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NIH Proceeds with Caution on Sex Balance in Biomedical Studies

Scientific American News - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 08:42
The NIH is due to roll out new sex-balance policies this month. So far that's meant "carrot" rather than "stick" measures, and no clear date for changes to funding rules

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Interstellar Travel Won't Look Anything Like The Movie

Popular Science News - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 07:58

The Very Green Interior Of An Imagined Colonial Transporter Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center via Wikimedia Commons

Christopher Nolan's Interstellar imagines a human journey to planets beyond our star. But that kind of trip would seem impossible in today's terms. Fortunately, a DARPA-funded task force is already working to make it happen in the next century.

Mae Jemison, leader of the 100 Year Starship Project (100YSS) told Popular Science that enormous challenges stand between human beings and colonizing a distant star system. But she believes 100YSS can bring together the diversity and creativity of invention necessary to make it happen.

Jemison has had a rare vantage point on human spaceflight. An engineer, physician, and—for six years—a NASA astronaut, she became the first woman of color in space when she orbited Earth in space shuttle Endeavour. Often, astronauts talk about the "overview effect" from space, a sense of oneness with Earth and its people. But Jemison says she found herself drawn in the opposite direction. 

"I looked down and I saw the Nile River go by, the pyramids, and my hometown Chicago, and I tried to make myself afraid. Outside of this hatch are forces totally inhospitable to human life," she said. "But I couldn't feel it. I would have loved to be up there in a bubble with just my cat."

The fact is, Jemison never strayed far from Earth. Shuttle astronauts, from the perspective of a solar traveller, barely got off the planet. No human being has gone beyond orbit of the far side of this planet's moon. Crossing the distances Interstellar imagines will involve gigantic leaps in technology and human infrastructure. Nolan gets it wrong, Jemison says, in populating his epic with vehicles that look a great deal like those travelling around Earth today.

The Not-So-Different Future In the 'Interstellar' trailer, Matthew McConaughey sets off for the stars in a ship that looks a lot like the ones we use to orbit Earth. Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers

She likens Interstellar's challenge to crossing the Sahara desert—another vast, lifeless space that humans have nonetheless tamed. But in the 53 years since the Yuri Gagarin made the first trip into Earth's orbit, crewed missions have yet to make a substantial fraction of a trip to a foreign star. Like the nomads who build cultures around desert crossings, Jemison says our entire approach to space travel will have to change before we attempt the interstellar vastness.

Right now, a lack of powerful yet efficient propulsion limits human civilization to this solar system. For example, the Voyager I probe, launched in 1977, speeds away farther from Earth than any other spacecraft. In 2013 it became the first in interstellar space. However, it will be another 40,000 years before it even remotely enters another star's neighborhood. Any mission making the journey to a habitable exoplanet must move a much larger weight much faster—approaching a substantial fraction of light speed—to make the trip in even several generations.

Of the many technologies Jemison says might accelerate a spaceship to that velocity (and, equally as important, deccelerate on the other end), only one exists today: nuclear fission. Some power plants, military submarines, satellites, and aircraft carriers convert heat from decaying atoms into energy. But no reactor has ever propelled a space engine, partly because of the dangers and inefficiencies of fission, and partly because of international treaties governing the use of nuclear power.

Where fission fails, its cousin might succeed. That is, if we can ever make it work. Fusion—smashing together atoms to form larger elements while releasing incredible energy—powers every star in our universe. With some ingenuity, it could also help us reach them.

To illustrate the diffierence between fission and fusion, consider America's nuclear assault on Japan in 1945 used fission bombs and had a combined blast area of about 20 square miles. The blast of the largest fusion bomb ever tested, meanwhile, affected 1,520 square miles.

"We can't separate the vehicle from what it's doing and what it's carrying—it's got to be different."

The prospect of fusion-powered spaceflight is tantalizing, but efforts to even build an efficient reactor on Earth have stalled for several decades. Antimatter, produced in tiny, fizzling samples at CERN, annihilates with still greater power when it contacts matter. Yet scientists have only produced a few particles of the exotic substance, and the record storage time is 1,000 seconds before spontaneous annihalation. In short, we have a long way to go before filling up a gas tank with antimatter. Jemison also points to the possible construction of vast solar sails to catch photons and accelerate a craft over huge distances. Huge earthbound lasers and power sources could then propel the craft without the need to drag interstellar engines along.

