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Amazon Workers Listen to Your Alexa Conversations, Then Mock Them

A new Bloomberg piece shared the experiences of Amazon workers tasked with listening to Alexa recordings, and what they hear isn't always mundane.

I Hear You

Amazon pays thousands of workers across the globe to review audio picked up by its Echo speakers — and their behavior raises serious concerns about both privacy and safety.

Bloomberg recently spoke with seven people who participated in Amazon’s audio review process. Each worker was tasked with listening to, transcribing, and annotating voice recordings with the goal of improving the ability of Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant to understand and respond to human speech.

But sometimes, according to Bloomberg, they share private recordings in a disrespectful way.

“I think we’ve been conditioned to the [assumption] that these machines are just doing magic machine learning” University of Michigan professor Florian Schaub told Bloomberg. “But the fact is there is still manual processing involved.”

Listen to This

The job is usually boring, according to Bloomberg’s sources. But if they heard something out of the ordinary, they said, sometimes they’d share the Alexa recordings with other workers via internal chat rooms.

Occasionally, it was just because they found the audio amusing — a person singing off-key, for example — but other times, the sharing was “a way of relieving stress” after hearing something disturbing, such as when two of Bloomberg’s sources heard what sounded like a sexual assault.

When they asked Amazon how to handle cases like the latter, the workers said they were told “it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.” Amazon, meanwhile, said it had procedures in place for when workers hear something “distressing” in Alexa recordings.

READ MORE: Amazon Workers Are Listening to What You Tell Alexa [Bloomberg]

More on Echo: Thanks, Amazon! Echo Recorded and Sent Audio to Random Contacts Without Warning

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Amazon Workers Listen to Your Alexa Conversations, Then Mock Them

Scientists Say New Quantum Material Could “‘Download’ Your Brain”

A new type of quantum material can directly measure neural activity and translate it into electrical signals for a computer.

Computer Brain

Scientists say they’ve developed a new “quantum material” that could one day transfer information directly from human brains to a computer.

The research is in early stages, but it invokes ideas like uploading brains to the cloud or hooking people up to a computer to track deep health metrics — concepts that until now existed solely in science fiction.

Quantum Interface

The new quantum material, described in research published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications, is a “nickelate lattice” that the scientists say could directly translate the brain’s electrochemical signals into electrical activity that could be interpreted by a computer.

“We can confidently say that this material is a potential pathway to building a computing device that would store and transfer memories,” Purdue University engineer Shriram Ramanathan told ScienceBlog.

Running Diagnostics

Right now, the new material can only detect the activity of some neurotransmitters — so we can’t yet upload a whole brain or anything like that. But if the tech progresses, the researchers hypothesize that it could be used to detect neurological diseases, or perhaps even store memories.

“Imagine putting an electronic device in the brain, so that when natural brain functions start deteriorating, a person could still retrieve memories from that device,” Ramanathan said.

READ MORE: New Quantum Material Could Warn Of Neurological Disease [ScienceBlog]

More on brain-computer interface: This Neural Implant Accesses Your Brain Through the Jugular Vein

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Scientists Say New Quantum Material Could “‘Download’ Your Brain”

MIT Prof: If We Live in a Simulation, Are We Players or NPCs?

An MIT scientist asks whether we're protagonists in a simulated reality or so-called NPCs who exist to round out a player character's experience. 

Simulation Hypothesis

Futurism readers may recognize Rizwan Virk as the MIT researcher touting a new book arguing that we’re likely living in a game-like computer simulation.

Now, in new interview with Vox, Virk goes even further — by probing whether we’re protagonists in the simulation or so-called “non-player characters” who are presumably included to round out a player character’s experience.

Great Simulation

Virk speculated about whether we’re players or side characters when Vox writer Sean Illing asked a question likely pondered by anyone who’s seen “The Matrix”: If you were living in a simulation, would you actually want to know?

“Probably the most important question related to this is whether we are NPCs (non-player characters) or PCs (player characters) in the video game,” Virk told Vox. “If we are PCs, then that means we are just playing a character inside the video game of life, which I call the Great Simulation.”

More Frightening

It’s a line of inquiry that cuts to the core of the simulation hypothesis: If the universe is essentially a video game, who built it — and why?

