A supercomputer named Watson defeated two human contestants on "Jeopardy!" Wednesday, marking a major milestone in artificial intelligence. "This is the most significant breakthrough of this century," one computing expert tells the AP. "I know the phones are ringing off the hook with interest in Watson systems. The Internet may trump Watson, but for this century, it's the most significant advance in computing."

It took 25 IBM scientists four years to create Watson, which is designed specifically to compete in trivia contests, but it only took Watson three days to beat two of the best "Jeopardy!" contestants in the show's history. The computer won $77,147 over the three-day, two-game span, easily surpassing Ken Jennings' $24,000 and Brad Rutter's $21,600. It made a few bizarre mistakes along the way — such as replying "What is Toronto?" to a clue under the "U.S. cities" category — but overall it proved unstoppable. As Ken Jennings, who once won a record 74 consecutive "Jeopardy!" games, wrote under his correct Final Jeopardy! solution, "I for one welcome our new computer overlords."

Watson was certainly dominating throughout most of the contest, but many computing experts point out that we're still far from reaching "singularity," when computers become so advanced they hold more influence over the future than humans do. "I've been in this field for 25 years and no matter what advances we make, it's not like we feel we're getting to the finish line," one of the Watson creators tells the AP. "There's always more you can do to bring computers to human intelligence. I'm not sure we'll ever really get there." As the dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University explains, the very fact that humans built Watson highlights how much farther we have to go. "The way to think about this is: Can Watson decide to create Watson?" he says. "We are far from there. Our ability to create is what allows us to discover and create new knowledge and technology."

(Sources: Associated Press, CNN, Washington Post)


Perhaps learning from the U.K.'s failed attempt to sell off 40,000 acres of public forest, the Obama administration on Wednesday unveiled a plan to buy swaths of private wilderness in the U.S. and open them for public use. "These are the right steps to take for our environment. But they're also the right steps to take for our country," President Obama said at a White House ceremony, arguing that the newly protected land and water will create jobs in tourism and recreation, as well as improve Americans' health by promoting outdoor activities. 

Dubbed "America's Great Outdoors," the program largely incorporates existing projects under the single name, the AP reports. But it also would double federal funding for land and water conservation, raising the total to $900 million, which would be spent on acquiring wilderness from private owners. On top of promoting ecological and economic health, the program also shares many goals with first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" physical fitness initiative, both of which encourage kids to spend time outside as a safeguard against obesity. "These days, our lives are only getting more complicated, more busy, and we're glued to our phones and our computers for hours on end," the president said Wednesday. "Michelle and I, we're constantly having to monitor our kids: 'Get outside. Turn off the TV. Put away the Skype.' … We have to ask ourselves: What can we do to break free from the routine and reconnect with the world around us? What can we do to get our kids off the couch and out the door?"

Not everyone thinks the "America's Great Outdoors" program is so great, however — Rep. Doc. Hastings, R-Wash., says he's worried it could restrict farming, ranching or timber production on undeveloped land. "The word 'conservation' should not be wielded as a broad, overriding excuse to restrict or prohibit Americans' access to their public lands for pleasure, sport, jobs or better quality of life," Hastings tells the AP. Critics also cite the expense and timing of such a project, but Obama counters that Abraham Lincoln set aside land for Yosemite National Park during the Civil War, and Franklin D. Roosevelt protected landmarks like Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty during the Great Depression. As for how to pay for it, Obama says much of the money would come from existing oil and gas leasing revenues: "Our attitude is if you take something out of the Earth, you have a responsibility to give a little bit back to the Earth."

(Sources: AP, TIME, BBC News)


It's official: A boom of heavy rain and snow in recent decades is at least partly due to human influence on the atmosphere, according to a groundbreaking new study in the journal Nature. It's the first major scientific paper to decisively link rising precipitation to manmade global warming, the New York Times reports, with researchers calculating that the explosion of extreme storms in the late 20th century makes sense only when humanity's greenhouse gas emissions are factored in.

The study focuses on climate trends between 1951 and 1999, and thus stops short of diagnosing any of the most recent wild weather, such as last year's devastating floods in Australia, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the U.S. But it does offer an explanation for similar events that foreshadowed the disasters of 2010, and as the Times reports, it's "likely to bolster a growing sense among climate scientists that events like the 2010 floods will become more common." Scientists have long suggested that rising temperatures will increase the likelihood of extreme weather, since warmer air holds more moisture, and more moisture in the sky leads to bigger storms. But only recently have studies begun to prove this is actually happening, since it can take years to run enough computer analyses of individual weather events, calculating whether climate change made them more or less likely. In addition to the aforementioned study, another new article in Nature also solidifies this link, reporting that record U.K. floods in 2000 were made significantly more likely by humans' greenhouse gas emissions.

Overall, the chance of severe storms on any given day worldwide rose by about 7 percent during the late 20th century, the study found, and "this 7 percent is well outside the bounds of natural variability," one of the authors tells the Times. The study is likely to draw contempt from climate change skeptics, who often argue that computer models can't simulate real-world complexity, a fact that climatologists partially acknowledge. But scientists contend such models are the only tools available to study human influence on climate, and point out they're steadily becoming more accurate. And as one of the authors of the U.K. flood study says, they'll have to continue that trend to keep up with climate change. "In the future, it won't be enough for your weather service to predict the weather," he says. "They'll have to explain it as well."

(Source: New York Times)


Vines are taking over America's tropical forests, soaking up water and nutrients as they leave fewer and fewer resources for the trees around them. That's according to a new study in the journal Ecology Letters, which examines the rapid rise of aggressive, fast-growing vines known as lianas. "They are structural parasites," says University of Wisconsin plant ecologist Stefan Schnitzer, a co-author of the study. "They use the architecture of the tree. They climb up the tree, and they put their leaves on top of the tree’s leaves."

Parts of the U.S. tropics are drying out, possibly a symptom of global warming, which is expected to intensify storms in some parts of the world while worsening droughts in others. And as Schnitzer explains, this seems to be helping lianas spread faster than their arboreal hosts. "We think tropical forests in the Americans are drying out a little bit, which would favor liana proliferation," he tells Voice of America. "We think that elevated [carbon dioxide in the atmosphere] may also favor liana proliferation, especially under a slightly drier scenario, a drier climate." Deforestation from logging and farming could also be giving lianas an edge, since the vines can recover more quickly than slow-growing trees. And once lianas have a leg up on trees, they tend to keep that advantage, since they restrict tree growth by smothering their hosts. That reduces the amount of CO2 a forest can absorb, since vines are less capable carbon sinks than trees. 

"What happens then is tropical forests will stop holding as much carbon in the form of biomass or tree trunks because there will be less growth, less carbon fixation and less carbon pulled out of the air, and that carbon will go back into the atmosphere," Schnitzer says. "When that happens, we get additional climate change from elevated CO2 in the atmosphere."

(Source: Voice of America)


London launches traffic tax, deforestation spurs deadly mudslides, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Watson competing on "Jeopardy!"): Jeopardy Productions Inc.

Photo (Beaver Creek WSA, Colorado): U.S. Bureau of Land Management

Photo (U.S. flooding, 2009): National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Photo (liana vine climbing up a tree): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.