: David Goldman / AP

A group of 85 scientists reported on Tuesday that the Arctic is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the planet and "that the current decline of Arctic sea ice is 'outside of the range of natural variability and unprecedented' in the past 1,450 years," reports Chris Mooney in The Washington Post.

Why it matters: The 2017 Arctic Report Card presented on Tuesday raises again the question of the Trump administration's stance on climate change. President of the Woods Hole Research Center, Phil Duffy, told the Post the report "is completely at odds with the policies and statements of the Trump administration."

  • The consequences: According to the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, an increase in mobility of floating ice sheets poses a danger to naval submarines. And, according to the Post the ice is "thinner and less long-lived, and it rarely remains frozen throughout the summer and into the next winter."
  • A new section of the report also shows surface temperatures are rising at a rate "unprecedented in...the past 2,000 years," per the Post.
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New volcanic island may tell us about Mars' past

A new island formed from the ash of an underwater volcanic eruption in the South Pacific was initially projected to last a few months, but could exist for 6 to 30 years, according to a new NASA study released on Monday. Researchers have used satellite imagery to study the island in the South Pacific since 2015 and have an “unprecedented view from space of its early life and evolution," the agency said in a statement.

Why it matters: Studying the development and erosion of the island offers scientists a nuanced understanding of volcanic features on Mars that appear to have erupted underwater, “providing clues about when the red planet was wet several billion years ago,” the New York Times reports.

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400,000 young children in Congo could starve to death

A young boy from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Jerome Delay / AP

There are at least 400,000 severely malnourished children under 5 years old living in the Democratic Republic of Congo who could die within months without emergency intervention, UNICEF warned today.

The gritty details: After 18 months of conflict, displaced people and poor harvests, these children in the Kasai region are the most vulnerable in a population of 750,000 acutely malnourished children in what some say could become the "biggest emergency of 2018."

"With so many humanitarian crises worldwide, the situation in DRC is at risk of being ignored while it develops into the biggest emergency of 2018."
— Mohammed Abdiker, director of operations and emergencies at the International Organisation for Migration, said on Tuesday.

Driving the news: Violence, food insecurity and devastated health facilities have created a desperate climate in the Kasai region.

  • There have been ongoing fights between local rebel groups and government troups in the Kasai region after tribal chieftain and rebel Kamwina Nsapu was killed last year, Yahoo reports.
  • Due to this unrest as well as the everyday, ongoing violence in the African country, 3.9 million people have been displaced in DRC, according to the UN refugee report.
  • In addition, there's been a year and a half of poor agriculture — and having missed planting season, there is not likely to be a harvest in June.
  • About 220 health centers were destroyed, looted or damaged in Kasai, leading to reduced access to health care and an increased risk in the spread of communicable diseases, UNICEF says.

The big picture: DRC joins a growing list of humanitarian crises, including growing famine and disease in Yemen.

To help, donate to Unicef, Save the Children or Action Against Hunger.

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Cassini finds Saturn's rings change the planet's atmosphere

Saturn's rings cast a narrow shadow on the planet in a 2009 image from Cassini. Image: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute

Shadows from Saturn's rings can affect the planet's atmosphere, according to an analysis of data collected by the Cassini-Hyugens spacecraft during its final dives into the gaseous planet's upper atmosphere earlier this year. The work was presented yesterday at the American Geophysical Union conference and will be published this week in the journal Science.

Why it matters: These are the first direct measurements of Saturn's ionsophere as opposed to remote sensing observations, study author William Kurth from the University of Iowa tells Axios. Much of our knowledge of other planets is based on that about Earth, with modifications to account for what we know to be different. By sampling the ionosphere of Saturn, Kurth says researchers can begin to check these modified theories. "An important outcome, though, is that the improved theories incorporating things we learn at other planets, should help us understand our own planet better than we do."

Sound smart: The ionosphere is an upper layer of a planet's atmosphere that is electrically charged by the Sun's ultraviolet radiation. Saturn's extends from 300 km - 5,000 km above its surface. (Earth also has one. Ditto Jupiter. It is where auroras occur. )

How it works: Ultraviolet radiation from the sun can separate an electron from an atom of hydrogen or helium, charging the ionosphere. Parts of the ionosphere in the shadow of Saturn's A- and B-rings have a lower density of free electrons than other regions, suggesting the rings may be blocking the Sun's UV radiation.

Yes, but: The shadows account for some of the variations Cassini measured, but not all, the researchers said. One possibility is ice particles from the rings may interact with electrons in the ionosphere in certain places during a so-called "ring rain." Another is winds may be blowing the particles or the UV radiation from the Sun itself may vary.

What's next: The researchers analyzed data collected from just one of Cassini's probes and from the first 11 of its 22 dives so there is more to be studied.

"This [Cassini] data set will eventually provide a deep understanding of the ionosphere and its interaction with the rings. These analyses will continue not only this year, but for decades to come," says Kurth. "New questions will come from these studies and provide the basis for possible return missions to the Saturnian system."

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Weighing the benefits and risks of birth control pills

A birth control pill dispenser. Photo: Mike Derer / AP

A recent Danish study linked hormonal birth control to an increased risk of breast cancer, but the same contraceptives have also been shown to protect against certain less common cancers, such as endometrial and ovarian, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: The study published last week raised alarm with its conclusion that users of hormonal birth control see about a 20% increased risk of developing breast cancer. But "it’s really problematic to look at one outcome in isolation. Hormonal contraception has a complex matrix of benefits and risks, and you need to look at the overall pattern," JoAnn E. Manson, a professor of women’s health at Harvard Medical School, told the Times.