“The question is, are all of us NPCs in a simulation, and what is the purpose of that simulation?” Virk asked. “A knowledge of the fact that we’re in a simulation, and the goals of the simulation and the goals of our character, I think, would still be interesting to many people.”

READ MORE: Are we living in a computer simulation? I don’t know. Probably. [Vox]

More on the simulation hypothesis: Famous Hacker Thinks We’re Living in Simulation, Wants to Escape

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MIT Prof: If We Live in a Simulation, Are We Players or NPCs?

Here’s How Big the M87 Black Hole Is Compared to the Earth

The black hole that scientists imaged is a stellar giant. It would take millions of Earths lined up side-by-side to span its length.

Pale Black Dot

On Wednesday, a team of scientists from around the world released the first ever directly-observed image of the event horizon of a black hole.

The black hole, M87*, is found within the constellation Virgo — and as the webcomic XKCD illustrated, it’s as big as our entire solar system.

Stellar Giant

The gigantic black hole, not counting the giant rings of trapped light orbiting it, is about 23.6 billion miles (38 billion kilometers) across, according to Science News.

Meanwhile, the Earth is just 7,917 miles in diameter — meaning our planet wouldn’t even be a drop in the bucket of the giant, black void. Based Futurism’s calculations, it would take just over 2.98 million Earths lined up in a row to span the length of M87*. For a sense of scale, that’s about how many adult giraffes it would take to span the diameter of Earth.

Paging Pluto

Our entire solar system is just about 2.27 billion miles wide, meaning we could just barely fit the whole thing into the newly-imaged black hole’s event horizon.

Thankfully, M87* is about 55 million light years away — so while we could readily fit inside its gaping maw, we’re way too far to get sucked in.

READ MORE: Revealed: a black hole the size of the solar system [Cosmos]

More on M87*: Scientists: Next Black Whole Image Will Be Way Clearer

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Here’s How Big the M87 Black Hole Is Compared to the Earth

We Wouldn’t Have the First Black Hole Image Without Katie Bouman

Katie Bouman, a 29-year-old computer scientist, led the development of the algorithm that made the first black hole image possible.

Algorithmic Assist

It took a team of more than 200 scientists to create the first image of the event horizon of a black hole — and the internet is currently in love with one of them.

Computer scientist Katie Bouman led the development of the algorithm that made the breathtaking black hole image possible, and soon after the Event Horizon Telescope team revealed the photo on Wednesday, another image — this one a shot of Bouman that she posted to her Facebook page — started making the rounds online.

“Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed,” the 29-year-old wrote of the photo, which was subsequently shared by everyone from CNN to Kamala Harris.

Here's the moment when the first black hole image was processed, from the eyes of researcher Katie Bouman. #EHTBlackHole #BlackHoleDay #BlackHole (v/@dfbarajas) pic.twitter.com/n0ZnIoeG1d

— MIT CSAIL (@MIT_CSAIL) April 10, 2019

Women Who Code

The online photo frenzy wasn’t over, though.

Many in the Twitterverse and beyond noted the similarities between an image of Bouman with piles of hard drives containing black hole image data and an image of another female computer scientist, Margaret Hamilton, standing next to the stacks of code she wrote to help NASA put astronauts on the Moon in 1969.

Still, Bouman, who is now an assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences at the California Institute of Technology, is quick to note that creating the first black hole image wasn’t a one-woman job.

“No one of us could’ve done it alone,” she told CNN. “It came together because of lots of different people from many different backgrounds.”

Left: MIT computer scientist Katie Bouman w/stacks of hard drives of black hole image data.

Right: MIT computer scientist Margaret Hamilton w/the code she wrote that helped put a man on the moon.

(image credit @floragraham)#EHTblackhole #BlackHoleDay #BlackHole pic.twitter.com/Iv5PIc8IYd

— MIT CSAIL (@MIT_CSAIL) April 10, 2019

READ MORE: That image of a black hole you saw everywhere? Thank this grad student for making it possible [CNN]

More on the black hole image: Scientists Just Released the First-Ever Image of a Black Hole

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We Wouldn’t Have the First Black Hole Image Without Katie Bouman

NASA Is Funding the Development of 18 Bizarre New Projects

Through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, NASA funds projects that go

Nurturing the Bizarre

NASA isn’t afraid to take a chance on the weird. In fact, it has a program designed for that specific purpose, called NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) — and on Wednesday, the agency announced 18 bizarre new projects receiving funding through the program.

