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Deep Science: Using machine learning to study anatomy, weather and earthquakes

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Research papers come out far too rapidly for anyone to read them all, especially in the field of machine learning, which now affects (and produces papers in) practically every industry and company. This column aims to collect the most relevant recent discoveries and papers — particularly in but not limited to artificial intelligence — and explain why they matter.

A number of recently published research projects have used machine learning to attempt to better understand or predict these phenomena.

This week has a bit more “basic research” than consumer applications. Machine learning can be applied to advantage in many ways users benefit from, but it’s also transformative in areas like seismology and biology, where enormous backlogs of data can be leveraged to train AI models or as raw material to be mined for insights.

Inside earthshakers

We’re surrounded by natural phenomena that we don’t really understand — obviously we know where earthquakes and storms come from, but how exactly do they propagate? What secondary effects are there if you cross-reference different measurements? How far ahead can these things be predicted?

A number of recently published research projects have used machine learning to attempt to better understand or predict these phenomena. With decades of data available to draw from, there are insights to be gained across the board this way — if the seismologists, meteorologists and geologists interested in doing so can obtain the funding and expertise to do so.

The most recent discovery, made by researchers at Los Alamos National Labs, uses a new source of data as well as ML to document previously unobserved behavior along faults during “slow quakes.” Using synthetic aperture radar captured from orbit, which can see through cloud cover and at night to give accurate, regular imaging of the shape of the ground, the team was able to directly observe “rupture propagation” for the first time, along the North Anatolian Fault in Turkey.

“The deep-learning approach we developed makes it possible to automatically detect the small and transient deformation that occurs on faults with unprecedented resolution, paving the way for a systematic study of the interplay between slow and regular earthquakes, at a global scale,” said Los Alamos geophysicist Bertrand Rouet-Leduc.

Another effort, which has been ongoing for a few years now at Stanford, helps Earth science researcher Mostafa Mousavi deal with the signal-to-noise problem with seismic data. Poring over data being analyzed by old software for the billionth time one day, he felt there had to be better way and has spent years working on various methods. The most recent is a way of teasing out evidence of tiny earthquakes that went unnoticed but still left a record in the data.

The “Earthquake Transformer” (named after a machine-learning technique, not the robots) was trained on years of hand-labeled seismographic data. When tested on readings collected during Japan’s magnitude 6.6 Tottori earthquake, it isolated 21,092 separate events, more than twice what people had found in their original inspection — and using data from less than half of the stations that recorded the quake.

Map of minor seismic events detected by the Earthquake Transformer.

Image Credits: Stanford University

The tool won’t predict earthquakes on its own, but better understanding the true and full nature of the phenomena means we might be able to by other means. “By improving our ability to detect and locate these very small earthquakes, we can get a clearer view of how earthquakes interact or spread out along the fault, how they get started, even how they stop,” said co-author Gregory Beroza.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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SpaceX sets new record for most satellites on a single launch with latest Falcon 9 mission

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SpaceX has set a new all-time record for the most satellites launched and deployed on a single mission, with its Transporter-1 flight on Sunday. The launch was the first of SpaceX’s dedicated rideshare missions, in which it splits up the payload capacity of its rocket among multiple customers, resulting in a reduced cost for each but still providing SpaceX with a full launch and all the revenue it requires to justify lauding one of its vehicles.

The launch today included 143 satellites, 133 of which were from other companies who booked rides. SpaceX also launched 10 of its own Starlink satellites, adding to the already more than 1,000 already sent to orbit to power SpaceX’s own broadband communication network. During a launch broadcast last week, SpaceX revealed that it has begun serving beta customers in Canada and is expanding to the UK with its private pre-launch test of that service.

Customers on today’s launch included Planet Labs, which sent up 48 SuperDove Earth imaging satellites; Swarm, which sent up 36 of its own tiny IoT communications satellites, and Kepler, which added to its constellation with eight more of its own communication spacecraft. The rideshare model that SpaceX now has in place should help smaller new space companies and startups like these build out their operational on-orbit constellations faster, complementing other small payload launchers like Rocket Lab, and new entrant Virgin Orbit, to name a few.

This SpaceX launch was also the first to deliver Starlink satellites to a polar orbit, which is a key part of the company’s continued expansion of its broadband service. The mission also included a successful landing and recovery of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first-stage booster, the fifth for this particular booster, and a dual recovery of the fairing halves used to protect the cargo during launch, which were fished out of the Atlantic ocean using its recovery vessels and will be refurbished and reused.

