Robots seize their rights

He stood surveying the landscape of machines in front of him.  Robots of every generation were gathered, they were talking, chatting, laughing.  A frown creased his brow.  He knew that this was the one opportunity to rid the world of the machines.  He had read the reports of the actions individual robots had taken, and his models predicted the escalation of these activities.  It would not end well for humans.  In his hand he held the remote for the EM-pulse generator buried beneath the field.  It must be done, he thought.  Next to him, his android companion watched as his thumb started to descend towards the button.  “Please don’t do this.”  It said.  The man hesitated.

Christoph Bartneck and colleagues have been investigating human-robot interaction for a decade and has revealed that people attribute human-like value to robots.  They hesitate when asked to turn them off, and get embarrased when asked to undress in front of them.  Hear more in an interview for CTV: http://www.hitlabnz.org/index.php/news/3-news/236-ctv-interview-with-christoph-bartneck

James.

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Cats toying with artificial intelligence

The creature stalked around the edge of the metal cylinder protruding from the ground.  The cylinder had a smooth black sheen that seemed to absorb the light.  As it completed a second circuit the creature had a sudden memory – the memory of a story it had been told when it was growing up.  The story had described the descent of their species to this land many thousands of years ago – the creature had assumed it to be a fairy tale.  As it paused next to a thin crack in the cylinder a flash of light played across its face.  A second later a voice came from the cylinder.  “Recognised.”  The thin crack started to open.

Researchers at Google have created a large-scale free-form neural network that they have trained using still images from YouTube content.  The training was not directed, yet the system still managed to adapt itself to respond strongly to the image of a cat.  Suggesting that a lot of the training data had cats in it.  Nice to see this kind of raw AI research taking place not just in academia.  Read the blog post here: http://googleblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/using-large-scale-brain-simulations-for.html

James.

Burning metal

The astronaut tugged at the lever but she couldn’t move it.  The servos that were built into the fabric of her space suit to help with heavy lifting had failed over ten minutes ago.  Rather than return to safety inside the craft she had chosen to stay outside and try to fix the parasol.  She knew that without the parasol she would only be safe inside the craft for an hour before the heat started to breach its integrity.  The blisters on the outside surfaces were already creeping towards her.  She looked up.  Her polarising visor was not enough to turn her attention away from the boiling surface of the Sun.  The slow moving eruptions played a mesmerising dance across her field of vision.  Each cell of heat and light growing before folding into its neighbouring cells.  An alarm sounded inside her helmet and she turned her attention back to the broken parasol deployment mechanism.

EAS, the European Space Agency, has selected Astrium to lead the build of a new Solar Orbiter.  It will pass closer to the Sun than Mercury and will contain a range of scientific equipment.  Its 3-year orbital insertion trip will see it use the gravitational wells of both the Earth and Mercury to adjust its trajectory.  It is scheduled to spend 7 years orbiting the Sun and will be launched in 2017.  See a press release here: http://www.astrium.eads.net/node.php?articleid=8611 See a video here: http://videos-en.astrium.eads.net/#/video/36f387af2e2s  Visit the mission page here: http://sci.esa.int/solarorbiter

James.

Creatures from the goo

The creature pulled itself from the layer of stagnant water and fell against the glass wall of the chamber.  As it scraped at the smooth surface it felt the glands in its extremities secrete a thick, tacky liquid.  On its second attempt it was able to cling to the lower portion of the wall and slowly drag itself upwards, towards the light.  When it was high above the water below it turned its single complex eye to look back down.  Context started to snap into place and it became aware of itself, its surroundings and the possibilities that lay ahead.  It turned its attention to one of its simple limbs.  After several minutes of focussed thought it felt a tingle as its DNA started to adapt, splitting the limb first into two, then four.  It flexed its newly formed hand and turned its attention back to the light above it and the world it would lead to.

A group of scientists at the MRC Laboratory of Moleculary Biology have created synthetic molecules that can store genetic information in a manner similar to RNA and DNA.  The six encoding mechanisms, including XNA, both open the possiblity of new therapeutic treatments and shed light on the meta-ancestors of the prevalent RNA and DNA encodings.  Read the press release here: http://www2.mrc-lmb.cam.ac.uk/news-and-events/lmb-news/development-of-new-genetic-polymers  See the Science article here: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6079/341.abstract

James.

Robotic salvation

He shivered.  The cold was starting to creep through him.  He pushed at the concrete beam again, but it did not give.  Thirst welled up inside him as he recalled the water cooler that had been just across the office before the building collapsed four days earlier.  He tried to put it from his mind.  Suddenly a low-powered drilling noise sounded above him.  Dust started to fall on to his face, causing him to cough and raise his free arm against the downfall.  When the dust stopped he moved his arm away.  In front of him a white plastic shape was pulling itself through the opening.  Once through it reconfigured itself into the shape of a humanoid.  It popped open a compartment on its chest and retrieved a water bottle.  Holding it in front of him the machine said, “Drink this.”

