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Medicine and Health

ITU’s Sofia put on an impressive display at the AI for Global Good Conference but it raises an Important Question, Should we humanize AI?




Humanize AI

Artificial intelligence. The concept has fascinated science fiction writers and scientists for decades. With some hailing advancements in AI as the dawn for a new era of man and others believing that an advanced AI could spell the end of our species. There is a lot out there about the benefits and potential pitfalls of AI but a video at the AI for Good conference of ITU’s Sofia raises the question; should we humanize AI?

Sofia is undoubtedly impressive, even if there are shades of uncanny valley. It is responding in real time, to random questions from the facebook audience. On top of that it can make recognizable facial expressions and with the addition of hair and some refinement it would look almost human. The question is why ITU is interested in making Sofia appear so human.

There have been a few attempts to create human-like robots and there are good reasons for doing so. Many believe that we can use these kinds of robots to plug the growing gaps in our social care systems, especially in light of increasingly aging populations in nations like the USA, Japan. The belief is that if we humanize AI and robots they will make better carers. After all, nobody wants to be taken care of by some terrifying metal contraption.

Humanize AI

The idea of human-like AI has been the centerpiece of a lot of fiction, such as the TV show Battlestar Galactica

AI has already proven its use in a number of fields. Scientists have used it to help identify cancer and there have been trials at using a robot to replace a doctor. Dr Nao have proven that patients are willing to trust a robotic doctor but his role would likely be mostly to provide support for overburdened staff.

There are clear applications for robots and AIs in roles that we would traditionally consider human. Given that fact, why should we be concerned about humanizing AI? There are the traditional concerns for jobs and livelihoods but there are also deeper ethical concerns. Let’s take the example given to one user by ITU’s facebook feed, using robots like Sofia in caregiver roles.

Humanize AI

The care gap is a huge problem in most Western societies. As populations age and the family unit increasingly fragments care for the elderly is going to become more expensive and more difficult. It is tempting to think that we can give them a human-like Robot like Sofia to look after them but it would bring its own problems with it. While Sofia and AI like her would look and appear human they wouldn’t be human.

By putting robots in the role of carer we are making them more human but we risk robotizing the vulnerable people in its care. In essence we are saying that they are another commodity to be managed, rather than individuals with specific needs.

AI excels at many things and it has already proven that it is an invaluable supporting tool for human scientists and professionals. It is capable of sifting through vast amounts of data at speeds humans could only dream of but I do not believe that we can view it as the panacea  for all ills. We need to remember that while we can humanize AI that doesn’t make it human and that doesn’t mean that it can replace contact with another human being.

AI and robots are invaluable when it comes to supporting us but do we want them to take over certain roles in our society? It is certainly true that robots can fulfill roles like caregivers, teachers and doctors but I think we need to stop and ask the question.

Does humanizing AI risk robotizing the people it is supposed to help?

You'll find me wandering around the Science sections mostly, excitedly waving my arms around while jumping up and down about the latest science and tech news. I am also occasionally found in the gaming section, trying to convince everyone else that linux is the future of the computer gaming.

Medicine and Health

You might not know much about this small organ, but it’s very important





There is a gland in your neck that is about the length of a paperclip but has a huge effect on your whole body. Its two lobes sit between your tracheas. It’s probably your thyroid, and you haven’t given it much thought until something went wrong with it. Let me tell you about this simple organ, the two hormones it makes, and how they affect the body.

What does the thyroid do?
The thyroid is part of the endocrine system because it is a gland, which is an organ that makes a substance. In this case, it makes hormones.

The thyroid is in the front of the neck, below the larynx. It has two lobes, the left and right, which sit on either side of the trachea, or windpipe. An isthmus connects the two lobes. Most of the time, you can’t see or feel it.

A gland at the base of the brain called the pituitary gland sends signals to the thyroid. The pituitary gland releases thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) throughout the day. This hormone tells the thyroid to make sure it is producing the right amounts of two different hormones to meet the body’s changing needs.

Thyroxine, which is also known as T4, and triiodothyronine, or T3, are hormones that the thyroid makes. Additionally, a small collection of cells in the thyroid produces calcitonin.

What do the hormones in the thyroid do?
While T4 is the main hormone the thyroid makes, it is also the least active. It goes to different parts of the body’s tissues and is mostly changed into T3. Around 80% of T3 is made this way, and the other 20% is released directly into the bloodstream from the thyroid.

T3 and T4 are both important for the body’s metabolism to work right. They also help with digestion, brain development, bone and muscle health, and the heart.

Calcium and phosphate levels in the blood are kept in check by calcitonin. It controls calcium levels in two ways: first, it stops osteoclasts from breaking down bone, which stops extra calcium from being released; second, it stops the kidneys from reabsorbing calcium.

Not sure how important this function is, though, since people with very high or very low calcitonin don’t seem to have any problems.

