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Sandia Labs Reveals New Sniper Sight [Video]

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 17:00

U.S. Special Forces Demonstrate RAZAR Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

In the tense moments of a long-range gun battle, unnecessary movements can give away a combatant's position, cause them to lose sight of the enemy, and possibly lead to fatalities. For America’s special forces, Sandia National Laboratories has developed a new sniper scope that, with the press of a button, adjusts focus. Called Rapid Adaptive Zoom for Assault Rifles (RAZAR), the lens has immediate uses on the battlefield, but in the future, it might just be a birdwatcher's best friend.

The adaptive zoom lens works, not by changing the distance between two lenses as in a traditional scope, but by changing the curvature of a given lens. This is similar to how human eyeballs switch focus. In humans, muscles in the eye pull the lens to flatten it for far-away vision, and contract to thicken the lens for objects up close.

RAZAR does this using minimal energy, with 10,000 focus changes burning through only two AA batteries. After the batteries are dead, the lens can’t adjust until new ones are put in. But unlike systems that use electronic cameras for zooming, the lens still works without power.

While Sandia Labs developed RAZAR to help special forces win gun battles, the technology is by no means limited to a military role. Most anything that uses lenses for zooming, rather than digital magnification, could use an adaptive lens. The birdwatchers of the future, hiding out in tall grass looking for whooping cranes, may very well owe their spectacular views to a scope designed for troops fighting battles abroad.

Watch a video about it below:

Coming Soon To A Coast Near You: Vertical Tsunami Shelters

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 16:15

TCF Architecture via GSA

What do you do in a tsunami? For people living in areas prone to tsunamis, the advice is simple: get to higher ground as fast as possible. But for one town in Washington, safety will soon be as close as the local elementary school.

The artist rendering above might look like an average school building, but it has a second purpose. When it is finished next year, the building in Grays Harbor County, Washington, will be the first vertical tsunami evacuation structure in the country, capable of holding the approximately 1,000 people living within a 20-minute walking distance of the structure.

TCF Architecture  

That 20-minute walking time is important. If the Cascadia fault in the western Pacific Ocean were to produce a large earthquake (such as a magnitude 9) then people on the northwest coast would only have about 20 to 30 minutes to get to safety. 

The problem with traditional evacuation methods is that they simply take too long, especially in metropolitan areas, where evacuation routes can become clogged with cars of people trying to get out of town. A community might only have 30 minutes of warning before a tsunami hits, and getting stuck in traffic while a wall of water is bearing down on your location is ... not ideal. Hence, the idea of moving on up. A building shelter in a central, densely populated area is more easily accessible than a distant high elevation only accessible by car.

Buildings that are meant to serve as vertical evacuation structures have to meet a lot of different criteria, including being able to withstand the forces of an earthquake and, obviously, a tsunami. That means that the foundation has to be strong, and the structural supports need to be able to handle the forces of water and debris crashing into them. Almost as important as the building itself is the location of the structure. In this case, the building is situated on a ridge, making the shelter area 55 feet above sea level. All those specifications require a significant amount of money to turn into reality, so Grays Harbor County passed a $13 million dollar bond to fund the construction of the new structure.

In the wake of the devastating Japanese tsunami in 2011 and the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, other communities on the West Coast have begun considering similar structures to shelter the thousands of people who live in low-lying areas. Other places around the world are also looking into vertical evacuation strategies. In Japan, a few different structures have already been built, and in Indonesia, researchers at Stanford are looking into reinforcing existing buildings to make them safe spaces in the event of a tsunami. 

Audi Claims Self-Driving Car Set Speed Record At 149 MPH

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 15:30

A 2014 Audi RS7 According to Audi, a driverless version of this car set a driverless speed record. Sarah Larson, via Wikimedia Commons

A major selling point of self-driving cars is what they remove from the road: human error, driver exhaustion, distracted driving because someone has to keep reminding the urchins in the backseat that "No, we’re not there yet, and if you keep asking I'm pulling the car over right now." Less attention has been paid to the new capabilities driverless cars will open up, such as traveling at much higher speeds than a human driver could manage. Carmaker Audi claims they just set a speed record for driverless cars, zooming 149 mph around a racing circuit in (of course) Germany.

There are upper limits on how fast a human can drive a car. Some are physical; at high enough speeds, the gravitational forces acting on the driver become dangerous and incapacitating. Others are neurological; nerves relay signals only so fast, and human response time to risks (like a stalled car on top of a hill) is limited by how fast the driver can receive this information and act on it. Driverless cars use a variety of sensors with their own limitations, but these can be engineered and improved on a wide scale. In addition, driverless cars should be able to communicate with each other, reducing the traffic blindness that human drivers fall prey to.

Most of the time, these features are touted as safety improvements. And, certainly, that’s a major part of the case for driverless cars: fast machines communicating with each other may very well make roads safer for the humans they carry. But it also means that, especially over long hauls at first, car travel can be faster, even making it competitive with short flight air travel.

Still, there is plenty of work to be done before we arrive at a future with self-driving cars. After Audi tested the autonomous car, they put a human driver on the same circuit. The human finished only five seconds slower than the robot, and NASCAR drivers regularly top out at over 200 mph.

New Fabric Softener Tech Promises Clothes That Never Stain

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 14:30

A Sofft Marketing Image Sofft

Detergent, prepare to be disrupted.

The makers of a new fabric softener, Sofft, say they want our clothes to join us in the fight against stink and stains. While mixing with your clothes in the washing machine, Sofft coats organic and plastic fibers in a thin protective layer of hydrophobic molecules. These chemicals cause common stains like oil and juice to slide right off clothes (at least, that's how it seems in their promotional videos). The company says clothes would remain breathable.

Sofft's protection does not last forever. Clothes still have to get washed as the coating wears off, but most users would be able to get a few more wears in between trips to the laundromat. Plus, fewer loads in laundry machines could also ease the strain of detergent chemicals and water consumption on the environment.

(All GIFs courtesy Vinod Nair)

Vinod Nair, founder and CEO of the Sofft company, calls the technique "prevention based laundry." In the manner of a Silicon Valley programmer hawking a revolutionary new app, he sells his product with the vision of a changed future. If Sofft succeeds, he says, "we would expect an ecosystem change. The washing machine would have to change." We would all do laundry less often, he argues, because our clothes would stay fresh longer. His company calls this imagined world "Laundry 2.0."

Sofft's hydrophobic qualities may also make it easier to filter out waste water than regular detergent. The molecules don't dissolve well, and Nair believes they could be extracted more easily than common laundry chemicals at waste treatment plants.

Sofft still faces challenges. Right now they have no large scale, efficient factories. Plus, 32-ounce bottles of the product cost $35 a pop, with enough fluid for about 15 light loads. The only way to order is through their Kickstarter campaign, which has already beaten its $25,000 goal by more than $10,000 with six days to go. They expect to ship in February 2015.

"Once we get to scale," Nair says, "our long term vision is to have this selling for $10 on the shelf at Walmart."

If that happens, he says mass use of Sofft and the competitors that would follow will require laundry machine makers to redesign their products as well.

"We're doing high performance chemistry in a washing machine," he says. Modern machines are very good at removing chemicals from clothing, but not great at adding others in their place. Clorox held patents now used in Sofft, Nair says, but balked at the expense of engineering an untested product. The laundry giant signed its rights over to retiring engineer Greg van Buskirk, who went on to design Sofft with Nair.

So now, the future of Sofft (and the future of laundry, according to Nair) is now in the hands of the Kickstarter-funding public.


Two Families Of Exocomets Found Circling A Nearby Star

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 13:48

Exocomets Around Beta Pictoris An artist's impression of the two families of exocomets surrounding Beta Pictoris ESO/L. Calçada

About 63 light years from our Sun, you’ll find a relatively young star called Beta Pictoris. A mere 20 million years old, Beta Pictoris is surrounded by a very active and eclectic mix of objects – including clouds of gas and dust, as well as a plethora of orbiting comets.

Now researchers are learning a little bit more about the cometary hoard that circulates around this baby star. Utilizing very precise instruments at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, French astronomers analyzed hundreds of exocomets orbiting Beta Pictoris. They discovered two distinct types of comets: an older class that have passed by the sun many times, and younger, rougher comets that are perhaps the products of a planetary breakup or collision.

Astronomers have been studying Beta Pictoris for nearly 30 years, documenting subtle variations in its light over time. It is thought that these light changes denote a comet passing in front of the star. “When the comet passes in front, there is a cometary tail which absorbs some of the starlight,” Flavien Kiefer, lead author of the study, tells Popular Science. “And when that light is absorbed, it has an impact on the light spectrum.”

