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Just for the tech of it: Air pollution pigeons, plastic eating bacteria, and more

Each week, DT’s own Drew Prindle tackles some of technology’s craziest topics, just for the tech of it. This week, we learn how scientists are using machine learning to fight terrorism, how the U.K. is fighting air pollution with birds, and all about a new bacteria that can eat plastic.

Earlier this week, a computer science student from Jordan unveiled a machine learning system that can reveal the identity of terrorists just by analyzing images of their fingers. Apparently, after a terrorist does something terrible like chop off someone’s head or blow up a school, it’s a common practice for the perpetrator to throw up a “V for victory” sign and have one of their buddies snap a picture. But of course, because doing this could potentially expose their identity, most terrorists tend to cover their faces with scarves or masks before they pose for the pic, which makes identifying them very difficult.

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But not for long! Scientists have actually figured out a way to analyze these V for victory signs with sophisticated machine learning algorithms and use the data to identify the person in the picture. To do this, the system measures 16 different features on the terrorists’s hand — things like length between the first and second knuckle of each finger, or the width of each fingertip, and so on. When taken together, these attributes create a unique photographic fingerprint that can be used to confirm the terrorist’s identity. Check out the full story here.

Next up: Earlier this week, a British startup by the name of Plume Labs launched a strange new program that aims to fight air pollution with pigeons. Sounds weird, but here’s how it works: The company basically rounds up a bunch of pigeons and equips each bird with a little backpack that’s stuffed with GPS, air quality sensors, and wireless network connectivity. As the birds fly around the city, the sensors in the backpacks take readings on nitrogen dioxide levels in the air, and then post that information on Twitter along with the GPS coordinates that show where the sample was taken. The idea is that over time, this data will help the company create a map of London’s most polluted areas, and help city officials more effectively address the problem. Find out more in our full article.

And last but not least: In a groundbreaking and potentially revolutionary paper published this week in the journal Science, Japanese biologists announced that they have discovered a new strain of bacteria that can eat and metabolize plastic. Through some sort of evolutionary miracle, the bacterium, which is named Ideonella sakaiensis, is able to break down and digest the chemical polyethylene terephthalate — which is found in everything from plastic bottles, to polyester clothing. This is a huge breakthrough because it means that in the not-so-distant future, we’ll very likely be able to use this bacteria for industrial purposes, and potentially even use it to break down plastic and create energy.