Neuroscientists create atlas showing how words are organised in the brain.

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Neuroscientists create atlas showing how words are organised in the brain.

Scientists have created an “atlas of the brain” that reveals how the meanings of words are arranged across different regions of the organ.

Like a colourful quilt laid over the cortex, the atlas displays in rainbow hues how individual words and the concepts they convey can be grouped together in clumps of white matter.

“Our goal was to build a giant atlas that shows how one specific aspect of language is represented in the brain, in this case semantics, or the meanings of words,” said Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Described as a “tour de force” by one researcher who was not involved in the study, the atlas demonstrates how modern imaging can transform our knowledge of how the brain performs some of its most important tasks. With further advances, the technology could have a profound impact on medicine and other fields.

“It is possible that this approach could be used to decode information about what words a person is hearing, reading, or possibly even thinking,” said Alexander Huth, the first author on the study. One potential use would be a language decoder that could allow people silenced by motor neurone disease or locked-in syndrome to speak through a computer.

To create the atlas, the scientists recorded people’s brain activity while they listened to stories read out on The Moth Radio Hour, a US radio show. They then matched the transcripts of the stories with the brain activity data to show how groups of related words triggered neural responses in 50,000 to 80,000 pea-sized spots all over the cerebral cortex.

Huth used stories from The Moth Radio Hour because they are short and compelling. The more enthralling the stories, the more confident the scientists could be that the people being scanned were focusing on the words and not drifting off. Seven people listened to two hours of stories each. Per person, that amounted to hearing roughly 25,000 words- and more than 3,000 different words – as they lay in the scanner.

The atlas shows how words and related terms exercise the same regions of the brain. For example, on the left-hand side of the brain, above the ear, is one of the tiny regions that represents the word “victim”. The same region responds to “killed”, “convicted”, “murdered” and “confessed”. On the brain’s right-hand side, near the top of the head, is one of the brain spots activated by family terms: “wife”, “husband”, “children”, “parents”.

Each word is represented by more than one spot because words tend to have several meanings. One part of the brain, for example, reliably responds to the word “top”, along with other words that describe clothing. But the word “top” activates many other regions. One of them responds to numbers and measurements, another to buildings and places. The scientists have created an interactive website where the public can explore the brain atlas.

Strikingly, the brain atlases were similar for all the participants, suggesting that their brains organised the meanings of words in the same way. The scientists only scanned five men and two women, however. All are native English speakers, and two are authors of the study published in Nature. It is highly possible that people from different backgrounds and cultures will have different semantic brain atlases.

Armed with the atlas, researchers can now piece together the brain networks that represent wildly different concepts, from numbers to murder and religion. “The idea of murder is represented a lot in the brain,” Gallant said.

Using the same haul of data, the group has begun work on new atlases that show how the brain holds information on other aspects of language, from phonemes to syntax. A brain atlas for narrative structure has so far proved elusive, however. “Every time we come up with a set of narrative features, we get told they aren’t the right set of narrative features,” said Gallant.

Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, praised the work. Unlike many studies that looked at brain activity when an isolated word or sentence was spoken, Gallant’s team had shed light on how the brain worked in a real-world scenario, he said. The next step, he said, was to create a more comprehensive and precise semantic brain atlas. Ultimately, Hasson believes it will be possible to reconstruct the words a person is thinking from their brain activity. The ethical implications are enormous. One more benign use would see brain activity used to assess whether political messages have been effectively communicated to the public. “There are so many implications, and we are barely touching the surface,” he said.

Lorraine Tyler, a cognitive neuroscientist and head of the Centre for Speech, Language and the Brain at Cambridge University said the research was a “tour de force in its scope and methods”. But the brain atlas in its current form does not capture fine differences in word meanings. Take the word “table”. It can be a member of many different groups, says Tyler. “It can be something to eat off, things made of wood, things that are heavy, things having four legs, non-animate objects, and so on. This kind of detailed semantic information that enables words to be used flexibly is lost in the analysis,” she said. “While this research is path-breaking in its scope, there is still a lot to learn about how semantics is represented in the brain.”


Social Network Algorithms Are Distorting Reality By Boosting Conspiracy Theories.

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Social Network Algorithms Are Distorting Reality By Boosting Conspiracy Theories.

After an anonymous source alleged that Facebook’s Trending News algorithm (and human staff) was intentionally hiding conservative news from the social network, all hell broke loose. Congressional hearings have been called. Whether the reports are right—and whether hearings are justified—underneath the uproar is a largely unspoken truth: The algorithms that drive social networks are shifting the reality of our political systems—and not for the better.

The filter bubble—the idea that online recommendation engines learn what we like and thus keep us only reading things we agree with—has evolved. Algorithms, network effects, and zero-cost publishing are enabling crackpot theories to go viral, and—unchecked—these ideas are impacting the decisions of policy makers and shaping public opinion, whether they are verified or not.

First it is important to understand the technology that drives the system. Most algorithms work simply: Web companies try to tailor their content (which includes news and search results) to match the tastes and interests of readers. However as online organizer and author Eli Pariser says in the TED Talk where the idea of the filter bubble became popularized: “There’s a dangerous unintended consequence. We get trapped in a ‘filter bubble’ and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.”

Facebook’s news feed and personalized search delivers results that are tailored just to us because a social network’s business is to keep us interested and happy. Feeling good drives engagement and more time spent on a site, and that keeps a user targetable with advertisements for longer. Pariser argues that this nearly invisible editing of the Internet limits what we see—and that it will “ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.”

In his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin describes a world where our ability to technologically shape reality is so sophisticated, it overcomes reality itself. “We risk being the first people in history,” he writes, “to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.”