“Our NIAC program nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions by investing in revolutionary technologies,” NASA exec Jim Reuter said in a press release. “We look to America’s innovators to help us push the boundaries of space exploration with new technology.”

Sci-Fi to Sci-Fact

The 18 newly funded projects are divided into two groups: Phase I and Phase II.

The 12 recipients of the Phase I awards will each receive approximately $125,000 to fund nine month’s worth of feasibility studies for their concepts. These include a project to beam power through Venus’ atmosphere to support long-term missions, a spacesuit with self-healing skin, and floating microprobes inspired by spiders.

The six Phase II recipients, meanwhile, will each receive up to $500,000 to support two-year studies dedicated to fine-tuning their concepts and investigating potential ways to implement the technologies, which include a flexible telescope, a neutrino detector, and materials for solar surfing.

“NIAC is about going to the edge of science fiction, but not over,” Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive, said in the press release. “We are supporting high impact technology concepts that could change how we explore within the solar system and beyond.”

READ MORE: NASA Invests in Potentially Revolutionary Tech Concepts [Jet Propulsion Laboratory]

More on bizarre NASA plans: New NASA Plan for Mars Is Moderately-Terrifying-Sounding, Also, Completely-Awesome: Robotic. Bees.

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NASA Is Funding the Development of 18 Bizarre New Projects

Report: Tesla Doc Is Playing Down Injuries to Block Workers’ Comp

Former Tesla and clinic employees share how doctors blocked workers' compensation claims and put injured people back to work to avoid payouts.

Here’s A Band-Aid

Tesla’s on-site clinic, Access Omnicare, has allegedly been downplaying workers’ injuries to keep the electric automaker off the hook for workers’ compensation.

Several former Tesla employees, all of whom got hurt on the job, and former employees of Access Omnicare, told Reveal News that the clinic was minimizing worker injuries so that the automaker wouldn’t have to pay workers’ comp — suggesting that the barely-profitable car company is willing to do whatever it takes to stay out of the red and avoid negative press.

Back To Work

Reveal, which is a project by the Center for Investigative Reporting, described cases in which employees suffered electrocution, broken bones, and mold-related rashes while working in a Tesla factory — only for Omnicare to deny that the injuries warranted time off work.

The clinic’s top doctor “wanted to make certain that we were doing what Tesla wanted so badly,” former Omnicare operations manager Yvette Bonnet told Reveal. “He got the priorities messed up. It’s supposed to be patients first.”

Missing Paperwork

Meanwhile, employees who requested the paperwork to file for workers’ comp were repeatedly ignored, according to Reveal.

“I just knew after the third or fourth time that they weren’t going to do anything about it,” a former employee whose back was crushed under a falling Model X hatchback told Reveal. “I was very frustrated. I was upset.”

The automaker is on the hook for up to $750,000 in medical payments per workers’ comp claim, according to Reveal‘s reporting.

Meanwhile, both Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Laurie Shelby, the company’s VP of safety, have publicly praised Access Omnicare, Reveal found. Musk even recently announced plans to extend it to other plants, “so that we have really immediate first-class health care available right on the spot when people need it.”

READ MORE: How Tesla and its doctor made sure injured employees didn’t get workers’ comp [Reveal News]

More on Tesla: Video Shows Tesla Autopilot Steering Toward Highway Barriers

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Report: Tesla Doc Is Playing Down Injuries to Block Workers’ Comp

Infertile Couple Gives Birth to “Three-Parent Baby”

A Greek couple just gave birth to a three-parent baby, the first conceived as part of a clinical trial to treat infertility.

Happy Birthday

On Tuesday, a couple gave birth to what researchers are calling a “three-parent baby” — giving new hope to infertile couples across the globe.

After four cycles of in vitro fertilization failed to result in a pregnancy, the Greek couple enrolled in a clinical trial for mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT) — meaning doctors placed the nucleus from the mother’s egg into a donor egg that had its nucleus removed. Then they fertilized the egg with sperm from the father and implanted it into the mother.

