December 4, 2013
On “60 Minutes” the other night, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made drones fun again. They’re usually associated with clandestine warfare, but Bezos showed interviewer Charlie Rose–along with the millions of others watching–how the unmanned aircraft can be cool little gizmos that become a part of our daily lives–in this case by delivering stuff you ordered from Amazon right to your doorstep.
Bezos used the program to reveal the wonders of Amazon’s “octocopter,” a mini-drone with the capability of achieving the Holy Grail of e-commerce–deliveries within 30 minutes. This is still years away, as Bezos acknowledged, but it’s clear he thinks drones will one day be as ubiquitous as Domino’s drivers.
Bezos’ demo had the desired effect–his octocopter was all over the Internet on Cyber Monday, burnishing Amazon’s reputation as a company gliding along the cutting edge of customer service. Some derided the the whole thing as little more than a beautifully orchestrated publicity stunt, given the not insignificant hurdles commercial drones still need to clear. Other websites, such as The Telegraph in the U.K., piled on. It produced a list of nine things that could go “horribly wrong”–from drone hackers to long weather delays to packages falling from the sky.
The truth is, we won’t really know all that can go wrong–or right–with commercial drones until closer to 2020, at least in the U.S. It could happen sooner, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been moving slowly and cautiously, not surprising, considering that we’re talking about tens of thousands of pilotless vehicles buzzing around in public airspace. Extensive drone testing at six still-to-be-named locations won’t begin until next year, almost a year and a half behind the schedule set by Congress.
Me, my drone and I
But let’s step back for a minute and forget about messy things like political and legal realities. If Bezos is right, more personal drones are inevitable. Many, no doubt, will be used to make deliveries. (That already appears to be happening in China.) But what else will they be able to do?
Plenty, if you believe some of the ideas that have been floated. And those little flying machines could become a lot more personal than most of us would have imagined.
Consider the possibilities:
1) I’m ready for my selfie: Not long ago, a group of designers from a product strategy firm named frog staged a workshop with the purpose of imagining ways that drones could become a much bigger part of our lives. One idea was an aircraft called the Paparazzi, and, true to its name, it would be all about following you around and recording your life in photos and videos. It would then feed everything directly to your Facebook page. Yes, it sounds ridiculously self-indulgent, but then again, who could have imagined our obsession with self portraits on phones?
2) Cut to the chase: Here’s another idea from the frog workshop, a drone they named the Guardian Angel. Described as the “ultimate accessory for serious runners,” it would act as a trainer or exercise companion by flying ahead and setting the pace. It could conceivably tap into data from a heart monitor a runner is wearing and push him or her harder to get pulse rate up. Or it could use data from a previous run and let a person race against himself. In short, these drones would be like wearable tech that you don’t actually wear.
3) Take that, Siri: Researchers at M.I.T., meanwhile, have developed a personal drone app they’ve named Skycall, which serves as a personal tour guide. Sure, you can listen to your smartphone give you directions, but this app/drone combo would actually show you the way. It works like this: You tell the app on your phone where you want to go and it would then identify and contact the nearest unmanned aircraft. It would show up, like a flying cab, and lead you to your destination.
4) Allow me to revel in my greatness: A British drone maker has designed one that’s a variation of the Paparazzi mentioned above, although his is geared more to outdoor types, such as mountain bikers,snowboarders and surfers. It tracks a person through a smartphone and, from overhead, takes a steady stream of photos and videos to capture his or her awesomeness for posterity.
5) An idea whose time has already come: Finally, Dan Farber, writing for CNET the other day, raised the prospect of what he called a “Kindle Drone.” He sees it as a device about the size of a baseball, loaded with sensors and a camera, that would serve as a guard and personal assistant. On one hand, it could roam your house gathering data and generally making sure everything’s in order. On the other, you could direct it to go find your phone.
Now that has potential.
Video bonus: Here’s a drone in action in China, delivering a cake from the air.
Video bonus bonus: It’s safe to say this is the only engagement ring delivered by drone.
Video bonus plus: Need to map the Matterhorn. No problem, drones at your service.
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November 22, 2013
In a world where we’re being conditioned to touch screens, a team of MIT researchers is trying to get consumers to, ironically, think different. Imagine a computing system where users located in one location could gesture and these motions would generate various designs, shapes and messages in physical form in a completely different location. It would almost be like reaching into a screen and touching what you see on the other side.
Dubbed inFORM, the interface is comprised of 900 motorized rectangular pegs that can be manipulated using a kinetic-based motion sensor, like Microsoft Kinect. In the demonstration video, you can see how the pegs systematically rise up and take the form of a pair of fabricated hands to play with toys, like a ball, or page through a book. Much like those pinscreen animation office toys, with inFORM, entire physical representations of towns and landscapes can instantly emerge and evolve before your eyes.
“We’re just happy getting people to think about interfacing using their sense of touch in addition to touch screens, which are nothing but pixels and purely visual information,” says Leithinger. “You can now see it can be a lot more than that.”
Envisioned as a kind of “digital clay,” the PhD students originally developed the technology for practical applications, such as architectural modeling. While 3D printers can produce miniature replicas that take as long 10 hours to fully layer and dry, inFORM’s moldable flatbed can instantly model entire urban layouts and modify them on the fly. Geographers and urban planners could similarly produce maps and terrain models. There are potential uses in the medical field as well. A doctor, for instance, might review a 3D version of a CT scan with a patient.