The results: A British study that followed 46,000 women from 1968 to 2012 found birth control pill users had increased risks of breast and cervical cancers, but the overall cancer rates among users and non-users was equalized by the fact that users were less likely to develop other cancers.

“There is good data to show that five or more years of oral contraceptive use substantially reduces ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer risk, and may reduce colorectal cancer. And the protection persists for 10 or 20 years after cessation" of use, David J. Hunter, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the University of Oxford told the Times.

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Trump signs policy directive to send Americans back to the moon

Trump with astronaut Buzz Aldrin while signing an executive order to re-establish the National Space Council in June. Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

President Trump signed a policy directive for NASA to "refocus America's space program on human exploration and discovery." He said the move "marks a first step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972."

Go deeper: Vice President Mike Pence says Americans will go to the moon, and then Mars

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Saturn moon map reveals seas, underground rivers

A mosaic image of Titan's liquid methane and ethane seas. Photo: JPL-CALTECH / NASA / ASI / USGS

The most complete map to date of Saturn’s moon Titan reveals a mountainous world with a network of liquid methane and ethane lakes and seas connected by underground rivers, writes Lisa Grossman for Science News. Scientists already knew that Titan had something like Earth’s water cycle, but with methane. This is the latest finding from the Cassini mission to show the startling geological complexity of the hazy, gassy moon.

Why it matters: Scientists are very interested in Titan’s geology because they believe the hydrocarbon-rich planet has the potential to support some form of life. An interconnected water system, like the one on Earth, could influence the way any such life would develop. “Looking for actual evidence that the lakes could be communicating was a fundamental question from Cassini,” study coauthor Alexander Hayes tells Grossman, “This is the final paper that gives the best evidence that it exists.”

What they did: When Cassini flew over Titan 13 years ago, the robot scanned the planet and measured elevation. They used radar to identify lakes, seas and mountain ranges.

What they found: When they analyzed the altitude of Titan’s largest bodies of liquid methane, they found they were all at about the same level, like sea level on Earth. For them to stay level, they need to be connected. The map also details mountain ranges across the planet, including the southern hemisphere, and reveals high-altitude dry lakebeds that could be sinkholes or the remnants of volcanoes.

What’s next: The map, which was published December 2 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, will likely be used by other scientists studying the Saturnian moon’s geology. “Within hours of the paper actually being available online, people we’ve never collaborated with started contacting [Hayes’ co-author, Paul Corlies] to ask how to get the data,” Hayes told Grossman.

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In early trial, new drug silences Huntington’s disease gene

An experimental drug could slow the spread of Huntington's disease, giving hopes to patients suffering from uncontrolled movements and mental confusion associated with the disease, reports The Guardian. An early-stage trial of the drug was conducted with 46 patients in the UK, Germany and Canada.

Why it matters: Huntington's disease is an inherited condition resulting from a genetic mutation. Current treatments can only help minimize the symptoms, instead of slowing it down.

Professor Sarah Tabriz at UK's University College of London said in a statement on Monday that the drug has lowered the level of the “toxic disease-causing protein in the nervous system, and the drug was safe and well-tolerated. The key now is to move quickly to a larger trial to test whether the drug slows disease progression.”

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Study finds global warming will boost economy for warm-weather activities

Newly assembled bike share bicycles staged for distribution in Philadelphia. Photo: Matt Rourke / AP

A new paper uses a big, multi-year dataset from bike-sharing programs in North America to conclude that climate change could boost the wider outdoor recreation economy for warm-weather activities.

Bottom line for North America: The authors see economic gains of $900 million annually for cycling alone and $20.7 billion per year for outdoor recreation more broadly by 2060.

More from the study, conducted by Resources For the Future fellow Casey Wichman and University of Massachusetts resource economics expert Nathan Chan:

  • Why study bike-sharing? "[C]ycling shares common attributes with other forms of outdoor recreation, such as running, hiking, and swimming, which are all low-fixed-cost, everyday activities with benefits that depend on the pleasantness of weather conditions," the study notes.
  • Why it matters: "Despite extensive research detailing the effects of climate change on economic production, human health, and natural capital, we have relatively few causal estimates of climate change effects in other realms, especially nonmarket activities. In this paper, we help fill this gap by quantifying impacts for leisure," the paper states.
  • Yes, but: They're not saying global warming is a good thing. The authors note in a blog post that climate change will impose huge net costs on the U.S. and elsewhere, but add that their research can help with providing a full accounting for its many impacts.
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The mental health crisis among young Americans, by the numbers

Illustration: Sam Jayne / Axios

One in five American young adults under the age of 25 lives with a mental illness or behavioral disorder, NBC reports, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The big picture: Per the CDC's research, the state of young adult mental health in the U.S. is only worsening, with the suicide rate among teenage girls reaching a 40-year high in 2015. Here's a look at the numbers that tell the story of this crisis.

The numbers:

  • 15 million, or 1 in 5, American children and young adults battle mental illnesses or learning disorders.
  • 10 million, or two-thirds of them, are undiagnosed or aren't receiving treatment.
  • Among children ages 3 to 17: 6.8% are diagnosed with ADHD, 3.0% suffer from anxiety, 2.1% suffer from depression