Innovation & Technology
Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Satellite images can map poverty
August 18, 2016

You can fix the world's problems only if you know where they are. That's why tracking poverty is critical for the United Nations, which launched a global poverty campaign last year. But gathering the data on the ground can be dangerous, slow, and expensive. Now, a study using satellite images and machine learning reveals an alternative: mapping poverty from space.

Satellites are constantly snapping photos of Earth, and scientists have wondered whether poverty can be detected just by analysing the images. The first attempts to do that relied on images of the planet at night. The glow of electric lights paints a glittering map of a region's infrastructure, showing roughly where the rich and poor live. But at night, moderate economic underdevelopment doesn't look much different from absolute poverty, defined as life on less than USD 1.90 per day.

So a team from Stanford University has been sifting through daytime images. They, too, show only subtle differences between regions of absolute and moderate poverty. Both might have muddy, unpaved roads winding through clusters of tiny dwellings. But daytime images include other key indicators: How far away is the nearest source of water or the closest urban marketplace? Where are the agricultural fields?

The team used a machine learning technique called a convolutional neural network, which has revolutionised the field of machine vision. They focused on five African countries: Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, and Rwanda. These countries have both large proportions of their populations living in absolute poverty and good survey data to ground truth any predictions made by the computer.

The team found that daytime satellite images are dramatically better than nighttime images for mapping African poverty. Compared with the nighttime images, the daytime images were 81% more accurate at predicting poverty in places under the absolute poverty line and 99% more accurate in areas where incomes are less than half that.

Full story: Science Back to top

Controversial insecticides linked to wild bee declines
August 16, 2016

A dip in the populations of wild bees across the English countryside over nine years coincided with the use of chemicals called neonicotinoids on the crops in which the bees forage, ecologists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) in Wallingford, UK, say.

The study is the first to link the controversial insecticides to the decline of many bee species in real-world conditions. Previous work has studied the effects of the insecticides on bees in the laboratory, or on a few wild-bee species in a small number of fields over a few weeks.

The report feeds into a raging debate about whether to ban or restrict the widely used chemicals to help bee populations to recover. Many bee species are in decline around the world, although climate change, habitat loss, parasites and other insecticides besides neonicotinoids have all been linked to the problem.

The EU has imposed a temporary ban on the use of three neonicotinoids - clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam - in most cases. But some chemical manufacturers and farmers say that alternative insecticide treatments aren't as effective, and the UK lifted the ban last year, arguing that 'emergency rules' allowed use of the insecticides where crops were at greatest risk of pest damage. The European Food Safety Authority is due to review the effects of the chemicals on bees by January 2017 - a report that could lead the EU to extend its ban.

Full story: Nature Communications Back to top

Synthetic supermicrobe will be resistant to all known viruses
August 18, 2016

A team from Harvard Medical School in Boston in the US is part-way towards recoding the E. coli bacterium to work with a different genetic code from all other organisms on Earth. That means making more than 62,000 changes to its genome.

The recoded E. coli could have all kinds of industrial uses. It should be better in several ways: resistant to all existing viruses, unable to swap genes with other organisms and capable of producing proteins unlike any found in nature.

Normal proteins have the 20 natural amino acids as their building blocks. The recoded E. coli will make proteins with up to four additional artificial amino acids.

Making an organism virus-resistant gives it a huge advantage. But the recoded E. coli will be unable to grow unless fed one of those artificial amino acids, so it shouldn't spread in the wild.

The researchers ultimately want to make farm animals and human stem cells that are resistant to all viruses. Such cells could be used for producing vaccines and for transplants. It is very difficult to make people resistant to viruses, cancer and ageing, but tissues and organs for transplant with these properties could be created.

Full story: New Scientist / Science Back to top

Scientists develop small, reprogrammable quantum computer
August 04, 2016

Quantum computing has hit another 'milestone' with US researchers unveiling the development of a small quantum computer that can be reprogrammed.

Many research groups have previously created small, functional quantum computers, but most of these have been only able to solve a single problem. However, researchers from the University of Maryland reveal their new device can solve three algorithms using quantum effects to perform calculations in a single step, where a normal computer would require several operations.

Although the new device consists of just five bits of quantum information (qubits), the team said it had the potential to be scaled up to a larger computer.

In traditional computing bits are either 1 or 0, while in a quantum computer, qubits can be both numbers at the same time. This has the potential to provide faster computation in areas such as materials sciences, searching large databases and data security and encryption

In this latest device, the computer's qubits are individual ions - charged atoms - that are trapped in a line using magnetic fields and then manipulated using lasers. By directly connecting any pair of qubits, the researchers could reconfigure the system to implement any algorithm. The team believes that eventually more qubits, perhaps as many as 100, could be added to their quantum computer module.

Full story: ABC News Back to top

Flaming fuel on water creates 'blue whirl' that burns clean
August 18, 2016

An unfortunate mix of electricity and bourbon has led to a new discovery. After lightning hit a warehouse in the US in 2003, a nearby lake was set ablaze when the distilled spirit spilled into the water and ignited. Spiralling tornadoes of fire leapt from the surface. In a laboratory experiment inspired by the conflagration, a team of researchers produced a new, efficiently burning fire tornado, which they named a blue whirl.

To re-create the bourbon-fire conditions, the researchers from the University of Maryland in College Park, US, ignited liquid fuel floating on a bath of water. They surrounded the blaze with a cylindrical structure that funnelled air into the flame to create a vortex with a height of about 60cm. Eventually, the chaotic fire whirl calmed into a blue, cone-shaped flame just a few centimetres tall.

'Firenadoes' are known to appear in wildfires, when swirling winds and flames combine to form a hellacious, rotating inferno. They burn more efficiently than typical fires, as the whipping winds mix in extra oxygen, which feeds the fire. But the blue whirl is even more efficient; its azure glow indicates complete combustion, which releases little soot, or uncombusted carbon, to the air.

The soot-free blur whirls could be a way of burning off oil spills on water without adding much pollution to the air, the researchers say, if they can find a way to control them in the wild.

Full story: Science News / PNAS Back to top

Belgian scientists make novel water-from-urine machine
July 27, 2016

A team of scientists at the University of Ghent in Belgium say they have created a machine that turns urine into drinkable water and fertiliser using solar energy, a technique which could be applied in rural areas and developing countries. The system uses a special membrane, is energy-efficient and applicable in areas off the electricity grid.

The urine is collected in a big tank, heated in a solar-powered boiler before passing through the membrane where the water is recovered and nutrients such as potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus are separated.

Under the slogan #peeforscience, the team deployed the machine at a 10-day music and theatre festival in central Ghent, recovering 1,000 litres of water from the urine of revellers. The aim is to install larger versions of the machine in sports venues or airports but also to take it to a rural community in the developing world where fertilisers and reliable drinking water are short in supply.

As was the case with previous projects the research team was engaged in, the water recovered from the city festival will be used to make one of Belgium's most coveted specialties - beer.

Full story: Reuters Back to top