Category: technology

Video Shows Real-Life ‘Transformers’ Robots That See, Think, and Transform

By Nick Lucchesi

A team of roboticists have taken another step toward the inevitable future where real-life Transformers move among us.

New research on modular, autonomous robots was published Wednesday that shows how robots can see, think, and decide to transform their shape based on the challenge facing them.

A six-person team published this research paper — “An Integrated System for Perception-Driven Autonomy with Modular Robots” — in the journal Science Robotics. The researchers hail from Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Here are the key areas of how the robot does what it does, in the words of the researchers.

“A lot of people have seen this in movies, if you’ve seen like Transformers or Big Hero 6, robots that can change their shape,” says Mark Yim, Professor, University of Pennsylvania, of the modular robots revealed this week. “We’ve had lots of examples of robots that can do things like walking or climbing stairs … but all of those things were done separately. This is the first time that we’ve actually had a system that could do all of this stuff autonomously.”

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Solar neutrinos reveal how the Sun shines

By Aldo Serenelli

Energy is generated in the interior of the Sun through sequences of nuclear reactions in which four protons fuse together to form a helium-4 nucleus. These sequences are accompanied by the release of two particles known as electron neutrinos. Models suggest that 99% of the nuclear energy released by the Sun originates from three reaction sequences — collectively known as the proton–proton (pp) chain — that are initiated by the fusion of two protons. In a paper in Nature, the Borexino Collaboration1 reports the first complete measurement of neutrino fluxes that originate from these three sequences, based on an analysis of more than 2,000 days of data collection. The results help us to understand the details of how and why the Sun shines.

Neutrinos interact weakly with matter, and therefore escape almost unhindered from the Sun’s interior, to reach Earth about eight minutes later. Solar neutrinos therefore provide a direct view into the nuclear furnace in the Sun’s core. The Borexino experiment (Fig. 1) detects such neutrinos and determines how much energy they have by measuring the amount of light produced when the particles interact with the detecting agent (an organic liquid, called the scintillator, which is kept underground to minimize the amount of background radiation that can interfere with the neutrino signals). In contrast to all other solar-neutrino experiments, Borexino can measure the energies of both high- and low-energy neutrinos, which makes it possible to study the structure of the solar core using a technique known as neutrino spectroscopy.

Electron neutrinos can change into two other types (or flavours) of neutrino, known as tau and muon neutrinos, as they travel to Earth, a phenomenon known as flavour oscillation. The Borexino experiment is more sensitive to electron neutrinos than to tau or muon neutrinos, and so flavour oscillation needs to be accounted for when the measured neutrino fluxes are used to calculate the fluxes produced in the Sun. Taking this into consideration, the Borexino collaborators used the measured neutrino flux to work out the total power generated by nuclear reactions in the Sun’s core, with an uncertainty of about 10%, and found that this is the same as the measured photon output — thus showing that nuclear fusion is indeed the source of energy in the Sun. This value, calculated for the amount of energy produced through nuclear reactions, is comparable with previous2 results obtained by combining data from several neutrino-detection experiments, and places the most robust and model-independent constraints on the source of solar energy.

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Laurie Anderson’s VR installation flies you to the moon


The moon has been receiving a lot of attention lately. From Elon Musk’s SpaceX trip around the moon — which recently signed on its first billionaire passenger — to NASA’s renewed plans for moon exploration, it seems we’re in a new lunar space race.

The latest exhibition at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, “The Moon: From Inner Worlds to Outer Space,” looks at how artists have been looking upward to Earth’s satellite — not only from a scientific point of view, but also to the moon as a cultural symbol imbued with different meanings.

“I was the first artist in residence at NASA,” said artist-musician Laurie Anderson, whose work, co-created with fellow mixed-media artist Hsin-Chien Huang, is one of the highlights of the exhibition. “For three years, I just was a fly on the wall at Mission Control in Houston, Jet Propulsion lab in Pasadena, the Hubble in Maryland. Artists have a different point of view and that should be represented.”

