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MIT’s ‘cyber-agriculture’ optimizes basil flavors – TechCrunch

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The days when you could simply grow a basil plant from a seed by placing it on your windowsill and watering it regularly are gone — there’s no point now that machine learning-optimized hydroponic “cyber-agriculture” has produced a superior plant with more robust flavors. The future of pesto is here.

This research didn’t come out of a desire to improve sauces, however. It’s a study from MIT’s Media Lab and the University of Texas at Austin aimed at understanding how to both improve and automate farming.

In the study, published today in PLOS ONE, the question being asked was whether a growing environment could find and execute a growing strategy that resulted in a given goal — in this case, basil with stronger flavors.

Such a task is one with numerous variables to modify — soil type, plant characteristics, watering frequency and volume, lighting and so on — and a measurable outcome: concentration of flavor-producing molecules. That means it’s a natural fit for a machine learning model, which from that variety of inputs can make a prediction as to which will produce the best output.

“We’re really interested in building networked tools that can take a plant’s experience, its phenotype, the set of stresses it encounters, and its genetics, and digitize that to allow us to understand the plant-environment interaction,” explained MIT’s Caleb Harper in a news release. The better you understand those interactions, the better you can design the plant’s lifecycle, perhaps increasing yield, improving flavor or reducing waste.

In this case the team limited the machine learning model to analyzing and switching up the type and duration of light experienced by the plants, with the goal of increasing flavor concentration.

A first round of nine plants had light regimens designed by hand based on prior knowledge of what basil generally likes. The plants were harvested and analyzed. Then a simple model was used to make similar but slightly tweaked regimens that took the results of the first round into account. Then a third, more sophisticated model was created from the data and given significantly more leeway in its ability to recommend changes to the environment.

To the researchers’ surprise, the model recommended a highly extreme measure: Keep the plant’s UV lights on 24/7.

Naturally this isn’t how basil grows in the wild, since, as you may know, there are few places where the sun shines all day long and all night strong. And the arctic and antarctic, while fascinating ecosystems, aren’t known for their flavorful herbs and spices.

Nevertheless, the “recipe” of keeping the lights on was followed (it was an experiment, after all), and incredibly, this produced a massive increase in flavor molecules, doubling the amount found in control plants.

“You couldn’t have discovered this any other way,” said co-author John de la Parra. “Unless you’re in Antarctica, there isn’t a 24-hour photoperiod to test in the real world. You had to have artificial circumstances in order to discover that.”

But while a more flavorful basil is a welcome result, it’s not really the point. The team is more happy that the method yielded good data, validating the platform and software they used.

“You can see this paper as the opening shot for many different things that can be applied, and it’s an exhibition of the power of the tools that we’ve built so far,” said de la Parra. “With systems like ours, we can vastly increase the amount of knowledge that can be gained much more quickly.”

If we’re going to feed the world, it’s not going to be done with amber waves of grain, i.e. with traditional farming methods. Vertical, hydroponic, computer-optimized — we’ll need all these advances and more to bring food production into the 21st century.

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Continuous scrolling comes to mobile Google Search

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Enlarge / See that spinny thing at the bottom of the page? It’s going to load more search results any second now…

Google

Google is rolling out a big update to mobile search today: continuous scrolling.

Now, instead of making you tap to load the next page after your usual 10 links of search results, Google will just load the next page.

The company hopes that continuous scrolling will get people to look at more search results and that a longer supply of results is better for more open-ended search questions. The blog post notes that “most people who want additional information tend to browse up to four pages of search results.” If you search on your phone, you’ll find that continuous scrolling lasts for exactly four pages before the familiar “show more” link pops up. When Google automatically loads the next page, it also sticks an ad before the next page of search results.

Google said that “this new Search experience is starting to gradually roll out today for most English searches on mobile in the US.” It seems to work on the Google Search app and the website.

Listing image by Sean Gallup | Getty Images

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Fixes for AMD Ryzen performance, other Windows 11 issues rolling out to testers now

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Enlarge / A PC running Windows 11.

Microsoft

Now that Windows 11 is out, the arduous process of fixing the new operating system’s bugs can begin. The OS got its first Patch Tuesday update earlier this week, and now another update is rolling out to Windows Insiders in the Beta and Release Preview channels. It fixes a long list of early problems with Windows 11.

The headliner here is a fix for a problem affecting L3 cache latency on AMD Ryzen processors. According to AMD, the bug can reduce performance by 3–5 percent. The Windows 11 update released earlier this week may have actually made the problem worse, but at least a fix is imminent.

The L3 latency bug is one of a pair of problems that AMD identified with Windows 11 earlier this month. The other Windows 11 problem AMD identified, which can prevent high-core-count, high-wattage Ryzen chips from correctly assigning work to the processor’s fastest individual cores, will be fixed via an AMD driver update.

The Release Preview Insider channel is usually a Windows update’s last stop before public distribution. A post shared on Reddit suggests that the Windows update is being targeted for release on Tuesday, October 19th, while the AMD driver update for the other problem should be released two days later, on the 21st.

