Science & Technology

WASHINGTON: More than 50 years after the last Apollo mission, the United States will try once again to land a craft on the Moon on January 25, said the head of what could be the first private company to successfully touch down on the lunar surface.

The lander, named Peregrine, will have no one on board.
It was developed by American company Astrobotic, whose CEO John Thornton said it will carry NASA instruments to study the lunar environment in anticipation of NASA’s Artemis manned missions.
Several years ago, NASA opted to commission US companies to send scientific experiments and technologies to the Moon — a programme called CLPS.
These fixed-price contracts should make it possible to develop a lunar economy, and provide transport services at a lower cost.
“One of the big challenges of what we’re attempting here is attempting a launch and landing on the surface Moon for a fraction of what it would otherwise cost,” said Thornton on Wednesday at a press briefing at his company’s base in Pittsburgh.

“Only about half of the missions that have gone to the surface of the Moon have been successful,” he said. “So it’s certainly a daunting challenge. I’m going to be terrified and thrilled all at once at every stage of this.”
Takeoff is scheduled for December 24 from Florida aboard the inaugural flight of the new rocket from the ULA industrial group, named Vulcan Centaur.
The probe will then take “a few days” to reach lunar orbit, but will have to wait until January 25 before attempting landing, so that light conditions at the target location are right, Thornton said.
The descent will be carried out autonomously, without human intervention, but will be monitored from the company’s control center.

PARIS: Scientists proposed a novel idea on Wednesday that could solve two of the world’s mysteries at once — one that passes over our heads every night, and one that sits far below our feet.

The first mystery has puzzled everyone from scientists to inquisitive children for millennia: where did the Moon come from? The leading theory is that the Moon was created 4.5 billion years ago when a would-be planet the size of Mars smashed into the still-forming Earth.

This epic collision between early Earth and the proto-planet called Theia shot an enormous amount of debris into orbit, which formed what would become the Moon.
Or so the theory goes. Despite decades of effort, scientists have not been able to find any evidence of Theia’s existence. New US-led research, published in the journal Nature, suggests they might have been looking in the wrong direction.

Around 2,900 kilometres below Earth’s surface, two massive “blobs” have baffled geologists since seismic waves revealed their existence in the 1980s. These continent-sized clumps of material straddle the bottom of Earth’s rocky mantle near its molten core, one below Africa and the other underneath the Pacific Ocean.

Scientists have determined that the blobs are much hotter and more dense that the surrounding rock, but much else about them remains a mystery.
The new research indicates the blobs are “buried relics” of Theia that entered into Earth during their formative collision — and have been hiding near our planet’s heart ever since.

As well as creating the Moon, this collision and the remnants it left behind may have helped Earth become the unique life-hosting planet it is today, the researchers proposed.

Qian Yuan, a geodynamics researcher at the California Institute of Technology and the study’s lead author, said it is “very, very strange” that no evidence of the Theia impact has been found.

It was during a class held by a planetary scientist discussing this mystery that Yuan first connected the dots. “Where is the impactor? My answer is: it’s in the Earth,” he said. The planetary scientist holding the class had never heard of the blobs.

The research has since required experts in the often separate fields of space and geology to join forces. Yuan said that when Theia smashed into proto-Earth, it was travelling at more than 10 kilometres (six miles) a second, a speed that allowed some of it to penetrate “very deep into the Earth’s lower mantle”.

A video developed by the team simulating this process illustrates how clumps of Theia’s mantle tens of kilometres wide swirled inside Earth. As the mostly molten Theia material cooled and solidified, its high level of iron caused it to sink down to the border of Earth’s mantle and core, the scientists proposed.
Over the years it accumulated into two separate blobs — officially called large low-velocity provinces (LLVPs) — that are now each larger than the Moon, Yuan said.

Testing a theory based so far back in time — and so deep under Earth — is incredibly difficult, and Yuan emphasised that their modelling could not be “100 per cent” certain.
But if true, the implications could be immense. Earth remains the only planet in the universe known to be capable of supporting life.

The “X” platform (formerly Twitter) launched two new subscriptions on Friday, exactly a year after Elon Musk bought the social network, which is currently suffering from financial difficulties, reports Al-Rai daily.

Users can now choose from three plans: the Basic plan, the standard plan (Premium, formerly known as the “Blue” service), and the premium plan (Premium +), at prices of $3, $8, and $16 per month, respectively.

In addition to the benefits included in the Premium plan, Premium+ subscribers will benefit from better viewing of their messages (giving them a greater chance of being read and generating interactions), and they will not see any cross-platform advertising.

The cheapest option includes basic editing tools (including the ability to correct a message or post longer videos), two-factor authentication, but no access to creator tools (which allow for revenue) and the famous blue verification checkmark.

The subscription to the “Blue” service was launched chaotically in the months following the Tesla CEO’s acquisition of Twitter for $44 billion, and its goal was to diversify sources of income and make account verification available to all interested users.

