Science

A robot to load your dishwasher

by on September 14, 2014 at 4:24 pm in Science | Permalink

A robot unveiled today at the British Science Festival will be loading dishwashers next year, its developers claim.

“Boris” is one of the first robots in the world capable of intelligently manipulating unfamiliar objects with a humanlike grasp.

It was developed by scientists at the University of Birmingham.

The team also work with “Bob”, an autonomous robot who recently completed work experience at security firm G4S.

“This is Boris’ first public outing,” announced Professor Jeremy Wyatt of the School of Computer Science. The robot took five years to develop at a cost of £350,000.

Boris “sees” objects with depth sensors on its face and wrists. In 10 seconds it calculates up to a thousand possible ways to grasp a novel object with its five robotic fingers and plans a path of arm movements to reach its target, avoiding obstructions.

“It’s not been programmed to pick it up – it’s been programmed to learn how to pick it up,” explained Professor Wyatt.

There is more here, including a video.  For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Peter Thiel tells us:

Look at the Forbes list of the 92 people who are worth ten billion dollars or more in 2012. Where do they make money? 11 of them made it in technology, and all 11 were in computers. You’ve heard of all of them: It’s Bill Gates, it’s Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, on and on. There are 25 people who made it in mining natural resources. You probably haven’t heard their names. And these are basically cases of technological failure, because commodities are inelastic goods, and farmers make a fortune when there’s a famine. People will pay way more for food if there’s not enough. 25 people in the last 40 years made their fortunes because of the lack of innovation; 11 people made them because of innovation.

I also liked this bit:

One of the smartest investors in the world is considered to be Warren Buffett. His single biggest investment is in the railroad industry, which I think is a bet against technological progress, both in transportation and energy. Most of what gets transported on railroads is coal, and Buffett is essentially betting that after the 21st century, we’ll look more like the 19th rather than the 20th century. We’ll go back to rail, and back to coal; we’re going to run out of oil, and clean-tech is going to fail.

This very useful post collates and presents all of Peter’s evidence for his view that modern technology has been stagnating.  It is both “interesting throughout” and “self-recommending.”  It is from this blog by Dan Wang.

I very much liked Peter’s new book, Zero to One: Notes on Start-Ups, or How to Build the Future.

It seems culture and training matter a great deal.  T.M. Luhrmann reports:

Recently, a team of anthropologists and psychologists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University, both in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, set out to discover how language and culture affected sensory awareness. Under the leadership of Asifa Majid and Stephen C. Levinson, they made up a kit of systematic stimuli for the traditional five senses: for sight, color chips and geometric forms; for hearing, pitch, amplitude and rhythm variations; for smell, a set of scratch-and-sniff cards; and so forth. They took these kits to over 20 cultural groups around the world. Their results upend some of our basic assumptions.

For example, it’s fairly common, in scientific literature, to find the view that “humans are astonishingly bad at odor identification and naming,” as a recent review of 30 years of experiments concluded. When ordinary people are presented with the smell of ordinary substances (coffee, peanut butter, chocolate), they correctly identify about half of them. That’s why we think of scent as a trigger for personal memory — leading to the recall of something specific, particular, uniquely our own.

It turns out that the subjects of those 30 years of experiments were mostly English-speaking. Indeed, English speakers find it easy to identify the common color in milk and jasmine flowers (“white”) but not the common scent in, say, bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. When the research team presented what should have been familiar scents to Americans — cinnamon, turpentine, lemon, rose and so forth — they were terrible at naming them. Americans, they wrote, said things like this when presented with the cinnamon scratch-and-sniff card: “I don’t know how to say that, sweet, yeah; I have tasted that gum like Big Red or something tastes like, what do I want to say? I can’t get the word. Jesus it’s like that gum smell like something like Big Red. Can I say that? O.K. Big Red, Big Red gum.”

When the research team visited the Jahai, rain-forest foragers on the Malay Peninsula, they found that the Jahai were succinct and more accurate with the scratch-and-sniff cards. In fact, they were about as good at naming what they smelled as what they saw. They do, in fact, have an abstract term for the shared odor in bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. Abstract odor terms are common among people on the Malay Peninsula.

I am good at smelling curries.

Trevor Paglen speculates:

Humanity’s longest lasting remnants are found among the stars. Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Thousands of times further away than most other satellites, geostationary spacecraft remain locked as man-made moons in perpetual orbit long after their operational lifetimes. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization’s most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.

