SCIENCE MATTERS: World Environment Day reminds us to reconnect with nature



The notion that we must conquer or dominate nature has governed human behaviour for a relatively short period of our 150,000-year history on this 4.5-billion-year-old planet. It’s an understandable impulse. Our intelligence and foresight allowed us to develop complex societies, and gave us a sense of control over our existence in the face of powerful, often threatening natural forces.

Unfortunately, our lack of attention to the intricate and interconnected ways of nature has led to widespread devastation that now threatens the very systems that support human health and survival. We have become disconnected from our own true nature.

The more science reveals about the natural world, the more we learn what many indigenous peoples have long known: that everything is interconnected and interdependent—from the tiniest microbes to the largest carnivores, from plants that sequester carbon, prevent flooding and feed us to the carbon, hydrologic and other large cycles that keep the planet in balance.

There’s no going back to simpler times, but our survival does depend on respecting our place in this miraculous world. To heal the disconnection, we must reconnect. It’s fitting, then, that the theme of this year’s World Environment Day on June 5 is “Connecting People to Nature.”

Renowned American ecologist Edward O. Wilson used the term “biophilia” to describe the innate kinship people share with all other life forms. Because we are more likely to care for the things we love and see as important, we must rekindle this biological imperative if we are to protect the biosphere that keeps us healthy and alive.

How do we accomplish that when many of us are moving further from our natural connections daily—when the average North American child spends less than 30 minutes a day playing outside, but more than seven hours in front of a TV, computer or smartphone screen, and when many adults spend their days driving to and from work where they sit in front of computers for hours on end?

Understanding the benefits of time in nature is a start. Studies show time outdoors can reduce stress and attention deficit disorder; boost immunity, energy levels and creativity; increase curiosity and problem-solving ability; improve physical fitness and coordination, and even reduce the likelihood of developing near-sightedness!

It also builds memories. I was fortunate in many ways to have grown up before televisions, computers, smartphones and other electronic distractions. My greatest memories are of fishing with my dad, exploring swamps and bogs to collect bugs, frogs and salamander eggs, and hiking in the mountains. Even the time my family spent in an internment camp in the British Columbia wilderness during the Second World War holds fond memories of playing by rivers filled with fish and exploring forests where wolves, bears and deer roamed.

In Japan, the term shinrin-yoku—“forest bathing” or “taking in forest air”—describes the beneficial effects of connecting with the natural world. Japanese researchers have found people who breathe forest air lower their risk for diabetes and experience improved mood and lower stress hormone production compared to people exercising on indoor treadmills.

Even getting dirty is good. In their upcoming book The Secret Life of Your Microbiome, Alan C. Logan and Susan L. Prescott explore the importance of microbes and microbiomes—the microbial communities on and in our bodies and all around us. Microbes break down food and produce vitamins in our guts. They coat our skin, protecting us from attacks by harmful microbes. The air we breathe, the soil we dig and the outdoor plants we come into contact with include a variety of microbes—many of them beneficial—that may be absent in indoor and built environments.

Planting pollinator-friendly native plants in your garden, making a mud pie, taking photos of wildlife in the forest or sleeping under the stars are all healthy activities—and they connect you with the natural world and open your eyes and heart to the amazing, intricately interconnected biosphere of which we are all a part.

Getting outside, especially with the children in your life, is one of the best things you can do for yourself, your family and friends, and the planet. World Environment Day reminds us of the importance of connecting with nature every day!

Apple Is Manufacturing a Siri Speaker to Outdo Google and Amazon

Apple Inc. is already in your pocket, on your desk and underneath your television. Soon, a device embossed with “Designed by Apple in California” may be on your nightstand or kitchen counter as well.

The iPhone-maker has started manufacturing a long-in-the-works Siri-controlled smart speaker, according to people familiar with the matter. Apple could debut the speaker as soon as its annual developer conference in June, but the device will not be ready to ship until later in the year, the people said.

The device will differ from Inc.’s Echo and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Homespeakers by offering virtual surround sound technology and deep integration with Apple’s product lineup, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss products that aren’t yet public.

Introducing a speaker would serve two main purposes: providing a hub to automate appliances and lights via Apple’s HomeKit system, and establishing a bulwark inside the home to lock customers more tightly into Apple’s network of services. That would help combat the competitive threat from Google’s and Amazon’s connected speakers: the Home and Echo mostly don’t support services from Apple. Without compatible hardware, users may be more likely to opt for the Echo or Home, and therefore use streaming music offerings such as Spotify, Amazon Prime Music or Google Play rather than Apple Music.

