A flurry of executive orders is expected to take place over the next few days from the new US president as he takes residence in the White House. Here are the highlights of those he has signed so far.
The “100 day mask challenge”
Biden’s first order is part recommendation, part requirement: it requires people to wear masks on all federal property, and recommend that governors and local elected officials follow suit. The wording also attempts to turn masking, a vital public health recommendation that can help to stop the spread of covid-19, into a public challenge, calling for all Americans to stick to wearing masks for the next 100 days. —Abby Ohlheiser
Rejoining the Paris climate accords
Biden wasted no time setting a new tone on climate change, an issue he has pledged to make a centerpiece of his presidency. As promised throughout the campaign and after, Biden began the process of bringing the nation back into the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office.
Rejoining the Paris agreement, which will officially take a few more weeks, doesn’t create any new binding climate policies in itself. But it will require the US to submit revamped emissions targets before the UN climate conference later this year, as well as a plan for deep reductions by mid-century. The grand hope is that the world’s second largest emitter returning the international fold will get more momentum behind the global goal of preventing 2 ̊C of warming. After four years under Trump, however, the US will need to repair extensive damage to its international relationships and achieve real progress on its domestic climate policies before it will be seen as a leader rather than laggard on the issue. —James Temple
As expected, Biden also canceled permits for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Canada to Illinois.
Federal covid response
Following up on the recent announcement of a proposed $1.9 trillion covid relief and action plan, the president signed an order that will shift around some key positions within the federal government that will be crucial to the new administration’s pandemic response. Biden will be reinstating the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which Obama created after the Ebola epidemic. Under Trump, the directorate’s staff—along with its work and general mission—were largely absorbed by other offices in the National Security Council. Biden has in the past, somewhat misleadingly implied that the office was completely eliminated. —Abby Ohlheiser
Rejoining the WHO
In the middle of a global pandemic, Trump began the process of formally withdrawing the US from the World Health Organization. Biden’s first-day order would halt that process. —Abby Ohlheiser
Changes to immigration rules
Biden plans to undo many of President Trump’s controversial immigration policies through a combination of executive orders and proposed legislation. Among the orders today, he has announced an end to the Muslim ban, halting construction of the US-Mexico border wall; preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood (DACA) Arrivals program; and revoking Trump’s order to exclude non-citizens from the census count. Other important changes that will go to Congress include new pathways to citizenship for 11 million immigrants without permanent legal status, and modernizing the immigration court system and clear current backlogs.—Eileen Guo
Extending a block on evictions
As we reported in December, thousands of eviction hearings are taking place by videoconference and phone call—a technological disparity that is often leading to people being forced out of their homes unfairly. Without further action, the CDC’s eviction moratorium, which was set to expire on January 31, tens of millions were at risk of losing their homes in the middle of a pandemic. An executive order from Biden extends the block through the end of March—at least for those who can prove they are unable to pay. —Eileen Guo
This story will be updated with more actions and executive orders as they are announced.
These robots know when to ask for help
A new training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to address this problem by teaching robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Andy Zeng, a research scientist at Google DeepMind who helped develop the new technique, says that while robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense.
For example, when asked to bring you a Coke, the robot needs to first understand that it needs to go into the kitchen, look for the refrigerator, and open the fridge door. Conventionally, these smaller substeps had to be manually programmed, because otherwise the robot would not know that people usually keep their drinks in the kitchen.
That’s something large language models (LLMs) could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in, says Zeng.
Now when the robot is asked to bring a Coke, an LLM, which has a generalized understanding of the world, can generate a step-by-step guide for the robot to follow.
The problem with LLMs, though, is that there’s no way to guarantee that their instructions are possible for the robot to execute. Maybe the person doesn’t have a refrigerator in the kitchen, or the fridge door handle is broken. In these situations, robots need to ask humans for help.
KnowNo makes that possible by combining large language models with statistical tools that quantify confidence levels.
When given an ambiguous instruction like “Put the bowl in the microwave,” KnowNo first generates multiple possible next actions using the language model. Then it creates a confidence score predicting the likelihood that each potential choice is the best one.
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The news: A new robot training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to teach robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Why it matters: While robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense. That’s something large language models could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in. Read the full story.
Medical microrobots that travel inside the body are (still) on their way
The human body is a labyrinth of vessels and tubing, full of barriers that are difficult to break through. That poses a serious hurdle for doctors. Illness is often caused by problems that are hard to visualize and difficult to access. But imagine if we could deploy armies of tiny robots into the body to do the job for us. They could break up hard-to-reach clots, deliver drugs to even the most inaccessible tumors, and even help guide embryos toward implantation.
We’ve been hearing about the use of tiny robots in medicine for years, maybe even decades. And they’re still not here. But experts are adamant that medical microbots are finally coming, and that they could be a game changer for a number of serious diseases. Read the full story.
5 things we didn’t put on our 2024 list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies
We haven’t always been right (RIP, Baxter), but we’ve often been early to spot important areas of progress (we put natural-language processing on our very first list in 2001; today this technology underpins large language models and generative AI tools like ChatGPT).
Every year, our reporters and editors nominate technologies that they think deserve a spot, and we spend weeks debating which ones should make the cut. Here are some of the technologies we didn’t pick this time—and why we’ve left them off, for now.
New drugs for Alzheimer’s disease
Alzmeiher’s patients have long lacked treatment options. Several new drugs have now been proved to slow cognitive decline, albeit modestly, by clearing out harmful plaques in the brain. In July, the FDA approved Leqembi by Eisai and Biogen, and Eli Lilly’s donanemab could soon be next. But the drugs come with serious side effects, including brain swelling and bleeding, which can be fatal in some cases. Plus, they’re hard to administer—patients receive doses via an IV and must receive regular MRIs to check for brain swelling. These drawbacks gave us pause.
Sustainable aviation fuel
Alternative jet fuels made from cooking oil, leftover animal fats, or agricultural waste could reduce emissions from flying. They have been in development for years, and scientists are making steady progress, with several recent demonstration flights. But production and use will need to ramp up significantly for these fuels to make a meaningful climate impact. While they do look promising, there wasn’t a key moment or “breakthrough” that merited a spot for sustainable aviation fuels on this year’s list.
One way to counteract global warming could be to release particles into the stratosphere that reflect the sun’s energy and cool the planet. That idea is highly controversial within the scientific community, but a few researchers and companies have begun exploring whether it’s possible by launching a series of small-scale high-flying tests. One such launch prompted Mexico to ban solar geoengineering experiments earlier this year. It’s not really clear where geoengineering will go from here or whether these early efforts will stall out. Amid that uncertainty, we decided to hold off for now.