The World’s Farms Are Hooked on Phosphorus. It’s a Problem

Disrupting Earth’s chemical cycles brings trouble. But planet-warming carbon dioxide isn’t the only element whose cycle we’ve turned wonky—we’ve got a phosphorus problem too. And it’s a big one, because we depend on this element to grow the world’s crops. “I don’t know if it would be possible to have a full world without any mineral phosphorus fertilizer,” says Joséphine Demay, a PhD student at INRAE, France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment.

Since the 1800s, agriculturalists have known that elemental phosphorus is a crucial fertilizer. Nations quickly began mining caches of “phosphate rock,” minerals rich in the element. By the middle of the 20th century, companies had industrialized chemical processes to turn it into a form suitable for supercharging crops, hardening them against disease and making them able to support more people and livestock. That approach worked remarkably well: The post-World War II “Green Revolution” fed countless people thanks to fertilizers and pesticides. But sometimes there’s too much of a good thing.

We have liberated Earth’s caches of phosphorus so rapidly that the element now pollutes freshwater ecosystems, where excesses cause harmful algal blooms, infiltrates the snowpack, and decreases levels of dissolved oxygen in lakes and rivers. Studies suggest that humanity has grown too dependent on it for feeding the planet—and we are running out of this nonrenewable resource, which comes from geologic deposits that take millenia to form. When it washes from soil into waterways, it essentially disappears forever. A looming “peak phosphorus” moment threatens to increase prices and foment political tension if demand eclipses supply, as a large majority of reserves exist only in one corner of North Africa.

In a paper published this month in Nature Geoscience, Demay broke down how much phosphorus 176 countries have used between the years 1950 and 2017, and she estimated how much the use of mineral fertilizer contributes to soil fertility in each nation. Remarkably, phosphate rock accounts for around 50 percent of the world’s soil productivity. “It has never been quantified like that,” Demay says. And those numbers matter, she says, because “the work really highlights the high gap that exists between different world regions.” Wealthy countries in Western Europe, North America, and Asia use far more of the world’s phosphate rock than Africa, despite African soils being relatively deficient in it. “There is a need to distribute more equally the remaining first rock reserves,” Demay says.

James Elser, an ecologist with Arizona State University and the University of Montana who studies the global phosphorus cycle, was taken aback by that 50 percent figure. “That we’ve been able to mobilize phosphorus from these ancient geological deposits, and spread it around the world enough so that half of soil phosphorus is now comprised of industrial anthropogenic fertilizer, is pretty stunning,” he says.

And if the remaining supply goes down, prices will go up, exacerbating the access gap between rich and poor countries, says Dana Cordell, an associate professor and research director of food systems sustainability at the University of Technology Sydney. In 2008, phosphate prices spiked 800 percent due to supply and demand issues, and again 400 percent last year, due to Covid-related disruptions. The new study “shows how our global food system has now become heavily dependent on mined, nonrenewable phosphate rock,” she says. “And even if there is phosphate rock in the ground, it might not be economically viable to access it.”

via Wired Top Stories

January 23, 2023 at 08:16AM

Microsoft expands its pact with OpenAI in ‘multibillion dollar’ deal

Microsoft is once again pouring money into OpenAI as part of an expanded partnership. The tech giant is making a "multibillion dollar" investment that will lead to wider uses of OpenAI’s technology, as well as stronger behind-the-scenes support. While the two companies are short on specifics, Microsoft says you can expect "new categories of digital experiences" that include both consumer-facing and business products. The developer-focused Azure OpenAI Service will play a role.

The continued union will also see Microsoft boost its investments in supercomputers that accelerate OpenAI’s research. Azure will remain OpenAI’s sole cloud provider for products, research and services. The exact size of the financial contribution isn’t known, but a Bloombergsource claims Microsoft is investing $10 billion over "multiple years."

Microsoft first backed OpenAI in 2019, and returned in 2021. The New York Times notes it "quietly" invested an extra $2 billion since that initial round. The companies have grown closer since their collaboration began. On top of the Azure service, Microsoft has launched OpenAI-powered features that include natural language programming and a DALL-E 2 graphic design tool. OpenAI uses Microsoft’s infrastructure to train its best-known systems, including DALL-E 2 and the popular ChatGPT bot. ChatGPT is coming to Azure soon.

