Bias, quakes and viruses, oh my!

Researchers present findings at the annual New Horizons in Science meeting

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Clothing divas have fashion week, film enthusiasts have Sundance and for science journalists there’s the New Horizons in Science — a four-day meeting of presentations and field trips that provide an in-depth look at cutting-edge research in fields from genomics to psychology. Sponsored by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the annual conference is being held in Palo Alto, Calif., this year. Here’s a sampling of research discussed on Day One, October 26:

UCSF’s Joseph DeRisi discussing an expensive machine, called a DNA sequencer, which decodes the genetic information in a large number of samples each day. It costs about $3,000 to use the machine each time. But, DeRisi says that the technology is getting cheaper and faster rapidly. He predicts that within five years scientists will be able to decode a person’s genome within hours.

Powerful, if subconscious, biases
Tall men are more likely to run corporations than shorter men, people with good teeth make more money — these are just some manifestations of the biases that shape decision making in our daily lives. While rational thinking is supposed to be a hallmark of being human, from a young age people develop implicit attitudes that cloud their thinking, says psychologist and neuroscientist Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University. “To what extent do they leak into our behavior, unbeknownst to us?” Banaji asks. She has recently been investigating this question using conjoint analysis, a technique that asks a volunteer to choose between two scenarios with several variables, such as living in San Francisco while making $35,000 per year with a strict boss named Jennifer versus living in Detroit while making $40,000 per year with a relaxed boss named Jason. Changing the variables in the questionnaire and running several iterations revealed that the majority of participants “chose” to make $3,400 less, on average, to work under a male boss. Yet when the subjects were asked directly if their supervisor’s gender was important the answer was a resounding “no,” Banaji reports.

Putting emphasis on variables that, consciously at least, we do not think are important, can have serious implications on decision making, says Banaji, citing studies showing how race influences people’s perceptions of how “American” someone is, including current presidential candidates. Can we fight these subconscious biases? “Yes, they are elastic,” says Banaji. But are they plastic? Can we consciously remold our thinking to eliminate these biases? She’s not sure. “That work needs to be done,” she says. Try taking a test at —Rachel Ehrenberg

Virus tracking on a chip
Many respiratory infections and diarrheal illnesses are caused by an unknown virus, making them difficult to diagnose and treat.

Joseph DeRisi, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of California, San Francisco, has developed an identity chip for viruses. The chip contains genetic information for a wide range of known viruses. The scientists can use the chip to screen viral DNA and some RNA in mucus, blood or other samples collected from sick patients — both human and animal. Matching an unknown viral genetic sequence to that of a well-studied virus helps narrow down the identity of the unknown virus. Then the researchers can decode the genetic blueprints of the new virus to learn more about how it causes disease.

DeRisi and his colleagues have already used the chips to track down the cause of a disease that kills parrots. The disease, called proventricular dilation disease or PDD, paralyzes the part of the bird’s digestive system that moves food into the stomach. Food gets stuck and the bird dies of starvation.

A bornavirus related to viruses that cause sad horse disease (also known as Borna disease) is responsible for PDD in parrots, the researchers discovered. Several different bornaviruses infect birds. No one knows where the viruses come from and how they spread to parrots and horses. DeRisi plans to test samples from ducks and other migratory birds to learn whether they may be carrying the viruses.

These viral testing chips are still experimental, but DeRisi hopes to produce them for use in clinical laboratories where they could aid in diagnosing illness and help doctors design better treatment plans for their patients. —Tina Hesman Saey

Quake Ready?
Geologist Tom Brocher has a message for Californians: “Are you ready for this earthquake? Because it’s ready for you.” And he isn’t talking about the San Andreas fault. The Hayward Fault, which also runs through the San Francisco Bay Area, experienced a major quake in 1868, 140 years ago. And it’s due for another big one soon, Brocher said.

The fault has, since 1315, experienced five quakes with magnitudes greater than 6.3. The average number of years between each quake was 138. “It’s not like clockwork, but it’s very constant,” said Brocher, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and chair of the group 1868 Hayward Earthquake Alliance.

The fault starts at San Pablo Bay and, running east of San Francisco Bay, stretches south to Freemont. “The Hayward fault is probably the most urbanized fault in North America,” Brocher said, adding that rupture of the fault would break both the Bay Bridge and the BART system. About 2.5 million people live within a stone’s throw of the fault, added Brocher, who is the USGS regional coordinator for Northern California Earthquake Hazards Investigations.

Brocher reported USGS estimates of a 63 percent chance that a magnitude-6.7 or higher quake will hit the Bay Area in the next 30 years, and a 67 percent chance for the Los Angeles area.

Even with work already done to retrofit buildings and infrastructure, Brocher shared estimates that $150 billion in damage could result from just the ground shaking of a big Hayward quake, not including damage from fires or landslides. Reports suggest that ground shaking and damage in 1868 was strongest in and around the cities of San Leandro and Hayward. Also, areas built over landfill, such as the San Francisco financial district, are at risk because landfill material essentially acts like a sand-filled liquid when stirred by a quake, Brocher said. —Kristina Bartlett Brody

Voices in the car
If Herbie the car could talk, he probably would be less lovable. Robotic voices — like those found on car navigation systems, for example — can trigger strong responses among human users. (Irritation comes to mind.) But Clifford Nass of Stanford University thinks he could engineer these voices to play off people’s dispositions and encourage safer driving.

In a recent study, Nass found that happy drivers get in fewer accidents when a chipper voice talks to them in a vehicle than when a morose voice makes conversation. Unhappy or upset people do better with less-cheery voices.

“Voices in cars manifest more than just content; they manifest emotion,” Nass says. “Upset drivers could benefit from a subdued voice. Happy drivers were screwed up by that subdued voice.”

Software that could detect drowsiness, distraction, emotion and personality of a car’s operator could adjust its voice accordingly, Nass said. It could deliver a male voice for a male driver, or even adjust to imitate its driver’s voice exactly, making it more likeable.

Nass’s studies also reveal that humans may be more willing to cooperate with robots if the machines display paralinguistic skills that more closely mirror human skills. When people disagree with others, those people tend to avoid eye contact and distance themselves from any disapproving statements they deliver. Nass found people are more likely to take advice from a robot when the robot acts in the same way.

“The fact that it didn’t stand right up, and say ‘I disagree with you,’ made people feel better about the robot,” Nass said. The work extends beyond a car criticizing its owner’s driving to any context in which humans interact with robots.

In other affective technology research, Nass has found that male avatars perform better than female avatars on math tests in a virtual world regardless of whether the person actually taking the test is a man or woman, suggesting people play into stereotypes. He also mentioned an upcoming study that reveals how the brain multitasks, which psychologists have long called an impossibility. Such multitasking, he says, has changed the way people think and perform in basic psychological tests. —Elizabeth Quill

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