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NYC plans to expand Manhattan to protect against rising seas

The sea levels across New York are estimated to rise between 18 and 50 inches by 2100.

NYC Mayor's Office
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday his $10-billion plan to protect lower Manhattan against sea level rise and storm surges.
  • The plan calls for creating new land that would extend the lower part of the island by about two city blocks.
  • As sea levels rise around the globe, cities are experimenting with various methods to protect themselves.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has a bold and expensive plan to protect lower Manhattan from sea level rise and the next major storm: Expand the coastline by two city blocks into the East River. The plan, estimated to cost $10 billion, would create new land between piers from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Battery, and would install "grassy berms in parks and removable barriers that can be anchored in place as storms approach," the mayor said.

"It will be one of the most complex environmental and engineering challenges our city has ever undertaken and it will, literally, alter the shape of the island of Manhattan," de Blasio wrote in a New York Magazine op-ed. "The new land will be higher than the current coast, protecting the neighborhoods from future storms and the higher tides that will threaten its survival in the decades to come."

Compared to other parts of the island, Lower Manhattan is especially close to sea level, with some parts rising just five feet above it. The raised land could help protect against sea level rise, though its primary purpose seems to be a buffer against storm surges. De Blasio said it's an open question what might be built on the new land, suggesting parks or schools as possibilities.

NYC Mayor's Office

Scientists estimate that sea levels could rise 18 to 50 inches across New York State by 2100, which is doubly alarming considering higher seas will enable storms to inflict greater damage on the city. The mayor said New Yorkers have "no choice" but to begin protecting the island.

"The reason we're forced take dramatic action now is because for years so many in Washington put the profits of Big Oil over the future of our planet," the mayor wrote. "New York City is divesting our pension funds from the fossil-fuel companies who caused this crisis and we're suing them for refusing to act when they knew the damage it would cause to cities like ours."

​How coastal cities are preparing for sea level rise and stronger storms

As coastal cities around the globe face the existential threats posed by climate change, some have already begun preparing for the worst. Here are some of the most common methods.

  • Storm surge barriers: One of the largest and most famous examples is the massive Maeslant Barrier in South Holland, Netherlands. Controlled by a supercomputer, the barrier consists of two massive gates — each 72 feet wide and 688 feet long — which automatically close off a key waterway that leads to the city whenever a storm poses a flood threat.
  • Seawalls: The most common defense against sea level rise is to build simple vertical or sloped barriers. These static, man-made walls might help stave off sea levels for a while, but they're guaranteed to wear down over time, and they simply aren't possible to build in cities like Miami. They can also cause destruction to biodiversity.
  • Living shorelines: Some coastal cities have tried fortifying coastline with natural materials, such as salt marsh or mangroves. One major benefit of these approaches — sometimes called "soft options" — is that the barriers can collect sediment and other organic matter over time, meaning that they grow along with sea level rise.
  • Reservoirs: If you can't hold back the water, at least find a way to store it in the event of a storm. That's the idea in Rotterdam, where the city has built parks that double as reservoirs that are able to trap water in the event of flooding.
  • Retreat: In places where resources are lacking or the land is unfit for barriers, residents might soon have just one option: move.

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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