Since Pariser’s TED Talk, we’ve reached the point where social networks are now used as primary news outlets. Seeking news from traditional sources—newspapers and magazines—has been replaced with a new model: getting all of one’s news from trending stories on social networks. The people that we know best are most likely to influence us because we trust them. Their ideas and beliefs shape ours. And the tech behind social networks is built to enhance this. Where “proximity” used to mean knowing people next door or down the street, it now includes online communities. It’s easier than ever to find like-minded people independently of geography.

Once a user joins a single group on Facebook, the social network will suggest dozens of others on that topic, as well as groups focused on tangential topics that people with similar profiles also joined. That is smart business. However, with unchecked content, it means that once people join a single conspiracy-minded group, they are algorithmically routed to a plethora of others. Join an anti-vaccine group, and your suggestions will include anti-GMO, chemtrail watch, flat Earther (yes, really), and “curing cancer naturally” groups. Rather than pulling a user out of the rabbit hole, the recommendation engine pushes them further in. We are long past merely partisan filter bubbles and well into the realm of siloed communities that experience their own reality and operate with their own facts.

Another tech trend fueling this issue is the ability to publish ideas online at no cost, and to gather an audience around those ideas. It’s now easier than ever to produce content specifically designed to convince people who may be on the fence or “curious” about a particular topic. This is an especially big issue when it comes to violent extremism, and pseudoscience. Self-publishing has eliminated all the checks and balances of reputable media―fact-checkers, editors, distribution partners.

Social publishing platforms have made all of us content creators. And this is a wonderful, tremendously valuable innovation that enables talented, or traditionally voiceless, people to be heard. We believe in the wisdom of crowds. Inherent in our platform designs is the conviction that good content will get noticed, and the rest will stagnate, unseen, in lonely corners of the web. But the increasing proliferation of fringe content is beginning to suggest that this is no longer as true as it once was.

Social platforms—in their effort to keep users continually engaged (and targeted with relevant ads)—are designed to surface what’s popular and trending, whether it’s true or not. Since nearly half of web-using adults now get their news from Facebook in any given week, what counts as “truth” on our social platforms matters. When nonsense stories gain traction, they’re extremely difficult to correct. And stories jump from platform to platform, reaching new audiences and “going viral” in ways and at speeds that were previously impossible.

Many Brazilians, for example, think the Brazilian government is lying to them about Zika causing birth defects, though they aren’t quite sure whether they should be worried about vaccines, Monsanto, chemtrails, or GMO mosquitoes as the true cause.

People in Portland, Oregon, voted in 2013 to stop the fluoridation of water—a common practice to improve dental health. Depending on which opposition group you asked, fluoridation was either a technique used by fascist regimes to pacify their citizens or a toxic chemical that causes cancer.

For instance, last year local residents in a town in Bastrop County, Texas, became convinced that a routine military practice exercise known as Jade Helm 15 was a secret government plot to impose martial law and confiscate Texans’ firearms. The uproar was so large that it reached the desk of Texas governor Greg Abbott. Abbott then legitimized the conspiracy theory by making a statement declaring that the Texas State Guard would monitor the exercise.

You might ask: Isn’t this simply an artifact of reality, reflected online? Maybe all of us simply weren’t exposed to this “other” world and are simply coming into contact with it thanks to the Internet?

That is one possibility. But the Internet doesn’t just reflect reality anymore; it shapes it. The mere fact of these theories being online and discoverable helps create this phenomenon.

The problem is that social-web activity is notorious for an asymmetry of passion. On many issues, the most active social media voices are the conspiracist fringe. The majority of people know that vaccines don’t cause autism, and that 9/11 was not an inside job. They don’t dedicate hours to creating content or tweeting to reinforce the obvious. But passionate truthers and extremists produce copious amounts of content in their commitment to “wake up the sheeple.” Last month, for example, a study looked at the relative percentages of pro-vaccine vs. anti-vaccine content on Pinterest and Instagram; 75% of the immunization-related pinned content was opposed to vaccines. This was a dramatic shift from studies of social networks in the early 2000s, when the percentage of negative content was estimated at around 25%.

This asymmetry of passion, and the resulting proliferation of nonsense on social channels, is particularly strong where pseudoscience is concerned. Consider the Food Babe, an anti-GMO “food safety activist” who boasts 1 million Facebook fans and a committed #foodbabearmy on Twitter dedicated to harassing companies (such as the Girl Scouts) to get them to remove ingredients that are hard to pronounce. When refutations, corrections, or takedowns of her often misinformed agenda are published in the mainstream media, her followers dig in more, convinced that the pushback is because they’ve struck a nerve in Big Agriculture or Big Food, or because the reporter is “bought.”

Activism spawned from these online conspiracy groups wastes time and money, and it’s increasing. In a recent interview, Californian Republican Representative Devin Nunes said that 90% of the communication he receives from constituents is conspiracy-theorist nonsense, up from approximately 10% when he took office in 2003. It’s impacting the political process on everything from zoning laws (fears of UN Agenda 21) to public health policy (water fluoridation). In Hawaii last month, for example, lawmakers killed a simple procedural bill that would have allowed the state to more quickly adopt federal guidelines on administering vaccines in case of an outbreak—because outraged residents claimed that vaccines were responsible for Zika (and, of course, for autism).

There are plenty of explanations about why conspiracy theories exist. These range from a decreasing amount of trust in leaders and institutions to proportionality bias (a belief that big events must have big causes) to projection and more. The most predominant factor—confirmation bias, the tendency to use information to confirm what you already believe—is in many ways made worse, not better, in a world where more, not less, information is available, thanks to Google and the Internet.

