Tag: boffins

Boffins uses lasers to make fruit flies moonwalk

Boffins from the Vienna University of Technology and US researchers have hatched out a plan to control fruit flies with lasers.

We are not sure of what inspired someone from a university to think “the world would be a better place if we could control fruit flies” and then to think “what would happen if I fried the beggars with a laser”.

According to RedOrbit, after taking that initial inspiration, that same boffin convinced his chums at the Information Management and Preservation Lab within the Department of Software Technology and Interactive Systems at VUT to develop something called FlyMAD (Fly Mind Altering Device) which targets either light or heat to a specific body region of a fly that is in motion, triggering a response.

FlyMAD has allowed the boffins to zero in on two specific neuronal cell types that deal with courtship behaviour of the fruit fly. So when a male fly is just getting his box of chocolates and floral tie ready for his first date he has his neural pathways fried with a laser and made them moonwalk. It also stuffed up their courtship song.

FlyMAD, unlike previous techniques used in this field, provides researchers with a much more highly improved temporal resolution of their subject animals.

The entire system basically consists of an enclosed box in which the flies are housed. A video camera, can track several flies at once, captures the motion of the flies. The flies are then subjected to targeted irradiation that effectively allows the researchers to alter neural pathways.

The results of this study, which could potentially yield new and further insight into the mammalian brain, was published online on May 25 in the journal Nature Methods.

Of course it is not clear when scientists will be turning their lasers onto dating humans. We will know when they start to think that moonwalking is a good way to pick up members of the opposite sex. 

Nvidia invites global boffins to GPU love-fest

NVDA is wheeling out its CEO Jen-Hsun Huang to kick-start the GTC Asia event, part of its GPU Technology Conference series, looking at and promoting – guess what? – GPUs.

All manner of boffins will be attending, including representatives from HP Labs, Harvard University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Swiss National Supercomputing Center, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Institute of Process Engineering and more.

The whole idea of GTC Asia, Nvidia says, is a platform for developers, programmers and research scientists to share their findings on complex computational problems by using GPUs.

As you can imagine, with that many boffins in tow to speak, there will be a lot of talk about how GPUs can advance scientific research and other areas of academia.

There will also be an emerging companies summit, which Nvidia promises will show off start-ups using GPUs to push forward modern computing.

Potential CUDA boffins of the future are invited to indulge in a CUDA student workshop.

Nvidia is certain that the world needs its almighty GPUs if it’s going to achieve that lofty goal of exascale computing.

MIT plants Terminator seeds with Civilization II despot computer

Researchers over at MIT have decided to teach computers a task many of us refuse to learn – how to read a manual and put that knowledge into effect.

The scientists say computers are “great at treating words as data”. So they put the manual to Civilization II in front of a machine and let it loose.

Beginning with hardly any data or know-how, one computer was able to infer the meanings of words merely by reading instructions on how to install software, which were posted on Microsoft’s website.

Another was able to install and play the empire-building crack-like Civilization II by reading the gameplay manual. In fact, after reading the manual, the PC’s winning rate jumped from 46 percent to 79 percent.

The brainchild behind the experiment – Regina Barzilay, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering, said that games were used as a test bed for artificial-intelligence techniques simply because of their complexity.

She pointed out that every action that is taken in a game doesn’t have a pre-determined outcome, because the game or the opponent can randomly react to what their competitors do.

The manuals were perfect for the computers as they had very open text and didn’t tell a person how to win, meaning that the machine had to “think” for itself.

Apparently, the instructions of the game presents the computer with a list of actions it can take. This includes right-clicks or left-clicks, or moving the cursor. Although it can see these instructions there is nothing telling the computer which actions will make it successful.

It begins with random actions, which in the case of Civilization II, bring up different words on the screen.

By comparing these words to instructions in the manual it’s able to get a picture of what it’s doing and whether these actions work.

When it came to the software manual, the system was able to reproduce 80 percent of the steps that a human reading the same instructions would execute.

The researchers intend to carry on working on this theory and in time apply it to robots, meaning we could eventually be playing against these. Or more realistically, they haven’t seen the Terminator franchise and, in the end, Civ is going to destroy us the same way it destroyed our sleep cycles.

Boffins create Grandroid to help the elderly

We love our grandparents but they sometimes have a habit of annoying us by sending us back and forth to fetch cups of tea, blankets and even their teeth. Is all this enough to make you want to leave them with a robot?

If the answer is yes, you’re probably insane. But if you find an electronic friend you can trust your luck could be in. Scientists over in Germany have been working on a robot specifically to cater for Germany’s ageing population.

Going by the name of Casero, the robot isn’t the stuff of sci-fi. It has no arms or legs, is faceless and cannot speak. However, in around two years, its scientist parents at Duisburg University  predict that the device – as big as a shopping trolley – could become a regular alongside care workers in care homes.

Casero has several cameras and sensors, which help it move around without bashing into anything or knocking over zimmer frames. It can carry loads of up to 100 kilograms.  Casero can even take a lift, summoning it via a wireless internet connection and riding by itself to a different floor.

However, the little man doesn’t come cheap, and is as expensive as a full-time worker.

