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Updated: 14 min 59 sec ago

Democrats slam EPA head, want to understand his climate inquiry

2 hours 39 min ago

Enlarge / Texas' Eddie Bernice Johnson. (credit: Getty Images/Tom Williams)

Lamar Smith, head of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has a penchant for releasing letters in which he complains about issues related to climate change. He has targeted everyone from state attorneys general who are investigating fossil fuel companies to NOAA scientists (and their e-mails).

But Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the ranking Democrat on the committee, has released a letter or two herself, including one in which she sharply questioned whether Smith was appropriately overseeing scientific research. Now, Johnson and two other Democrats on the committee have turned their attention to Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The subject? Pruitt's plan to have the EPA engage in a show debate over our understanding of climate science.

For the letter, Johnson was joined by Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), fellow members of the Science Committee. The letter cites a Reuters report about Pruitt's idea of creating a "red team" with the goal of poking holes in our current scientific understanding of climate change. The letter notes that Pruitt has claimed that "there are lots of questions that have not been asked and answered" about climate change, though he hasn't clearly specified what those are.

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Zuckerberg and Musk are both wrong about AI

2 hours 54 min ago

Enlarge / Enjoy your little squabbles. You foolish men know nothing about AI. (credit: Universal Pictures)

Back in 2015, a group of business leaders and scientists published an "open letter" about how controlling artificial superintelligence might be the most urgent task of the twenty-first century. Signed by luminaries like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, the letter has defined debates over AI in the years since. Bill Gates said in a Reddit AMA that he agrees with the letter. But, at last, there is a high-profile skeptic: Facebook giant Mark Zuckerberg, who has just come out strongly against the idea that AI is a threat to humanity.

At a backyard barbecue over the weekend, Zuckerberg fielded questions from Facebook Live. One asked about AI, and the social media mogul launched into a passionate rant:

I have pretty strong opinions on this. I am optimistic. I think you can build things and the world gets better. But with AI especially, I am really optimistic. And I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios—I just, I don't understand it. It's really negative and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible

In the next five to 10 years, AI is going to deliver so many improvements in the quality of our lives... Whenever I hear people saying AI is going to hurt people in the future, I think, "yeah, you know, technology can generally always be used for good and bad, and you need to be careful about how you build it, and you need to be careful about what you build and how it is going to be used."

But people who are arguing for slowing down the process of building AI, I just find that really questionable. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that.

Zuckerberg was clearly referring to Musk and Gates here, and he is trying to set himself up in the reasonable alternative position. He mentioned that AI is right on the cusp of improving healthcare with disease diagnosis and saving lives with self-driving cars that get into fewer accidents. Musk has already replied dismissively on Twitter, saying that Zuckerberg has little understanding of AI.

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Categories: News

Study: US is slipping toward measles being endemic once again

4 hours 10 sec ago

Enlarge / Child with a classic four-day rash from measles. (credit: CDC)

With firm vaccination campaigns, the US eliminated measles in 2000. The highly infectious virus was no longer constantly present in the country—no longer endemic. Since then, measles has only popped up when travelers carried it in, spurring mostly small outbreaks—ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred cases each year—that then fizzle out.

But all that may be about to change. With the rise of non-medical vaccine exemptions and delays, the country is backsliding toward endemic measles, Stanford and Baylor College of Medicine researchers warn this week. With extensive disease modeling, the researchers make clear just how close we are to seeing explosive, perhaps unshakeable, outbreaks.

According to results the researchers published in JAMA Pediatrics, a mere five-percent slip in measles-mumps-and-rubella (MMR) vaccination rates among kids aged two to 11 would triple measles cases in this age group and cost $2.1 million in public healthcare costs. And that’s just a small slice of the disease transmission outlook. Kids two to 11 years old only make up about 30 percent of the measles cases in current outbreaks. The number of cases would be much larger if the researchers had sufficient data to model the social mixing and immunization status of adults, teens, and infants under two.

