Simanaitis Says

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SCIENCE BITES

THAT IS, “BITES” in the sense of tidbits. In perusing my weekly Science magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I regularly encounter things that lead to items here at SimanaitisSays.

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In the past three issues, September 9, 16 and 23, 2016, there were several fascinating enough for me to say, “Golly, that’s neat.” Here they are.

A review of the book Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, by Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman, MIT Press, 2016, mentions the concepts of deep learning, hive learning and corner cases.

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Image from “Insights,” Science, September 9, 2016.

Deep learning is when a computer learns from experience, not just reacts to pre-determined programming done by humans. Even our smart phones exhibit a degree of deep learning: for instance, completing an e-mail name after only a few letters.

Hive learning involves computers pooling their experience when tasked with the same function, driverless cars, for example. It’s akin to humans talking shop, with workers exchanging information garnered through individual activities.

A corner case is a condition that’s not included in the computer’s initial training. Success in such a case would have to depend on deep learning or hive learning, or luck.

It’s fascinating, but there’s a dark side when applied to driverless cars: As Science reviewer Tim Athan notes, “Unlike traditional computer algorithms, deep learning creates a nonexplicit, black-box intelligence that cannot be reverse-engineered. For this reason, trying to determine why a driverless system made a decision can be as difficult as ascertaining a human’s decision process. This, writes the authors [i.e., Lipson and Kurman], will have implications for liability assessment.”

The September 16, 2016, issue of Science has a special focus on The New Harvest, the many aspects of nutrition around the world. A “Perspectives” article by Tara Garnett is titled “Plating Up Solutions,” with the subtitle “Can eating patterns be both healthier and more sustainable?”

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Health and environmental impacts of different diets. Chart from “Perspectives,” Science, September 16, 2016.

Garnett describes what she calls “win-win” diets that satisfy sustainability and health. On the other hand, western-type diets as increasingly practiced globally and diets of the poor in less advantaged countries leave a lot to be desired.

Here’s a tasty tidbit: Analyses of sequenced DNA suggests how a pope helped make chickens fatter with a religious edict affecting diet.

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Image from “News,” Science, September 23, 2016.

Around the middle of the 10th century, the Catholic Church required its followers to abstain for about 130 days a year from eating the meat of four-legged animals. A Science “News” item notes, “People began to selectively breed plump, year-round egg layers–birds that likely carried a gene variant known as the thyroid stimulating hormone receptor (TSHR), which regulates metabolism and reproduction.”

Researchers sequenced chicken DNA samples found at 12 European archaeological sites dating from 280 B.C. to the 18th century. The scientists reported their findings at a recent International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford, England.

Few chickens carried this variant of the TSHR gene until about 1000 years ago. The number of chicken bones dating from these medieval sites abruptly doubled, compared with those predating the religious edict. Science offers more details at http://scim.ag/popechick.

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On the same page of this September 23, 2016, issue is a “By the Numbers” item: The European Space Agency’s Gaia Mission mapped 1.1 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, including 400 million never seen before. More details are at http://scim.ag/Gaiastars.

It’s particularly humbling to note that the Milky Way is nothing more than our little neighborhood of the universe. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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