Ancient DNA brings us closer to unlocking secrets of how modern humans evolved – Modern Diplomacy

Humans all share a common African ancestry, making African history everyone’s history. Yet little is known about the genetic evolution of people living on the continent in the distant past.
Thanks to advances in genome sequencing technology, scientists are now able to compare the DNA of people alive today with DNA extracted from very old skeletons, giving us a unique snapshot of life in Africa from many thousands of years ago.
In the field of human genetics, the story of Mother Eve is a familiar one. It describes how all living humans descend from one woman who lived in Africa 200 000 to 300 000 years ago.
Evidence comes from studies of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – a segment of genetic material found in the human cell. Amongst other things, it permits the study of relatedness in populations. Because only mothers pass it down, it reveals the direct evolutionary line between a person living today and their most distant female ancestor.
Mitochondrial Eve
But like most simple stories, the tale of mitochondrial Eve is neither entirely accurate nor complete. While scientists agree that the dawn of humans did indeed occur in Africa, Eve would have been one of many human females living at the time, and she would not have been the first.
Unfortunately, the reality is that mtDNA gives us limited insight into the timelines, or the patterns, of population spread and dispersal.
Molecular biologist Dr Mateja Hajdinjak explains the significance of this knowledge gap. ‘African population history has shaped the world we all live in, so until we can reconstruct the events from Africa’s past, going back thousands of years, we can’t fully understand how modern humans emerged.’
Dr Hajdinjak is the post-doctoral researcher on the ORIGIN project, an EU-funded research initiative based at the Francis Crick Institute in London, UK that is analysing DNA from human remains found in archaeological sites in Africa.
The goal of ORIGIN is to reconstruct African prehistory using ancient DNA analysis.
The information yielded from these DNA samples is being studied alongside the findings of the project’s archaeologists, palaeontologists and museum curators.
DNA extracts
Dr Hajdinjak is among a growing number of researchers working hard to fill in the historical blanks by moving beyond analysis of mtDNA to use the latest techniques in whole genome sequencing. This allows researchers to compare the DNA of people living today with DNA extracted from very old skeletons.
‘One of our basic questions is, how can we use ancient DNA to reconstruct past population migrations within Africa and between Africa and other parts of the world?’ said Dr Hajdinjak.
She adds that little is known about the past genomic landscape across Africa, as much of the genetic change occurred on the continent when some groups shifted from their hunter-gatherer way of life to become agriculturalists between 3 000 and 7 000 years ago.
‘By comparing past genomes, we can see how different human groups are interconnected, and how migrations happened at different times in history. Migrations allow people to mix and reproduce with new groups, which changes human biology over time.’
A lot is already known about ancient European history thanks to modern sequencing techniques, but ancient DNA studies of African samples have lagged behind. The reason for this is that DNA degrades over time, and especially in the hot and humid climates that prevail in Africa.
Genome enrichment
However, thanks to cutting-edge genome enrichment tools that allow DNA from the tiniest fragments of bone or teeth to be extracted and then amplified, scientists are starting to make good progress sequencing ancient DNA from Africa too.
By studying the data in this way, the researchers are starting to reconstruct events from the distant past and to probe the relationships that emerged between different African populations.
The aim of ORIGIN is not simply to satisfy our natural curiosity about where we came from, but also to unravel the timeline of our genetic evolution, and to use this information to predict how we might evolve into the future.
Some genetic mutations will have been instantly beneficial to our African ancestors, and will have persisted through the gene pool to this day, thousands of years after they first arose. A key example is lactase persistence – the ability to digest milk into adulthood.
Milk and milk products are a valuable source of energy, yet the default ancestral state is lactose intolerance. For adults living in early African farming communities, the ability to convert milk from their herds into glucose may have given them an evolutionary advantage over their lactose intolerant neighbours.
Sickle cell mutation
Another genetic variant that would have boosted human survival when it first emerged is the sickle cell mutation. This genetic variant confers a degree of protection against malaria.
However, the mutation is something of a double-edged sword, as it is also responsible for sickle cell disease – a serious and life-long condition that is prevalent in parts of Africa to this day.