Ultimately, we need our best minds playing both offense and defense if we are going to reduce the prevalence and impact of conspiracist influence both online, and in real life. How do we do that?

We need a shift in how we design our ever-evolving social platforms. The very structure and incentives in social networks have brought us to this point. Our platform designers themselves should be considering what steps they can take to bring us back. Perhaps we should have more conversations about ethics in design—and maybe these Facebook allegations will kick that off. Their product design is having a dramatic impact on public policy, and the effects are only going to get stronger. What responsibility do the designers of those products have to civil discourse?

Platforms have the power here. Some have begun to introduce algorithms that warn readers that a share is likely a hoax, or satire. Google is investigating the possibility of “truth ranking” for web searches, which is promising. These are great starting points, but a regulation by algorithm has its own set of advantages and pitfalls. The primary concern is that turning companies into arbiters of truth is a slippery slope, particularly where politically rooted conspiracies are concerned.

But we have to start somewhere. As Eli Pariser said: “We really need you to make sure that these algorithms have encoded in them a sense of the public life, a sense of civic responsibility. We need you to make sure that they’re transparent enough that we can see what the rules are that determine what gets through our filters.” The Internet isn’t separate from the real world; building the web we want is building the future we want.


Rare earth minerals found in abundance in Jamaican mud.

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Rare earth minerals found in abundance in Jamaican mud.

Jamaica may be home to a large source of rare earth minerals, according to the findings of a Japanese mining company. It comes as companies and countries around the world continue searching for further sources of elements that are vital to modern technology.

The Associated Press has reported remarks from Jamaica’s science, technology, energy and mining minister, Philip Paulwell, who said that Jamaica’s red mud contains “high concentrations of rare-earth elements”. That’s good news for the country, as it means Japanese firm Nippon Light Metal is willing to invest $3 million (£1.9 million) in buildings and equipment for a pilot project to see if they can extract the hoped-for 1,500 tonnes of rare earth oxides each year.

The rare earth minerals each contain one or several of a collection of 17 different elements, many of which are necessary for modern electronics. When China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 its production of rare earth minerals was so high, and so cheap, that it forced almost every other mine in the world out of business — at one point 97 percent of these elements, or roughly 15,000 tonnes, were coming from Chinese mines. However, a combination of dwindling reserves and geopolitical paranoia has driven a search for new sources around the world, which brings us to Jamaica.

After gaining independence in 1962, Jamaica’s economy experienced an initial period of extremely high growth, driven in part by the mining of bauxite, which leaves behind large quantities of red mud that can now be reappropriated as a source of rare earth minerals. The country is still the fifth-largest exporter of bauxite in the world, but the recent worldwide economic turmoil has reduced demand and contributed to sluggish growth and a relatively high unemployment rate of 12.7 percent. Rare earth mineral extraction could prove a big boost the nation’s economy.

Despite their name, rare earth minerals are not actually rare in the sense that there aren’t many of them — they’re distributed relatively evenly throughout the Earth’s crust. However, there are few locations where they exist in concentrations high enough to make extraction cost-effective, which is why it wouldn’t be wise to start an allanite mine in your back garden.

Countries have responded to the decline in availability of Chinese rare earth minerals with their own projects. Japan and Vietnam have launched a joint centre for research into rare earth mineral extraction, and in 2012 a team from the University of Tokyo claims to have found 6.2 million tonnes of rare earth minerals in the Pacific seabed.

Meanwhile, in the US, Molycorp is trying to reopen the Mountain Pass mine in California which, in the decades after the Second World War, produced most of the world’s rare earth minerals. However, rumours over the viability of reopening the mine have delayed production.


Religion could die out as world’s population gets richer.

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Religion could die out as world’s population gets richer.

A wealthier population could mean the end of religion, according to evolutionary scientists.

The group of academics suggest the world’s major religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, emerged as an evolutionary response to the differences in lifestyle between wealthy elites and other, poorer, communities.

Evolutionary psychologist Dr Nicolas Baumard said affluence and wealth caused humans to have a “slower” lifestyle, suggesting the wealthy elite 2,500 years ago would have been less sexually active, less aggressive and overall lead more laid-back lives.

“Absolute affluence has predictable effects on human motivation and reward systems,” Dr Baumard et al wrote in a study, “moving individuals away from ‘fast life’ strategies (resource acquisition and coercive interactions) and toward ‘slow life’ strategies (self-control techniques and cooperative interactions.”

The study says living a ‘slow life’ put the elite at an evolutionary disadvantage, as they may have had fewer children, had less to eat (since they were less aggressive about acquiring food) and have reproduced later in life.

In order to offset this disadvantage, Dr Baumard believes the wealthy introduced moralising religions to the poor as a way to introduce them to ‘slow-life’ strategies, therefore offsetting the evolutionary disadvantages the elite faced in being less motivated by acquisition, greed and procreation.

The study said religious practice itself had been around since before a clear divide in wealth emerged, but that it lacked the focus on morality and fulfilment that is found within world’s major religions today.

Religion is based on spiritual fulfilment, not material or physical fulfilment, according to Dr Baumard et al.

They wrote: “To most people, believers and non-believers alike, it seems obvious that religion is on the side of the spiritual rather than the material world and that it fosters self-discipline and selflessness rather than license and gree.”

The study said idea that true salvation could only be found in moral behaviour, not in having the most food or the most sex, may have served as a distraction to the non-elite, leading them towards ‘slow life’ strategies.

But Dr Baumard said that, as affluence becomes more widespread, moralising religion could be on its way out.