Due to this procedure, the six-pound baby boy has DNA from both his mother and father, as well as a tiny bit from the woman who donated the egg.

Greek Life

The Greek baby wasn’t the first “three-parent baby” born after his parents underwent MRT — that honor goes to the offspring of a Jordanian woman who gave birth in 2016.

However, in her case and others that followed it, doctors used the technique to prevent a baby from inheriting a parent’s genetic defect. This marked the first time a couple used MRT as part of a clinical trial to treat infertility.

“Our excellent collaboration and this exceptional result will help countless women to realise their dream of becoming mothers with their own genetic material,” Nuno Costa-Borges, co-founder of Embryotools, one of the companies behind the trial, said in a statement.

READ MORE: Baby with DNA from three people born in Greece [The Guardian]

More on three-parent babies: An Infertile Couple Is Now Pregnant With a “Three-Parent Baby”

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Infertile Couple Gives Birth to “Three-Parent Baby”

SpaceX Milestone: Company Lands Three Falcon Heavy Boosters

SpaceX successfully landed all three of its Falcon Heavy boosters during the rocket's second launch ever, marking a new milestone in reusable rocketry.

The Falcons Have Landed

The second time is apparently the charm for SpaceX.

In February 2018, Elon Musk’s space company launched a Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time, but it wasn’t able to recover all three of the rocket’s boosters — rather than landing on SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship like it was supposed to, the center core splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. Whoops.

On Thursday, the company attempted its second Falcon Heavy launch, and this time it nailed the landing of all three boosters — marking a new milestone in reusable rocketry.

Watch SpaceX's #FalconHeavy rocket lands its center core on a ship for the first time ? pic.twitter.com/VltoKVaAox

— CNET (@CNET) April 12, 2019

Democratizing Space

The Falcon Heavy is currently the most powerful launch vehicle in operation. Because SpaceX designed the rocket to be reusable, it can keep the cost of launches lower than would otherwise be possible — and cheaper launches mean more launches, thereby advancing humanity’s efforts to study, explore, and exploit space.

Now that SpaceX has proven it can successfully recover all three Falcon Heavy boosters, it can start looking ahead to the five launches already on the rocket’s manifest — and the others that will likely follow.

Falcon Heavy’s side boosters land on Landing Zones 1 and 2 pic.twitter.com/nJCCaVHOeo

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 12, 2019

READ MORE: SpaceX launches mega rocket, lands all three boosters [Phys.org]

More on Falcon Heavy: The Falcon Heavy Launched. Here’s What’s Next for SpaceX.

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SpaceX Milestone: Company Lands Three Falcon Heavy Boosters

Space Station Mice Learned to Propel Themselves in Zero Gravity

A video of mice in microgravity reveals that the animals quickly adapted to their off-world conditions, running, eating, and cleaning themselves.

Mouse House

A first-of-its-kind study aboard the International Space Station (ISS) has yielded new insights into how humans adapt to spaceflight — and an entertaining video of mice in microgravity.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from NASA’s Ames Research Center describe how they sent 20 mice to live in the ISS’s NASA Rodent Habitat to see how they’d behave when exposed to the same conditions as astronauts, including microgravity, radiation, and confinement.

“Our approach is yielding an interesting analogue for better understanding human responses to spacefight,” the researchers wrote, “and providing the opportunity to begin to address how physical movement influences responses to microgravity.”

Squeak By

The NASA team use cameras to observe the mice in microgravity and noted in the study that the animals appeared to adapt to their space lives quickly by “propelling their bodies freely and actively throughout the habitat, utilizing the entire volume of space available to them.”

After about a week, some of the mice began zipping around the sides of the Rodent Habitat, a behavior the researchers called “race-tracking.”

As for why the mice race-tracked, the researchers hazarded a guess in the study that the behavior might have been due to stress, a response to boredom, or even a form of entertainment — similar to how mice on Earth might choose to run on a wheel.

