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In the early 1990s, Kinari Webb took a year off college to join a Harvard researcher studying orangutans in Indonesia’s rainforested Gunung Palung National Park. As the aspiring primatologist dissected dung samples to determine the animals’ feeding habits, the buzz of chainsaws and the thwuuuump of falling dipterocarp trees—some of the tallest species in the world, routinely rising more than 200 feet—broke through the great apes’ calls. Despite federal protection for the land, loggers illegally, and extensively, felled trees throughout the preserve, which sits on the western coast of Borneo. In fact, some of the local research assistants who helped Webb’s team uncover scat were former loggers, including a man named Tadyn (like most natives, he does not use a surname). One day, he came to her with a gaping cut in his hand, surprisingly distraught for someone who had once fought an attacking sun bear—and won. “It wasn’t that big of a wound,” Webb recalls. “His machete had slipped. But he had terror in his eyes, the most I’ve ever seen in a person.”
For locals, a minor injury could be life-threatening. They didn’t have access to tetanus shots or antibiotics, and getting to the nearest hospital entailed a day’s journey by dugout canoe, followed by another on a motorboat and another in a car. Accessing treatment incurred costs that were astronomical relative to their incomes, so, around Gunung Palung, medical emergencies brought out the chainsaws. Because the protected areas are off-limits to the wide-scale clearing that has created lucrative palm oil plantations across Borneo, villagers often cut and sell the virgin trees. One resident Webb met downed 60 to pay for a relative’s cesarean section. As Tadyn told her, “We don’t have any other choice.”
As she continued her work in the Bornean forests in the intervening decades, Webb would discover another consequence of the tree-chopping economy: Pervasive illegal logging can also threaten public health. Disease ecologists increasingly agree that human disturbance of wildlands increases the risk of zoonotic diseases—pathogens that jump from animals to people—which helps explain why spillover events, as epidemiologists call them, are on the rise around the globe. The number of fauna-borne outbreaks quadrupled between 1980 and 2010, according to a 2014 analysis from Brown University, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that three-quarters of human illnesses discovered in recent decades originated in wildlife. The US Agency for International Development’s PREDICT program estimates that animals harbor some 700,000 as-yet-unidentified infectious baddies with the potential to make the jump to people. It takes only one of those to change the world.
We’ve traded pathogens with other creatures for millennia, but in the past, if an outbreak did occur, geographic spread was limited. Not so in the era of globalization and population booms. Ecological disturbance—whether from deforestation, natural disasters, or climate change—often puts both people and animals on the move. Species that were not typically in contact with one another may suddenly find themselves in close proximity and sharing pathogens.
(Left) Kinari Webb walks through the old-growth rainforest she works to protect. (Right) Jilli, a local who now works with Webb’s conservation efforts, tends an organic demonstration garden. Cam Webb and Stephanie Gee
More recent zoonotic spillover events—including AIDS, Ebola, MERS, and SARS—have followed a similar pattern, and COVID-19′s story comes from the same playbook. Some epidemiologists suspect that horseshoe bats passed SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the illness, to Sunda pangolins, armadillo-like creatures poached in Southeast Asian countries and sold live in markets in the now-infamous Hubei province, before the disease was ultimately transmitted to us. Brazilian biologist Gabriel Laporta was among the first to suggest that deforestation may have driven the bats and pangolins to nest in the same caves—a novel opportunity for the coronavirus to hop species.
Webb doesn’t know what unknown diseases might be lurking in the forests of Borneo (Nipah virus, which inspired the movie Contagion, hails from the region), but she has spent much of her career developing a unique conservation model that may keep zoonotic bugs in the shadows, rather than boarding planes. Her goal is to help local communities avoid risky practices surrounding logging, such as eating wild animals (often referred to by Westerners as bushmeat).
This mindset puts Webb squarely within the emerging field of planetary health, an interdisciplinary movement of scientists who view the destruction of the environment as a top public health threat. “We need to think differently about how we manage our interface with wildlife,” says Samuel Myers, director of the Planetary Health Alliance, a consortium of more than 200 universities, NGOs, research institutes, and government entities. People, he says, often intrude into habitats because “they’re trying to feed their families, so we need to give them an alternative.”
A vista of Borneo’s Gunung Palung National Park. Stephanie Gee
Webb helps form the front line of pandemic prevention. After her aha moment with Tadyn (who recovered after a little first aid), she dropped primatology and pursued a medical degree at Yale, eventually returning to Borneo to address rainforest conservation through a program that integrates sustainable agriculture, reforestation, and health care into an anti-logging economy. In 2007, she founded Alam Sehat Lestari or ASRI (loosely translated: Healthy Nature Everlasting), a nonprofit that operates clinics in villages flanking Gunung Palung and Bukit Baka Bukit Raya national parks. (Webb is also midwifing similar programs in other rainforested regions around the globe.) With philanthropic backing from entities like the Disney Conservation Fund, the facilities offer a sliding price scale for their services based on an individual’s logging practices, or lack thereof; the latter qualifies for 70 percent off. The organization also offers a chainsaw buyback program and organic farming training, a popular initiative that has helped buoy incomes, further reducing the temptation to cut down trees.
