Science

Robots already perform many traditionally human tasks, from vacuuming to surgery—and they could soon help care for the sick and elderly. But until they can convincingly discern and mimic emotions, their caretaker value will be severely limited. In an effort to create “friendlier” machines, researchers are developing robotic helpers that can better read and react to social signals. In late 2016 IBM and Rice University unveiled the Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant (MERA), a customized version of the Pepper robot developed by SoftBank Robotics in Japan. Pepper, an ivory-colored android about the height of a seven-year-old, can detect and respond to human emotions via vocal cues and facial expressions. It has already been deployed as a friendly assistant in Japanese stores and homes. MERA, specifically designed as an at-home companion for the elderly, records and analyzes videos of a person’s face and calculates vital signs such as heart and breathing rates. MERA’s speech technology, originally developed …

The star often called the most mysterious in the galaxy has begun darkening again. Scientists are now rushing to watch the event with as many telescopes as they can muster to attempt to understand what is causing its bewildering fluctuations of light. The star, called KIC 8462852 and nicknamed “Tabby’s Star” after Yale University astronomer Tabetha “Tabby” Boyajian, first made news in 2015 when researchers discovered something odd about its light, whose strange brightenings and dimmings have even caused some to speculate it might host alien megastructures around it. The star is an otherwise-normal F type star—slightly larger and hotter than our sun—located about 1,480 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. When astronomer Boyajian and her colleagues analyzed data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, however, they found dozens of strange instances of KIC 8462852 darkening up to 22 percent. These dimming events are far too substantial to be caused by planets …

Tiny forces: measuring the effect of swimming bacteria A tiny “force probe” that can measure sub-piconewton forces when inserted directly into liquid media has been created by researchers in the US. The team says that it used the probe to detect the tiny forces associated with swimming bacteria and heart-muscle cells. The researchers suggest that the technique could be used to create miniature stethoscopes. A leading biophysicist, however, says more work must be done on characterizing the device before he is convinced of its efficacy. Sensing and manipulating tiny forces is crucial to numerous areas of science. Scientists have therefore developed several techniques to do this – including the atomic force microscope (AFM). An AFM uses a very sharp tip attached to a flexible cantilever. The tip pushes against or pulls an object, while measuring the forces involved. This involves measuring the cantilever deflection – usually by reflecting light from the cantilever. Although the tip …

Photon free: counterfactual communication achieved in the lab Four years ago, theoretical physicists proposed a new quantum-communication scheme with a striking feature: it did not require the transmission of any physical particles. The research raised eyebrows, but now a team of physicists in China claims it has demonstrated that the “counterfactual” scheme works. The group built an optical apparatus that it says can transfer a simple image while sending (almost) no photons in the process. The theoretical proposal was put forward by scientists at Texas AM University (TAMU) in the US and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Saudi Arabia. It is based on the phenomenon of wave–particle duality. Specifically, it uses the fact that the presence of an object blocking an arm of an interferometer can be inferred by virtue of its collapsing the wavefunction of an interrogating photon – even though it has no physical contact with the photon. …

For many hours a day they pluck dirt, debris and bugs from each other’s fur. Between grooming sessions they travel in troops to search for food. When ignored by mom, they throw tantrums; when not ignored by zoo-goers, they throw feces. Through these behaviors, monkeys demonstrate they understand the meaning of social interactions with other monkeys. They recognize when their peers are grooming one another and infer social rank from seeing such actions within their group. But it has long been unclear how the brains of our close evolutionary relatives actually process what they observe of these social situations. New findings published Thursday in Science offer a clue. A team of researchers from The Rockefeller University have identified a network in the monkey brain dedicated exclusively to analyzing social interactions. And they believe this network could be akin to human brains’ social circuitry.  In the new work—led by Winrich Freiwald, an associate professor of neurosciences …

Elon Musk has built a formidable personal brand on futuristic visions of driverless cars and space travel. But the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Tesla CEO could soon make a very real impact in a much-nearer future—and much closer to home—simply by helping U.S. homeowners harness the power of sunlight. This summer Tesla aims to begin installing solar cell roof tiles that look and act like ordinary shingles. Tesla says the tempered glass tiles let light reach the solar cells embedded within them but can take a hit from a hailstone traveling 100 miles per hour. The design costs more than the solar panel assemblies already perched atop many homes, but the company hopes the tiles’ slicker aesthetics—they come with choices like “textured” or “smooth”—will win over reluctant customers. Technical details are scarce, but experts say the tiles appear to rely on the latest solar cell technology wrapped in a package that attempts to be more …

On the heels of one failed drug trial after another, a recent study suggests people with early Alzheimer’s disease could reap modest benefits from a device that uses magnetic fields to produce small electric currents in the brain. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disorder that afflicts more than 46 million people worldwide. At present there are no treatments that stop or slow its progression, although several approved drugs offer temporary relief from memory loss and other cognitive symptoms by preventing the breakdown of chemical messengers among nerve cells. The new study tested a regimen that combines computerized cognitive training with a procedure known as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has cleared rTMS devices for some migraine sufferers as well as for people with depression who have not responded to antidepressant medications. Last month at the 13th International Conference on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases in Vienna, Israel-based Neuronix reported results of …

When people work together on a project, they often come to think they’ve figured out the problems in their own respective spheres. If trouble persists, it’s somebody else—engineering, say, or the marketing department—who is screwing up. That “local focus” means finding the best way forward for the overall project is often a struggle. But what if adding artificial intelligence to the conversation, in the form of a computer program called a bot, could actually make people in groups more productive? This is the tantalizing implication of a study published Wednesday in Nature. Hirokazu Shirado and Nicholas Christakis, researchers at Yale University’s Institute for Network Science, were wondering what would happen if they looked at artificial intelligence (AI) not in the usual way—as a potential replacement for people—but instead as a useful companion and helper, particularly for altering human social behavior in groups. First the researchers asked paid volunteers arranged in online networks, each occupying one …

Friendly collaborators: Jordan’s King Abdullah delegates from SESAME member states and supporting organizations A scientific facility designed to foster collaboration in the Middle East is finally open after taking 15 years to build. The Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) was officially opened yesterday by King Abdullah II of Jordan in a ceremony at the lab’s site near Amman, Jordan. SESAME is a third-generation synchrotron light source and will be used by scientists in the region for a range of experiments from condensed-matter physics to biology. The synchrotron, which has a relatively small 133 m circumference, features an 800 MeV pre-booster ring that sends a beam of electrons to the main storage ring that in turn boosts their energies to 2.5 GeV – a feat that was first achieved on 27 April – with the particles then producing intense and monochromatic beams of X-rays. Over the past year, construction accelerated with the core storage …

Pseudoscientific claims that music helps plants grow have been made for decades, despite evidence that is shaky at best. Yet new research suggests some flora may be capable of sensing sounds, such as the gurgle of water through a pipe or the buzzing of insects. In a recent study, Monica Gagliano, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Western Australia, and her colleagues placed pea seedlings in pots shaped like an upside-down Y. One arm of each pot was placed in either a tray of water or a coiled plastic tube through which water flowed; the other arm had only soil. The roots grew toward the arm of the pipe with the fluid, regardless of whether it was easily accessible or hidden inside the tubing. “They just knew the water was there, even if the only thing to detect was the sound of it flowing inside the pipe,” Gagliano says. Yet when the seedlings were …

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