Kiefer and his team of researchers reviewed more than 1,000 observations of light changes around Beta Pictoris, which were captured by the HARPS instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6-meter telescope in Chile. They selected a sample of 493 separate exocomets, sometimes analyzing them on multiple passes by the star.

Beta Pictoris In Infrared This composite image reveals the close environment of Beta Pictoris in near infrared light. The outer part shows the reflected light on the dust disc, and the inner part is the innermost part of the system. ESO/A.-M. Lagrange et al.

They noticed some distinct differences in how the comet tails warped the star’s light, which revealed a lot about the physical properties and the origins of the comets. They also observed differences in the comets’ orbits.

“The two families had different behaviors,” Kiefer explains. “One family of comet had a wide variety of orbits. The orbits have an orientation, and we saw a wide variety of orientation of this family. While in the other family, we saw one particular formation of orbit.”

Taking all these observations into account, the research team concluded that two very different types of comets surround Beta Pictoris. The first type of comets are much older and smoother, having passed by the star many times. Their wide variety of orbits indicates that a planet is controlling them. This object could very well be the giant planet Beta Pictoris b.

The second exocomet family consists of more active comets that evaporate a lot of gas and dust, much more so than the first family. Many comets are rich in ices, but as they get closer to a star, these ices evaporate. Since the second comet class is still giving off a lot of gaseous material, it means they are much younger than their older comet counterparts.

The uniform orbits of the young comets also reveal something very cool about their origin. It’s likely that these exocomets are the result of a breakdown of a larger object, possibly a planet. And now, that object’s fragments are in an orbit that grazes Beta Pictoris.

All of these discoveries provide clues as to how this planetary system formed millions of years ago, as well as how our own solar system formed. Just like around Beta Pictoris, there are many different classes of comets in our own system, some of which are similar to those in the study. “We see objects that are very analogous to what we know. Comets in our solar system are trapped inside by Jupiter,” Kiefer says, comparing them to the older family of exocomets. “This is just one of many similar behaviors we see.”

The researchers published their work in the journal Nature.

Sorry, Cat Haters, Science Isn't On Your Side

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 12:24

"Unfeeling" Cats Jetske via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Some people just don't like cats. That's okay. Some people don't like pizza. Or dogs. Or Harry Potter. But some cat-haters aren't satisfied with not owning cats themselves. They need to drag the rest of us down with them.

"Those who hate the cat hate him with a malignity which, I think, only snakes in the animal kingdom provoke to an equal degree."

The first thing you notice when you dig around in the seedy underworld of cat-bashing is that it's an old hobby. The haters have left their mark across poetry, literature, and art for centuries.

"There's always going to be someone in a group who's going to stand up and say cats are aloof, manipulative little devils," says cat researcher John Bradshaw.

In his 1922 cultural history of the domestic cat, The Tiger in the House, Carl Van Vechten notes, "One is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants, cockatoos, H.G. Wells, Sweden, roast beef, Puccini, and even Mormonism, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand....Those who hate the cat hate him with a malignity which, I think, only snakes in the animal kingdom provoke to an equal degree."

Joseph Stromberg at Vox is only the most recent ailurophobe to launch a broadside against the feline species. His 28-paragraph essay on the supposed evils of Felis catus, published last week, tells readers that cats are "selfish, unfeeling, environmentally harmful creatures."

His argument breaks down into four simple points: "Your cat probably doesn't love you." "Your cat isn't really showing you affection." "Cats are an environmental disaster." And, "Your cat might be driving you crazy."

We called Bradshaw, an internationally recognized cat and dog researcher and author of several books on pet ownership, including Cat Sense, for his learned opinion on the "science" of cat-bashing.

Feline Love Isn't Needy

The Difference Between Dogs And Cats Raneko via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Haters want you to believe cats don't really care about their people. Stromberg points to a series of studies by Daniel Mills at the University of London and other researchers that show cats don't look to humans for guidance in unfamiliar situations. Abandon your dog (or child) in a place it's never seen before, and it's likely to run to you on your return. Cats are more likely to explore the space on their own terms.

Compared to a stranger, the dogs become more disturbed when their owners leave, and interact with them more when they return. By contrast, Mills' cat experiments — which are still ongoing and haven't yet been published, but were featured in a BBC special last year—haven't come to the same conclusion. On the whole, the cats seem disinterested both when their owners depart and return.

Meanwhile, other experiments carried out by a pair of Japanese researchers have provided evidence for a fact already known to most cat owners: they can hear you calling their name, but just don't really care. As detailed in a study published last year, the researchers gathered 20 cats (one at a time) and played them recordings of three different people calling their name—two strangers, plus their owners.

Regardless of the order, the cats consistently reacted differently upon hearing their owner's voice (in terms of ear and head movement, as graded by independent raters who didn't know which voice belonged to the owner). However, none of them meowed or actually approached the speaker, as though they'd be interested in seeing the person.

Bradshaw says this interpretation draws too much out of limited study—research similar to work he has done himself. "It shows something about cats, but it doesn't show you that cats are not affectionate," he says.

Dogs have evolved to be "almost obsessively" dependent on humans, Bradshaw says. In unfamiliar situations, they look to their humans as sources of stability and guidance, much like small children. Cats, on the other hand, "prefer to deal with things in their own heads." 

A creature that fails to run to your side in a strange situation does not necessarily have a cold, unfeeling heart. Some couples show up at parties and hold hands the entire time, talking mostly to one another. Others split up when they arrive, mingle, meet new people. But they still leave together when it ends. Your cat's a mingler—an explorer.

Your Cat Really Is Showing Affection

A Cat Not Faking It Travis Modisette via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

After wedging a seed of doubt into the emotional relationships between humans and their cats, the enemies of felinekind try to insert themselves into the physical expressions of human-feline love. Stromberg is no exception:

Many cats... will rub up against the leg of their owner (or another human) when the person enters a room. It's easy to construe this as a sign of affection. But many researchers interpret this as an attempt, by the cat, to spread his or her scent — as a way to mark territory. Observations of semi-feral cats show that they commonly rub up against trees or other objects in the exact same way, which allows them to deposit pheromone-containing secretions that naturally come out of their skin.

In other words, all the squirming and rubbing cats lavish on their owners are just the feline equivalent to a dog lifting its leg and peeing all over a fire hydrant.

Bradshaw says this notion is way off-base. "Superficially, [rubbing against humans] looks like scent marking," he says, but "the display that goes on when a cat raises its tail and rubs its sides against another cat, or a person, is a social action."

"Like all genuine affectionate relationships, [cat cuddling] is a two-way street."

Some researchers suggest the behavior has a its roots in the creation of a "clan scent" for packs of wild cats, but no one has published proof. What's important, Bradshaw says, is the interaction between creatures. The raised tail is a signal of good intent. When two cats know each other well they will rub their whole bodies against each other, including their sides, which have no scent glands. They often then lie down together and purr. Cats will do the same thing with their owners. Claiming this behavior is no deeper than a wild cat rubbing its face on tree bark is like saying that human handshakes are mostly about checking for secret weapons.

A 2013 study supposedly shows cats hate when humans pet them.

The research indeed found that cats pumped stress hormones into their bloodstreams when they were petted excessively. But Bradshaw points out that the research was conducted in Brazil, a country where house cats are far less common than small dogs. He thinks pet owners used to rough-and-tumble dogs might not prepared to handle cats in ways they enjoy. The cats grabbed and picked up for the study were reacting to a long history of unpleasant interactions, not simple human touch.

"Like all genuine affectionate relationships, [cat cuddling] is a two-way street," he says. "Dogs put up with harsher treatment. Yank on a choke chain, and the dog bounces back. Cats say goodbye."

Your Cat Is Too Clumsy To Threaten Wildlife

Threats To All Birdkind Tamboko The Jaguar via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Perhaps the most damning charge against cats is that they are natural murderers who can disrupt local ecosystems. Stromberg pounced gleefully once again:

In the US, domestic cats are an invasive species—they originated in Asia. And research shows that, whenever they're let outside, cats' carnivorous activity has a devastating effect on wild bird and small mammal populations, even if the cats are well-fed.

So what's an environmentally-conscious cat lover to do? Bradshaw says not to worry. It turns out, as long as your cat wasn't born feral or on a farm, it's probably a clumsy hunter. Birds and rodents zip away from its plodding, obvious approach.

Bradshaw says cats learn to kill from their mothers. In the wild, a kitten follows its mom on many hunts in the first eight weeks of its life. She teaches the skills of sneaking up on prey and pouncing with lethal precision. But housecats born at home or to breeders miss that crucial step. Kittens instead spend their first eight weeks yowling at cotton balls and bits of string. Unless you trained your pet in the art of war before the end of its second month—a crucial period in its development—it's probably next to useless against live prey (even if it does sometimes get lucky).

