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Biological Warfare in the American Revolution?

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Popular culture has given us the idea that war used to be less vicious and more orderly. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the American Revolution, I can’t help but picture soldiers standing in straight single-file lines on either side of the battlefield waiting for the command to fire. It’s always been depicted as being so proper.

But I recently read a piece in the journal Colonial Williamsburg that opened my eyes to battle tactics during the revolution. In the article "Colonial Germ Warfare", author/historian Harold B. Gill Jr. reveals that there’s "no proof that anyone attempted to spread disease among the enemy troops during the American Revolutionary War, but there is a plenitude of circumstantial evidence."

It turns out the British army may well have been using smallpox as a weapon against the Continental Army.

Smallpox would have been the obvious disease of choice for a redcoat germ warfare campaign. In Europe, the disease was common, and most British troops had already been exposed to it at an early age, and developed antibodies to protect themselves from it. Most American soldiers probably hadn't been exposed to smallpox, though, and wouldn't have developed an immunity.

Washington could have inoculated all his troops, giving them a mild infection and building up their resistance, but that would have laid up all his soldiers for a few days at the same time. Instead, he ordered new recruits who hadn’t been sick with smallpox to get inoculated between training and deployment. This got the army on its feet for the most part, but left gaps in the protection of some veteran troops.

At first, Washington did not seem to believe that the British would turn to biological weapons. While the colonials laid siege to Boston in 1775, the British in the city were busy inoculating their troops. British deserters reported to the Continentals that “‘several persons are to be sent out of Boston ... that have been inoculated with the small-pox’ with the intention of spreading the infection.” According to Gill, both Washington and his aide-de-camp initially thought the reports weren't credible, but Washington quickly changed his mind and wrote to John Hancock a week later when diseased deserters and civilians made their way into his camp.

That same year, the defenders of Quebec reportedly used a similar tactic. As Gill explains:

"It was rumored that General Guy Carleton, British commander in Quebec, sent infected people to the American camp. Thomas Jefferson was convinced the British were responsible for illness in the lines. He later wrote: ‘I have been informed by officers who were on the spot, and whom I believe myself, that this disorder was sent into our army designedly by the commanding officer in Quebec.’ After the defeat at Quebec the American troops gathered at Crown Point, where John Adams found their condition deplorable: ‘Our Army at Crown Point is an object of wretchedness to fill a humane mind with horrour; disgraced, defeated, discontented, diseased, naked, undisciplined, eaten up with vermin; no clothes, beds, blankets, no medicines; no victuals, but salt pork and flour.’"

It wasn’t just the rebel army the British were targeting, either. In one of a few cases of explicit evidence of germ warfare tactics, General Alexander Leslie revealed he had no reservations about infecting civilians. He told General Cornwallis in 1781 that he planned to bring “above 700 Negroes…down the River with the Small Pox,” and send them to various “Rebell Plantations.” Similarly, before Virginia's royal governor fled Norfolk in 1776, he was said to have intentionally infected two of his slaves with smallpox and then released them into the colony to spread the disease.

Atrocity, this reminds us, is not an invention of the modern era. The weapons may have been cruder and a little less effective, but the goals behind them – complete destruction of the enemy, collateral damage be damned – are something we can easily recognize from modern acts of war and terror.
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For more on colonial germ warfare, see Colonial Williamsburg. Hat tip to Christopher Albon and his awesome blog Conflict Health for putting the story on my radar.

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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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iStock

Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
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Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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