Anderson has never shied away from drawing upon science for technological advancements to use in her work, which often has a futuristic tone. Her 1981 self-directed video for the song “O Superman,” which brought her progressive aesthetic into pop culture, is no exception and cleverly shows Anderson’s fascination with technology.

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The Lie Generator: Inside the Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings

By Mark Harris

Christopher Talbot thought he would make a great police officer. He was 29 years old, fit, and had a clean background record. Talbot had military experience, including a tour of Iraq as a US Marine, and his commanding officer had written him a glowing recommendation. In 2014, armed with an associate degree in criminal justice, he felt ready to apply to become an officer with the New Haven Police Department, in his home state of Connecticut.

Talbot sailed through the department’s rigorous physical and mental tests, passing speed and agility trials and a written examination—but there was one final test. Like thousands of other law enforcement, fire, paramedic, and federal agencies across the country, the New Haven Police Department insists that each applicant take an assessment that has been rejected by almost every scientific authority: the polygraph test.

Commonly known as lie detectors, polygraphs are virtually unused in civilian life. They’re largely inadmissible in court and it’s illegal for most private companies to consult them. Over the past century, scientists have debunked the polygraph, proving again and again that the test can’t reliably distinguish truth from falsehood. At best, it is a roll of the dice; at worst, it’s a vessel for test administrators to project their own beliefs.

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How digital drug users could help to halt the US opioid epidemic

By Sara Reardon

With the tip of her syringe, Brandi pokes at a grey lump of heroin in a spoon. It’s a new variety of the drug that has shown up on the market in the past few days, and Brandi likes it. “I feel this more, I feel more of the pain resistance,” she says.

Once it has dissolved into a liquid, she injects it into her arm, then uses a fresh needle to inject the skinny arm of another woman. “She does it better than the hospital,” the woman comments.

“I’ll help anybody who needs it,” Brandi explains to public-health researcher Daniel Ciccarone of the University of California, San Francisco, who has been filming the entire process.

Ciccarone’s team has embedded with Brandi — whose name has been changed for this story — in Charleston, West Virginia, documenting her interactions without judgement or interference. Later, the group will analyse this video, in addition to half a dozen other videos of drug users from across the city, logging details big and small. Brandi does not heat the solution on the spoon, for instance, and that may increase the likelihood of spreading viruses such as HIV. And tests reveal that what she’s taking has been laced with fentanyl, a synthetic drug up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.

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NASA says nobody—not even Elon Musk—can terraform Mars

By Tim Fernholz

Given recent trends, you may think humans have mastered filling a planet’s atmosphere with carbon dioxide and heating it up.

But scientists using data collected by NASA spacecraft say using this technique to make Mars habitable for humans is far beyond the technology we have today.

The problem is one of supply: There’s simply not enough carbon dioxide on Mars to create an atmosphere that traps heat and gases close to the planetary surface.

The idea of “terraforming” the red planet is to make it more Earth-like by increasing its temperature so that liquid water could exist, rather than freeze, with a greenhouse atmosphere more conducive to life. The vision has long inspired science-fiction authors and putative space explorers. When, in 2016, Elon Musk’s first presented his vision to go to Mars, few missed that images of the planet grew steadily greener as he unveiled the steps in his plan.

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A Huge Dust Storm on Mars Is Threatening NASA’s Opportunity Rover

By Niraj Chokshi

A vast dust storm blanketing about a quarter of the surface of Mars has threatened NASA’s Opportunity rover, plunging the solar-powered vehicle into what the space agency has described as a “dark, perpetual night.”

With its primary energy source obscured, the rover, which sits in the Perseverance Valley of Mars near the center of the storm, appears to have automatically entered a power-saving mode in which it will remain until the sun re-emerges, agency officials said.

“We’re concerned, but we’re hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate with us,” John Callas, the Opportunity project manager, told reporters on a Wednesday conference call with other NASA officials.