"Obviously there's some deep ancestral memory of stalking prey," he says, "but a cat by itself is usually not a very good hunter." 

Whenever local fauna succumb to feline hunting, he says, "it almost always turns out to be feral cats." Australian experiments with 24-hour cat curfews turned out to have minimal impacts. Still, the ASPCA suggests keeping cats indoors to prolong their lives, so it's probably a good idea. Also, spayed and neutered housecats will never birth feral kittens that could endanger wildlife.

If you really want to do right by the environment, Bradshaw says, cats are way better than dogs.

Okay, Your Cat May Give You A Parasite That Controls Your Thoughts

Toxoplasma gondii parasites form a cyst in a mouse brain. Jitinder P. Dubey via Wikimedia Commons Stromberg is wrong about cat love, but there's a chance he's right about horrible brain-controlling parasites in cat poop. Even Bradshaw can't defend your kitten now.

See, there's this parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. It enters the brains of prey animals like mice and alters their behavior to make them less afraid of predators. These bold, addled rodents ride their parasitic high all the way into your favorite pet's gnashing jaws, and some of those parasites make their way into your cat's litterbox. From there it's a short jump to a human owner's body.

Some reaserchers suspect that humans infected with T. gondii are susceptible to its nefarious mind control as well. Here's what Kathleen McCauliffe wrote about the parasite in her extensive coverage for the Atlantic:

The subjects who tested positive for the parasite had significantly delayed reaction times. [Parasite researcher Jaroslav] Flegr was especially surprised to learn, though, that the protozoan appeared to cause many sex-specific changes in personality. Compared with uninfected men, males who had the parasite were more introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them, and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand, presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women.

Infected men were more likely to wear rumpled old clothes; infected women tended to be more meticulously attired, many showing up for the study in expensive, designer-brand clothing. Infected men tended to have fewer friends, while infected women tended to have more. And when it came to downing the mystery fluid, reports Flegr, “the infected males were much more hesitant than uninfected men. They wanted to know why they had to do it. Would it harm them?” In contrast, the infected women were the most trusting of all subjects. “They just did what they were told,” he says.

Flegr goes on to note that even infected people may not be heavily impacted by the bug, and that cat poop is not the only way humans catch it. (In fact, it's incredibly common.) Not all researchers agree with Flegr's dire interpretations of the evidence, though T. gondii does turn dangerous when patients have damaged immune systems.

Ultimately, yes, your cat probably loves you, but that might just be the mind-controlling parasite talking.

Stegosauruses Were Champion Fighters With Their Spiked Tails

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 11:00

Kabacchi via Flickr

With it’s teeny-tiny head and massive spiked tail, the Stegosaurus is instantly identifiable to dinosaur fans. But to predators like the Allosaurus, the Stegosaurus would have been identifiable as lunch. 

Unfortunately for the Allosaurus, it turns out that those spikes on the Stegosaurus tail weren’t just for show. Even with a powerful tail, Stegosauruses were assumed to be fairly slow and lumbering, and none too bright, with a brain the size of a tangerine. But in a poster presented at the Geological Society of America conference, researchers found that in at least some interactions between the two species, the Stegosaurus had the last laugh.

The researchers examined the remains of an Allosaurus and found some pretty damning evidence that the carnivore died from the tail of a Stegosaurus. Namely, a hole in the pelvic bone that matched the shape of Stegosaurus tail spikes from the same period of time. 

“A massive infection ate away a baseball-sized sector of the bone,” paleontologist and author of the poster Robert Bakker said in a press release. “Probably this infection spread upwards into the soft tissue attached here, the thigh muscles and adjacent intestines and reproductive organs.” Because there was no indication of healing around the wound, it's likely the Allosaur died of the injury.

Scientists had known for a while that Stegosauruses had incredibly strong, flexible tails, which they were able to maneuver with ease. But direct evidence of the species fighting prowess has been lost in the fossil record, which typically only records traumatic damage to bones, not soft tissue, where presumably a lot of injuries to predators would have occurred. Now, there is finally proof that Stegosauruses were fantastic fighters. In this case, the researchers believe that the Stegosaurus would have had to twist its tail so the spikes were facing the right way and then deliver the blow upwards with a considerable amount of force.

Don't feel too bad for the Allosaur though. As the authors note in the abstract, "we interpret the Allosaur as a victim of herbivore defense."

With Xbox One, You'll Never Watch TV Alone

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 10:00

Live stream Xbox One users will be able to see tweets with hashtags related to the shows they’re watching. Microsoft. We've all done it: you watch the star of your favorite television show do something stupid in the new episode and you can't stop yourself from shouting at the screen, "Come on! She wouldn't do that!" Well, Microsoft is providing an easy way to really get that message out there.

In Xbox One’s newest software updates, which roll out in November, the gaming console's television functions will be integrated with Twitter. This means you can watch a show on the top portion of the screen and simultaneously send out tweets in the "Snap" sidebar. An optional bottom pane will show tweets that are tied to whatever TV series is being played.

An obvious use will be to enable fans to converse more easily during a television show's broadcast. People can yell about poorly written plot points, discuss theories for a mystery, or just applaud a particularly witty line from a sitcom. A TV series lives or dies on how big the ratings for the show are. Building up an invested fanbase on social media is one way for shows to grow and survive to another season.

But integrating TV and Twitter will have a larger impact on the news. Imagine being able to read everyone’s reaction in real-time as national news breaks. You could read live reports on a natural disaster from people who are actually there, see instant reactions to political debates, or even monitor the backlash of a celebrity’s faux pas. Reading such tweets adds a human and emotional component to the litany of happenings in the world.

And what would happen if television producers take notice of these features? Some news shows already pander to Twitter users, posing questions and discussing on-air some of the answers tweeted back. Such segments could become fully integrated on 24-hour cable news. And with live events like disasters, car chases, political debates, news outlets would not even have to ask for online responses, they could just grab those that are already being tweeted out.

As for dramas, sitcoms, and other televised fiction, there could be more fostering of a community discussing the surprises and mysteries in a show. Think of the fanatical Lost fanbase from years ago, but amped up by sharing theories about the show's riddles live while it airs. Of course, that could also mean live Game of Thrones spoilers, with book readers announcing what will happen on the show moments before it does. That would take trolling to a whole new level. Would television studios find ways to fight that? Would they ask Microsoft to filter out spoiler tweets?

The updates will also show users what the Twittersphere is watching at that moment. Thus, you can tune in to become part of the conversation.

Xbox’s senior director, Lisa Gurry, says, "With these added features, we’re making it easy for our fans to discover new shows to love."

Now trending. Don't know what to watch? Xbox One users will soon able to see what shows are trending on Twitter. Microsoft

Moon Robot Will Broadcast In Virtual-Reality Video

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 09:00

Virtual Rover Andy will send 3-D video back to Earth, which will be experienced through the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Astrobotic

A team of scientists at Carnegie Mellon have built a robot that will send video from the moon to the Earth. And the robot will be controlled by the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, with the 3-D camera on the robot turning to match the head movements of the user.

"The vision was simple -- let anyone on Earth experience the Moon live through the eyes of a robot," team leader Daniel Shafrir told BBC News. "We weren't just going to go to the Moon. We are going to bring the Moon back."

This telepresence robot is named Andy, after Andrew Carnegie, the famed industrialist who founded the college. Currently, only the operator controlling this moon rover will be able to see through its "eyes" thousands of miles away.

The project is being worked on in partnership with Astrobotic, a company that was spun off from Carnegie Mellon. The company builds a variety of space robots for various purposes such as transportation, exploration, and mining. Astrobotic has a deal with SpaceX, the private space exploration company, to include Andy on a mission to the moon scheduled for 2016.

"Imagine the feeling of looking out and seeing rocks and craters billions of years old. Turn your head to the right and you see the dark expanse of space. Turn your head to the left and you see home, Earth," said Mr Shafrir.

Andy Lunar telepresence robot Andy leaves his mark during a test Astrobotic Ever wanted to be an astronaut exploring the moon? You may one day be able to live that experience through telepresence and virtual reality.

The project is competing with 17 others for the Google Lunar XPrize, a $30 million reward for the first team that can land a robot on the Moon, have it travel there for 500 meters, and beam video of the moon surface back to Earth.

While concrete plans on how Carnegie Mellon and Astrobotic will share this live VR experience with others has not been created, the creators want to make it a reality. The team behind Andy wants to have "hundreds of the robots on the Moon", said Mr Shafrir. "With an Oculus headset in every classroom, allowing kids to experience what, to this date, has only been experienced by 12 human beings."