‘It would be very important to reconstruct how sickle cell mutations first appeared and spread,’ said Dr Pontus Skoglund, supervisor of the ORIGIN project.
‘By understanding when mutations happened and how they spread, we can better understand how humans respond to evolutionary challenges,’ said Skoglund.
Genetic mixing
Researchers involved in the EU-backed AfricanNeo project are particularly intrigued by early farming practices in Africa. They are comparing samples of ancient DNA with contemporary DNA to refine their understanding of when African populations started migrating across their continent.
These migrations had a huge impact on the genetic mixing of groups, but the researchers are finding that this ‘expansion’ was a complex series of events that cannot be encapsulated into a neat mitochondrial Eve-style narrative.
‘Expansion was not uniform across the continent,’ said Associate Professor Carina Schlebusch. She is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Uppsala in Sweden – and principal investigator of the project. 
‘Some hunter-gatherer groups were replaced by farmers,’ she said, referring to the likelihood that conflict would have arisen between populations wanting to occupy the same land, and that farmers would have enjoyed a competitive edge over hunter gatherers. ‘Other groups interacted and exchanged genes, and others still remained isolated for far longer than you might expect.’
It’s clear why we should all care about these complex events from Africa’s distant past, according to Dr Schlebusch.
‘History tends to repeat itself,’ she said. ‘These past migratory events may well play a role in how we behave in our future. For example, climate change means there is likely to be more pressures on people who are forced to leave their homes. There is a chance there will be more conflicts between populations and that some minority groups will be replaced.’
‘The more we learn about our history,’ she said, ‘The more we can predict how things will work out in the future.’
The research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) and originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  
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Game theory mathematics is used to predict outcomes in conflict situations. Now it is being adapted through big data to resolve highly contentious issues between people and the environment.
Game theory is a mathematical concept that aims to predict outcomes and solutions to an issue in which parties with conflicting, overlapping or mixed interests interact.
In ‘theory’, the ‘game’ will bring everyone towards an optimal solution or ‘equilibrium’. It promises a scientific approach to understanding how people make decisions and reach compromises in real-world situations.
Game theory originated in the 1940s in the field of economics. The Oscar-winning movie A Beautiful Mind (2001) is about the life of mathematician John Nash (played by Russell Crowe), who was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in this area.
Although the concept has been around for many decades, the difference now is the ability to build it into computer-based algorithms, games and apps to apply it more broadly, said Professor Nils Bunnefeld, a social and environmental scientist at the University of Stirling, UK. This is particularly true in the age of big data.
‘Game theory as a theoretical idea has long been around to show solutions to conflict problems,’ he said. ‘We really see the potential to move this to a computer to make the most of the data that can be collected, but also reach many more people.’
Conservation conflicts
Prof Bunnefeld led the EU-backed ConFooBio project, which applied game theory to scenarios where people were in conflict over resources and the environment. His team wanted to develop a model for predicting solutions to conflicts between food security and biodiversity.
‘The starting point was that when we have two or more parties at loggerheads, what should we do, for example, with land or natural resources? Should we produce more food? Or should we protect a certain area for biodiversity?’ he said.
The team focused on seven case studies, ranging from conflicts involving farmers and conservation of geese in Scotland to ones about elephants and crop raiding in Gabon.
ConFooBio conducted more than 300 game workshops with over 900 people in numerous locations including Gabon, Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania and Scotland.
Ecological challenges
Prof Bunnefeld realised it became necessary to step back from pure game theory and instead build more complex games to incorporate ecological challenges the world currently faces, like climate change. It also became necessary to adopt a more people-based approach than initially planned, to better target the games.
‘Participants included people directly involved in these conflicts, and in many cases that were very unhappy,’ said Prof Bunnefeld.
‘Through the games, we got high engagement from communities, even from those where conflict is high and people can be reluctant to engage in research. We showed that people are able to solve conflicts when they trust each other and have a say, and when they get adequate payments for conservation efforts.’
The team developed a modelling framework to predict wildlife management outcomes amid conflict. Freely available, it has been downloaded thousands of times from the ConFooBio website.