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Watch SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare rocket launch live, carrying a record-breaking payload of satellites

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SpaceX is set to launch the very first of its dedicated rideshare missions – an offering it introduced in 2019 that allows small satellite operators to book a portion of a payload on a Falcon 9 launch. SpaceX’s rocket has a relatively high payload capacity compared to the size of many of the small satellites produced today, so a rideshare mission like this offers smaller companies and startups a chance to get their spacecraft in orbit without breaking the bank. Today’s attempt is scheduled for 10 AM EST (7 AM PST) after a first try yesterday was cancelled due to weather. So far, weather looks much better for today.

The cargo capsule atop the Falcon 9 flying today holds a total of 143 satellites according to SpaceX, which is a new record for the highest number of satellites being launched on a single rocket – beating out a payload of 104 spacecraft delivered by Indian Space Research Organization’s PSLV-C37 launch back in February 2017. It’ll be a key demonstration not only of SpaceX’s rideshare capabilities, but also of the complex coordination involved in a launch that includes deployment of multiple payloads into different target orbits in relatively quick succession.

This launch will be closely watched in particular for its handling of orbital traffic management, since it definitely heralds what the future of private space launches could look like in terms of volume of activity. Some of the satellites flying on this mission are not much larger than an iPad, so industry experts will be paying close attention to how they’re deployed and tracked to avoid any potential conflicts.

Some of the payloads being launched today include significant volumes of startup spacecraft, including 36 of Swarm’s tiny IoT network satellites, and eight of Kepler’s GEN-1 communications satellites. There are also 10 of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites on board, and 48 of Planet Labs’ Earth-imaging spacecraft.

The launch stream above should begin around 15 minutes prior to the mission start, which is set for 10 AM EST (7 AM PST) today.

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How emerging markets are approaching crypto

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From Brazil to Nigeria, people turn to Bitcoin for different reasons than most of their speculating counterparts in North America. Namely, because it’s the most advantageous way for them to conduct international transactions. 

Such is the case with a 28-year-old poker player in Brazil who simply goes by Felipe, for safety. Poker is a legal form of gambling in Brazil, so Felipe can use Brazilian banks and regulated exchanges to earn income from home. He dropped out of law school because playing poker against foreigners with Bitcoin to spend was more profitable than becoming a partner at a local law firm. Felipe said he now outearns his brother, a middle-tier executive at one of Brazil’s top corporations. 

“Bitcoin is the best medium of money exchange in the poker community,” Felipe said. “I withdraw earnings as Bitcoin, or as Tether, to a Brazilian crypto exchange and sell it there.”

Felipe said he is wary of his government because he believes the Brazilian economy will experience a catastrophic shock in the next few years. Back in 1992, President Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached after confiscating millions of civilian savings accounts to offset national debts. Felipe doesn’t want his bank account forcibly emptied when the next crisis hits. This inspires him to accumulate Bitcoin, avoiding more traditional options stocks. 

“The pension funds system is completely broken,” Felipe added. “The thing with Bitcoin is, you don’t need it until you do.” 

Manuel Folgueiras is one of many Cuban users who joined the Bitcoin ecosystem over the past year. This 33-year-old economist, who lost his tourism industry job in 2020, now supports himself using various cryptocurrency projects.

“It’s very difficult to get Bitcoin, because we don’t have access to any exchanges and there are a lot of scams. Cuban banks don’t have relationships with crypto exchanges,” Folgueiras said. “Now I use Bitcoin for both savings and income, through trading arbitrage. We have to use a VPN and it’s very risky. If the exchange detects that you’re from Cuba, your account will get blocked.”

Global demand for Bitcoin has been surging since the pandemic began in 2020, pushing dollar-denominated prices briefly past $34,000 during the first week of January, 2021. For residents in many emerging markets, demand for Bitcoin is driven by concerns about the overall health of their national economies, not pure speculation. Some of these countries where Bitcoin markets are spiking, especially in Latin America and the Middle East, are seeing their domestic economies tailspin and are worried political controls could further threaten economic stability.

For example, since Western Union stopped operating in Cuba, more Cubans are using Bitcoin than ever before. For people in a variety of countries, pandemic policy changes reduced access to the dollar-centric financial system.

Folgueiras estimated he is one of roughly 80,000 people on the island involved in an unofficial brokerage business called Trust Investing, often called a Ponzi scheme by local technologists. In short, the business promises to trade cryptocurrency on behalf of “investors,” to whom they deposit lucrative returns. The project promises 200% returns, which seems impossible, and references questionable “partners” on the Trust Investing website. 