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The science of why eyewitness testimony is often wrong

7 hours 9 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Gramercy Pictures)

The advent of DNA testing has made it uncomfortably clear that our criminal justice system often gets things wrong. Things go wrong for a variety of reasons, but many of them touch on science, or rather the lack of a scientific foundation for a number of forensic techniques. But in 70 percent of the cases where DNA has overturned a conviction, it also contradicted the testimony of one or more eyewitnesses to the events at issue.

According to a new perspective published in PNAS, that shouldn't surprise us. The paper's author, Salk neuroscientist Thomas Albright, argues that we've learned a lot about how humans perceive the world, process information, and hold on to memories. And a lot of it indicates that we shouldn't value eyewitness testimony as much as we do. Still, Albright offers some suggestions about how we can tailor the investigative process to compensate a bit for human limitations.

Persistence of memory

Albright has some history in this area, as he co-chaired a study group at the National Academies of Science on the topic. His new perspective is largely a summary of the report that resulted from the group, and it's an important reminder that we have sound, evidence-based recommendations for improving the criminal justice system. Failure to implement them several years after the report is problematic.

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Vitamins, supplements effective at boosting call volume to poison centers

11 hours 32 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Getty | John Greim)

Regardless the type of dietary supplements—from vitamins, energy drinks, herbal medicines, homeopathic products, to some hormonal treatments—they usually come with big claims about boosting health and wellbeing. While those claims are questionable (and often unfounded), the products collectively do enhance one thing: the volume of calls to poison control centers.

Between 2005 and 2012, the rate of supplement-related calls to poison centers increased 49.3 percent, researchers reported Monday in the Journal of Medical Toxicology. In the final year of data, the centers were getting calls at a rate of nearly 10 adverse exposures per 100,000 people.

There didn’t seem to be a big jump in use of dietary supplements during that time. Self-reported use among adults has held steady, around 49 to 54 percent, the authors note. But, these supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as are drugs—no FDA review or approval is required before supplements hit the market.

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Categories: News

A limiting factor on producing electricity in a warming world? Water.

12 hours 19 min ago

Enlarge / Thermal power plant with sun in Genoa, Italy. (credit: Getty Images)

Unless you work at a coal, gas, or nuclear plant, you may not think about water when you think about electricity (certainly at a household level; they don’t mix). But water plays an important part in cooling many power plants, and many power plants also depend on a nearby water source to create steam that drives turbines. So the availability of water for power production is a serious consideration. Not enough water? That power plant could have to shut down. If the water isn’t chilly enough to cool the plant? Same problem.

In a paper published in Nature Energy this week, a group of researchers from the Netherlands estimated how water availability would affect coal, gas, and nuclear plants in the European Union out to 2030. The researchers took into account a changing climate that will likely make water reserves scarcer and warmer, but they also accounted for progressive renewable energy policies in EU member countries, which are already prompting some thermoelectric plants to retire in favor of wind and solar (which need negligible amounts of water to operate). The researchers also counted new coal, gas, and nuclear plants that are in the planning or construction stages and will likely come online before 2030.

The model tracked the “water footprints” of 1,326 thermoelectric power plants in Europe (that is, the amount of water they need to operate), as well as 818 water basins from which those plants draw water. The researchers found that by 2030, plants along 54 water basins could experience reduced power availability because of lack of water for cooling or steam production, up from 47 in 2014. If the EU were to experience summer droughts like those that occurred in 2003 or 2006, power shortages would follow, the paper noted.

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The curious case of ClinicalTrials.gov, where dubious stem cell therapies seem legit

Mon, 07/24/2017 - 13:25

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Xinhua News Agency)

Earlier this year, doctors reported the case of three women who went blind after having stem cells derived from their own fat injected directly into their eyeballs—a procedure for which they each paid $5,000. Piecing together how those women came to pay for such a treatment, the doctors noted that at least one of the patients was lured by a trial listing on ClinicalTrials.gov—a site run by the US National Institutes of Health to register clinical trials. Though none of the women was ever enrolled in the trial—which never took place and has since been withdrawn—it was enough to make the treatment seem like part of legitimate, regulated clinical research.