There’s no mention of some rumored developments, such as building ChatGPT into Bing. However, this expansion may help Microsoft seize a competitive advantage. Google reportedly sees ChatGPT as a threat to its search business, and is believed to be devoting much of its attention to a search chatbot and other AI products despite a reluctance to fully embrace the technology over concerns about copyright. Even if the deeper OpenAI partnership doesn’t improve Bing, Microsoft may benefit by forcing rivals like Google to change course.

via Engadget

January 23, 2023 at 09:32AM

The Morning After: The FAA grounded all US flights due to mistakenly deleted files

The FAA paused all domestic departures in the US on the morning of January 11th because its NOTAM or Notice to Air Missions system failed. Now we know why: deleted files. Contractors working on the Federal Aviation Administration’s NOTAM system, it seems, deleted some crucial files by accident. This resulted in delays and cancellations of thousands of US flights. The issue even impacted military flights that partly relied on FAA NOTAMs: Pilots reportedly had to call around to ask for potential flight hazards.

Apparently, its contractors were synchronizing a main and a back-up database when they "unintentionally deleted files" that turned out to be necessary to keep the alert system running. The FAA reiterated it has "so far found no evidence of a cyberattack or malicious intent." We’ve all accidentally deleted a file, sure. It’s just never grounded the flights of an entire country.

– Mat Smith

The biggest stories you might have missed

‘CNET’ pauses publication of AI-written stories amid controversy

Errors and a lack of disclosure created an uproar.

Tech publication CNET is halting its use of AI-written articles for the time being. "For now," leadership has paused experiments with AI stories, telling staff during a question-and-answer call. Editor-in-chief Connie Guglielmo reportedly said future AI-related stories would include a disclosure that the publication uses automated technologies. There are a few reasons. Last week, Futurism noticed dozens of financial explainer articles on CNET appeared to have been written using "automation technology." The disclosure was effectively hidden when you had to click the byline to see it. CNET claims humans "thoroughly" edited and fact-checked the work, but there appear to be multiple (and sometimes major) errors in stories.

Continue reading.

Twitter is working on an ad-free subscription tier

Musk announced the offering on Saturday.

Twitter is working on a new, more expensive Blue subscription tier for users to browse the platform without seeing ads. “Ads are too frequent on Twitter and too big. Taking steps to address both in coming weeks,” Twitter owner Elon Musk tweeted on Saturday afternoon. “Also, there will be a higher priced subscription that allows zero ads.” The existing Twitter Blue subscription costs up to $11 per month, but the ability to see fewer ads is still listed as “coming soon.” At the same time, Twitter’s ad revenue has apparently plummeted. The Information reported that a senior Twitter manager told employees last Tuesday daily revenue was down 40 percent from the same day a year ago.

Continue reading.

‘Marvel’s Avengers’ official support ends September 30th

Avengers: End of Game.

Square Enix

Following a report of Marvel’s Avengers’ imminent demise, the studio published a blog post on Friday announcing plans to stop supporting the live-service title after September 30th. Crystal Dynamics will release one final balance patch and shut down the game’s in-game cosmetics store on March 31st. The developer says cosmetics previously only obtainable through the marketplace will be free for all players who own a copy of the game.

On that same day, players will see their remaining credit balance converted to in-game collectibles and resources. The swift end of Marvel’s Avengers won’t come as a surprise to fans. In November 2020, two months after the game went on sale, publisher Square Enix said it had failed to recoup the cost of making the title. Then, last May, Square sold Crystal Dynamics to Embracer Group.

Continue reading.

FDA clears Wandercraft’s exoskeleton for stroke patient rehab

Atalante could help patients recover their walking gait.


The Food and Drug Administration has cleared Wandercraft’s Atalante exoskeleton for use in stroke rehabilitation. The machine can help with intensive gait training, particularly for people with limited upper body mobility that might prevent using other methods. The current-generation Atalante is a self-balancing, battery-powered device with an adjustable gait that can help with early steps through to more natural walking later in therapy. While the hardware still needs to be used in a clinical setting with help from a therapist, its hands-free use helps patients re-establish their gait, with or without arms. Wandercraft plans to deliver its first exoskeletons to the US during the first quarter.

Continue reading.

via Engadget

January 23, 2023 at 06:22AM

Can Playing Video Games Make You Smarter?

If you spend more than an hour a day playing video games, that’s 5 percent of your life. Will this time investment do anything good for your brain?

This is a question that my colleagues and I at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been studying for the past two decades. We want to know whether playing video games can increase cognitive skills: In other words, can game playing make you smarter? We have performed experiments, conducted meta-analyses of research literature and even produced a couple of books: Computer Games for Learning and Handbook of Game-Based Learning.

The results have been surprising — with some bad news, good news, even better news, and some prospects for the future based on rigorous scientific research.

My team focuses on what I call cognitive consequences experiments. Our researchers take a group of people and give them a test that assesses some cognitive skill, like attention, perception, mental flexibility, spatial processing, reasoning or memory. Then we split the group in half. One half plays a video game targeting that skill for two or more hours over many sessions; the other half engages in some other activity, like playing a word-search game. Then we give them all the same test again.

First, the bad news. A careful review of published scientific research shows that most off-the-shelf video games do not improve cognitive skills. This holds true for strategy games, adventure games, puzzle games and many brain-training games.