The Oculus Rift headset currently only exists as prototype development kits for software developers to make virtual reality programs. The final VR headsets are expected to be released in 2015.

Smart Ice Skate Measures Force Of Intense Triple Axels

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 16:31

Ryosuke Yagi via Flickr

Of sports played on ice, hockey tends to get the most attention when it comes to injuries. But figure skaters are also pretty injury-prone, and because of the aesthetic nature of their sport, most figure skaters eschew pads and protective gear while on the ice. This means avoiding injuries can be difficult for practitioners of the sport, in which skaters can exert forces of more than six times their body weight during a jump.  

Figure skaters have been pushing for updated equipment (especially boots, the part of the skate that encases the feet) for some time, as injuries over the past few decades have soared. In a Wall Street Journal article from 2006, orthopedist Leisure Yu noted that skate makers were still using designs from the 1800s. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like much has changed, and there isn't a ton of data out there about figure skating injuries -- until now. In a new study in the journal Measurement Science and Technology, researchers describe a new way to measure the stresses of figure skating. They have figured out how to build an ice skating blade (pictured below) that directly measures the impact a skating routine can have on an athlete's body. 

IOP Publishing/Measurement Science and Technology

"Questions have been raised about boot design and how it affects a skater's impact forces, potentially causing injuries. However, very little is known about the actual impact forces on ice during jumping and other figure skating skills, "co-author Deborah King said in a statement. "This is because on-ice measurements of the forces associated with figure skating are fairly difficult to record due to the complexity of the sport and not wanting to interfere with the skater during their jumps. As such, we decided to develop a method that measures forces directly from the blade."

The sensors themselves are attached to the part of the skate that connects the blade holder to the boot. When force is applied to the blade (like when a skater lands a jump) the system records and calculates the overall force. The entire sensor system weighs less than a third of a pound and is designed not to touch the ice or interfere with a skater's movement. The researchers plan to further refine the instruments so that in the future, the device could be used by skaters to analyze their movement during their routines and hopefully prevent further injuries. 

A Genetic Mutation Renders One Family Unable To Sweat

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 15:19

The Importance Of Sweat Flickr CC by 2.0 In Pakistan, there lives a family of five with a unique – and tragic – condition. Several of their children cannot sweat. It’s an extremely rare disorder called anhidrosis, and while it may seem like a nice trait to have, the ability to sweat is crucial for regulating body temperature. In order to remain cool, the kids spend their days in their house’s cellar, because in daylight, they’d overheat and go unconscious. Too much sun could ultimately kill them.

Now a group of scientists are decoding the mystery surrounding this bizarre disorder. By mapping the genome of each individual in the Pakistan family, researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden identified a single genetic mutation responsible for the condition. Known as ITPR2, the gene is responsible for controlling sweat production, and knocking it out can stop sweat secretion altogether.

Lead researcher Niklas Dahl stumbled upon the rare family in his quest for understanding single-gene diseases, also known as Mendelian disorders. Dahl notes that anhidrosis has been seen before, but usually in conjunction with other skin defects. This family is the first he knows of to have anhidrosis as a primary isolated defect.

"Sweat glands made us develop this capability of walking and jogging for miles and miles without stopping."

After analyzing the genomes of the family members, Dahl and his team zeroed in on the culprit, ITPR2, which encodes a protein called IP3R2. This protein forms a calcium channel in the brain that releases calcium when opened, triggering a chain of events in the body that eventually result in sweat secretion. “In the brain, you have temperature sensitive cells, and they send signals to the nervous system, which send signals to the periphery, then to skin and to the sweat glands, and that induces sweating,” Dahl, a genetics expert at Uppsala, tells Popular Science.

For the members of the Pakistan family, their calcium channels never open. The researchers further demonstrated this defect by creating a series of genetically engineered mice without any IP3R2 production. Sure enough the rodents had reduced sweating.

Understanding the mechanisms behind sweating can actually help researchers develop drugs to reduce excessive sweating, a condition that affects two percent of the population. People with this disorder, called hyperhidrosis, start sweating in their palms, soles of their feet, chest, armpits, and other areas of the body without any provocation. Some patients will even wear plastic underneath their clothing to avoid an embarrassing situation.

Botox has proven to be somewhat effective against hyperhidrosis, but the treatments can be painful and awkward (getting injections in your armpits cannot be fun). Dahl says that lowering IP3R2 protein levels may be a much simpler solution. "We have found a way to inhibit production of this calcium channel," Dahl says. "It is targeted and very specific at least from a design point of view. We can reduce peripheral sweating by 60 percent."

Dahl also says their research highlights just how important our pungent skin secretions are from an evolutionary perspective. Humans have the highest capacity for sweating on Earth, in relation to our body size and lack of hair. This gives us the advantage of being able to exercise for very long periods of time -- up to 10 hours a day.

"Fast animals run faster than us, but they can only run for a few minutes. For humans, we could move over enormous areas because of this ability, making us very good hunters,” says Dahl. "Sweat glands made us develop this capability of walking and jogging for miles and miles without stopping."

So thank you, sweat, for helping to keep us at the top of the food chain.

The researchers published their work in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Does Slacktivism Really Drive Science Forward?

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 13:50

Copper DK Images/Getty Images Social media has spawned the slacker-activist, someone who supports a cause through an audacious public display that actually requires very little effort. This summer, the #IceBucketChallenge clogged newsfeeds with videos of folks dumping ice water on their heads instead of (or often in addition to) donating to the ALS Association. In a single month, the nonprofit collected more than $100 million--36 times what it had raised the previous August--to support research for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). "It's an unprecedented situation, not just for our cause, but for any charity outside disaster relief," says ALS Association spokesperson Carrie Munk.

But how much can a viral campaign actually propel medical research? Does slacktivism advance science in a meaningful way? ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, kills off the motor neurons that control voluntary muscles. Next comes paralysis, and then death in as few as a couple of years. Even after decades of study, scientists still don't fully understand its biological mechanisms. Treatment is palliative. A cure remains a pipe dream.

Government funding for ALS research is limited, so few scientists are drawn to it, making progress slow. This new influx of funds could attract a wave of researchers to the field, says Joe Beckman, a biochemist at Oregon State University. Exploring ALS from fresh angles increases the odds of a breakthrough.

How the nonprofit will divvy up the money remains to be seen, and it's unlikely that $100 million will lead to a cure for such a mysterious disease. But "it's dramatic how science can be influenced by the public," says Su-Chun Zhang, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who began ALS research at a patient's behest. So the next time you're tagged to dump ice (or whatever) for the disease research du jour, go ahead. It helps.

Could Copper Lead To A Cure For ALS?

After decades of frustratingly little progress, scientists recently showed that the motor-neuron breakdown accompanying ALS may be linked to a genetic mutation in a protein called copper-zinc-superoxide dismutase (SOD1).

While looking at stem cells with the mutation, Zhang found an imbalance that caused the neurofilaments to tangle, which is a cause of ALS. A paper he published in April demonstrates that the damage is reversible once the mutation is corrected.

In June, Beckman published a study suggesting that the SOD1 mutation may be associated with a cellular copper deficiency. When Beckman gave mice with the mutation an oral copper compound, it improved their ability to move and extended their lives by 12 percent, offering a promising avenue for therapeutics research.

This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Popular Science, under the title "Slacktivism Drives Science Forward".

Injection Of Brain Nerve Cells Into Spine Helps Paralyzed Man Walk Again

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 12:40

David Nicholls (left) and his son Dan, who is paralyzed. The Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation provided funding for the research. Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (nsif) Four years ago, Darek Fidyka was stabbed in the back , leaving his spinal cord severed, and his body from the chest down paralyzed. Now, after an experimental treatment, Fidyka has regained some feeling in his lower body and is learning to walk again. 

The treatment, developed by researchers in the UK and Poland, involved removing one of Fidyka's olfactory bulbs (the structures in the brain that allow you to smell) growing cells from the bulb, and then injecting those cells into the damaged area of Fidyka's spinal cord. The researchers were interested in cells from the olfactory bulb in particular because the nerves in the olfactory system are the only part of the human nervous system known to regrow after being damaged, with the help of olfactory ensheathing cells

The researchers are looking to use less invasive techniques in the future, because undergoing brain surgery to extract the olfactory tissue isn't anyone's idea of a good time, much less someone who is paralyzed.  

The BBC reports that over 100 micro injections of olfactory ensheathing cells were injected into the injury site, and strips of nerve tissue from Fidyka's ankle were laid across the gap in the spinal cord, in the hopes that the cells from the olfactory bulbs would encourage regrowth. A similar procedure had been sucessfully tested on dogs in 2012. 