Whereas the blue verification mark was previously free and limited to specific categories of users with a certain level of fame, the feature has become paid but available to everyone.

Between this method and the sharp decline in content control, the use of the platform has become more confusing, with the increase of fake accounts whose owners buy the blue verification mark and exploit it to spread false information or rumors.
Many advertisers chose to withdraw from X. The platform’s value fell to $20 billion, and advertising revenues fell by half, according to Elon Musk. The network may become pay-for-all: in New Zealand and the Philippines, new users must pay $1 each year to use the app.
The network justified this move by seeking to curb automated accounts that could be used to artificially amplify political messages, for example.
The billionaire hopes to turn the platform into a multi-use application, similar to the Chinese WeChat model, which works as a messaging and online payment service.
Musk began testing adding a tool to make direct audio and video calls from “X”.

On Friday, he wrote the word “Freedom” on his personal page, republishing his message that he wrote a year ago, shortly after the takeover, “The bird is free,” in reference to Twitter’s blue bird, a slogan that is no longer used.

A manager at artificial intelligence firm OpenAI caused consternation recently by writing that she just had “a quite emotional, personal conversation” with her firm’s viral chatbot ChatGPT. “Never tried therapy before but this is probably it?” Lilian Weng posted on X, formerly Twitter, prompting a torrent of negative commentary accusing her of downplaying mental illness.

However, Weng’s take on her interaction with ChatGPT may be explained by a version of the placebo effect outlined this week by research in the Nature Machine Intelligence journal. A team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Arizona State University asked more than 300 participants to interact with mental health AI programs and primed them on what to expect. Some were told the chatbot was empathetic, others that it was manipulative and a third group that it was neutral.

Those who were told they were talking with a caring chatbot were far more likely than the other groups to see their chatbot therapists as trustworthy. “From this study, we see that to some extent the AI is the AI of the beholder,” said report co-author Pat Pataranutaporn. Buzzy startups have been pushing AI apps offering therapy, companionship and other mental health support for years now—and it is big business. But the field remains a lightning rod for controversy.

‘Weird, empty’
Like every other sector that AI is threatening to disrupt, critics are concerned that bots will eventually replace human workers rather than complement them. And with mental health, the concern is that bots are unlikely to do a great job. “Therapy is for mental well-being and it’s hard work,” Cher Scarlett, an activist and programmer, wrote in response to Weng’s initial post on X. “Vibing to yourself is fine and all but it’s not the same.” Compounding the general fear over AI, some apps in the mental health space have a chequered recent history.
Users of Replika, a popular AI companion that is sometimes marketed as bringing mental health benefits, have long complained that the bot can be sex obsessed and abusive. Separately, a US nonprofit called Koko ran an experiment in February with 4,000 clients offering counseling using GPT-3, finding that automated responses simply did not work as therapy.
“Simulated empathy feels weird, empty,” the firm’s co-founder, Rob Morris, wrote on X. His findings were similar to the MIT/Arizona researchers, who said some participants likened the chatbot experience to “talking to a brick wall”. But Morris was later forced to defend himself after widespread criticism of his experiment, mostly because it was unclear if his clients were aware of their participation.

‘Lower expectations’
David Shaw from Basel University, who was not involved in the MIT/Arizona study, told AFP the findings were not surprising. But he pointed out: “It seems none of the participants were actually told all chatbots bullshit.” That, he said, may be the most accurate primer of all. Yet the chatbot-as-therapist idea is intertwined with the 1960s roots of the technology.
ELIZA, the first chatbot, was developed to simulate a type of psychotherapy. The MIT/Arizona researchers used ELIZA for half the participants and GPT-3 for the other half. Although the effect was much stronger with GPT-3, users primed for positivity still generally regarded ELIZA as trustworthy.
So it is hardly surprising that Weng would be glowing about her interactions with ChatGPT—she works for the company that makes it. The MIT/Arizona researchers said society needed to get a grip on the narratives around AI. “The way that AI is presented to society matters because it changes how AI is experienced,” the paper argued. “It may be desirable to prime a user to have lower or more negative expectations.”—AFP

The social media platform X will begin offering video and audio calling, owner Elon Musk announced on Thursday, a step towards turning the former Twitter into an “everything app”.
“Video & audio calls coming to X,” Musk wrote in a post on the platform, without specifying when the new features would be available.

The calling features would work on iOS, Android, Mac and PC systems, and no phone number would be needed, he said.
“X is the effective global address book,” the billionaire added. “That set of factors is unique.”
Last month, Musk and his newly hired chief executive Linda Yaccarino announced the rebranding of Twitter as X, saying it would become an “everything app” inspired by China’s WeChat that would allow users to socialize as well as handle their finances.
X’s payment branch Twitter Payments LLC was granted a “crucial” currency transmitter license from the US state of Rhode Island on Monday, allowing it to “engage in cryptocurrency-related activities” such as exchanges, wallets and payment processors, the crypto website CoinWire reported this week.
The license allows X to “securely store, transfer, and facilitate the exchange of digital assets on behalf of its users,” according to CoinWire.
Since Musk bought Twitter last October, the platform’s advertising business has collapsed as marketers soured on his management style and mass firings that gutted content moderation.
In response, the tycoon has moved towards building a subscriber base and pay model in a search for new revenue.
Many users and advertisers alike have responded adversely to the site’s new charges for previously free services, as well as its changes to content moderation and the return of previously banned far-right accounts.
Musk also killed off the Twitter logo, replacing its globally recognized blue bird with a white X.