That is via Kottke.

Neil Harbisson is a cyborg

by on August 19, 2014 at 2:16 am in Medicine, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Or should that title read “Is Neil Harbisson a cyborg?”

Protruding from the back of Harbisson’s skull is a metal antenna that allows him to convert the frequencies for color into frequencies for sound and vice versa. He was born colorblind and the appendage has essentially given him a sixth sense to make up for what his vision lacks.

…Harbisson gets visibly dizzy when his antenna is off center. Moving it slightly to the left, he closed his eyes and said, “If I do this, I feel unbalanced…it does feel like a body part, an extension of a bone or something.” Even though the antenna is metal and has no nerve endings, Harbisson says he can feel when someone touches it, the same as a natural body part.

There is more:

Moon Ribas, Harbisson’s partner, has an extension she wears on her arm that makes her body vibrate when there’s an earthquake. (She plans to one day have it implanted under her skin.) As a choreographer, Ribas takes inspiration from nature and thought the extension would enhance her creativity. It syncs with an app that collects data on earthquakes around the world to make her body vibrate when there’s seismic activity (it happens frequently enough that she vibrated once during our interview).

But the appendage cannot be submerged in water, and neither can Neil’s. They are both hoping to update their devices so that in the future they can go swimming. “Then I will be able to perceive the colors in the ocean,” Harbisson says.

There is more here, including a photo.  It is noted that security guards are sometimes unsympathetic to Harbisson, who is moving from Spain to New York, where he feels he will be seen as less unusual.

For a related pointer, I thank Samir Varma.

David H. writes:

Yes, this Forbes list is a miserable failure, but it got me thinking about how to quantify coolness. Good restaurants are valuable, but to be cool, restaurants also need to be affordable and a little off-putting. If I were doing this, I would generate a list of touring bands that rank highly in RYM, knock out the superstars, and then see what US cities they played in the last 4 years. Each band-visit would count as a portion of coolness for that city, and a partial portion for the immediate vicinity. Also, RYM records which cities the bands came from. That should count for a lot. Then I would look for cities with an outsized and lively gay scene. I’m not sure how the causation works – whether a gay scene adds substantial coolness or whether it follows coolness – but the correlation seems pretty clear to me.

Coolness is unstable partly because it’s much more difficult to achieve in expensive cities. San Francisco and Berkeley are sinking in coolness partly for this reason. A truly cool city needs a critical mass of underemployed creative types who will devote a great deal of time to “the scene”, and this is hard to do when you’re paying $6+ for each of your beers. So, the lower the urban rents and general cost of living, the cooler the city, other things being equal.

OK, Forbes was right that proportion of young people living in the city is important. I also think that trends are important, like: Which cities are gaining young people, and which are losing them?

What else?

The link to RYM was added by me.  I would think that a truly cool place cannot be rated as cool by too many other sources.  How about that retirement community in Florida, an incorporated city, ruled largely by contract, where only the elderly live and the visits of grown children are regulated and rationed?  How about the city in America which has the highest birth rate?  Isn’t that kind of cool?  Seriously.  That would put Memphis, Ogden, and Provo in the lead.  What’s so cool about tracking RYM?

This time Newport Beach, CA is the villain, or the guardian of public safety, depending on your point of view:

While demand for such thrill rides seems limitless, the supply has been curtailed by the Newport Beach City Council. Alarmed by noise complaints and safety concerns, the council approved a six-month moratorium on new jetpack businesses this summer, dashing the hopes of several would-be operators. The move has left Jetpack America as the only oceanfront flight school in town for now, cornering the market on what some see as an ever-expanding audience, thanks in large part to video clips posted online and Internet deals that lure new customers to the shores of Newport Beach, an idyllic setting less than 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

The devices cost $10k (formerly 100k), they push you 40 feet up, and you can go 30 mph.  You can still do it in New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida, though further regulations are coming.  How is this for a good sentence?:

The jetpack universe is small, but growing.

The full story is here, by Jennifer Medina, interesting throughout.

