Tech

An out-of-control Chinese space station will soon fall to Earth

ITS name means “heavenly palace”. But Tiangong-1, an eight-tonne Chinese space station launched in 2011, will not remain in the heavens much longer. After visits from crews in 2012 and 2013, Tiangong-1’s mission officially ended in March 2016. A few months later China’s space agency appeared to confirm what amateur skywatchers had already suspected, that it had lost control of ...

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Making anaesthesia safer by tracking brain activity

Watching the waves AROUND 1936 three neurologists at Harvard Medical School raided the medicine cabinet, filling their boots with morphine, barbiturates, ethers and even cobra venom. They applied those substances to (apparently) willing volunteers and cemented primitive electrodes to their scalps and earlobes. They also collared a drunk and wired him up. With pen and paper, they then recorded how ...

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Using domestic animals to make human organs

TAKE the fertilised egg of a pig. From each cell in the resulting embryo cut out a gene or genes that promote the development of the animal’s heart. Inject human stem cells from a patient who needs a new heart into the embryo and then place it into the womb of a sow. Wait nine months. The result is an ...

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Making quantum computers reliable

CALCULATING machines that run on quantum bits (known as qubits, for short) are, by some accounts, the future of computation. Quantum computers have the theoretical advantage that they can solve with ease certain mathematical problems, such as the factorisation of large numbers, which are hard or impossible for classical machines. This is possible thanks to a qubit’s ability to remain, ...

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The ramifications of a new type of gene

WHAT’S a gene? You might think biologists had worked that one out by now. But the question is more slippery than may at first appear. The conventional answer is something like, “a piece of DNA that encodes the structure of a particular protein”. Proteins so created run the body. Genes, meanwhile, are passed on in sperm and eggs to carry ...

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Finding more time to detect a tsunami

TSUNAMI are terrible things. And part of their terror lies in their unpredictability. Even when a submarine earthquake that may cause one is detected, the information that is needed to determine whether a giant wave has actually been created takes time to gather. That is time unavailable for the evacuation of coastlines at risk. Contrariwise, issuing a warning when no ...

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For artificial intelligence to thrive, it must explain itself

SCIENCE fiction is littered with examples of intelligent computers, from HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” to Eddie in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. One thing such fictional machines have in common is a tendency to go wrong, to the detriment of the characters in the story. HAL murders most of the crew of a mission to Jupiter. ...

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Computer programs recognise white men better than black women

SOFTWARE that recognises faces has bounded ahead in recent years, propelled by a boom in a form of artificial intelligence called deep learning (see article). Several firms now offer face recognition as a commercial service, via their respective clouds. The ability to recognise in faces such things as an individual’s sex has improved too, and this is also commercially available. ...

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