But Jemison says propulsion is just the first and most obvious problem an interstellar ship's engineers have to address, and that this point is where many science fiction films like Interstellar fail. "One of the issues with applying today's space technology to the future is it blocks our way of thinking," she says. She would like to see a movie explore a more radical vision.

"Even the inside of the Enterprise [from Star Trek] looks a lot like what we have today, with grey walls and military hierarchies and buttons everywhere," she says. "We can't separate the vehicle from what it's doing and what it's carrying. It's got to be different." We should expect a starship built in 2114 to be as alien to us as the International Space Station would be to a biplane pilot in 1914. 

A ship making the journey to another solar system will likely have to leave without any plan to return. It'd also need to contain an environment that could nourish and protect decades or centuries' worth of travelers. Jemison says a lush, green ship might carry the first outbound crew. Components would self-repair, and food would grow within the walls. (Such engineering challenges plague Mars colonization ideas today.)

Even a giant, antimatter-driven, self-sustaining space colony, however, might fail on its journey. A suitable starship must be more than sustainable and powerful. It must also protect its inhabitants. Using today's technologies, an enormous lead shield would have to separate the ship's inhabitants from harsh radiation out there in the universe. (Some suggest a hollowed-out asteroid.) But in the future, magnetic technologies now bending radiation at cancer in the body might scale up to deflect gamma rays like Earth's protective magnetosphere. 

So, let's say we do build a ship that can safely carry a population over lightyears. It will be useless without a vibrant, skilled community to inhabit it, Jemison says. "That crew that goes, whether it's 50 or 10,000, needs to reflect the diversity of the planet it comes from—cultural, gender, and socioeconomic." About 10,000 travelers would be the minimum—any fewer than that, and genetic fitness would take a hit (see chart below).

Space Colony Genetic Variation About 40,000 people would be needed to seed a genetically fit deep-space colony, according to one study. Illustration by Katie Peek/Popular Science; chart adapted from Acta Astronautica

To bolster diverse thinking, Jemison invited researchers from wide-ranging fields onto the project, and set up programs designed to involve people without science PhDs in space travel. Today, fashion professor Karl Epselund, for example, investigates interstellar clothing for the project. And more than $2 million for advanced aerospace manufacturing training has already reached Orange Coast Community College in California, where many students now go on to work for SpaceX, according to dean Doug Benoit. Jemison says the longterm goal is to expand the base of skilled laborers and technicians who one day will form the bulk of a large interstellar crew. 

The course to a space-faring future for humanity is long and riddled with nebulae of uncertainty. Overcoming them will involve a generational shift in human ambition. Jemison says she's glad Nolan's film has built up buzz around the idea of interstellar adventures, but that she wishes such sci-fi films would show more creativity in their vision.

"I'm a little sad that the impetus of the movie is we've screwed the planet up," she says. "I hope the reason we do this will be more positive."

In Which Omar Khayyam Is Grumpy with Euclid

Scientific American News - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 07:30
My math history class is currently studying non-Euclidean geometry, which means we've studied quite a few "proofs" of Euclid's fifth postulate, also known as the parallel postulate.

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Not Everyone Wants to Be Happy

Scientific American News - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 07:15
Americans are obsessed with happiness, but other cultures see things differently

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Not Everyone Wants to Be Happy

Scientific American News - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 07:15
Americans are obsessed with happiness, but other cultures see things differently

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Technology May Lift Severe Depression, but Full Recovery Takes Time

Scientific American News - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 07:00
This blog is the last in a series of guest posts on technology and the brain to celebrate Scientific American Mind’s 10-year anniversary.

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Evidence Builds for Dark Matter Explosions at the Milky Way’s Core

Scientific American News - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 07:00
Unexplained gamma rays streaming from the galactic center may have been produced by dark matter, but more mundane explanations are also possible  

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Pee in This Cup, Doc: Random Drug Tests Should Be Standard for Physicians

Scientific American News - Tue, 10/28/2014 - 06:00
Enough physicians have substance abuse problems to make random drug testing a needed part of medical practice

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African Lions Face Extinction by 2050, Could Gain Endangered Species Act Protection

Scientific American News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 17:32
The African lion (Panthera leo leo) faces the threat of extinction by the year 2050, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe warned today.

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To Kill Malaria Parasite, Feed Bacteria To Mosquitoes

Popular Science News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 15:46

Blood Meal An Anopheles albimanus mosquito bites a human. These species is a malaria vector in Central America.