PARIS: Restoring the power of speech to those who have lost it through illness or accident is becoming an ever more plausible concept, based on results from two brain implants that show encouraging results, researchers say.

Pat Bennett, 68, was a dynamic and sporty human resources senior executive before being diagnosed more than a decade ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neural disorder resulting from damage to nerves that transmit data from the brain and spinal cord to and from the rest of the body.

The ailment, which attacks neutrons controlling movement, is neurodegenerative and progressively shuts down a patient’s movement to the point of paralysis.
Pat started out experiencing difficulty in enunciating words, then eventually lost the ability to speak entirely.

But important advances are being made in tackling such disorders through implants.
The journal Nature reported on Wednesday that researchers from Stanford University’s department of neuroscience in March last year implanted into Pat’s brain four small squares of 64 micro-electrodes made of silicone.
Penetrating a mere 1.5 millimetres into the cerebral cortex, they record electrical signals produced by the areas of the brain that are linked to the production of language.
The signals produced are conveyed outside the skull via a bundle of cables and processed by an algorithm.

‘Fluid conversation’
Over four months the system “learned” to interpret the signals’ meanings by associating them with phonemes — units of sound that distinguish one word from another — and processing them with the help of a language model.
“With these new studies it is now possible to imagine a future where we can restore fluid conversation with someone with paralysis,” Frank Willett, Stanford professor and co-author of the study, told reporters.
Using her brain-computer interface (BCI) machine, Pat Bennett can speak via a screen at more than 60 words a minute.
That is short of the 150 to 200 words per minute for a standard conversation, but still more than three times faster than the previous machine-aided mark from 2021, when the Stanford team took charge of her case.
Moreover, the error rate for a 50-word vocabulary has dropped to below 10 per cent from 20pc previously.

In a second test, Edward Chang, chair of neurological surgery at the University of California San Francisco and his team used a device resting on a thin strip of 253 electrodes placed on cortical material.

Its performance proved comparable to that of the Stanford team’s system in obtaining a median of 78 words per minute, or five times faster than before.

It was a major leap forward for the patient, a paraplegic since suffering a brainstem haemorrhage who had previously been able to communicate only at a maximum 14 words per minute, through a technique relying on interpreting head movements.
In both these two tests the rate of error rises to around 25pc when patients use a vocabulary extending to thousands of words.
The particularity of Chang’s system is that it is based on analysis of the signals emitted not only in brain areas directly linked to language but also more broadly in the sensorimotor cortex.

DHAHRAN: Armed with a backpack full of heavy gear and a quiet confidence, 24-year-old Mohammed Ghazi takes a deep breath as he puts his work goggles on. Then the magic, or buzzing, begins.
At the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture’s (Ithra) library, the quiet space jolts to life as Ghazi’s drone takes flight. While photographers are often spotted at the stunning library, it is unusual to see images being captured by a drone during working hours.
Ghazi, who has many family members in Dhahran, feels a personal connection to the city. On getting the rare opportunity to fly his drone camera at Ithra’s library, he told Arab News: “I always thought ‘I can’t wait for the chance to get to drone it,’ which is not that easy. No one gets to drone Ithra. So it is a real honor to get to say that I was able to — and not outside, inside.”
The drone flies over the bookshelves and above visitors. It is almost enough to give you motion sickness — but Ghazi remains unfazed. As the son of a pilot, flying is in his blood.
With the use of drones, Mohammed Ghazi intends to tell the visual stories of the Kingdom’s many regions and its people. (Supplied) From a very young age, he would visit his father at work in the cockpit. The experience propelled him to pursue that same love but with his own take on it.
“I gravitated toward drones, which is fun, because my dad was a pilot for Saudia Airlines,” he said. Ghazi had meant to follow in his father’s footsteps, but eventually ended up going to art school.
Born in Jeddah, Ghazi moved to the US when he was two years old. During his childhood in Philadelphia he developed a love of films, and when it was time to choose a major for university, he opted for a bachelor’s in film design and production.
Ghazi’s mother enrolled at the same university to earn her master’s degree in art education. They were in some of the same classes, which led to some healthy competition between mother and son.
He never stopped longing to visit Saudi Arabia, and when classes shifted to online learning during COVID-19, he jumped at the chance to visit his hometown. It was meant to be a short trip to visit family in Jeddah, but Ghazi was amazed at how different yet familiar his birthplace was.

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