In ASRI’s first decade of operation, the number of households that log in the surrounding land dropped by nearly 90 percent, 52,000 acres of Gunung Palung forest regrew, and infant mortality fell by two-thirds. The 122,000 residents in ASRI’s service areas now have access to a level of care largely unheard of in such remote locales—all the more essential once COVID-19 entered the region.
Epidemiologists have long noted a correlation between habitat loss and outbreaks of infectious diseases, from the plague-dispersing tarbagans to malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes, warmth-loving insects that proliferate when tropical forests are reduced to denuded land pocked with mud-puddle breeding grounds. In the 1930s, parasitologist Yevgeny Pavlovsky introduced the idea that spillover events are defined not just by biological forces but also by ecological ones, a theory informed by his decades of fieldwork studying illness-spreading lice and ticks in the Soviet hinterlands.
Ecological change, however, often comes as a result of social and economic catalysts. In the 1950s, American public health pioneers Hugh Leavell and E. Gurney Clark popularized the “epidemiological triad” model of infectious disease: A pathogen, its host, and the environment in which they come together dictate the severity of an outbreak. The pair considered a pathogen’s circumstances in broad terms—ecological, cultural (e.g., wild game consumption), and political (e.g., conspiracy theorists). They argued in their 1953 Textbook of Preventive Medicine that addressing the environmental arm, the part humans can control, was necessary “to intercept the causes of disease before they involve man.”
Since then, the link between human-made environmental changes and outbreaks has been increasingly well documented. In the 1990s, wife-and-husband ecologists Felicia Keesing and Richard Ostfeld began studying the dynamics of Lyme disease in the northeastern United States. Based, respectively, at Bard College and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in the Hudson Valley—an area north of New York City known for its bucolic farms, vineyards, and escaping urbanites—the pair found that as forests gave way to McMansions, predators like snakes, owls, and foxes suffered steep declines and failed to keep white-footed mice, the critters that ferry Lyme-carrying ticks, in check.
These so-called weedy species proliferate in upended areas. “When we fragment or degrade or destroy habitat,” Ostfeld says, “we are essentially applying a filter where we’re getting rid of the species that help suppress pathogens and favoring those that tend to be good amplifiers.” Confirmed cases of Lyme in the US have doubled since the ’90s, when housing developments increasingly encroached into rural areas and created patchy forest remnants. In a 2003 study in Conservation Biology, Keesing and Ostfeld found that the risk of exposure to Lyme increases fivefold when canopied areas cover less than five acres.
Kinari Webb examines villagers on the outskirts of Borneo’s rainforests. Eric Danzer
Low biodiversity has led to numerous other outbreaks, including instances of hantavirus, Lassa fever, leishmaniasis, and West Nile virus. (In the last case, important vectors include invasive, opportunistic species, such as European house sparrows, that proliferate in urban landscapes at the expense of less adaptable native birds.) Conversely, higher biodiversity helps dilute threats by ensuring an abundance of predators keep populations of weedy species in check, and thus help slow the spread of disease.
This picture is complex, and largely incomplete. But as David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, writes, the take-home is simple: “Ecological disturbance causes diseases to emerge. Shake a tree, and things fall out.”
Quammen provides an apt visual for the Nipah virus epidemic that emerged in Southeast Asia in 1998, one of the best-documented cases of “tree shaking” leading directly to an outbreak. Malaysian microbiologists traced the disease to flying foxes (bats that look like small dogs with the wingspans of eagles) on Tioman Island, across the South China Sea from Borneo. Habitat destruction to clear land for palm oil plantations, exacerbated by El Niño–induced drought, caused the bats to migrate out of the forests and forage near industrial pig farms. They gathered food in fruit trees above the pens, and the swine gulped down the guano and infected bits of grub that rained from above. Soon farmhands and slaughterhouse workers were showing up at emergency rooms in Nipah-induced deliriums. The disease swept through the region with a fatality rate of up to 40 percent, killing more than 100. Of all cross-species interactions, sharing food with wildlife—or, worse, eating wildlife—provides pathogens with some of the best opportunities to spill over.
During her sojourn in Gunung Palung National Park as an undergrad, Webb began to witness firsthand a pathway for zoonotic transfer. Her primary task was to study how orangutan digestion helps Bornean trees germinate. (She spent her days fishing fruit seeds out of dung.) But illegal logging and the conversion of rainforest to palm oil plantations and other agriculture left the majestic primates critically endangered, in turn making any Homo sapiens presence most unwelcome to the great apes. “They do not like humans,” says Webb. “They would break off branches and throw them at us.” In Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park, where Webb later worked, she learned why: The villagers, she says, “had eaten nearly all the orangutans.”
There, the local Dayak tribes, like many indigenous groups around the world, historically subsisted on wild game, including primates, bats, and rodents—three groups of mammals epidemiologists say are prone to harboring diseases capable of attacking a human host. But these days such eating habits among the Dayak largely occur only when they’re away from home, says Webb. “It happens mainly when they’re logging: They go into the forest for weeks at a time, and they have to eat, so they hunt. It’s dangerous.”
