Math

MIT Team's School-Bus Algorithm Could Save $5M and 1M Bus Miles (wsj.com) 104

An anonymous reader shares a report: A trio of MIT researchers recently tackled a tricky vehicle-routing problem when they set out to improve the efficiency of the Boston Public Schools bus system. Last year, more than 30,000 students rode 650 buses to 230 schools at a cost of $120 million. In hopes of spending less this year, the school system offered $15,000 in prize money in a contest that challenged competitors to reduce the number of buses. The winners -- Dimitris Bertsimas, co-director of MIT's Operations Research Center and doctoral students Arthur Delarue and Sebastien Martin -- devised an algorithm that drops as many as 75 bus routes. The school system says the plan, which will eliminate some bus-driver jobs, could save up to $5 million, 20,000 pounds of carbon emissions and 1 million bus miles (Editor's note: the link could be paywalled; alternative source). The computerized algorithm runs in about 30 minutes and replaces a manual system that in the past has taken transportation staff several weeks to complete. "They have been doing it manually many years," Dr. Bertsimas said. "Our whole running time is in minutes. If things change, we can re-optimize." The task of plotting school-bus routes resembles the classic math exercise known as the Traveling Salesman Problem, where the goal is to find the shortest path through a series of cities, visiting each only once, before returning home.
Space

Startup To Put Cellphone Tower on the Moon (space.com) 76

An astronaut wandering the moon next year could use a smartphone to call home. If everything goes according to a plan, that is. A German startup is preparing to set up the first telecommunication infrastructure on the lunar surface. From a report: The German company Part Time Scientists, which originally competed for the Google Lunar X Prize race to the moon, plans to send a lander with a rover in late 2018 to visit the landing site of Apollo 17. (Launched in 1972, this was NASA's final Apollo mission to the moon.) Instead of using a complex dedicated telecommunication system to relay data from the rover to the Earth, the company will rely on LTE technology -- the same system used on Earth for mobile phone communications. "We are cooperating with Vodafone in order to provide LTE base stations on the moon," Karsten Becker, who heads embedded electronics development and integration for the startup, told Space.com. "What we are aiming to do is to provide commercial service to bring goods to the moon and also to provide services on the surface of the moon," Becker added.
Space

Astronomers Detect Four Earth-Sized Planets Orbiting The Nearest Sun-Like Star (ucsc.edu) 100

Tim Stephens reports via The University of California in Santa Cruz: A new study by an international team of astronomers reveals that four Earth-sized planets orbit the nearest sun-like star, tau Ceti, which is about 12 light years away and visible to the naked eye. These planets have masses as low as 1.7 Earth mass, making them among the smallest planets ever detected around nearby sun-like stars. Two of them are super-Earths located in the habitable zone of the star, meaning they could support liquid surface water. The planets were detected by observing the wobbles in the movement of tau Ceti. This required techniques sensitive enough to detect variations in the movement of the star as small as 30 centimeters per second. The outer two planets around tau Ceti are likely to be candidate habitable worlds, although a massive debris disc around the star probably reduces their habitability due to intensive bombardment by asteroids and comets.
Security

Scientists Create DNA-Based Exploit of a Computer System (technologyreview.com) 43

Archeron writes: It seems that scientists at University of Washington in Seattle have managed to encode malware into genomic data, allowing them to gain full access to a computer being used to analyze the data. While this may be a highly contrived attack scenario, it does ask the question whether we pay sufficient attention to data-driven exploits, especially where the data is instrument-derived. What other systems could be vulnerable to a tampered raw data source? Perhaps audio and RF analysis systems? MIT Technology Review reports: "To carry out the hack, researchers led by Tadayoshi Kohno and Luis Ceze encoded malicious software in a short stretch of DNA they purchased online. They then used it to gain 'full control' over a computer that tried to process the genetic data after it was read by a DNA sequencing machine. The researchers warn that hackers could one day use faked blood or spit samples to gain access to university computers, steal information from police forensics labs, or infect genome files shared by scientists. To make the malware, the team translated a simple computer command into a short stretch of 176 DNA letters, denoted as A, G, C, and T. After ordering copies of the DNA from a vendor for $89, they fed the strands to a sequencing machine, which read off the gene letters, storing them as binary digits, 0s and 1s. Yaniv Erlich, a geneticist and programmer who is chief scientific officer of MyHertige.com, a genealogy website, says the attack took advantage of a spill-over effect, when data that exceeds a storage buffer can be interpreted as a computer command. In this case, the command contacted a server controlled by Kohno's team, from which they took control of a computer in their lab they were using to analyze the DNA file." You can read their paper here.
Earth

Global Investment Firm Warns 7.8 Degrees of Global Warming Is Possible (vice.com) 292

