Tag Archives: Tech

The Sustainable Future of Food Must Bring Everyone to the Table

WIRED

At this year’s RE:WIRED Green event, food scientists and environmental justice activists mapped out how we can end world hunger and preserve our planet.

HOW CAN WE feed the world sustainably? Right now, 325 million people are acutely hungry. 35 million Americans don’t know where their next meal will come from. The world’s food systems are uneven, fragile, and only becoming more fragile with the climate crisis.

“When we talk about from farm-to-fork, we need to transform the food system in a way that, yes, it supports our environment, yes, it supports our health, but also that it provides the economic return to all of the stakeholders across the food system,” says Ertharin Cousin. Cousin is the CEO and managing director of Food Systems for the Future, a nutrition impact investment fund she founded. She has worked on resolving global food insecurity and hunger for two decades.

She spoke at RE:WIRED Green on Wednesday about her work, the need for more innovation, and the opportunity to lift up historically marginalized food entrepreneurs.

Read the full story in WIRED

The AI Researcher Giving Her Field Its Bitter Medicine

QUANTA MAGAZINE

Anima Anandkumar wants computer scientists to move beyond the matrix, among other challenges.

Anima Anandkumar, Bren Professor of computing at the California Institute of Technology and senior director of machine learning research at Nvidia, has a bone to pick with the matrix. Her misgivings are not about the sci-fi movies, but about mathematical matrices — grids of numbers or variables used throughout computer science. While researchers typically use matrices to study the relationships and patterns hiding within large sets of data, these tools are best suited for two-way relationships. Complicated processes like social dynamics, on the other hand, involve higher-order interactions.

Luckily, Anandkumar has long savored such challenges. When she recalls Ugadi, a new year’s festival she celebrated as a child in Mysore (now Mysuru), India, two flavors stand out: jaggery, an unrefined sugar representing life’s sweetness, and neem, bitter blossoms representing life’s setbacks and difficulties. “It’s one of the most bitter things you can think about,” she said.

She’d typically load up on the neem, she said. “I want challenges.”

Read the full story in Quanta Magazine

This Blood Test Detects Cancer in Dogs. But Do You Want to Know?

WIRED

A startup just showed that its OncoK9 test accurately sounds the alarm for aggressive and advanced cancers. The catch? These often have no cure.

IT WAS TIME for Cici Pepperoni’s annual check-up, but Marina Inserra, the 7-year-old pit bull mix’s owner, wasn’t worried. Inserra worked as a veterinary assistant at the San Diego office where Cici was getting her exam, and as far as she knew, Cici was perfectly fine.

Along with the checkup, Inserra agreed to enter Cici in a clinical study by a company called PetDx that had partnered with her office. The company wanted healthy dogs to donate blood to help validate a test to screen for multiple cancers at once—a liquid biopsy.

Read the full story in WIRED

Drones Have Transformed Blood Delivery in Rwanda

WIRED

The autonomous aircraft have shuttled blood to rural, mountainous areas for years. A new analysis proves they’re faster than driving.

SIX YEARS AGO, Rwanda had a blood delivery problem. More than 12 million people live in the small East African country, and like those in other nations, sometimes they get into car accidents. New mothers hemorrhage. Anemic children need urgent transfusions. You can’t predict these emergencies. They just happen. And when they do, the red stuff stored in Place A has to find its way to a patient in Place B—fast.

Read the full story in WIRED

When Robots Multiply

GROW

These scientists created living robots out of frog cells. Now these “Xenobots” are reproducing.

IT WOULD PROBABLY have been the science story of the year—any other year. In January 2020, a team of biologists, roboticists and computer scientists announced that they had created the world’s first living robots. These Xenobots were cells culled from a frog, sculpted with the help of an evolutionary algorithm, and then set free to roam under the microscope. Liberated from the constraints of frogness, these cells had designs of their own. They collaborated. They interacted. They performed basic tasks. And eventually, in more recent experiments, they started to multiply.

This is the team’s latest revelation: Xenobots can autonomously assemble identical copies of themselves from individual cells floating in the spring water around them.

Read the full story in GROW.

To Test Cancer Drugs, These Scientists Grew ‘Avatars’ of Tumors

WIRED

Growing organoids in dishes and xenografts in mice lets scientists recreate a living person’s tumor—and test dozens of drugs against them at the same time.

IN 2018, ALANA Welm found herself in an exciting, yet burdensome, position. The University of Utah breast cancer research lab where she leads joint projects with her husband, Bryan Welm, had created lab-grown versions of real tumors isolated from living cancer patients. Each cancer had been translated into two kinds of biological models: xenografts, made by implanting tissue into mice, and organoids, miniature clumps of tissue grown in plastic dishes.

Each simulated cancer was a way to test which of about 45 drugs, some experimental and others approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, might perform best for the real patient. During testing on one patient’s organoids, the researchers isolated a drug that effectively killed its cancer cells. That was the exciting bit. The burden: Welm had no right to do anything about it. She couldn’t tell the patient or her doctor. “We were just doing this for research,” says Welm.

