Special issue: longevity

Why you shouldn’t fear the gray tsunami

Many worry that aging populations will doom the world economy and make life miserable for everyone. Here’s why that’s wrong.

Forest fires have soared in the Brazilian Amazon this year, sharpening concerns about rising deforestation and climate emissions under the nation’s new far-right president....

The news: More than 70,000 forest fires have broken out throughout the rain forest so far this year, the largest number in at least five years and a more than 80% increase over the same period last year, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). On Monday, smoke from the fires, coupled with clouds and a powerful cold front, darkened the city of São Paulo, some 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) away.

What’s driving the increase? Several factors are likely at play. Researchers have warned that climate change is making the Amazon rain forest more susceptible to wildfires “by increasing the intensity and frequency of droughts.” But local reports say farmers in some areas are deliberately setting fires to clear land for crops or cattle ranching.

Environmental groups say these farmers have been emboldened by President Jair Bolsonaro, who during his campaign pledged to open up the rain forest for more farming and mining. Ever since, his administration has worked to weaken environmental guardrails.

Bolsonaro recently fired the director of INPE, MIT-trained physicist Ricardo Galvão, following the publication of statistics that highlighted rising deforestation in Brazil. On Wednesday, in a bold bit of nonsense, he said nongovernmental organizations could be setting the fires “to bring shame on his government after he cut their funding.” 

Why does it matter? The Amazon proper, which spans nine nations, is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. It accounts for around 17% of the world’s carbon trapped in vegetation on land. (It’s also, of course, a rich source of biodiversity and the oxygen we breath.)

Wildfires alone, not the fires deliberately set for deforestation, can pump out billions of tons of carbon dioxide during drought years, recent research found.

Amazon deforestation rates had been tumbling for years, largely thanks to the “Save the Rain Forest” movement and stronger land-use regulations. But they’ve risen significantly in Brazil this year: an area rain forest “roughly the size of a football pitch” disappears every minute.

(See “Brazil's presidential election could mean billions of tons of additional greenhouse gases.”)

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The videos’ removal raises some intriguing questions about YouTube’s automated take-down process....

The news: YouTube has been taking down videos of robots fighting, mistaking them for videos that show “deliberate infliction of animal suffering.” The removals were first noticed by YouTuber Maker’s Muse, and affected a number of channels run by contenders on the TV show BattleBots, a robot-fighting series. Sarah Pohorecky, who had multiple videos removed, told Motherboard that 10 to 15 other contestants had been affected. They received emails from YouTube stating that videos of animals being forced to fight are not permitted on the site. YouTube said it has since reinstated the videos, and notes that people can challenge the decision when their content is removed from the site.

But why were they removed in the first place? Given the lack of clarity about YouTube’s internal processes, it’s hard to say. Some of the videos had animal names in the title, but we don’t know whether it was one of YouTube’s notorious algorithms or a human reviewer that made the decision to remove them.

A fine line to tread: YouTube has come in for a lot of criticism over the presence of violent videos or hate speech on the site, and there’s evidence its recommendation engine has helped push people toward radicalizing content. It’s under pressure to ramp up moderation efforts, but at the same time, if it relies too heavily on automated video removals, it risks upsetting the very people it relies on for its livelihood: channel owners themselves.

Robot feelings: While this was obviously a mistake, research has shown that we  humans feel uncomfortable when they see robots being treated unfairly. MIT’s Kate Darling has spoken in the past about how we often treat robots as if they are alive and thus hate to see them in “pain” or being mistreated. Perhaps YouTube knows us better than we think.

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Astronomy

Scientists have spotted the most exotic gravitational waves on record yet, after a black hole probably lunched on a neutron star....

The news: On August 14, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US and the Virgo observatory in Italy detected new gravitational waves rippling through spacetime. They were  produced 900 million light-years away by a black hole devouring what is either a neutron star or some object we never thought was possible.

1% uncertainty: The team has an automated system that instantly classifies gravitational wave events. This one was unusual. It showed that one object smaller than three solar masses had plunged into another object larger than five solar masses. We’ve never seen a neutron star larger than 2.2 solar masses, nor a black hole smaller than five solar masses, so scientists are 99% certain this event was caused by a neutron star being swallowed up by a black hole. However, there is still a very slim chance the neutron star is just a black hole—the smallest on record—and that this event is just another merger of two black holes.

What’s next: Soon after detection, Australia’s SkyMapper Telescope scanned the sky for a visual sign of the merger (such as the neutron star’s insides that had been ripped out by the black hole) but found nothing. Other telescopes, like NASA’s Swift instrument, might spot some telltale evidence later.

Gotta catch ’em all: Before this exotic signal, dubbed S190814bv, we’ve only ever seen gravitational waves produced by black hole mergers or neutron star mergers. If the findings hold, they will complete the holy trinity of gravitational wave events scientists have pursued all this decade, and confirm the existence of a bizarre new kind of star system.

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