Odds are shifting in man-vs.-machine Go match

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European Go champion Fan Hui holds his head in frustration during a match against Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo program. (Credit: Google via YouTube)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Both sides in next month’s big $1 million AI-vs.-human Go match say they’re confident they’ll prevail. But Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo program has a secret weapon: It’s expanding its knowledge of the game exponentially during the buildup to the five-game match against top-ranked player Lee Sedol in Seoul, South Korea.

Last month, researchers at Google DeepMind shook up the Go world with news that its artificial intelligence program bested a European champion, Fan Hui, without being given any advantage to start with. The research, published in Nature, lays out a potentially more powerful approach to AI that combines deep learning with reinforcement learning.

Next month’s match against Sedol could be as big for fans of Go (and followers of AI research) as IBM’s Deep Blue victory over chess champion Garry Kasparov was in 1997. The match will be streamed live from Seoul via You Tube from March 9 to 15.

“This really is our Deep Blue moment,” Demis Hassabis, Google DeepMind’s president of engineering, said on Feb. 13 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Washington.

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AI experts say robots could spark unemployment

Image: Google self-driving car
Google is testing subcompact self-driving cars. (Photo via Google)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The robot revolution may put half of us humans out of a job by 2045 – and if that happens, what are the politicians going to do about it?

“This issue of automation and employment, which is going to be one of the biggest policy issues for the next 25 years, if not longer, and now we’re in a presidential election year … this issue is just nowhere on the radar screen,” Rice University computer scientist Moshe Vardi said Feb. 13 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Washington.

Vardi and other experts on artificial intelligence sketched out a scary picture of what the next couple of decades could bring as machines become smarter, more powerful and more prevalent. It’s a picture that’s developing quickly, thanks to the rise of machine vision and machine learning.

Bart Selman, a computer science professor at Cornell University, said he would not have been as concerned about AI’s downside five years ago. Since then, however, engineers have brought about dramatic improvements in the ability of software systems to see, hear and understand their environment.

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Scientists dissect Pluto’s heart

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This map of the left side of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature uses colors to represent Pluto’s varied terrains, which helps scientists understand the geological processes at work. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the scientists behind NASA’s New Horizons mission are sharing a map that brings a different perspective to Pluto’s heart.

The map shows clearly that the dwarf planet’s bright heart-shaped region, informally known as Tombaugh Regio, can be broken into two geologically distinct areas.

The left side is dominated by an icy plain of frozen nitrogen, called Sputnik Planum. This is the part of the heart that’s dissected in the New Horizons team’s color-coded chart.

The map covers an area that measures 1,290 miles from top to bottom, which is roughly the width of the United States from north to south.

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Stephen Hawking hails gravitational wave find

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British physicist Stephen Hawking, who has theorized about black holes for decades, congratulated the scientists behind the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. (Credit: NASA)

British physicist Stephen Hawking says the detection of gravitational waves provides a completely new way of looking at the universe, and is at least as important as thedetection of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider.

The results reported by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory mark the first-ever observations of a black hole merger, and the first of what’s expected to be many observations of gravitational waves. “The ability to detect them has the potential to revolutionize astronomy,” Hawking told the BBC after LIGO’s announcement on Feb. 11.

The waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime, set off in the course of gravitational interactions. Their existence was predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity a century ago, but until now, no instruments were sensitive enough to detect them.

LIGO uses two sets of L-shaped detectors in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La. Each detector takes advantage of finely tuned, cross-interfering lasers to register distortions in spacetime that are tinier than one ten-thousandth of the size of a proton.

In addition to confirming a key claim of general relativity, LIGO’s readings provide the best evidence to date that black holes actually exist.

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Neanderthal DNA linked to modern maladies

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Researchers say Neanderthal DNA influences modern traits. (Credit: Michael Smeltzer / Vanderbilt)

A comparison of Neanderthal DNA with the genomes of present-day patients has pointed up connections between our now-extinct cousins and modern traits ranging from addiction and depression to blood clotting and skin problems.

“Our main finding is that Neanderthal DNA does influence clinical traits in modern humans,” Vanderbilt University geneticist John Capra, the senior author of a paper published Feb. 11 by the journal Science, said in a news release.