Now, 19 months after the operation, Fidyka has regained sensation in parts of his lower body, and after intense physical therapy is able to walk using a walker. As an added bonus, even with one olfactory bulb removed, Fidyka retained his sense of smell. 

He told the BBC: "I think it's realistic that one day I will become independent. What I have learned is that you must never give up but keep fighting, because some door will open in life."

The story is the subject of an episode of the BBC television program Panorama airing today at 10:35 pm in the UK. The study itself will be published in the journal Cell Transplantation at a later date, but the researchers acknowledge that as exciting as this result is, there is still a lot more work to be done. 

"Our results are very encouraging," the medical team is quoted as saying in a statement. "However, our results need to be confirmed in a larger group of patients with a similar injury. In the meantime, we are investigating surgical techniques for more minimally invasive access to the olfactory bulb."

Man In Japan Arrested For 3-D Printing Revolvers

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 11:55

ZigZag Revolver Unassembled Screenshot, "3D Printed Guns First in the world 3D Zig Zag Revolver Made in Japan"

When the first working gun was 3-D printed in the United States, the government responded not through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, but instead through the State Department. Guns, it turns out, aren’t terribly hard to get in the United States, so a 3-D printed gun doesn’t radically change gun access here. In countries with stricter gun control laws, though, printing a gun is a new risk. This week, Japan sentenced 28-year-old Yoshitomo Imura to two years in prison for printing guns and instructing others on how to print them.  

Imura printed a six-shot revolver known as the ZigZag. It fires .38 caliber bullets, same as those used in Defense Distributed’s original 3-D printed Liberator pistol. While the majority of the gun is printed plastic, it still has a few non-printed parts. Notably, these are pins, screws, a spring, and several rubber bands. Here’s a video of someone assembling a printed ZigZag revolver:

Japan isn’t the only country with tight gun control laws to address 3-D printed weapons. In Australia, which passed strong gun control measures following a 1996 massacre, police tested 3-D printed guns. Their tests highlight how likely it is for poorly-constructed guns to explode, portraying them as a major risk to the shooter as well as anyone standing in the vicinity. In October 2013, the United Kingdom launched a raid on suspected 3-D gun printers. The raid yielded only 3-D printer parts, not guns.

In the United States, 3-D printed guns are regulated by the Undetectable Firearms Act, which specifies that guns must be visible to metal detectors. Defense Distributed's Liberator included a functionless 6-ounce metal bar in the handle for just this purpose. In the United States, detectability might be more important than just the creation of new weapons, but in countries without more than 200 million guns in private hands, the mere creation of a new gun is itself a new risk.

ZigZag Revolver Assembled Screenshot, "3D Printed Guns First in the world 3D Zig Zag Revolver Made in Japan"

Jet Lagged Gut Bacteria Could Contribute to Obesity

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 10:00

tiegeltuf via Flickr After crossing multiple time zones it can feel like your entire body is worn out. And it turns out, that’s true, even down to the bacteria in your gut. In a study published last week in the journal Cell, researchers found that in both humans and mice, the gut microbiome was affected by changes to the test subjects' biological clocks. 

The human subjects went on a trip from the U.S. to Israel -- an eight- to ten-hour time zone difference. The mice in the study didn't get to go anywhere (humans have all the fun), but they had their feeding habits and the light in their habitats disrupted. In both the humans and the mice, the researchers took fecal samples before and after to see which bacteria were thriving in their guts. Not only did they find that the bacteria in the gut changed, they found that the bacteria who thrived under the changing conditions were the ones most associated with obesity and other health issues.  

"Our findings highlight a new therapeutic target that may be exploited in future studies to normalize the microbiota in those people whose lifestyle involves frequent alterations in sleep patterns, such as shift workers and very frequent fliers," study author Eran Elinav said in a press release. "Targeting the harmful changes in the microbiota in these large human populations with probiotic or antimicrobial therapies may reduce or even prevent their risk of developing obesity and its complications."

Jet lag and lack of sleep due to shift work are linked to health problems, including gastrointestinal, metabolic issues, and fatigue. In the study, the researchers found that the 'jet-lagged' mice gained weight compared to their non-fake-jet-setting counterparts. The humans also experienced changes to the microbiome, but luckily the effects dissipated within a few weeks.

Will Your Next Best Friend Be A Robot?

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 09:00

Pepper Pepper, Japan's first affordable social robot, goes on sale in February. It can read emotions and will be a platform for new apps. Courtesy Softbank

The Japanese crowd sits hushed and somber as the character on stage turns away from his co-star, an actress seated on the floor in front of a small table. He lowers his head, then turns to face the audience with a look that is both blank and inscrutable, yet somehow conveys a profound sense of alarm. Something here is very wrong.

The dimly lit theater somewhere on the outskirts of Tokyo is packed. Young couples on dates, elderly theater connoisseurs, and even a few teenagers have crammed into the rickety building to catch a glimpse of the future, as visualized by playwright and director Oriza Hirata. They entered in good humor, chatting and laughing. But now they’re quietly transfixed.

The character at the center of the tension is a three-foot-tall robot with an oversize plastic head faintly reminiscent of a giant kewpie doll. He is one of two robots in the play. The other has just rolled off the stage wearing a floral print apron.

“I’m sorry,” the robot says, lifting a pair of orblike eyes to address the actress. “I don’t feel like working . . . at all.”

The robot is depressed.

In Hirata’s I, Worker, robots are more than just mechanical automatons that can vacuum and manufacture widgets. They have emotions, a development that poses challenges to both the robots and their owners. The play grapples with how to navigate such a relationship—what happens when both master and servant become depressed? It’s fiction, but Hirata’s vision reflects a dawning reality in Japan. There, scientists and policymakers see a new role for robots in society: as colleagues, caregivers, and even our friends.

The glum robot is named Takeo, and by the end of the play, it’s clear he is not the only one with problems. The man of the house is unemployed and pads around barefoot, a portrait of lethargy. At one point, his wife, Ikue, begins to weep. Takeo communicates this development to his fellow robot Momoko, and the two discuss what to do about it. “You should never tell a human to buck up when they are depressed,” says Takeo, who himself failed to buck up when the man attempted to cheer him with the RoboCop theme song earlier. Momoko agrees: “Humans are difficult.”

It’s not the most profound dialogue. But in a world where humans and robots live side by side, it’s not profoundly out of place either. Why wouldn’t robots pause to consider the foibles of humanity? As the crowd filters out of the theater, they turn and murmur to one another, comfortable in their personal connections. It occurs to me that for the last 30 minutes, I felt a vaguely similar connection to Takeo—a machine roughly the size and aesthetic of a particularly stylish garbage can. I even empathized with it. The strange future I came to Japan to see has already arrived.


Geminoid F is seated at the front of the room like a debutante, her hands resting daintily on her lap and her long black hair unspooling down a fuzzy, green sweater. She blinks from time to time and her chest moves up and down rhythmically. She slowly scans the room, as if searching for a friend across a crowded cotillion. When her eyes meet mine, there’s a flash of recognition, and for the briefest of moments, I feel as though Geminoid F can actually see me. Perhaps she even knows me.

Then her eyes move on, and the spell is broken. Instead of connected, I feel repulsed. There’s something too stiff and slow in Geminoid F’s motion, as if she is a zombie. “This robot is very humanlike compared to others,” says Hiroshi Ishiguro, the roboticist who created her. “But she is not perfect.”

When a robot looks like a person, we subconsciously expect it to move with the ease and speed of one. When it doesn't, our brains convey an error message.

Ishiguro, an artist-turned-engineer, works at the extreme edge of robotics and has gained renown for eerily lifelike creations. He has a Yoko Ono–esque, avant-garde quality about him. Though we’re inside, he is wearing tinted glasses and a black leather jacket(outside it’s sweltering). He’s brushed his hair into a vaguely Beethoven-like bouffant, puffy and collar-length. Were it not for Geminoid F’s occasional birdlike movements, Ishiguro’s laboratory at Osaka University could be mistaken for the gallery of an eccentric sculptor. A perfect replica of his daughter at age 4, chubby-cheeked and in a sundress, stands in a glass display case. Other robots of various sizes and shapes stare glassy-eyed, frozen mid-gaze.

For much of his career, Ishiguro has probed the conflicting emotions inspired by robots, like the affection and aversion I just felt toward Geminoid F. He says it’s the mismatch between the android’s appearance and movements that creates the “uncanny valley.” Coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in the 1970s, the term describes the dread caused by a robot that comes close to human likeness but fails to fully achieve it. When a robot looks like a person, we subconsciously expect it to move with the ease and speed of one. When it doesn’t, Ishiguro says, our brains convey an error message, a neural signature that he believes he and his collaborators have identified using fMRI. It’s only a matter of time before technology, in the form of better actuators, can smoothly replicate human movement, Ishiguro says, resolving that discrepancy—and eliminating the uncanny valley altogether.