When Webb founded ASRI in 2007, she began with a series of community meetings in the 44 villages surrounding Gunung Palung. “You are guardians of this precious rainforest that is valuable to the whole world,” Webb said to the Borneans. “What do you need as a thank-you from the world so that you can protect it?” The same two answers came up again and again. The first was access to affordable health care, a confirmation of her aha moment with Tadyn. The second? Training in organic farming.
A child receives medical care at the ASRI clinic. Chelsea Call
For locals, the chemical-free approach was a practical matter, not some groovy plan to save the planet. The Indonesian government had long promoted modern rice farming in the area, which requires expensive fertilizers and pesticides that left cultivators in debt—another incentive to keep logging. “They had heard that people in other places knew how to plant without chemicals,” says Webb, so she promptly hired an organic farmer from neighboring Java to train them.
Borneans have a tradition of slash-and-burn agriculture. As crops deplete the soil of nutrients, villagers constantly clear new plots of land. But the Javanese traditionally grow in one place year after year by enriching the earth with compost and cover crops that add nitrogen. Slash-and-burn was sustainable when populations were smaller and other pressures on the forest fewer, but in modern times it’s an ecological disaster. “They said, ‘It isn’t working for us anymore, we know we have to shift,’” Webb recalls.
At ASRI headquarters in Sukadana, the largest town in the vicinity of Gunung Palung, Jilli, the organization’s sustainable agriculture coordinator, walks barefoot past plantings of dragon fruit, bitter melon, and tomatoes propped up on a makeshift bamboo trellis. In an open-air shed, a device that resembles a pint-size rocket ship cobbled together with steel drums transforms coconut husks into a concentrated black liquid that, when sprayed on plants, helps keep pests at bay. In this demonstration garden, Jilli coaches the 17 organic farming cooperatives that have sprung up in the area since ASRI started its training program in 2008; those plots now supply about 70 percent of the produce available in local markets.
Like many of the farmers, Jilli’s a former logger. “We try to convince our friends to transition to farming,” he says through a translator. He sports a T‑shirt reading “Bertani Organik—Sehat, sejahtera” (Organic Farming—Healthy and wealthy).
Jilli’s garden lies behind ASRI’s sprawling health clinic, a cluster of airy, white buildings linked by a covered walkway. Built in 2024, it feels more like a tranquil jungle lodge than medical offices, but with 20 beds for overnight stays and facilities for childbirth and minor surgeries, it’s the closest thing to a hospital in Sukadana. Green and purple scrubs dry on a clothesline. One building is now an isolation ward.
Hendriandi, ASRI’s reforestation coordinator and one of the few COVID-19 patients in the region to date, tends native syzygium seedlings in the nursery next to Jilli’s garden. The organization pays local crews, including many former loggers, to plant the trees. Since 2007, they’ve put more than 200,000 into the ground, including many of the fruiting species like durian that orangutans adore.
Webb points out that the system makes the interconnectedness between health and the environment plain to the members of the community. “You can see it: I’m paying with seedlings because healthy forests lead to healthy people,” she says. “I’m paying with manure because manure can be used for organic farming, which is healthier for humans and for the planet.”
Seedlings in the nursery await planting. Stephanie Gee
Pandemic prevention joins a mountain of good reasons to leave nature alone. Yet balancing conservation with population growth remains a challenge. Webb believes she’s hit upon a viable model, and she’s attempting to scale it up. In Borneo, she has a discount program in the works for families who forest guardians can confirm have stopped hunting protected species. And the program’s reach can cross borders: A lack of affordable health care drives destruction of habitats in rainforest communities everywhere, she says. Already ASRI has more than 100 employees in Indonesia (twice that number in tree-planting season), and Webb has recently established a similar program in Madagascar and is launching another one in the Amazon.
Her team is one of many working across the globe on interdisciplinary efforts considered part of the field of planetary health. An initiative in Senegal, for example, will reintroduce edible native river prawns that prey on the snails that transmit the parasitic flatworm that causes schistosomiasis.
ASRI, says Planetary Health Alliance head Myers, “is a fantastic example of how to prevent the incursions into wildlife habitat that are at the heart of a lot of emerging infectious disease.” The question, in his mind, is whether its model can be sufficiently scaled. “We need to be doing this in 10 million villages.” That degree of growth demands buy-in from governments.
A fiscal analysis published in Science in July 2023 put the global investment needed to reduce zoonotic disease risk at about $30 billion per year—a pittance compared to the estimated damage from COVID-19, which ranges from $3 to $80 trillion over the next five years. The paper addresses forest conservation and measures to reduce wildlife trafficking, as well as medical and technological solutions. In Brazil, for instance, an app allows residents to report dead and afflicted fauna in hopes of identifying emerging outbreaks.