But it wasn’t. And, according to a new analysis in the journal Regenerative Medicine, it’s not the only case of dubious and potentially harmful stem cell therapies lurking on the respected NIH site.

At least 18 ostensible trials listed on the site offer similar stem cell treatments that participants must pay to receive—unlike most trials, which compensate rather than charge participants for experimental treatments. These trials, sponsored by seven companies total, claim to be developing therapies for a wide range of conditions, like erectile dysfunction, type II diabetes, vision problems, Parkinson’s disease, premature ovarian failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, these trials are largely not backed by preliminary research. None of them has Food and Drug Administration approval—even though the agency has published a draft guidance that suggests these treatments are subject to FDA regulation. And some of the studies are only granted ethical approval by review boards with apparent conflicts of interest and histories of reprimands from medical boards and the FDA.

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Controversial new CDC director may reconsider Big Soda’s health funding

Mon, 07/24/2017 - 11:50

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Brenda Fitzgerald, the newly appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will consider allowing Coca-Cola to once again help fund the agency’s anti-obesity campaigns, according to e-mailed comments reported by the New York Times over the weekend.

Though it would be a turnabout for the agency—which ditched Coke funding in 2013—Fitzgerald's position shouldn't be surprising, as she has a controversial history of accepting funding from Coca-Cola. As health commissioner of Georgia from 2011 to this year, she accepted $1 million from the soda giant to fund an exercise program aimed at cutting the state’s childhood obesity rate—one of the highest in the country.

The exercise-based campaign seemed to fit well with Coca-Cola’s interests. The company has long appeared interested in shifting anti-obesity efforts toward improving physical activity levels rather than focusing on the role of diet, particularly sugary beverages. That’s despite many studies, including those by the CDC, that have found that sugar-loaded drinks are a prominent factor in childhood obesity, as well as the development of associated health conditions such as Type II diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease. Nevertheless, in 2015, a Times investigation revealed that Coke had been secretly funding and orchestrating a network of academic nutrition researchers, which had a suspiciously keen focus on combating obesity with exercise while downplaying the role of sweetened beverages and excess calories.

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Elon Musk’s Mars rocket may be about to lose half of its engines

Mon, 07/24/2017 - 09:12

Enlarge / SpaceX may be dumping the outer ring of 21 engines for its new Mars vehicle. (credit: SpaceX)

Last year, SpaceX founder Elon Musk shared plans for his transportation system to send humans to Mars in the 2020s. But the fantastically huge rocket, with 42 Raptor engines and enormous technical challenges, seemed more like science fiction than reality. Then there was the small matter of who would pay the tens of billions of dollars to develop a rocket that had few—if any—commercial prospects beyond sending 100 people to Mars at a time.

Musk seems to have realized that his ambitions were a tad too ambitious in recent months, and has said he will release a "revised" plan for Mars colonization that addresses some of these technical and fiscal questions. Now, we know this discussion will come during the 2017 International Astronautical Conference in Adelaide, Australia, on September 29. And this weekend, Musk dropped a big hint about the change.

In response to a question on Twitter, Musk wrote, "A 9m diameter vehicle fits in our existing factories ..." And this is actually quite a substantial hint, because the original "Interplanetary Transport System" had a massive 12-meter diameter. By scaling back to 9 meters, this suggests that Musk plans to remove the outer ring of 21 Raptor engines, leaving a vehicle with 21 engines instead of the original 42. While still complicated to manage during launch and flight, 21 engines seems more reasonable. Such a vehicle would also have about 50 percent less mass.

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Level up: How video games evolved to solve significant scientific problems

Sun, 07/23/2017 - 09:25

Yes, folks, this was once a revolutionary experience in gaming.