READ MORE: The First Detailed Study of How Mice Behave in Space Reveals Strange, Coordinated Zooming [Gizmodo]

More on microgravity: Alarming Research: Zero Gravity Makes Astronauts’ Brains Age Faster

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Space Station Mice Learned to Propel Themselves in Zero Gravity

NASA: Genetic Changes Caused by Space Travel Are Temporary

NASA just published the full results of its extensive study into how space travel altered astronaut Scott Kelly's health and gene expression.

Twin Study

For years, NASA has been analyzing the health effects of space travel by comparing astronaut twins Mark and Scott Kelly. In 2015 into 2016, Scott spent 340 days in orbit while Mark stayed on Earth, giving scientists rare data about how leaving the planet affects the human body.

The study, finally published Thursday in the journal Science, reveals that Scott experienced a number of genetic changes while he was in space. Surprisingly, most of them reversed once he landed back on Earth, the MIT Technology Review reports, giving researchers valuable insight as space agencies prepare for longer and deeper missions into space.

Back And Forth

Over the past few years, NASA scientists have gradually released some info about the twin study’s findings. Most surprising was how Scott’s time in space extended his telomeres, the protective caps that protect chromosome and — at least on Earth — slowly degrade over time.

While this finding will likely lead to speculation — and future research — into how spaceflight could affect human longevity, the changes were shortlived. Within half a year of his return to Earth, Scott’s lengthened telomeres returned to normal, while some new, shorter-than-usual telomeres that formed upon his return persisted.

Ready To Launch

Past research on astronauts suggested that extended space travel could compromise their immune systems. The new findings reveal that these changes are largely temporary and that astronauts quickly recover, which is a promising development for the prospect of sending people out to Mars and maybe even farther.

But because the twin study only involved one person in space, it’s hard to tell just how much each data point matters because the context is missing.

“It’s analogous to the very first time that we measured someone’s blood pressure,” lead researcher Chris Mason told MIT Tech. “We didn’t know what the actual reference numbers were until we started to measure more people.”

READ MORE: The first study of a twin in space looks like good news for a trip to Mars [MIT Technology Review]

More on the twin study: After a Year Away from Earth, Scott Kelly’s “Space Genes” Set Him Apart From His Twin

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NASA: Genetic Changes Caused by Space Travel Are Temporary

Israel’s Lunar Lander Just Crashed Into the Moon

The Beresheet lunar lander crashed into the surface of the moon after experiencing engine failure during its final descent.

Landing Attempt

Beresheet, the lunar lander built by Israeli space nonprofit SpaceIL, crashed into the surface of the Moon on Thursday.

It would have been the first privately-owned lander on the surface of the Moon, and would have made Israel the fourth country to reach the surface of the Moon — but the craft experienced engine failure during its final approach.

“We have a failure of the spacecraft,” said Israel Aerospace Industries general manager Opher Doron on livestream, according to CNBC. “We unfortunately have not managed to land successfully,”

Final Approach

As Beresheet was approaching the surface of the Moon, the main engine failed and Beresheet was forced to reset the engine.

With about 10 kilometers left to go (6.2 miles), the main engine cut out and the lander crashed into the Moon traveling at about 134 meters per second, according to the livestream.

“We failed the first try, we’ll make it in the second… within two years we’ll try it again,” Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, according to CNBC.

Definitely Tried

SpaceIL tweeted a photo of the lander’s final approach minutes before it lost contact with the craft. In it, the Moon looms ominously in the background.

“We didn’t make it. But we definitely tried,” said SpaceIL.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional details.

READ MORE: Israeli spacecraft Beresheet falls short of history as moon landing fails in final moments [CNBC]

More on Beresheet: The Israeli Moon Lander Is About to Touch Down

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Israel’s Lunar Lander Just Crashed Into the Moon

Fecal Transplants Reduce Symptoms of Autism Long Term

A new study shows that fecal transplants of healthy gut flora can help reduce the more severe symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Follow-Up

New research suggests that fecal transplants can reduce the severity of conditions associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) — and that the changes last several years after the transplants.

Back in 2017, Arizona State University conducted a study on children with ASD of varying severity. Now, research published Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports shows that the reduction in ASD symptoms persisted for two years after the fact, further demonstrating the link between the gut microbiome and the brain.

