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Help Researchers Figure Out How To Help Robots Understand Your Commands

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robobutlerWhile significant strides have been made recently in natural language processing, one of the current drawbacks for most robots is the inability to understand language that isn’t coded in ones and zeroes. For programmers, a future full of robotic servants, coworkers, and mates might seem pretty exciting, but for those of us who would rely on spoken language to communicate with robots, it seems a little more daunting. Cornell’s Robot Learning Lab is hard at work on this problem, trying to teach robots to take verbal instructions.

Language itself is often vague and broad — take Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, for instance. The first law is that a robot cannot harm a human, or allow a human to come to harm. At first glance, that might seem clear enough, but what exactly constitutes harm? Asimov himself posed this question in the story “Liar!” which features a mind-reading robot named Herbie. Herbie lies to its human colleagues because it knows what they want it to say — he tells an ambitious human that he’s next in line for a big promotion, and he tells a heartsick human that her feelings for her coworker are reciprocated. Herbie lies because telling people what they don’t want to hear would be emotionally harmful, but of course when they realize Herbie has been lying they’re humiliated and undergo harm anyway. Asimov’s law is typically interpreted as intending to prevent physical harm, but Herbie’s read of the law makes sense, given the different types of harm one can experience. If a robot were to be programmed with such a law, the robot would also have to be programmed with an understanding of all the different interpretations of the word harm, as well as relative harm (a scratch versus a bullet wound, etc).

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Man Fined For Jamming Cell Phones On Daily Commute

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phoneIf you don’t want Google Glass wearers accessing data around you, you can use a new program to disrupt and block their Wi-Fi. It’s even easier to do essentially the same thing to cell phones using a cell phone jammer, which retails anywhere from $150-$400, depending on how powerful a device it is. While I can certainly understand the urge to jam cell phones, especially on public transportation, a motorist was recently fined $48,000 by the FCC for using a jammer on his commute.

60-year-old James Humphreys bought an illegal cell phone jammer and used it for two years before he was caught. The technology is pretty simple, really, and works like any other radio communication-jamming device—by denying service of the same radio frequencies that a cell phone uses, and interrupting the phone’s communication with cell phone towers. Low-powered jammers can block phone usage for about 30 feet, but higher-powered ones can block signals for about a mile. In the U.S., the Communications Act of 1934 makes cell phone jamming illegal, and is supposed to make the manufacture and sale of those devices illegal as well. Private citizens in most countries can’t legally jam cell phones, though certain organizations can, such as prisons, parliament in India, and performances spaces in France. Until this case, the FCC hadn’t targeted any individuals for jamming cell phones.

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“Magic Island” Appears And Disappears From Titan’s Lakes

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Titan lakeA few months after the donut-shaped Mars rock made its mysterious appearance (which we now know was thanks to being moved around by Opportunity Rover), scientists are pondering another great, and bigger, cosmic mystery — an object described as a “magic island” that suddenly appeared and then disappeared from one of Titan’s lakes.

NASA’s Cassini probe has been hanging out around Saturn’s largest moon for a while now, capturing image after remarkable image. Scientists examining those images found one that revealed a big object in the middle of one of Titan’s biggest bodies of water, Ligeia Mare, which is nearly 500 feet deep. Cassini snapped images of the sea in 2007, 2009, and 2013, and an image from July 10, 2013 shows a mysterious white blob, which scientists are calling the “magic island” until they know more. The island is approximately six miles wide and 12 miles long, and it doesn’t appear in images captured just two weeks later.

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UV Radiation Makes Mice (And Humans) Feel Good To The Point Of Addiction

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tanningA while back, GFR reported on a study that found the scent of males blocks pain. Namely, proximity to a male researcher, or even clothing worn by a man, heightened the stress level of the rodents, which caused them to produce more corticosterone, which dulls the pain response. Scientists now think that ultraviolet radiation causes a similar response in humans, producing endorphins that block pain and make people feel good. So it seems that our love for sunlight is about a lot more than getting a tan.

In a study published in Cell, researchers from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital did UV radiation experiments on mice. They shaved a bunch of the rodents, and for six weeks let them soak in a moderate amount of UV rays (about 30 minutes a day), measuring their levels of beta-endorphins and their responses to pain. Their beta-endorphins were much higher than those of the mice that weren’t exposed, and they also had a higher resistance to pain. The team also let the mice choose whether to hang out in a brightly lit cage or a dark one. Since mice are nocturnal they generally chose the darkness, but the UV-exposed subjects were all for the light.

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Today In 1633 Galileo Was Deemed A Heretic

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galileo and jupiterCopernicus wasn’t the first person to theorize that the Earth revolved around the sun, but he was the first person to publish support for the theory that anyone paid attention to. In 1543, he published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri VI (“Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs”), which asserted the idea Philolaus and Hicetas, Greek philosophers stargazing in about 500 BC, first posited: that the Earth is round, and that it revolved around a “central fire” that holds the universe together. Even though the heliocentric model of the universe was first conceived long, long ago, it wasn’t until Galileo came along in the 1600s and proved it that people’s views began to shift. Of course, Galileo paid a price for his work: 381 years ago today, the Vatican declared him a heretic.

The heliocentric model had a few sticking points: that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe, of course, but also that the positions of the stars seemed never to change, regardless of Earth’s supposed orbit around the sun. It was in response to that second item that Claudius Ptolemy theorized that if Earth were fixed, and everything else revolved around it, then that would explain why the stars never moved. This made sense to folks, so the geocentric theory reigned for almost 1,500 years.

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3D-Printed Mini Livers And Bionic Pancreases

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bionic pancreasJust a few months ago GFR reported on advances in bioprinting or the 3D printing of tissues, bones, cells, and other body parts, and how scientists were on the verge of achieving the ultimate goal of creating viable organs. Scientists are now one step closer—they’re 3D-printing mini livers and creating bionic pancreases.

MIT’s Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia, director of the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies, has created tiny human livers. They contain approximately one million cells and resemble contact lenses in appearance. This isn’t the first time scientists have 3D-printed a human liver, but the MIT team has refined techniques for doing so. Bioprinting involves building an organ layer by layer, and instead of the literal, physical printing out of each layer, Bhatia’s team has been experimenting with building layers with light-sensitive materials. The specific technique depends on the organ, and the liver is a bit of an anomaly because of its ability to regenerate without a stem cell. This raises the question of whether livers could be prompted to generate, once a base is printed.