For decades, many have been ignorant of the connection between ecosystem health and infectious disease. Now, with COVID-19, more people are connecting the dots. “Part of our messaging right now is, ‘Hey, guys, you know how we’ve been telling you it’s not such a good idea to eat wild animals? Here’s some proof,’” says Webb, before recalling a soundbyte from director Febriani: “COVID-19 is a symptom of a sick planet. Planetary health is the cure.”
Hamisah, an ASRI health-care worker and chief of a nearby village (the first woman to hold the distinction in the region), has never traveled farther than the overnight trek to Jakarta, but fully understands that her community’s actions can have global implications. “When the wildlife have to go out of the forest, there’s a risk of transferring disease to humans,” she says, sitting on the floor of a medical storeroom, face mask looped around her neck. “If they are safe there and have things to eat, it’s safer for us.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization.
This story appears in the Winter 2023, Transformation issue of Popular Science.
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Summer is in full swing, and nobody would blame you if a trip to the beach or your favorite city is tempting you. But even if you are itching for a vacation outside of your living room, there’s a few things to consider—namely where you’re going and how exactly you’re going to get there.Riskiest: Any kind of shared travel
“Buses, trains, and airplanes—kinds of transportation where you’re with lots of people for a long time—are all risky,” says Prashant Kumar, the founding Director of the Global Centre for Clean Air Research at the University of Surrey. The big issue with shared travel comes down to how much space people get, cleaning protocols, how filtered the air is, and who you’re traveling with.
It’s really tough to differentiate the risk between a flight, bus ride, or train trip because they all share a mix of these highly variable factors, Kumar says. Even between two different planes, you might see different levels of cleanliness, social distancing, mask requirements, and so on. It’s kind of like going out to a restaurant, where each place is on its own to decide what protective measures are being taken. Two different planes from the same airline, or trains from the same company, might still be slightly different.
Air flow is the most crucial factor in these vehicles, says Lisa Lee, an epidemiologist and public health ethicist at Virginia Tech University. Whether you’re traveling on a train, bus, or plane, you really want to be out of range of people’s exhalations. Ideally, the vehicle you are in will have a lot of air exchange with the outside, and minimal stale air circulation. For travel modes like airplanes, it isn’t so easy to pop open a window to get a bit of fresh air if the person next to you is breathing too much in your direction. Luckily, airplanes these days actually have quite good technology that can bring outside air in to circulate inside the cabin, Lee says. When it comes to a bus or train, you might have a little more leeway in taking circulation into your own hands.
“The more outside air you can bring in and exchange with inside air the better,” Lee explains.
But the bottom line, says Lee, is that out of these options, the safest mode of transportation is the one where you spend the least amount of time with the fewest number of people. So if you had to choose between a less crowded airplane flight for two hours versus a squished bus for eight, maybe go ahead and get those air miles.Risky: Cars
Road tripping is a tempting alternative to a flight or Greyhound ride, and for the most part it is much safer than any sort of public transportation. If you’re traveling with people from your household or quarantine “pod,” then riding in a car is much safer than other types of transportation in terms of COVID-related risks, says Lee.
“Even with things like having to stop for gas, having to stop for restroom breaks, or picking up snacks, your risk of exposure is similar to everyday life events like getting groceries,” she says.
What’s important to consider when traveling by car, however, is that the more stops you make, the riskier it gets. Every time you exit the car and interact in shared spaces with shared surfaces, you increase your risk, Lee explains. And while you can control who is in your car, you don’t have any control over how people conduct themselves in gas stations or fast-food restaurants.
So, a one shot drive on one tank of gas is much safer than a multi-day road trip, especially considering if you’re staying at hotels or other accommodations overnight, which opens a whole new can of worms in terms of risks for you and whoever else is in the hotel. Just as in planes, buses, or trains, being in hotels adds a handful of variables that you can’t necessarily control. If your road trip will entail four motel stays through multiple COVID hot-spots, maybe save that escapade for a future date where you won’t have to be so stressed about carrying along or catching a virus.Not risky: Staying home
Unfortunately, the safest way to do any sort of exploration is still through the worldwide web on your couch at home. With new cases around the US still growing, traveling regardless of mode of transportation confers risk not only to yourselves but those you come in contact with. Try satiating your travel bug with travel documentaries, books, or even a whirl on good old Google Earth.
2024 is the year of the staycation. Try an indoor or backyard camping trip. In fact, backyards are the perfect arena for all kinds of kid-friendly shenanigans like mini-Olympic yard games or a movie screening on a projector. If you’re short on outdoor space, treat yourself to a DIY spa day. You could even spruce up and redecorate your living situation to make it feel like a whole new environment.
Of course, the pandemic does not mean we need to halt our lives completely, says Kumar, but we all need to make informed decisions and know what it takes to stay safe. And sometimes that means creating your own vacation at home, and saving up for an even more special trip next year.Bonus round: Boats
But on the other hand, boats often have people milling about free range, which can make social distancing difficult. Giant boats where hordes of people are crammed into cabins, like cruise ships, are an infectious disease nightmare and are to be avoided at all costs. But so long as your boat of choice is not super packed, and has ample space for distancing, you may be in luck.
