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To Understand Why Animals Behave The Way They Do, Scientists Need AI

Studying an animal’s behavior can be a real pain for researchers. It takes hours of observing an animal in carefully-designed lab environments, or out in the wild, to glean an ounce of insight into how they act and why. For a team of biologists at Columbia University, there seemed to be a better way: set up a camera and let artificial intelligence do the tedious observing.

The researchers recently published a study about their technique in the journal eLife. 

The organism in question is a Hydra vulgaris, a tiny animal related to jellyfish and coral that tends to live in ponds. In the past, the researchers studied the animal’s nervous system and figured out which parts of its brain prompt much of its behavior. Now they’re using AI to track all of that behavior in hopes of figuring out how the two pair up.

The team used an artificial intelligence algorithm that automatically annotated the behaviors of the wormlike Hydra — all of its wiggles, pivots, stretches, and bends. They learned that the species only really engaged in six basic behaviors, which it did no matter the environmental conditions, such as the amount of light, the temperature, or the amount of food nearby.

Video Credit: Han et al, eLife, 2018

While it may seem obvious to just keep a camera on these animals and record what they do, remember that our knowledge of animal behavior is far from complete. For example, we didn’t learn until last June that aardvarks drink water because we had never seen them do it.

Now that they have the animal’s basic behaviors as well as an understanding of its neural circuitry, the researchers hope to learn how the two connect. That is: they want to map out Hydra vulgaris’ nervous system to understand exactly how it causes behavior, and to determine if (and how) it could learn new ones. Because the Hydra is a relatively simple organism and pretty easy to study, such experimentation is much more feasible (and, probably, ethical) than it would be on an animal like a dog, cat, or person.

Of particular interest: the Hydra’s ability to carry on with business as usual, even when the biologists were messing around with its environment. The researchers speculate that, in the distant future, understanding this ability could lead to better machines, and vehicles that could withstand extreme environments.

For now, the algorithm these scientists develop could further our understanding of other animals, and even groups of animals, by keeping a watchful eye over them and categorizing everything they do. In the past, this was one of the most arduous tasks for behavioral analysis. It’s tedious and inherently biased, as all human analysis of animal behavior is, since researchers might project intent onto an animal’s behavior, or mis-categorize a particular action.

By handing the keys over to an AI, we can eliminate most of those errors. The result: a better assessment of how, and why, animals do what they do.

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Planet Earth

Geneticists have clarified the origin of American slaves

Frame from the movie "Django Unchained" - imdb.com

It is the largest study of DNA from people living in the Americas. It shows where the slaves came from in the United States and reveals the details of their abuse.

The work includes information on 50 thousand people, of which 30 thousand are of African origin. The article, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics , serves as “evidence that genetics can shed light on history,” said Alondra Nelson, professor of social sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

The study began with the work of Joanna Mountain, senior director of research at the company 23andMe. Together with the team, she created a genetic database, which included mainly information about the company’s clients, whose grandparents were born in regions where slavery flourished. Dr. Stephen Micheletti, the geneticist at 23andMe who led the study, compared it to data from the Slave Travels digital project, which contains information about the people brought in: information on ports of embarkation and disembarkation, the number of enslaved men, women and children. He also collaborated with historians to learn more about the plight of African regions, such as contemporary Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the 17th and 19th centuries.

Scientists have found out: the DNA of the study participants from the United States showed their Nigerian origin. This means that there are far more ships that transported enslaved people directly to America from Nigeria than would be expected based on historical records. 

At first, historians “could not believe how many Nigerian ancestors were there in the United States,” Micheletti said. 

Later, after consulting with experts, the study authors learned that slaves were first sent to the British Caribbean Islands, and only then sold to the Americans.

Percentage of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Red denotes the descendants of slaves from Senegal and Gambia, blue - from the west coast of Africa, green - from Nigeria, orange - from Congo / © Stephen Micheletti
Percentage of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Red denotes the descendants of slaves from Senegal and Gambia, blue – from the west coast of Africa, green – from Nigeria, orange – from Congo / © Stephen Micheletti

Experts estimate that more than half of the people were brought into the United States and Latin America from West Africa. The study found that the modern black population is genetically related to six regions, among them Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria and Benin. Moreover, according to historical sources, there were more regions from which slaves were exported.

The work also showed that the brought women made a much greater contribution to the modern gene pool than men, although there were much fewer of them. Scientists have calculated that in the United States there are 1.5 times more descendants of slaves, and in Latin America and the Caribbean – 13-17 times. Moreover, in the United States, European men have influenced the modern gene pool of people of African descent three times more than European women, and 25 times more in the Caribbean.

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Planet Earth

The collapse of humanity is predicted with a 90% probability

A new study by theoretical physicists cites truly horrifying numbers. The results of a great deal of work have shown that if human society continues to move in the same direction, then civilization in the form in which we know it now will come to an “irreversible collapse” in a few decades.

