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Top stories: GM ants, computers that ‘see’ trees, and what was really on the Neandertal menu

World’s first genetically modified ants shed light on how complex insect societies evolved

Every ant colony is a marvel of cooperation, where each ant goes about her appointed tasks in such close concert with her sisters that a colony is sometimes called a “superorganism.” Now, a new study on the world’s first genetically modified ants finds that ants’ sociality depends on their sense of smell. The finding provides key clues to how social behavior evolved in these insects, and has been called a “breakthrough” in experimental sociobiology.

 

Quantum computer learns to “see” trees

Scientists have trained a quantum computer to recognize trees. That may not seem like a big deal, but the result means that researchers are a step closer to using such computers for complicated machine learning problems like pattern recognition and computer vision. The nature of quantum computing and the limitations of programming quantum bits has meant that complex problems like computer vision have been off-limits until now.

Neandertals ate woolly rhinos and mushrooms, may have used painkillers and antibiotics

Belgian Neandertals dined on woolly rhinos with a side of mushrooms, whereas their Spanish counterparts feasted on pine nuts and forest moss—and may have even experimented with natural painkillers and antibiotics. That’s the conclusion of the first study to analyze genetic material trapped in the plaque on fossil Neandertal teeth—the same stuff that sends us to the dentist.

Trump plan for 40% cut could cause EPA science office ‘to implode,’ official warns

In 2015, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., unveiled a controversial regulation aimed at improving protection for wetlands and small streams, officials pointed to a 400-page technical tome assembled by agency researchers as the rule’s scientific foundation and justification. But that document carried little sway last week, as President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at gutting the rule. Now, the White House wants to dramatically slash the budget of the EPA science office that produced that report, employs some 1700 researchers and others, and runs essentially all of the agency’s other major scientific activities.

Brainlike computers are a black box. Scientists are finally peering inside

Last month, Facebook announced software that could simply look at a photo and tell, for example, whether it was a picture of a cat or a dog. A related program identifies cancerous skin lesions as well as trained dermatologists can. Both technologies are based on neural networks, sophisticated computer algorithms at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence—but even their developers aren’t sure exactly how they work. Now, researchers have found a way to "look" at neural networks in action and see how they draw conclusions.