Conservation game
The researchers also created an accessible game about conservation called Crops vs Creatures, in which players decide between a range of options from shooting creatures to allocating habitat for conservation.
Prof Bunnefeld hopes these types of game become more available on a mainstream basis via app stores – such as one on conflicts in the realm of biodiversity and energy justice in a separate initiative he works on called the Beacon Project. ‘If you tell people you have an exciting game or you have a complex model, which one are they going to engage with? I think the answer is pretty easy,’ he said.
‘In the ConFooBio project, we’ve been able to show that our new models and algorithms can adapt to new situations and respond to environmental and social changes,’ added Prof Bunnefeld. ‘Our models are useful for suggesting ways of managing conflicts between stakeholders with competing objectives.’
Social media dynamics
Another project, Odycceus, harnessed elements of game theory to investigate what social media can tell us about social dynamics and potentially assist in the early detection of emerging social conflicts.
They analysed the language, content and opinions of social media discussions using data tools.
Such tools are required to analyse the vast amount of information in public discourse, explained Eckehard Olbrich, coordinator of the Odycceus project, and a physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.
His work is partially motivated by trying to understand the reasons behind the polarisation of views and the growth of populist movements like far-right organisation Pegida, which was founded in his hometown of Dresden in 2014.
The team created a variety of tools accessible to researchers via an open platform known as Penelope. These included the likes of the Twitter Explorer, which enables researchers to visualise connections between Twitter users and trending topics to help understand how societal debates evolve.
Others included two participatory apps known as the Opinion Observatory and the Opinion Facilitator, which enable people to monitor the dynamics of conflict situations, such as by helping interlink news articles containing related concepts.
Patterns of polarisation
‘These tools have already allowed us to get a better insight into patterns of polarisation and understanding different world views,’ said Olbrich.
He said, for example, that his team managed to develop a model about the effect of social feedback on polarisation that incorporated game-theoretic ideas.
The findings suggested that the formation of polarised groups online was less about the traditional concept of social media bubbles and echo chambers than the way people build their identity by gaining approval from their peers.
He added that connecting the dots between game theory and polarisation could have real-life applications for things like how best to regulate social media.
‘In a game-theoretic formulation, you start with the incentives of the players, and they select their actions to maximise their expected utility,’ he said. ‘This allows predictions to be made of how people would change their behaviour if you, for instance, regulate social media.’
Olbrich added that he hopes such modelling can furnish a better understanding of democracy and debates in the public sphere, as well as indicating to people better ways to participate in public debates. ‘Then we would have better ways to deal with the conflicts we have and that we have to solve,’ he said.
But there are also significant challenges in using game theory for real-world situations, explained Olbrich.
Varying outlooks
For example, incorporating cultural differences into game theory has proved difficult because such differences may mean two people have hugely varying ways of looking at a problem.
‘The problem with game theory is that it’s looking for solutions to the way a problem can be solved,’ added Prof Bunnefeld.
‘Having looked at conflicts over the last few years, to me it is clear that we can’t solve conflicts, we can only manage them.’ Building in factors like climate change and local context is also complex.
But game theory is a useful way to explore models, games and apps for dealing with conflicts, he said. ‘Game theory is, from its very simple basics to quite complex situations, a good entry point,’ said Prof Bunnefeld.
‘It gives us a framework that you can work through and also captures people’s imagination.’
Research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council and originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  
Asia and the Pacific is the most digitally divided region of the world, and South-East Asia is the most divided subregion. The Covid-19 pandemic detonated a “digital big bang” that spurred people, governments and businesses to become “digital by default;” a sea change that generated vast digital dividends. These benefits that have not been distributed equally, however. New development gaps have emerged as digital transformation reinforces a vicious cycle of socioeconomic inequalities, within and across countries.
Bridging these divides and ensuring advances in technology can benefit everyone will be a key challenge as the region seeks to achieve a more inclusive and sustainable post-pandemic recovery. A new ESCAP report, Asia-Pacific Digital Transformation Report 2022: Shaping our digital future, identifies five key “digital divides;” fault lines that separate those who can readily take advantage of new technology from those more likely to be left behind. These divides are related to age, gender, education, disability and geography.
