Best in STEM: 10 stories you may have missed – January 2019

By Pravin Silva

internet network server room with computers racks and digital receiver for digital tv

Will artificial intelligence (AI) judge your suitability for a job based only on your appearance? Why are water supplies dwindling despite rainfall events increasing? And how can suburban communities help reduce our fossil fuel output? These are just some of the questions our stories will help answer.

We’ve picked 10 of the most innovative, intriguing and important pieces of research setting the scene for another year of STEM discoveries in 2019.

1. Crowdsourcing treatments for low back pain

Person sitting on bed rubbing lower back

Low back pain affects the lives of approximately one in five Australians at any given time, is a leading cause of workplace absence and costs our economy roughly $9 billion annually.

Human-Computer Interaction expert Dr Jorge Goncalves and the University of Oulu’s Dr Simo Hosio published a paper investigating how crowdsourcing patients’ experiences and back pain treatments can help individuals treat their low back pain.

2. How biometric monitoring can impact your career

Face with digital HUD overlay

Advances in biometric monitoring meas technology can now identify people by recognising their faces, fingerprints or eyes and could soon be used for a radically different purpose; allowing employers to scan the faces of potential employees and mine their social media history to assess potential perceived employability.

Dr Niels Wouters wants to spark more discussion about the ethics of AI and is an advocate for transparent and explainable systems. He spoke to The Age about his creation, Biometric Mirror, as an illustrative AI system that analyses a facial photograph, providing a result on everything from a person’s perceived levels of introversion, aggression and responsibility to attractiveness and even perceived weirdness.

3. China’s research in AI ‘far outranks’ Huawei threat, expert says

Experts are warning of the threat posed by AI in China with continual use to develop a so-called “surveillance state”. Experts say the risk of such authoritarian tactics spreading to other parts of the world is increasing.

Professor Uwe Aickelin, Head of School of Computing and Information Systems, explained to ABC News the difficulty in regulating AI and how such use of technology could spread globally.

4. How do you feel what you can’t touch? Scientists crack the nerve code

Dr Ingvars Birznieks uses high tech devices to investigate sense of touch in fingertips

The human index finger is home to more than two thousand nerve receptors, each finely tuned to decode a vast array of sensory information via a complex code of signals.

Now one team of Sydney-based researchers have begun to crack this code, paving the way for breakthroughs previously only conceivable in science fiction.

5. How robots help aged care residents

Robot companion seal

A study led by Dr Jenny Waycott is trialing the use of virtual reality and robots to provide companionship in residential aged care.

Thanks to $750,000 in funding from the Australian Research Council, the study aims to investigate the impacts of technology on older people with a goal to determining how these technologies can be best used ethically to maximise their social benefits for aged care residents.

6. The Global Big Dry

Dry river bed

Water supplies are dwindling despite climate change results in more intense rainfall, a global study has found. These warming temperatures are in fact causing water to evaporate from soil faster, leaving dryer soil to soak up more water, which would have otherwise been available for human consumption.

A collaboration between researchers from UNSW, the University of Melbourne and UCLA, this extensive study used rainfall data from 43,000 rainfall stations and 5,300 river monitoring sites across 160 countries to model simulations of the world’s future climate.

7. From a fishing village to the new world of high tech

The city of Shenzen is emerging as China’s Silicon Valley with Chinese government policies designed to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

Among this new wave of start-ups, a number of Australian graduates are making their mark at several successful new Chinese ventures.

8. The suburbs are the spiritual home of overconsumption. But do they also hold the key to a better future?

Suburban vegetable garden

While living in suburbia doesn’t typically have a strong association with environmental sustainability, life in the proverbial ‘burbs’ also represents a strong opportunity for fossil fuel output reduction.

Samuel Alexander, a research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, is investigating how the suburbs can be at the frontline of decarbonising our economy.

9. Harnessing your fate: can you really trust the computer?

REA Group's Nigel Dalton in front of autonomous vehicle

A new discipline of ‘explainable artificial intelligence’ or XAI has emerged to meet the demand for ethics and transparency in AI systems.

REA Group’s Nigel Dalton shared his thoughts on what’s next for AI locally and globally, discussion how crucial XAI is to better understand how algorithms behind many of society’s core systems make the decisions that they do.

10. Australia data encryption laws are a world first

Graphic of folder icons with padlock icon representing encryption

Australia’s controversial new encryption laws have been designed to give authorities the power to compel tech firms to provide access to individuals’ encrypted messages.

Dr Chris Culnane spoke to the BBC about his concerns around this legislation, arguing that the “back door” this entails may leave a “security hole” to be exploited by hackers, thus compromising the security of all users.

Have you read a captivating STEM story you think we should feature next month? Let us know via Facebook or Twitter.