Drastic Change

In the original study, 15 of the 18 children had what was considered severe autism, with difficulty communicating and handling social interactions. Two years after the study, which involved eight weeks of fecal transplants that reintroduced a greater variety of healthy microbial flora into the participants’ gastrointestinal tracts, only three participants still fall within the “severe” classification, according to the research.

“We are finding a very strong connection between the microbes that live in our intestines and signals that travel to the brain,” Arizona scientist Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown told New Atlas. “Two years later, the children are doing even better, which is amazing.”

Early Days

The scientists are now working to design a larger and more thorough clinical trial in hopes of getting their treatment approved for use by the FDA, according to New Atlas.

And while the goal isn’t to “cure” a condition that some argue doesn’t need curing, this study suggests that fecal transplants could someday provide people with a way to help children with specific communicative or social difficulties.

READ MORE: Fecal transplants result in massive long-term reduction in autism symptoms [New Atlas]

More on fecal transplants: New Study Supports the Link Between Autism and Gut Microbes

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Fecal Transplants Reduce Symptoms of Autism Long Term

The First Black Hole Photo Is Even More Amazing When You Zoom Out

A team from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has shared an image that puts the first black hole photo into stunning context.

Photo Friends

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) wasn’t the only powerful device with its gaze fixed upon galaxy Messier 87 (M87) in April 2017.

While the EHT was focused on the event horizon of the black hole at the center of M87, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory was taking a wider view of the same target — and the image produced through those observations puts the black hole photo into stunning context.

Credit, X-ray: NASA/CXC/Villanova University/J. Neilsen; Radio: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

1,000 Light Years

The Chandra team provided additional details on the dazzling display of bright particles captured in its black hole companion image in a blog post shared on Monday:

“While Chandra can’t see the shadow itself, its field of view is much larger than the EHT’s, so Chandra can view the full length of the jet of high-energy particles launched by the intense gravitational and magnetic fields around the black hole. This jet extends more than 1,000 light years from the center of the galaxy.”

Image Credit, X-ray: NASA/CXC/Villanova University/J. Neilsen; Radio: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

READ MORE: Chandra and the Event Horizon Telescope [Chandra X-Ray Observatory]

More on the black hole photoScientists Just Released the First-Ever Image of a Black Hole

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The First Black Hole Photo Is Even More Amazing When You Zoom Out

Family Caught Selling Diseased Body Parts to Medical Centers

A father and son team was just charged with fraud and concealing a crime for their six-year black market operation where they sold human body parts.

Side Hustle

A father and son team from Michigan were just charged for illegally selling human body parts — and failing to disclose that the corpses carried infectious diseases.

The duo, both named Donald Greene, sold bodies that people donated to the Biological Resource Center of Illinois for the purpose of furthering scientific research, according to CBS Chicago.

No Returns

The family sold body parts to medical clinics such as the Detroit Medical Center’s sports medicine department between 2008 and 2014, according to the station, sometimes for up to $100,000 per CBS.

But they also failed to disclose that they were selling body parts that had tested positive for diseases including HIV, hepatitis, and sepsis, CBS reports.

Technicality

Strangely enough, selling body parts isn’t strictly illegal.

But selling bodies that had been donated for medical research constitutes fraud, according to the federal prosecutors who charged the Greenes, and failing to disclose the infections was against the law. Greene Sr. has been charged with wire fraud, and Jr. with concealing a crime.

READ MORE: Father And Son Charged With Selling Diseased Body Parts In Alleged Brokering Scheme [CBS Chicago]

More on body parts: Freezing And Storing Donated Organs Could Eliminate Some Transplant Waitlists

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Family Caught Selling Diseased Body Parts to Medical Centers

People Are Horrified When They Have to Torture a Virtual Person

In a virtual recreation of the infamous Milgram Shock Experiment, participants were just as reluctant to continue, even though no one was hurt.

Digital Shock

Back in 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram shocked the world with controversial research in which everyday people followed a scientist’s instructions to electrocute someone who they thought was giving incorrect answers on a quiz — a damning indication that many people will acquiesce to brutal directives by an authority figure.

In December 2018, a team of London-based scientists repeated the experiment in a VR simulation in which they asked participants to zap a virtual avatar. Even though no one got hurt, participants were just as reluctant to pull the lever — even going so far as to try rigging the experiment so they didn’t have to, according to research published in the journal PLOSOne that breaks new ground in the psychology of how people relate to virtual characters.