Typically, those most comfortable with technological innovation are younger and better educated people who have grown up with the Internet as ”digital natives”. Older persons may be more distrustful, or slower to acquire the necessary skills or suffer declines in aptitude. But at any age, poor communities – especially those in rural areas – are most at risk as they may be unable to afford electricity or digital connections or lack the relevant skills, even if the necessary infrastructure and connectivity are there. 
The most significant driver of digital transformation is business research and its development and adoption of frontier technologies. Another major component is e-government; the delivery of public information and services via the Internet or through other digital means. This has the potential for more efficient and inclusive operations; especially when linked to national digital ID systems. However, because e-government services often evolve in complex regulatory environments, providing appropriate levels of accessibility for older generations, the disabled, or those with limited education has become more challenging.
It is clear that digital technologies are enabling the delivery of previously unimagined services while enhancing productivity and optimizing resource use that helped reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and pollutants. These technologies also helped track and contain pandemic spread. Social networks are fostering and diversifying communications among people of all ages sharing common interests, irrespective of location. This helps them stay in touch, broaden their experiences, continue education or deepen subject knowledge. This provided a veritable lifeline that has continued as we enter the post-pandemic era.
At the same time, the risks have also proliferated. Social networks also created social ”echo chambers” and generated torrents of misinformation and hate speech. New cryptocurrencies have opened the way to speculative financial bubbles, while cybercrime increased alarmingly as it assumed prolific variations. In addition, digital gadgets and the Internet are thought to contribute to more than 2 per cent of the global carbon footprint. The manufacture of electronic hardware can also exhaust supplies of natural resources such as rare-earth elements and precious metals like cobalt and lithium.
Moreover, digital transformation has led to the creation of an immense amount of digital data which become an essential resource to understand digital transformation. However, it raises concerns about the ethical and responsible use of data for privacy protection. A common understanding among countries on the operationalization of such principles has yet to evolve.
The Asia-Pacific Digital Transformation Report 2022 highlights the importance of digital connectivity infrastructure as “meta-infrastructure.” 5G and other high-speed networks can make all other infrastructure – such as transport and power grid distribution – much smarter, optimizing resource use for sustainable development. To contribute to these needs, the Report recommends three pathways for action, which are not mutually exclusive and are aligned with the ESCAP Action Plan of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway initiative for 2022-2026.
The first pathway focuses on the supply side and provides relevant policy practices for the development of cost-effective network infrastructure. The second addresses the demand side and recommends capacity-building programmes and policies to promote uptake at scale, of new, more affordable and accessible digital products and services. The third involves improving systems and institutions that are related to collecting, aggregating and analysing data in a way that builds public trust and deepens policymakers’ understanding of the drivers of digital transformations.
Finally, in a world where digital data can flash around the globe in an instant, the report highlights the importance of regional and global cooperation. Only by working together can countries ensure that these technological breakthroughs will benefit everyone; their peoples, economies and societies, as well as for the natural environment, in our new “digital by default” normal.
With rapid advancements in digital engineering and data architecture, we require powerful computational models. Traditional computational models, comprising of binary numbers 1s and 0s, do not have the computational power to sort exorbitant amounts of data as the world has moved toward complex digital technologies.
Imagine if you must distribute test sheets among students. You may be able to distribute 100 sheets per minute. As the number of students grows, the time to distribute the sheets would shrink. That is a classic computational model, taxing to keep pace with the changing demands of technological advancements. Now, imagine if an octopus does the same task with eight hands. An octopus would be able to distribute 800 sheets per minute. Quantum Computing (QC) would solve complex computational problems like that.
According to IBM, QC takes an innovative approach to sort complex computational problems by creating multidimensional spaces that link data patterns with individual data points.