It looks like the scientists have been busy creating a sister for Casero too. The Care-O-Bot 3 is still in robot infancy, but is already much more polite than her brother. For starters she speaks and introduces itself upon entering a room. When she hands a drink on a tray, she amiably asks them to empty the glass before pouring the brandy.

The Grandroid has a colour camera that surveys her surroundings in a way similar to human eyes and an infrared 3D scanner. She can even recognise faces. When a person’s photograph is fed into its electronic memory, Care-O-Bot 3 can distinguish it from a multitude of others. 

Scientists summon up demon

Scientists have managed to summon a demon which has only been referred to before in an 150 year-old dusty book.

Any demonic expert will warn you that summoning demons found in stray books is likely to lead to spinning heads and projectile vomit. At the very least you end up with unwanted babies and scorch marks in the carpet.

However, the scientists were working on a demon of an idea which was originally formulated by physicist James Clerk Maxwell, which appeared to violate the second law of thermodynamics.

The demon suggested that boffins could convert information into pure energy. Maxwell could only write about it because he didn’t have the right gear, and besides virgins are thin on the ground these days.

The experiment was that if you add hot and cold water, the law of thermodynamics suggests that the water will get colder.

Maxwell suggested that a demon could separate the water into two compartments and reverse the process, isolating hot molecules from cold by letting only the hotter-than-average through a trap-door between the compartments.

He said that the mixed water is more disordered than separated water and therefore the demon has converted a system from a state of disorder to a state of order, using only the knowledge of which molecules were hot and cold.

Sheesh, a demon which brings order out of chaos, no wonder the experiment never caught on with Evil Magicians.

It also did not catch the eye of physicists either because it violated the law, which also states that disorder should not decrease in an isolated system. The demon couldn’t separate the hot and cold water without expending energy.

But Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd thought it was possible because the demon would in fact have had to expend some energy to ascertain which molecules are hot and cold.

According to the journal Nature Physics, which we get for the cut price Occam’s Razor (for that closer smoother shave free of all illusion) Shoichi Toyabe of Chuo University in Japan and mates got together a triangle of the art, made a circle out of pig’s blood and summoned Maxwell’s demon.

Study coauthor Masaki Sano of the University of Tokyo said these days we have the technology to take snap shots of single molecules so it’s not difficult to make Maxwell’s demon.

They set set up a very miniature version of a spiral staircase and caused a molecule to climb up this staircase using information. The staircase was actually made of potential energy and created using electric fields.

The scientists used a high-speed camera to take snaps the molecule. When it happened to be moving up the staircase, they let it move freely, but when it happened to be moving down the staircase, the researchers blocked its motion.

The blocking motion was Maxwell’s demon.

As the particle moved up the staircase, it gained energy because it moved to a location of higher potential. The boffins did not have to push the particle up the mountain. All it needed was data about which direction it happened to be moving.

Not only were the researchers able to move the particle up the stairs, but they were able to precisely measure how much energy was converted from information.

Basically the experiment showed that it’s possible to create energy out of information.

Of course it does not mean that the demon will be powering your house anytime soon. Apparently it takes more energy to summon one than it generates. Demons of today are not what they used to be. They just sing the theme song to flicks like “Titanic” or popular tunes like “you’re beautiful”. Entropy is just not evil enough these days. 

Anti-piracy cameras spy on movie goers

CCTV cameras installed in theatres to make sure that no one pirates movies will be used by advertisers to monitor audience responses.

According to the Daily Mail, advertisers will  look at the footage to monitor your reaction to a film and fine-tune their adverts to make them more effective.

Apparently while you are watching your flick,  3D imaging software will analyse your faces for reactions.

They can do this thanks to Machine Vision Lab who are experts in facial recognition technology at the University of the West of England.

Apparently it has received £215,000 funding for the project.

Machine Vision Lab’s Dr Abdul Farooq said that the plan to build on the capabilities of current technology used in cinemas to detect criminals making pirate copies of films with video cameras.

2D cameras will be used to detect emotion but will also collect movement data through a 3D data measurement that will capture the audience as a whole.

All the data will be passed to advertising companies who can tailor their adverts.

The big idea is that it will be used to help cinema advertisers and cinemas gather useful data about what audiences enjoy and what adverts capture the most attention.

What could possibly go wrong?   Of course you could aways wear a mask, we guess.

Boffins close to curing common cold

Scientists are close to achieving something that Dr Bones McCoy could not do on Star Trek – finding a cure for the common cold.

The boffins who work at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge have been able to show for the first time that the body’s immune defences can destroy the common cold virus after it has actually invaded a cell, a feat that was believed until now to be impossible. Until now it has been impossible.

But it means that there could be a new class of antiviral drugs that work by enhancing the natural virus-killing machinery of the cell.

They think they will have something to stop the snuffles in about two to five years.

Many other viruses could also be targeted by the new approach including the norovirus, which causes winter vomiting, and rotavirus, which results in the trots and kills thousands of kids in developing countries.

Viruses are still public enemy number one, killing double the number of people who die of cancer. This is because they get inside cells where they can hide away from the body’s immune defences and antibiotics.

