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Piano AI, Giraffes, Alzheimer’s, Mime Psychology. April 9, 2021, Part 2

Science Friday
47min

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New AI Composes Songs From Silent Performance Videos

There have been many awkward attempts in the quest to train algorithms to do what humans can. Music is a prime example. It turns out that the process of turning the individual notes of a composed piece into a fully expressive performance—complete with changes in loudness and mood—is not easy to automate. 

But a team at the University of Washington has been closing in on a way to get close, in research they presented at a machine learning conference late last year. Their AI tool called “Audeo,” combining the words “audio” and “video,” watches a silent video of a piano performance. Then, using only the visual information, Audeo produces music with the expressiveness and interpretative idiosyncrasies of the musician it just watched. 

Producer Christie Taylor talks to lead author Eli Shlizerman about how one trains an algorithm to make art, and how such tools could help make music both more accessible, and easier to engage with.

A Daring Rescue Highlights Giraffes’ Silent Extinction

For the past several months, a daring and unprecedented rescue mission has been underway in western Kenya. Local conservationists have been slowly puzzling out how to ferry nine stranded giraffes trapped on a flooded peninsula back to the mainland. The team rescued the most vulnerable first by sedating them for the duration of the journey. But for others they tried a less dramatic approach—coaxing the giraffe with food onto a wooden barge. “We called it the girRAFT,” said David O’Connor, president of the non-profit group Save Giraffes Now. “Some were better sailors than others.”

This week, the final four Rothschild giraffes will be moved to safety. It was a valiant, months-long effort, for the sake of nine giraffes. But this small tower—the technical word for a group of giraffes—represents one percent of the total population of its species. There are only about 800 northern giraffes left in Africa.

O’Connor calls this charismatic animal’s decline a “silent extinction.” He joins Science Friday to talk about why giraffe populations are plummeting, and why we should be paying attention.

Untangling Alzheimer’s Connection To Insulin Resistance

Over the past two decades, research into the degenerative dementia of Alzheimer’s disease has been building an interesting case: This crippling brain disease involves some of the same mechanisms and pathologies as Type 2 diabetes—and could in fact represent an insulin resistance of the brain. Even having Type 2 diabetes has been found in some research to increase your risk of Alzheimer’s. 

Last month, new research in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia looked at the gene expression of cells in the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients, and found an additional piece of evidence for this theory. Every type of brain cell the team looked at demonstrated changes consistent with a diminished ability to obtain energy from glucose. The lead author Benjamin Bikman is a physiologist and developmental biologist at Brigham Young University, who also works as a diet coach with a supplement business designed around reducing insulin resistance. He says “the brain is becoming increasingly insulin-resistant. It’s becoming increasingly less able to obtain adequate glucose, and then it becomes more reliant on ketones [for energy].” Ketones, a product of burning fat, are also harder for the body to make when it is insulin resistant, which Bikman says can lead the brain into a chronic energy deficit.

Ira talks to Alzheimer’s researcher Shannon Macauley, who was not involved in the new research, about how energy systems shape brain health, why they could be driving Alzheimer’s, and this might lead to new treatments.

The Mime And The Mind

When you watch a mime pull an invisible rope or run into an invisible wall you as the viewer are tricked into visualizing something that isn’t there. But is it all in the mime? Or does the mind play a role? 

Chaz Firestone, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University joins Ira to discuss his latest research on how the mind “helps” us see these invisible objects.