Bring Back Extinct Species? Ambitious Plan Draws Investors, Critics

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The dodo bird isn’t coming back anytime soon. Nor is the woolly mammoth. But a company working on technologies to bring back extinct species has attracted more investors, while other scientists are skeptical such feats are possible or a good idea. 

Colossal Biosciences first announced its ambitious plan to revive the woolly mammoth two years ago, and on Tuesday said it wanted to bring back the dodo bird, too. 

“The dodo is a symbol of man-made extinction,” said Ben Lamm, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder and CEO of Colossal. The company has formed a division to focus on bird-related genetic technologies. 

The last dodo, a flightless bird about the size of a turkey, was killed in 1681 on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. 

The Dallas company, which launched in 2021, also announced Tuesday it had raised an additional $150 million in funding. To date, it has raised $225 million from wide-ranging investors that include United States Innovative Technology Fund, Breyer Capital and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm that invests in technology. 

The prospect of bringing back the dodo isn’t expected to directly make money, Lamm said. But the genetic tools and equipment that the company develops to try to do it may have other uses, including for human health care, he said. 

For example, Colossal is now testing tools to tweak several parts of the genome simultaneously. It’s also working on technologies for what is sometimes called an “artificial womb,” he said. 

The dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon, said Beth Shapiro, a molecular biologist on Colossal’s scientific advisory board, who has been studying the dodo for two decades. Shapiro is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’ Health and Science Department. 

Her team plans to study DNA differences between the Nicobar pigeon and the dodo to understand “what are the genes that really make a dodo a dodo,” she said. 

The team may then attempt to edit Nicobar pigeon cells to make them resemble dodo cells. It may be possible to put the tweaked cells into developing eggs of other birds, such as pigeons or chickens, to create offspring that may in turn naturally produce dodo eggs, Shapiro said. The concept is still in an early theoretical stage for dodos. 

Because animals are a product of both their genetics and their environment — which has changed dramatically since the 1600s — Shapiro said that “it’s not possible to recreate a 100% identical copy of something that’s gone.” 

Other scientists wonder if it’s even advisable to try, and question whether “de-extinction” diverts attention and money away from efforts to save species still on Earth. 

“There’s a real hazard in saying that if we destroy nature, we can just put it back together again — because we can’t,” said Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, who has no connection to Colossal. 

“And where on Earth would you put a woolly mammoth, other than in a cage?” asked Pimm, who noted that the ecosystems where mammoths lived disappeared long ago. 

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Cheaters Beware: ChatGPT Maker Releases AI Detection Tool 

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The maker of ChatGPT is trying to curb its reputation as a freewheeling cheating machine with a new tool that can help teachers detect if a student or artificial intelligence wrote that homework.

The new AI Text Classifier launched Tuesday by OpenAI follows a weeks-long discussion at schools and colleges over fears that ChatGPT’s ability to write just about anything on command could fuel academic dishonesty and hinder learning.

OpenAI cautions that its new tool – like others already available – is not foolproof. The method for detecting AI-written text “is imperfect and it will be wrong sometimes,” said Jan Leike, head of OpenAI’s alignment team tasked to make its systems safer.

“Because of that, it shouldn’t be solely relied upon when making decisions,” Leike said.

Teenagers and college students were among the millions of people who began experimenting with ChatGPT after it launched November 30 as a free application on OpenAI’s website. And while many found ways to use it creatively and harmlessly, the ease with which it could answer take-home test questions and assist with other assignments sparked a panic among some educators.

By the time schools opened for the new year, New York City, Los Angeles and other big public school districts began to block its use in classrooms and on school devices.

The Seattle Public Schools district initially blocked ChatGPT on all school devices in December but then opened access to educators who want to use it as a teaching tool, said Tim Robinson, the district spokesman.

“We can’t afford to ignore it,” Robinson said.

The district is also discussing possibly expanding the use of ChatGPT into classrooms to let teachers use it to train students to be better critical thinkers and to let students use the application as a “personal tutor” or to help generate new ideas when working on an assignment, Robinson said.

School districts around the country say they are seeing the conversation around ChatGPT evolve quickly.

“The initial reaction was ‘OMG, how are we going to stem the tide of all the cheating that will happen with ChatGPT,'” said Devin Page, a technology specialist with the Calvert County Public School District in Maryland. Now there is a growing realization that “this is the future” and blocking it is not the solution, he said.

“I think we would be naïve if we were not aware of the dangers this tool poses, but we also would fail to serve our students if we ban them and us from using it for all its potential power,” said Page, who thinks districts like his own will eventually unblock ChatGPT, especially once the company’s detection service is in place.

OpenAI emphasized the limitations of its detection tool in a blog post Tuesday, but said that in addition to deterring plagiarism, it could help to detect automated disinformation campaigns and other misuse of AI to mimic humans.

The longer a passage of text, the better the tool is at detecting if an AI or human wrote something. Type in any text — a college admissions essay, or a literary analysis of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” — and the tool will label it as either “very unlikely, unlikely, unclear if it is, possibly, or likely” AI-generated.

But much like ChatGPT itself, which was trained on a huge trove of digitized books, newspapers and online writings but often confidently spits out falsehoods or nonsense, it’s not easy to interpret how it came up with a result.

“We don’t fundamentally know what kind of pattern it pays attention to, or how it works internally,” Leike said. “There’s really not much we could say at this point about how the classifier actually works.”

