Technology Tuesday: October 23rd

Welcome to Technology Tuesday! Every week The Job Shop Blog will bring you our 5 top science and technology news stories from around the web.

This week: The US wants to allow fully self-driving cars on its roads, virtual reality as a solution to social media issues, Mars might have live right now, DNA-based programmable medicine, and the impact Canada’s legalization of marijuana will have on the scientific community.


THE US WANTS TO CHANGE ITS LAWS TO ENCOURAGE FULLY AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES

Under current US safety rules, a motor vehicle must have traditional controls, like a steering wheel, mirrors, and foot pedals, before it is allowed to operate on public roads. But that could all change under a new plan released on Thursday by the Department of Transportation that’s intended to open the floodgates for fully driverless cars.

The department, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “intends to reconsider the necessity and appropriateness of its current safety standards” as applied to autonomous vehicles, the 80-page document reads. In particular, regulators say they will look to change those safety standards “to accommodate automated vehicle technologies and the possibility of setting exceptions to certain standards — that are relevant only when human drivers are present.”

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IS VIRTUAL REALITY THE SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEMS WITH SOCIAL MEDIA?

Back in December, Facebook admitted something you might have already suspected: too much social media probably isn’t very good for you.

A month prior, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook VP, put it more bluntly: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth,” he said during an interview at Stanford.

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MARS MAY HAVE ENOUGH OXYGEN TO SUSTAIN LIFE RIGHT NOW

In recent years, Mars has looked more and more like a place where past life might have flourished. Now, some researchers believe the Red Planet may have the ingredients for life to exist in the present. You just have to go underground.

In research published today in Nature Geoscience, a JPL-led team looked at the amount of oxygen in Martian soil, and their findings were influenced by two key recent discoveries. First, the Curiosity rover had found rocks on Mars that were heavily oxidized, possibly the result of water permeating into the rocks. Second is the recent research that revealed sources of briny water on Mars. Looking deeply into the abundance of oxygen in the rocks and the potential oxygen in subsurface reservoirs of briny water, the scientists found there was enough oxygen to sustain simple kinds of subsurface life.

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DNA BASED COMPUTING MAY LEAD TO PROGRAMMABLE PILLS

Scientists have long known that living cells use a complex system of signals to sense their environment and to transmit this information internally and to their neighbors. Specific signaling molecules, their concentration, and the way this changes over time are some of the factors that go into this system.

Although simple in principle, the system turns out to be extraordinarily powerful and complex. Which is why decoding it is hard. One problem is the difficulty of spotting the signaling molecules and measuring the way their concentration changes.

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WHAT LEGAL MARIJUANA IN CANADA MEANS FOR SCIENCE

Jonathan Page has been around cannabis all his life. Growing up on Canada’s Vancouver Island in the 1970s, he was surrounded by hippie beachcombers and dope smokers. So after earning a PhD in plant biology and phytochemistry, he felt completely at ease working with the plant Cannabis sativa as a postdoc in Germany in the early 2000s.

During that time, Page helped to characterize a pair of genes that some varieties of the plant uses to make fragrant oils responsible for pine- and lemon-like aromas1. And during an interview for a position with Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), Page proposed similar projects to reveal how cannabis produces pharmaceutically active compounds known as cannabinoids.

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