Geminoid F Photograph by Luisa Whitton But what Ishiguro finds more interesting is how Geminoid F elicits the first, more ephemeral reaction—the illusion of life. She has what Ishiguro calls sonzai-kan, or a presence. “My goal is not just to create a humanlike robot,” Ishiguro tells me, “but to understand the feeling of a presence. What is that? I want to understand what is a human, and what is a human likeness.”

Ishiguro gestures toward a robot that sits nearby. It’s small in stature—just over two feet tall and only seven pounds—and clearly inhuman: It has two stumps for arms and a lower-body shaped like a tadpole. But it also has eerily expressive eyes and is sheathed in a silicone material that feels smooth and pliant, like human skin. Ishiguro says he can begin to conjure sonzai-kan by activating as few as two of our senses. This robot often freaks people out, he says—until they hug it. Then their revulsion disappears.

Robots with sonzai-kan can help relieve loneliness, Ishiguro believes, by providing a physical proxy that distant friends and relatives can use to interact with one another. Or they can serve as extensions of oneself. Ishiguro has already attempted to incorporate an android into his life by creating an exact replica of himself from silicone and his own hair. He sometimes uses his doppelgänger to deliver lectures remotely. Several years ago, Ishiguro grew concerned that the resemblance would fade as he aged, so he underwent cosmetic surgery and stem cell treatments to ensure a continued likeness.

After he tells me this, I ask if he truly believes in the question he often puts to audiences: “Which is more me, the robot or the body I was born with?” Of course you are the real Ishiguro, I argue.

“Which has the stronger identity?” he responds. “My guess is the android. Without the android, you wouldn’t come here.”

But what about consciousness?, I press.

“What is consciousness?” he asks. “Can you show me your consciousness?”

Affetto Affetto, modeled after a toddler, can make facial expressions designed to stimulate the brain activity that occurs when a parent observes its own child. Photograph by Luisa Whitton Humans are inherently social beings. That is our evolutionary legacy. Without an inborn proclivity to identify and connect with others like us, our species would have long ago died out. In ancient times, we hunted, cooked, and fought off predators together. To this day, we learn from others. We divide tasks and trade money for services. But society consists of more than just that. Without love, without affection and companionship, celebration and grieving, life often feels meaningless. Extreme isolation has been known to drive people insane.

In recent years, a growing number of researchers have demonstrated that making robots more social—creating the perception that they are more sentient than a mere machine—can vastly improve how we work with them. Some activities, they argue, we simply perform better when we are in the presence of someone who supports us and shares our goals. In Japan, roboticists are taking the idea a step further. Isn’t life simply sweeter when we’re with another? Why be alone, they ask, when you don’t have to be?

“Of course, it’s better if you have a friend, or a parent, or someone to live with you,” says Hitoshi Matsubara, a roboticist at the Future University Hakodate and the author of Information Science of Robot. “But if not, robots can be an alternative easily. We understand robots are machines. But we can create harmony between the two, robot and human.”

"Of course, it's better to have a friend. But if not, robots can be an alternative easily. We can create harmony between the two, robot and human."

That philosophy is shared by another leader in the field, Minoru Asada, a professor of Adaptive Machine Systems at Osaka University. With his snowy hair, button-down shirt, and conservative slacks, Asada lacks the panache of Ishiguro. But I realize, as I contemplate the face of a baby robot named Affetto, Asada holds his own when it comes to creepy, lifelike machines. Affetto’s soft, quivering white lips and soulful brown eyes sit atop a body that looks like it’s been built with pieces pilfered from my son’s erector set. It’s like a Terminator Mini-Me.

Asada wants to understand how subtle, nonverbal cues lead people to construct a relationship with each other. Solving this mystery, he believes, would not only facilitate human-robot relationships in new ways, but also reveal fundamental truths about what it is to be human. Recently, Asada developed a new brain-scanning technique that enables him to track, in real time, the emotional bonds that form between a mother and child. By placing each in a machine and projecting the other’s facial expressions onto a screen, Asada hopes to learn whether brain waves between infant and mother become synchronized. He also hopes to see which areas of the brain activate with different interactions.

“These kinds of findings will be very helpful for us in designing a robot that can synchronize or create artificial empathy,” Asada says. “What kind of behavior should the robot copy or imitate? How should it react?” Using the information, Asada plans to vary Affetto’s expressions to elicit similar neural responses.

Asada’s research could have real-world applications. A robot that conveys empathy and fosters bonding could, for example, be a more effective coach or teacher. It might even provide the sort of harmonious companionship Matsubara claims can fill the void left by the absence of another human. But such robots have yet to leave the lab. While Ishiguro, Asada, and other academics probe the psychology of human-robot interactions, a few engineers are already building machines that rely on far less nuance to produce some of the same effects.


“Are you stressed out?” the robot asks as it rolls into my personal space, palms up, and swivels its neck to gaze into my eyes. “How much did you sleep last night? Did you sleep six hours?” You need to sleep more, it says. Sleep is good for stress.

My interlocutor, a humanoid robot named Pepper, is about the height of my six-year-old son and seems just as chatty. It is a long way from both Geminoid F and Affetto. The robot’s shell is made from shiny, pearl-white plastic that resembles the armor worn by Darth Vader’s stormtroopers. It moves on wheels embedded in a base unit, rather than legs, and lights surrounding its eyes flash fluorescent colors.

I’m standing just inside the entrance to a mobile phone store in a bustling Tokyo neighborhood. And despite its lack of human camouflage, I have to admit, Pepper does have a certain charm. It is difficult to look away when it stares up at me with those jumbo, jet-black eyes. Clearly the robot is waiting for me to answer. And even though I know on one level that’s silly, I can’t help but feel it would be somehow impolite not to respond.

Softbank, the nation’s largest cellphone company, unveiled Pepper in June. Company CEO Masayoshi Son told the assembled media that it was created to be “a member of the family.” When Pepper goes on sale next February for less than $2,000, it will be the first affordable, truly social humanoid robot to hit Japan’s consumer market.

“That price is astounding,” says Tim Hornyak, a journalist who wrote Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots. “That robot should cost tens of thousands of dollars more.”

Telenoid R1 Telenoid R1 is designed to convey the human presence of a person operating them from afar. Photograph by Luisa Whitton

Son has openly acknowledged that Pepper’s sticker price is so low that it will not be “a very beneficial business,” at least at first. Rather, Pepper is a bet on the future of social robotics. “Mr. Son wants to take the initiative to make this kind of emotional robot popular in the world,” says Kaname Hayashi, the manager overseeing the project. “Until now computers have just helped people in computing and calculating. But we believe that computers will soon be able to provide emotional support for humans.”

Pepper is designed to read nonverbal social cues. When it looks up at me in that cellphone store, sensors embedded in its head scan my face. Others measure the tension in my vocal chords. Pepper runs that data through a sophisticated computer program capable of guessing my emotional state. When it takes an action that it senses has generated a positive response, Pepper will repeat it later, and the robot, over time, will learn how to please me.

Since Pepper has limited computational abilities, engineers designed the robot to more closely resemble a child than an adult. “You can find kids who cannot understand everything adults are talking about,” Hayashi says, “but a kid wants to make the adults around him happy. And he talks a lot because he knows that’s the best way for him to [do that] when he doesn’t have the same mental capacity as adults. It’s the same with Pepper.”

All of these tricks ultimately serve the same goal: They subtly convey that this little guy wants to hang out with me—that he is a friend, an ally. “The important thing,” Hayashi says, “is the sense of being accepted, the sense of being understood by Pepper, and the feeling that he is reacting based on that understanding.” That illusion of understanding, what some might call artificial empathy, touches an “evolutionary button” roboticists are attempting to exploit­. Some robots push it without even trying.

Seeing Double Roboticist and artist Hiroshi Ishiguro builds androids to closely resemble human beings -- including himself. Everett Kennedy Brown/EPA/Newscom Fostering a relationship between man and machine may require far less sophistication than what even Pepper has to offer. It’s not clear that robots need to look human at all. Matthias Scheutz, who heads the Tufts University Human-Robot Interaction Laboratory, notes that there is already literature on people developing feelings—what he calls “unidirectional bonds”—for their Roomba vacuum cleaners.

“People seem to experience gratitude toward their Roomba,” he says. “They think it works hard and it should take a break. They clean for it. They take it on vacation. It seems totally absurd. The Roomba doesn’t even look like a person, but it does something nice for us, and since it moves, it can seem like an autonomous agent.”

