Our Weekly Science Picks: France Transplants a Face While Capetown Braces for Water Crisis

By Marian Shivji

Hello there– Marian Shivji here with your weekly round-up of the latest in science, data and peculiarities. This week features a double face transplant, a city on the brink of dystopia, and a look at how data and machine learning are currently being used for weird and wonderful purposes.

Surgeons in France Just Performed the First-Ever Double Face Transplant

Face transplants have the potential to tackle a wide-range of medical conditions from genetic disorders to assaults. Plights of the face can go beyond disfigurement to result in a loss of function, hindering one’s ability to breathe, eat or speak. Twelve years ago, a man from France became the first person to ever receive a facial transplant. Fast forward seven years, his body rejected the new face, leaving him without a suitable alternative ever since. In a risky move, surgeons decided to attempt a second face transplant, making the Frenchman the recipient of not only the first face transplant but now the first ever double face transplant. These operations are a risky game and by no means close to routine practice. Fewer than 40 face transplant operations have ever been performed, so statistics on long-term outcomes for patients are lacking. Since its introduction, six people have died from the facial procedure. Many medical experts believe that rejection will be an inevitable consequence of face transplants for the foreseeable future. As a preventative measure, patients must typically take immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their lives after the procedure. A patient by the name of Isabelle Dinoire suffered rejection of her transplanted face, which caused her to lose feeling and usage of her lips. She later died of cancer in 2016, which was thought to have been caused by the immunosuppressant. It will still be weeks before doctors can determine whether this secondary transplant proves successful. If it is, it could give the other transplant recipients hope that further procedures could be an option in the case of chronic rejection.


France has become the first country to attempt a double face transplant. Getty Images

In Less than 90 Days, Cape Town Could Become the First Major City to Run Out of Water

Cape Town and the surrounding region has been battling droughts for nearly three years now, resulting in a dangerous drop in the levels of its water-supplying dams. Located in a geologic bowl historically fed by heavy winter precipitation, the coastal South African metropolis was once regarded to be an abundant haven of natural water. Now, in less than 90 days, Cape Town might become the first major city in the world to run out of water. April 21 has been marked as the potential “Day Zero,” the day on which experts have predicted that the dams will drop below 13.5 percent of their combined capacity. With little rain on the horizon, the city’s mayor has impeded a “drought charge” in order to fund water recycling projects such as the construction of three desalination plants, which they hope to have in operation by March. The city has also enforced a water limit on its 3.7 million residents of 23 gallons per person per day, drastically cutting their water consumption.If these measures fail and the dystopian, Mad Max-like future prevails, all the city’s taps (except in the poorest neighbourhoods) could be shut off by April. Capetonians would be forced to queue for their daily ration of water of 25 litres (5.5 gallons) from one of 200 government-organized collection sites. This crisis arose from a few compounding factors. While the El Niño weather pattern exacerbated the earlier part of the drought in 2015, experts are now pointing towards poor city management, a growing urban population, and – rather unsurprisingly – climate change. The latter threatens many more “Day Zero” occurrences globally. Scientists have estimated that North Africa and the Middle East could become so hot and dry that they will be uninhabitable in the near future, even if the targets of the Paris climate agreement are met. Another study found that nearly three-quarters of the world’s population will experience life-threatening heatwaves by the end of this century. If nothing else, the Cape Town drought and its implications serve as a stark reminder that climate change is no longer a distant concern.

Pornhub’s Data Provides a Comedic Perspective of the False Missile Alert in Hawaii

How would you spend your last moments if you thought that you only had a few hours left to live? It’s the age-old question that many of us have considered from time to time, but that question became a reality for residents of Hawaii when a false missile alert was circulated last week. As you would expect, people panicked – rushing for the nearest shelters and following protocol to a T. As a follow-up question, what would we then expect people to do upon being told that everything was going to be fine after all? The website Pornhub” released data that paints a picture of the situation from start to finish. The minute the missile alert went out, Hawaii’s traffic to their website dropped by almost 80 percent of their usual Saturday levels. When the second message went out at 8:45am local time, the hilarity ensued. As it happens, Hawaiians celebrated the fallacy of the alarm by giving themselves a little love. By 9:01am, traffic to Pornhub then skyrocketed, with hits surpassing the usual Saturday by 50 percent. Whether this was truly out of celebration or as the island’s means to relieve stress after the looming threat of death would require further study. Though an unlikely suspect for event driven data analysis, this isn’t the first time Pornhub has released such data. A few weeks ago, the site scrutinised its traffic during the Great American Eclipse, which shows just how committed the Americans are to star gazing.

The AI That Prepared Astronauts for Space Revolutionises Crime Fighting in Belgium

The Artificial intelligence systems that were created to prepare astronauts for space now provide a promising approach for solving crimes here on earth. The Space Applications Services company developed the software for astronauts-in-training in the European Space Agency (ESA) Columbus research laboratory, which had them respond to queries such as “What is this?” and “Where is this?” The origins of this machine-intelligence date back almost 15 years. The technology has advanced rapidly since, leading to the recent engineering of an intelligent mobile crew assistant. This bot is scheduled to undergo testing later in 2018 with Alexander Gerst, the next ESA astronaut to be sent into space. The potential for AI to reduce ground operations and associated costs, as well as the possibility that it could lower risks for human personnel has been paramount for space agencies. While that initial crew training project of 2003-05 is a relatively small step in artificial intelligence, the same integrated approaches to machine learning are now leading to feats in a completely different domain: security. Space Applications Services began to pivot the AI toward security applications when it developed a tool that allowed it to answer most factual questions and to display the results visually. The technology does the laborious parts of a crime analyst’s job with a single click. For instance, the machine intelligence became capable of combing through thousands of hours of security camera footage and pulling up specific video feeds upon request. Further sources of data that can be semi-automatically scanned by the software include written records, footage and social media – all within seconds. It can detect suspicious patterns, reconstruct scenes and highlight promising avenues of investigation. Belgian police are currently evaluating software for cost-effectiveness which could become a commercial product by the middle of this year. Belgium is just the latest country to use the hottest tech on the market to keep its citizens safe, following in the footsteps of China and Dubai.

Alexander Gerst follows instructions from the computer during his mission to ISS in 2014. Image Credit: ESA/NASA

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