Read More: Video Games May Have Negative Effects on the Brain

Next, the good news. There appears to be one genre of commercial games that can improve cognitive skills — and it might surprise you. Playing action video games, including first-person shooter games, can continually exercise your perceptual attention with immediate feedback, under a variety of ever-changing contexts, and with increasing levels of challenge.

Read More: The Surprising Mental Health Benefits of Video Games

Finally, even better news. Some research groups are having success making nonviolent learning games that work. Our lab, for example, has partnered with the CREATE Lab at New York University to develop games using evidence-based theories. In one, All You Can ET, space creatures fall from the sky and you must shoot up food or drinks depending on ever-changing rules. This trains “task switching” or what some people call multitasking — an executive function skill associated with academic success.

We have found that playing All You Can ET  for as little as two hours improved task-switching skills more than playing a word-search game for the same amount of time. All You Can ET  is available for free on Google Play Store for Android and on the Apple App Store (we do not receive any income from the game).

A few other labs have seen similar successes. Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and his team at the University of California, San Francisco, for example, created NeuroRacer: a car-driving multitasking game that has been shown to train attention control skills in older adults. That technology was used by a company to develop EndeavorRx, targeted to help kids with attention deficits. In 2020, that became the first-ever video game approved for medical marketing by the FDA, available by prescription.

Why do these games work while others do not? Our games are designed with six principles: focus on a well-specified target skill, provide repeated practice, give immediate feedback, maintain increasing levels of challenge, provide varying contexts for exercising the skill and make sure the game is enjoyable.With studies like these in hand, we can look forward to a future when researchers and developers collaborate to construct fun games that train specific cognitive skills. Then that hour a day of play really will make you smarter.

Produced by  Knowable Magazine, this piece first appeared in the Mercury News.


Richard E. Mayer is an educational psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews.

via Discover Main Feed

January 21, 2023 at 12:12PM

This all-terrain tool helps workers move heavy objects with ease

Workers who are required to venture into the wilderness often meet difficult challenges. One of the big ones is trying to figure out how to move heavy equipment through undeveloped land. The use of animals is too often inhumane and using heavy machinery like trucks and helicopters can be expensive. Track-O Cross-Country from Movex Innovation is an all-terrain remote-controlled tracked machine designed to help workers in hard-to-reach areas. Track-O can maneuver on snow, water, mud, and sand to reach its destination. With a max speed of 44 feet per minute and a loading capacity of 2,292 lbs, Track-O can climb 40-degree slopes and has a 9-inch ground clearance. The RC-tracked mover can be fitted with a crane attachment, lift table, loading platform and more. It has a minimum of 2.5 hours of runtime on a fully charged battery, with an 8.5-hour charge time. Learn more 

For more content like this be sure to visit Your Future Car by Autoblog on Facebook or on YouTube. Subscribe for new videos every week.

via Autoblog

January 22, 2023 at 10:43AM

My Week With the Future of Garbage Bins

It’s 10 pm and, like a vampire stirring in its coffin to greet the nocturne, my garbage bin comes to life. A semicircle of yellow lights on the lid starts flashing, an illuminated lock icon appears, and inside the bone-white, 27-inch container I can hear a steady churn of metal paddles slowly tumbling the eggshells, celery stalks, coffee grounds, and chicken bones that I’ve fed it during the day. Pausing the process and flipping open the lid to sneak in a few pizza crusts, I feel a blast of heat. Before daylight, the Wi-Fi connected container will complete its task and render all the leftovers into an undifferentiated brownish meal. My garbage is destined—literally—to be chicken feed.

The newcomer in my kitchen is a prototype of a new product called Mill, designed to integrate your food waste into the great circle of life, neutralize odors, and save the planet. It also is the first waste receptacle in my experience that plugs into an electrical socket, uses Bluetooth to talk to a phone, and has a Wi-Fi internet connection for software updates. Twenty-four years ago, when writing a Newsweek story about the nascent internet of things, I’d lobbied for the cover line “Will Your Dishwasher Be on the Internet?” over a stark image of the appliance in question. The concept was too preposterous for the editors to green-light. I can only imagine if I had pitched a garbage pail.

Mill’s founders would say that it’s a high-tech approach to a complicated situation. As alumni of Nest, the company that made thermostats into objects of technolust, they are familiar with the process. Mill began when one former Nester, Harry Tannenbaum, in the course of indulging his climate obsession, was struck by the enormity of the food waste problem. (I should disclose that Tannenbaum is a friend’s son, and I’ve known him much of his life.) Of course, this was a concern well before anyone was worried about greenhouse gas; parents commonly scolded their progeny for leaving half their dinner on the plate. “Think about the starving children!” they’d cry, never explaining how finishing your spinach would nourish hungry waifs on the other side of the planet. But now that we’re in the climate crisis, the problem goes beyond recalcitrant children. Of all the world’s food, a third is wasted. A lot of it goes into landfills, which are the third largest source of methane emissions in the US. “We’re trained to think that waste is inevitable, and we bury it and burn it,” says Tannenbaum. “But what if we could intervene, upstream, in the home to stop uneaten food from becoming food waste?”