The deadly malaria parasite, a protozoan named Plasmodium, rides inside the bellies of mosquitoes to get from human to human. While some scientists have proposed using genetically engineered or sperm-free mosquitoes to fight malaria, a new method aims straight for the stomach: Researchers have found that feeding mosquitoes bacteria inoculates the insects against Plasmodium. And if the mosquitoes can't carry the malaria parasite, they can't accidentally pass it on to the humans they bite.

In a study published last week in PLOS Pathogens, scientists introduced a bacteria called Chromobacterium Csp_P to a population of malaria- and dengue-infected mosquitoes. They found that in addition to wiping out a substantial chunk of the mosquitoes, it killed the Plasmodium pathogens in the stomachs of the survivors. They believe Chromobacterium-spiked traps could infect wild mosquitoes, effectively vaccinating them against malaria. Ideally, short-lived mosquitoes will contract Chromobacterium before they reach humans.

The Johns Hopkins team thinks the Chromobacterium fights Plasmodium in two ways. First, it activates mosquitoes' immune systems, which then destroy the malaria parasites as collateral damage. But Chromobacterium also kills Plasmodium and the dengue virus in laboratory cultures. This means it probably pumps out a slurry of chemicals that attack Plasmodium directly. The scientists speculate that these toxins might one day be used to fight malaria in people.

Researchers isolated the Chromobacterium from the mosquito species Aedes aegypti. There is no evidence that the bacteria can infect humans, but, Science reports, more research must still be done before scientists are sure its toxins are safe to use in the human body.

The fight against malaria in the developing world has ramped up in recent years. The WHO reports that efforts to combat the disease saved 3.3 million lives between 2000 and the end of 2013, but billions remain at risk--primarily in Africa. With treatment-resistant strains appearing, there is a demand for creative assaults on the parasite.

Chromobacterium is not the first bioagent deployed against malaria. Mosquito-killing diseases have joined chemical sprays and breeding disruption in the fight against the epidemic-carrying bugs for decades. But, if Chromobacterium works as planned, it would be the first dual-action bioagent, killing the disease and its biting vector.

'3-D Cutter' Othermill Goes On Sale

Popular Science News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 15:00

An Othermill Other Machine Co.

You can think of an Othermill as the opposite of a 3-D printer. Instead of building up objects from raw materials, Othermills create objects by cutting away a larger block of material into something smaller. They're like tiny robotic sculptors, similar to the artists who chisel away at a big block of marble until it becomes a work of art.

Like home 3-D printers, however, Othermills are made to fit on a tabletop. And they've gone on sale this week, so just as with 3-D printers, you can now buy one.

One Othermill machine costs $2,200. It carves materials that are softer than its cutting instruments, including certain woods and plastics, printed circuit boards, and certain metals like brass, copper, and aluminum. The machine has a precision of one one-thousandth of an inch (about 0.02 millimeters) and works faster than 3-D printers do. Users load programs into the Othermill in popular file formats, which are listed on the Othermill website.

What can you make with all that? In a press release, Othermill's manufacturer, a San Francisco-based startup called Other Machine Co., talks about letting small businesses prototype electronics quickly. Meanwhile, Other Machine Co.'s Instructables profile has some more whimsical suggestions. There's a Halloween stamp kit, a tiny synth that makes eight-bit music, and a light-up necklace cut from circuit boards. You could potentially incorporate all of these at once into your Halloween costume.

The Othermill isn't the only tabletop "3-D cutter" you can buy. In March, Make magazine listed a few other options, including both commercially available carving machines and machines that are still Kickstarter projects. Othermill itself began as a Kickstarter project last year and only finished shipping products to its backers last month, the company reports. Now it's up and manufacturing for all customers.

Video: Bionic Boots That Let You Run Up To 25 MPH

Popular Science News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 14:15 Please enable Javascript to watch this video

In September, Popular Science attended World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science. We saw giant robots, tiny Tesla coils, and musical instruments made out of anything you can imagine. Check out some of the coolest projects with us!

Ever wanted to run like an ostrich? When Keahi Seymour was a teenager, he decided to create shoes that would let him emulate the birds’ springy gait and match their top speed—45 miles per hour. Many years and a dozen prototypes later, Seymour came to Maker Faire to show off the latest version of his “bionic boot.” This prototype boosts his pace to a brisk 25 miles per hour, but Seymour won’t rest until he can take the human body to the next level, and outrun some of Earth’s fastest land animals.

Why Does My Dog Kick When I Scratch His Belly?

Popular Science News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 13:30

Belly Rub Lindsey G via Flickr CC by 2.0

It’s called the sweet spot. That perfect place on your dog’s belly or sides that, when scratched, causes your pet’s foot to go into crazy automatic kicking mode. Every dog owner knows where to find this magical region on his or her canine, as it usually offers up unmitigated joy.