He said living a ‘slow’ lifestyle was becoming more common among the general population, with pepople motivated to cooperate with each other and focus on fulfilment in areas of life that are not just physical – which means there is less need for moralising religions to control the behaviour of a large poor population.

Writing in the New Scientist, Dr Baumard said: “As more and more people become affluent and adopt a slow strategy, the need to morally condemn fast strategies decreases, and with it the benefit of holding religious beliefs that justify doing so.

“If this is true, and our environment continues to improve, then like the Greco-Roman religions before them, Christianity and other moralising religions could eventually vanish.”


Don’t Believe In Evolution? Try Thinking Harder.

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Don’t Believe In Evolution? Try Thinking Harder.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is among the best established in science, yet also among the most controversial for subsets of the American public.

For decades we’ve known that beliefs about evolution are well-predicted by demographic factors, such as religious upbringing and political affiliation. There’s also enormous variation in the acceptance of evolution across different countries, all of which suggests an important role for cultural input in driving beliefs about evolution. A child raised by Buddhists in California is much more likely to accept evolution than one raised by evangelical Protestants in Kansas.

But in the last 20 years or so, research in psychology and the cognitive science of religion has increasingly focused on another factor that contributes to evolutionary disbelief: the very cognitive mechanisms underlying human cognition.

Researchers have argued that a variety of basic human tendencies conspire to make natural selection especially aversive and difficult to understand, and to make creationism a compelling alternative. For instance, people tend to prefer explanations that offer certainty and a sense of purpose when it comes to their lives and the design of the natural world and they have an easier time wrapping their heads around theories that involve biological categories with clear boundaries — all of which are challenged by natural selection.

These factors are typically taken to hold for all humans, not only those who reject evolution. But this naturally raises a question about what differentiates those individuals who do accept evolution from those who do not. In other words, if the California Buddhist and the Kansas Protestant share the same cognitive mechanisms, what accounts for their differing views on evolution?

In fact, there’s evidence that individuals vary in the extent to which they favor purpose and exhibit other relevant cognitive tendencies, and that this variation is related to religious belief — itself a strong predictor of evolutionary belief. But there’s a lot we don’t know about how differences between individuals drive different beliefs about evolution, and about how these individual differences interact with cultural input.

A new paper by psychologist Will Gervais, just published in the journal Cognition, sheds new light on these questions. In two surveys conducted with hundreds of undergraduates attending a large university in Kentucky, Gervais found an association between cognitive style and beliefs about evolution. Gervais used a common task to measure the extent to which people engage in a more intuitive cognitive style, which involves going with immediate, intuitive judgments, versus a more analytic cognitive style, which involves more explicit deliberation, and which can often override an intuitive response.

In both studies, Gervais found a statistically significant relationship between the extent to which individuals exhibited a more analytic style and their endorsement of evolution. Importantly, the relationship remained significant even when controlling for other variables that predict evolutionary beliefs, including belief in God, religious upbringing and political conservatism.

The study also replicated prior work that has found a relationship between religiosity and evolutionary beliefs, and between cognitive style and religious disbelief: Participants with a more analytic style were not only more likely to accept evolution, but also to indicate lesser belief in God.

These findings are consistent with at least three possibilities. The first — suggested by the clever title of Gervais’ paper, “Override the Controversy” — is that all individuals have a tendency to reject evolution on an intuitive level, but that some individuals engage in a form of analytic or reflective thinking that allows them to “override” this intuitive response.

A second possibility is that some individuals have stronger intuitive responses than others. Such individuals are likely to experience a stronger pull toward purposive thinking, a greater aversion to uncertainty and other cognitive preferences at odds with evolution. If their intuitive responses are generally stronger, they’re also less likely to succeed in overriding them by engaging in analytic or reflective thought.

Yet, a third possibility — and one I find compelling — is that effects of cognitive style interact with cultural input. Creationism and belief in God might be “intuitive” for many Kentucky undergraduates not only because these beliefs align well with basic human tendencies, but also because these are the beliefs they grew up with and that dominate their communities. What might require analytic and reflective thought isn’t (just) overriding cognitive systems that govern intuition, but overriding the norms of one’s upbringing and peers.

These possibilities are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. The fact is, there’s a lot we don’t know and the reality is likely to be complex. But the new findings by Gervais — and the findings on which they build — already point to the richness of human belief. Evolution isn’t controversial for scientific reasons, but it is controversial, in part, for psychological reasons.

Understanding those reasons won’t only have practical implications for science education and policy, but also can tell us something about the basic building blocks of the mind — and about how they interact with our social and cultural environment.


The World in 2025: 8 Predictions for the Next 10 Years.

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The World in 2025: 8 Predictions for the Next 10 Years.

1. A $1,000 Human Brain

In 2025, $1,000 should buy you a computer able to calculate at 10^16 cycles per second (10,000 trillion cycles per second), the equivalent processing speed of the human brain.

2. A Trillion-Sensor Economy

The Internet of Everything describes the networked connections between devices, people, processes and data. By 2025, the IoE will exceed 100 billion connected devices, each with a dozen or more sensors collecting data. This will lead to a trillion-sensor economy driving a data revolution beyond our imagination. Cisco’s recent report estimates the IoE will generate $19 trillion of newly created value.

3. Perfect Knowledge

We’re heading towards a world of perfect knowledge. With a trillion sensors gathering data everywhere (autonomous cars, satellite systems, drones, wearables, cameras), you’ll be able to know anything you want, anytime, anywhere, and query that data for answers and insights.

4. 8 Billion Hyper-Connected People

Facebook (, SpaceX, Google (Project Loon), Qualcomm and Virgin (OneWeb) are planning to provide global connectivity to every human on Earth at speeds exceeding one megabit per second.