If you’re fortunate enough to have access to a small, private boat, that could be a great way to get to the beach for some water time. Just make sure you’re either with your quaranteam, again, or have enough square footage for safe distancing.
So is the only good option for getting to Europe a slow boat across the Atlantic? Not really. “If I were going on a trip to London, I’d rather not be on a boat for a week. I’d much rather be on a plane where I’m only on there for a few hours,” Lee says. Being stuck with a bunch of people, even with ideal ventilation, is quite literally the stuff of coronavirus nightmares.
But, for a short day trip on a boat with just your pod, the journey would kind of be like taking a car trip, but with more airflow and sunshine. So if you go this route, take the same precautions as you would for a road trip, and certainly don’t forget your sunscreen.
Robotics brings together a wide range of different machines including Pepper partnering with soft-bank; the Boston Dynamics humanoid robot Atlas, which can do backflips in movies and television and a plethora of humanoids and Bots that leave the human mind with awe and inspiration to achieve new tech heights. Much that the technology that powers robotics continues to achieve new pinnacle; people not familiar with the developments tend to hold polarized views, ranging from unrealistically high expectations of robots with human-level intelligence, or an underestimation of the potential of new research and technologies. Over the past years, questions have been asked about what is actually going on in deep reinforcement learning and robotics industry. How are AI-enabled robots different from traditional ones and their underlying potential to revolutionize various industries, what is the new excitement the robotics industry holds for the future. These questions point towards the challenging world of robotics and how difficult it can go to understand the current technological progress and industry landscape, to enable tech giants and newbies alike to make predictions for the future.The Uniqueness Behind the AI powered Robots
So what is about the robot evolution from the automation to autonomy? What started off as a quest to make routine work easy through automation has come a long way towards full robot autonomy? AI brings a game changer approach to robotics by enabling a move away from automation to true self-directed autonomy. When the robot needs to handle several tasks, or respond to humans or changes in the environment, it essentially needs certain levels of autonomy. The path from autonomy has been an uphill but a truly worthwhile change. According to a source, the evolution of robots can be explained by burrowing case studies from the autonomous car space. For an easy explanation of the process underlined below, robots are defined as the programmable machines capable of carrying out complex actions automatically. • Level 0 stage is also called as the No automation stage where people operate machines, there is no automation without any robotic involvement. • Level 1 stage is the driver assistance level, where a single function or task is automated, but the robot does not necessarily use information about the environment. Traditionally, robots are deployed in automotive or manufacturing industries programmed to repeatedly perform specific tasks with a high precision and speed. • Level 2 stands for partial automation where a machine assists with certain functions, using sensory input from the environment to automate some operational decisions. Examples include identifying and handling different objects with a robotic vision sensor. In this stage, robots lack the ability to deal with surprises, new objects or changes. • Level 3 is the Conditional autonomy where the machine controls the entire environment monitoring, but still requires a human’s intervention and attention for unpredictable events. • Level 4 is the high autonomy stage where the machine is fully autonomous in certain situations or defined areas. • Level 5 is the complete autonomy level powering the machine with full automation in all situations.The Current Stage of Automation
Today, a majority of robots deployed in factories are non-feedback controlled, or open-looped implying that their actions are independent from sensor feedback as that happens in level 1 stage as discussed above. Few robots in the business act and take commands based on sensor feedback as that happens in Level 2. A collaborative robot, or co-bot, is designed to be more versatile empowered to work with humans; however, the trade-off is less powerful and happens at lower speeds, especially when compared to industrial robots. Though a co-bot is relatively easier to program, it is not necessarily autonomous to handle. There is often a need of human workers to handhold a co-bot every whenever there is any change in the environment or the task. Pilot projects integrated with AI-enabled robots, have started to become a regular feature incorporating a Level 3 or 4 autonomy, like warehouse piece-picking. Traditional computer vision cannot handle a wide variety of objects like that in e-commerce because each robot needs to be programmed beforehand and each item needs to be registered. However reinforcement learning and deep learning has enabled robots to learn to handle different objects with minimum human assistance. In the times to come, there might be some goods that robots have never encountered before which would need a support system and a demonstration from human workers bringing the level 3 of automation. In the times to come, improvements will be seen into algorithms to get closer to full autonomy as the robots collect more data and improve through trial and error in Level 4. Taking a clue from the autonomous car industry, robotics startups are additionally taking different approaches to autonomy for their robots. Some aspects believe in a collaborative future between robots and humans, and focus on Level 3 mastery. While in a fully autonomous future, skipping Level 3 and focusing on Level 4, and eventually on Level 5 will be difficult to assess the actual level of autonomy.The Age of AI-Enabled Robots in Industries
Taking the brighter side, robots are being used in a lot more use cases and industries than ever before. AI-enabled robots are running warehouses, in a semi-controlled environment, picking up critical pieces that are fault-tolerant tasks. On the other hand, autonomous home or surgical robots will be a reality of the future, as there are uncertainties in the operating environment, where some tasks are not recoverable. With the change in time, the human eyes will see more AI-enabled robots being used across industries and scenarios as reliability and technology precision improves. The world has seen only about 3 million robots, most of which work on welding, assembly and handling tasks. There have been very few robot arms being used in varied industries like agriculture, industries or warehouses apart from electronics and automotive units, due to the limitation of computer vision.