“This will be a platform for developing Apple’s services,” says Gene Munster, a co-founder of Loup Ventures and former Apple analyst.

Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller declined to comment.

Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has emphasized Apple’s services businesses over the past 18 months as iPhone sales slowed. He expects service revenue to double by 2020 from last year’s $24 billion. A speaker may help keep customers loyal to service products such as Apple Music, a subscription music streaming offering that costs $10 per month. The speaker would likely be tucked into Apple’s “Other Products” category, which currently includes devices like the Apple Watch, Apple TV and AirPods. That set of products generated $11 billion in sales last year.

Inventec Corp., the Taipei manufacturer that already makes the AirPod wireless headphones, will add the speaker to its Apple repertoire, the people said. Apple employees have been secretly testing the device in their homes for several months, they said. The Siri speaker reached an advanced prototype stage late last year, Bloomberg News reported at the time. An Inventec representative didn’t respond to a request for comment outside normal business hours in Taiwan.

This year’s developers conference will be the first since 2013 to introduce new hardware. Apple could announce updated iPad tablets at the conference, one of the people said. Apple last updated the 9.7-inch iPad Pro in March 2016 and hasn’t refreshed the larger 12.9-inch model since its November 2015 debut. Planned Mac updates will include refreshed versions of the MacBook and MacBook Pro with faster Intel Corp. processors, Bloomberg News reported earlier this month.

Apple hopes that more advanced acoustics technology will give the speaker an edge over competitors, according to people with knowledge of the product’s development. Along with generating virtual surround sound, the speakers being tested are louder and reproduce sound more crisply than rival offerings, the people said. Apple has also considered including sensors that measure a room’s acoustics and automatically adjust audio levels during use, one of the people said.

Apple will also likely let third-party services build products for the speaker. Last year, Apple opened up Siri on the iPhone to the likes of Uber Technologies Inc. and Facebook Inc., allowing a user to order a ride or send a WhatsApp message with a voice command.

The device will be a hub for Apple’s HomeKit home automation system, letting users control devices such as lights, door locks and window blinds. At present, an Apple TV or iPad is required to control that equipment from outside the home or automatically. The Echo and Google Home both support third-party services and smart home appliances.

Toyota’s latest infotainment system is powered by Linux

The 2018 Camry will give buyers a new option to Android Auto and Carplay.

Toyota will be the first US automaker to use “Automotive Grade Linux(AGL)” for its 2018 Toyota Camry. In case you’re understandably confused by all the competing infotaintment platforms, AGL is an open-source system based on, you guessed it, Linux. It boasts 200 members from various sectors including Toyota, Honda, Mercedes, Qualcomm, Intel and Samsung. The system is designed as an option to offerings from tech companies like Google and Apple, giving automakers a solid base that they can easily customize and update.

Gallery: 2018 Toyota Camry with Entune 3.0 and Automotive Grade Linux | 5 Photos

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The AGL platform gives drivers “greater connectivity and new functionalities at a pace that is more consistent with consumer technology,” said Toyota VP Keiji Yamamoto in a press release. He’s referring to the fact that automakers are notorious for using slow, outdated tech in their homegrown entertainment systems. As a result, consumers prefer higher-tech, more current gear like Android Auto and Apple’s Carplay, which many car companies now offer either instead of (or on top of) their own systems.

Automakers aren’t crazy about giving tech companies such a prominent place in their cars, but they also need to give drivers what actually want. That’s where AGL comes in, returning control of the center console to automakers, while letting them easily update or modify the tech.

Toyota is still using Entune branding, with AGL 3.0 forming the base for its latest Entune 3.0 system in the Camry. AGL reportedly gave it reference apps including a media player and tuner, navigation app, wireless capabilities and vehicle controls. The automaker used those to make its custom Scout navigation app, but there’s no word on others that will be available in the Camry. In theory, it can pick and choose which it includes — for instance, it could easily offer sat-nav on some models but not others.

At the same time, Toyota will be able to offer Android Auto and Carplay if it chooses. The tech will eventually come to other Toyota vehicles, along with models from sister company Lexus. The system may appear in vehicles from Mazda, Mercedes and Ford, as Autoblog points out, so those and other AGL members will no doubt be watching the Camry release closely.

