When I was nine years old, I came down with a somewhat rare disease that left me hospitalized for several weeks. (Don’t worry, I’m fine now.) One day, I noticed a sequence of numbers printed on the side of my IV drip:
Quick: how many animals can you name in a minute? Done? OK, now think about how many of those animals have you seen, in real life, in the past year. Not many, right? Most of us live in a world devoid of wild animals, apart from maybe a few species like squirrels or raccoons. This means that we have few opportunities to compare our mental map — the idea of an animal that we carry around in our heads — against the real thing. And that means that sometimes, those mental maps can be off to a surprising degree.
Last month, Stephen Hawking caused quite a stir when he mused that advances in artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race.” Computer scientists quickly shot back, pointing out that today’s algorithms still struggle to recognize kittens, never mind plotting our ultimate doom. Still, with programs like Deep Blue and Watson outplaying humans on a regular basis, you might be forgiven a certain uneasy sense that the machines are gaining on us. Now, researchers at the University of Alberta have built an unbeatable card shark, a computer program that has ‘solved’ the game of heads up limit Texas hold’em
Naked mole rats — is there anything they can’t do? These wrinkly little critters live up to 30 years, more than ten times as long as other rodents their size. They are essentially immune to cancer (a fact which makes them of great interest to the medical community) and also apparently insensitive to some kinds of pain. Last, but certainly not least, they are able to survive at levels of oxygen so low that they would be fatal to other animals. This week, researchers at the University of British Columbia showed that naked mole rats do this in a