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Motherboard: A leading British global investment firm has a warning for its clients: If we keep consuming oil and gas at current rates, our planet is on course to experience a rise in global average temperatures of nearly 8 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. This would make Earth basically uninhabitable for humans. Although this is the darkest scenario we've seen so far, there's reason for cautious optimism: the new projections point out that it's unlikely investors will simply ignore this risk, meaning that our present level of fossil fuel consumption could decrease. Still, by current climate research standards, this is a pretty wild number. It is four times as high as the "safe limit" for increasing temperatures caused by climate change, internationally recognized to be around 2 Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Schroders, the British investment firm which controls assets worth $542 billion, released this forecast as part of a range of potential scenarios in its "Climate Progress Dashboard" in late July.
Software

Researchers Build True Random Number Generator From Carbon Nanotubes (ieee.org) 144

Wave723 writes: IEEE Spectrum reports on a true random number generator that was created with single-walled semiconducting carbon nanotubes. Researchers at Northwestern University printed a SRAM cell with special nanotube ink, and used it to generate random bits based on thermal noise. This method could be used to improve the security of flexible or printed electronics. From the report: "Once Mark Hersam, an expert in nanomaterials at Northwestern University, and his team had printed their SRAM cell, they needed to actually generate a string of random bits with it. To do this, they exploited a pair of inverters found in every SRAM cell. During normal functioning, the job of an inverter is to flip any input it is given to be the opposite, so from 0 to 1, or from 1 to 0. Typically, two inverters are lined up so the results of the first inverter are fed into the second. So, if the first inverter flips a 0 into a 1, the second inverter would take that result and flip it back into a 0. To manipulate this process, Hersam's group shut off power to the inverters and applied external voltages to force the inverters to both record 1s. Then, as soon as the SRAM cell was powered again and the external voltages were turned off, one inverter randomly switched its digit to be opposite its twin again. 'In other words, we put [the inverter] in a state where it's going to want to flip to either a 1 or 0,' Hersam says. Under these conditions, Hersam's group had no control over the actual nature of this switch, such as which inverter would flip, and whether that inverter would represent a 1 or a 0 when it did. Those factors hinged on a phenomenon thought to be truly random -- fluctuations in thermal noise, which is a type of atomic jitter intrinsic to circuits." Hersam and his team recently described their work in the journal Nano Letters.
Moon

Moon Had Magnetic Field At Least a Billion Years Longer Than Thought, Says Study (theguardian.com) 41

While the moon has no global magnetic field nowadays, it did have one in the past and researchers believe it lasted at least a billion years longer than previously thought. The Guardian reports: Between 4.25 billion and 3.56 billion years ago, the lunar magnetic field was similar to that of the Earth. The field is thought to have been generated by the churning movement of fluids within the moon's molten core -- a sort of lunar dynamo. But scientists have long puzzled over when the magnetic field disappeared, with previous research unable to tell whether the field had disappeared completely by 3.19 billion years ago or had lingered on in a weaker form. Writing in the journal Science Advances, Sonia Tikoo, a planetary scientist and co-author of the research from Rutgers University, and colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describe how they set about unpicking the conundrum by analyzing a lunar rock brought back by the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. The sample contains fragments of basalt that had broken off larger rocks. According to a dating technique based on the ratio of different isotopes of argon, the basalt formed from lava flows about 3.3 billion years ago. These fragments are bound together in the sample by a glassy material, which the team say probably formed when some of the basalt melted following a meteorite impact. The researchers dated the formation of the glassy material to between 1 billion and 2.5 billion years ago. Crucially, the impact also melted iron-containing grains within the basalt. These crystalized again within the glassy material as it quickly cooled, capturing a record of the magnetic field of the moon at that time.
AI

Blizzard and DeepMind Turn StarCraft II Into An AI Research Lab (techcrunch.com) 52

Last year, Google's AI subsidiary DeepMind said it was going to work with Starcraft creator Blizzard to turn the strategy game into a proper research environment for AI engineers. Today, they're opening the doors to that environment, with new tools including a machine learning API, a large game replay dataset, an open source DeepMind toolset and more. TechCrunch reports: The new release of the StarCraft II API on the Blizzard side includes a Linux package made to be able to run in the cloud, as well as support for Windows and Mac. It also has support for offline AI vs. AI matches, and those anonymized game replays from actual human players for training up agents, which is starting out at 65,000 complete matches, and will grow to over 500,000 over the course of the next few weeks. StarCraft II is such a useful environment for AI research basically because of how complex and varied the games can be, with multiple open routes to victory for each individual match. Players also have to do many different things simultaneously, including managing and generating resources, as well as commanding military units and deploying defensive structures. Plus, not all information about the game board is available at once, meaning players have to make assumptions and predictions about what the opposition is up to.

