Category: Science

SatNav makes you stupid

Using SatNav messes with the parts of your brain which help you navigate normally.

Boffins writing in the journal Nature Communications rscanned the brains of 24 volunteers as they explored a simulation through the streets of London’s Soho district.

The researchers from the University of London found that listening to a satellite navigation’s instructions “switched off” activity in parts of the brain used for navigation.

A bit of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in both memory and spatial navigation, appears to encode two different maps of the environment. The first tracks the distance to the final destination as the crow flies and is encoded by the frontal region of the hippocampus, the other tracks the “true path” to the goal and is encoded by its rear region.

During the navigation tasks, the hippocampus acts like a flexible guidance system, flipping between these two maps according to changing demands. Activity in the hippocampal rear region acts like a homing signal, increasing as the goal gets closer.

Analysis of the brain-scanning data revealed activity in the rear right of the hippocampus increased whenever the participants entered a new street while navigating. It also varied with the number of new path options available. The more alternatives there were, the greater the brain activity.

The researchers also found that activity in the front of the hippocampus was associated with a property called centrality, defined by the proximity of each new street to the centre of the network.

Activity could be seen in the participants’ prefrontal cortices when they were forced to make a detour and had to replan their route — and this increased in relation to the number of options available.

However when participants followed SatNav instructions, brain activity in these regions “switched off” and the whole lot had a snooze.

Together, the new findings suggest the rear portion of the hippocampus reactivates spatial memories of possible navigation paths, with more available paths evoking more activity, and that the prefrontal cortex may contribute to path-planning by searching though different route options and selecting the best one.

Time warp takes a jump to the left on common sense

Boffins are becoming increasingly bewildered by some of the antics of time including one which means that time is getting fuzzier as clocks become more precise

A team of physicists from the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Sciences have applied quantum mechanics and general relativity to argue that increasing the precision of measurements on clocks in the same space warps time.

But while the theories are both supported by experiments, they usually do not play well together, forcing physicists to consider a new theory that will allow them both to be correct at the same time.

Now the boffins are working on a theory which suggests that the act of measuring time in greater detail needs the possibility of increasing amounts of energy into time makes any clocks less precise.

Researcher Esteban Castro said the findings suggest that it needs to re-examine its ideas about the nature of time when both quantum mechanics and general relativity are considered.

It also means that the universe doesn’t have a master clock which it runs to and it can never make spaceships run on time.

Silicon Valley’s top brains try to sort out the singularity

Some of Silicon Valley’s top brains are trying to work out how to stuff their grey matter into the machines they build.

Bryan Johnson, the founder of Braintree online payments, and Elon Musk have both been trying to work out how to store their brains on their PCs to obtain a form of immortality.

According to MIT Technology Review, Johnson is effectively jumping on an opportunity created by the Brain Initiative, an Obama-era project which ploughed money into new schemes for recording neurons.

That influx of cash has spurred the formation of several other startups, including Paradromics and Cortera, also developing novel hardware for collecting brain signals. As part of the government brain project, the defense R&D agency DARPA says it is close to announcing $60 million in contracts under a program to create a “high-fidelity” brain interface able to simultaneously record from one million neurons – the current record is about 200 – and stimulate 100,000 at a time.

Several tech sector luminaries are looking for technology that might fuse human and artificial intelligence. In addition to Johnson, Elon Musk has been teasing a project called “neural lace,” which he said at a 2016 conference will lead to “symbiosis with machines”.

And Mark Zuckerberg declared in a 2015 Q&A that people will one day can share “full sensory and emotional experiences,” not just photos. Facebook has been hiring neuroscientists for an undisclosed project at Building 8, its secretive hardware division.

However, Elon Musk has been also moaning that the current speeds for transferring signals from brains are “ridiculously slow”.

 

Trump slashes US science funding

The US government has cut funding to science as part of its cunning plan to return to a nice biblical view of things.

Donald (Prince of Orange) Trump has decided that there is far too much science which assumes really weird things, like the earth is older than six thousand years, and that everything is going to be wiped out by a giant flood. All of this is impossible according to the Bible, so he does not see why the US is funding it.

