DAILY DOSE: Science’s Breakthrough of the Year goes to…; Can AI really understand?


Results are beginning to trickle in from studies regarding Omicron infection severity. Per Nature, “Early results suggest a glimmer of hope. Reports from South Africa have consistently noted a lower rate of hospitalization as a result of Omicron infections compared with infections caused by the Delta variant, which is currently responsible for most SARS-CoV-2 infections globally. On 14 December, the South African private health insurer Discovery Health in Johannesburg announced that hospitalization risk has been 29% lower among people infected with Omicron, compared with people infected with a previous variant.” There are major caveats to the claims of mildness. Researchers insist that it is still early days and details of that study have not been made public yet. Methodology is crucial when interpreting data on disease severity, which can be confounded by factors such as hospital capacity, the age and overall health of those initially infected, and the extent of previous exposure to coronavirus. https://go.nature.com/3p2xHnq


Science magazine has selected its Breakthrough of the Year and it probably shouldn’t come as any surprise. It’s the ability of artificial intelligence to forecast the 3D shape of proteins before they even exist. Per Science, “In his 1972 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, American biochemist Christian Anfinsen laid out a vision: One day it would be possible, he said, to predict the 3D structure of any protein merely from its sequence of amino acid building blocks. With hundreds of thousands of proteins in the human body alone, such an advance would have vast applications, offering insights into basic biology and revealing promising new drug targets. Now, after nearly 50 years, researchers have shown that artificial intelligence (AI)-driven software can churn out accurate protein structures by the thousands—an advance that realizes Anfinsen’s dream and is Science’s 2021 Breakthrough of the Year.” https://bit.ly/3mgWbYb

Pacific Ocean set to make way for world’s next supercontinent
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New data reveals severe impact of European contact with Pacific islands
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DAILY DOSE: Drought in Somalia has killed thousands and is getting worse; Universal healthcare could have saved American lives during Covid-19 pandemic.
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‘Extinct’ wood-eating cockroach rediscovered after 80 years
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After being farmed out of existence, oyster reefs are being nurtured by citizens all over the country. Coastal regions are being nurtured to be more hospitable to fledgling oysters. An article in the Associated Press took a look at one specific effort in the Mid-West: “Students on a platform below the school’s long pier gently shake their oyster garden’s wire cages as they pull them from the water, loosening mud and algae that might keep water and nutrients from baby oysters clinging to those shells. These students in Bay St. Louis are part of a volunteer force along U.S. coasts that’s raising oysters from translucent spat the width of a soda straw to hard-shelled bivalves that can help restore depleted reefs.” Oyster reefs play important roles in coastal ecosystems. A single oyster can filter 25 to 50 gallons of water per day. The reefs provide habitat for shrimp, crabs and fish and protect shorelines. https://bit.ly/3F1ySsN


The mystery of how life on earth first took hold may never be solved. However, that does not mean that we cannot come close to understanding what is likely to have happened. Recent evidence suggests that hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean may have provided the necessary energy for early organic chemical reactions to take place before photosynthesis took over much, much later. Per The Scientist:

“Today, life on Earth relies immensely on an external power source—namely, solar radiation—to provide the energy needed to forge bonds between atoms and assemble the complex organic compounds necessary for life. Since photosynthesis didn’t evolve until relatively late in the planet’s history, scientists have long debated what source of energy the first organisms utilized, throwing everything from meteorites to lightning strikes into the proverbial ring. 

But the metabolism of the planet’s first organisms may not have required an external source of energy. Under the conditions present in a hydrothermal vent, a core set of metabolic reactions unfolds spontaneously in line with the laws of thermodynamics, according to calculations published December 13 in Frontiers of Microbiology.” https://bit.ly/3dZw3wr


Artificial Intelligence models like OpenAI’s GPT-3 are able to generate humanlike prose (and poetry!) and seemingly perform sophisticated linguistic reasoning. That said, the question whether yhe AI can actually understand remains unresolved. According to an article in Quanta, “But has GPT-3 — trained on text from thousands of websites, books and encyclopedias — transcended Watson’s veneer? Does it really understand the language it generates and ostensibly reasons about? This is a topic of stark disagreement in the AI research community. Such discussions used to be the purview of philosophers, but in the past decade AI has burst out of its academic bubble into the real world, and its lack of understanding of that world can have real and sometimes devastating consequences. In one study, IBM’s Watson was found to propose ‘multiple examples of unsafe and incorrect treatment recommendations.’ Another study showed that Google’s machine translation system made significant errors when used to translate medical instructions for non-English-speaking patients.” https://bit.ly/3e4DliB



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