Author: The Conversation

A groundbreaking announcement for the recovery of lost ancient literature was recently made. Using a non-invasive method that harnesses machine learning, an international trio of scholars retrieved 15 columns of ancient Greek text from within a carbonized papyrus from Herculaneum, a seaside Roman town eight kilometres southeast of Naples, Italy. Their achievement earned them a US$700,000 grand prize from the Vesuvius Challenge. The challenge sought to incentivize technological development by inviting public participation in the research. It emerged from collaboration between computer scientist Brent Seales — who has a long-standing interest in non-invasive technologies for studying manuscripts — and technology investors Nat Friedman and Daniel Gross. While…

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For years, small groups of astronomy enthusiasts have travelled the globe chasing the rare solar eclipse. They have embarked on cruises to the middle of the ocean, taken flights into the eclipse’s path and even travelled to Antarctica. In August 2017, millions across the U.S. witnessed a total solar eclipse visible from Oregon to South Carolina, with a partial eclipse visible to the rest of the continental U.S. On April 8, 2024, millions of Americans will once again be in the path of a total solar eclipse, this one’s path extending from Mexico to eastern Canada. The April 2024 eclipse’s path of totality will cross a number…

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Water is needed for development, production and consumption, yet we are overusing and polluting an unsubstitutable resource and system. Eight safe and just boundaries for five domains (climate, biosphere, water, nutrients and aerosols) have been identified beyond which there is significant harm to humans and nature and the risk of crossing tipping points increases. Humans have already crossed the safe and just Earth System Boundaries for water. To date, seven of the eight boundaries have been crossed, and although the aerosol boundary has not been crossed at the global level, it has been crossed at the city level in many parts…

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Google and the XPrize Foundation have launched a competition worth $5-29million (R9.4-million) to develop real-world applications for quantum computers that benefit society – by speeding up progress on one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, for example. The principles of quantum physics suggest quantum computers could perform very fast calculations on particular problems, so this competition may expand the range of applications where they have an advantage over conventional computers. In our everyday lives, the way nature works can generally be described by what we call classical physics. But nature behaves very differently at tiny quantum scales – below the size of…

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Your money, postcode, friends and family can make all the difference to how the criminal system treats you. The New South Wales police recently scrapped a widely condemned program known as the Suspect Targeting Management Plan. It used algorithmic risk scores to single out “targets”, some as young as ten years old, for police surveillance. But similar programs remain in place. For instance, Corrective Services NSW uses a statistical assessment tool called LSI-R to predict whether prisoners will re-offend. “High-risk” prisoners receive “high-intensity interventions”, and may be denied parole. The risk scores are calculated from facts such as “criminal friends”, family involvement in…

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South Africa is in the middle of a deep electricity crisis. In 2023 the public, many of whom are voters, experienced the worst loadshedding to date, losing power for an average of five hours a day. The power shortages were largely due to excessive breakdowns in the country’s coal power plant fleet, which generates over 80% of South Africa’s electricity, combined with delays in developing new generation capacity. The power crisis is a key election topic with national elections scheduled for 29 May. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is tipped to lose its absolute majority in parliament. One reason for the ANC’s drop in…

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Humans are very good at spotting patterns, or repeating features people can recognize. For instance, ancient Polynesians navigated across the Pacific by recognizing many patterns, from the stars’ constellations to more subtle ones such as the directions and sizes of ocean swells. Very recently, mathematicians like me have started to study large collections of objects that have no patterns of a particular sort. How large can collections be before a specified pattern has to appear somewhere in the collection? Understanding such scenarios can have significant real-world implications: For example, what’s the smallest number of server failures that would lead to the severing of the…

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The online financial products and services known as “fintech” have become deeply embedded in the economic and social life of many African countries over the past decade. Headlines across the continent often extol fintech’s virtues. Technology is “driving financial inclusion” and “making life better for people”. It’s helping “consumers to manage inflation”. Fintech is “too sweeping to ignore”. And, if it’s not embraced, “the country and the entire economy will be left behind”. These headlines depict a popular story about fintech: it is the answer to several of Africa’s economic problems. This story is also appearing in policy documents in…

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Generative artificial intelligence has been hailed for its potential to transform creativity, and especially by lowering the barriers to content creation. While the creative potential of generative AI tools has often been highlighted, the popularity of these tools poses questions about intellectual property and copyright protection. Generative AI tools such as ChatGPT are powered by foundational AI models, or AI models trained on vast quantities of data. Generative AI is trained on billions of pieces of data taken from text or images scraped from the internet. Generative AI uses very powerful machine learning methods such as deep learning and transfer learning on such vast repositories of data to understand the relationships among…

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There is a lot of hype about smart rings right now – Samsung is due to release a Galaxy ring, and there is unsubstantiated speculation that Apple is considering a ring too. But why would you want a smart ring in the first place? The short answer is that they are likely to fulfil the same health and activity tracking as a watch, leaving your wrist free for a more fashionable or traditional timepiece. But they can also track the your body’s movements much more precisely than other wearable technology, and record detailed information about the movement of your hands. This could…

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