Instead Trump’s first budget plan wants to invest piles of cash in the military. The plan, released on 16 March, calls for double-digit cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health. It also lays the foundation for a broad shift in the United States’ research priorities, including a retreat from environmental and climate programmes.

Boffins are worried that the Trump administration’s stance will jeopardise US leadership in fields ranging from climate science to cancer biology. The US has only started to recover from President George Bush’s veto on the use of stem cells which were made for similar reasons. But these cuts are more sweeping.

Jason Rao, director of international affairs at the American Society for Microbiology in Washington DC. The greatest threats to the United States, he says, are those presented by infectious diseases, climate change, and energy production — which cannot be addressed effectively without scientific research.

The Trump budget will cut funding for the NIH by 18 percent , to $25.9 billion, making it one of the hardest-hit research agencies. The document also calls for a reorganisation of the NIH’s 27 institutes — including the elimination of the smallest, the Fogarty International Centre — but offers no further detail beyond a pledge to “rebalance Federal contributions to research funding”.

It appears that the move is based on a paranoia in the Bush camp that the NIH is overstepping its powers.

On the plus side Trump would also create a fund within the Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH’s parent, to respond to public health emergencies such as the spread of the Zika virus.

Scientists and public health experts have called for such a fund for years, but advocates say that starting one while cutting research and prevention programmes is pointless. It is cheaper to prevent a crisis than mop one up afterwards.

But the Environmental Protection Agency is going to lose a third of its $8.2-billion budget and 3,200 its 15,000 staff. The EPA’s Office of Research and Development would see its funding reduced by half, from $483 million to $250 million.

All this is because Trump does not believe in climate and environmental regulations. One biologist, who studies chemicals that affect the endocrine system in fish and potentially people, is part of a programme that Trump wants to eliminate. She said that the reason is that if there’s no science to point out potential problems, there won’t be any more regulations.

The White House wants to cut 5.6 percent, or $1.7 billion, from the Department of Energy (DOE). The plan would eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research. And it would slash $900 million, or about 20 percent, from the DOE’s Office of Science, which supports research on topics such as high-energy physics, energy, climate change and biology.

The Trump plan does not include an overall funding target for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But it would eliminate the agency’s long-running, $73-million Sea Grant programme, which supports 33 US colleges and universities that conduct research, education and training about ocean and coastal topics.

Still this is good news for the rest of the world as it will mean that while the US is dumbing down, it can take control of scientific developments without much in the way of competition. The UK did rather well when George Bush dropped the ball on stem cell research so it is likely that European research will do well.

What should be more worrying for Trump is that his moves will give more power to the Chinese and Russian governments who will also have time to catch up.

Robot kills fellow worker

In what could be a first, a robot is being sued for killing a human colleague.

In July 2015, Wanda Holbrook, “a maintenance technician performing routine duties on an assembly line” at an auto-parts maker in Ionia, Michigan, called Ventra Ionia Main, “was ‘trapped by robotic machinery’ and crushed to death”.

On March 7, her husband, William Holbrook, filed a wrongful death complaint in Michigan federal court, naming five North American robotics companies involved in engineering and integrating the machines and parts used at the plant. These included Prodomax, Flex-N-Gate, FANUC, Nachi, and Lincoln Electric.

Holbrook’s job involved keeping robots in working order. She routinely inspected and adjusted processes on the assembly line at Ventra, which makes bumpers.

Holbrook was performing her regular duties when a machine acted very irregularly, according to the lawsuit reported in Courthouse News.

Holbrook was in the plant’s six-cell “100 section” when a robot unexpectedly activated, taking her by surprise. The cells are separated by safety doors and the robot should not have been able to move. But it somehow reached Holbrook, and was intent on loading a trailer-hitch assembly part right where she stood over a similar part in another cell.

The machine loaded the hardware onto Holbrook’s head. She was unable to escape, and her skull was crushed. Co-workers who eventually noticed that something seemed amiss found Holbrook dead.

