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.

Businesses

China Built the World's Largest Telescope, But Has No One To Run It (arstechnica.com) 122

An anonymous reader shares a report: China has built a staggeringly large instrument in the remote southern, mountainous region of the country called the Five hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST. The telescope measures nearly twice as large as the closest comparable facility in the world, the US-operated Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. According to the South China Morning Post, the country is looking for a foreigner to run the observatory because no Chinese astronomer has the experience of running a facility of such size and complexity. The Chinese Academy of Sciences began advertising the position in western journals and job postings in May, but so far there have been no qualified applicants. One reason is that the requirements are fairly strict: The candidate must have at least 20 years of previous experience in the field, and he or she must have taken a leading role in large-scale radio telescope project with extensive managerial experience. The candidate must also hold a professorship, or equally senior position, in a world-class research institute or university. Nick Suntzeff, an astronomer at Texas A&M University who helped lead the discovery of dark energy and is involved with construction of the optical Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, said there are probably about 40 or so astronomers in the world who would qualify for such a job. Compared to other astronomy disciplines, radio astronomy is a relatively small field. "I am sure they will find someone," he said. "But most astronomers in the United States do not like to work abroad. It was hard to get people to apply to work in La Serena, something I could never understand, considering how beautiful it is and how nice the Chilean people are." Among the western community of astronomers there are also questions about the scientific purpose of the FAST telescope. As part of a recent National Science Foundation review of its facilities, US officials placed the similar Arecibo radio telescope near the bottom of its priorities list.
Space

SpaceX Releases Animation of Planned Falcon Heavy Launch (gizmodo.com.au) 108

intellitech writes: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently shared a new (and, really freaking cool) animation demonstrating how the company plans to launch the maiden flight of their Falcon Heavy system later this year, which will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V used for the moon landings during the Apollo-era. According to Elon Musk's Instragram post, "FH is twice the thrust of the next largest rocket currently flying and ~2/3 thrust of the Saturn V moon rocket." He also reiterates that there's a "lot that can go wrong in the November launch."

Direct link to the YouTube video.

Power

New Catalyst Is Better At Splitting Water Into Hydrogen And Oxygen (phys.org) 133

schwit1 shared an article from Phys.org: Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen to produce clean energy can be simplified with a single catalyst developed by scientists at Rice University and the University of Houston. The electrolytic film produced at Rice and tested at Houston is a three-layer structure of nickel, graphene and a compound of iron, manganese and phosphorus. The foamy nickel gives the film a large surface, the conductive graphene protects the nickel from degrading and the metal phosphide carries out the reaction... Rice chemist Kenton Whitmire and Houston electrical and computer engineer Jiming Bao and their labs developed the film to overcome barriers that usually make a catalyst good for producing either oxygen or hydrogen, but not both simultaneously... Whitmire said the material is scalable and should find use in industries that produce hydrogen and oxygen or by solar- and wind-powered facilities that can use electrocatalysis to store off-peak energy.
In a comment on the original submission, Slashdot reader Martin S. opines, "If we can crack H20 and C02 we could make fuel to run existing vehicles with existing infrastructure and that fuel could be carbon neutral by using off peak renewable energy from wind farms and solar."
NASA

Celebrate Voyager's 40th Anniversary By Beaming A Message Into Outer Space (nytimes.com) 83

Long-time Slashdot reader Noryungi writes: NASA will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launch of the twin Voyager probes next month. So let us celebrate both the probes and the people who are still working on them, and nursing them in their final years.
The New York Times fondly profiles Voyager's nine aging flight-team engineers who "may be the last people left on the planet who can operate the spacecraft's onboard computers, which have 235,000 times less memory and 175,000 times less speed than a 16-gigabyte smartphone." NASA reports that now "Voyager 1 is in 'Interstellar space' and Voyager 2 is currently in the 'Heliosheath' -- the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas. " But the Times notes that the probes "are running out of fuel. (Decaying plutonium supplies their power.) By 2030 at the latest, they will not have enough juice left to run a single experiment."