Facts about birds

by on August 9, 2014 at 12:50 am in Books, Science | Permalink

…despite the putrid menu vultures favor, their excrement is sterile. In fact, letting the waste run down their legs can clean off germs from the gore; it’s their version of freshening up with a moist towelette after a barbecue. Tiny bee hummingbirds are so small you could mail 16 of them for the price of a single stamp. Robins can navigate with the right eye alone, but not the left. Albatrosses, who spend 95 percent of their lives over open ocean, are thought to be able to shut down half their brains while continuing to fly at 40 m.p.h. For blackcap warblers, the direction of migration is clearly innate, so crossbreeding a group of blackcaps who flew south for fall migration with a group that oriented westward resulted in offspring who flew in a southwesterly direction.

That is from this Vicki Constantine Croke review of two new bird books.

How do moles smell underwater?

by on August 6, 2014 at 9:36 am in Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

Blowing Bubbles

I was pleased to see the mention of the star-nosed mole in Nick Richardson’s review of Ned Beauman’s latest novel (LRB, 17 July). Richardson informs us that this marvellous creature ‘can smell underwater’. True, but not thanks to the ‘nose’ that gives it its name. The 22 fleshy appendages that protrude from the mole’s face are not an olfactory organ at all, but a skin surface containing more than 100,000 sensory neurons – it’s the most acute touch organ of any mammal on the planet and about six times more sensitive than the human hand. In order to ‘smell’ underwater – a phenomenon long thought impossible in mammals – the mole exhales air bubbles over objects then reinhales them, allowing odorant molecules in the bubbles to pass over the olfactory receptors.

Sarah Murray
Esher

The link is here, pointer from Hugo Lindgren.

It’s not quite the Solow model.  Here is a new paper from Solomon M. Hsiang and Amir S. Jin, “The Causal Effect of Environmental Catastrophe on Long-Run Economic Growth: Evidence From 6,700 Cyclones,” the abstract is this:

Does the environment have a causal effect on economic development? Using meteorological data, we reconstruct every country’s exposure to the universe of tropical cyclones during 1950-2008. We exploit random within-country year-to-year variation in cyclone strikes to identify the causal effect of environmental disasters on long-run growth. We compare each country’s growth rate to itself in the years immediately before and after exposure, accounting for the distribution of cyclones in preceding years. The data reject hypotheses that disasters stimulate growth or that short-run losses disappear following migrations or transfers of wealth. Instead, we find robust evidence that national incomes decline, relative to their pre-disaster trend, and do not recover within twenty years. Both rich and poor countries exhibit this response, with losses magnified in countries with less historical cyclone experience. Income losses arise from a small but persistent suppression of annual growth rates spread across the fifteen years following disaster, generating large and significant cumulative effects: a 90th percentile event reduces per capita incomes by 7.4% two decades later, effectively undoing 3.7 years of average development. The gradual nature of these losses render them inconspicuous to a casual observer, however simulations indicate that they have dramatic influence over the long-run development of countries that are endowed with regular or continuous exposure to disaster. Linking these results to projections of future cyclone activity, we estimate that under conservative discounting assumptions the present discounted cost of “business as usual” climate change is roughly $9.7 trillion larger than previously thought.

That link has an NBER gate, I do not yet see an ungated version.

These were the results:

1. People responded to first messages 44% more often.

2. “conversations went deeper”

3. Contact details were exchanged more quickly.

Furthermore:

When the photos were restored at 4PM, 2,200 people were in the middle of conversations that had started “blind”. Those conversations melted away.

That said, the people who actually used the “Blind Date App” if anything seemed slightly happier with their dates.  The full report from OKCupid is here.  Yet here is the combined chart drawn from when people score “looks” and “personality” separately.

By the way, I would never try to match you up with a book I fear you may not like, at least not without telling you or otherwise signaling that incompatibility in advance.

The Demand and Supply of Sex

by on July 28, 2014 at 4:25 am in History, Religion, Science | Permalink

Alternet: The idea that men are naturally more interested in sex than women is [so] ubiquitous that it’s difficult to imagine that people ever believed differently. And yet for most of Western history, from ancient Greece to beginning of the nineteenth century, women were assumed to be the sex-crazed porn fiends of their day. In one ancient Greek myth, Zeus and Hera argue about whether men or women enjoy sex more. They ask the prophet Tiresias, whom Hera had once transformed into a woman, to settle the debate. He answers, “if sexual pleasure were divided into ten parts, only one part would go to the man, and and nine parts to the woman.” Later, women were considered to be temptresses who inherited their treachery from Eve. Their sexual passion was seen as a sign of their inferior morality, reason and intellect, and justified tight control by husbands and fathers. Men, who were not so consumed with lust and who had superior abilities of self-control, were the gender more naturally suited to holding positions of power and influence.

