Research

Global access to quality health care has improved in the last two decades

map of countries
HEALTH CARE PALETTE Countries shaded with cooler hues had better health care quality and accessibility in 2015 than those with hotter colors. Researchers created the Healthcare Access and Quality Index to assess each country’s status.

Health care quality and availability improved globally from 1990 to 2015, but the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened in those 25 years, researchers report online May 18 in The Lancet.

As an approximate measure of citizens’ access to quality health care, an international team of researchers analyzed mortality rates for 32 diseases and injuries that are typically not fatal when effective medical care is available. The team…

Facebook to launch ParlAI, a testing ground for AI and bots

Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) today announced plans to launch a testing environment in which AI researchers and bot makers can share and iterate upon each other’s work.

While the initial focus is on open-sourcing the dialogue necessary to train machines to carry on conversations, other research on ParlAI will focus on computer vision and fields of AI beyond the natural language understanding required for this task. The combination of smarts from multiple bots and bot-to-bot communication will also be part of research carried out on ParlAI.

Researchers or users of ParlAI must have Python knowledge to test and train AI models with the open source platform. The purpose of ParlAI, said director of Facebook AI Research Yann LeCun, is to “push the state of the art further.”

“Essentially, this is a problem that goes beyond any one heavily regarded dialogue agent that has sufficient background knowledge. A part of that goes really beyond strictly getting machines to understand language or being able to understand speech. It’s more how do machines really become intelligent, and this is not something that any single entity — whether it’s Facebook or any other — can solve by itself, and so that’s why we’re trying to sort of play a leadership role in the research community and trying to direct them all to the right problem.”

The ability to hold a conversation has been key…

How Metacognition, Thinking About Thinking, Can Help Your Life

Article Image

Students study with their laptop computers in the Pedagogical Library at the Freie Universitaet university on September 20, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Metacognition, thinking about how you think, has been shown to help students improve their grades. Stanford University researchers published a new study that outlines a 15-minute thinking hack that led to an average improvement of one third of a letter grade for the participants.

The research stems from the insight that while many resources are provided by educational institutions, students don’t always know how to use them effectively. Patricia Chen, a postdoctoral research fellow who led the study, hypothesized that if students were made more self-reflective about how they approach their studies and the available resources, they could do better.

“Blind effort alone, without directing that effort in an effective manner, doesn’t always get you to where you want to go,” said Chen.

The team conducted two experiments using a “Strategic Resource Use” intervention they designed, which combines educational and social psychological theories.

For the experiments, the control group, which consisted of half the class, received just a regular reminder of a statistics exam…

Study: Apple Watch accurately detects heart problems

Study: Apple Watch accurately detects heart problems

A study published today suggests your Apple Watch could help detect and track serious heart conditions.

According to CNET, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco worked with the app Cardiogram on the Health eHeart study, gathering cardiovascular data from 6,158 people who used Apple Watches. They tested whether the watches were able to detect the difference between normal heart…

Pew study experts: Artificial intelligence threatens the future of capitalism

A Pew Research Foundation study examining the future of work and job training found a belief among some experts that artificial intelligence and automation threaten not just millions of jobs, but also the future of capitalism.

Released Wednesday, the non-scientific study titled “The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training” is the seventh in an eight-part “Future of the Internet” study being conducted by the Pew Research Center and Elon University. More than 1,400 AI researchers, tech experts, professors, startup CEOs, and members of the general public responded to the survey.

Respondents include leaders from companies like Google and Microsoft and educators from MIT, Harvard, and other universities, as well as a mix of other people interested in AI and the future of work. Tech experts include computer scientists and AI researchers but also people from internet governance groups, futurists, and startup founders.

“People will create the jobs of the future, not simply train for them, and technology is already central,” said a Microsoft principal researcher. “It will undoubtedly play a greater role in the years ahead.”

Not everyone was so optimistic. Several respondents questioned the point of training for a job that won’t exist at all in the future.

“While the first three themes found among the responses to this canvassing were mostly hopeful about advances in education and training for 21st-century jobs, a large share of responses from top experts reflect a significant degree of pessimism for various reasons. Some even say the future of jobs for humans is so baleful that capitalism may fail as an economic system,” the Pew report reads.

The report states that most of the people who commented on capitalism in the survey chose to remain anonymous, but a few put their names to their thoughts.

For example, Mike Warot, a machinist at Allied Gear, said, “We’re going to have to end up with a Basic Income, or revolution.”

Miles Fidelman is a systems architect and policy analyst at the Protocol Technologies Group.

“The trend is pretty clear. We will need less ‘workers’ in the future,” he said. “For a long time, science fiction presented us with visions of a world where machines did all the work and people enjoyed leisure, artistic pursuits, etc. These days, a more dystopian reality is emerging — where a few party, a few more do a lot of work, and growing numbers search for work. We’re going to need a fundamental reshaping of our economy, not training people for jobs that are simply not going to be there.”

Training for jobs of the future

A primary question in the survey was “In the next 10 years, do you think we will see the emergence of new educational and training programs that can successfully train large numbers of workers in the skills they will need to perform the jobs of the future?”

About 70 percent of survey participants said they believe education and training programs will successfully prepare people for jobs of the future, but many respondents also believe education will not be sufficient to meet people’s needs within the next decade, as automation and AI are expected to claim more human jobs.

Respondents were also asked things like “What skills will future workers need?” and “Which skills can and cannot be taught online?”

