Bytes: What’s new in tech
Norway drops FM radio
Norway just opened a new chapter in the history of telecommunications, said Henrik Pryser Libell in The New York Times. The Scandinavian nation became the first country in the world to pull the plug on FM radio last week, with nationwide radio channels stopping their FM broadcasts and transitioning to digital radio broadcasts over the internet. The entire country will be converted to the new system by the end of the year. Proponents say the new system will be cheaper and offer better sound quality and more listening options, “but critics are worried about the effect on drivers and listeners of small radio stations.” Other countries have considered dropping FM radio—including Britain, Switzerland, and Denmark—but it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon in the U.S.
Does the Geek Squad snitch?
“If you send your laptop to be repaired, its contents may come under closer scrutiny than you expect,” said Jamie Condliffe in Technology Review.com. Some of Best Buy’s Geek Squad technicians allegedly served as paid informants for the FBI, according to a California court case involving a doctor accused of possessing child pornography. A former Geek Squad manager received a $500 payment from an FBI special agent after employees flagged the doctor’s hard drive. The manager denied being paid by the FBI to conduct further searches, but emails between the FBI and Geek Squad members suggest an ongoing relationship, including other payments. Best Buy said its employees have a “moral and legal obligation” to turn over child pornography to law enforcement if they find it, but that taking FBI payments is “not something we tolerate.”
Europe’s laws of robotics
“Europe is preparing for a robot revolution,” said Ivana Kottasova in CNN.com. Lawmakers there last week called for robots to be equipped with emergency “kill switches” to keep them from harming humans. The proposal, approved by the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee, envisions guidelines for engineers on how to build “ethical and safe machines.” That would include following science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s “laws of robotics,” which “stipulate that a robot must never harm or kill a human.” “To ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans, we urgently need to create a robust European legal framework,” said Mady Delvaux, who authored the proposal, which will now be considered by the European Commission.
Ice sheet breaking away
A massive chunk of ice roughly the size of Delaware is about to break away from the fourth-largest ice shelf in Antarctica. British scientists have been watching a crack steadily develop in the Larsen C ice shelf for years. But the rift has expanded dramatically in the past few weeks, and there are now only about 12 miles of ice preventing a 1,900-square-mile section from coming free. The split not only will form one of the largest icebergs in history but also will leave Larsen C vulnerable to a complete collapse, which could speed up the flow of glacial ice into the ocean and indirectly add nearly 4 inches to global sea levels. Two neighboring ice shelves, Larsen A and Larsen B, collapsed after similar breakaways. The researchers believe the rift, which is now 100 miles long and 1,000 feet wide, will reach the shoreline imminently. “If it doesn’t go in the next few months,” Swansea University’s Adrian Luckman tells BBC.com, “I’ll be amazed.”
Sending probes to asteroids
In its hunt for clues about how planets form and evolve, NASA has a new target: asteroids. The space agency has revealed plans for two unmanned missions aimed at learning more about these small, rocky bodies. The first, named Lucy after the world’s most famous hominid, will investigate Trojan asteroids between Mars and Jupiter that are believed to be ancient relics of the solar system. “Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets,” Harold Levison, Lucy’s principal investigator, tells Space.com. “They hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system.” The project’s spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2021, reach its first destination in 2025, and explore six additional Trojan asteroids trapped by Jupiter’s gravity between 2027 and 2033. The second mission, dubbed Psyche, will launch in 2023. It will target a rare asteroid that is made up of iron and nickel rather than rock and ice; the unusual body is thought to be the exposed core of an early planet that lost its rocky outer layers during violent collisions billions of years ago. NASA says the Psyche mission could help explain how Earth and other rocky worlds formed.
Benefits for ‘weekend warriors’
Health experts recommend taking moderate but regular exercise—five 30-minute sessions a week—to prevent disease and boost longevity. But a new study suggests that “weekend warriors” who cram a week’s worth of physical activity into one or two days also gain significant health benefits. Researchers at Loughborough University in England analyzed the exercise habits and health records of 63,591 middle-aged men and women. Among the people who adhered to government guidelines, those who exercised three or more times a week were 35 percent less likely to die over 15 years than sedentary adults; they had a 41 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease and 21 percent less risk of succumbing to cancer. But people who packed their physical activity into a couple of days enjoyed similar benefits: they had a 30 percent lower risk of death during the same period, with near-identical reductions in heart disease and cancer risk. “Millions of people enjoy doing sport once or twice a week, but they may be concerned that they are not doing enough,” Gary O’Donovan, one of the study’s authors, tells The Guardian (U.K.). “We found a clear benefit—it’s making them fit and healthy.”
Health scare of the week
New research has cast doubt on the value of mammograms, reports NBCNews.com. A Danish study compared two groups: women ages 50 to 69 who had undergone the imaging scans and other women who hadn’t been screened. To their surprise, the researchers found no difference in the number of advanced-stage breast cancer diagnoses between the two groups. Moreover, among the screened women, one in three breast cancers was classified as an “overdiagnosis” that resulted in unnecessary treatment, such as surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. The study’s authors say the imaging tests don’t always allow doctors to differentiate between dangerous tumors and growths that may not require treatment. They urge women not to forego breast cancer screening or treatment, but argue that physicians need better genetic tests to help them identify dangerous tumors. “There’s a tendency in the U.S. to think that screening is better than it actually is,” says the American Cancer Society. “It’s important that we learn the limitations of screening so that we can apply that tool as best we possibly can to save as many lives as possible.”