Erin Ross Sep 19
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Seismic guns used to hunt for oil kill scallops

Pecten fumatus, the commercial scallop species used in the study

Blasts from seismic air guns used to search for oil and gas beneath the ocean floor increase the death rate in scallops and change their behavior, according to a study published Monday. The U.S. Atlantic scallop fishery raked in $546 million dollars in 2012, making it one of the most lucrative in the country.

Why it matters: The Trump Administration's plan to allow oil and gas exploration in Atlantic coastal areas has re-ignited a decades-old controversy about the impacts of tools like seismic airguns. This research means opposition may not just come from environmental groups and marine mammal advocates, but the shellfish industry as well.

How the guns work: The airguns are towed behind ships and fire a large bubble of air that sends seismic waves through the water and toward the ocean floor. It's possible to tell if there's oil beneath the ground by the way the seismic waves reflect back. The extremely loud blasts are fired several times a minute for numerous consecutive days.

What they did: Researchers at the University of Tasmania in Hobart fired seismic airguns at scallop beds in a way designed to emulate their real-world use. They tracked the physiology and mortality of the scallops immediately following the airgun use, and months afterward. The researchers noticed an immediate increase in shellfish mortality, which increased from 9.4% when exposed once to 14.8% when exposed four times. Long-term death rates also increased with the amount of exposure.

Past studies have also found a link between seismic exploration and scallop deaths, but this study shows it in a controlled experiment. Others have determined the loud blasts caused by the guns can damage the ears of marine mammals like whales. Another even found that use of the airguns harms zooplankton—the tiny animals that make up the base of many ocean food chains.

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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.