A mid-2015 Pew Research survey found that about two-thirds of U.S. citizens believe that within 50 years robots and automation will do the majority of the work done by humans today, though 80 percent of respondents said they expected their job to exist in the same period of time.

In written responses, survey respondents collectively articulated five major themes and predictions:

  • The training ecosystem will evolve, with a mix of innovation in all education formats
  • Learners must cultivate 21st century skills, capabilities, and attributes
  • New credentialing systems will arise as self-directed learning expands
  • Training and learning systems will not meet 21st century needs by 2026
  • Jobs? What jobs? Technological forces…

Scientists Grow Working Human Brain Circuits

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have successfully grown the first-ever working 3D brain circuits in a petri dish. Writing in the journal Nature, they say the network of living cells will allow us to study how the human brain develops.

Scientists have been culturing brain cells in the lab for some time now. But previous projects have produced only flat sheets of cells and tissue, which can’t really come close to recreating the three-dimensional conditions inside our heads. The Stanford researchers were especially interested in the way brain cells in a developing fetus can join up together to create networks.

“We’ve never been able to recapitulate these human-brain developmental events in a dish before,” senior author Sergiu Pasca, MD said in a statement.

Studying real-life pregnant women and their fetuses can also be ethically and technically tricky, which means there’s still a…

Shock-absorbing spear points kept early North Americans on the hunt

Clovis points
CLOVIS LINEUP Researchers studied how stone replicas of spear points (two at right) used by ancient Clovis people absorbed pressure. Results suggest Clovis points fluted at the base absorbed shock, preventing tip breakage while hunting. Three casts of actual fluted Clovis points are on the left.

Ancient North Americans hunted with spear points crafted to absorb shock.

Clovis people, who crossed a land bridge from Asia to North America around 13,500 years ago, fashioned stone weapons that slightly crumpled at the base rather than breaking at the tip when thrust into prey, say civil engineer Kaitlyn Thomas of Southern Methodist University in Dallas and colleagues. The Clovis crumple rested on a toolmaking technique called fluting, in which a thin groove was chipped off both sides of a stone point’s base, the researchers report in the May Journal of Archaeological Science.

Computer models and pressure testing of replicas of fluted and unfluted Clovis points support the idea that fluted bases worked like shock absorbers, preventing tip breakage, the scientists conclude. Slight compression and folding of stone at the base of fluted points after an impact did not cause enough damage to prevent the points from being reused, they say.

“Fluted Clovis points have a shock-absorbing property that increases their durability, which fit a population that needed reliable weapons on a new, unknown continent,” says archaeologist and study coauthor Metin Eren of Kent State University in Ohio. While Clovis people weren’t the first New World settlers (SN: 6/11/16, p. 8), they roamed throughout much of North America. Individuals traveled great distances to find food and move among seasonal camps, Eren says.

spear point
A Clovis stone point replica, chiseled by Kent State archaeologist Metin Eren, contains a fluted section at…

Study Finds Women in Academia Do More Unpaid “Service” Work

In today’s unsurprising news, a new study has found that women in academia perform more unpaid labor than men. Researchers writing in the journal Research in Higher Education say female professors are more likely—and more expected—to give their time to students, while their better-compensated male colleagues use those same hours to publish, conduct research, and advance their careers.

Education experts culled data from the 2014 Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE), which asked nearly 19,000 faculty members at 143 colleges about their interactions with their students. They also dug into detailed faculty activity reports at two institutions.

The results showed a significant difference in the way academic men and women spent their time. Female respondents to the FSSE spent an average of 30 minutes more per week on service tasks like advising students, serving on committees, and leading extracurricular activities. Even among full professors, women devoted significantly more time to service activities than their male counterparts. This was true even after the researchers controlled for variables like race, academic department, and university.

The paper’s authors couldn’t pinpoint the root cause (or…

Researchers Create Motorized Wheelchair Made for the Water Park

image credit: University of Pittsburgh

Despite advances in technology, there are many aspects of the world that remain inaccessible to people with disabilities. But researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are working to make one activity easier for people who use motorized wheelchairs: navigating water parks.

The average motorized wheelchair has a number of electrical and battery components that can’t get wet, limiting who can access the joys of splash parks and pools. But a new wheelchair that uses compressed air instead of a heavy battery could change that, Gizmodo recently reported.

Created through a joint research project between University of Pittsburgh engineers, the university’s medical center, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the PneuChair is lighter and quicker to charge…

Language heard, but never spoken, by young babies bestows a hidden benefit

mother and baby laughing and playing
Babies who heard Korean spoken in their first six months of life were better able to pick up the language later as adults, a study finds. The results show how early language exposure patterns the brain in ways that may not be revealed for decades, if ever.

The way babies learn to speak is nothing short of breathtaking. Their brains are learning the differences between sounds, rehearsing mouth movements and mastering vocabulary by putting words into meaningful context. It’s a lot to fit in between naps and diaper changes.

A recent study shows just how durable this early language learning is. Dutch-speaking adults who were adopted from South Korea as preverbal babies held on to latent Korean language skills, researchers report online January 18 in Royal Society Open Science. In the first months of their lives, these people had already laid down the foundation for speaking Korean — a foundation that persisted for decades undetected, only revealing itself later in careful laboratory tests.

Researchers tested how well people could learn to identify and speak tricky Korean sounds. “For Korean listeners, these sounds are easy to distinguish, but for second-language…