The research findings, published in Scientific Reports, are a model for our future. The work is based on data on current rates of deforestation and other resource use. Scientists say that even the most positive forecasts show a 90% chance of disaster.

Physicists at the Alan Turing Institute and Tarapaki University predict that the last forests on Earth will be cleared somewhere between 100 and 200 years of this century.

Combined with global population changes and resource consumption, this is an incredible blow to humanity. In light of this, scientists say that society as we know it may cease to exist within the next 20 to 40 years. There is good news, the researchers note that from a global perspective, the rate of deforestation has actually slowed in recent years.

However, they are still too large and continue to suffer losses as newly planted trees cannot protect the environment as well as mature forests.

“Calculations show that while maintaining the real rates of population growth and consumption of resources, in particular forest resources, we have several decades left before the irreversible collapse of our civilization,” the article says.

A fundamental transformation will be required to prevent collapse. The authors say that the main driving force behind the collapse right now is that the consumption of planetary resources is not taken seriously because it is driven by the economy.

Our civilization gives preference to the interests of individuals, countries or territories, without caring about the entire ecosystem. Therefore, in order to stop the catastrophe, people need to reconsider the current model of society, and accept the one that puts the interests of the ecosystem above the individual.

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Planet Earth

Overpopulation is canceled. Scientists predict a drop in the number of people on Earth

In the next fifty years, the world’s population will decrease, according to American scientists. Moreover, by the end of the century, more than half of humanity will be very old. These data contradict previous forecasts. 

Overpopulation is near

In the middle of the twentieth century, there were about three billion people on Earth. In 1987 – already five, 1999 – six, in 2011 – seven. Based on these data, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) predicted that by 2100 the world’s population will exceed ten billion, and possibly approach 15 billion if the birth rate increases. 

So far, this indicator has only been declining: in the 1950s, there were six children per woman, in 2011 – about two. When forecasting growth, experts based on the fact that humanity as a whole lives better and longer. Australian scientists, after analyzing the statistics of the WHO and the UN, confirmed this scenario. 

They noted that the number of people would grow steadily even if most countries introduced a one-family-one-child policy.Even a global military conflict will not prevent the growth, in which as many people will die as in the First and Second World Wars combined. By 2100, the population will still increase to ten billion, the authors of the work emphasized.

People at the busy intersection of Shibuya district in Tokyo
People at the busy intersection of Shibuya district in Tokyo

According to American researchers, humanity will step over the ten-billion-dollar milestone even earlier – in 2053. True, a rapid leap will happen at the expense of the third world countries, but in developed countries, the population, on the contrary, will significantly decrease. So, Japan will lose 24.7 million citizens, Europe – 12, Russia – 7.9. The population of Africa will double to 2.5 billion.According to researchers from the University of Adelaide, because of this in the near future, people will face a global shortage of water and food. Overpopulation also threatens severe climate change.

Downtrend

The first more cautious forecasts appeared in 2014. An international team of scientists, based on UN data collected before 2012, came to the conclusion that the world’s population by 2100 is unlikely to exceed 12 billion. Most likely, more than 9.9 billion will not work. The main growth will come from the African continent. True, even there there will be more and more elderly people, and fewer and fewer young and able-bodied ones.Now researchers are talking about a possible decline in the population in the next century.

 According to the recent work of American specialists, the indicators will continue to grow only until 2064, then, due to the massive availability of higher education and contraception, a decline will begin. At the time of peak, the planet will have 9.7 billion people, but by 2100 – already 8.8, that is, only a billion more than today. At the same time, the share of people over 80 years old will increase almost sixfold.

Mom with a child in the Japanese city of Sendai
Mom with a child in the Japanese city of Sendai

Such conclusions are the result of examining data not on fertility, but on the cohort fertility of women. That is, about the average number of children born to mothers who have not reached a certain age, in this case fifty years.In total, the work used information about the inhabitants of 195 countries. 

Based on this, scientists have calculated: by the end of this century, fewer children will be born in 183 states than are necessary for reproduction.The maximum losses will be incurred by Japan, Italy, Spain, Thailand and South Korea – the population there will decrease by half. In Russia – up to 106 million. Even China will be in trouble : by 2100, only 732 million people will remain in the country. Fertility will also fall in Africa. In Niger today, there are seven children per woman, which will drop to 1.8 by the end of the century.

Record holders for population decline according to PRB forecasts
Record holders for population decline according to PRB forecasts

Attract young and educated

If the restrained forecast comes true, then the problems with the lack of drinking water and food, which are inevitable when the planet is overpopulated, will disappear by themselves. At the same time, a high proportion of the elderly population is likely to require a restructuring of the current political and economic systems. 

They will not be able to effectively solve the problems facing a rapidly aging society, the authors of the work warn. Experts call an open migration policy of developed countries one of the possible solutions. 

According to the staff of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, the model adopted in Canada and Sweden , attracting a large number of well-educated and able-bodied migrants, can most effectively deal with such a challenge. This option, for example, will solve the problem of the aging of the European population.

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