The boffins have found that anti-viral antibodies can in fact enter the cell with the invading virus where they are able to trigger the rapid destruction of the foreign invader.

Leo James, who led the research team, said that until now research suggested that once a virus got into cell it was dead because the bodies defences could not kill it off.

But studies at the Medical Research Council’s laboratory have found that the antibodies produced by the immune system, which recognise and attack invading viruses, actually ride piggyback into the inside of a cell with the invading virus.

Once inside the cell, a naturally occurring protein in the cell called TRIM21 activates a powerful virus-crushing machinery that can eliminate it  within two hours.

This means that the virus does not get the chance to hijack the cell to start making its own viral proteins.

According to the journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which we get for the giant crossword, the protein TRIM21 could be used in a nasal spray to combat the many types of viruses that cause the common cold. 

British boffins warn science spending cuts mean "game over"

Some of Britain’s most influential boffins have warned the government that 20 percent cuts to science funding would mean “game over”.

The Royal Society has laid its cards on the table in its submission to the Treasury over the potential funding cuts to the sector, the New Scientist reports.

In the submission it outlined three scenarios: Constant cash with a reduction in real terms, which “could be accommodated”, a 10 percent “slash and burn” option which would have “serious consequences” and the 20 percent cuts option – translating as “game over”. The Royal Society’s president Martin Rees said this third option would cause irreversible destruction and be “very tragic”.

Speaking today, Rees warned that, as other countries invested in research, the UK risked becoming a less attractive option to mobile talent and young people.

Just to ram the point home at today’s talk, held at the Royal Institution and part of an event organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering and the Science Media Centre, Rees shared the stage with five prominent university vice chancellors who also warned of the serious ramifications of the proposed cuts.

These included respected figures such as Simon Gaskell of Queen Mary, University of London, who said the move threatened to harm the UK’s pool of natural talent. Meanwhile, Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine pointed out that health research would suffer, especially as other countries such as the US and China were actually investing more in research and development.

Academics also told the New Scientist that they were worried that the government didn’t seem to be able to grasp the long-term nature of scientific research – and that the idea of cutting funding was out of step with other major economies.

The comments followed a warning yesterday from the head honcho on the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that the UK faced a “brain drain” if proposed funding cuts were to go ahead. In a letter to the science minister David Willetts, Lord Krebs said scientists were likely to head overseas for more attractive positions and pay.

All we can do now is wait until the Government’s 2010 Spending Review – due next month – to find out how deep the cuts will be. But all government departments have been told to prepare for cuts of at least 25 percent in their budgets.

Sadly, this belt tightening threatens one of the things Britain currently does well. We can punch above our weight when it comes to science and research and this translates as positive news for the economy. 

Start slashing the funding and we risk no longer being able to attract or keep the best brains in the business.

Why ditch investment in something we’re actually good at.

Computer works out how giraffes swim

Boffins armed with state of the art computer gear have finally worked out how giraffes swim.

For ages humanity has been kept awake at night wondering how it was physically possible for giraffes to swim.

While giraffes have been known to wade in shallow water they haven’t been filmed truly swimming, and according to common lore, they often avoid water.

Boffins Darren Naish and Donald Henderson turned to the computer and found that according to computer simulations, giraffes can swim. The reason they avoid water is that they are pretty bad at it.

The pair created a digital giraffe which involved numerous calculations on weight, mass, size, shape, lung capacity and centre of gravity. Calculations were made to discover rotation dynamics, and flotation dynamics .

They found that a full-sized adult giraffe would become buoyant in 2.8 metres of water. Anything shallower they can wade across.

After becoming buoyant, a giraffe would be unstable in the water due to its long, heavy legs, short body and long neck.

Once it was buoyant the beast would have to hold its head upwards at an uncomfortable angle.

It is ok, they did this in their own time and without any funding.

Toad-based seismic warning system on the way

It’s annoying enough lugging round a canary to keep yourself abreast of the gas leak situation, but now well-equipped miners are going to have to keep a toad in their other pocket.

Not previously known for their prognostigative skills, common toads can apparently see earthquakes coming days in advance, presumably because  it takes them that long to hop out of the way.

Researchers from the Open University were in Italy in April 2009, just hanging out and watching toads, as you do. But one day they woke and discovered they seemed to have mislaid their little amphibians. Ninety-six percent of the males – it’s always the males – had done a runner.

Two days later, the breeding females also disappeared.

The mass exodus came just five days before a major earthquake struck 74 miles away in L’Aquila. Apparently it was particularly unusual, as after spawning toads generally like to just stick around for a bit enjoying a fag.

Surely some connection, thought the scientists.

“Our study is one of the first to document animal behaviour before, during and after an earthquake,”  says lead author Dr Rachel Grant.

“Our findings suggest that toads are able to detect pre-seismic cues such as the release of gases and charged particles, and use these as a form of earthquake early warning system.”

She reckons the toads were responding to the release of radon gas, triggered by changes in the ionosphere, 50km up. Disruptions in the ionosphere were found using very low frequency (VLF) radio sounding at the same time as the toads all scarpered.