“Like many other technologies, it may be that one district decides that it’s inappropriate for use in their classrooms,” said OpenAI policy researcher Lama Ahmad. “We don’t really push them one way or another.”

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Huawei Latest Target of US Crackdown on China Tech

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China says it is “deeply concerned” over reports that the United States is moving to further restrict sales of American technology to Huawei, a tech company that U.S. officials have long singled out as a threat to national security for its alleged support of Beijing’s espionage efforts.

As first reported by the Financial Times, the U.S. Department of Commerce has informed American firms that it will no longer issue licenses for technology exports to Huawei, thereby isolating the Shenzen-based company from supplies it needs to make its products.

The White House and Commerce Department have not responded to VOA’s request for confirmation of the reports. But observers say the move may be the latest tactic in the Biden administration’s geoeconomics strategy as it comes under increasing Republican pressure to outcompete China. 

The crackdown on Chinese companies began under the Trump administration, which in 2019 added Huawei to an export blacklist but made exceptions for some American firms, including Qualcomm and Intel, to provide non-5G technology licenses.

Since taking office in 2021, President Joe Biden has taken an even more aggressive stance than his predecessor, Donald Trump. Now the Biden administration appears to be heading toward a total ban on all tech exports to Huawei, said Sam Howell, who researches quantum information science at the Center for a New American Security’s Technology and National Security program.

“These new restrictions from what we understand so far would include items below the 5G level,” she told VOA. “So 4G items, Wi-Fi 6 and [Wi-Fi] 7, artificial intelligence, high performance computing and cloud capabilities as well.”

Should the Commerce Department follow through with the ban, there will likely be pushback from U.S. companies whose revenues will be directly affected, Howell said. Currently Intel and Qualcomm still sell chips used in laptops and phones manufactured by Huawei.

Huawei and Beijing have denied that they are a threat to other countries’ national security. Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning accused Washington of “overstretching the concept of national security and abusing state power” to suppress Chinese competitors.

“Such practices are contrary to the principles of market economy” and are “blatant technological hegemony,” Mao said. 

Outcompeting Chinese tech

The latest U.S. move on Huawei is part of a U.S. effort to outcompete China in the cutting-edge technology sector.

In October, Biden imposed sweeping restrictions on providing advanced semiconductors and chipmaking equipment to Chinese companies, seeking to maintain dominance particularly on the most advanced chips. His administration is rallying allies behind the effort, including the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – home to leading companies that play key roles in the industry’s supply chain.

U.S. officials say export restrictions on chips are necessary because China can use semiconductors to advance their military systems, including weapons of mass destruction, and commit human rights abuses. 

The October restrictions follow the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which Biden signed into law in August and that restricts companies receiving U.S. subsidies from investing in and expanding cutting-edge chipmaking facilities in China. It also provides $52 billion to strengthen the domestic semiconductor industry.

Beijing has invested heavily in its own semiconductor sector, with plans to invest $1.4 trillion in advanced technologies in a bid to achieve 70% self-sufficiency in semiconductors by 2025. 

TikTok a target

TikTok, a social media application owned by the Chinese company ByteDance that has built a massive following especially among American youth, is also under U.S. lawmakers’ scrutiny due to suspicion that it could be used as a tool of Chinese foreign espionage or influence.

CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23 to testify about TikTok’s “consumer privacy and data security practices, the platforms’ impact on kids, and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.”

Lawmakers are divided on whether to ban or allow the popular app, which has been downloaded onto about 100 million U.S. smartphones, or force its sale to an American buyer.

Earlier in January, Congress set up the House Select Committee on China, tasked with dealing with legislation to combat the dangers of a rising China.

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AI: World Likely to Hit Key Warming Threshold in 10-12 Years

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The world will likely breach the internationally agreed-upon climate change threshold in about a decade and keep heating to break through a next warming limit around mid-century, even with big pollution cuts, artificial intelligence predicts in a new study that’s more pessimistic than previous modeling.

The study in Monday’s journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reignites a debate on whether it’s still possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as called for in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, to minimize the most damaging effects of climate change. The world has already warmed 1.1 or 1.2 degrees since pre-industrial times, or the mid-19th century, scientists say.

Two climate scientists using machine learning calculated that Earth will surpass the 1.5-degree (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) mark between 2033 and 2035. Their results fit with other, more conventional methods of predicting when Earth will break the mark, though with a bit more precision.

“There will come a time when we call the 1.5C target for maximum warming dead, beyond the shadow of a doubt,” Brown University Environment Institute director Kim Cobb, who wasn’t part of the study, said in an email interview. “And this paper may be the beginning of the end of the 1.5C target.”

Stanford University’s Noah Diffenbaugh, a study co-author, said the world is on the brink of the 1.5-degree mark in “any realistic emissions reduction scenario.” Avoiding a 2-degree rise, he said, may depend on nations meeting zero-emissions goals by the middle of this century.

The artificial intelligence-based study found it unlikely that temperature increase could be held below 2 degrees Celsius, even with tough emissions cuts. And that’s where the AI really differs with scientists who had been forecasting using computer models that are based on past observations, Diffenbaugh said.

In a high-pollution scenario, the AI calculated, the world would hit the 2-degree mark around 2050. Lower pollution could stave that off until 2054, the machine learning calculated.

In contrast, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change figured in its 2021 report that the same lower-pollution scenario would see the world pushing past 2 degrees sometime in the 2090s.