NASA is now inviting the public to submit positive messages to be considered for beaming into space on September 5th -- the 40th anniversary of Voyager 1's launch. "Messages can have a maximum of 60 characters and be posted on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Google+ or Tumblr using the hashtag #MessageToVoyager," until August 15th, after which humanity will vote on which message should be sent.
Power

Startup Unveils Revolutionary New Rechargeable Alkaline Batteries (nytimes.com) 137

Slashdot reader cdreimer quotes the New York Times: Alkaline batteries can be made far more cheaply and safely than today's lithium-ion batteries, but they are not rechargeable... Ionic Materials could change that equation with an alkaline battery the company said could be recharged hundreds of times. One additional benefit of the company's breakthrough: An alkaline battery would not be as prone to the combustion issues that have plagued lithium-ion batteries in a range of products, most notably some Samsung smartphones. Cheaper and more powerful batteries are also considered by many to be the driver needed to make the cost of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar competitive with the coal, gas and nuclear power that support the national energy grid.
The company "has demonstrated up to 400 recharge cycles for its prototypes," and it's now even investigating aluminum-based alkaline batteries which would also be lighter than lithium-ion batteries. The company is backed by Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, who also envisions the batteries being used in electric cars.
Biotech

How Apple Is Putting Voices In Users' Heads -- Literally (wired.com) 91

schwit1 shared WIRED's report on "a life-changing technology." Steven Levy spoke with Mathias Bahnmueller as he tested a new Apple sound processor that beams digital audio directly into hearing aids. Bahnmueller suffers from hearing loss so severe that a year ago he underwent surgery to install a cochlear implant -- an electronic device in the inner ear that replaces the usual hearing mechanism. Around a million patients have undergone this increasingly mainstream form of treatment, and that's just a fraction of those who could benefit from it. (Of the 360 million people worldwide with hearing loss, about 10 percent would qualify for the surgery.) "For those who reach a point where hearing aids no longer help, this is the only solution," says Allison Biever, an audiologist in Englewood, CO who works with implant patients. "It's like restoring a signal in a radio station."

Cochlear implants bypass the usual hearing process by embedding a device in the inner ear and connecting it via electrodes to the nerve that sends audio signals to the brain... The system Bahnmueller was using came from a collaboration between Apple and Cochlear, a company that has been involved with implant technology since the treatment's early days. The firms announced last week that the first product based on this approach, Cochlear's Nucleus 7 sound processor, won FDA approval in June -- the first time that the agency has approved such a link between cochlear implants and phones or tablets. Those using the system can not only get phone calls directly routed inside their skulls, but also stream music, podcasts, audio books, movie soundtracks, and even Siri -- all straight to the implant... Apple will offer the technology free to qualified manufacturers.

Google's accessibility team for Android has no public timeline for any similar hearing aid support, though according to the article it's "on the roadmap."
Biotech

Could Diabetes Spread Like Mad Cow Disease? (sciencemag.org) 128

sciencehabit quotes Science magazine: Prions are insidious proteins that spread like infectious agents and trigger fatal conditions such as mad cow disease. A protein implicated in diabetes, a new study suggests, shares some similarities with these villains. Researchers transmitted diabetes from one mouse to another just by injecting the animals with this protein. The results don't indicate that diabetes is contagious like a cold, but blood transfusions, or even food, may spread the disease.

The work is "very exciting" and "well-documented" for showing that the protein has some prionlike behavior, says prion biologist Witold Surewicz of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who wasn't connected to the research. However, he cautions against jumping to the conclusion that diabetes spreads from person to person. The study raises that possibility, he says, but "it remains to be determined."

Medicine

Lovers Share Colonies of Skin Microbes, Study Finds (metro.co.uk) 93

Aneri Pattani reports via The New York Times (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternate source): Couples who live together share a lot of things: beds, bathrooms, food, toiletries. But one thing they might not expect to share? Skin bacteria. In a study published Thursday in mSystems, an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, researchers studied the skin microbiomes of 10 sexually active, heterosexual couples living together. A microbiome is a mini-ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms living on and in the body. Each square centimeter of skin hosts between one million and one billion microorganisms, according to the study. After analyzing 330 skin swabs collected from 17 parts of the body on each participant, the researchers found that each person significantly influenced the microbial communities on a lover's skin. In fact, computer algorithms relying on microbial data were able to accurately match couples with up to 86 percent accuracy.
Education