Other bugs addressed in the Windows 11 update include one that prevented some upgraders from seeing the new Taskbar or using the Start menu, a PowerShell bug that can fill up a storage volume with “an infinite number of child directories” when you try to move a directory into its own child directory, and a number of problems that could cause freezes, crashes, and slowdowns.

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MacBook Pros, an “M1X” chip, and other stuff to expect at Apple’s October event

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Enlarge / Apple could be getting ready to show us the next stage of the MacBook Pro’s development.

Another month, another Apple event. Fresh off a September event that delivered new updates for the entire iPhone lineup, some new iPads, and a gently tweaked Apple Watch, Apple is preparing for another event on Monday, October 18. And this time, we’re expecting the company to focus on the Mac, which is still in the middle of a transition from Intel chips to the Apple Silicon chips that are making new Macs feel exciting and important in a way they haven’t in years.

We’ll be following along live starting at 10 am Pacific on Monday, but in the meantime, we’ve gathered all the current rumors and put together a list of things we’re most likely to see (as well as one or two things that aren’t as likely). The short version is that Apple should finally be gearing up to show us high-performance Apple Silicon chips.

The “M1X” chip, or whatever it’s called

Just as the MacBook Air, the newest 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Mac mini, and the 24-inch iMac all use the same M1 chip, we expect the next round of Macs to share the same silicon as well. Commonly referred to as the “M1X,” the chip’s exact specifications are a bit of a mystery, since Apple’s chip designs are among its best-kept secrets. But it’s not hard to guess the general gist of what we’ll be getting—new chips that improve upon the performance of the Intel processors they’re replacing while also enabling a dramatic increase in battery life. Recent Intel MacBook refreshes have struggled to provide one or the other of these things, but the M1 Macs managed to do both.

To replace the higher-end Intel Macs, the M1X will need to have just a bit more of everything compared to the M1: more processor cores, more GPU cores, and support for more monitors and Thunderbolt and USB ports. Without adapters or docks, the M1 can drive only two screens at once, including the computer’s internal display. We’d also expect configurations with more than 16 GB of RAM, the current maximum for M1 Macs.

A report from late last year suggested that a higher-performance chip destined for the MacBook Pros could include as many as 16 of Apple’s performance cores, though more recent reporting suggests we could be looking at a chip with eight performance cores and two low-power efficiency cores. Even eight performance cores should be able to outpace the 4-, 6-, 8-, and 10-core processors in today’s Intel Macs. The M1X will also reportedly be available with either 16 or 32 GPU cores, compared to the seven or eight GPU cores included in the standard M1 (Apple could also improve graphics performance by increasing memory bandwidth, as it has done in some older iPad processors, but we haven’t heard anything specific about that).

New MacBook Pros

New MacBook Pros that replace the four-port 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 16-inch MacBook Pro are the thing we’re most likely to get out of Monday’s event.

Apple’s first few Apple Silicon Macs were very conservative from a design standpoint—the MacBook Air, two-port MacBook Pro, and Mac mini all put new guts into computers that looked identical to the ones they were replacing. But the new MacBook Pros could be a bit more adventurous, in the vein of the 24-inch iMac.

For example, persistent rumors claim that the 13-inch MacBook Pro could become a 14-inch MacBook Pro. And breadcrumbs left in some macOS betas suggest that Apple is working on laptops with higher-resolution screens that could obviate the need for the scaled, non-native resolution that all current MacBooks use out of the box. With a more efficient chip, Apple could also take the opportunity to shrink the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s huge 100 WHr battery, reducing the 4.3-pound laptop’s size and weight. Other improvements could include more energy-efficient mini LED backlighting for the displays and possibly even a 120 Hz refresh rate (the reporting for the 120 Hz refresh rate is thin, but it would dovetail nicely with macOS Monterey’s support for external monitors with variable refresh rates).

Other rumors suggest that Apple will walk back some of the more controversial changes made to the MacBook Pro back in 2016, the last time the laptops got a comprehensive overhaul. Alleged schematics from earlier this year suggest that the MagSafe power connector could make a return, along with a full-size HDMI port and an SD card slot. These changes would reduce the number of Thunderbolt ports to three, but having a few kinds of ports would still make the laptops more convenient to use, on balance, for people who frequently use external displays or SD cards. The Touch Bar may also be removed in favor of a physical row of function keys.

A faster Mac mini

The 2020, M1-equipped Apple Mac mini.

The 2020, M1-equipped Apple Mac mini.

Samuel Axon

We’d say the new MacBook Pros are pretty much a sure thing, but there are a couple of less-likely-but-still-possible Mac refreshes Apple could introduce.

Apple already has an Apple Silicon Mac mini, but you may have noticed that the company continues to sell a version of the 2018 Intel Mac mini with more ports and up to 64GB of RAM. Recent rumors suggest that Apple could replace this machine with a sort of “Mac mini Pro,” which would leverage the M1X’s improved performance and expanded connectivity. The current Apple Silicon Mac mini is great for basic use or even light photo and video editing, but an M1X Mac mini would be a better workstation for code compilation or professional video editing, tasks that generally take advantage of all of the processing performance they can get.

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