Cornell University climate scientist Natalie Mahowald, who wasn’t part of the Diffenbaugh study but was part of the IPCC, said the study makes sense, fits with what scientists know, but seems a bit more pessimistic.

There’s a lot of power in using AI, and in the future, that may be shown to produce better projections, but more evidence is needed before concluding that, Mahowald said.

Normally, climate scientists use a bunch of computer model simulations, some running hot and some cold, and then try to figure out which ones are doing the best job. That’s often based on how they performed in the past or in simulations of the past, Diffenbaugh said. What the AI does is more keyed to the climate system now, he said.

“We’re using this very powerful tool that is able to take information and integrate it in a way that no human mind is able to do, for better or for worse,” Diffenbaugh said.

Each year, government climate negotiators at a United Nations summit proclaim that they have managed to “keep 1.5 alive.” But with the latest study, there’s a divide among scientists on how true that really is. Diffenbaugh said there’s been so much warming already that it really doesn’t matter how pollution is cut in the next several years. The world will hit 1.5, the AI figures.

Zeke Hausfather of the tech company Stripe and Berkeley Earth, who was not part of the study, agreed, saying it’s time to “stop pretending” that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is possible. Some scenarios do see temperatures warming past the mark but then coming back down, something called “overshoot.”

Other scientists not involved with the study, such as University of Pennsylvania’s Michael Mann and Climate Analytics’ Bill Hare and Carl-Friedrich Schleussner maintain 1.5 is still alive. They say one rapid decarbonization scenario that Diffenbaugh didn’t examine shows the world can mostly keep under the threshold.

If the world can cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030 “then warming can be limited to 1.5 degrees” with a tiny overshoot and then reductions to get under the mark, Hare said.

Believing that the world can no longer keep warming below 1.5 “is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Mann said by email. “In the end it’s easy to overinterpret the significance of a precise threshold like 1.5C warming. The challenge is to limit warming as much as possible.”

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Global Guinea Worm Infections Continue Downward Trend

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In the 1980s, more than 3 million people worldwide were infected with Guinea worm. At the end of 2022, the number of reported cases globally was down to 13.

There were 15 cases reported a year earlier, “which does not sound like a big reduction, but when you are dealing with very small numbers in very remote areas we take it as a huge step forward,” said Adam Weiss, director of the Carter Center’s Guinea Worm Eradication Program.

Guinea worm, a parasite usually ingested through contaminated water, grows inside the human body, then emerges through open sores creating intense pain.

When Weiss’ organization, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, began spearheading the effort to rid the world of Guinea worm parasites in 1986, it existed in 20 countries.

In 2022, just four countries reported new Guinea worm infections in humans.

“We had six human cases in Chad, five human cases in South Sudan, and one in Ethiopia and one in the Central African Republic on the border with Chad,” Weiss told VOA during a recent Skype interview.

The Atlanta-based global nonprofit Carter Center is marking continued progress in the global fight against Guinea Worm infections as the World Health Organization recognizes World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day January 30.

Across the globe, from his office in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Dr. Zerihun Tadesse Gebreselassie was pragmatic about the overall eradication efforts.

“It’s both good news and at the same time, not so good news,” he explained during a Skype interview with VOA. Gebreselassie serves as the Carter Center’s senior country representative in Ethiopia, a nation on the cusp of complete Guinea worm eradication.

“We are doing surveillance by moving from house to house in each and every village which has historically been reporting cases. So, we found only one person, and we found him before his clinical manifestation — which means we suspected that this could be a Guinea worm case — we kept him in a facility called a case containment center,” Gebreselassie said.

The Carter Center also provides financial incentives for people to report any potential Guinea worm infections. That, coupled with a robust water source filter education program and continued monitoring efforts in countries where the parasite exists, is helping the Carter Center remove obstacles on the path to complete eradication.

“Since this is a global eradication program, even when you have one case, still you have to continue monitoring,” Gebreselassie said. “We have to get rid of all cases for three consecutive years.”

One of the biggest setbacks to declaring the world free of Guinea worm was its discovery in domesticated animals and wildlife.

“It was a punch to the gut back in 2012 when we started seeing infections,” Weiss said.

But after years of dramatic increases in the number of dogs and cats in remote villages carrying the parasite, 2022 showed encouraging results.

“The last several years we went from several thousand animal infections to this year being just over 600 animal infections in the world,” Weiss said.

But the magic number in the overall eradication effort is zero cases in both humans and animals.

“We have to get rid of it from all hosts in order to meet the definition of eradication,” Weiss said.

Gebreselassie is optimistic that the goal of complete eradication is in sight despite setbacks.

“We are in the last mile, which is the most difficult one,” he told VOA.

If the effort is successful, Guinea worm would be only the second disease eradicated from the planet, but the first through prevention as there is no medicine to treat, and no vaccine to prevent, infections.

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WHO: Scope, Scale of Health Emergencies Growing

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World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns global health challenges are growing and threatening the well-being of millions of people worldwide. He spoke at the opening of WHO’s week-long executive board meeting. 

The WHO chief began his presentation on a somber note. He told meeting participants that an emergency committee convened to assess the status of the pandemic has concluded that COVID-19 remains a global health emergency. 

He said the situation is much better now than a year ago when the omicron variant of the coronavirus was at its peak. But, he added, weekly reported deaths have been rising since early December. He said more than 170,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19 in the past eight weeks. 

“And that is just the reported deaths. We know the actual number is much higher. We cannot control the virus, but we can do more to address the vulnerabilities in populations and health systems.” 

Tedros said health providers have the knowledge and means to control the spread of other diseases as well. He outlined an ambitious program for promoting health and protecting people from diseases. These, as well as other proposals for how the world can better prepare and respond to future health emergencies will be under discussion by member countries this week. 

Tedros said progress has been made over the past year in promoting health, by addressing the root causes of disease. He called this action essential in achieving a target set by WHO of seeing one billion more people enjoying better health and well-being. 

“On trans-fat, we have seen an almost five-fold increase in the number of people protected by WHO-recommended policies on the use of industrially produced trans-fat, from 550 million people to 2.6 billion, in just four years. But as you know, still five billion are unprotected.” 

Last year, he said, WHO reached the target it set to support 100 million tobacco users in stopping smoking. He noted, however, this left an estimated 600 million users who want to kick the habit and need support. 

Tedros presented numerous examples of key health achievements in both communicable and non-communicable diseases. He also acknowledged setbacks in many of these same areas, indicating the necessity of remaining alert and responding rapidly to health emergencies whenever and wherever they may arise. 

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Red Cross: World is Dangerously Unprepared for Next Pandemic

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The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warns the world is dangerously unprepared for the next pandemic and this will have severe health, economic and social consequences for countries around the world.  The IFRC has just released this year’s World Disaster Report.

In a marked departure from previous reports, the IFRC does not delve into the numerous natural disasters that caused untold devastation last year.  It does not rank the severity of disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and drought in terms of deaths and the destruction of livelihoods and infrastructure.

Instead, the report focuses on the global crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and on warnings of worse calamities to come if the global community does not prepare now for the next health crisis.

IFRC Secretary General Jagan Chapagain said the authors of the report conclude the coronavirus pandemic has been the biggest disaster in our living memory, by any measure.

“I think no other disasters, the hurricane, earthquake, drought, or flood can compete in terms of the terrible human and socio-economic costs.  Of course, the most conservative estimates tell us that 6.5 million people died from COVID-19 across these three years.  But we all know that the real number could be much, much higher,” said Chapagain.

And the financial costs, he said, are staggering.  He said the International Monetary Fund estimates the cost of the pandemic over the last three years to be $13.8 trillion.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for the global community to prepare now for the next health crisis.  He notes the World Health Organization and multiple epidemiologists have warned disease outbreaks are growing more frequent.

Chapagain said these outbreaks are being driven by factors such as climate change, increased movement of goods and services, urbanization, as well as growing inequity.  He said success in tackling future health crises depends upon building trust among world leaders, within and between communities and countries.

“Without trust, lifesaving pandemic counter measures will not be accepted and implemented by the people who need them most.  Preparedness will require equity.  Our preparedness must include provisions for greater equity because public health emergencies will thrive on and aggravate existing inequities,” he said.

Chapagain said community-based organizations are an integral part of pandemic preparedness and response.  He said local actors and communities have important roles to play as frontline responders in all phases of disease outbreak management.

He notes IFRC staff, and its global network of volunteers have reached more than 1.1 billion people over the past three years and helped to keep them safe from the virus.

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WHO: Over 1.6B People Infected with Neglected Tropical Diseases 

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Ahead of World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day Monday, the World Health Organization is calling for action to tackle these debilitating illnesses, which affect an estimated 1.65 billion people globally. 

A diverse group of 20 parasitic and bacterial tropical diseases is categorized as neglected. This is because they disproportionally affect people who live in poor, remote communities and are not on the list of global health priorities.

Ibrahima Soce Fall is director of WHO’s Department of Neglected Tropical Diseases. He says these vector-borne diseases are transmitted by insects in areas that lack safe water, sanitation, and access to health care. He says they also are spread via contaminated food and water.

Fall says they cause immense suffering because of their disfiguring and disabling impact.

“If you take diseases like onchocerciasis, you know, so-called river blindness because it can lead to blindness. The same for trachoma. So, these are so many diseases that are fatal and very debilitating,” he said.

Trachoma is an eye disease that can cause permanent blindness.

Fall says these diseases do not attract the amount of investment needed to access health services or develop new tools for diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.

He notes some of these ailments have been around for a very long time. For instance, the biblical disease, leprosy, still exists in 139 countries and dengue, which has been around for 800 years, remains prevalent in 129 nations.

Despite the many challenges, progress is being made in the elimination of the NTDs. WHO reports the number of people requiring NTD interventions fell by 80 million between 2020 and 2021. It finds 47 countries have eliminated at least one NTD and more countries are in the process of achieving this target.

According to the Carter Center, there were only 13 human cases of Guinea worm disease last year, pushing the illness closer to eradication. The Atlanta-based center was co-founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter. When it began leading the international campaign to eradicate Guinea worm in 1986, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases in at least 21 countries in Africa and Asia.

WHO officials say the goal it has set to eliminate at least one neglected tropical disease in 100 countries by 2030 can be achieved. It says the scientific community has the tools and the know-how to save lives and prevent suffering. But WHO says nations need to act together and invest in helping get rid of this dreaded group of diseases.

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Asteroid’s Sudden Flyby Shows Blind Spot in Planetary Threat Detection

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The discovery of an asteroid the size of a small shipping truck mere days before it passed Earth on Thursday, albeit one that posed no threat to humans, highlights a blind spot in our ability to predict those that could actually cause damage, astronomers say.

NASA for years has prioritized detecting asteroids much bigger and more existentially threatening than 2023 BU, the small space rock that streaked by 2,200 miles from the Earth’s surface, closer than some satellites. If bound for Earth, it would have been pulverized in the atmosphere, with only small fragments possibly reaching land.

But 2023 BU sits on the smaller end of a size group, asteroids 5-to-50 meters in diameter, that also includes those as big as an Olympic swimming pool. Objects that size are difficult to detect until they wander much closer to Earth, complicating any efforts to brace for one that could impact a populated area.

The probability of an Earth impact by a space rock, called a meteor when it enters the atmosphere, of that size range is fairly low, scaling according to the asteroid’s size: a 5-meter rock is estimated to target Earth once a year, and a 50-meter rock once every thousand years, according to NASA.

But with current capabilities, astronomers can’t see when such a rock targets Earth until days prior.

“We don’t know where most of the asteroids are that can cause local to regional devastation,” said Terik Daly, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

The roughly 20-meter meteor that exploded in 2013 over Chelyabinsk, Russia is a once-every-100-years event, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It created a shockwave that shattered tens of thousands of windows and caused $33 million in damage, and no one saw it coming before it entered Earth’s atmosphere.

Some astronomers consider relying only on statistical probabilities and estimates of asteroid populations an unnecessary risk, when improvements could be made to NASA’s ability to detect them.

“How many natural hazards are there that we could actually do something about and prevent for a billion dollars? There’s not many,” said Daly, whose work focuses on defending Earth from hazardous asteroids.

Avoiding a really bad day

One major upgrade to NASA’s detection arsenal will be NEO Surveyor, a $1.2 billion telescope under development that will launch nearly a million miles from Earth and surveil a wide field of asteroids. It promises a significant advantage over today’s ground-based telescopes that are hindered by daytime light and Earth’s atmosphere. 

That new telescope will help NASA meet a goal assigned by Congress in 2005: detect 90% of the total expected amount of asteroids bigger than 140 meters, or those big enough to destroy anything from a region to an entire continent.

“With Surveyor, we’re really focusing on finding the one asteroid that could cause a really bad day for a lot of people,” said Amy Mainzer, NEO Surveyor principal investigator. “But we’re also tasked with getting good statistics on the smaller objects, down to about the size of the Chelyabinsk object.”

NASA has fallen years behind on its congressional goal, which was ordered for completion by 2020. The agency proposed last year to cut the telescope’s 2023 budget by three quarters and a two-year launch delay to 2028 “to support higher-priority missions” elsewhere in NASA’s science portfolio.

Asteroid detection gained greater importance last year after NASA slammed a refrigerator-sized spacecraft into an asteroid to test its ability to knock a potentially hazardous space rock off a collision course with Earth.

The successful demonstration, called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), affirmed for the first time a method of planetary defense.

“NEO Surveyor is of the utmost importance, especially now that we know from DART that we really can do something about it,” Daly said.

“So by golly, we gotta find these asteroids.”

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As Children in US Study Online, Apps Watch Their Every Move 

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For New York teacher Michael Flanagan, the pandemic was a crash course in new technology — rushing out laptops to stay-at-home students and shifting hectic school life online.

Students are long back at school, but the technology has lived on, and with it has come a new generation of apps that monitor the pupils online, sometimes round the clock and even on down days shared with family and friends at home.

The programs scan students’ online activity, social media posts and more — aiming to keep them focused, detect mental health problems and flag up any potential for violence.

“You can’t unring the bell,” said Flanagan, who teaches social studies and economics. “Everybody has a device.”

The new trend for tracking, however, has raised fears that some of the apps may target minority pupils, while others have outed LGBT+ students without their consent, and many are used to instill discipline as much as deliver care.

So Flanagan has parted ways with many of his colleagues and won’t use such apps to monitor his students online.

He recalled seeing a demo of one such program, GoGuardian, in which a teacher showed — in real time — what one student was doing on his computer. The child was at home, on a day off.

Such scrutiny raised a big red flag for Flanagan.

“I have a school-issued device, and I know that there’s no expectation of privacy. But I’m a grown man — these kids don’t know that,” he said.

A New York City Department of Education spokesperson said that the use of GoGuardian Teacher “is only for teachers to see what’s on the student’s screen in the moment, provide refocusing prompts, and limit access to inappropriate content.”

Valued at more than $1 billion, GoGuardian — one of a handful of high-profile apps in the market — is now monitoring more than 22 million students, including in the New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles public systems.

Globally, the education technology sector is expected to grow by $133 billion from 2021 to 2026, market researcher Technavio said last year.

Parents expect schools to keep children safe in classrooms or on field trips, and schools also “have a responsibility to keep students safe in digital spaces and on school-issued devices,” GoGuardian said in a statement.

The company says it “provides educators with the ability to protect students from harmful or explicit content”.

Nowadays, online monitoring “is just part of the school environment,” said Jamie Gorosh, policy counsel with the Future of Privacy Forum, a watchdog group.

And even as schools move beyond the pandemic, “it doesn’t look like we’re going back,” she said.

Guns and depression

A key priority for monitoring is to keep students engaged in their academic work, but it also taps into fast-rising concerns over school violence and children’s mental health, which medical groups in 2021 termed a national emergency.

According to federal data released this month, 82% of schools now train staff on how to spot mental health problems, up from 60% in 2018; 65% have confidential threat-reporting systems, up 15% in the same period.

In a survey last year by the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), 89% of teachers reported their schools were monitoring student online activity.

Yet it is not clear that the software creates safer schools.

Gorosh cited May’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead in a school that had invested heavily in monitoring tech.

Some worry the tracking apps could actively cause harm.

The CDT report, for instance, found that while administrators overwhelmingly say the purpose of monitoring software is student safety, “it’s being used far more commonly for disciplinary purposes … and we’re seeing a discrepancy falling along racial lines,” said Elizabeth Laird, director of CDT’s Equity in Civic Technology program.

The programs’ use of artificial intelligence to scan for keywords has also outed LGBT+ students without their consent, she said, noting that 29% of students who identify as LGBT+ said they or someone they knew had experienced this.

And more than a third of teachers said their schools send alerts automatically to law enforcement outside school hours.

“The stated purpose is to keep students safe, and here we have set up a system that is routinizing law enforcement access to this information and finding reasons for them to go into students’ homes,” Laird said.

‘Preyed upon’

A report by federal lawmakers last year into four companies making student monitoring software found that none had made efforts to see if the programs disproportionately targeted marginalized students.

“Students should not be surveilled on the same platforms they use for their schooling,” Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, one of the report’s co-authors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a statement.

“As school districts work to incorporate technology in the classroom, we must ensure children and teenagers are not preyed upon by a web of targeted advertising or intrusive monitoring of any kind.”

The Department of Education has committed to releasing guidelines around the use of AI early this year.

A spokesperson said the agency was “committed to protecting the civil rights of all students.”

Aside from the ethical questions around spying on children, many parents are frustrated by the lack of transparency.

“We need more clarity on whether data is being collected, especially sensitive data. You should have at least notification, and probably consent,” said Cassie Creswell, head of Illinois Families for Public Schools, an advocacy group.

Creswell, who has a daughter in a Chicago public school, said several parents have been sent alerts about their children’s online searches, despite not having been asked or told about the monitoring in the first place.

Another child had faced repeated warnings not to play a particular game — even though the student was playing it at home on the family computer, she said.

Creswell and others acknowledge that the issues monitoring aims to address — bullying, depression, violence — are real and need tackling, but question whether technology is the answer.

“If we’re talking about self-harm monitoring, is this the best way to approach the issue?” said Gorosh.

Pointing to evidence suggesting AI is imperfect in capturing the warning signs, she said increased funding for school counselors could be more narrowly tailored to the problem.

“There are huge concerns,” she said. “But maybe technology isn’t the first step to answer some of those issues.”

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New Zealand Roiled by Flash Floods, Landslides for Third Day

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Heavy rainfall hit New Zealand’s north island again on Sunday, causing landslides, flash floods and knocking out roads, with the death toll rising to four after a person who had been missing was confirmed dead.

Battered by rain since Friday, Auckland — New Zealand’s largest city of 1.6 million people — remained under a state of emergency. The nation’s weather forecaster, MetService, warned of severe weather on Sunday and Monday for the north island. Intense rainfall could also cause surface and flash flooding, it said.

The focus of the emergency has since moved south, with Waitomo District, about 220 km from Auckland, declaring a state of emergency late on Saturday.

Police confirmed that a man missing after being swept away on Friday in Onewhero, a rural village about 70 km south of Auckland, had died.

“The most horrific part of it is that we’ve lost lives,” Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni told reporters in Auckland.

The culprit: Climate change

Climate change is causing episodes of heavy rainfall to become more common and more intense in New Zealand, though the impact varies by region. Climate Change Minister James Shaw noted the link to climate change on Saturday when he tweeted his support for those affected by flooding.

On Sunday, police said they were assisting with traffic management and road closures after heavy rainfall “caused numerous slips, flooding and damage to roads.”

In nearby Bay of Plenty there was also “widespread flooding,” police said, as well as a landslide that had knocked down a house and was threatening neighboring properties.

Thousands of properties remained without power, while hundreds were without water, authorities said on Sunday.

Airline back in service Sunday

But Air New Zealand said the airline’s international flights in and out of Auckland would resume starting Sunday noon, local time (2300 GMT on Saturday).

On Saturday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, in office less than a week, flew by helicopter over Auckland before touring flood-hit homes. He described the flood impact in the city as “unprecedented” in recent memory.

People made more than 2,000 calls for assistance and 70 evacuations around Auckland because of the flooding, the New Zealand Herald reported Saturday.

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Children Denied Same Access to Treatment for HIV/AIDS as Adults

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The U.N.’s main AIDS program says thousands of children are dying from HIV/AIDS because, unlike adults, they do not receive treatment for the deadly disease.

HIV/AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence. People infected with the disease can live a normal lifespan, provided they receive treatment and care. Unfortunately, there is a glaring disparity between the way children and adults with HIV/AIDS are treated.

UNAIDS spokeswoman Charlotte Sector says 76 percent of adults have access to treatment but only half of children living with HIV are receiving lifesaving treatment. She says children account for 15 percent of all AIDS deaths, despite making up only four percent of all people living with the disease.

“Last year alone 160,000 children were infected with HIV,” Sector said. “So, what is happening is that 12 countries are coming together in Africa because six countries in sub-Saharan Africa represent 50 percent of those new infections.”

She says a global alliance led by UNAIDS, the World Health Organization, and UNICEF has formed to close the huge gap. She says 12 African countries have joined the alliance. Sector says health ministers from eight countries will launch the initiative next week in Tanzania.

“So, not only is it getting children on treatment, but it is mostly trying to stop vertical transmission,” Sector said. “Now what is vertical transmission? It is the mother passing on HIV during pregnancy, during delivery or during breast feeding because most of those transmissions are taking place during breastfeeding.”

Spector says efforts to contain the spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa mainly have been centered on getting adults on treatment, as the main transmitters of the virus. In the process, however, she says the needs of children have been overlooked.

“So, what happens is suddenly there is a realization that we have forgotten all these children, and there is a forgotten generation of children,” Sector said. “So now, there has been a scramble to kind of close that faucet, if I may say, of getting to the children before they are even born or after they are born.”

The global alliance will run for the next eight years until 2030. During that period, it aims to close the treatment gap for pregnant and breastfeeding adolescent girls and women living with HIV, prevent and detect new HIV infections, provide access to testing and treatment, and end the social barriers that hinder access to services.

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India’s First Nasal COVID-19 Vaccine Launched

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This week India launched its first nasal COVID-19 vaccine, four months after it received approval for its restricted emergency use among adults in the country.

The mucosal vaccine, made by India’s leading vaccine maker, Bharat Biotech, is based on technology licensed from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, in the U.S.

It is administered in the form of drops in the nose and stimulates an immune response in the mucous membranes of the tissues lining the nasal cavity, upper airways and lungs.

Originally called BBV154 and now sold by Bharat Biotech as iNCOVACC, the nasal vaccine was launched by Indian Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya on Thursday, Republic Day, a national holiday in the country.

“Proud to launch iNCOVACC, the world’s 1st intranasal vaccine for COVID … A mighty display of India’s research and innovation prowess under PM Narendra Modi Ji’s leadership. Congratulations to Bharat Biotech for this feat!” Mandaviya posted on Twitter.

He called the vaccine a “historic achievement & a testimony to the innovative zeal” of India’s scientists.

In a statement, Bharat Biotech said that iNCOVACC, the “world’s first intranasal COVID vaccine for primary series and heterologous booster” is now available on CoWIN, India’s vaccine portal that digitally tracks people’s vaccination status.

It will cost 800 rupees ($9.80) in private hospitals and 325 rupees ($4) in government hospitals. A heterologous booster is the vaccine dose for people who have already received two doses of Covishield or Covaxin, the two common Indian COVID vaccines.

“iNCOVACC is a cost-effective COVID vaccine which does not require syringes, needles, alcohol wipes, bandage, etc., saving costs related to procurement, distribution, storage, and biomedical waste disposal, that is routinely required for injectable vaccines,” the statement said.

“Amid growing COVID-19 cases and emerging variants of the highly transmissible virus, a booster dose of the vaccine becomes imperative. As [a] needleless vaccination, Bharat Biotech’s iNCOVACC will be the world’s first such booster dose … The nasal delivery system has been designed and developed to be cost-effective in low- and middle-income countries,” the statement added.

Dr. Krishna Ella, chairman of Bharat Biotech, told ANI news agency that iNCOVACC was “easy to deliver” since no syringe is required and that it resulted in a broader immune response as compared with injectable COVID vaccines.

In a Sept. 7 news release, the Washington University School of Medicine said that since the adenoviral nasal vaccine — which is known as iNCOVACC in India — is delivered via the nose, right where the virus enters the body, it has the “potential to block infection and break the cycle of transmission, as well as prevent lung damage.”

“The nasal delivery system was designed and developed to be cost-effective, a feature that is especially important in low- and middle-income countries, and the vaccine can be stored in a refrigerator. Receiving the vaccine requires only a brief inhalation, a major plus to the many people who prefer to avoid needles,” the statement said.

Dr. Michael S. Diamond, a professor of molecular microbiology, pathology & immunology, and a co-inventor of the nasal vaccine technology, was quoted in the news release as saying: “Nasal vaccines induce the type of protective immunity that we think will prevent or limit infection and also curb pandemic transmission of this virus.”

On Friday, Diamond told VOA that “it is exciting” to see the deployment of iNCOVACC in India as a nasally delivered vaccine and booster.

“The continued waves of COVID-19 infection necessitate new strategies to overcome transmission. By generating immunity in the upper respiratory tract at the portal of entry of the virus, this vaccine has the potential to better limit [the] spread of the virus than other approaches,” Diamond said.

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Green Comet Zooming Our Way; Last Visited 50,000 Years Ago

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A comet is streaking back our way after 50,000 years. 

The dirty snowball last visited during Neanderthal times, according to NASA. It will come within 42 million kilometers (26 million miles) of Earth on Wednesday before speeding away again, unlikely to return for millions of years. 

Discovered less than a year ago, this harmless green comet already is visible in the northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and possibly the naked eye in the darkest corners of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s expected to brighten as it draws closer and rises higher over the horizon through the end of January, best seen in the predawn hours. By February 10, it will be near Mars, a good landmark. 

Skygazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month for a glimpse. 

Bigger, brighter, closer

While plenty of comets have graced the sky over the past year, “this one seems probably a little bit bigger and therefore a little bit brighter and it’s coming a little bit closer to the Earth’s orbit,” said NASA’s comet and asteroid-tracking guru, Paul Chodas. 

Green from all the carbon in the gas cloud, or coma, surrounding the nucleus, this long-period comet was discovered last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide field camera at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. That explains its official, cumbersome name: comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF). 

On Wednesday, it will hurtle between the orbits of Earth and Mars at a relative speed of 207,000 kph (128,500 mph). Its nucleus is thought to be about 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) across, with its tails extending millions of kilometers (miles). 

The comet isn’t expected to be nearly as bright as Neowise in 2020, or Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid- to late 1990s. 

But “it will be bright by virtue of its close Earth passage … which allows scientists to do more experiments and the public to be able to see a beautiful comet,” University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech said in an email. 

Scientists are confident in their orbital calculations, putting the comet’s last swing through the solar system’s planetary neighborhood at 50,000 years ago. But they don’t know how close it came to Earth or whether it was even visible to the Neanderthals, said Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. 

When it will return, though, is tougher to judge. 

Every time the comet skirts the sun and planets, their gravitational tugs alter the iceball’s path ever so slightly, leading to major course changes over time. Another wild card: jets of dust and gas streaming off the comet as it heats up near the sun. 

“We don’t really know exactly how much they are pushing this comet around,” Chodas said. 

A moving time capsule

The comet — a time capsule from the emerging solar system 4.5 billion years ago — came from what’s known as the Oort Cloud, well beyond Pluto. This deep-freeze haven for comets is believed to stretch more than one-quarter of the way to the next star. 

While this comet originated in our solar system, we can’t be sure it will stay there, Chodas said. If it gets booted out of the solar system, it will never return, he added. 

Don’t fret if you miss it. 

“In the comet business, you just wait for the next one because there are dozens of these,” Chodas said. “And the next one might be bigger, might be brighter, might be closer.” 

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US, EU Launch Agreement on Artificial Intelligence

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The United States and European Union announced Friday an agreement to speed up and enhance the use of artificial intelligence to improve agriculture, health care, emergency response, climate forecasting and the electric grid. 

A senior U.S. administration official, discussing the initiative shortly before the official announcement, called it the first sweeping AI agreement between the United States and Europe. Previously, agreements on the issue had been limited to specific areas such as enhancing privacy, the official said.  

AI modeling, which refers to machine-learning algorithms that use data to make logical decisions, could be used to improve the speed and efficiency of government operations and services.  

“The magic here is in building joint models [while] leaving data where it is,” the senior administration official said. “The U.S. data stays in the U.S. and European data stays there, but we can build a model that talks to the European and the U.S. data, because the more data and the more diverse data, the better the model.” 

The initiative will give governments greater access to more detailed and data-rich AI models, leading to more efficient emergency responses and electric grid management, and other benefits, the administration official said. 

Pointing to the electric grid, the official said the United States collects data on how electricity is being used, where it is generated, and how to balance the grid’s load so that weather changes do not knock it offline. 

Many European countries have similar data points they gather relating to their own grids, the official said. Under the new partnership, all that data would be harnessed into a common AI model that would produce better results for emergency managers, grid operators and others relying on AI to improve systems.  

The partnership is currently between the White House and the European Commission, the executive arm of the 27-member European Union. The senior administration official said other countries would be invited to join in the coming months.  

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US FDA Proposes Eased Restrictions on Blood Donations from Gay, Bisexual Men

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday proposed revisions to its guidelines to make it easier for gay and bisexual men to donate blood, eliminating a three-month abstinence period before donations.

The restrictions were implemented years ago to prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

In a release posted to the agency’s website, the FDA said under the draft proposals, all donors — regardless of sexual orientation — would be given a questionnaire regarding new partners, sexual history, and certain types of sexual activities.

Any prospective donors who do not report having new or multiple sexual partners and have not engaged in certain practices, such as anal sex, in the previous three months, may be eligible to donate, provided all other eligibility criteria are met.

The proposed new guidelines would allow gay and bisexual men in monogamous, long-term relationships to more easily give blood.

The FDA said the draft proposals were developed after reviewing available information, including data from Britain and Canada, countries with similar HIV epidemiology that have implemented the “gender-inclusive, individual risk-based approach for assessing donor eligibility.”

In the statement, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said, “Maintaining a safe and adequate supply of blood and blood products in the U.S. is paramount for the FDA,” and these proposals will allow the agency to do so.

Under the plan, the donor deferral time periods would stay in place for other HIV risk factors, including for those who have exchanged sex for money or drugs, or have a history of non-prescription injection drug use. 

Any individual who has ever had a positive test for HIV or who has taken any medication to treat HIV infection would continue to be deferred permanently.

The proposed guideline changes released Friday will be open for public comment for 60 days. The agency will then review and consider all comments before finalizing the changes.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press.  

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CDC Says Omicron Subvariant XBB.1.5 Accounts for 61.3% of US COVID Cases

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The Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 has likely become the dominant variant in the United States, accounting for 61.3% of COVID cases in the week ended January 28, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed on Friday.

The subvariant accounted for 49.5% of cases in the week ended January 21, according to estimates from the CDC.

XBB.1.5, which is currently the most transmissible variant, is an offshoot of XBB, first detected in October.

The now-dominant XBB-related subvariants are derived from the BA.2 version of Omicron.

An analysis from CDC showed on Wednesday that updated COVID-19 boosters from Pfizer Inc/BioNTech SE and Moderna helped prevent symptomatic infections against the new XBB-related subvariants.

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