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Google AI tool predicts danger of genetic mutations

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Google's new AI tool can read DNA like a language, and see immediately if a word substitution will change the meaning of that sentence, the company says
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Researchers at Google DeepMind, the tech giant’s artificial intelligence arm, on Tuesday introduced a tool that predicts whether genetic mutations are likely to cause harm, a breakthrough that could help research into rare diseases.

The findings are “another step in recognising the impact that AI is having in the natural sciences,” said Pushmeet Kohli, vice president for research at Google DeepMind.

The tool focuses on so-called “missense” mutations, where a single letter of the genetic code is affected.

A typical human has 9,000 such mutations throughout their genome; they can be harmless or cause diseases such as cystic fibrosis or cancer, or damage brain development.

To date, four million of these mutations have been observed in humans, but only two percent of them have been classified, either as disease-causing or benign.

In all, there are 71 million such possible mutations. The Google DeepMind tool, called AlphaMissense, reviewed these mutations and was able to predict 89 percent of them, with 90 percent accuracy.

A score was assigned to each mutation, indicating the risk of it causing disease (otherwise referred to as pathogenic).

The result: 57 percent were classified as probably benign, and 32 percent as probably pathogenic — the remainder being uncertain.

The database was made public and available to scientists, and an accompanying study was published on Tuesday in the journal Science.

AlphaMissense demonstrates “superior performance” than previously available tools, wrote experts Joseph Marsh and Sarah Teichmann in an article also published in Science.

“We should emphasize that the predictions were never really trained or never really intended to be used for clinical diagnosis alone,” said Jun Cheng of Google DeepMind.

“However, we do think that our predictions can potentially be helpful to increase the diagnosed rate of rare disease, and also potentially to help us find new disease-causing genes,” Cheng added.

Indirectly, this could lead to the development of new treatments, the researchers said.

The tool was trained on the DNA of humans and closely-related primates, enabling it to recognize which genetic mutations are widespread.

Cheng said the training allowed the tool to input “millions of protein sequences and learns what a regular protein sequence looks like.”

It then could identify a mutation and its potential for harm.

Cheng compared the process to learning a language.

“If we substitute a word from an English sentence, a person that is familiar with English can immediately see whether this word substitution will change the meaning of the sentence or not.”

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UAE sought to use COP28 to advance oil deals: report

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COP28 climate change summit president Ahmed Al Jaber is also head of the UAE's state oil company and state renewable energy firm
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The United Arab Emirates planned to exploit meetings with foreign governments arranged due to its COP28 hosting role to strike fossil fuel deals, according to leaked documents obtained by the BBC.

The leaked briefing notes, obtained by journalists at the Centre for Climate Reporting (CCR) working alongside the British broadcaster, were prepared by the UAE’s COP28 team for summit president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber ahead of meetings with foreign governments between July and October this year.

Leaked “talking points” prepared for a meeting with China said that ADNOC, the UAE’s state oil company, was “willing to jointly evaluate international LNG (liquefied natural gas) opportunities” in Mozambique, Canada and Australia.

Briefing notes prepared for meetings with Colombia, Germany and Egypt suggested that ADNOC “stands ready” to support each country develop fossil fuel projects.

The documents showed the UAE prepared talking points for meetings with 20 countries, including the United States, UK and Germany, on commercial opportunities for state renewable energy company Masdar.

COP28 president Al Jaber is also CEO of ADNOC and Masdar.

A COP28 spokesperson told AFP that the documents cited by the BBC “are inaccurate and were not used by COP28 in meetings. It is extremely disappointing to see the BBC use unverified documents in their reporting.”

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body responsible for the COP28 summit, which starts on Thursday, told the BBC that the “cardinal principle” for hosts was “the obligation of impartiality”.

Climate campaigners have raised concerns about the influence of fossil fuel interests at the talks in Dubai, noting Jaber’s role as head of an oil company.

In an interview with AFP on Saturday, Jaber defended the large presence of heavy emitting industries including the oil and gas sector.

“Everyone needs to be part of this process and everyone needs to be held responsible and everyone needs to be held accountable,” he said.

COP28, which will be held until December 12, is due to be attended by 167 world leaders, including King Charles III and Pope Francis.

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Alberta proposes more open definition of software engineer in new bill

Tech companies and the APEGA feud as the Alberta government prioritizes tech growth

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Software engineers build technical programs — but not unless they’re regulated and certified. At least, that has been the stance of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA). 