Social robotics pioneer Cynthia Breazeal, who directs MIT’s Personal Robots Group, notes that the company IRobot has encountered a similar reaction from battle-hardened vets begging for technicians to fix their bomb-disposal robots. “They have soldiers coming back in tears saying, ‘Please fix my robot Scooby Doo, because it saved my life,’ ” she says. “I mean these are powerful emotional attachments. And this is a completely teleoperated bomb disposal robot that wasn’t even trying to be social. It’s just part of the human experience and how we relate and engage with one another and the world. We are profoundly social beings.”

Such an attachment is troubling to some. Sherry Turkle, the director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and the Self, argues that what robots provide is the illusion of a relationship. And she worries that some who find human relationships challenging may turn to robots for companionship instead. Tuft’s Scheutz warns that elderly people who feel depressed could become more so if they misunderstand a robot’s actions, or if the robot fails to correctly read human signals. “There are just so many ways these interactions can go wrong,” Scheutz says.

"People seem to actually experience gratitude to their Roomba. They think it works hard and it should take a break. They clean for it."

Those fears don’t particularly resonate in Japan. Unlike in Western nations, many citizens have always felt comfortable with the concept of robots. One reason for this, Hornyak suggests, is the country’s Shintoist heritage. The religion has imbued Japanese culture with deep animist beliefs, a tendency to ascribe spirit and personality to inanimate objects. The tradition, embedded in Japanese folklore and myth, can be seen around Tokyo even today. The city has a monument to eyeglasses in one park, Hornyak notes, and there’s an annual ceremony at Sensoji Temple to pay respect to needles that have seen their last use. “Would you ever find a monument erected to belts or something, in a U.S. park?” he asks. “I don’t think so.”

Hornyak says recent history also plays a role. Westerners view robots with suspicion—as job killers, for instance, or symbols of the dehumanizing effects of modern technology. We created Terminator and HAL. Many Japanese, meanwhile, celebrate Astro Boy—a wildly popular superhero robot—and the robotic manga cat Doraemon. Many of those benevolent characters were born amidst post–World War II imperatives. “The shock and destruction that the country endured at the end of World War II gave birth to a kind of romance and adulation of all things modern, shiny, high-tech, speedy,” Hornyak says. “This was a way to get back on their feet and rebuild the nation.”

Today, six decades after Astro Boy was first introduced, it continues to set the tone for robotics research in Japan. “I still want to develop Astro Boy,” Future University’s Matsubara says. “My dream is to assign a robot to someone when they are born, and that robot will play the role of bodyguard and also the role of friend, and he will record and memorize everything that boy or girl is experiencing. Eventually that boy or girl will get married, and that robot will still help him in his need, and when he gets old, the robot will do nursing care for him, and at last he will attend his deathbed. From cradle to grave,” he says, “one robot, one person."


On a gray, rainy morning, on the third floor of the Umegaoka Long-Term Care Health Facility in Yokohama, Japan, about 100 elderly patients sit around tables in a cavernous, linoleum-tiled cafeteria. Japanese-style, 1950s blues music emanates from speakers. Some patients gaze out the windows at the passing cars. Others draw, or watch a soap opera on television. A couple lies with their foreheads on the table. Most simply stare into space.

Around a table in the front of the room, several patients have piloted their wheelchairs over to catch a glimpse of Umegaoka’s star therapists. A young male nurse has just carried in two furry, snow-white robotic baby seals. He places one of the seals in the arms of an 80-something dementia patient in a pink sweater.

The patient smiles broadly, whispering in the seal’s ear as it cranes its little neck, seeking eye contact, and makes cooing sounds. “Don’t cry,” she whispers to the seal. “Don’t cry. Everybody is looking at you. . . . Oh, you’re so cute.” Then she places the seal on the table in front of her and begins to brush its hair.

The concept of a human-robot society, just beginning to take root elsewhere, already thrives in homes for the elderly across Japan.

Though just beginning to take root elsewhere, the concept of a human-robot society already thrives in extended-care homes across Japan. By 2025, 30 percent of the country’s population is projected to be elderly (up from 12 percent in 1990). This demographic shift will require an estimated 2.4 million caregivers—a 50 percent increase in an industry known for high turnover and low pay. Other nations will soon face a similar challenge, but Japan is unique, both in terms of the scale of the issue and the country’s approach to it. While elsewhere some call for loosening immigration laws to help ease a potential elder-care crisis, the Japanese overwhelmingly prefer another solution: robots.

This summer, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a task force on how to realize a “robot revolution”—one that entails introducing robots to more service sectors and tripling the market for them. In Kanagawa Prefecture, where the Umegaoka facility is located, government officials have already funded the deployment of three different kinds of robots in elder-care facilities: a powered exoskeleton for rehabilitating stroke victims, a two-foot-tall bipedal robot that can lead patients in Tai Chi, and Paro, the baby harp seal, whose only job is to give and receive love and emotional support.

To make Paro realistic, Takanori Shibata, a robotocist at Waseda University, flew out to a floating ice field in Northeast Canada to record real baby seals in their natural habitat. In addition to replicating those sounds in the robot, he designed it to seek out eye contact, respond to touch, cuddle, remember faces, and learn actions that generate a favorable reaction. Just like animals used in pet therapy, Shibata argues, Paro can help relieve depression and anxiety—but it never needs to be fed and doesn’t die.

At the elder-care facility in Yokohama, I watch a nurse place a Paro in the arms of a blind 90-year-old man in a wheelchair. “What is this?” he asks. Then, as the seal snuggles into him, he lets out a joyful, “Oh!”, clutches it tightly to his chest, and flashes a toothless grin.

Yasko Komatzu, the head nurse, pulls me aside to tell me a story: Not long ago, a patient arrived who would frequently wander the hallways, entering others’ rooms to move and collect interesting objects. One of her favorite targets was the room of a patient who compulsively arranged her belongings in a precise order. The thefts led to bedlam. “The victim would raise her voice yelling and screaming,” Komatzu says. “But the other patient didn’t really understand why she was so mad. The staff tried to inter­vene. But the problems continued, and the screaming upset the other patients.”

Paro’s arrival had a calming effect on all the patients, but especially the wanderer. She largely abandoned her forays when told the baby seal was waiting for her in the third-floor common room. During my visit, I see this patient humming to Paro and gently brushing its hair. She notices me watching and summons me over. “Paro is saying, ‘Nice to meet you,’ ” she says. Then she smiles serenely and returns to her robot.

This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Popular Science, under the title, "Friend For Life."

Sealed With A Hug Paro, a therapeutic baby seal robot, interacts with patients in hospitals and homes for the elderly throughout Japan, Europe, and the U.S. Courtesy Paro Robots U.S. Inc.

What To Wear When You're On The Run From The NSA

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 17:08

CV Dazzle Makeup They may look like high fashion, but these styles are actually designed to fool facial recognition software. Adam Harvey

In the documentary film "Citizenfour" by Laura Poitras, it’s revealed that Edward Snowden’s longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills also left the United States and joined Snowden in Russia. Cheekily, Vogue suggests a trio of outfits for Mills, to match both the climate and the need for discretion that comes with proximity to the source of a major intelligence leak.

Here are Vogue’s recommendations:

For a discreet stroll around Moscow, we think Mills would do best to embrace her adopted countrymen’s fondness for fur—and a touch of Bonnie Parker panache—in a camouflage look from Valentino. (A fur-lined coat will fit the bill as a closet staple for more casual occasions.) And should she ever feel homesick? A bold pop of color from Missoni and Matthew Williamson paired with a hibiscus dial watch from Versace should have Mills feeling right at home, regardless of the terrain ahead.

The outfits are pricey; this story is as much about high-end winter fashions as it is spycraft. Listed prices for the items cost, combined $13,563, and there are several other items with prices available upon request. That’s a lot of money for anyone, particularly someone who's trying to avoid detection while living in exile abroad.

Here are some alternate suggestions:

Instead of: Valentino camouflage coat (price available upon request)

Try: Anti-Surveillance Hoodie And Scarf, by Adam Harvey

Adam Harvey has a whole line of stealth wear, designed as both a comment on and protection from modern surveillance. Many of the designs mask a person's thermal signature, so they blend into the background when seen through infrared cameras. The designs are pretty conspicuous when seen through the normal visual spectrum, though, so probably best to wear a jacket over a stealth hoodie.

Instead of: Pierre Hardy mixed media fur-front sneakers

Try: CV Dazzle face makeup, by Adam Harvey

Fur-covered sneakers will stand out in a crowd while failing to conceal anything about a person's identity. If one is going to hide in plain sight while looking like a peacock, there are better ways to do that. Also by Adam Harvey, Computer Vision (CV) Dazzle is a whole category of makeup application that confuses facial recognition software by using sharp contrasting shapes. CV Dazzle draws its inspiration from World War One battleship camouflage, designed to confuse enemies and especially submarines about exactly how far away their target was. Dazzle paint looks nothing like the background environment yet still obscures the appearance of the wearer. 

