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Top 10 stories of 2020

Continuing our look back at our most popular stories from 2020, today we countdown the top 5. (See 10-6 here)

5. Does it take a time machine to stop a pandemic

Here is another article about the COVID-19 HPC Consortium, and for good reason. This group is doing a lot of good research, and they deserve as much attention as we can give them. This article goes more into the details behind some of the machines involved in the consortium. 

<strong>When we wrote this article</strong> the COVID-19 pandemic was still new. The whole world was still learning, but we knew supercomputers would play a role in fighting this virus. Courtesy WHO.

Summit, for instance, was the most powerful supercomputer in the world when this article was written. This machine has since been eclipsed by another HPC workhorse, but Summit has still held onto its #2 spot and has put in important work in the consortium. 

4. Paths to HPC – Sakshi Mishra

We’ve got a second Paths to HPC article here, this one following Sakshi Mishra of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Beginning her life in a small village in India, Mishra grew up in an environment where a girl’s scientific passions often aren’t encouraged. She was even advised against studying electrical engineering because of her sex. 

<strong>Sakshi Mishra</strong> is an energy optimization and analytics researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Of course, this didn’t stop her: “I decided to major in electrical engineering because they said I couldn’t do it,” says Mishra. 

While earning a degree through the Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Energy Science Technology and Policy master’s program, Mishra was introduced to artificial intelligence (AI) and she immediately saw how she could use this technology to learn more about clean energy and climate change. 

3. The real price of deepfakes

With the US election and COVID-19, 2020 was truly a year of fake news. Sadly, we’ll have to keep our guard up in the years to come.  

Can you trust what you see? Probably not, if you’re looking at a deepfake. These altered media use machine learning to pair someone’s voice or appearance with another person’s likeness, sometimes literally putting words in their mouth. Courtesy The New York Times.

Hany Farid, a digital forensics expert and professor at University of California, Berkley, sat down with us to talk about deepfakes. These are altered media, such as video or audio, where a person does or says something that they never did. It’s all computer generated, and it’s not terribly hard to do.

“For the so-called face-swap deepfakes you can go to GitHub and download a code and run it,” says Farid. “Can absolutely anybody do that? No, of course not. Can a lot of people do it? Sure.”

2. Secrets of the diatom

When we think about the origins of the oxygen we breathe, we often only think about trees. While our arboreal friends are vital tentpoles in our ecosystem, around 20% of our oxygen actually comes from single-celled algae called diatoms.

<strong>Made of glass.</strong> Diatoms are a single-celled algae that produce 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. Making their cell walls out of glass, the 200,000+ diatom species form breathtakingly diverse geometric patterns. Courtesy Wipeter (CC BY-SA 3.0)

These unique organisms are often able to adapt to new environments. Specifically, there have been times in the diatom’s history where some of these little algae have moved from living in saltwater to freshwater.

Such a switch in ecosystem is not something that happens often with other creatures, and learning more about how the diatom does it could help us better understand how other organisms will react to climate change. 

1. Why 5G is safe

In a year where even loved ones posed a real threat to our health, it’s nice to hear some words of comfort. We’d like to think that our most popular article reached the top spot because it gave some people comfort about a technology they use regularly. 

5G is the 5th generation of mobile technology. It operates at a higher frequency than previous generations, enabling better bandwidth and faster data rates.

5G architecture pushes data closer to the end user, storing content at base stations around the world. Decentralization makes 5G even faster and more efficient.

Sadly, if we’re being honest, it probably got the top spot because this is somehow a controversial topic.

Despite overwhelming evidence that 5G is a safe technology, people have blamed 5G for lowering immune responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Theodore Rappaport, the founder of NYU Wireless and an expert in wireless technologies, wrote an entire paper proving that 5G is not dangerous to the public. What’s more, he’s baffled that people worry about conspiracies like this but not the actual issues they may face.

“I tell people they should be more worried about putting on sunscreen or how often they fly above 10,000 feet and are exposed to galactic ionizing radiation,” says Rappaport. 

Benefits of 5G

  • Faster speeds. 5G could reach 10 GB/second. Current 4G has a typical peak of only 0.1 GB/second. That’s 100x faster
  • Lower latency. Roundtrip data transmission clocks in at under 5 milliseconds
  • Less congestion. 5G can potentially support 1 million devices per square kilometer
  • Bigger bandwidth. More data transmitted and smooth handling of usage spikes
  • New tech. Paves the way for self-driving cars, robotic surgery, real-time gaming, and AR/VR

This is perhaps the strangest part of the 5G conspiracy theories – despite all the time wasted on these nonsense claims, there are real problems inherent in implementing 5G technologies that we need to address.

These new 5G deployments will store some data at base stations, which will help improve speed and performance. That said, this decentralization of data inherently means that information will be stored in more places than they were previously, which means more attack vectors for potential hackers.

Of course, some of our smartest minds are working on this to ensure the security of our data. But that’s not the point.

Conspiracy theories are easy. It’s a simple “Us vs. Them” dichotomy.

Science, on the other hand, is hard. Just explaining how decentralizing data works is difficult enough, but actually discovering, building, and maintaining the technology to do so is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Thank you to all of the scientists, students, and general smart people that Science Node had the pleasure of interviewing in 2020. You’re doing the real work, we just get to stumble along when something cool happens.  

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