We will grow from three to eight billion connected humans, adding five billion new consumers into the global economy. They represent tens of trillions of new dollars flowing into the global economy. And they are not coming online like we did 20 years ago with a 9600 modem on AOL. They’re coming online with a 1 Mbps connection and access to the world’s information on Google, cloud 3D printing, Amazon Web Services, artificial intelligence with Watson, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, and more.

5. Disruption of Healthcare

Existing healthcare institutions will be crushed as new business models with better and more efficient care emerge. Thousands of startups, as well as today’s data giants (Google, Apple, Microsoft, SAP, IBM, etc.) will all enter this lucrative $3.8 trillion healthcare industry with new business models that dematerialize, demonetize and democratize today’s bureaucratic and inefficient system.

Biometric sensing (wearables) and AI will make each of us the CEOs of our own health. Large-scale genomic sequencing and machine learning will allow us to understand the root cause of cancer, heart disease and neurodegenerative disease and what to do about it. Robotic surgeons can carry out an autonomous surgical procedure perfectly (every time) for pennies on the dollar. Each of us will be able to regrow a heart, liver, lung or kidney when we need it, instead of waiting for the donor to die.

6. Augmented and Virtual Reality

Billions of dollars invested by Facebook (Oculus), Google (Magic Leap), Microsoft (Hololens), Sony, Qualcomm, HTC and others will lead to a new generation of displays and user interfaces.

The screen as we know it — on your phone, your computer and your TV — will disappear and be replaced by eyewear. Not the geeky Google Glass, but stylish equivalents to what the well-dressed fashionistas are wearing today. The result will be a massive disruption in a number of industries ranging from consumer retail, to real estate, education, travel, entertainment, and the fundamental ways we operate as humans.

7. Early Days of JARVIS

Artificial intelligence research will make strides in the next decade. If you think Siri is useful now, the next decade’s generation of Siri will be much more like JARVIS from Iron Man, with expanded capabilities to understand and answer. Companies like IBM Watson, DeepMind and Vicarious continue to hunker down and develop next-generation AI systems. In a decade, it will be normal for you to give your AI access to listen to all of your conversations, read your emails and scan your biometric data because the upside and convenience will be so immense.

8. Blockchain

If you haven’t heard of the blockchain, I highly recommend you read up on it. You might have heard of bitcoin, which is the decentralized (global), democratized, highly secure cryptocurrency based on the blockchain. But the real innovation is the blockchain itself, a protocol that allows for secure, direct (without a middleman), digital transfers of value and assets (think money, contracts, stocks, IP). Investors like Marc Andreesen have poured tens of millions into the development and believe this is as important of an opportunity as the creation of the Internet itself.

Bottom Line: We Live in the Most Exciting Time Ever

We are living toward incredible times where the only constant is change, and the rate of change is increasing.


18 Phenomenal African Feminists to Know and Celebrate.

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 18 Phenomenal African Feminists to Know and Celebrate.

What is African Feminism? Many feminists from around the world have contested the idea of whether modern conceptions of feminism are African or un-African. Indeed, feminism has existed in Africa since the times of Queen Nzinga of what is now Mozambique and Yaa Asantewaa of Ghana. These women have inspired contemporary African feminists, who have contributed significantly to feminism in various ways—whether it be through art, music, writing, policy. They have been committed to bringing the voices of African women into the spaces that they work within, and they are indeed change-makers—not only on the African continent, but also throughout the African Diaspora. As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we must take the time to celebrate the 20 African Feminists you should know.

1. Theo Sowa – CEO of African Women’s Development Fund

Theo Sowa is Chief Executive Officer of the African Women’s Development Fund. She has previously worked as an independent advisor for a wide range of international and social development issues. Her work has covered advocacy, service delivery, evaluation, facilitation, policy, and organizational development with a range of international and intergovernmental organizations and grant-making foundations.

Follow her work at:
Follow her on Twitter: @TheoSowa

2. Abena Busia – Writer, Poet & Professor

Professor Abena Busia is the current Chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She is also co-director and co-editor of the groundbreaking Women Writing Africa Project, a multi-volume anthology published by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York. As Professor Busia points out, “History is located in multiple places,” and the anthology is designed to recognize the complex cultural legacy and “cultural production” of African women. Busia has helped edit two volumes of the anthology—Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel (2005) and Women Writing Africa: Northern Africa (2009).

3. Osai Ojigho – Lawyer and Activist

Osai Ojigbo is a lawyer, gender justice advocate, and human rights activist. She holds a law degree from the University of Lagos in Nigeria and a Master’s of Law degree from the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom. She served as the Deputy Executive Director at Alliances for Africa (AfA), where she coordinated the Gender Justice in Africa Initiative. Osai has designed and implemented programs aimed at building the capacity of community-based women leaders on issues related to human rights.

Follow her on Twitter: @livingtruely

4. Leymah Gbowee – Activist

Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist, social worker and women’s rights advocate. She is also a 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate. She is the founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, based in Monrovia. Leymah is best known for leading a nonviolent movement that brought together Christian and Muslim women to play a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s devastating, 14-year civil war in 2003.

Follow her on Twitter: @LeymahRGbowee

5. Minna Salammi – Activist, Blogger & Speaker

Minna is a Nigerian-Finnish writer, blogger and speaker and the founder of MsAfropolitan, a multiple award-winning pan-African feminist blog. She is also a member of the Duke University Corporate Education Global Learning Resource Network, the Guardian Africa Network, a board member of UK Charity For Books’ Sake, and a Huffington Post contributor.

