This Way Up for Saturday 2 December 2017

Bird protection software, the future of AI and robotics, the 'exercise pill', and bacteria: a companion for cancer?

Bird protection software

A network of wildlife sanctuaries has led to the reintroduction of many of New Zealand's native bird species, and now machine learning software could be an important tool in monitoring the survival of these birds once they leave these protected areas. 

Sanctuaries have been an important way of conserving native birds that are under threat from introduced pests like rats, stoats and possums. 

Zealandia in Wellington is the world's first fully-fenced urban sanctuary, where native birds inside are doing really well, but some species struggle once they hop the fence and have to fend for themselves.

A team from Victoria University is using a combination of cameras and birdsong recorders at 50 different locations around Wellington to map where species like the Hihi (Stitchbird), Tīeke (Saddleback), and Kākāriki (Red-crowned parakeet) do best.

The idea is that if we know where the birds thrive we can engineer more bird-friendly communities in the future. 

Recording the birdsong is relatively easy but trying to identify an individual bird call in over 100,000 hours of recorded audio, which includes other noises like traffic, dogs barking dogs, alarms and doorbells, is no easy task.

And that's where the artificial intelligence comes in.

The future of AI and robotics

The International Robotics Exhibition is underway in Tokyo this week. 130,000 visitors are expected to attend the world's largest robotics fair.

This Way Up's technology correspondent Peter Griffin's been roaming the exhibition halls to check out the latest robots, from aged care assistants and exoskeletons to virtual-reality controlled robots and hospital bots.

We also discuss Sky TV's controversial decision to sue four local internet service providers over their alleged role in facilitating the spread of illegally downloaded content.

Could a pill replace exercise?

Live longer, have better sex, increase your memory, avoid constipation, build muscle tone, burn fat... with supposed benefits like these, it's no wonder that the search is on for a medication that mimics what happens when we exercise. 


Photo: (Jonathan Perez via

Nicola Twilley has been exploring the development of a so-called 'exercise pill' for the New Yorker, with one candidate a drug called GW501516 (or 516 for short!) that is showing some promising early results.

"Couch Potato Mouse had been raised to serve as a proxy for the average American...The mouse was lethargic, lolling in a fresh layer of bedding, rolls of fat visible beneath thinning, greasy-looking fur. Lance Armstrong Mouse had been raised under exactly the same conditions, yet, despite its poor diet and lack of exercise, it was lean and taut, its eyes and coat shiny as it snuffled around its cage. The secret to its healthy appearance and youthful energy, Evans explained, lay in a daily dose of GW501516: a drug that confers the beneficial effects of exercise without the need to move a muscle." Nicola Twilley in The New Yorker

Bacteria: a companion for cancer?

Fusobacterium novum in culture

Fusobacterium novum in culture Photo: (Public Domain)

Cancers carry microbes with them when they spread around the body, suggesting that certain bacteria might speed up the progress of the disease.

New research by a team from Harvard University led by Matthew Myerson studied colon cancer specimens (in both primary and metastisised tumours) and found Fusobacteria microbes in almost all cases.

This was true even in cases where the samples were collected years apart.

"This strongly indicates that the cancers took the microbes with them when they spread and that the bacteria can persist for long periods of time within tumour cells," Dr Chris Smith of The Naked Scientists says.

"When the team transplanted human tumour samples into mice, either with, or without Fusobacteria, the tumours became established in the mice only in cases where the bacteria were present."

Meanwhile, treatment with the antibiotic metronidazole, which kills Fusobacteria, slowed the spread of tumours in the mice.