What takes place when the thyroid doesn’t work right?
Keeping the right balance of T3 and T4 is important for many body systems to work properly. What do you do when things go wrong?

Being hypothyroid
Most of the time, people with hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) have problems with their organ. People don’t believe it is preventable; the majority of cases are the result of an autoimmune reaction (Hashimoto’s disease) or are a side effect of treating other illnesses. The condition can be passed down from parent to child, but babies born in many countries, including the US and UK, are checked for it soon after they are born.

Because the symptoms show up slowly, sometimes over years, it can be hard to tell what’s wrong. These are the main signs:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Depression
  • Muscle aches
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Increased sensitivity to the cold

Women are more likely than men to have hypothyroidism. If you want to get your levels back to normal, you need to take a synthetic form of the thyroxine hormone. Getting the hormone levels back in balance usually takes away the symptoms, but treatment needs to go on for a long time.

Being hyperthyroid
Hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, is the opposite of this. Usually, these are the symptoms:

  • ncreased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Shaky hands
  • Frequent bowel movements

Some people who have either an underactive or overactive thyroid also get a goiter, which is when the thyroid swells up and can be seen in the neck. Even though this doesn’t always lead to big problems, it could make it hard to breathe and swallow.

People with hypothyroidism are sometimes given too much synthetic thyroxine, which can lead to hyperthyroidism. It may take a few tries to find the right dose. Some other reasons are having an autoimmune disease called Graves’ disease, having thyroid inflammation, or eating too much iodine.

Radioiodine therapy is a common way to treat hyperthyroidism. To do this, a capsule or liquid with the radioactive isotope iodine-131 must be taken. This destroys only the cells in the thyroid that make thyroxine. This doesn’t hurt other parts of the body, but for most people, it lowers the production of thyroxine so much that they later develop hypothyroidism.

It is better to treat hyperthyroidism this way, even if it goes too far, because hypothyroidism can be treated with man-made hormones and doesn’t cause as many long-term health problems.

Surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid is another option that is sometimes used. This can also lead to hypothyroidism afterward.

Breast cancer
The thyroid gland can get different kinds of cancer. Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common type. People in this age group are most likely to get it. Most papillary thyroid tumors are small, grow very slowly, and are easy to treat.

To get rid of the thyroid, most people need surgery. That will lead to hypothyroidism, which needs to be treated with medicine, as we’ve seen. Radiotherapy or radioactive iodine therapy may also be used, but chemotherapy is usually not needed unless the cancer comes back.

Scientists are still not sure what causes thyroid cancer. Radiation exposure is a major risk factor, which is why more people with this cancer have been found in areas that were close to nuclear accidents like Chernobyl.

Having postpartum thyroiditis
Postpartum thyroiditis is a problem that happens to 5–10% of pregnant women. It happens when the immune system attacks the thyroid soon after giving birth, causing inflammation. People who already have an autoimmune thyroid condition are more likely to get it.

The condition starts with a hyperthyroid phase, in which too much thyroid hormone gets into the bloodstream. It then changes to a hypothyroid phase, which can last for months or even permanently. How you’re treated will depend on how bad your symptoms are and whether your hormone levels return to normal in the end.

In the end,
It takes a full-time job to keep the wide range of hormones that the body makes in perfect balance. It doesn’t matter how small the change is; it can have big effects. Since the thyroid is such a small organ, it plays a big part in that. If you haven’t thought about it before, maybe now you will.

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Medicine and Health

A common anesthetic might work by making the brain go crazy





In what ways do anesthetics keep us from seeing what’s going on around us? A new study that looks at the drug propofol suggests that some may knock us out by making the brain temporarily less stable.

The Greek words “an” (without) and “aesthesis” (sensation) are where the word “anesthesia” comes from. In medicine, anesthesia is a mix of paralysis (not being able to move), analgesia (not feeling pain), amnesia (losing your memory), and being unconscious. Chemicals have been used to put people in this state of mind, which has been very useful in medicine and has made many surgeries possible.

Sometimes, like when we’re awake or asleep, our brains go through different states. One way that these states are different is in how they handle sensory stimuli, which are changes in our brain state. For example, the sound of a phone notification sets off a chain reaction in your brain, where cells become more active and send signals to other cells. Depending on how you’re feeling, that same sound will have very different effects on your brain and how you feel. If you’re asleep, you might not hear it at all. Or while under anesthesia.

How does our brain react to sensory stimuli when we are asleep, and why can’t we be aware of them? A study released today looked at the differences between a brain that is awake and one that is asleep by looking at how stable the brain’s activity is.

To find out how stable something was, they used ideas from a branch of math called dynamical systems theory. Stability is the ability of a system to get back to a normal state after something goes wrong. A stable system is like a pendulum with friction: you can move it from one place to another when you drop it, but it will always land in the same place.

A weather system is an example of an unstable system because small changes can have big effects over time. This is often compared to a butterfly flapping its wings, which can cause a tornado.