Follow her work on her blog:
Follow her on Twitter: @MsAfropolitan

6. Amina Doherty – Artivist

Amina Doherty is a Nigerian feminist ARTivist whose work focuses on feminist philanthropy and creative arts advocacy. She has facilitated learning initiatives on women’s rights, youth development, philanthropy, and economic justice. Amina actively supports several community-led media platforms and brings to her activism a passion for music, art, travel, photography, fashion and poetry.

Follow her on Twitter: @Sheroxlox

7. Nana Sekyiamah – Writer, Blogger & Activist

Nana Sekyiamah calls herself a “Fab African Feminist.” She has served in many leadership roles on the African continent for years as the Communications Specialist for the African Women’s Development Fund, a leading pan-African grant funding organization in Ghana. She focuses on writing stories that explore issues around the diverse sexualities of African women. She is the curator of Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, a highly acclaimed and widely read blog on African women and sexuality.

Follow her work on
Follow her on Twitter: @Nas009

8. Amina Mama – Professor and Researcher

Professor Amina Mama is Nigerian-British feminist writer and intellectual who has worked for over two decades in research, teaching, organizational change, and editing in Nigeria, Britain, the Netherlands, South Africa, and the U.S.A. She spent a decade at the University of Cape Town’s African Gender Institute where she led the collaborative development of feminist studies and research for African contexts. Amina currently works as a professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of California, Davis.

9. Yewande Omotoso – Writer

Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados and grew up in Nigeria with her Barbadian mother, Nigerian father, and two older brothers. The family moved to South Africa in 1992. Yewande trained as an architect at the University of Cape Town, to which she returned after working as an architect for several years, to complete a master’s degree in Creative Writing. The product of her degree is her debut novel Bomboy, which was published in 2011.

Follow her on Twitter: @Yomotoso

10. Purity Kagwiria – Executive Director of the Akili Dada Institute

Purity Kagwiria serves as the Executive Director of the Akili Dada institute, an organization that provides education and leadership opportunity to girls and women in Kenya. A journalist by profession, Purity is an active member of the feminist/women’s rights movement and she is committed to analyzing the private and personal spaces that women inhabit and developing strategies that lead to the emancipation of women. Purity holds a degree in Gender and Development from the University of Nairobi and a Diploma in Journalism from Kenya Institute of Mass Communication.

Follow her on Twitter: @Pruncie
Follow the Akili Dada Institute: @akilidada

11. Yaba Badoe – Activist and Filmmaker

Yaba Badoe is a Ghanaian-British documentary filmmaker, producer, and writer. A graduate of King’s College in Cambridge, she worked as a civil servant in Ghana before becoming a General Trainee with the BBC. She has taught in Spain and Jamaica, and has worked as a producer and director making documentaries for the main terrestrial channels in Britain and the University of Ghana in Accra. Her documentaries include The Witches of Gambaga (2011) and The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo (2014).

12. Aisha Fofana Ibrahim – Professor and Activist

Aisha Fofana Ibrahim is the Director of the Gender Research and Documentation Centre at the University of Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College. In 2009-2010, she was the Helleiner Visiting Research Fellow at The North-South Institute, an IDRC-funded fellowship. While at The North-South Institute, Ibrahim’s work focused on affirmative action as a means to overcome barriers that limit women’s entry into politics. Aisha also serves as President of the 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone, which focuses on advocacy, policy, and capacity building for women’s leadership.

Follow her organization:

13. Melissa Kiguwa – Poet and Artist

Melissa Kiguwa is an artist, a daughter, and a radical feminist. Her artistry ranges from designing one of a kind custom-made pieces of jewelry to poetry to improvisational blues performance. Her work is rooted in acknowledging and giving praise to diverse global Afro experiences. Raised by a Haitian father and a Ugandan mother, Melissa considers herself an “Afro-nomad.” Her latest poetry book is titled the Reveries of Longing.

14. Ama Ata Aidoo – Writer

Professor Ama Ata Aidoo, née Christina Ama Aidoo, is a Ghanaian author, poet, playwright, and academic. She also served as a Minister of Education in Ghana under the Jerry Rawlings administration. She currently lives in Ghana. In 2000, she established the Mbaasem Foundation to promote and support the work of African women writers.

Follow her on Twitter: @AmaAtaAidoo

15. Maame Afon Yelbert-Obeng – Activist and Musician

Born and raised in Ghana, Maame is a committed advocate and a passionate leader, who is also a dynamic singer and recording artist. She recently released her second album, titled Ekome. She has worked as a Program Officer for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) at the Global Fund for Women, and is Board Member and co-chair of the Bay Area Regional Advisory Committee for the African Women’s Development Fund in the U.S.A. (AWDF-USA). Maame is also a board member and Program Director for Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa, and is also board member of We Care Solar, an award winning organization using organization using solar technology to facilitate timely and appropriate emergency care for maternal and infant health.

Follow her music:
Follow her organizations’ work: and

16. Rainatou Sow – Executive Director of Make Every Woman Count

Rainatou Sow is the founder and executive director of Make Every Woman Count, an organization that monitors women’s rights throughout the African contintent. The Guinean activist was named “Inspirational Woman of 2012” by the United Kingdom based group, Women 4 Africa. She has also been featured on CNN, as well as in Forbes Africa.

Follow her organization:

17. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Writer

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She is the author of three critically acclaimed novels: Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013). She also released a short story collection, The Thing around Your Neck in 2009. Chimamanda self-identifies as a feminist and has written and given speeches on various current topics relating to women’s issues in Nigeria and across the Diaspora, including her celebrated TED talks.