It's such a big task, in fact, that DeepMind and Blizzard are including "mini-games" in the release, which break down different subtasks into "manageable chunks," including teaching agents to master tasks like building specific units, gathering resources, or moving around the map. The hope is that compartmentalizing these areas of play will allow testing and comparison of techniques from different researchers on each, along with refinement, before their eventual combination in complex agents that attempt to master the whole game.

Businesses

Americans Are Dying Younger, Saving Corporations Billions (bloomberg.com) 274

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Bloomberg: Steady improvements in American life expectancy have stalled, and more Americans are dying at younger ages. But for companies straining under the burden of their pension obligations, the distressing trend could have a grim upside: If people don't end up living as long as they were projected to just a few years ago, their employers ultimately won't have to pay them as much in pension and other lifelong retirement benefits. In 2015, the American death rate -- the age-adjusted share of Americans dying -- rose slightly for the first time since 1999. And over the last two years, at least 12 large companies, from Verizon to General Motors, have said recent slips in mortality improvement have led them to reduce their estimates for how much they could owe retirees by upward of a combined $9.7 billion, according to a Bloomberg analysis of company filings. "Revised assumptions indicating a shortened longevity," for instance, led Lockheed Martin to adjust its estimated retirement obligations downward by a total of about $1.6 billion for 2015 and 2016, it said in its most recent annual report.

Mortality trends are only a small piece of the calculation companies make when estimating what they'll owe retirees, and indeed, other factors actually led Lockheed's pension obligations to rise last year. Variables such as asset returns, salary levels, and health care costs can cause big swings in what companies expect to pay retirees. The fact that people are dying slightly younger won't cure corporate America's pension woes -- but the fact that companies are taking it into account shows just how serious the shift in America's mortality trends is.

Science

Blocking a Key Enzyme May Reverse Memory Loss, MIT Study Finds (mit.edu) 29

A better treatment for Alzheimer's patients may be on the horizon thanks to new research from MIT. Researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have discovered that they can reverse memory loss in mice by blocking an enzyme called HDAC2. From the study: For several years, scientists and pharmaceutical companies have been trying to develop drugs that block this enzyme, but most of these drugs also block other members of the HDAC family, which can lead to toxic side effects. The MIT team has now found a way to precisely target HDAC2, by blocking its interaction with a binding partner called Sp3. "This is exciting because for the first time we have found a specific mechanism by which HDAC2 regulates synaptic gene expression," says Li-Huei Tsai, director of MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the study's senior author. Blocking that mechanism could offer a new way to treat memory loss in Alzheimer's patients. In this study, the researchers used a large protein fragment to interfere with HDAC-2, but they plan to seek smaller molecules that would be easier to deploy as drugs. Picower Institute postdocs Hidekuni Yamakawa, Jemmie Cheng, and Jay Penney are the lead authors of the study, which appears in the Aug. 8 edition of Cell Reports.
Businesses

Monsanto Was Its Own Ghostwriter For Some Safety Reviews (bloomberg.com) 48

Reader schwit1 writes: Dozens of internal Monsanto emails, released on Aug. 1 by plaintiffs lawyers who are suing the company, reveal how Monsanto worked with an outside consulting firm to induce the scientific journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology to publish a purported independent review of Roundups health effects that appears to be anything but. The review, published along with four subpapers in a September 2016 special supplement, was aimed at rebutting the 2015 assessment by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen (PDF). That finding by the cancer-research arm of the World Health Organization led California last month to list glyphosate as a known human carcinogen. It has also spurred more than 1,000 lawsuits in state and federal courts by plaintiffs who claim they contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma from Roundup exposure. Monsanto disclosed that it paid Intertek Group Plc consulting unit to develop the review supplement, entitled An Independent Review of the Carcinogenic Potential of Glyphosate. But that was the extent of Monsantos involvement, the main article said. The Expert Panelists were engaged by, and acted as consultants to, Intertek, and were not directly contacted by the Monsanto Company, according to the reviews Declaration of Interest statement. Neither any Monsanto company employees nor any attorneys reviewed any of the Expert Panels manuscripts prior to submission to the journal.
Science

Playing Action Video Games May Be Bad For Your Brain, Study Finds (www.cbc.ca) 116

An anonymous reader shares a report:Playing first-person shooter video games causes some users to lose grey matter in a part of their brain associated with the memory of past events and experiences, a new study by two Montreal researchers concludes. Gregory West, an associate professor of psychology at the Universite de Montreal, says the neuroimaging study, published Tuesday in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, is the first to find conclusive evidence of grey matter loss in a key part of the brain as a direct result of computer interaction. "A few studies have been published that show video games could have a positive impact on the brain, namely positive associations between action video games, first-person shooter games, and visual attention and motor control skills," West told CBC News. To date, no one has shown that human-computer interactions could have negative impacts on the brain -- in this case the hippocampal memory system." The four-year study by West and Veronique Bohbot, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University, looked at the impact of action video games on the hippocampus, the part of the brain that plays a critical role in spatial memory and the ability to recollect past events and experiences.
Space