Nest wants your home security camera to recognize you

Nest CamThe Nest Cam IQ is seen in this handout photo. (Nest Labs)

SAN FRANCISCO — Nest Labs is adding Google’s facial recognition technology to a high-resolution home-security camera, offering a glimpse of a future in which increasingly intelligent, internet-connected computers can see and understand what’s going on in people’s homes.

The Nest Cam IQ, unveiled Wednesday, will be Nest’s first device to draw upon the same human-like skills that Google has been programming into its computers — for instance, to identify people in images via its widely used photo app. Facebook deploys similar technology to automatically recognize and recommend tags of people in photos posted on its social network.


The new camera will set you back almost $300, and you’ll also have to pay $10 a month for a plan that includes facial recognition technology. The same plan will also include other features, such as alerts generated by particular sounds — barking dogs, say — that occur out of the camera’s visual range.

The camera will only identify people you select through Nest’s app for iPhones and Android devices. For instance, you could program the device to recognize a child, friend or neighbour, after which it will send you a notifications about that person being in the home. It won’t try to recognize anyone that an owner hasn’t tagged.

Even if a Nest Cam IQ video spies a burglar in a home, law enforcement officials will have to identify the suspect through their own investigation and analysis, according to Nest.


Facial recognition is becoming much more common on home-security cameras. Netatmo , for instance, introduced a security camera touting a similar facial recognition system in 2015. That camera sells for $100 less than the Nest Cam IQ.

The way that the Nest and Netatmo cameras are being used doesn’t raise serious privacy concerns because they are only verifying familiar faces, not those of complete strangers, said Jennifer Lynch, who specializes in biometrics as a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital advocacy group.

But Lynch believes privacy issues are bound to crop up as the resolution and zoom capabilities of home security cameras improve, and as engineers develop more sophisticated ways of identifying people even when an image is moving or only a part of a face is visible. Storing home-security videos in remote data centres also raises security concerns about the imagery being stolen by computer hackers. “It definitely could become a slippery slope,” Lynch said.

The privacy issues already are thorny enough that Nest decided against offering the facial recognition technology in Illinois, where state law forbids the collection and retention of an individual’s biometric information without prior notification and written permission from a person.


Nest’s $10 monthly subscription plans includes video storage for 10 days. Video can be stored for a maximum of 30 days with an upgrade to a subscription plan costing $30 per month.

The high-end camera supplements lower-resolution indoor and outdoor cameras that Nest will continue to sell for almost $200. Neither of the lower-end cameras is equipped for facial recognition.

Nest can tap into Google’s expertise in artificial intelligence because both companies are owned by the same parent company, Alphabet Inc.

Google: Our Algorithms Share Data With Other Algorithms

google algorithms

John Mueller of Google said in a webmaster video yesterday that Google’s search algorithms can and do share data from one algorithm to another. So if the Panda algorithm defines a site as being low quality, Google may share that data with their indexing algorithm to slow the crawl of the site or specific sections of the site.

John Mueller said “one thing that does happen though is that sometimes quality information from one algorithm is used in other algorithms.” “So for example, if we think this website is generally lower quality then that could flow into other things like, maybe maybe like, crawling and indexing speed something like,” John added.

He said this at the 16:48 mark into the video:

One thing that does happen though is that sometimes quality information from one algorithm is used in other algorithms where when it comes to understanding like how we should be treating this website. So for example, if we think this website is generally lower quality then that could flow into other things like, maybe maybe like, crawling and indexing speed something like.

I do believe Google does use machine learning algorithms for some of this. So they might pair a Panda score with a Penguin score to make up a new score – all theoretically. 🙂 I believe we covered this before, but I cannot find where I wrote this. If you see it, link to it below.

Here is the video embed:

Here are some tweets from Glenn Gabe who asked the question and summarized this answer and some other answers from John Mueller around his question:

DeepMind’s army of AI researchers in Mountain View is now over 20 people strong

DeepMind now has almost two dozen staff working out of an office at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.

The London-headquartered artificial intelligence (AI) lab, acquired by Google in 2014 for a reported £400 million, has formed the team in less than six months.

A DeepMind spokesperson told Business Insider there are just over 20 DeepMinders working out of Mountain View, adding that the team is still growing.

The team has been established so that DeepMind can collaborate more closely with Google. DeepMind’s researchers, for example, are helping engineers at Google to embed AI into Google Play, Ads, and Shopping.

In December 2016, Bloomberg reported that DeepMind was hiring its first overseas researcher at Googleplex after seeing a job listing on the company’s website.