As delightful as this puppy kicking is to watch, this reaction is actually a means of self-protection for your pet. It’s called the scratch reflex, and it’s an involuntary response that exists to keep your dog safe from dangerous bugs or irritants.

Underneath certain portions of your dog’s skin, there are collections of neural pathways that are connected to the spinal cord. When these nerves are activated – either by a scratch or a tickle – they quickly send messages to the spinal cord, which then instructs the dog’s leg to kick. For some dogs, the kicking can be more pronounced depending on how much scratching they feel.

“Dogs that have allergies in particular, it tends to be really easy to illicit that scratch reflex, because the dogs are borderline itchy anyway,” says Lore Haug, a veterinarian and animal behavior expert for Texas Veterinary Behavior Services. “But when you rub their skin more, it accentuates the scratching.”

According to Haug, the scratch reflex came about as way for animals to protect themselves against irritants on their bodies, especially invading bugs that could carry diseases. For example, if a dog has fleas running around on its skin, the insects’ itchiness will cause the scratch reflex to activate. Then, perhaps the kicking will knock some of the fleas off, alleviating the source of the itch.

It’s similar to the reflexes seen in humans, which usually exist to protect us in some way. “Let’s say you touch a hot stove, and before your brain recognizes it’s painful, the spinal cord recognizes the pain, and you involuntarily jerk your hand back,” Haug says. “If you had to wait until your conscious brain recognized something was in danger, your delay in reaction time could cause an injury or even death in some cases.”

The scratch reflex can be useful for your veterinarian to determine if your pet is suffering from any nerve damage, kind of like when your doctor tests your knee reflexes during checkups. Also, since the reflex is more for swatting away pesky bugs, it doesn’t necessarily mean your dog likes being scratched in that particular area. But of course, some dogs do enjoy a good rub on the belly. You’ll just have to pick up on cues from your pet to figure that out.

Southeast Is the Most Unhealthy U.S. Region [Slide Show]

Scientific American News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 13:05
Illness is high and access to health care is low

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Lifeguard Drone Ready For Mass Production [Video]

Popular Science News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 12:45

Pars Drone Demonstrator RTS Labs

In the not too distant future, swimmers in distress may look up to the sky for help and find, not a lifeguard, but a drone, delivering a life preserver in their moment of need. Designed by Amin Rigi and RTS Labs in Iran, the Pars drone is a robotic lifesaver. First demonstrated in 2013, Rigi is launching an RTS Labs offshoot, RTS London, to mass produce the drones.

Here’s how Popular Science first covered the Pars drone in 2013:

The Pars Aerial Rescue Robot is designed to work as a mobile lifesaver dispensary, flying out to those in need and dropping vital flotation aids until better help can be secured. As currently designed, Pars starts with a quadrotor, which makes sense: quadrotors are versatile platforms, beloved by scientists because the machines can do things like test eagle arms and Kinect-based navigation. Quadrotors are also relatively strong. That means Pars wouldn't have any trouble carrying life preservers as well as a sophisticated navigation software and infrared cameras.

Since then, the drone has undergone a series of tests and improvements, moving from concept to prototype to demonstration. Here’s an early test, using an eight-rotor drone, a single inner tube, and a courtyard:

This next video starts off with animation about the drone concept, before cutting to tests with a working model. In one striking trial, the hexarotor reaches a swimmer in 22 seconds, more than a full minute faster than a lifeguard who started at the same time. 

The undersides of the hexarotor arms carry LED lights, so at night swimmers can see the drone coming to save them. The video also gives away an important detail: Pars is still remotely piloted by a human.

Future plans for the drone include floating stations with solar panels where several can recharge simultaneously, as well as more advanced features so drones can save lives on their own. With RTS London launched to manufacture these drones, the beaches of the future might just be safer thanks to some friendly robots.

'Littlefinger' Actor From 'Game Of Thrones' Stars In Rosetta Mission Promo

Popular Science News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 11:40

Aiden Gillen Ambition

We’ve been telling you all along that the Rosetta mission is incredible—the spacecraft has traveled for 10 years and some 250 million miles, and on November 12, it’ll become the first spacecraft ever to land on a comet. Now it appears that Aidan Gillen, the guy who plays ‘Littlefinger’ on HBO’s Game of Thrones, is also getting behind the mission. In a sci-fi short named Ambition, Gillen's character explains why Rosetta is awesome.