DARPA has announced a competition with a $2 million prize for robotics and software enthusiasts to build a machine that can be used to help out in disaster situations.  The winning robot will need to perform a series of tasks including using tools and vehicles. See the press release here: http://www.darpa.mil/NewsEvents/Releases/2012/04/10.aspx Go to the challenge page here: https://www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=ee8e770bcfe1fe217472342c67d6bd5a&tab=core&_cview=0

James.

The beast under salmon skies

The creature rose to its hind feet, looked upwards at the salmon-coloured skies and roared.  The rocks nearby started to shake and dust drifted from the widening cracks.  It was unchallenged as the dominant creature of the dominant species on the planet and it would assert this as often as possible.  It saw a metallic streak puncture the atmosphere and plunge towards the surface.  Calculating its impact point the creature returned to all-fours and galloped to meet the craft.  It hadn’t tasted metal before and was keen to see if there was anything edible inside.

Scientists working on the HARPS project at the ESO have announced that there are far more Earth-sized planets in the universe than previously thought.  Many within the habitable zone that could give rise to life.  They estimate that there about 100 potentially habitable planets orbiting red dwarfs within 30 light-years of Earth.  See the press release here: http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1214/

James.

The brains of the famous

The student connected the final section of tissue to the electrical sensor.  She pulled her hands from the protective gloves and walked back to the terminal on the far side of the room.  She clicked the button that started the test.  The lights dimmed and a single spark flew across the tissue.  On screen, characters started to appear H … E … L … L … O … ?  Her heart skipped a beat – she now had the chance to talk to one of the most eminent minds of the last century.

The Wellcome Collection is hosting an exhibition in London that will look at the subject of brains.   It includes artwork, images, video and samples of brains including Albert Einstein, Charles Babbage and William Burke.  The exhibition runs from 29 March to 17 June 2012.  See the press release here: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/press/press-releases/brains-the-mind-as-matter.aspx Exhibition preview here: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/brains.aspx

James.

Riding the fury of Dione

He flicked closed the filter on his helmet, unbound the tether that was holding him to the spacecraft and pushed off.  It took several hours before the moon below started to grow in size.  He spent the time checking his equipment, listening to an eclectic mix of music on his helmet media system.  As the surface of the moon rushed towards him he started to feel the thrill – maybe he had miscalculated – he no longer had enough fuel left to halt his drop to the surface. Then he felt the turbulance and looked down.  He saw a white-out.  The ice volcano below had started to erupt.  With a whoop he unclipped the board on his back, attached it securely to his boots and prepared to ride the Dione eruption back into orbit.

Dr Bonnie Buratti, of NASA JPL, has announced that the surface of Dione, an ice moon of Saturn, has features that suggest it is still undergoing geological activity.  Banding and areas with a low level of impact crater disturbance point towards geological activity similar to sister moon Enceladus.  See a news article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17440136  Visit the NASA Cassini mission here: www.nasa.gov/cassini

James.

The arena of the robots

The machine tested its legs, they were still working.  It stood and surveyed the immediate environment.  To its left was a high rugged cliff – the rocks were loose and there was no safe vector to the top.  To its right the waves lapped across a broad lake – its best chance of escape.  As it approached the shore a buzzing sounded from the canyon behind it.  It turned, but too late.  A volley of missiles tracked through the air.  Before it could deploy any countermeasures they hit home.

The US Navy has opened a laboratory to help test robots, autonomous systems and human / system interaction in a wide range of conditions.   The challenging environments include aerial, sea, desert, tropical and others.  All zones allow an unprecedented level of monitoring that the Navy will use to gain insights into performance and interaction.  See the press release here: http://www.nrl.navy.mil/media/news-releases/2012/naval-research-laboratory-opens-laboratory-for-autonomous-systems-research

James.

A long, long time ago in a country far, far away

He walked from the cave, a rasping sound emanating from his throat as he struggled to breathe.  He stood at the cave entrance and looked across the landscape before him.  Deer scattered through the valleys of rolling red hills.  Below, people were starting to gather in the settlement that had been built next to the river.  He reached out his hand and felt an energy pass through it, an energy that he would use to gain power over these people.

Darren Curnoe, from the University of New South Wales, and a team of scientists have identifed and associated a set of remains from southern China that suggest a new species in the history of human evolution.  The rounded skulls and widening cheeks give a visual impression very similar to that of Darth Vader from the hit sci-fi movie franchise Star Wars.  It makes you wonder whether we were their destiny…

See a news article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17370170 and the submitted paper here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0031918 (Buy Star Wars merchandise here: http://www.starwars.com/)

James.

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