Erin Ross Feb 14
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Future CSIs might determine time of death from genes

A police officer unwinds tape that reads "police line do not cross"
A police officer at a car crash in Texas (Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

Genes may contain a living record of your life — or, the end of your life. In a paper published Tuesday in Nature Communications, scientists describe a number of genes that change the way they're expressed after death.

Why it matters: In the future, it's possible the patterns these scientists found could be used to precisely determine someone's time of death.

What's new: Scientists had already identified a number of genes that are turned on at the moment of death. In the new study, researchers:

  • Looked for mRNA, or messenger RNA, which is present when genes are turned on, in 9000 samples from 36 different types of human tissues. The genes in muscle tissue, for example, were extremely active after death. Others, like spleen genes, were less so.
  • They searched for patterns in those genes and input the dataset into a machine learning algorithm that then determined the genetic history and time of death of 399 individuals.
  • Then, they gave the AI mRNA data from 129 other people to see if it could predict their time of death.

What they found: The algorithm could successfully approximate time of death within about 9 minutes. However, it was most accurate within the first few hours after death.

Yes, but conditions in the lab might not be as ideal as conditions at a crime scene. It's likely that if this technique is used, it will be in conjunction with other traditional ways for estimating time of death.

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Early humans innovated tools earlier than thought

Archaeologist Rick Potts squats in the Olorgesailie Basin in Kenya with various surprisingly sophisticated tools found from 320,000 years ago.
Richard Potts surveys assortment of Early Stone Age handaxes discovered in the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya. Photo: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

Unpredictable climate and natural disasters like earthquakes may have spurred early humans to create innovative tools and ways to communicate earlier than previously thought, according to 3 studies published Thursday in Science.

What they found: Evidence that around 320,000 years ago — near the start of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and tens of thousands of years earlier than previous evidence has shown — early humans in East Africa may have created projectile hunting tools, developed ways to communicate using colors for mapping or identification purposes, and traveled longer distances to trade, hunt or obtain valuable materials.

"It's not just humans changing but really the entire ecosystem. It's a picture that's bigger than just the human ancestors themselves."
— Smithsonian's Richard Potts, who spearheaded the studies
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Yejin Choi: Trying to give AI some common sense

A photo of Yejin Choi from the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
Photo illustration: Axios Visuals

Artificial intelligence researchers have tried unsuccessfully for decades to give machines the common sense needed to converse with humans and seamlessly navigate our always-changing world. Last month, Paul Allen announced he is investing another $125 million into his Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in a renewed effort to solve one of the field's grand challenges.

Axios spoke with Yejin Choi, an AI researcher from the University of Washington and AI2 who studies how machines process and generate language. She talked about how they're defining common sense, their approach to the problem and how it's connected to bias.