Answer Key

During the experiment, participants quizzed a virtual character. A correct answer meant they could move on, while an incorrect answer meant the human participant had to administer a virtual electrical jolt. The scientists noticed that participants sometimes tried to feed the virtual avatar the correct answer by pronouncing it louder — in hopes that they wouldn’t be told to shock them.

And even though many participants continued to follow instructions, they were measurably stressed and anxious about doing so, the researchers write in a Scientific American blog post published Friday.

“At the end, even those who had cheated showed an increased stress level,” they wrote.

Big Picture

In their blog post, the scientists suggest that their research could be used to explain how people act under troubling leaders — just like how Milgram set out to explore the behavior of individual Nazis after World War II.

“If we look at our experiments as a proxy for resistance to authority, we can anticipate a psychological cost to the resisters. Even though their obedience isn’t genuine, those who persist endure additional stress compared to those who decide to quit,” they wrote. “In the long term they will also be facing the moral dilemma of engaged followership, wondering whether they engaged too much and in essence enabled a leader they did not want to obey.”

READ MORE: Would You Give a Virtual Electric Shock to an Avatar? [Scientific American]

More on Milgram: Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories – and How to Change Their Minds

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People Are Horrified When They Have to Torture a Virtual Person

Tesla Says Autopilot Is Statistically Safer Than a Human Driver

A new Tesla safety report reveals an increase in Tesla crashes, but engaging Autopilot cuts the likelihood of a fender bender.

Good News/Bad News

Tesla’s latest quarterly safety data report is a mixed bag of good and bad news.

According to the report, which Tesla released this week, crashes involving the company’s vehicles are on the rise. Not great.

However, when Autopilot is engaged, Teslas are less likely to get into crashes, signaling that human drivers may benefit from an artificial intelligence safety boost. And even with Autopilot switched off, the likelihood of a Tesla getting into a crash is still less than the national average — a sign that Tesla’s efforts to make its cars the safest in the world appear to be paying off.

Crunched Number

In the fourth quarter of 2018, Tesla reported one accident for every 2.91 million miles driven with Autopilot engaged. The first Tesla safety report of 2019 shows that rate increasing slightly, to one accident every 2.87 million miles.

However, both of those figures are better than the statistics for Teslas without Autopilot engaged: one accident for every 1.76 million miles driven in Q4 2018 and one every 1.58 million miles driven in Q1 2019.

Teslas with or without Autopilot engaged also appear substantially safer than the average car, based on the new Tesla data. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s most recent data, there’s an auto crash every 436,000 miles driven in the United States.

READ MORE: Tesla releases new Autopilot safety report: more crashes but still fewer than when humans drive [Electrek]

More on Autopilot: Elon Musk: Teslas Should Have “Full Self-Driving” by End of 2019

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Tesla Says Autopilot Is Statistically Safer Than a Human Driver

Chinese Scientists Gene-Hacked Super Smart Human-Monkey Hybrids

Chinese scientists figured out that they could enhance a monkey's intelligence by introducing a single human gene linked to brain development.

Big Brain

For the first time, scientists have used gene-editing techniques to make monkey brains more humanlike.

The monkeys, rhesus macaques, got smarter — they had superior memories to unaltered monkeys, according to recently-published research that’s kicked off a fiery debate among ethicists about how far scientists should be able to take genetic experimentation.

Cognitive Gap

The team of Chinese scientists edited the human version of a gene called MCPH1 into the macaques. The new gene made the monkeys’ brains develop along a more human-like timeline. The gene-hacked monkeys had better reaction times and enhanced short-term memories compared to their unaltered peers, according to China Daily.

But not everyone is on board.

“The use of transgenic monkeys to study human genes linked to brain evolution is a very risky road to take,” University of Colorado geneticist James Sikela told the MIT Technology Review. “It is a classic slippery slope issue and one that we can expect to recur as this type of research is pursued.”

Evolutionary Roadmap

Pinpointing the gene’s role in intelligence could help scientists understand how humans evolved to be so smart, MIT Tech reports.

