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The Download, Jan 25, 2017: Trump’s Energy Moves, Robot Laborers, and a Quantum Fight

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January 25, 2017

Three Things You Need to Know Today

Trump’s Energy Policies Begin to Take Shape
The new President's energy and climate promises are becoming a reality—even if they're not what the public appears to want. Yesterday, he signed a series of executive orders that aim to boost production and consumption of fossil fuels, resurrecting the Keystone XL pipeline and smoothing the way for the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline. Another order will expedite the environmental review and approval of future high-priority infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, his administration has imposed a freeze on grants and contracts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, allegedly told the agency to remove a climate change page from its website, and informed both it and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop discussing research with the public and media. FiveThirtyEight reports that the gag could violate policies introduced under the Obama administration. But Trump’s endeavors to embrace oil and distance his administration from climate research may run counter to public opinion: a new report suggests that Americans overwhelmingly believe that renewable energy should be prioritized over fossil fuels.

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Rise of the Robot Laborer
Factory assembly lines have been automated for decades, but less structured workplaces, from oil rigs to farms, are now welcoming robotic laborers. Bloombergreports that oil drilling sites are becoming increasingly automated, with robots taking over the job of joining heavy pipes as they’re driven into wells. Forbes, meanwhile, says that the rising price of workers is driving many farmers of labor-intensive crops to adopt robots for tasks such as crop thinning. And mining companies are rolling out autonomous trucks, drills, and trains, to boost efficiency. Even construction sites may soon get a robotic helping hand: researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland have developed a new robot, called In Situ Fabricator1, that can build complex structures with a precision of less than five millimeters. It sounds like a lot of jobs may be at stake. But a recent report suggested that humans and robots will be best-served by working alongside each other—for now, at least.
A Powerful New Quantum Computer With a Fight On Its Hands
The quantum computing company D-Wave Systems has announced that its latest device features twice the computing capacity of its previous best—but parts of the scientific community remain skeptical, and other devices may soon compete with it. D-Wave’s new $15 million 2000Q quantum computer contains 2,000 qubits, the quantum equivalent of binary bits. It claims that, for specialized problems that are well-suited to quantum devices, it’s at least 1,000 times faster than CPU- and GPU-based devices. But despite Google tests claiming that D-Wave’s technology works, some scientists remain skeptical about whether its qubits are robust enough to provide the exponential leap in computational power promised by quantum computing. Meanwhile, other researchers—at Google, Microsoft, IBM, and many universities—are working hard to develop their own quantum computers. And, as Nature reported earlier this month, those devices may soon make their way out of the laboratory. D-Wave’s system may be fast, but it also has a fight ahead.

Six Fascinating Things

1. A new app could ensure that birth-control remains within reach of women across the entire U.S.—even if the Affordable Care Act is dismantled.

2. How do you record swirling currents beneath the surface of the ocean in 3-D? With a swarm of submersible robots, each the size of a grapefruit.

3. In 2014, the Indian Prime Minister promised the whole country electricity by 2019. With just two years to go, 240 million people are still without it.

4. Unbeknownst to many, the right has built its own new media world, a kind of parallel universe to the mainstream press. Buzzfeed investigates.
5. SpaceX, Uber, Google, AT&T—they’re all at it. Lobbying, that is. Here’s how much the tech industry spent last year on trying to shape policy.
6. Smog increasingly fills the air, from Europe’s capitals to China’s industrial hubs. Only now are researchers beginning to unpick the complex reactions behind it.

Quote of the Day


— Mark Zuckerberg quashes rumors by answering one reporter’s question about whether he’s planning to run for the presidency. He says that he will instead focus efforts on his social network and biomedical research scheme, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

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