Tannenbaum took his thoughts to Matt Rogers, who had been one of Nest’s cofounders. They began working out a plan with experts on the food chain. Eventually they came up with a system that begins with the Mill processing bin that churned away in my kitchen this week. It takes a wider range of food waste than most home composters and is way less messy. “You can put any food you don’t eat in our process—things like chicken bones and avocado pits and orange peels,” says Rogers. “We take the water out and grind it into a kind of brown powder. We blend it with things we collect with all other houses, and we create a blend that’s an ingredient for chicken feed.”

Oh, and don’t call it garbage. It’s nutrition! Just no longer your nutrition. “It’s not garbage; it’s valuable!” says Kristen Virdone, Mill’s director of product. “Once you realize that, the equation starts to make sense.”  

Courtesy of Mill

Courtesy of Mill

Once the cofounders settled on their plan, they ran the Silicon Valley playbook to make it into a company. They scooped up millions in VC funding. They hired an Apple-esque industrial designer who created something that would look at home in a Nancy Meyers flick. They devised a super-dense charcoal filter to absorb food odors. They made a deal with the postal service to pick up the digested grounds and ship them to a Mill facility. They designed a slick app. And they spent a spit load to get the domain. “You only launch once,” says Rogers of that last expense. “If I’m going to be a founder again, we’re going to do this for real.” Mill already has 100 employees.

This isn’t your usual startup, but something that wants to change a way of life that’s gone on for centuries. Not to mention how it might affect Pizza Rat. So I had questions.

How do you make sure that the stuff people toss isn’t toxic? Rogers says that the heat and dehydration get rid of bacteria and that the food grounds are further processed after they reach Mill facilities. 

via Wired Top Stories

January 20, 2023 at 08:15AM

It’s Not Sci-Fi—NASA Is Funding These Mind-Blowing Projects

Mike LaPointe has the envious job of figuring out how to get space exploration to the science fiction future.

He and his colleagues fund high-risk, high-reward projects as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC, which last week announced grants to 14 teams exploring fantastical ideas. Many of them won’t pan out. But some—perhaps the lunar oxygen pipeline or the space telescope mirror that’s actually built in space—could become game changers.

“We’re looking at anything from back-of-the-napkin kind of concepts to things that are conceptualized but not developed yet,” LaPointe says. “These are things looking 20 to 30 years down the road to see how we could drastically improve or enable new types of NASA missions.” For example, while efforts to slightly boost a chemical rocket engine’s efficiency would be laudable, that’s not far out enough for the program. A proposal for a completely new system that could replace chemical rockets would fit right in.

NASA awards these grants annually, mostly to academic researchers in the United States. This new batch of awards is for Phase 1 projects, which each receive $175,000 to conduct a nine-month study that researchers will use to lay out their plans in more detail, run tests, and design prototypes. A promising few will make it to Phase 2 and get $600,000 for a two-year study. After that, NASA will award $2 million to a single exceptional project to fund a two-year Phase 3 study. 

Some of the competitors may ultimately find a home at NASA or with a commercial partner; others may have an indirect effect on space exploration by paving the way to spin off technologies. For example, the startup Freefall Aerospace’s inflatable space antenna began as an NIAC project. A NIAC proposal for a rotorcraft on the Red Planet inspired the Martian helicopter Ingenuity.

One of this year’s winners is a proposal to design a habitat assembled from building materials grown on Mars—substances generated by fungi and bacteria. It’s hard to send big, heavy things, like a housing structure, to space. The launch cost is prohibitive, and you have to squeeze it atop a rocket and stick the landing on Mars too. But this project, developed by mechanical and materials engineer Congrui Jin and her colleagues at the University of Nebraska, explores the idea of self-growing building blocks. 

These fungi or bacteria start small, but they gradually grow filaments and tendrils to fill the space available to them. “We call them self-healing materials,” says Jin, whose research group has used them to create biominerals and biopolymers that fill cracks in concrete. “We want to take it one step further to develop self-growing materials.”

In a bioreactor on Mars, such materials would grow into sturdy bricks. The process would be costly on Earth, but since the Red Planet lacks concrete and construction workers, it could make more economic sense there. During her NIAC study, Jin plans to determine whether the growing process could be sped up from months to days, and how long the materials could survive in the harsh Martian environment.

via Wired Top Stories

January 20, 2023 at 06:07AM