It’s not without limitations. Atlantic technology writer Robinson Meyer tried wearing CV Dazzle in public in DC for multiple days, and found it very, very conspicuous:

The first thing to know about wearing the dazzle is that everyone looks at you. You can never forget you have it on. People glance at your face, their eyes lingering as you wait on escalators, pass on sidewalks, sit in museums or restaurants. It’s more than a quick double-take or turn of the head: Their eyes lock, and they stare. For a while. You’re in costume, basically, as out of place as a mascot walking down the street. You are anything but invisible.

Instead of: Versace Mystique watch

Try: Masking one’s presence online

Vogue recommends the watch, paired with a print dress and spring-colored coat, as a “Memories of Hawaii” ensemble, nodding both to the fact that Snowden and Mills left Hawaii and that Russia can be very, very cold. Dressing with nostalgia for an old home is fine, but anonymity-protecting apps can make it look like a person is still accessing the internet from their old haunts. When writer Kevin Roose tried to spend a day online hiding in plain sight in San Francisco, he used HideMyAss, a secure virtual personal network that allowed him get online in the Bay Area but “make it look like I'm logging on from Brazil or Bangladesh.”

Instead of: Moncler Gamme Rouge lapin fur ushanka hat

Try: Full Face Visor

In October 2007, Popular Science writer Catherine Price tried living for a week while masking her identity from surveillance technologies. Using cash, Price bought and activated a pre-paid phone under an alias: “Mike Smith”. Many of her steps would be repeated by other writers trying out anonymity, and she herself got help from security researchers to figure out how exactly to keep information private in a world that wants it at every turn. Most of the time Price just wore a cap and sunglasses to obscure her face in surveillance cameras. A trip from the East Bay into San Francisco for the International Association of Privacy Professionals required snagging a ride from an informal carpool network, and for the trip Price wore a face visor. As she describes it:

Let me be clear: This was no ordinary face visor. Designed to provide complete sun protection, it was more of a mask, with a wraparound piece of dark plastic that extended from my forehead all the way down to my chin. It made me look like a welder. It also made it difficult to see. But I still managed to find a car, and surprisingly, no one commented on the visor. In fact, they didn't talk to me at all.

Physics Explains Ingrown Toenails

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 15:15

Fingernails. Neil Milne via Flickr CC By SA-2.0 Humans have been dealing with painful nail problems for a long time. And surgeons have been trying to fix those problems since at least the 7th century, when the Greek physician Paul of Aegina wrote about surgical treatments for nail conditions. Although many of these conditions, such as ingrown nails, are well known, they’re not terribly well understood.

In a paper in Physical Biology, scientists have published the first mathematical model of how human nails grow. The researchers have found that nail health is a delicate balance between the adhesive forces that hold the nail securely in the finger, versus the nail’s movement as it slides forever forward toward the fingertip. Other factors, like thickness, biomechanical stress, and the way you trim your nails can influence whether you develop nail problems.

Nails are made of dead skin cells hardened by the protein keratin. They grow outward from the half-moon-shaped “lunula” at the base of the nail toward the fingertip. (Fun fact: Human nails grow 0.1 to 0.2 millimeters per day, on average.) But battling this movement are adhesive molecules that pin the nail to the nail bed. These molecules are thought to behave like ratchets: They grab onto the nail above them, and as the nail slides forward during growth, they tilt and stretch, trying to hang on, until eventually the bond breaks. Then they grab onto another nearby piece of nail.

If the balance between growth and adhesion gets knocked out of whack, it puts extra stress on the nail. The nail might change shape to compensate, which can lead to serious problems. “We have discovered that three well-known conditions-- ingrown nails, pincer nails, and spoon-shaped nails -- are essentially three faces of the same coin,” says Cyril Rauch, lead author on the new paper. “They are related by the physics.”

"Ingrown nails, pincer nails, and spoon-shaped nails are essentially three faces of the same coin."

Ingrown toenails happen when the nail extends into the flesh alongside the nail. They’re most common in kids, teenagers, and pregnant women, and Rauch’s model posits that’s because raging hormones are causing the nail’s growth to outpace adhesion. On the foot, the flat shape of the big toenail makes this toe especially prone to ingrown nails, according to Rauch’s model. The nail’s squareness means a lot of the stress of walking gets diverted to the tip of the nail, which expands horizontally to compensate.

Pincers result from the opposite problem. In this condition, the sides of the nail curve down and towards each other, forming a “C” shape. Rauch’s model suggests that in this condition, adhesion overpowers growth, which may explain why pincers are more commonly found in the elderly, whose growth is slower.

Along similar lines, spoon-shaped nails—wherein the edges of the nails curve upward, forming an indentation—may form in elderly patients as the adhesion drops as a result of aging. 

While these nail conditions are caused by underlying biology that can’t really be controlled, nail trimming can exacerbate these problems. So what’s the best way to trim your nails? “Imagine you can flatten your nail out on your desk,” says Rauch. “The curved bits should follow a parabola shape.”

Rauch, who teaches veterinarian medicine at the University of Nottingham, is now adapting the model for farm animals. “When animals develop hoof problems, it costs a lot of money,” says Rauch. It turns out the horse hoof is actually pretty similar to the human nail. “The main difference, of course, is that the horse walks on its nail and the human doesn’t, so we need to add that new stress to the model.”

Who Loves LED Lights? The Nobel Committee -- And Flying Insects

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 14:15

Drawn Like A Moth To An LED Flickr CC by 2.0

Humans love their LEDs. So much so, they’re winning Nobel Prizes in physics. Given their electrical efficiency and long lifespan, these remarkable light-emitting diodes are being used more and more as primary light sources, and experts argue they could help reduce the world’s overall electricity and material consumption for lighting.

It turns out that LEDs' popularity expands beyond just the human species, and that’s not exactly good news. According to a new study in the journal Ecological Applications, flying invertebrates (namely bugs) are much more attracted to LED lights than traditional outdoor lighting. This attraction may have some long-lasting negative consequences on various ecosystems.

According to the study’s authors, the bugs’ LED love lies in the diodes’ color. It’s well known that insects are drawn to yellow or white light, but they’re even more attracted to another light color: blue. Many white LEDs are actually blue LEDs that have a yellow phosphor coating, and the combination of blue and yellow ultimately make white light. However, insects have special photoreceptors that can see the blue light amidst the resulting white light.

To see if this affected insect behavior, the researchers placed sticky paper next to street lamps with LED bulbs and those with traditional sodium vapor lamps. Over time, various moths, flies, and other flying insects became trapped on the paper, and sure enough the LED lamps had a much bigger following. In fact, the sticky papers next to the LED lights had 48 percent more insects than their sodium vapor counterparts.

LEDs could be attracting more insects into urban areas, interfering with natural food webs, leading to more pest infestations and the spread of invasive species like gypsy moths. So perhaps everyone’s favorite eco-friendly diode isn’t so amicable after all.

The researchers aren’t calling for the disuse of LEDs altogether. But they do stress the need for a collaborative effort between ecologists and electrical engineers to figure out how future LEDs can be developed to minimize ecological effects.

This Thursday, See A Partial Solar Eclipse At Sunset

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 13:20

NASA via Wikimedia Commons

This Thursday afternoon, most of North America will be treated to a partial solar eclipse. If the weather holds, the most dramatic presentation of the eclipse can be seen near Prince of Wales Island in Canada’s Nunavut territory, where 81 percent of the sun will be obscured. For the rest of the continent, regions in the Northwest will have the longest and best views of the eclipse. But over on the east coast, the sunset will interrupt the spectacle. 

As you probably remember from science class, solar eclipses occur when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, casting a shadow on part of the Earth’s surface. In this case, the Moon will only cover part of the sun, making it a partial solar eclipse. The next total solar eclipse will occur on March 20, 2015.

If you’re fortunate enough to live in an area where the eclipse will be visible, remember not to look at it directly. Even though the eclipse will cover a good portion of the sun (between 40 and 60 percent in most parts of the United States) and will happen just before or during sunset in many areas, it's still the sun. Staring at it directly or even through unfiltered binoculars, telescopes, or viewfinders could be harmful to your eyesight. Using filters or pinhole projectors are good alternatives to, well, going blind.   

To find out if you’ll be able to get a good view of the eclipse, take a look at these tables curated by NASA, one for Canada and Mexico, and one for the United States. If your locale isn’t mentioned on the map, you can use this tool to look it up instead. You can also use it to look up any eclipse that happened in your location between 1499 BCE and 3000 CE.