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Daily briefing: COVID czar Ashish Jha on the United States’ pandemic future

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Swathes of the Amazon turned into a mosaic of islands of jungle interspersed with vast cattle ranches.

Deforestation, in places such as the Amazon, contributes to biodiversity loss.Credit: Ivan Valencia/Bloomberg/Getty

Biodiversity COP15 will go ahead in Canada

The United Nations has announced that a pivotal summit to finalize a new global agreement on protecting the environment will go ahead in December, after a two-year delay owing to the pandemic. COP15, the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, will move from Kunming in China to Montreal, Canada. Conservationists were worried that China’s strict zero COVID-19 policy would force the nation to delay the meeting again. “The global community is already behind in agreeing, let alone implementing, a plan to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030,” says Andrew Deutz, a specialist in biodiversity law.

Nature | 4 min read

Open-source AI tackles built-in biases

An open-source artificial intelligence (AI) called BLOOM aims to break big tech’s stranglehold on natural-language processing and reduce its harms and biases. An international team of around 1,000 volunteers, most of them academics, trained BLOOM on data chosen to emphasize multicultural and high-quality content and reduce reliance on dodgy sources such as porn websites. BLOOM will be available to download for researchers who want to experiment with it or train it on new data for specific applications.

Nature | 6 min read

A gentler sonar based on shrimp

Scientists at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are working to replace whale-harming sonar with the ambient sounds made by aquatic creatures. The low-frequency booms of giant goliath groupers (Epinephelus itajara) and the super-loud snaps of pistol shrimp (in the family Alpheidae) are among the sounds being considered. Software can help to detect the naturally occurring sounds and analyse how they are reflected off an underwater object such as a submarine.

BBC Future | 7 min read

Features & opinion

US COVID czar: “you don’t write people off”

Physician and health-policy researcher Ashish Jha went from being a “reluctant academic” to US President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 czar. He’s also a prolific science communicator, known for appearing in surprising media outlets to right misinformation wrongs. He says that the current situation in the United States should not be considered the ‘new normal’. “We have hundreds of thousands of Americans getting infected every day. We still have a few hundred people dying of COVID every day,” he says. “I don’t think any of this is an acceptable normal for the long run.”

The New Yorker | 14 min read

National parks bend under climate pressure

The iconic Yellowstone National Park last week saw sudden and destructive flooding. In Joshua Tree National Park, California, the eponymous trees are dying from heat and wildfires. Glacier National Park in Montana is facing a future in which it might have no glaciers left. “Every single one of our more than 400 national parks are suffering,” says Stephanie Kodish, the director of the climate-change programme at the National Parks Conservation Association. “We are literally making a choice to wipe out these things that are gems of our world, that are gifts for us to pass down.”

The New York Times | 6 min read

‘Sentient’ AI is a smokescreen

News that a Google software engineer got into hot water for claiming that an artificial-intelligence (AI) system had become sentient is no surprise to AI ethicists Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell. “It was exactly what we had warned would happen back in 2020, shortly before we were fired by Google ourselves,” they write. Profit-motivated hype about such systems tends to obfuscate their genuine risks and rewards, argue Gebru and Mitchell. They urge companies to focus on meeting people’s needs, “rather than claiming they’re creating über intelligence”. And they encourage the media to stop “falling for the bedazzlement of seemingly magical AI systems”.

The Washington Post | 5 min read

QUOTE OF THE DAY

“No action is too small. Added together, acts of solidarity keep collaborations alive in the absence of formal ties.”

A Nature editorial urges researchers to redouble their efforts to collaborate across borders in the light of political forces pushing UK and European Union scientists apart.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-01756-2

Today I’m giggling at the discovery that astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti is reenacting scenes from science-fiction favourites on the International Space Station. A recent pose as Sandra Bullock in the film Gravity follows Cristoforetti’s 2015 turn as Star Trek’s Captain Janeway.

Thanks for reading,

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Nicky Phillips

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