Tech companies in Alberta like Neo Financial and Helcim recently petitioned to Premier Danielle Smith for a more open interpretation of the job title “software engineer,” as they were faced with lawsuits over job ad verbiage from the APEGA. 

It seems the government listened. 

Fast forward to November 2023? The Government of Alberta has proposed changes to legislation, specifically the Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act, to open up the legal definition of software engineer, as many tech companies use the title without actually seeking a professional engineer’s professional designation or certification. 

The proposed changes fall under the new Bill 7, which has generated approval from the tech industry

“This is an important development for the innovation sector in the province and will give companies and their employees the freedom to use titles that have long been universally accepted in the tech industry.”

  • Sam Pillar, Chief Executive, Jobber

However, the APEGA sees the initiative as a threat to public safety: 

“Title protection is vital to preserving public safety and maintaining high standards of practice and ethics.”

  • Jay Nagendran, Registrar, APEGA

Sure, tech companies could retitle job descriptions to “software developer” instead; however, studies show that these job ads receive significantly less applicants and interest than those titled with “software engineer.” The main goal? Supporting the tech industry in attracting and retaining top talent.

Experts predict similar issues will arise in the ever-evolving tech industry. For example, growing popularity of generative AI like Chat-GPT will create a demand for “prompt engineers” — see the dilemma? The legislative changes (if passed) are thought to foster tech company growth, improve the economy, and reduce red tape. 

Learn more about the proposed bill here.

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Nissan accelerates UK electric car production

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Japanese auto giant Nissan announced Friday it would invest up to £2 billion in UK electric car manufacturing, which the government touted as a sign of confidence in the sector.

Nissan said it will produce electric models of two best-selling cars, Juke and Qashqai, at its facility in Sunderland, northeast England, which is its biggest factory in Europe, building on UK net zero plans to switch away from dirty fossil-fuel vehicles.

The carmaker will plough £1.12 billion ($1.4 billion) into its UK operations and wider supply chain for research and development and manufacturing of the two new models, it added in a statement.

That will also spark further investment in infrastructure projects and the supply chain, including another electric car battery factory, bringing total investment to as much as £2 billion ($2.5 billion).

Nissan’s investment will support its UK workforce of 7,000 employees — and 30,000 jobs in the nation’s broader supply chain.

– Carbon neutrality plans –

“Exciting, electric vehicles are at the heart of our plans to achieve carbon neutrality,” said Nissan President and CEO Makoto Uchida.

“With electric versions of our core European models on the way, we are accelerating towards a new era for Nissan, for industry and for our customers.”

Uchida declared in September that there was “no going back” on the group’s electrification plans as it aims for 98 percent of European sales to be electric vehicles by 2027.

The news comes as Britain looks to take a leading role in the production of electric cars as companies and governments shift away from high-polluting automobiles.

The UK government confirmed Friday that it has awarded £15 million of funding towards a collaborative R&D project for zero-emission vehicles led by Nissan.

“Nissan’s investment is a massive vote of confidence in the UK’s automotive industry, which already contributes a massive £71 billion a year to our economy,” said British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who will attend a formal announcement at the site later on Friday.

“This venture will no doubt secure Sunderland’s future as the UK’s Silicon Valley for electric vehicle innovation and manufacturing.

“Making the UK the best place to do business is at the heart of our economic plan.”

Finance minister Jeremy Hunt pledged Wednesday in his budget update to invest £4.5 billion in strategic sectors including the auto industry.

– Net zero targets –

However, earlier this year Sunak softened policies aimed at reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, delaying a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars by five years to 2035.

That still means however that the country’s largely foreign-owned car manufacturing sector must switch to producing fully-electric vehicles.

Nissan had previously warned that a no-deal Brexit would threaten the Sunderland site, but committed to its future after the government agreed a trade deal.

Yet the nation’s car industry has warned that automakers will soon face a damaging 10-percent hike in customs duties on electric cars crossing the Channel.

Britain left the European Union in 2021 after clinching a last-gasp free trade agreement which removed tariffs on cars.

But under the deal, from January 1, 2024, at least 45 percent of the value of car parts must originate from Britain or the European Union to be exempt from customs duties.

That hits electric carmakers because their batteries often originate from China, despite UK efforts to establish production.

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