For a long time, the origins of water and indeed life on our home planet remained an absolute mystery. So we began searching for answers beyond Earth. Where could all this water have come from? In time we turned to comets -- one trillion celestial balls of ice, dust, complex molecules left over from the birth of our solar system…

The flick, which was a collaboration between Platige Image and the European Space Agency, is mostly about overcoming failure. That’s because the Rosetta mission was originally intended to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket in 2003, to rendezvous with a comet named 46P/Wirtanen in 2011. Then, in 2002, an Ariane 5 rocket exploded while launching a communications satellite, putting the Rosetta mission in jeopardy. Undaunted, the mission launched in 2004 instead on another Ariane 5 rocket, with a new comet in its crosshairs.

“Ambition, stubbornness, nothing has changed,” says Gillen’s character in Ambition. “We fall. We pick ourselves up again, and we adapt.”

Watch the video here: Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Lonesome George, the Last of His Kind, Strikes His Final Pose

Scientific American News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 11:00
After the century-old giant tortoise died, Galápagos conservationists and a taxidermist had to figure out how to continue his legacy

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Chemists Find A New Chemical Bond

Popular Science News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 10:00

Bromine, Hydrogen, Bromine Photos of both the bromine and hydrogen samples were taken by Heinrich Pniok (, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Fresh evidence suggests there exists a type of chemical bond that nobody has ever seen before, Chemistry World reports

Not that they haven't looked. In the early 1980s, chemists searched for--but couldn't find--evidence of this type of bond after some theorized it should exist. The bond occurs between two heavy atoms with a hydrogen atom, which is light, in the middle. Normally, chemical bonds only happen when the bonding reduces the potential energy of the system. In this case, the potential energy of the system is higher after bonding. Still, the bond appears because something called the vibrational zero point energy decreases so much, it stabilizes the system. The bond is called a vibrational bond.

Now, two recent experiments found evidence of a bromine-hydrogen-bromine molecule with vibrational bonding, Chemistry World reports. One found the bond by creating exotic versions of hydrogen. The discovering team created isotopes of hydrogen by replacing hydrogen's electrons with exotic particles called muons. Only muonium made vibrational bonds with the bromine atoms.

These new findings were made possible by quantum chemistry techniques, which allowed researchers to calculate the vibrational zero point energy of the system, Chemistry World reports. Such techniques didn't exist back in the 1980s.

[Chemistry World]

First Direct Observations of How Roots Grow

Scientific American News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 09:22
Researchers have found ways to watch the roots of plants as they grow

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The Co-Robots In 'Interstellar' Are Gorgeous--And Silly

Popular Science News - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 09:00

When humans finally set foot on an alien world, they’ll be joined by robots. That’s not a bold prediction. It’s a statement of the obvious. Machines have already beat us to Mars and proven their worth as tireless scouts, surveyors, and sample collectors. A manned expedition will no doubt include at least one bot, if not a whole fleet of them.

What’s less obvious, though, is the form these robots will take. Some might take familiar shapes, like wheeled or tracked rovers, or a flock of microsatellites that can provide useful aerial footage. But what about robots assigned to work directly with astronauts, moving safely and helpfully within the same vehicles and environments as their human masters? Would they be humanoids, like NASA’s present-day experimental bot, Robonaut 2, which is currently being tested aboard the International Space Station? Or would they be more alien themselves, with bodies and behaviors that support humans, without physically mimicking them?

In the upcoming movie Interstellar, we see the latter option. The robots that accompany a manned expedition to another world are monolithic space oddities, rectangular slabs whose plank-like segments can decouple and rotate to pull off a variety of actions. The trailers offer brief examples, such as bipedal walking and a flailing sort of cartwheel across the surface of a body of water.

They are beautiful, eye-catching designs. They’re also pretty ridiculous.

The bots are called TARS and CASE. They are beautiful, eye-catching designs. They’re also pretty ridiculous.

The movie’s director, Christopher Nolan, has shared very little about the robot’s design, telling Empire that it’s quadrilateral, and that, “you've got four main blocks, and they can be joined in three ways.” It’s a visually arresting approach, and one with no real-world precedent. Therefore, there’s no basis for praise or abuse, in terms of predicting where robotic locomotion is headed. And hey, cool robots look cool, which is more than good enough for Hollywood.

Still, there’s plenty that’s silly about this design when it comes to the field of collaborative robotics, or co-bots, which can function alongside humans without causing confusion or injury.

