Scientists crack the £3.5bn potato disease

Scientists have produced a series of genetically modified potatoes that are resistant to one of their biggest threats – a disease that costs the world up to £3.5bn ($5.8bn/€4.2bn) each year.

In a three year study scientists managed to boost the resistance of Desiree potatoes to stop the onset of blight, which was responsible for the Irish Potato famine in 1845. It is hoped their work will reduce food wastage as well as producing environmental benefits due to a reduction in chemicals being sprayed on crops.

As a result of the study, during which the scientists used no fungicides, The Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre produced a potato that was immune to late blight.

The study came to a head in 2012 when the test potatoes experienced ideal conditions for late blight. The scientists did not inoculate any plants but waited for traces of late blight to blow into the testing area naturally.

All of the genetically modified plants were resistant to the blight until the end of the experiment when all of the non-modified plants were infected.

The developments could significantly change the potato industry, which currently experiences more than £3.5bn of losses on an annual basis. This could not only lead to environmental benefits but help to increase the overall world food supply.

In the UK farmers spray fungicides 10-15 times to reduce losses to blight, which releases chemicals into the environment. It is hoped that growing blight-resistant crops will reduce the crop losses to the disease and reduce the number of times they need to be sprayed.

Scientists hope to replace chemical control with genetic control, though farmers might be advised to spray even resistant varieties at the end of a season, depending on conditions. Other blight-resistant potatoes already exist but are not widely available in the market because of other deficiencies.

For future development and to try and bring the research into the commercial potato market the scientists will now work with American potato company Simplot and the James Hutton Institute to develop the resistant genes. They hope to fully develop Desiree and Maris Piper varieties that will resist late blight.

Professor Jonathan Jones from The Sainsbury Laboratory said: “Breeding from wild relatives is laborious and slow and by the time a gene is successfully introduced into a cultivated variety, the late blight pathogen may already have evolved the ability to overcome it,”

“With new insights into both the pathogen and its potato host, we can use GM technology to tip the evolutionary balance in favour of potatoes and against late blight.”

The full research, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and The Gatsby Foundation, is set to be published today in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Image courtesy of Szczel (Flickr).

China uses facial recognition to monitor ethnic minorities

China has been criticised for adding facial recognition to an already obtrusive surveillance system in Xinjiang, a Muslim-dominated region in the country's far west. The "alert project" matches faces from surveillance camera footage to a watchlist of suspects, and supposedly is designed to thwart terrorist attacks.

Source: Engadget

Microsoft execs say the ultimate form of AI is a digital assistant

In an interview with Business Insider, Microsoft president Brad Smith and EVP of AI and research Harry Shum have said the ultimate manifestation of AI in 20 years will be in a digital assistant that will serve as an "alter ego." The two argue that we need to set ground rules for our AI assitants while we still can.

Facebook’s head of AI isn't impressed by Sophia the robot

Facebook's head of AI, Yann LeCun, isn't happy with Sophia the robot. Following a Business Insider interview with Sophia, LeCun took to Twitter to call the whole thing “complete bullsh*t”. He went on to say Sophia masquerading as a semi-sentient entity was "to AI as prestidigitation is to real magic”.

Source: The Verge

Drone saves the lives of two swimmers

Two teenage boys were rescued by a brand new lifesaving drone in Australia, while lifeguards were still training to use the device. When a member of the public spotted them struggling in heavy surf about 700m (2,300ft) offshore the drone was sent out and dropped an inflatable rescue pod, which allowed the pair to make their way safely to shore.

Source: BBC

Google defends the right to not let people be forgotten online

Google is going to court to defend it's right to not abide by "the right to be forgotten", which it says “represent[s] a serious assault on the public’s right to access lawful information. Two anonymous people want the search engine to take down links to information about their old convictions because search engine results attract “adverse attention”.

Source: Bloomberg

UK Police delivering daily briefings via Amazon Echo

Lancashire police have begun streaming daily briefings straight to peoples' homes through Amazon Echo. Users will get hourly updates as well as pictures of wanted and missing people sent directly to their devices. "Alexa works alongside traditional policing methods to inform the public about the important issues in their neighbourhoods," said PC Rob Flanagan.

Source: BBC

A quarter of ethical hackers don’t report cybersecurity concerns because it’s not clear who they should be reporting them to

Almost a quarter of hackers have not reported a vulnerability that they found because the company didn’t have a channel to disclose it, according to a survey of the ethical hacking community.

With 1,698 respondents, the 2018 Hacker Report, conducted by the cybersecurity platform HackerOne, is the largest documented survey ever conducted of the ethical hacking community.

In the survey, HackerOne reports that nearly 1 in 4 hackers have not reported a vulnerability because the company in question lacks a vulnerability disclosure policy (VDP) or a formal method for receiving vulnerability submissions from the outside world.

Without a VDP, ethical, white-hat hackers are forced to go through other channels like social media or emailing personnel in the company, but, as the survey states, they are “frequently ignored or misunderstood”.

Despite some companies lacking a VDP, the hackers surveyed in the report did say that companies are becoming more open to receiving information about vulnerabilities than they were in the past.

Of the 1,698 respondents, 72% noted that companies have become more open to receiving vulnerability reports in the past year,

That figure includes 34% of hackers who believe companies have become far more open.

Unlike a bug bounty program, a VDP does not offer hackers financial incentives for their findings, but they are still incredibly effective.

Organisations like the US Department of Defence have received and resolved nearly 3,000 security vulnerabilities in the last 18 months from their VDP alone.

India (23%) and the United States (20%) are the top two countries represented by the HackerOne hacker community, followed by Russia (6%), Pakistan (4%) and the United Kingdom (4%).

The report revealed that because bug bounties usually have no geographical boundaries the payments involved can be life changing for some hackers.

The top hackers based in India earn 16 times the median salary of a software engineer. And on average, top earning hackers make 2.7 times the median salary of a software engineer in their home country.

In terms of which demographics are attracted to a life of ethical hacking, the report found that over 90% of hackers are under the age of 35, and unsurprisingly the vast majority of hackers on the HackerOne platform are male.