Early twentieth-century physician and psychologist Havelock Ellis may have been the first to document the ideological change that had recently taken place. In his 1903 work Studies in the Psychology of Sex, he cites a laundry list of ancient and modern historical sources ranging from Europe to Greece, the Middle East to China, all of nearly the same mind about women’s greater sexual desire.

The ancient belief is consistent with the well known fact that in ancient times when a man went to a bordello the women would line up and bid for the right to sleep with him.

In other words, the ancients believed a lot of strange things at variance with the facts (which isn’t to say that the switch in belief and its timing isn’t of interest or that these kinds of beliefs no longer sway with the times). More at the link.

There is a new piece of interest in Technology Review, here is one excerpt:

Psychologists have always assumed that patterns of behavior change more quickly in countries that emphasize collectivism. Once an idea has taken hold, the pressure to conform means it spreads rapidly. “It has previously been argued that social support mechanisms in collectivistic societies make it more likely that a person will stop smoking,” say Lang and co.

And conversely, in countries that emphasize individualism, patterns of behavior must change more slowly because there is less social pressure to conform.

The puzzle is that the data on smoking shows exactly the reverse. Sweden was much slower to adopt smoking and much slower to stop.

Now Lang and co think they know why. They’ve created a mathematical model that includes the effects of social pressure allowing them to simulate the way behavior spreads through societies with different levels of individualism.

The model reveals why Sweden stopped smoking more slowly. “Our model suggests that … social inertia will inhibit decisions to stop smoking more strongly in collectivistic societies than in individualistic societies,” say Lang and co.

The original research, by Lang, Abrams, and De Sterck is here.  Their results do not rest on Sweden alone, but for the record I consider the Swedes to be relatively individualistic by most metrics, most of all when it comes to atomization.

From Becker, Philipson, and Soares (pdf):

GDP per capita is usually used to proxy for the quality of life of individuals living in different countries. Welfare is also affected by quantity of life, however, as represented by longevity. This paper incorporates longevity into an overall assessment of the evolution of cross-country inequality and shows that it is quantitatively important. The absence of reduction in cross-country inequality up to the 1990s documented in previous work is in stark contrast to the reduction in inequality after incorporating gains in longevity. Throughout the post–World War II period, health contributed to reduce significantly welfare inequality across countries. This paper derives valuation formulas for infra-marginal changes in longevity and computes a “full” growth rate that incorporates the gains in health experienced by 96 countries for the period between 1960 and 2000. Incorporating longevity gains changes traditional results; countries starting with lower income tended to grow faster than countries starting with higher income. We estimate an average yearly growth in “full income” of 4.1 percent for the poorest 50 percent of countries in 1960, of which 1.7 percentage points are due to health, as opposed to a growth of 2.6 percent for the richest 50 percent of countries, of which only 0.4 percentage points are due to health. Additionally, we decompose changes in life expectancy into changes attributable to 13 broad groups of causes of death and three age groups. We show that mortality from infectious, respiratory, and digestive diseases, congenital, perinatal, and “ill-defined” conditions, mostly concentrated before age 20 and between ages 20 and 50, is responsible for most of the reduction in life expectancy inequality. At the same time, the recent effect of AIDS, together with reductions in mortality after age 50—due to nervous system, senses organs, heart and circulatory diseases—contributed to increase health inequality across countries.

That reminder is from Aaron Schwartz.  And of course that is the Becker, yet another contribution from Gary Becker.

Do note, by the way, that medical progress is usually egalitarian per se.  A common metric is something like “health outcomes of the poor” vs. “health outcomes of the rich,” and that may or may not be moving in an egalitarian direction.  But very often the more incisive metric is “health outcomes of the sick” vs. “health outcomes of the healthy,” and of course most medical treatments are going to the sick.  The more desperate is the lot of the sick, the more likely that medical progress is egalitarian per se.

Facial recognition is helping improve everything from gaming to fighting crime – and now it could help in the battle against cat obesity.

A new gadget that uses ‘cutting-edge cat facial recognition technology’ promises to monitor our feline friends’ appetites and alert owners to any problems.

The Bistro system, created by Taiwanese company 42Ark, uses a camera at the front of a feeder to identify each of the cats.

There is more here, along with obligatory cat photo, with the cat’s face being scanned by facial recognition technology.  For the pointer I thank Mark Thorson.