Opportunity is at historically low energy levels. The rover weathered another serious storm in 2007, but the current storm is much worse, having intensified more rapidly and more completely blocking out the sun, NASA said.

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Sucking carbon dioxide from air is cheaper than scientists thought

By Jeff Tollefson

Siphoning carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere could be more than an expensive last-ditch strategy for averting climate catastrophe. A detailed economic analysis published on 7 June suggests that the geoengineering technology is inching closer to commercial viability.

The study, in Joule, was written by researchers at Carbon Engineering in Calgary, Canada, which has been operating a pilot CO2-extraction plant in British Columbia since 2015. That plant — based on a concept called direct air capture — provided the basis for the economic analysis, which includes cost estimates from commercial vendors of all of the major components. Depending on a variety of design options and economic assumptions, the cost of pulling a tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere ranges between US $94 and $232. The last comprehensive analysis of the technology, conducted by the American Physical Society in 2011, estimated that it would cost $600 per tonne.

Carbon Engineering says that it published the paper to advance discussions about the cost and potential of the technology. “We’re really trying to commercialize direct air capture in a serious way, and to do that, you have to have everybody in the supply chain on board,” says David Keith, acting chief scientist at Carbon Engineering and a climate physicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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‘Reprogrammed’ stem cells approved to mend human hearts for the first time

By David Cyranoski

Scientists in Japan now have permission to treat people who have heart disease with cells produced by a revolutionary reprogramming technique. The study is only the second clinical application of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These are created by inducing the cells of body tissues such as skin and blood to revert to an embryonic-like state, from which they can develop into other cell types.

On 16 May, Japan’s health ministry gave doctors the green light to take wafer-thin sheets of tissue derived from iPS cells and graft them onto diseased human hearts. The team, led by cardiac surgeon Yoshiki Sawa at Osaka University, says that the tissue sheets can help to regenerate the organ’s muscle when it becomes damaged, a symptom of heart disease that can be caused by a build-up of plaque or by a heart attack.

“It will excite worldwide attention, as many groups are working in the same direction,” says Thomas Eschenhagen, a pharmacologist at the University of Hamburg in Germany and chair of the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research.

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Chinese satellite launch kicks off ambitious mission to Moon’s far side

By Davide Castelvecchi

China has taken its first major step in a groundbreaking lunar mission. On 21 May, a probe launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Centre to head beyond the Moon, where it will lie ready to act as a communications station for the Chang’e-4 lunar lander. The nation hopes that the lander will, later this year, become the first craft to touch down on the far side of the Moon.

The relay probe, named Queqiao and designed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, also carries two pioneering radio-astronomy experiments. Both are proof-of-principle missions designed to test technologies for exploring a period in cosmic history known as the dark ages. These first few hundred million years of the Universe’s existence, before galaxies and stars began to form, are all but impossible to study from Earth. But the spectrum of radiation from this age — when matter was distributed nearly uniformly across space as a thin, cold haze — could reveal information about the distribution of ordinary matter compared with dark matter in the Universe.

The first experiment is the Netherlands-China Low-Frequency Explorer (NCLE). It will remain attached to Queqiao, which will linger around ‘Earth-Moon L2’ — a gravitational resting point about 60,000 kilometres beyond the Moon that tracks the Moon’s orbit around Earth (see ‘Far-side satellite’). The Dutch-built NCLE experiment will try to exploit the relative quiet there to measure radio waves with frequencies between about 1 megahertz and 80 megahertz, coming from the Solar System, the Galaxy and beyond. Much of this frequency band is blocked by Earth’s atmosphere, but cosmologists expect it to contain information from the dark ages. Around the upper end of this band also fall the ‘cosmic- dawn’ signals from the first stars, which lit up around 200 million years after the Big Bang and were apparently detected for the first time earlier this year. Other experiments are trying to replicate those results — but the NCLE is testing technologies for identifying lower-frequency signatures from the dark ages.)

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