“The brain has to handle being on the edge of chaos and excitability.” If it gets too excited, its neurons stop talking to each other, but if it gets just the right amount of excited, it goes into chaos,” Professor Earl Miller, one of the study’s senior authors, said in a press release. He was talking about how stability can be used to measure the brain’s state.

Researchers in the study took recordings from the brains of two macaques while they were given propofol, which is an injectable anesthetic that is often used in surgery. When the primates were more deeply asleep, the activity in their brains became less stable.

For the awake brain to stay stable, there needs to be a balance between stimulating and slowing down. There are two main types of neurons in the brain: those that make other neurons more active (called “excitatory”) and those that make them less active (called “inhibitory”). Propofol works on the inhibitory system to make it stronger and throw the system out of balance.

When the macaques were asleep, the researchers played sounds for them and found that the brain responses were slower and longer. The sensory stimulation caused the system’s state to change for a long time. This shaky activity could mean that the brain can’t handle information as well as it used to. This could be why, when we’re asleep, we can’t see or feel our surroundings or feel pain.

Doctor Ila Fiete, who was also a senior author on the study, said that this new way of describing brain states by looking at how stable they are could be used to study “different brain states, different types of anesthetics, and also other neuropsychiatric conditions like depression and schizophrenia.”

This piece appears in the journal Neuron.

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Medicine and Health

As COVID spreads, could you spot these less common signs?





We don’t like telling you this, and neither do you, but COVID-19 is still around. A lot of us know people who have been coughing and sneezing lately. You may have even asked yourself, “Do I have hay fever or COVID?” But what about signs that don’t look like other breathing problems? This could be a good time to remember some of the strange ways that COVID can show up.

What’s going on with COVID right now?
The number of COVID-19 cases in the US was slowly going up as of the week ending July 6, 2024, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It was 11% of tests that week that came back positive for the virus, up from 9.1% the week before. In the same way, the number of visits to the emergency room and hospital stays went up slightly, but the number of deaths from the virus stayed the same.

Up until July 3, the number of positive COVID cases in the UK was actually going down, by 16.6 percent from one week to the next. But in the seven days before June 28, there were more deaths and hospital admissions.

The CDC data show that KP.3 is the most common circulating variant in the US right now. It is one of the FLiRT variants that has been getting more attention this year, likely because of changes that make them more difficult for the human immune system to recognize.

The COVID of 2024 is very different from the COVID of early 2020. This is because vaccines are now available, and people have learned that non-drug methods like masking can help stop the virus in its tracks. Despite this, it continues to show that it can mess up our lives, as we saw when mask rules were brought back to the Tour de France after riders quit.

What are the most common signs of the newest types of COVID?
The last time the CDC updated its list of the most common COVID symptoms was in March 2024. Many of the symptoms are ones we would expect from a respiratory illness, like a cough, fever, and tiredness. A lot of people still say they lose their taste and/or smell, though it’s usually only for a short time. They also often get sore throats and headaches. The CDC says that COVID symptoms can be very different, and there are some other strange signs that you may want to be aware of.

What are some strange COVID symptoms?
Having problems with your gut
Based on what people have said on social media, a lot of people were shocked to learn that COVID can show itself by making you sick.

If you have a COVID infection, you might feel sick, throw up, or have diarrhea. These symptoms may happen with or without other, more common ones. Drugs used to treat COVID can also make stomach and bowel problems worse, and people who have had COVID for a long time may still have these problems.

Because of all of this, some people think that a COVID infection is food poisoning or another virus like norovirus. But remember that just because you don’t have a cough doesn’t mean it’s not COVID.

Illness expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong told the New York Times, “If everyone in your house has COVID and you have diarrhea, then you have to connect the dots.”

COVID tongue
“COVID tongue” is a sign that has been known about since the beginning of the pandemic. People with COVID have sometimes reported ulcers and strange white spots on their tongues or inside their mouths. If you notice any of these symptoms out of the blue, it’s possible that you have COVID. Changes in your mouth should always be discussed with your dentist if they worry you.

There are some bad side effects that can happen when you treat COVID. For example, some people who take the drug Paxlovid report dysgeusia, which is a bad taste in the mouth that is either bitter, metallic, or sour.

COVID toes
In the same way, COVID can also give you a condition on your feet and toes that looks like chilblains. The skin will turn red or dark, hurt, itch, and sometimes form blisters.

























What to remember
Unfortunately, you should still think that it could be COVID-19 if you get a cough or cold in the next few weeks. Tests are the only way to be sure about the never-ending cold, hay fever, or COVID debate.

If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, you should probably also add flu to your list of possible diagnoses, since the season is now in full swing. However, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, flu levels are still very low even though it’s almost the middle of summer.

People with COVID can have more than just coughs and sniffles, though. We hope that we’ve reminded you to also look out for symptoms that you might not expect.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a trained professional. If you have questions about a medical condition, you should always talk to a qualified health professional.


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