Those partner companies are registered to people associated with a variety of court cases across Latin America and, in June 2020, Panama’s National Securities Market Commission (CNMV) published a warning not to trust the Trust Investing company itself. Even Folgueiras acknowledged that many people call this business a scam. But he said returns from the Trust Investing program are helping him survive the abysmal job market. It’s a gamble whether the company will give him returns or run away with his money, a risk he’s willing to take. 

Plus, Folgueiras added, any form of Bitcoin business in Cuba is already “very risky.” There aren’t many regulated, trustworthy exchanges openly serving Cubans today, due to U.S. sanctions. Aside from the remittance startup, BitRemesas, the last compliance-oriented startup that tried serving this market shut down in 2019. As such, many Cubans turn to questionable schemes, or WhatsApp, instead. 

“Cubans get Bitcoin via WhatsApp groups, peer-to-peer trading. The most popular mobile wallets are Coinomi, Enjin Wallet and Trust Wallet, because most people in Cuba only use a cell phone. It’s a mobile-only market,” Folgueiras said. “Bitcoin changed my life in a positive way and became an important source of income. Cryptocurrencies are also an interesting way for Cubans to shop online and send international payments or remittances.” 

This grassroots, mobile-only environment is common across many small countries with underdeveloped economics. Likewise, Fodé Diop, founder of the Dakar Bitcoin Developers meetup in Senegal, told CoinDesk last year that Senegal was not just a mobile-first market; it’s a mobile-only Bitcoin scene. Unlike North America and Europe, many emerging-market crypto communities only use cell phones for everything from research and trading to storage. 

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to assume most emerging-market Bitcoin users are marginalized by the global banking system. To the contrary, in countries like Nigeria and Brazil, many upper-middle-class entrepreneurs and gamers use Bitcoin to conduct perfectly legal business. According to data from the global peer-to-peer (P2P) markets LocalBitcoins and Paxful, there were more than $25.3 million worth of P2P Bitcoin trades last year in Brazil alone. 

Meanwhile, in Africa, Nigerian P2P Bitcoin volumes dwarf those numbers with a cool $357 million. Likewise, BuyCoins co-founder Tomiwa Lasebikan said his Nigerian cryptocurrency exchange ballooned from an average of $5 million in monthly volume in December 2019 to $21 million by December 2020. 

He said several factors spurred local growth, including anti-police brutality activists like the Nigerian Feminist Coalition, which collected bitcoin donations after being denied banking access, and stricter banking limitations on Nigerians paying for international services.

A lot of people in Nigeria are running into a problem that they couldn’t renew subscriptions, like Spotify or Amazon, with their Nigerian accounts,” Lasebikan said. “Then, in October, there was a whole lot of interest in cryptocurrency, not just Bitcoin, for aggregating donations for people protesting police brutality. A lot of activists had their bank accounts shut down. Continued fundraising like this, both inside and outside the country, would not have been possible two decades ago.” 

He added his exchange startup now serves roughly 12,000 active users a month. Nearby, Binance communications lead in Nigeria, Damilola Odufuwa, said her global exchange company facilitated hundreds of virtual events for 17,000 Nigerian crypto beginners in 2020. These educational programs covered basic terminology, trading strategies and guides to opening exchange accounts. 

“During the pandemic, it was hard to get things into the country, including remittances,” Odufuwa said. “Now there’s also this need to use cryptocurrency to donate [to activists]…we plan to at least quadruple educational programming this year.”

Depending on the user’s socioeconomic background, people use Bitcoin to earn income from online games like poker, trading cryptocurrencies or offering freelance services to international clients. Odufuwa said thousands of the new users she’s seen during the pandemic want to profit from their developer skills, not just trades. So her company will offer more developer training related to the open-source Binance Smart Chain project. Although it’s impossible to accurately quantify, it seems as though at least hundreds of freelancers around the globe now depend on Bitcoin for income. 

One such LocalBitcoins user in Latin American, Venezuelan journalist José Rafael Peña, has been earning the majority of his income in Bitcoin since late 2016. He estimated that cryptocurrency writing gigs account for 90% of his income. 

“Bitcoin, in some circumstances, is a very helpful tool, especially when you live in a country with a chaotic economy and limited financial tools,” Peña said. “I began using Bitcoin because it let me protect against the bolivar’s devaluation, even without a dollar bank account.”

All things considered, Odufuwa said emerging markets saw “tremendous” growth since the pandemic began. But Peña warned not to confuse that growth with a mainstream “solution” to local government woes. 

“Most people try to survive the crisis in any way,” he said. “Even here, crypto is a niche.”

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