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Daily briefing: IBM has backed out of the facial-recognition business

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People gather at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington DC during a protest against police brutality

Protesters have gathered across the United States and around the world to denounce racism and police brutality.Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty

Grieving and frustrated: Black scientists call out racism in the wake of police killings

As marchers in the United States and around the world filled the streets this past week to protest against police brutality and racial injustice, Black scientists grieved openly on social media, calling for action on racism in society and in science. Many stated ways in which institutions and colleagues, from collaborators to meeting organizers, could support Black scientists. Some pushed universities and scientific societies to release statements against racism. And several posted that the weight of the current events has made it even harder to do their jobs in a profession that already marginalizes them.

Hundreds are planning to stop their research tomorrow (except for time-sensitive activities related to COVID-19) as part of an academic strike in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The goal is to take “time to learn, reflect, critique, and chart a course of action”, writes Particles for Justice, a group of physicists co-organizing the strike.

Nature | 6 min read

Reference: Particles for Justice list of strike resources

Code-checkers give critiqued model a thumbs up

“Horrible.” “Totally unreliable.” “A buggy mess.” Over the past month, software engineers have sharply criticized the code underpinning an influential coronavirus simulation by scientists at Imperial College London, one of several models that helped sway UK politicians into declaring a lockdown. Now, a computational neuroscientist has reported that he has independently rerun the simulation and reproduced its results. And other scientists have told Nature that they had already privately verified that the code is reproducible.

Nature | 5 min read

IBM quits the facial-recognition business

IBM will no longer sell “general purpose” facial-recognition technology, chief executive Arvind Krishna wrote in a letter to US Congress. The letter addressed the need for reforms and policy proposals to address racial disparities, and mentioned that the company opposes using technology for mass surveillance, racial profiling and violations of human rights. Krishna wrote that “vendors and users of Al systems have a shared responsibility to ensure that Al is tested for bias, particularly when used in law enforcement”.

The Verge | 4 min read

Roman city mapped, no digging required

Archaeologists have mapped a full ancient city with ground-penetrating radar. Falerii Novi, a 30-hectare settlement near Rome that was occupied between 241 BC and AD 700, is now almost entirely buried under agricultural land. The team towed their radar antennas with a quad bike. Their finds include a mysterious public monument — possibly linked to pre-Roman religions — and an extensive network of water pipes that was evidently planned and laid before the city was built. The non-invasive technique has a lot of potential, says archaeologist Martin Millett. “As I wander around the Roman empire, I look at all kinds of places and think, ‘Wow, what we could do there.’”

The Guardian | 5 min read

Reference: Antiquity paper

Coronavirus research highlights: 1-minute reads

Lockdowns are a powerful tool

Lockdowns and other distancing measures have had resounding success at thwarting the new coronavirus, according to two independently conducted studies. One found that stay-at-home orders and policies that restrict face-to-face contact were especially effective in 11 European countries, reducing transmission by 81%. The combination of policies aimed at slowing the virus’s spread prevented more than 3 million deaths from the epidemic’s start to early May. Another study that looked at China, the United States and 4 more countries showed that across all 6 countries, anti-transmission measures averted roughly 500 million infections.

Reference: Nature paper 1 & Nature paper 2

Surfaces could pose only a modest risk

Contaminated surfaces might have only a minor role in transmitting COVID-19 within households. Researchers looked for traces of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in 21 households that each included at least one infected person. They found viral RNA in just 3% of samples from the most frequently touched objects, such as door knobs, and in 15% of samples from bathroom drains and toilets. The team could not grow infectious virus from any of the samples.

Reference: medRxiv preprint (not yet peer reviewed)

Blood type might influence COVID-19 risk

Researchers have identified two human gene variants that could make people more susceptible to lung failure associated with COVID-19. One variant lies in the swathe of the genome that determines blood groups. People with blood type A+ had an increased risk of lung failure compared with those with other blood types, whereas those with type O blood were protected to some extent. The second variant, on chromosome 3, is near six genes, including one that interacts with the molecular receptor that the virus uses to enter human cells.

Reference: medRxiv preprint (not yet peer reviewed)

Get more of Nature’s continuously updated selection of the must-read papers and preprints on COVID-19.

Notable quotable

“Real epidemiologists don't shake hands.”

Epidemiologist T. Christopher Bond responds to a New York Times survey asking members of the profession when (or if) they might return to the old ways of greeting each other. (10 min read)

Less than 0.2%

The proportion of the total coronavirus-related stimulus spending by the world’s 50 largest economies that has been allocated to ‘green’ policies. The real opportunity will come when governments move out of disaster mode and start to plan the recovery, reports Bloomberg Green. (18 min read)

Features & opinion

Maryam Mirzakhani writing on paper while on the floor

Maryam Mirzakhani made breakthroughs in fields such as dynamics.Credit: The Simons Foundation

Magnificent mathematics, human story

Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani broke multiple glass ceilings as the first woman and first Iranian to win the discipline’s most coveted award, the Fields Medal. A new film about Mirzakhani strikes a satisfying balance between her magnificent mathematics and her human story, writes reviewer Davide Castelvecchi — including her prodigious beginnings and her untimely death from cancer in 2017, at the age of 40.

Nature | 3 min read

Quote of the day

“We believe the disturbing act of Angewandte Chemie accepting and publishing an essay that promotes racist and sexist views points to a larger problem.”

Sixteen members of the international advisory board of Angewandte Chemie, including three Nobel laureates, have resigned over an article in the venerable chemistry journal. (Chemistry World | 5 min read)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-01725-7

Hats off to astronaut and oceanographer Kathy Sullivan, who just became the first woman to reach the deepest known spot in the ocean, the Challenger Deep. Sullivan also has a heap of other firsts to her name, including the first American woman to walk in space.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty and Davide Castelvecchi

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