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New software could save 745 species in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest without hurting agribusiness

"This is a great example of a forest restoration plan which is both good for the people and good for nature," one researcher said.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
  • Brazil's Atlantic Forest is one of the world's most biodiverse regions, but relentless deforestation threatens hundreds of species of plants and animals.
  • Recently, a team of researchers created a computer program designed to optimize how forest land can best be used.
  • The approach could be used by governments and organizations in other parts of the world to maximize biodiversity gains while minimizing economic losses.

New research shows that using a computer program to optimize land use in Brazil's dwindling Atlantic Forest could triple biodiversity gains, take massive amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, and save billions of dollars in costs.

The Atlantic Forest is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, home to an extraordinarily large number of species that can be found nowhere else. It's thought to have once covered some 500,000 square miles, but today, due to logging and agribusiness, only an estimated 7 to 11 percent of the forest remains. Some scientists believe that forest cover needs to be restored to 30 percent in order to maintain biodiversity.

It's a tricky problem, however, because the region's economy relies heavily upon industries that practice deforestation. That's why a team of international researchers recently created software designed to optimize how land could best be used in the forest.

The approach uses a linear programming method to identify priority nature areas in the massive forest. In a paper recently published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the researchers describe how their main goal was to "maximize restoration benefits for biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation while reducing restoration and opportunity costs."

The team first divided up the biome into 1.3 million units, each 1 square kilometer, and the software then prioritized the land based on potential for restoration and potential farming value, trying to strike an ideal balance. The team also used biodiversity data on various species in the forest to predict how different land-use scenarios would impact their habitats.

One of the scenarios produced by the software would save an estimated 745 animal and plant species from extinction, take in about 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide through restored trees over the next 20 years, and reduce current restoration costs by 57 percent.

An uncertain political situation

Dr. Morena Mills, one of the researchers on the team, said the study is an example of how restoration and industry can coexist.

"People recognise the benefits of forest restoration for their wellbeing and for nature, and there are extraordinary efforts to restore forest happening around the world," she said. "Our study provides guidance on how multiple interests, in nature and agriculture, can be reconciled when developing forest restoration plans."

The Brazilian government plans to use the recent research in upcoming restoration efforts, and possibly in future projects in other regions, including the Amazon Rain Forest. However, Mills told the Imperial College of London that those efforts might be stymied by Brazil's recently elected president, a hard-right candidate named Jair Bolsonaro who once promised to exploit resources in the Amazon.

"Regardless of the political situation, this approach sets a foundation for better forest restoration efforts in Brazil and around the world," Mills said. "This is a great example of a forest restoration plan which is both good for the people and good for nature."

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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