In the early 1950s, just as rock ‘n’ roll was hinting at social change, the first video games were quietly being designed in the form of technology demonstrations—and a scientist was behind it. In October 1958, Brookhaven National Laboratory physicist William Higinbotham created Tennis for Two. Despite graphics that are ridiculously primitive by today’s standards, it has been described as the first video game in history.

Higinbotham was inspired by the government research institution’s Donner Model 30 analog computer, which could simulate trajectories with wind resistance, and the game was designed for display at an annual public exhibition. Although his purpose in creating the game was rather academic, Tennis for Two turned out to be a hit at the three-day exhibition, with thousands of students lining up to see the game.

At first glance, today's video gamers and scientists might appear to be worlds apart. But starting with Tennis for Two, video games have quietly and consistently been within the purview of academic study. Each generation of gamers has seen new titles created at various research institutions in order to explore programming, human-computer interaction, and algorithms. Lesser-known chapters of history reveal these two worlds are not as far apart as you might think.

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We’ve screwed up the coasts so badly that an invasive species is a plus

Sun, 07/23/2017 - 08:00

Enlarge (credit: European Network on Invasive Alien Species)

Across the globe, invasive species have caused no end of trouble. Their populations can explode because they have no natural predators. Or they are predators themselves who push native species to the brink of extinction. They can upset ecosystems that had evolved a fine balance.

But, according to a new study published this week in PNAS, not every invasive species is a negative. In some cases where we've wiped out a key component of the local ecosystem, an invasive species can take its place. The study's example? An invasive algae can restore lost habitat to coastal ecosystems, providing a nursery for species like crab and shrimp.

The work that led to this conclusion took place in tidal flats on the coast of North Carolina. Normally, this type of geography is broken up by distinct habitats provided by different organisms: coral reefs, beds of sea grass, and oyster reefs. The habitats formed by these species provide shelter for other species, allowing entire ecosystems to develop. But, over the last century or so, many of these habitats have been wiped out, leaving bare sediment behind.

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German energy company wants to build flow batteries in old natural gas caverns

Sat, 07/22/2017 - 11:00

Enlarge (credit: EWE)

A German energy company recently announced that it’s partnering with a university to build a massive flow battery in underground salt caverns that are currently used to store natural gas. The grid-tied battery, the company says, would be able to power Berlin for an hour.

The technology that the project is based on should be familiar to Ars readers. Two years ago, Ars wrote about an academic paper published in Nature that described “a recipe for an affordable, safe, and scalable flow battery.” German researchers had developed better components for a large, stationary battery that used negatively and positively charged liquid electrolyte pools to exchange electrons through a reasonably priced membrane. These so-called “flow batteries” are particularly interesting for grid use—they have low energy-density, so they don’t work for portable energy storage. But as receptacles for utility-scale electricity storage, their capacity is limited only by the amount of space you have.

Now the ideas in that paper are graduating to real-world use. EWE Gasspeicher, a gas-storage company owned by German power company EWE, announced in June that it’s looking into building the researchers’ flow battery in two medium-sized salt caverns that the company has been using to store natural gas. EWE is calling the project “brine4power,” reflecting how a saltwater brine is used in the electrolyte.

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Human liver cells seeded in mouse expands 50-fold to functional organoid

Sat, 07/22/2017 - 08:00

Vascularized engineered human liver tissue that has self-organized into a lobule-like microstructure. (credit: Chelsea Fortin/Bhatia Lab/Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research)

Being able to grow your own new organs may be in reach—with some cellular assembly required.

With a carefully constructed clump of cells, mice grew their own functional human liver organoids in a matter of months, researchers report this week in Science Translational Medicine. The cellular organ seeds blossomed in the rodents, expanding 50-fold in that time. They appeared to form complex liver structures, tap into vasculature, and carry out the functions of a normal liver. The critical factor in getting the organoids to take root, the authors report, was having the seed cells arranged just right.

Though the organ seeds are far from any clinical application, researchers are hopeful that they’ll one day be able to engineer larger liver organs to treat patients with liver failure or damage.