Robotics brings together a wide range of different machines including Pepper partnering with soft-bank; the Boston Dynamics humanoid robot Atlas, which can do backflips in movies and television and a plethora of humanoids and Bots that leave the human mind with awe and inspiration to achieve new tech heights. Much that the technology that powers robotics continues to achieve new pinnacle; people not familiar with the developments tend to hold polarized views, ranging from unrealistically high expectations of robots with human-level intelligence, or an underestimation of the potential of new research and technologies. Over the past years, questions have been asked about what is actually going on in deep reinforcement learning and robotics industry. How are AI-enabled robots different from traditional ones and their underlying potential to revolutionize various industries, what is the new excitement the robotics industry holds for the future. These questions point towards the challenging world of robotics and how difficult it can go to understand the current technological progress and industry landscape, to enable tech giants and newbies alike to make predictions for the chúng tôi what is about the robot evolution from the automation to autonomy? What started off as a quest to make routine work easy through automation has come a long way towards full robot autonomy? AI brings a game changer approach to robotics by enabling a move away from automation to true self-directed autonomy. When the robot needs to handle several tasks, or respond to humans or changes in the environment, it essentially needs certain levels of autonomy. The path from autonomy has been an uphill but a truly worthwhile change. According to a source, the evolution of robots can be explained by burrowing case studies from the autonomous car space. For an easy explanation of the process underlined below, robots are defined as the programmable machines capable of carrying out complex actions automatically. • Level 0 stage is also called as the No automation stage where people operate machines, there is no automation without any robotic involvement. • Level 1 stage is the driver assistance level, where a single function or task is automated, but the robot does not necessarily use information about the environment. Traditionally, robots are deployed in automotive or manufacturing industries programmed to repeatedly perform specific tasks with a high precision and speed. • Level 2 stands for partial automation where a machine assists with certain functions, using sensory input from the environment to automate some operational decisions. Examples include identifying and handling different objects with a robotic vision sensor. In this stage, robots lack the ability to deal with surprises, new objects or changes. • Level 3 is the Conditional autonomy where the machine controls the entire environment monitoring, but still requires a human’s intervention and attention for unpredictable events. • Level 4 is the high autonomy stage where the machine is fully autonomous in certain situations or defined areas. • Level 5 is the complete autonomy level powering the machine with full automation in all situations.Today, a majority of robots deployed in factories are non-feedback controlled, or open-looped implying that their actions are independent from sensor feedback as that happens in level 1 stage as discussed above. Few robots in the business act and take commands based on sensor feedback as that happens in Level 2. A collaborative robot, or co-bot, is designed to be more versatile empowered to work with humans; however, the trade-off is less powerful and happens at lower speeds, especially when compared to industrial robots. Though a co-bot is relatively easier to program, it is not necessarily autonomous to handle. There is often a need of human workers to handhold a co-bot every whenever there is any change in the environment or the task. Pilot projects integrated with AI-enabled robots, have started to become a regular feature incorporating a Level 3 or 4 autonomy, like warehouse piece-picking. Traditional computer vision cannot handle a wide variety of objects like that in e-commerce because each robot needs to be programmed beforehand and each item needs to be registered. However reinforcement learning and deep learning has enabled robots to learn to handle different objects with minimum human assistance. In the times to come, there might be some goods that robots have never encountered before which would need a support system and a demonstration from human workers bringing the level 3 of automation. In the times to come, improvements will be seen into algorithms to get closer to full autonomy as the robots collect more data and improve through trial and error in Level 4. Taking a clue from the autonomous car industry, robotics startups are additionally taking different approaches to autonomy for their robots. Some aspects believe in a collaborative future between robots and humans, and focus on Level 3 mastery. While in a fully autonomous future, skipping Level 3 and focusing on Level 4, and eventually on Level 5 will be difficult to assess the actual level of autonomy.Taking the brighter side, robots are being used in a lot more use cases and industries than ever before. AI-enabled robots are running warehouses, in a semi-controlled environment, picking up critical pieces that are fault-tolerant tasks. On the other hand, autonomous home or surgical robots will be a reality of the future, as there are uncertainties in the operating environment, where some tasks are not recoverable. With the change in time, the human eyes will see more AI-enabled robots being used across industries and scenarios as reliability and technology precision improves. The world has seen only about 3 million robots, most of which work on welding, assembly and handling tasks. There have been very few robot arms being used in varied industries like agriculture, industries or warehouses apart from electronics and automotive units, due to the limitation of computer vision. Over the next 20 years, the world will witness an explosive growth and a changing industry landscape which will bought by the next-generation robots as reinforcement learning, cloud computing and deep learning unlock the robotic potential.
