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Asimov’s First Law In Action: This Robot Can’t Figure Out How To Do The Right Thing

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robotsIsaac Asimov’s first law of robotics is that a robot can’t harm a human or allow a human to come to harm. The purpose behind the law is to avert robot apocalypse scenarios and generally assuage people’s fear of artificial life. The problem with the law, though, is implementation. Robots don’t speak English—how would one code or program such a law, especially given how vague the notion of harm is? Does taking jobs from humans constitute harm? In Asimov’s short story “Liar,” a mind-reading robot realizes that harm can also be emotional, and lies to humans to avoid hurting their feelings, which of course only harms them more in the long run. All of this raises the bigger issue of whether robots can be programmed or taught to behave ethically, which is the subject of debate among roboticists. A recent experiment conducted by Alan Winfield of the UK’s Bristol Robotics Laboratory sheds some light on this question, and raises a new question: do we really want our robots to try and be ethical?

The experiment revolved around a task designed to exemplify Asimov’s first law. Only instead of interacting with humans, the robot subject interacted with robot substitutes. But the rule remained the same—the study robot, A, was programmed to move toward a goal at the opposite end of the table, and to “save” any of the human substitute bots (h-robots) if at all possible as they moved toward a hole.

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Boeing Wins Manned Spacecraft Bid—We Think

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Boeing-capsule-CST-100When President Obama announced the end of the Constellation program, many people worried about the U.S. not having a method of transport for its own astronauts. Since then, American astronauts have been buying rides to the ISS on Russian Soyuz capsules. Given that Russia will soon be bowing out of the ISS, it’s now particularly important that NASA figures out another way to transport its astronauts. Hence the Commercial Crew Program, NASA’s way of soliciting transportation services from private companies. The three contenders were SpaceX’s Dragon, Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser, and Boeing’s CST-100. This morning, the Wall Street Journal reported that NASA “is poised” to award the $3 billion to Boeing.

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Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Thinks 1984 Could Become A Reality

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sotomayorWhile many people serving in the government don’t seem to understand the first thing about science or technology, it’s good to see that some politicians are paying attention to the consequences of technological development. Addressing faculty and students of Oklahoma City University last week, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned about how lack of privacy could lead to a dystopian and “Orwellian world.”

As with many of us, 1984, and the ways in which it accurately predicted the impact of technology and privacy invasions, has stuck with Sotomayor. Because of technology that enables devices and people to “listen to your conversations from miles away and through your walls,” she said that our modern society is “in that brave new world, and [is] capable of being in that Orwellian world, too.”

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New Type Of Male Birth Control On The Way

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condomsRemember back in sex ed when your teacher demonstrated how to put on a condom by using a banana? That was probably the best argument for abstinence I can think of. Even though it was back in the fifth grade, I still have vivid memories of my teacher, who was fairly old, struggling with to get the condom out of the package, and then over the tip of the banana, which seemed at the time to be frighteningly large. The males in the class seemed even more freaked out at the thought of one day putting one on themselves, and suddenly birth control pills seemed like a pretty good idea (understandably, our teacher didn’t bring up the possibility of a vasectomy). Sex ed teachers will soon have another form of male birth control to tell students about — something called Vasalgel, which works by blocking sperm from leaving the vas deferens.

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Baby Born With Four Arms And Four Legs Undergoes Successful Surgery

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babyAt the end of May, a mother in eastern Uganda gave birth to a boy with four legs and four arms. While I’m sure seeing her son for the first time was a shock, I keep wondering about the birth itself. It’s hard enough to give birth to a child with half as many limbs. Recently, the baby, Paul, underwent a pioneering surgery in which he was separated from what doctors diagnosed as a parasitic twin.

Paul’s mother gave birth at home, and as you can imagine, she and her family lit out for the nearest hospital immediately, fearing that they had been the victims of witchcraft and would be ostracized by their community. The regional hospital wasn’t equipped to deal with the situation, so they sent the family to the Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to the Mulago Hospital. That’s where doctors determined that the extra limbs were a result of something called parasitic twinning, which is pretty much just what it sounds like — a twin which, rather than growing normally, or even conjoining in typical Siamese twin fashion, never fully developed. The twin’s head and heart never developed, but some parts of it — the limbs — did, and those parts essentially relied on Paul’s blood and body to keep them alive.

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Blood Type May Affect Cognition And Memory

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blood typeA number of years ago, I came across a book called Eat Right For Your Blood Type, which argues one’s blood type determines the foods that are optimal for them, and also affects one’s personality. It’s one of those claims I thought was total bullshit until I began reading through the section for my blood type, which happens to be “B.” The generalizations there were spot on — but hey, horoscopes, or anything that vaguely assigns characteristics to big groups of people, can be spot on too, right? And I’ll never stop eating corn or lentils. One of the disconcerting parts of the write-up is the assertion that type B people tend to lose their mental acuity and memory fairly drastically with age. I’ve thought about this from time to time when I can’t seem to find the word I want or can’t remember events that at one point seemed unforgettable, but have generally dismissed it — until now. A new study published in Neurology asserts that, indeed, blood type may correspond to loss of memory later in life, particularly for people with AB type blood.

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