Vermont Medical School Says Goodbye To Lectures (npr.org) 116

The University of Vermont's Larner College of Medicine has begun phasing out lectures in favor of what's known as "active learning" and plans to be done with lectures altogether by 2019. NPR spoke with William Jeffries, a dean at the school who's leading the effort, about the thinking behind this move. From the report: Why are lectures bad? Well, I wouldn't say that they're bad. The issue is that there is a lot of evidence that lectures are not the best way to accumulate the skills needed to become a scientist or a physician. We've seen much evidence in the literature, accumulated in the last decade, that shows that when you do a comparison between lectures and other methods of learning -- typically called "active learning" methods -- that lectures are not as efficient or not as successful in allowing students to accumulate knowledge in the same amount of time.

Give us an example of a topic taught in a traditional lecture versus an "active learning" setting. A good example would be the teaching of what we would call pharmacokinetics -- the science of drug delivery. So, how does a drug get to the target organ or targeted receptor? A lot of the science of pharmacokinetics is simply mathematical equations. If you have a lecture, it's simply presenting those equations and maybe giving examples of how they work. In an active learning setting, you expect the students to learn about the equations before they get there. And when you get into the classroom setting, the students work in groups solving pharmacokinetic problems. Cases are presented where the patient gets a drug in a certain dose at a certain time, and you're looking at the action of that over time and the concentration of the drug in the blood. So, those are the types of things where you're expecting the student to know the knowledge in order to use the knowledge. And then they don't forget it.

Transportation

Electric Cars Are Not the Answer To Air Pollution, Says Top UK Adviser (theguardian.com) 296

Cars must be driven out of cities to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis, not just replaced with electric vehicles, according to the UK government's top adviser. From a report: Prof Frank Kelly said that while electric vehicles emit no exhaust fumes, they still produce large amounts of tiny pollution particles from brake and tyre dust, for which the government already accepts there is no safe limit. Toxic air causes 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK, and the environment secretary, Michael Gove, recently announced that the sale of new diesel and petrol cars will be banned from 2040, with only electric vehicles available after that. But faced with rising anger from some motorists, the plan made the use of charges to deter dirty diesel cars from polluted areas a measure of last resort only. Kelly's intervention heightens the government's dilemma between protecting public health and avoiding politically difficult charges or bans on urban motorists. "The government's plan does not go nearly far enough," said Kelly, professor of environmental health at King's College London and chair of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, official expert advisers to the government. "Our cities need fewer cars, not just cleaner cars."
Science

Why We Can't Have the Male Pill (bloomberg.com) 347

Reader joshtops shares a report: For years, headlines have promised an imminent breakthrough in male contraception. Time and again, these efforts have fallen short. Last October, for instance, researchers reported that a hormone cocktail they'd been testing curbed sperm production and prevented pregnancies. But they'd had to halt the study early because men were reporting troubling side effects, including mood changes and depression. "The joke in the field is that the male contraceptive has been five years away for the last 40 years," says John Amory, a research physician at the University of Washington School of Medicine who has been working on the challenge for two decades. A new form of male birth control would be a public-health triumph and could snag a significant piece of the contraceptive market -- which is expected to surpass $33 billion by 2023, according to research firm Global Market Insights Inc -- or possibly expand it further. In a 2002 German survey of 9,000 men in nine countries, including Brazil, France, Germany, Mexico, and the U.S., more than 55 percent of the respondents said they'd be willing to use a new form of male birth control. A later study by Johns Hopkins University estimated that the demand could yield 44 million customers in those nine countries alone. And yet major pharmaceutical companies have mostly abandoned the chase.
Math

Math Journal Editors Resign To Start Rival Journal That Will Be Free To Read (insidehighered.com) 59

An anonymous reader writes: To protest the high prices charged by their publisher, Springer, the editors of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics will start a rival journal that will be free for all to read. The four editors in chief of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics have informed their publisher, Springer, of their intention to launch a rival open-access journal to protest the publisher's high prices and limited accessibility. This is the latest in a string of what one observer called "editorial mutinies" over journal publishing policies. In a news release, the editors said their decision was not made because of any "particular crisis" but was the result of it becoming "more and more clear" that Springer intended to keep charging readers and authors large fees while "adding little value."

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