AI Weekly: What can AI tell us about social unrest, virus structures, and carbon emissions?

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Use of computer science to predict unrest. AI that can predict the next variant of COVID-19’s structure. Reduction of carbon emissions from aircraft using algorithms. These are a few of the headlines in AI this week that ran from the wave (how AI can prevent the next attack on the US Capitol) to the uplifting one (making air travel greener). It is reserved for optimism, but nonetheless a breath of fresh air in a society that is becoming more and more cynical about the potential of technology to do good.

Wired first reported that a researcher at the University of North Carolina ran simulations using AI systems, including Alphabet-owned DeepMind’s AlphaFold and the University of Washington’s RoseTTAFold, to predict the protein structure of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Ford managed to predict a structure that was “pretty much right” – an impressive feat when he reached his conclusions before scientists were able to map Omicron’s structure correctly.

AI promises to accelerate certain processes in drug discovery and virology, for example, to identify compounds for the treatment of conditions where medication is still intangible. But as Sriram Subramaniam, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studied Omicron samples, told The Register, having access to a real sample still beats algorithmic models. AI still can not predict things like the strength of the binding of new virus variants to, for example, host cells or the infectivity of these variants.

Prediction of social unrest

Could AI perhaps predict events like the January 6 attack on the US Capitol? An article in The Washington Post this week examines the premise. While consensus is mixed, some researchers believe algorithms can serve as early indicators of violence in regions ahead of major political conflicts.

Prediction of unrest, also known as conflict prediction, is a burgeoning field in academia and industry. It and its practitioners, such as the University of Central Florida’s CoupCast, aim to design systems that take into account variables (e.g., the role of a leader who encourages a mob, long-term democratic history) to determine whether e.g. election violence may occur. .

Those who are bullish about the technology say it has already revealed surprising insights, such as the fact that conflicts on social media are an unreliable indicator of real-world unrest. But others warn that it is little better than coincidences in terms of accuracy – and that it can be used to justify the suppression of peaceful protests.

“Actors are responding,” Roudabeh Kishi, director of innovation at the nonprofit organization Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a group engaged in conflict prediction research, told The Post. “If people change their tactics, a model trained on historical data will miss it.”

Reduction of jet emissions

The global aviation industry produces about 2% of all man-made carbon dioxide emissions. If they were a country, all airlines in the industry – some of which run thousands of near-empty flights to retain valuable airport slots – would be among the top ten in the world.

Like other greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide drives climate change, leading to extreme weather, major wildfires, disease from smog and air pollution, food supply disruptions, and other effects. In an effort to combat this, some airlines, including Air France, Norwegian, Malaysia Airlines, Cebu Pacific, Go Air and Atlas Air, rely on algorithms trained on data from billions of flights to identify opportunities to reduce emissions. Openairlines’ SkyBreathe – the system recently adopted by Air France – can reportedly reduce total fuel consumption by up to 5%.

Other startups, such as Flyways, create AI-powered platforms that try to optimize the flight route and provide suggestions on how and where to fly aircraft. During a six-month pilot program at Alaska Airlines, Flyways claims to have shaved five minutes off flights and saved 480,000 gallons of aviation fuel on average.

Some critics argue that the airlines do not go far enough; they call for the phasing out of short-haul flights in Europe, among other measures to reduce footprints. But given the long road to a meaningful cut in world CO2 emissions, everything helps.

“If you went a little bit slower, you were at the time you had a gate, and because you went a little bit slower, the plane actually burned less fuel, it could be a win / win combination for both the guest and the operation and sustainability impact. , ”Diana Birkett Rakow, senior VP of sustainability at Alaska Airlines, told ABC News.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Kyle Wiggers – and be sure to subscribe to the AI ​​Weekly newsletter and bookmark our AI channel, The Machine.


s for reading,

Kyle Wiggers

AI staff writer


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