William Holbrook seeks an unspecified amount of damages, arguing that before her gruesome death, his wife “suffered tremendous fright, shock and conscious pain and suffering”.

He also names three of the defendants — FANUC, Nachi, and Lincoln Electric — in two additional claims of product liability and breach of implied warranty.

The case argues that the robots, tools, controllers, and associated parts were not properly designed, manufactured or tested, and not fit for use.

“The robot from section 130 should have never entered section 140, and should have never attempted to load a hitch assembly within a fixture that was already loaded with a hitch assembly. A failure of one or more of defendants’ safety systems or devices had taken place, causing Wanda’s death,” the lawsuit alleges.

Amazon wants help improving Alexa

Online book seller Amazon.com has launched a new programme to help students build capabilities into its voice controlled assistant Alexa.

The e-commerce company said it is paying for a year long doctoral fellowship at four universities.

Working with professors, the Alexa Fund Fellows will help students tackle complex technology problems in class on Alexa, like how to convert text to speech or process conversation.

Amazon and Google is locked in a race to develop and make cash from artificial intelligence. Amazon has made it easy for third party developers to create skills for Alexa so it can get better faster – a tactic it now is extending to the classroom.

The other idea is that Amazon might be able to recruit sought after engineers whose studies will make them more familiar with Alexa than with other voice controlled assistants.

Schools signed up for the programme include Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, the University of Southern California and Canada’s University of Waterloo.

Doug Booms, vice president of worldwide corporate development at Amazon, said that the fellowship’s goal is to excite the next generation of scholars about natural language understanding and other voice technologies, not to produce research for Amazon.

Students’ projects will remain their own intellectual property.

For example at the University of Waterloo, students are improving Alexa’s interaction with air conditioners so it understands requests to cool a room to its normal temperature, without requiring the user to specify a number in Celsius.

Youtube cuts giraffe feed because of smut

US puritans in YouTube have shut down a live feed to a giraffe enclosure claiming it is an X-rated hot bed of pornographic necking.

Millions of people have been watching and waiting with anticipation to witness the birth of a baby giraffe at Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, NY and the park set up a webcam to share the precious and educational moment with the world.

The site attracted more than 20-30 million views in the 12 hours the site was up. It is not surprising as April the giraffe is 15 years old and is expecting a calf with her mate, Oliver.

However, someone contacted YouTube to complain that the site was immoral and packed full of porn. What is amazing is that they found another puritan in YouTube who agreed with them and the site was pulled.

“For the millions of you that have been tuning in to take witness to this educational experience, a live giraffe birth, there are a handful of extremists and animal rights activists that may not agree with us, and that’s okay, but have unfortunately reported our YouTube cam as sexually explicit or nude content, which has made for its removal,” park officials said on Facebook Live.

According to YouTube’s guidelines:

“Sexually explicit content like pornography is not allowed. Videos containing fetish content will be removed or age-restricted depending on the severity of the act in question. In most cases, violent, graphic, or humiliating fetishes are not allowed to be shown on YouTube.”

The announcement seemed to have many viewers puzzled. One person commented, “Does this mean the animals in the zoo will soon be wearing clothes?”

YouTube finally realised that banning educational sites based on the age old puritan tradition of seeing sex, or witches, were there aren’t any was not going to fly and re-instated the live feed probably safe for work. We had a look this morning and it was a giraffe chewing for 10 minutes, we guess it must have turned someone on.

https://www.facebook.com/fox46charlotte/videos/484025361721568/

 

Bloke builds his own open saucy self-driving car

A self-driving car does not have to cost you a fortune if you can get away from the car industry, according to a University of Nebraska student.

According to MIT Technology Review Brevan Jorgenson used open source software to convert his Honda Civic into a high tech self-driving car,

His homemade device in place of the rear-view mirror can control the brakes, accelerator, and steering, and it uses a camera to identify road markings and other cars.

Jorgenson built the lot using plans and software downloaded from the internet, plus about $700 in parts.

He started his project after George Hotz of Comma.ai, a San Francisco startup that was developing a $999 device that could upgrade certain vehicles to steer themselves on the highway and follow stop-and-go traffic.