At the time of the report, a DeepMind spokesperson told Business Insider: “We’re proud to already have close partnerships with many teams at Google, but we’re yet to develop an algorithm that gets rid of time zone differences.”

“So we’re hiring a small DeepMind Applied team in Mountain View to bridge the gap between Google and our team in London, helping us collaborate even more closely to bring our research breakthroughs to Google users around the world.”

DeepMind’s workforce is split into two main streams. One stream focuses on AI research while the other stream looks at applying that research to new products and services. DeepMind’s Mountain View team sits under the applied umbrella, which has also partnered with the NHS on a number of healthcare projects. It has also partnered with Google on a project that is helping the search giant to reduce the amount of electricity it uses to power the cooling units in its huge server farms.

In London, DeepMind has around 400 people in a DeepMind located across two floors of a new Google building in King’s Cross. However, that number could be expanded to 1,000 in coming years.

DeepMind’s office in Mountain View represents the company’s first overseas expansion. All of DeepMind’s fundamental research remains in London, and the company continues to collaborate with counterparts at Google Brain and elsewhere on projects of shared interest.

Prior to its formation, Yann LeCun, the head of AI research at Facebook, suggested that DeepMind was too far away from the Google “mothership” to have a significant impact.

Get the latest Google stock price here.

CRISPR may not be as foolproof as earlier believed – gene editing tech leads to unwanted mutations

CRISPR-Cas9 is a revolutionary new gene-editing technology that has been called “molecular scissors” and has been one of the handiest tools for genetic engineers in the recent times. It makes cutting and pasting gene sequences almost as easy as it sounds. CRISPR has been hailed as a breakthrough in genetic engineering.

CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing complex from Streptococcus pyogenes. The Cas9 nuclease protein uses a guide RNA sequence to cut DNA at a complementary site. Cas9 protein: teal surface model. Image Credit: olekuul_be / Shutterstock

CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing complex from Streptococcus pyogenes. The Cas9 nuclease protein uses a guide RNA sequence to cut DNA at a complementary site. Cas9 protein: teal surface model. Image Credit: olekuul_be / Shutterstock

This new technology has been used to tap into the main mutation point of some cancers with the ability to tweak them and make changes. It has been touted to be a boon in treating genetic blindness and other genetic diseases in living animals. It could also be used in modification of human embryos in treatment of miscarriage and infertility. Potential uses have been many as were the expectations.

However a study that was published in the journal Nature Methods now shows that this new technology may not be as fool proof as it was earlier believed to be. It may still have to be polished and honed to be able to cut and paste human DNA perfectly. These snags that have been reported in the study include unwanted mutations that may be caused by the technology.

Researchers at the Columbia University were performing a study to attempt correct blindness in mice. They noted that CRISPR was successful in editing a particular gene responsible for blindness. However it also led to an alarming number of mutations in a thousand other unintended and untargeted genes. It has been known earlier that CRISPR may not be absolutely accurate in its target genes but the extent of it was unknown and unreported till now. This study now can help researchers understand the problem in a more extensive manner.

At present there are two reported clinical trials that use CRISPR in humans in China. The trial in United States was stated to begin sometime in the coming year. For these trials, predictive algorithms would be used to identify the areas that could be affected beyond the target gene areas. Thus the technology could be fine tuned and modified to increase its precision. But despite these safeguards in place, scientists are jittery about using this technology in humans too prematurely.

These predictive algorithms that been used to successfully identify the areas that the technique could affect beyond the target areas in the laboratory settings. But when the same algorithms were applied to the mice that were used for the blindness cure research, the algorithms failed to work. After the experiment, CRISPR has successfully corrected the desired gene leading to restoration of vision in the mice. But two mice suffered more than 1,500 unintended mutations and over a 100 deletions and insertions of genes. These were completely missed by the algorithm. However nothing was immediately found to be wrong in the mice that developed these mutations. They for example did not develop any tumors or cancers that could be pinpointed to the mutations. But far reaching impact of these mutations still remain unknown and a cause for concern especially if they are to be tried in humans.

It is not that researchers have not been working on the precision of CRISPR over the last few years after it was developed. It has been successfully hijacking the bacterial immune system to alter specific DNA sequences. But without necessary safety changes in the technique, it is unlikely that this technology will find many takers beyond the research lab and in the field. More work in the cards for this nascent technology to be effective and safe in humans.