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Paying people to preserve forests really seems to work

Fri, 07/21/2017 - 11:38

Enlarge (credit: Kate Evans for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR))

We’re trashing the world not because it’s fun, but because it pays to do so. People respond to financial incentives. So, how do you provide an incentive to stop trashing the world? One idea is to use cold, hard cash. If people earn more by not trashing, the thinking goes, the incentive flips: it suddenly pays to conserve. Based on this idea, a trial program in Uganda paid landowners to preserve the forest on their land and tracked the results.

It turned out not to be so simple—people don’t always neatly do what they’re supposed to. What if these landowners were already concerned about deforestation and were already preserving their land? You’ve just forked out quite a bit to pay for something that was already going to happen. Or what if they just cut down trees elsewhere instead? Figuring out whether the benefits of the program are worth the cost requires collecting a lot of data.

A paper in Science this week reports on the results, which are encouraging: deforestation slowed to about half the previous rate, and it looks as though people didn’t just shift their forest clearing elsewhere. The program benefits seem to have outweighed the costs, whichever way you slice it. In other words, money provides a great incentive to preserve habitats, which is great news for climate change efforts.

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Yes, ancient civilizations on Mars sounds crazy. And yet…

Fri, 07/21/2017 - 10:34

Enlarge / Crater water ice on Mars at Vastitas Borealis, seen by the European Space Agency's Mars Express. (credit: ESA)

This week we all had a good laugh at the expense of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who asked NASA scientists during a committee hearing whether it was possible that a civilization existed on Mars thousands of years ago. "Would you rule that out?" he asked. "See, there's some people... Well, anyway."

Rohrabacher is an interesting figure in Washington, whose once-idiosyncratic views seem largely in vogue with those of the new administration. Politico called Rohrabacher "Putin's favorite Congressman" in a mini-profile last year. Like Trump, the Congressman has also has called climate change a hoax. In a 2014 letter to President Obama, Rohrabacher wrote, "Mr. President, we both know I have referred to the theory of man-made global warming as a 'hoax,' and, yes, I once used to the phrase 'dinosaur flatulence' as a soft jab at what I considered to be climate alarmism."

So after Rohrabacher's question—which seemed driven by some arcane conspiracy theory given his use of "some people"—it was curious that one of his few defenders was a well known climate scientist, Gavin Schmidt. "To be fair, NASA astrobiology is very interested in this (and similar) questions. Not sure why it's out-of-bounds to ask," the NASA climate modeler wrote on Twitter.

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FDA not amused by coffee laced with Viagra-like drugs, issues recall

Fri, 07/21/2017 - 09:11

(credit: N i c o l a)

A cup of this brew will certainly get you up in the morning. But the Food and Drug Administration is not having it.

The agency announced a second voluntary recall of a coffee product laced with a Viagra-like drug. The latest recall affects the uniquely named “New of Kopi Jantan Tradisional Natural Herbs Coffee” product, distributed by Bestherbs Coffee LLC. As in other cases, the owner of Bestherbs Coffee suspects that a common herbal ingredient used in the coffee was purposefully contaminated to cut down on costs.

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Trump wants a talk-radio host to be the USDA’s chief scientist

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 16:36

Enlarge / Sam Clovis, then newly appointed national co-chairman of the Trump campaign, speaks during a news conference with Donald Trump. (credit: Bloomberg / Getty Images)

Yesterday, the Trump administration formally named its candidate for the Department of Agriculture's undersecretary of research, education, and economics, a post that serves as the agency's chief scientist. Its choice? Sam Clovis, who has no scientific background but is notable primarily for having been a conservative talk-radio host. If approved by the Senate, the US' attempts to understand climate change's impact on agriculture will be led by someone who called climate research "junk science."

Clovis, who has also taught economics and management at an Iowa liberal arts college, was an early supporter of Trump's candidacy. He's been working at the USDA as a White House advisor since shortly after Trump's inauguration. Suggestions that he'd be nominated to this position have been circulating for a while, but his official nomination only came yesterday.