Hotz was forced to cancel plans to launch the product after receiving a letter asking questions about its functionality from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In November, he released the company’s hardware designs and software for free, saying he wanted to empower researchers and hobbyists.

The whole thing is powered by a OnePlus 3 smartphone equipped with Comma’s now-free Openpilot software, a circuit board that connects the device to the car’s electronics, and a 3-D-printed case. Jorgenson got the case printed by an online service and soldered the board together himself.

Subsequent tests revealed that the Neo would inexplicably pull to the right sometimes, but a software update released by Comma quickly fixed that. Now fully working, the system is similar in capabilities to the initial version of Tesla’s AutoPilot.

Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, says that federal and state laws probably don’t pose much of a barrier to those with a desire to upgrade their vehicle to share driving duties. NHTSA has authority over companies selling vehicles and systems used to modify them, but consumers have significant flexibility in making changes to their own vehicle, says Smith, who advises the US Department of Transportation on law and automation.

Woolly mammoth making a come back from the dead

While the Dodo has gone the way of the dodo, boffins who have never read Jurassic Park are close to bringing back the woolly mammoth.

Without needing to get any public liability insurance, the team of boffins are on the brink of resurrecting the ancient beast in a revised form, through an ambitious feat of genetic engineering.

Speaking ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week, the scientist leading the “de-extinction” effort said the Harvard team is just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant.

“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” said Prof George Church. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with many mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”

So not quite the animal that died out 4,000 years ago but more a “mammophant”, would be partly elephant, but with features such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood.

The mammoth genes for these traits are spliced into the elephant DNA using the powerful gene-editing tool, Crispr.

So far, the team have stopped at the cell stage, but are now moving towards creating embryos – although, they said that it would be many years before any serious attempt at producing a living creature.

“We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab,” said Church.

Since starting the project in 2015 the researchers have increased the number of “edits” where mammoth DNA has been spliced into the elephant genome from 15 to 45.

Some of these modifications could help preserve the Asian elephant, which is also in trouble and might follow its shaggy ancestor into the elephant species grave yard.

Some other scientists are a little worried that the genetics boffins have not thought things through enough.

Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, points out that the mammoth was not simply a set of genes, it was a social animal, as is the modern Asian elephant. What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by other elephants?

The woolly mammoth roamed across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America during the last Ice Age and vanished about 4,000 years ago, probably due to a combination of climate change and the fact that mammoth steaks were rather delicious.

 

India breaks record for most satellites launched at once

India has successfully launched 104 satellites at once using its Isro’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

The Indians broke a record for the most satellites launched at once which was set by the Russians who launched 37 in one go in 2014.

PSLV-C37 carrying the 104 satellites lifted off from the first launch pad at Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota at 9.28am. Seventeen minutes later, the rocket started placing the satellites into orbit, one by one with a time-frame of about 11 minutes.

Out of the total 104 satellites placed in orbit, 101 satellites belonged to six foreign countries. They included 96 from the US and one each from Israel, the UAE, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Kazakhstan.

PSLV first injected its main payload Cartosat- 2 series, India’s indigenously built earth observation satellite. It was followed by two other nanosatellites of Isro —- INS-1A and INS-1B.

Needless to say, the satellites were rather small nanosatellites but getting them all successfully deployed from one lift off was still a significant feat.

Mission director B Jayakumar said the launch involved complex issues in management and maneuvering to ensure nothing collided.

Director, Isro Satellite Centre Mayilsamy Annadurai said, “We can also hit centuries like our cricketers. In another two months, the number of satellites built by Isro will reach 100. Besides GSLV missions, we have get Chandrayan – 2 ready for launch next year.”

Among the foreign satellites, 88 cube satellites belonged to San Francisco-based earth imaging startup Planet. With the launch, the company has increased its fleet to 143 satellites which will soon begin capturing images of the earth’s entire landmass, including India, every day.
Eight other satellites belonging to Spire Global, US, will provide services for vessel tracking and weather measurement.