The go-to example of the state of the art in co-bots is Baxter, a two-armed robot laborer from Massachusetts-based Rethink Robotics that can be taught to perform menial, repetitive tasks—such as grabbing specific parts from a conveyor belt. Best of all, Baxter isn’t going to kill you, the way that some industrial robotics might if you were to wander past the safety measures that keep auto-assembly bots separated from their human co-workers. Baxter is, above all things, social and safe. And while Baxter isn’t exactly space-worthy, its two best features are worth considering for the planetary explorers to come.

Baxter At Work Rethink Robotics The Importance of Appearing Earnest

Baxter is one of the most expressive robots on the planet. By adjusting its on-screen eyebrows, the tablet-like face can instantly signal confusion over a command. And by turning that face on its stalk-like, articulated neck to face you, Baxter provides the unspoken confirmation that this machine is listening to you, or waiting for your next order, or even acknowledging your approach. Baxter doesn’t speak, but it communicates in ways that most robots can’t.

This is a crucial feature for a co-bot, and the differentiating factor between a robot that works effectively alongside people, and one that simply invades your personal space. “Let’s say you have a robot that listens to voice commands,” says Dmitry Berenson, a roboticist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who works with collaborative robotic systems. “If it doesn’t seem to acknowledge what you said, people are going to get confused.” Imagine a human who doesn’t answer a request with a verbal confirmation, or thumbs up, or even the tiniest of nods. With fewer social skills and hardware than most humans, an unresponsive co-bot can quickly become a source of frustration and a less efficient collaborator. “Sometimes, the usability of the robot depends on how well you can interact with it,” says Berenson.

Now imagine a robot whose job is to pitch in during emergencies on some remote celestial body, where a single slip-up could kill an explorer. A system that requires an audible verbal exchange, and possibly even a direct communications link, doesn’t inspire much confidence as a co-bot. As Berenson points out, expressivity doesn’t mean creating a cutesy humanoid or eerily life-like android. Baxter makes do without a nose, mouth, or voice. Jibo, the social robot designed by MIT roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, has stunned backers and the greater robotics community with its non-anthropomorphic, icon-based interaction, using colors and shapes to quickly connect with users (It’s racked up $2.2 million in funding on Indiegogo.). As slick as Interstellar’s bots look, a perpetual poker face isn’t an asset for any co-bot, much less one you have to interact with through a space suit.

Hand in Hand Robonaut 2 shakes the hand of a fellow astronaut. NASA The Stay-Puft Co-Bot

Baxter’s other standout feature is safety. The robot’s actuators are built to yield. In training mode, you can physically walk it through its assigned task, guiding its limbs throughout the workspace. During standard operations, Baxter’s limbs will still move when pushed on. In fact, Baxter stops moving as soon as it detects an approaching human, to further minimize the risk of accidental collisions.

This level of caution is smart for a manufacturing bot, but probably overkill for a full-fledged co-bot, particularly one designed to assist astronauts. According to Berenson, the more compliant a robot’s actuators are, the less precision and strength they’re capable of. If a space co-bot is intended to fill in for humans, punching away at tightly spaced buttons and controls, its limbs and motors might have to exert more force and yield less than Baxter’s. Likewise, a bot with enough power to walk, swim, and be of any use to planetary explorers probably shouldn’t be all that compliant.

"You don’t want sharp angles around people in space suits."

What a space co-bot should be, however, is squishy. Robonaut 2 has hard components, but its limbs are padded and self-contained, with no exposed joints to crush errant biological fingers. A thoroughly soft robot, like the gas-powered systems demonstrated by researchers at MIT, would likely fall on the wrong side of compliance vs. power tradeoff. But the bots in Interstellar are on the opposite end of that spectrum and appear to be something of a co-robotic menace. “You don’t want sharp angles around people in space suits,” says Berenson. “That could cause a problem. Having softness is just good practice for most robots. There’s not much of a reason not to have a little padding.”

Until we know when and where humanity is headed, it’s impossible to sketch out a complete design for the space co-bots to come. In fact, with all due respect to Baxter, we have yet to produce a co-bot on Earth—a robot that freezes when you come near isn’t much of a collaborator. But it’s safe to say they’ll be nothing like the stark, featureless bots in Interstellar. They’ll be expressive, ready to communicate in obvious as well as subtle, non-verbal ways. And they’ll be soft to the touch, prepared to execute orders in close quarters, without accidentally crushing or killing the very people they were built to assist.

Walking On Water From Interstellar, copyright Paramount Pictures
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