While the USDA doesn't have as prominent a role in science as, say, the Department of Energy, its Agricultural Research Service (ARS!) has over 1,000 permanent scientists and over 100 research facilities. It and other components of the research, education, and economics group are responsible for research in areas like nutrition, agricultural productivity, pathogens that affect agricultural animals, and non-food agriculture, such as forestry.

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A future for light-powered wireless connectivity, thanks to graphene

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 16:20

Enlarge / A phased-array antenna used for radio astronomy. (credit: NRAO)

In my younger days—about the time that Erik the Red was making a name for himself—I was really into electronics. Countless never-quite-working-as-expected circuits should have taught me the futility of telling electrons what to do. Yet my interest in electronics peaked with the construction of an electronically steerable phased-array antenna. This is where, by varying the timing slightly, numerous small antennas create a signal that can be sent in specific directions without moving any hardware.

Yes, my set-up did actually work, though not as well as I'd hoped. Anyway, what excited me about phased-array antennas is that you could shape and steer an antenna's radiation pattern by individually controlling the phase and amplitude of a string of individual emitters. It just seemed so cool. Later, when I moved on to optics, controlling the phases and amplitudes of individual lasers and combining them into a single, steerable laser beam... well, it was technically possible, but there was a vast gulf between our ideals and any practical implementation.

But recently, researchers have shown that phase control is possible in a device that is smaller than the wavelength of the light being controlled. Although a rather technical development, this is one key step along the road to high-capacity optical communications that don't involve any fibers. Think mobile communications beyond 5G, or home Wi-Fi that actually doesn't suck.

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Jeff Bezos dons sunglasses, says look at my big rocket factory

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 14:10

Enlarge / Blue Origin's concept art for a New Glenn rocket launch ascending to orbit. (credit: Blue Origin)

Over the last several months Blue Origin has begun to reveal details about plans to develop a large orbital rocket called New Glenn. The 82-meter-tall booster will have the capacity to lift 45 tons to low Earth orbit and an impressive 13 tons to geostationary transfer orbit. The company plans for the technology to be fully reusable.

The New Glenn rocket is so big it will be too large to produce at the company's existing facilities in Kent, Washington. So Blue Origin intends to build the BE-4 rocket engine in Huntsville, Alabama and assemble the New Glenn booster in Florida. The company has evidently made substantial progress on the new rocket facility in Florida, as Jeff Bezos showcased Thursday in a video posted to Instagram.

"Manufacturing facility for the heavy-lift New Glenn launch vehicle is coming along nicely," Bezos wrote in the posting. The short video ends with a close-up of Bezos seated in an outdoor chair on top of the factory, chilling in shades, holding a sign that says, "Rocket Factory Coming Soon."

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Frosted glass obscures quantum information

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 12:25

Enlarge (credit: Today is a good day)

Quantum key distribution is supposed to provide a high degree of certainty in the security of secret keys. That certainty is based on the laws of physics, and all attacks against quantum keys have exploited implementation weaknesses, rather than the underlying physics. Unlike mathematical methods of encryption, quantum key distribution does not provide a key that is difficult to figure out. Instead, the nature of the key generation process allows any interloper to be detected—you know if your key is secret or not.

At present, quantum key distribution is limited to about 70km to 100km between the two nodes, because fiber optical cables tend to absorb the photons used to carry the key. To provide end-to-end distribution between, say, Paris and Berlin, you either need to trust the third parties in between (so each node has its own pair of keys that it has generated with neighboring nodes) or have a quantum memory at each node. A quantum memory allows you to store each qubit and then teleport its state to the next node. At the end of the key-generation process, teleporting ensures that a single shared key is generated between the end-points, and the intermediate nodes have no knowledge of the key.

Therein lies a weakness: maybe the memories at the intermediate can be exploited, allowing a secret key to be intercepted without detection. To close that particular exploit, a group of researchers has proposed a clever way to scramble a quantum memory.

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