Follow her work:

18. Hilda Twongyeirwe – Writer and Editor

Hilda Twongyeirwe is a Ugandan writer and editor. She published the children’s book, Fina the Dancer, in 2007. She has also written a number of short stories, and her poetry has appeared in a number of journals, magazines, and anthologies. She is currently the coordinator of FEMRITE, an organization focused on developing and publishing women writers in Uganda and the East African region. Through FEMRITE, she has edited a number of publications, including I Dare to Say: African Women Share Their Stories of Hope and Survival in 2012.

How One Woman Stood Up to 300 Swedish Neo-Nazis.

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How One Woman Stood Up to 300 Swedish Neo-Nazis.

Tess Asplund, 42, an Afro-Swede, just 5 ft. 3 inches tall, got angry when she saw a group of Nazis from from the “Nordic Resistance Group” marching in Borlänge, a city in central Sweden.  So rather than just standing by and watching like the others she stepped into the street to stop them.

“It was an impulse. I was so angry, I just went out into the street,” Asplund told the Guardian. “I was thinking: hell no, they can’t march here! I had this adrenaline. No Nazi is going to march here, it’s not okay.”

Neo-Nazi groups like the “Nordic Resistance Groups” are proliferating across Northern Europe, while right-wing parties control the parliaments in Sweden and Denmark.  The Danish government recently announced it would seize cash and jewelry from migrants seeking asylum there (what’s next, gold fillings?) Meanwhile, there have been waves of violence against migrants in Germany, and the leader of the right-wing “Alternative for Germany” party — now the 3rd largest — advocated “protecting Germany’s borders” by shooting at refugees if necessary.

In Sweden, open racism has become “normalized”:

“Racism has been normalised in Sweden, it’s become okay to say the N-word,” she says, recounting how a man on the subway used the racial slur while shouting and telling her to hurry up. “But nobody paid any attention. I thought Sweden in 2016 would be more open minded, but something has happened,” Asplund says.

“I hope something positive will come out of the picture. Maybe what I did can be a symbol that we can do something – if one person can do it, anyone can.”


Cicada bugs as the next superfood? Check this out.

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Cicada bugs as the next superfood? Check this out.

Members of Brood II, one of the largest groups of periodical cicadas, have been crawling out of the ground and carpeting trees from North Carolina to Connecticut since early May. By July, they will be gone—not to be heard from again for 17 years.

Cicadas spend most of their lives underground sucking sap from tree roots. The plant-based diet gives them a green, asparagus-like flavor, especially when eaten raw or boiled, according to Kristky, who prefers his Brood II bugs blanched and tossed into a leafy green salad like chunks of chicken.

Gross? Not really, said Jenna Jadin, an entomologist who wrote the online cookbook Cicada-Licious: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicada in 2004 while a graduate student at the University of Maryland in College Park.

She notes in her book that crawfish, lobster, crab, and shrimp are part of the same biological phylum—arthropods—as insects. “So popping a big juicy beetle, cricket, or cicada into your mouth is only a step away,” Jadin writes. (Related: “U.N. Urges Eating Insects; 8 Popular Bugs to Try.”)

The entomologist is now a science and technology policy fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. She’s been too busy to add recipes to her cookbook, but when asked if she had new ideas for 2013 Brood II emergence, she suggested a cicada-inspired cocktail.

“Right now, craft cocktails are a big deal, so a cocktail with a candied cicada in it would be a good update,” she said. The next day, she had the recipe in hand:

Red Eyes

2 shots vodka

½ shot Campari

½ shot extra-dry vermouth

1 shot fresh orange juice

Shake all ingredients together with ice in a shaker and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with two candied cicadas* on a stick, if desired.

More of Jadin’s ideas include Martha Stewart-inspired Maple Cicada Cupcakes—roast the bugs for 10 to 20 minutes, then stir them into a cupcake batter with a wooden spoon—and Cicada Bahn Mi, a Vietnamese-style sandwich with cicadas first blanched, then sautéed until brown.

Healthy Eating?

Jadin’s cookbook begins with a disclaimer from the University of Maryland asking would-be cicada eaters to first consult a doctor because, like with all foods, certain individuals may have an allergic reaction.

More recent research indicates that mercury from sources such as coal-fired power plants accumulates in the bodies of periodical cicadas, which spend 13 or 17 years underground. “Now, whether that is a concern or not, I would say no,” Jadin said.

People already eat fish, which are known to have mercury in their bodies, she noted. Federal guidelines recommend limiting fish intake, especially for pregnant women. The same would probably hold true for cicadas, though there are no official guidelines.

“I don’t think the average person who wants to go out and enjoy the cicada emergence by having a meal of cicadas or two [has] anything to worry about,” she said.

Her only true concern is the cicadas that emerge in areas heavily treated with pesticides and herbicides, as the insects could have absorbed the chemicals in their bodies.

“Given that it’s likely people won’t be feasting on cicadas, just eating a few of them, even if they have [absorbed] chemicals, it’s no worse than eating fish from the Great Lakes,” Jadin said. “If [people] survived that, they’ll probably survive eating a plateful of cicada.”

And no, there is no bona fide business out there marketing organic cicadas, she added.

The only consequence of cicada feasting that Kritsky is aware of is overindulgence, especially on the part of the family dog or favorite backyard squirrel. The animals may be enticed to gobble cicadas so quickly that the bugs could block the animals’ throats.

“Just imagine how you would react if inundated with thousands of flying Hershey’s Kisses,” Kritsky said. “You might go nuts. I’d go nuts. That’s what happens to dogs or squirrels.”

Eaten in moderation, most experts agree that cicadas—like most insects—are a good source of protein: about the same amount per pound as red meat. However, official studies on cicada nutrition are lacking, noted Jadin.