It sounds like Google’s algorithm is going to change again, and while I don’t believe in chasing the algorithm, I do find the impacts on our industry interesting, but even more so the impact it has on user behavior. The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of changes to Google to get people to stay on site longer to compete against Facebook may actually be a bad strategy for Google and more importantly bad for people. The article implies Google is slowly moving to an answer engine to compete against Siri, and becoming more semantic in nature. While I think for the end user this may be a great idea, it may actually hurt Google financially and it will be interesting to see how this evolves.A Primary Source of Revenue
Here’s an example scenario. Say I searched for “things to do in Toronto”. Google’s results may include:
A list of recommended hotels.
The top 5 attractions
The geographic size
Other facts about the city.
The hotel list doesn’t really change from local results, but the top 5 attractions, what impact does this have on tourism? Instead of getting a link to a page that may be able to cover a great variety of events, and attractions, we’re now stuck with Google’s Top 5 list. Whether we realize it or not Google is slowly turning our lives into lists, and if you’re not on the list you’re not relevant.
This is why there was a boom in local search when this was introduced. There will be a boom again as it becomes clearer what types of lists Google will focus on. How about entertainment? Or restaurants? Or events? How much of a coincidence that most of these things also have clear schema’s developed?The Impact to Your World
We know changes to the algorithm also have real world impact as there are countless stories of complaints every time the algorithm changes. Users trust Google so implicitly they don’t question if Google still deserves that trust. As Google gets better at recommending answers and things to do, will users actually get dumber? Will users become more homogeneous? Google already starts to suggest what you should search for as you type, and now they display the results.
Even if Google says they see 20% of searches as new and unique, what volume actually makes up the short head? Further is the head growing? Or are there specific categories of searches that are growing and easily classified? I assume we’ll know as we start to see these search results show up.Why is it a Bad Thing for Google to Keep Users on Their Site?
The Next Grid
The American electric grid is an engineering marvel, arguably the single largest and most complex machine in the world. It’s also 40 years old and so rickety that power interruptions and blackouts cost the economy some $150 billion a year. The idea of building a connected “smart” grid that can route power intelligently is beyond daunting, no matter how much stimulus money gets thrown at it. But if we want to cut carbon, we have no choice. Today’s grid simply cannot handle a large-scale rollout of the clean-energy sources outlined in this series.
In part that’s because we need new high-voltage power lines to connect parts of the country where renewable resources are abundant (the sunny Southwest deserts, the windy Great Plains) to the cities and suburbs where more people live. But the more fundamental problem is that most renewable power sources don’t behave like fossil-fuel sources — they can’t be turned on and off on demand. Wind farms produce power only when the wind blows; solar, only when the sun shines. This is problematic, because power demand is twofold: We need “baseload” power that’s predictable and steady, and “peak” power for daily spikes in demand (when, say, everyone arrives home and turns on their air conditioning). Intermittent renewables are not well suited to either. But with more power lines connecting power sources over a broader geographical area, renewables can simulate baseload power. (The wind is always blowing somewhere.) And a smarter grid cleverly shifting power demand around can redirect enough clean electricity to handle it when demand increases suddenly.
At a Small Scale
sensors will connect each appliance in your home to a smart meter. The meter will serve several purposes. One, it will provide detailed information on how much energy you’re using at any given time and what it’s costing you. Two, it will allow you to control your energy use remotely — from your office computer, for instance. Three, it could allow your electric utility to regulate your energy use for you, reducing power flow during peak demand hours
The idea behind the smart grid is to embed the system with sensors and computers so that utilities and consumers can precisely control power usage and delivery. Wireless nodes (on substations, transformers and wires) and smart meters (on homes and businesses) will communicate over the Internet to you and your electrical supplier. That way, when everyone turns on the A/C, the electric company can lower the power headed for other appliances, or even draw electricity stored in the battery of your plug-in hybrid, which, when parked, would act as a backup power source.
Rebuilding the entire grid and all its components could cost trillions, and it will require the coordinated efforts of hundreds of state and regional agencies, power-plant owners and electrical utilities. But the smart grid is already appearing piecemeal. By 2012, Southern California Edison, one of the country’s largest electrical utilities, will install 5.3 million smart meters throughout San Diego and Los Angeles that will tell homeowners exactly how much power they’re using at any given time — an important first step. The city of Boulder, Colorado, will soon finish building the country’s first smart grid, with smart metering and a variety of sustainable energy sources. And President Obama’s stimulus package includes $11 billion for smart-grid technology, to be used for research and demonstration projects.
Finally, a smart grid and a new network of high-voltage power lines to support it will make rolling brownouts a thing of the past. Let’s get to it.
COVID-19 caused headlines again this year, but it was matched by a slew of other newsworthy viruses: the adenoviruses suspected to be behind the rise in hepatitis cases in early spring, the outbreak of mpox—formerly known as monkeypox—in the summer, an early surge in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and a peak in influenza cases following the Thanksgiving holiday season. Each of these viruses has tested clinicians, epidemiologists, and virologists. But these experts have responded by employing some of the tools that were built during the COVID pandemic.
