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The mission to decode the DNA of all life on Earth

Psychadelic elephant
© Tim McDonagh
BOB MURPHY has had some close shaves. He once found a deadly viper slithering into his sleeping bag in a Southeast Asian jungle. He was in a four-wheel drive that rolled over on a dirt trail in the Australian desert. He nearly plummeted to his death when a cliff he was standing on in Vietnam collapsed. And last year, he found himself in the middle of a war zone in Armenia. "I'm like a cat with nine lives," he says.

Murphy is a "hunter-gatherer" - a biologist charged with cataloguing Earth's rich array of plants and animals. For decades, he has plunged into the farthest-flung corners of the globe to find and collect new species. "It's not for everyone," he says. "People can end up with broken bones or malaria or puff up with insect bites, and the days are long and tough." Indeed, the dangers can be life threatening. In 2001, Murphy's friend and fellow collector Joe Slowinski died after being bitten by a venomous snake he had caught in Myanmar.

Despite the risks, hunter-gatherers will soon be in high demand as an audacious scheme gets under way. This biological "moonshot", known as the Earth BioGenome Project, is scheduled to launch in June. Its mission is to sequence the genomes of all known species of flora and fauna on Earth. Nature's recipe books could hold clues to making far superior medicines, materials, biofuels and crops, unravelling our evolutionary past and help us to be better custodians of our planet. The first challenge, however, will be collecting specimens from the wild. Then comes the sequencing itself, which will require Herculean amounts of human labour and computing power. Can it be done?

Robot

South Korean University may start a killer-robot apocalypse

Killer Robots
© YouTube
If you thought Elon Musk was just a paranoid, robot-hating crackpot with an inexplicable talent for rocketry, think again.

According to a recent statement by AI scientists from around the globe, the world is in the midst of a not-so-quiet arms race to create autonomous robot soldiers, and it needs to stop before a "Pandora's Box" is opened.

Last month, a group of over 50 AI scientists, including those from UC Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute, signed an open letter to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), announcing a boycott against the university due to its recent partnership with South Korea's largest defense company, Hanwha System, to open a Research Center for the Convergence of National Defense and Artificial Intelligence, which will aim to "develop artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to be applied to military weapons, joining the global competition to develop autonomous arms."

The fear is that KAIST will develop killer robots that can operate without human oversight or control, marking a "third revolution" in the history of warfare.

HAL9000

Elon Musk states that developments in AI likely to make an 'immortal dictator'

Elon Musk
© Max Whittaker/Getty
In a new documentary, Elon Musk warns that an 'immortal' digital dictator could forever trap humanity in its grasp unless we start regulating technology ASAP.
Imagine your least-favorite world leader. (Take as much time as you need.)

Now, imagine if that person wasn't a human, but a network of millions of computers around the world. This digi-dictator has instant access to every scrap of recorded information about every person who's ever lived. It can make millions of calculations in a fraction of a second, controls the world's economy and weapons systems with godlike autonomy and - scariest of all - can never, ever die.

This unkillable digital dictator, according to Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, is one of the darker scenarios awaiting humankind's future if artificial-intelligence research continues without serious regulation.

Comment: Though formally the stuff of science fiction, the dilemmas we now face concerning the rapidly growing power of AI is nothing to dismiss. If it's possible AI can truly overpower us, what has to happen before such a thing occurs - and who has the insight and ability on the world stage to help stop such a thing? And if that doesn't happen, how much longer do we have before we've moved beyond the point of not return?


Galaxy

Ancient cold front sweeping 'relentlessly' across Perseus galaxy cluster

cosmic cold front space astronomy
© CXC / GSFC / S. Walker, ESA / XMM, ROSAT / NASA
NASA has detected an enormous and "relentless" cold front sweeping across one of the largest objects in the universe. The find calls into question our understanding of cosmic weather.

The "gigantic" cold front, analyzed by NASA's Chandra Observatory, is located in the Perseus galaxy cluster and extends for about two million light years. It consists of a relatively dense band of gas with a "cool" temperature of about 30 million degrees moving through lower density hot gas with a temperature of about 80 million degrees

The cosmic cold front formed about five billion years ago, making it older than our Solar System. It has been traveling at speeds of about 300,000 miles per hour ever since, leading scientists to predict that it would be looking a little hazy around the edges by now.

Brain

Brain scans reveal psychopathic brains are wired to go after rewards no matter the cost

psychopath
Brain scans of psychopaths reveal what they desire more than anything. The psychopathic brain is wired to go after rewards, whatever the cost, a neuroscience study finds.

The brains of psychopaths release four times as much dopamine in response to rewards as normal people. Imagine how much more pleasure they get from taking whatever they want.

Dr Joshua Buckholtz, the study's lead author, said:
"Psychopaths are often thought of as cold-blooded criminals who take what they want without thinking about consequences.