While altering one gene to enhance memory in some macaques won’t throw Darwinism off-kilter — there’s no risk of a “Planet of the Apes”-style uprising, yet — it could teach us how humanity became so intelligent and gives us hints as to why.

READ MORE: Chinese scientists have put human brain genes in monkeys—and yes, they may be smarter [MIT Technology Review]

More on gene editing: Scientist Who Gene-Hacked Babies “Likely” Boosted Their Brainpower

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Chinese Scientists Gene-Hacked Super Smart Human-Monkey Hybrids

Scientists: Next Black Hole Image Will Be Way Clearer

The first-ever black hole image is a blurry orange ring. During the announcement, scientists described how they're working to improve the resolution.

Pale Orange Ring

The image of a black hole shared by scientists on Wednesday represents many things. It’s the first-ever direct observation of a black hole’s event horizon, it’s evidence supporting Einstein’s theory of general relativity — and, if we’re being perfectly honest, it’s just straight-up awesome.

But the picture — a glowing orange ring — is also kind of fuzzy, like an optometrist forgot to calibrate her equipment before photographing someone’s retina. That’s why scientists from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), the international network that captured the image, are promising that the next one will be way crisper.

Enhance!

The EHT is a network of radio telescopes around the world. By combining their data, scientists can essentially treat the EHT as though it’s a single planet-sized dish. That lets them spot small, faraway objects like the black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy — but because there’s only a handful of telescopes in the network, the images are inherently fuzzy.

Since the M87 data was collected, a number of telescopes have joined the ranks of the EHT, meaning that any future images will already be sharper, EHT Director Shep Doeleman explained during a livestream on Wednesday. He also mentioned that algorithms could be used to clean up the current image.

The current image was taken with a network of telescopes that could capture a wavelength as small as one millimeter — Doeleman’s goal is to get that down to 0.87 millimeters. That would sharpen future images by 13 percent.

Branching Out

In coming years, the EHT may even grow larger than the Earth.

“World domination isn’t enough — we also want to get into space,” Doeleman said, explaining that he hopes to introduce orbital telescopes into the mix.

Doing so would mean an even higher resolution for future black hole images, and it could help the EHT finally capture Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the core of the Milky Way.

More on the EHT: Scientists Just Released the First-Ever Image of a Black Hole

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Scientists: Next Black Hole Image Will Be Way Clearer

Seven Ways Cannabis Legalization Will Make the Future Better

Cannabis legalization is picking up steam across the nation. Here are seven ways the future stands to benefit from ending the war on weed.

High Times

In the United States, marijuana used to have a bad reputation.

Now, more than two out of every three people in the United States support legalizing cannabis, and state laws are reflecting that shift in opinion. Medical marijuana is currently legal in 33 states plus Washington, D.C., and in 10 of those states and the nation’s capital, adults over the age of 21 can legally buy marijuana for recreational use.

Government officials are even starting to push for nation-wide cannabis legalization — and not just because they think more people should be getting high.

Legalize It

Here are seven ways experts predict cannabis legalization will lead to a better future:

1. Cannabis is already creating jobs more quickly than any other industry — and the number of new jobs is expected to keep increasing as more places legalize marijuana.

2. Scientists believe legalization could make it easier for them to develop cannabis-based medical treatments. One such medication is already helping children cope with a rare, previously untreatable form of seizure-causing epilepsy, and early studies show the plant’s potential to treat everything from brain aging to psychosis.

3. Legalization gives governments the opportunity to regulate cannabis cultivation, thereby ensuring farmers aren’t allowed to damage the environment while growing their crops.

4. It also decreases the strain on the justice system, freeing up police — and billions of dollars in state money — to fight other criminal activity.

5. Experts are hopeful cannabis could help end the opioid crisis by easing the symptoms of withdrawal.

6. The taxes from cannabis sales could go toward improving any number of societal institutions. Oregon, where recreational marijuana is legal, recently dedicated millions in cannabis taxes to its schools and public health services.

7. By driving down cannabis costs, legalization also drives cartels and black-market dealers out of business — taking violent activity along with them.

More on cannabis: New Senate Bill Would Legalize Marijuana Nationwide

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Seven Ways Cannabis Legalization Will Make the Future Better


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