Cicada Preparation

So, are you ready to try a cicada? Aspiring gourmands must first collect the raw ingredients. The insects are best eaten just after the nymphs break open their skin and before their exoskeleton turns black and hard, cicada aficionados say.

These newly hatched cicadas are called tenerals. Jadin said they are easiest to collect in the early morning hours, just after the insects emerge from the ground but before they crawl up a tree, where they are harder to reach.

If tenerals are unavailable, the next best menu item is adult females. Their bellies are fat and full of nutritious eggs. (Also see “For Most People, Eating Bugs Is Only Natural.”)

Adult males, however, offer little to eat. More crunch than munch, their abdomens are hollow. (This enables the flirtatious tunes they strum on body structures known as tymbals to resonate.) With raw cicadas in hand, preparation is a matter of chef’s choice.

Kritsky said, “Most people like them deep fried and dipped in a sauce like a hot mustard or cocktail sauce.” Other people boil or blanch them.

Jadin said cicadas take on a “nutty” flavor when roasted. She notes that many cicada recipes call for a lot of spices and sauce, which usually winds up being the dominant flavor.

Now on to the wine: red or white? Jadin, who might be found with a cicada-infused cocktail in hand before the main feast, said neither. “I think anything pairs well with a high-alcoholic Belgian beer, but that’s just my opinion.”

*Candied Cicadas

1 pound cicadas

1 cup white sugar

2 tsp ground cinnamon

¼ tsp salt

3 tbsp milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Spread cicadas in a single layer over a baking sheet. Roast for approximately 15-20 minutes, or until the cicadas start to turn brown and are thoroughly dried out.

Stir together sugar, cinnamon, salt, and milk in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat for eight minutes, or until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage at 236°F (113°C). Remove from heat, and stir in vanilla immediately.

Add cicadas to sugar syrup, and stir to coat well. Spoon onto waxed paper, and immediately separate cicadas with a fork. Cool and store in airtight containers.


Novak Djokovic questions prize money equality between male and female tennis players.

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Novak Djokovic questions prize money equality between male and female tennis players.

World number one Novak Djokovic says male tennis players should earn more money than their female counterparts because more people watch them play.

Earlier, Indian Wells tournament CEO Raymond Moore said the women’s WTA Tour “ride on the coat-tails of the men”.

After claiming victory at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, 11-time major winner Djokovic said the men’s tennis tour “should fight for more”.

But the Serb described Moore’s comments as “not politically correct”.

Djokovic, 28, said women “fought for what they deserve and they got it”, but claimed prize money should be “fairly distributed” based on “who attracts more attention, spectators and who sells more tickets”.

There has been equal prize money in all four majors – the Australian Open, US Open, French Open and Wimbledon – since 2007, and combined Masters events such as Indian Wells and Miami pay the same to men and women.

But female players are paid significantly less at women-only events when compared with similar sized men’s events.

World number one Serena Williams said Moore’s statement was “offensive”, calling it “mistaken and very, very, very inaccurate”.

“There’s only one way to interpret that. Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and thank a man,” added 21-time major winner Williams, 34. “We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”

 Moore, a 69-year-old former player from South Africa, said: “If I was a lady player, I would go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.”

He later apologised for the “erroneous” remarks.

Billie Jean King, who co-founded the WTA Tour and won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, tweeted: “Disappointed in Raymond Moore comments. He is wrong on so many levels. Every player, especially the top players, contribute to our success.”

WTA CEO Steve Simon, said Moore’s comments were “extremely disappointing and alarming”.

 What else did Djokovic say?

The Serb admitted it was a “very delicate situation” and was “completely for women power”. He said:

  • Equal prize money has been the main subject of the tennis world in the past seven or eight years
  • Both men and women’s games should “fight for what they think they deserve”
  • Women have to go through “hormones” and other challenges men do not
  • Women have to make “sacrifices for certain periods of time, the family time or decisions that they make on their own bodies in order to play tennis”

A debate about the relative strengths of the men’s and women’s game should not be off limits, but the language Ray Moore used was deeply offensive – and it is hard to see how he can command the confidence of the players who will return to Indian Wells next year.

Novak Djokovic’s comments are shared by very many in the men’s game.

He is suggesting prize money at combined events should be distributed on the basis of ticket sales and TV viewing figures.

That may lead in future to women being paid more, but could also fatally undermine the principle that men and women should be treated equally for competing on the same stage – irrespective of the number of sets they are asked to play.

Men v women – factfile – Men’s v women’s tennis

973 million

viewers for men’s 2015 ATP tour

395 million

for women’s 2015 WTA events and finals

  • $21.65m won by Novak Djokovic in 2015
  • $10.58m won by Serena Williams in 2015
  • 1973 US Open became first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money
  • 2007 Wimbledon joined other Grand Slams in offering equal prize money
  • Excluding Grand Slams, 395 million watched WTA Premier events and finals on TV and digital, compared with 973 million for ATP events
  • In 2015, the Wimbledon men’s final attracted a peak audience of 9.2 million viewers, compared with 4.3 million for the women’s final.
  • At the US Open, the men’s final drew 3.3 million viewers, compared with 1.6 million for the women’s final
  • However, in the previous two years, the US Open women’s final was watched by more viewers than the men’s.
  • Men’s finals generally garner more ticket sales than women’s finals. However, in 2015, tickets for the US Open women’s final sold out before the men’s
  • Djokovic earned $21m (£14.5m) in prize money last year, compared with Williams’ $10.5m (£7.3m), but the two 10th highest earners, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roberta Vinci, both earned $2.2m (£1.5m).
  • Men play five sets at the Grand Slams. At all other times both men and women play three sets.