We found that a hyper-reactive dopamine reward system may be the foundation for some of the most problematic behaviors associated with psychopathy, such as violent crime, recidivism and substance abuse."

Dominoes

Mississippi floods are the biggest in 500 years - and human intervention may be partly to blame

Floods along the Mississippi River in spring 2011

Floods along the Mississippi River in spring 2011 rivaled the Great Flood of 1927 in size. Human engineering of the river may be making such floods bigger.
The world's longest system of levees and floodways, meant to rein in the mighty Mississippi River, may actually make flooding worse.

Using tree rings and lake sediments, researchers re-created a history of flooding along the lower Mississippi River extending back to the 1500s. This paleoflood record suggests that the past century of river engineering - intended to minimize flood damage to people living along the river's banks - has instead increased the magnitude of the largest floods by 20 percent, the researchers report April 5 in Nature.

Climate patterns that bring extra rainfall to the region don't account for the dramatic increase in flood size, the team found. "The obvious culprit is that we have really modified the river itself," says Samuel Munoz, a geoscientist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Comment: As evidenced by the waterways around the industrialised world that tend to be filthy and increasingly devoid of life, there is a lot we do not yet know about water. At the same time, as noted in the article, flooding was still on the increase which is probably attributable to our planets entry into an ice age: Also check out SOTT radio's: The Health & Wellness Show: Water: What Do We Really Know?


Galaxy

Scientists discover a dozen new black holes at centre of Milky Way

milky way
© John Colosimo (colosimophotography.com)/ESO
The center of the Milky Way, shown in this photograph from the Paranal Observatory in Chile, may be swarming with thousands of small black holes.
The center of the Milky Way may be abuzz with black holes. For the first time, a dozen small black holes have been spotted within the inner region of the galaxy in an area spanning just a few light-years - and there could be thousands more.

Astrophysicist Charles Hailey of Columbia University and his colleagues spotted the black holes thanks to the holes' interactions with stars slowly spiraling inward, the team reports in Nature on April 4. Isolated black holes emit no light, but black holes stealing material from orbiting stars will heat that material until it emits X-rays.

In 12 years of telescope data from NASA's orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory, Hailey and colleagues found 12 objects emitting the right X-ray energy to be black holes with stellar companions. Based on theoretical predictions of how many black holes are paired with stars, there should be up to 20,000 invisible solo black holes just in that small part of the galaxy.

Comment: See Also: And check out SOTT radio's: Behind the Headlines: Earth changes in an electric universe: Is climate change really man-made?


Pi

Building a machine that breaks the laws of thermodynamics

blocks falling apart
© Martin Leon Barreto

We thought only fools messed with the cast-iron laws of thermodynamics - but quantum trickery is rewriting the rulebook, says physicist
Vlatko Vedra

A FEW years ago, I had an idea that may sound a little crazy: I thought I could see a way to build an engine that works harder than the laws of physics allow.

You would be within your rights to baulk at this proposition. After all, the efficiency of engines is governed by thermodynamics, the most solid pillar of physics. This is one set of natural laws you don't mess with.

Yet if I leave my office at the University of Oxford and stroll down the corridor, I can now see an engine that pays no heed to these laws. It is a machine of considerable power and intricacy, with green lasers and ions instead of oil and pistons. There is a long road ahead, but I believe contraptions like this one will shape the future of technology.

Comment: See also:


Microscope 1

Scientists in Russia uncover part of enzyme linked to 'immortality' and cancer

DNA peptides
© CC0
Manipulations with telomerase, an enzyme vital for proper cell division, can make cells virtually immortal as well as fight and prevent cancer. But in order to do so, scientists first have to understand its structure.

Russian biologists from Moscow State University have recently published a study devoted to the structure of part of the telomerase enzyme. One of the authors noted that the study will help develop treatments that can both stimulate or inhibit the enzyme's activity.

Telomerase is required for the proper duplication of the DNA peptides via RNA. It is normally active in the parts of the body that require frequent or constant cell multiplication with proper DNA inheritance, such as stem cells or reproductive cells. Its activity "thickens" its layer overtime and, although it can regenerate, its activity decreases over time, preventing proper cell divisions and resulting in ageing.

Key

Some Amazon Key features, including keyless entry, remote lock and unlock, go nationwide

Demo of Amazon Key
© Sarah Tew/CNet
A demo of Amazon Key, which enables package delivery right into your home.
A handful of Amazon Key's main features are being rolled out across the US.

That means you can now use the service anywhere in the country for keyless entry, remote lock and unlock, and guest access, the company said Thursday. Plus, five more locks now work with Amazon Key, for a total of eight locks available for Amazon Key customers.

But if you were waiting for in-home delivery using Amazon Key, that's not part of the expansion. In-home delivery will still only be available to Prime customers in 37 US cities and surrounding areas.

Comment: See also: