Science News April 28, 2019

This week, SpaceX suffers a setback, the mute can speak, Amazon employees are fired by computers, IBM’s Watson AI has been pulled, human CRISPR trials have been approved in the U.S., and Elon Musk and Tesla are bringing us the technology we didn’t know we needed.

SpaceX Disaster

The SpaceX Dragon Crew module suffered what the company officially calls an “anomaly”. In reality, it exploded. While making preparations for upcoming launch abort tests, Something caused the capsule to detonate, bursting into a massive fireball. As for how long this will set the program back is unknown since the cause of the flames is unknown.


The Gift of Speech

Speech center of the brain.
Speech center of the brain. Polygon data were generated by Database Center for Life Science(DBCLS)[2]. [CC BY-SA 2.1 jp], via Wikimedia Commons
New research from the University of California, San Francisco, could give voice to the voiceless. A neural interface can read the brain’s speech signals, then artificial intelligence can translate it into audible speech. The project still has a way to go since the AI still tends to produce at least one wrong word about half the time. But for those who have lost their ability to speak, a solution may not be too far off.


Amazon’s Robotic Firings

Amazon, home of AI HR.

Just because the process isn’t run by robots doesn’t mean the employees aren’t treated like robots. Recent data released by Amazon in a legal case against a former employee shows that Amazon’s Boston fulfillment center has been firing approximately ten percent of its staff annually based on performance issues. But those documents also show that much of those cases came from automated computer algorithms without any supervisor input. Amazon claims that supervisors are able to override the process. However, it is unknown how many times supervisors had any input in the matter, or if the deep rooted automated process is still in effect.


IBM Watson Pulled

Not all it’s cracked up to be?

IBM is shifting the focus of sales of its Watson AI platform for use in pharmaceutical research. IBM cites lagging sales for the shift. But a report from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) paints a different picture. According to IEEE Spectrum, Watson hasn’t delivered quite as promised. Noting that IBM was up against some heavy challenges to begin with, and that they focused on a marketing first strategy, the report claims that the AI hasn’t been processing information correctly to achieve proper results and there is very little success to show for it. IBM refutes this claim citing improvements in accuracy and stating that cancer research is a slow process. But whatever the reasoning, IBM is refocusing its efforts on clinical development where they believe the technology is both more useful and profitable.


Human CRISPR Research

Subject to change?

Human gene editing using CRISPR tools is nothing new. The first was done last year in China on embryos hoping to make them immune to HIV. But a recent trial is the first one approved in the United States. Researchers hope to remove and replace genetic sequences that can cause cancer. CRISPR gene editing is controversial since its safety and reliability are unclear, and resulting mutations tend to be passed down through future generations. Nonetheless, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania are moving forward, albeit cautiously, to try and eradicate certain forms of cancer. Since the first patient was admitted to the program, there have been several more CRISPR trials involving human cells. The National Institute of Health has registered a total of 26 gene editing projects worldwide.


Tesla Leaf Blower

Coming soon: Home appliances.

And finally, Elon Musk has announced that Tesla will develop a quiet electric leaf blower. Yes, electric leaf blowers already exist. But this one is supposed to be even quieter. It might sound like a strange bit of technology coming from the man who started both Tesla and SpaceX. But he did follow through on a non-flamethrower flamethrower. Actor Rainn Wilson had tweeted Musk a few days prior asking him to develop a quiet electric leaf blower and wanted some credit for the idea. Musk, however, said that he had gotten a lot of requests for it, not just from Wilson, and it wasn’t based on Wilson’s request.  Controversy ensued. Now if Tesla can follow through on a quieter leaf blower, perhaps next they can do quieter lawn mowers, car stereos, and barking dogs so that my neighborhood can be a bit more peaceful. (Hint, hint.) I won’t even demand credit for the idea!


Daniel C. Handley

Dan Handley was raised a Trekkie, fell in love with "Star Wars" at an early age, and became obsessed with comic book superheroes. He spent his youth dreaming of how to get real superpowers, starships, and so on.

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