Quantum mechanics is not a new field; it emerged as a branch of physics to explain the scale of atoms in the early 1900s. However, it gained attention in 1994 when Peter Shor developed quantum algorithms. Shor’s algorithms could find the prime factors of large numbers ‘efficiently’. Here ‘efficiently’ meant the capability beyond the state-of-the-art classic algorithms. Shor’s algorithm became the basis of present-day QC that has optimised cloud computing, blockchain, cryptography and cybersecurity, among many other domains.
Quantum Technology (QT) is a disruptive technology with numerous military applications as well. It is not a stand-alone military system like jets and missiles. Instead, it is embedded in other technologies that depend on computation to improve their effectiveness, accuracy, and precision. The first quantum revolution brought military technologies such as nuclear weapons, lasers, digital cameras, magnetic resonance imaging, and other imaging devices. The second QT revolution is characterised by the increased computational power of weapons tracking and targeting systems, making them more efficient.
Military radars with QT would be able to detect stealth aircraft by reflecting even the faintest photons. QT would enable highly efficient Global Positioning Systems (GPS), especially in terrains where satellite reception is poor such as underwater or mountainous regions. As militaries rely heavily on GPS to conduct precision strikes, QT will significantly improve precision due to its ability to pinpoint coordinates. It would also optimise maintenance, logistics and supply chains and avoid inventory wastage.
This technology would also radically upgrade Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and Neural Networking tasks given its faster processing speed of complex datasets. Quantum-enhanced AI would be able to develop generative models that would not only be dependent on available datasets but would be able to generate predictive samples. This would further improve the performance of AI systems on the future battleground. It would improve man and machine teaming due to its quantum-enhanced intelligence to interact with humans, and at times, even take superiority over humans. According to research by the University of Vienna, robots learn faster with QT. This learning would also improve Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS), as with quantum-enhanced AI, LAWS could precisely select and engage targets without human supervision. In the cyber domain, QT can crack encrypted software in 10 seconds. This can cause national disruption by threatening sensitive information and communication systems. The increased efficiency due to QC has pushed states to explore the field further.
QT is expensive, and presently, the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), China, Russia, Japan, Australia, India, Canada, France, Germany and Israel can develop fast-processing quantum algorithms. This has also initiated a QC arms race which could lead to quantum warfare. The race is between the US and China. China has invested USD 10 billion, whereas the US has invested USD 1.2 billion in QC. However, the US military has been researching QT since the 1950s and has an independent board within the Department of Defense.
An emerging player in QT is India, which has invested about 1 billion USD in QC. It has several institutes that work independently and cooperate to advance this national goal. In 2021, India’s Defense Institute of Advanced Technology (DIAT) and the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) collaborated on QC tech. India’s Department of Science and Technology and 13 research institutes from the Indian Institute of Science and Research (ISSER) have launched I-Hub Quantum Technology Foundation to assist budding start-ups in QC. The Indian Army has set up a quantum lab to help its military leapfrog into next-generation communication technology. The country has also partnered with Israel and Japan to pursue joint ventures in QC. As part of the QUAD arrangement, India will have special access to cutting-edge technology, including QT. India has further welcomed IBM to create a national quantum plan roadmap. IBM has also engaged Indian students to work in the field. Similarly, in collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS), India opened a research lab to facilitate R&D in QC. QT is expected to add 310 billion USD to the Indian economy by 2030. Although India is at an initial stage of development, these initiatives have boosted a QC ecosystem in the country.
On the other hand, Pakistan has only started exploring the QC field. There are isolated measures to set up research labs by top universities in Pakistan, such as Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and National University of Sciences & Technology (NUST). However, attention by the government to set up Research and Development facilities for QC is needed. There is a need to raise awareness and funds to benefit from the potential of this technology. Pakistan has an ample number of talented human resource who, if trained, could lead the country in this direction. QT needs attention as it has the power to identify and counter quantum-level threats.
Quantum computers will not replace traditional computers as they are too powerful and complex to perform simple tasks such as emails. Instead, it would be reserved for technology and corporate giants, governments, and military programmes such as space programmes and nuclear Command and Control (C2) as they require faster processing speed. The future of quantum is open-ended as research is still being conducted to build more powerful quantum architectures. It has attracted visionary minds, who believe that QT will meaningfully impact the future of technology.
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