The comparison drew upon a database that links biological samples from 28,000 patients with anonymized versions of their electronic health records. The Electronic Medical Records and Genomics Network, also known as eMERGE, is funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute.

The network collects records from nine hospital systems across the country, including Vanderbilt University Medical Center as well as Group Health Cooperative / University of Washington Medical Center / Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

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Scientists detect gravitational waves at last

Image: Black hole merger
A computer simulation shows two black holes shortly before they merge into one. (Credit: SXS)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – After more than a decade of looking, scientists say they’ve detected the gravitational waves given off when two black holes merged into one bigger black hole.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves. We did it!” Caltech physicist David Reitze, executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, declared at the National Press Club on Feb. 11.

Reitze compared the LIGO project to a “scientific moonshot,” and then added, “We landed on the moon.”

The news was greeted with applause at the Washington briefing – and at a gathering of scientists and journalists in Hanford, Wash., the home of one of LIGO’s miles-long, L-shaped detectors.

The detection represents what’s likely to be a Nobel Prize-worthy discovery. It provides the best confirmation yet for a claim made a century ago in Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity: that gravitational interactions should give off energy in the form of ripples in the fabric of spacetime.

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Now it’s easier for feds to buy a launch

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Spaceflight’s SHERPA carrier is set to deploy 87 satellites. (Credit: Spaceflight)

Federal agencies can now buy a satellite launch as easily as they buy pencils, thanks to a new arrangement with Seattle-based Spaceflight.

OK, maybe it’s not quite that easy. You still have to get the go-ahead to put something into orbit, whether you’re a climate scientist at NASA or Agent Fox Mulder at the FBI. But once that go-ahead is given, the launch can be ordered from a standardized menu instead of going through a months-long contracting process.

“What this does is make it a more expeditious process,” Spaceflight’s president, Curt Blake, told GeekWire.

Spaceflight is the first launch service provider to be awarded what’s known as a General Services Administration Professional Services Schedule. That means any federal official who’s authorized to spend the money can order a CubeSat or a MicroSat launch online, via the GSA Advantage’s eBuy site.

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Boeing sees sunny skies for airlines

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Model airplanes swarm through Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner Gallery. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

LYNNWOOD, Wash. – The stock market may be caught in a downdraft, but things are looking up for the commercial airline industry – at least according to the Boeing Co.’s annual forecast.

“As we look at 2016, we see another good year,” Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told industry executives here on Feb. 9 at the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance’s annual conference.

The trends that are pushing stock prices down – including a slowdown in China’s economy and a drop in oil prices – aren’t dimming Tinseth’s outlook. He noted that cheap oil means it costs less to fuel up planes.

“It adds to the bottom line of our customers, which is good,” Tinseth said.

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NASA tries to pack big vision in smaller budget

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NASA is developing a heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System, shown in this artist’s conception. Spending in the category that includes the SLS and the Orion deep-space capsule would be trimmed in the budget proposed for the next fiscal year. (Credit: NASA)

Christmas has come and gone, and so has a bump in NASA’s spending plan: The agency’s proposed $19 billion budget for the next fiscal year, released today, represents a $300 million decline from this year’s level.

The money set aside for developing a new crew vehicle and heavy-lift rocket for deep-space exploration would be reduced by hundreds of millions of dollars, virtually guaranteeing a tussle with Congress.

Despite the reductions, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency’s vision for space exploration and technology is undimmed.

“The state of our NASA is as strong as it’s ever been – and when I say ‘our,’ I really mean it,” Bolden told a gathering of agency employees at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. He used that “strong” assessment as a frequent refrain for the last “State of NASA” address of the Obama administration.

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How Amazon inspired birth-control drones

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Aerial vehicles are used to deliver medical supplies in Ghana. (Credit: Drones for Development)

When U.N. health experts were trying to come up with a way to deliver contraceptives to women in hard-to-reach areas of Ghana, they took a page from Amazon’s drone delivery playbook.

Their pilot project, known as Dr. One, was reportedly inspired in late 2014 by the Seattle-based online retailer’s plans for aerial package deliveries.

“We thought, ‘Hang on a minute. We can use this for something else!” Kanyanta Sunkutu, a South African public health specialist with the U.N. Population Fund, was quoted as saying in The Huffington Post’s report about the project.

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