The beginning of 2023 brought the first trial run for our toolkit: huge numbers of COVID cases, caused by the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Virologists had to re-enact the early days of the pandemic: identifying the strain, testing its disease severity, and understanding its ability to escape the immune system. The available COVID vaccines were pitted against Omicron, and thankfully, showed good efficacy. By now, these studies were familiar, and early results were shared quickly to inform how public health officials around the world acted to protect populations.
After the initial surge of cases, in spring of 2023, many jurisdictions began to reduce COVID testing and tracing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its guidance on face coverings, so fewer people wore masks out and about. Still, researchers continued to track Omicron and its subvariants, and those who’d worked at speed to understand the latest strain would get little respite—2024 had more pathogens to throw at them yet.Genome sequencing predicts viral spread
Monitoring mutations is a virus-fighting tool that had been employed early in the pandemic, because it’d been proven to help many times before. Since 2008, researchers sequencing all types of viruses have been able to upload whole genomes to GISAID, a science surveillance initiative. Their work had allowed for quick research at the start of the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009 and during the 2013 bird flu epidemic.
“When the unknown coronavirus emerged in January 2023, GISAID had already played a key role in influenza surveillance for 12 years,” says Sebastian Maurer-Stroh, executive director of the Bioinformatics Institute in Singapore and a collaborator with GISAID. The collaborative’s array of tools, though designed for tracking flu viruses, had been built in connection with the research community and large organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO). These tools were relatively easy to adapt to track the spread of COVID, Maurer-Stroh says.
[Related: The World Health Organization officially renamed monkeypox to mpox]
GISAID’s database of SARS-CoV-2 genomes has helped research into the pathogen’s spike protein, the area on the virus that affects how it enters our cells and causes infection. It’s also meant that countries can monitor the rise and fall of different strains in their populations and make changes to guidelines accordingly. Though submissions of new SARS-CoV-2 genomes started to trail off in early 2023, GISAID and the WHO are still tracking Omicron and the emergence of subvariants.
But in May 2023, GISAID researchers noticed a new genome being uploaded. The hMpxV virus and the disease it caused, mpox, was already endemic in countries in Africa, but rarely caused infections outside the continent. GISAID surveillance showed that there were new lineages spreading rapidly, and by July the virus was present in 75 countries. That month, the WHO declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency. Cases have been steadily dropping since then, though the WHO reports that seven countries are still seeing new cases. As of December 15, there have been more than 80,000 mpox cases worldwide.Wastewater provide breadcrumbs for disease outbreaks
At the same time as GISAID was monitoring DNA sequences of the mpox virus, researchers were employing another surveillance tool used during the pandemic. Wastewater taken from July to October in New York showed that poliovirus was circulating in six of 13 sampled counties.
Wastewater sampling had detected COVID in sewers back in April 2023; in September of that year, the CDC launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) to monitor virus levels. Compared to mass-scale PCR testing, testing wastewater offered an easy and unobtrusive way to find out where there were hotspots of virus activity.
“You can track a lot of viruses in the wastewater, and what we’re seeing with COVID is that it may be an easier way of doing epidemiology, at least on a bigger picture scale,” says virologist Michael Teng, of the University of South Florida Department of Molecular Medicine. Wastewater surveillance can’t pinpoint individuals, so it won’t help identify potential “superspreaders” before they infect others. But it’s a great tool for virologists to see general geographical trends in virus levels.
[Related: Polio is officially circulating in the US again]
The poliovirus spread in the state was “silent,” but posed a real threat. Cases of polio had been basically non-existent in the US since the introduction of the polio vaccine, which has an average uptake of 92 percent in kids across the country—though some counties’ rates of vaccination are as low as 37 percent.Vaccines fight viruses in and across individuals
As evidenced by the pandemic, vaccine uptake is one of the–if not the–best tools for stopping the spread of a virus. COVID vaccines protect against infection, and if you do get the disease, you’re less likely to have severe illness if you’ve been vaccinated.
So when researchers predicted a tripledemic of COVID, the flu, and RSV heading towards the US, the message was clear: Get your flu shot and COVID booster. But with no RSV vaccine available, case numbers quickly rose in young children and elderly population.
“We had a COVID vaccine within about 11 months of when the first virus sequence came out well, but RSV was first identified in 1957, and since then we have not really had good vaccines,” says Teng, whose focus is on the respiratory pathogen. “But one of the really exciting stories for this year is that Pfizer [who developed one of the COVID vaccines] along with GSK have had really good results in tests for an RSV vaccine for the elderly.”
[Related: Fighting RSV in babies starts with a mother’s antibodies]
Teng says the purchase of COVID vaccines led to an infusion of capital in companies like Pfizer and Moderna, the latter of which has been able to invest into research it began long before the pandemic. This money meant Moderna could move forward with several vaccines in development, according to Teng, including one for HIV.
These important elements of tackling viruses in 2023—genomic monitoring, wastewater surveillance, and vaccine development—are just part of the huge fight against infectious diseases. There is, of course, still a lot we don’t know about COVID and other viruses, and we cannot predict what 2023 will bring. But researchers are armed with more information about the spread of viruses than ever before, and they’ve already begun putting the pandemic’s teachings into practice.
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