Can Primordial Black Holes Alone Account For Dark Matter? 135

thomst writes: Slashdot stories have reported extensively on the LIGO experiments' initial detection of gravity waves emanating from collisions of primordial black holes, beginning, on February 11, 2016, with the first (and most widely-reported) such detection. Other Slashdot articles have chronicled the second LIGO detection event and the third one. There's even been a Slashdot report on the Synthetic Universe supercomputer model that provided support for the conclusion that the first detection event was, indeed, of a collision between two primordial black holes, rather than the more familiar stellar remnant kind that result from more recent supernovae of large-mass stars.

What interests me is the possibility that black holes of all kinds -- and particularly primordial black holes -- are so commonplace that they may be all that's required to explain the effects of "dark matter." Dark matter, which, according to current models, makes up some 26% of the mass of our Universe, has been firmly established as real, both by calculation of the gravity necessary to hold spiral galaxies like our own together, and by direct observation of gravitational lensing effects produced by the "empty" space between recently-collided galaxies. There's no question that it exists. What is unknown, at this point, is what exactly it consists of.

The leading candidate has, for decades, been something called WIMPs (Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles), a theoretical notion that there are atomic-scale particles that interact with "normal" baryonic matter only via gravity. The problem with WIMPs is that, thus far, not a single one has been detected, despite years of searching for evidence that they exist via multiple, multi-billion-dollar detectors.

With the recent publication of a study of black hole populations in our galaxy (article paywalled, more layman-friendly press release at Phys.org) that indicates there may be as many as 100 million stellar-remnant-type black holes in the Milky Way alone, the question arises, "Is the number of primordial and stellar-remnant black holes in our Universe sufficient to account for the calculated mass of dark matter, without having to invoke WIMPs at all?"

I don't personally have the mathematical knowledge to even begin to answer that question, but I'm curious to find out what the professional cosmologists here think of the idea.
Earth

Leaked Federal Climate Report Finds Link Between Climate Change, Human Activity (washingtonpost.com) 452

An anonymous reader shares a report from The New York Times (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source): The average temperature in the United States has risen rapidly and drastically since 1980, and recent decades have been the warmest of the past 1,500 years, according to a sweeping federal climate change report awaiting approval by the Trump administration. The draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies, which has not yet been made public, concludes that Americans are feeling the effects of climate change right now. It directly contradicts claims by President Trump and members of his cabinet who say that the human contribution to climate change is uncertain, and that the ability to predict the effects is limited. "Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans," a draft of the report states. A copy of it was obtained by The New York Times. The authors note that thousands of studies, conducted by tens of thousands of scientists, have documented climate changes on land and in the air. "Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change," they wrote. The report was completed this year and is a special science section of the National Climate Assessment, which is congressionally mandated every four years. The National Academy of Sciences has signed off on the draft report, and the authors are awaiting permission from the Trump administration to release it. "The report concludes that even if humans immediately stopped emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the world would still feel at least an additional 0.50 degrees Fahrenheit (0.30 degrees Celsius) of warming over this century compared with today," reports The New York Times. "The projected actual rise, scientists say, will be as much as 2 degrees Celsius." Given the Trump administration's stance on climate change, some of the scientists who worked on the report are concerned that the report will be suppressed.
Robotics

AI Factory Boss Will Tell Workers and Robots How To Work Together (fastcompany.com) 54

tedlistens writes from a report via Fast Company: Robots are consistent, indefatigable workers, but they don't improvise well. Changes on the assembly line require painstaking reprogramming by humans, making it hard to switch up what a factory produces. Now researchers at German industrial giant Siemens say they have a solution: a factory that uses AI to orchestrate the factory of the future, by both programming factory robots and handing out assignments to the humans working alongside them. The program, called a "reasoner," figures out the steps required to make a product, such as a chair; then it divides the assignments among machines based their capabilities, like how far a robotic arm can reach or how much weight it can lift. The team has proved the technology can work on a small scale with a test system that uses just a few robots to make five types of furniture (like stools and tables), with four kinds of leg configurations, six color options, and three types of floor-protector pads, for a total of 360 possible products.

Siemens's originally gave its automated factory project the badass Teutonic moniker "UberManufacturing." They weren't thinking of the German word connoting "superior," however, but rather of the on-demand car service. Part of their vision is that automated factories can generate bids for specialty, limited-run manufacturing projects and compete for customers in an online marketplace. "You could say, 'I want to build this stool,' and whoever has machines that can do that can hand in a quote, and that was our analogy to Uber," says Florian Michahelles, who heads the research group.

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