This particular drug had already earned FDA approval to be used against breast cancer, but it wasn’t approved for this patient’s type of cancer. So Welm dialed up her university’s Institutional Review Board, an ethics oversight group.“We called them and said: We found this, we really think we need to let them know,” Welm recalls. The board agreed; the team could bring the patient’s physician into the loop. “That really was an eye-opener,” Welm says. “Wow, we can actually make a difference!”

Yet by the time Welm reached the physician, it was too late. The patient passed away shortly after. “It was heartbreaking,” she says. But it was also motivating: The Welms’ team doubled down on efforts to refine their methods and turn their research into a clinical tool.

Read the full story in WIRED

Machine Learning Gets a Quantum Speedup

QUANTA MAGAZINE

Two teams have shown how quantum approaches can solve problems faster than classical computers, bringing physics and computer science closer together.

For Valeria Saggio to boot up the computer in her former Vienna lab, she needed a special crystal, only as big as her fingernail. Saggio would place it gently into a small copper box, a tiny electric oven, which would heat the crystal to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Then she would switch on a laser to bombard the crystal with a beam of photons.

This crystal, at this precise temperature, would split some of those photons into two photons. One of these would go straight to a light detector, its journey finished; the other would travel into a tiny silicon chip — a quantum computing processor. Miniature instruments on the chip could drive the photon down different paths, but ultimately there were only two outcomes: the right way, and the many wrong ways. Based on the result, her processor could choose another path and try again.

The sequence feels more Rube Goldberg than Windows, but the goal was to have a quantum computer teach itself a task: Find the right way out.

Read the full story in Quanta Magazine

Timnit Gebru Says Artificial Intelligence Needs to Slow Down

WIRED

The AI researcher, who left Google last year, says the incentives around AI research are all wrong.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE RESEARCHERS are facing a problem of accountability: How do you try to ensure decisions are responsible when the decision maker is not a responsible person, but rather an algorithm? Right now, only a handful of people and organizations have the power—and resources—to automate decision-making.

Organizations rely on AI to approve a loan or shape a defendant’s sentence. But the foundations upon which these intelligent systems are built are susceptible to bias. Bias from the data, from the programmer, and from a powerful company’s bottom line can snowball into unintended consequences. This is the reality AI researcher Timnit Gebru cautioned against at a RE:WIRED talk on Tuesday.

“There were companies purporting [to assess] someone’s likelihood of determining a crime again,” Gebru said. “That was terrifying for me.”

Read the full story in WIRED.

Surprising Limits Discovered in Quest for Optimal Solutions

Quanta Magazine

Algorithms that zero in on solutions to optimization problems are the beating heart of machine reasoning. New results reveal surprising limits.

Our lives are a succession of optimization problems. They occur when we search for the fastest route home from work or attempt to balance cost and quality on a trip to the store, or even when we decide how to spend limited free time before bed.

These scenarios and many others can be represented as a mathematical optimization problem. Making the best decisions is a matter of finding their optimal solutions. And for a world steeped in optimization, two recent results provide both good and bad news.

In a paper posted in August 2020, Amir Ali Ahmadi of Princeton University and his former student, Jeffrey Zhang, who is now at Carnegie Mellon University, established that for some quadratic optimization problems — in which pairs of variables can interact — it’s computationally infeasible to find even locally optimal solutions in a time-efficient manner.

But then, two days later, Zhang and Ahmadi released a second paper with a positive takeaway. They proved that it’s always possible to quickly identify whether a cubic polynomial — which can feature three-way interactions between variables — has a local minimum, and to find it if it does.

The limits are not what their discoverers expected.

Read the full story in Quanta Magazine

The Artificial Leaf: Copying Nature to Fight Climate Change

ACS ChemMatters Magazine

An ancient chemical process enabled Earth to become a lush place teeming with life. Now researchers are replicating this process in an attempt to slow global warming.

Every plant, animal, and person owes their life to one sequence of chemical reactions: photosynthesis. The process, which converts water and carbon dioxide into food using sunlight, first evolved in cyanobacteria more than 2 billion years ago.

That’s right. Plants weren’t the first organisms to develop photosynthesis, though they are better known for it. Cyanobacteria are the ones that originally filled the atmosphere with photosynthesis’s gaseous by-product, oxygen (O2), which set the stage for more diverse life on Earth.

As beneficiaries of photosynthesis, humans depend on plants in a sort of carbon seesaw. Plants take in CO2 and release O2. They store that carbon as sugar. Hanging vines, grass, and trees all grow by pulling carbon atoms out of the air. We do the reverse, taking in O2 and releasing CO2. Finally, everything we eat completes the handoff: Human eats plant (or the animal who already did), human exhales, plant stores carbon, and the cycle continues.

This seesaw is part of the much broader carbon cycle that has affected the radiation balance of our planet. Cutting down huge swaths of forests and the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels causes the levels of CO2, a major greenhouse gas, to rise. And plants on Earth along with other natural parts of the carbon cycle can’t restore the balance on their own.

But what if we could copy what plants do to grab some of that excess CO2 to make fuels sustainably, instead of relying so heavily on fossilized carbon?

Read the full story in the October 2021 issue of ChemMatters