WD’s next-gen SSDs add even more speed and capacity

Its new drives are the first to use 64-layer 3D NAND tech.
Western Digital

Hard disk specialist Western Digital (WD) acquired SSD maker SanDisk last year for a colossal $19 billion, and now we’re getting some idea as to its strategy. The company unveiled two new lineups — branded under each company’s names — that feature the first SSDs to use 64-layer 3D NAND chips developed by SanDisk. The new, higher capacity chips will allow for “lower power consumption and higher performance, endurance and capacities,” Western Digital wrote in its press release.

The two lines, WD Blue and SanDisk Ultra 3D, are identical capacity-wise, use the same controllers and have identical performance specs — though WD Blue also offers a M.2 2280 device that SanDisk doesn’t. All of the 256GB drives, both in 2.5-inch and M.2 formats, start at a very reasonable $100. They also come in 500GB, 1TB and 2TB sizes, but WD hasn’t listed prices for those items yet. That information will be particularly interesting, since the drives require fewer chips than rival SSDs, which will hopefully drive down the prices.

As for the performance, it’s pretty, pretty good. The larger capacity devices can read at 550 MB/s and write 560 MB/s, and the 256GB SSD is just a touch slower (550 MB/s and 525 MB/s). Perhaps more importantly, all products have a mean time to failure (MTTF) of 1.75 million hours. WD says that’s “industry-leading,” but it falls behind some products, including Samsung’s (more expensive) 850 Pro, which sports a two million hour MTBF.

WD gave a pretty good clue as to why it’s offering identical products under different labels. “Between our two strong brands in SanDisk and WD, and their respective loyal customer bases and distribution channels, these advanced SSDs will appeal to a very broad [range of consumers],” said WD CEO Mike Cordano. In other words, WD has huge stores of goodwill in both brands, and it’s not willing to give that up to save some marketing costs.

CRISPR May Not Be Nearly as Precise as We Thought

Image: Pixabary

The revolutionary gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 is often described as “molecular scissors” for its ability to turn previously improbable feats of genetic engineering into exercises in cutting and pasting. But while over the last few years CRISPR has become so commonplace that even middle school students are now using it, a study out this week in the journal Nature Methods reminds us that it’s still a nascent technology with a long way to go before we can freely cut and paste human DNA at will.

When correcting blindness in mice, researchers at Columbia University found that though CRISPR did manage to successfully edit the particular gene responsible for blindness, it also caused mutations to more than a thousand other unintended genes. The off-target effects of CRISPR have long been known, but this new research highlights just how extensive they can be, and highlights the importance of research to understand them.

Much research energy over the past few years has been spent fine-tuning CRISPR’s precision editing abilities. While the technique truly does make precisely editing a genome more accessible than ever before, by hijacking a bacterial immune system strategy to alter specific DNA sequences, without correcting side effects that come along with it, it’s unlikely CRISPR will find much success outside of a research lab.

Already, there are two clinical trials using CRISPR in humans underfoot in China, and a US trial is slated to begin sometime in the next year. Predictive algorithms are used to identify areas likely to be affected by off-target DNA mutations, and refinements to the technology suggested that in those trials off-target effects would be few. But even so, some experts worried that the technology is far too premature for human use.

In the new study researchers found that while those same algorithms successfully identified off-target effects of CRISPR in a petri dish, that didn’t translate to work in the mice themselves. Researchers looked at mice that they had previous corrected a gene associated with blindness in, sequencing their entire genome to hunt for changes. While they found that CRISPR had indeed successfully corrected the desired gene and restored vision to the mice, two different mice had undergone more than 1,500 unintended mutations, as well as more than 100 deletions and insertions of genes researchers did not aim to affect. None of those changes had been predicted by their computer algorithm.

The researchers said that there was nothing obviously wrong with the mice—they didn’t suddenly grow a third ear or a tumor. But it’s hard to know how those new mutations might impact the mice in more subtle ways, or long term. Unwanted mutations to genes are always potentially harmful—genetic diseases like the blindness they were trying to cure is, after all, one such mutation.

“This finding warns that CRISPR technology must be further tailored, particularly before it is used for human gene therapy,” the researchers wrote.

While every medical treatment has side effects, this new research underscores that whole genome sequencing will be crucial to understand just what kinds of side effects might occur as we begin to use CRISPR more frequently. In the meantime, though, it seems like all of those research dollars being funneled into perfecting CRISPR may be money well spent.