The elaborate system is designed so that each peg is connected to a motor controlled by a laptop. But, the inFORM technology isn’t meant to be a consumer product—not yet at least. “What you’re seeing is the early stages of a completely different kind of technology,” says Leithinger. “So the way we put this interface together wouldn’t be cost-effective enough for the mass market, but there are lessons that can be learned to make something based on the idea of 3D interfacing.”
The creators also don’t want anyone to confuse inFORM with a similar nascent technology called telepresence, where a person’s movements can be transmitted remotely to a different location. Even though telepresence robots like the popular prototype Monty can be controlled from afar to pick up objects, they’re limited to limb movements and other attributes of the human form.
“Our system allows for a lot more improv than these other technologies, like generating an object that interacts with another in real time” says Follmer. “A telepresence robot may be able to pick up a ball, but it’s not as good at using a bucket to pick up a ball.”
As the pair explores the technology’s wide range of potential applications, they’re also aware of the current limitations. For now, the inForm interfacing only works as a one-way system, meaning two people in separate continents won’t be able to use their own 3D surfaces to simultaneously hold hands. It also can’t create complex overhangs where a portion of the formation juts out horizontally (think: the diagram in the game Hangman). For that, you’ll still need a 3D printer.
“It’s possible to make the interactivity touchable and real on both ends and so we’re definitely exploring going in that direction,” says Leithinger “We’re constantly getting emails from people telling us how the interface can be used to help blind people communicate better or for musicians, stuff even we’ve never thought about.”
October 25, 2013
As if struggling actors didn’t already have it hard enough. In Japan, changing times have given rise to a new breed of mercilessly efficient automated restaurants that can easily service an entire busy day’s worth of hungry patrons without the need for a staff of waiters, chefs or even dishwashers.
The most popular of these is Kura, where a sushi plate will run you only 100 yen, the equivalent of $1.00. Such low prices are made possible by gutting as much of the “human touch” element that has long been ingrained in how eateries are typically run out of the dining experience. For instance, whereas new customers would traditionally be seated and given a menu by a friendly host, visitors to Kura seat themselves and are greeted by an interactive touchscreen menu positioned next to the table, which allows them to browse various food items and make selections or to input special requests. Below that is a winding conveyer belt system that carries several covered dishes of different types of sushi and main courses while a separate conveyer right above delivers specific orders. To maintain freshness, each plate has a scannable label that enables the computerized system to keep track of how long a particular sushi item has been kept on the rotation and automatically disposes of it after a certain amount of time.
Behind the curtain, orders are put together by employees whose duties, not surprisingly, resemble those of an assembly line factory worker more than a trained chef. With the assistance of a robot programmed to spit out clumps of rice, the assembler tops off each piece with cuts of fish and other varieties of seafood that had been prepared earlier, to exact specifications, at a local plant. Once it’s time for the check, customers dispose of the plates though a small table-side chute that sends them to another area to be counted, machine-washed and then back to the assembly line for reuse.
Reviews of automated restaurants, as you might suspect, are mixed. ”It’s another art for eating. I like it!” a diner at Baggers, an automated joint in Nuremberg, Germany, told BBC News reporter Steve Rosenberg. Another said, ”It’s more for young people than old people. My mother was here yesterday and she needs my son’s help to order.”
A report in the New York Times re-tells the story of how such restaurants emerged and successfully took shape, mainly as a response to a dwindling customer base, due to the country’s ongoing economic struggles and an aging population that prefers not to eat out. Kura’s founder, Kunihiko Tanaka started the company in 1995 on the premise that, as efficient as Japanese restaurants had become over the years, there were still plenty of ways to cut costs without compromising the quality of the dining experience. With this in mind, he took the already established practice of serving food on conveyer belts, which started in the late 1950s, mixed in more advanced automation technologies and threw in a dash of IT. His goal was to trim down the somewhat bloated way food establishments conduct day-to-day operations. At Kura, the only humans deemed necessary are the assemblers and a handful of managers who’s main responsibility was to ensure that customers left satisfied and that everything went swimmingly.
Takeshi Hattori, a company spokesperson, told the New York Times that a small staff was enough to service a restaurant that seated a maximum of 196 people.
With 262 locations nationwide, Kura’s strategy has been a profitable one, to say the least. And who knows? These robo-eateries may soon make their way across the Pacific and open up in our neighborhoods, what with our growing preoccupation with constantly being plugged showing that our deepening love affair with technology is only deepening. Smartphones, for instance, have increasingly become a kind of mental sanctuary, a way for people to happily disengage from those around them. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center (PDF) reveals that thirty percent of young adults (18-29 years old) surveyed said they’ve pretended to be using their phone in order to avoid interacting with others. A Japanese design firm has even created the “Anti-Loneliness Ramen Bowl,” a soup bowl into which you can dock your iPhone.
However, I personally wouldn’t expect automated restaurants to catch on the U.S., considering that such an extreme approach to automation can make having a meal feel a bit too impersonal for most. Dining out in the U.S. is still considered primarily a social activity and though Kura customers can easily refill their beer mug themselves at one of the self-service machines, we Americans still love our bartenders. But then again, robots won’t ever get fussy over the tip.
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August 15, 2013
A little more than a year ago, Australian scientist Roger Bradbury declared that it was game over for the world’s coral reefs. He referred to them as “zombie ecosystems” that were neither dead nor really alive, and “on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation.” He went so far as to suggest that it’s now a waste of time and money to try to protect coral reefs. Instead, he argued, scientists should focus on figuring out what can replace them.
His piece in the New York Times provoked a lot of feedback, much of it suggesting that he had been far too dire, that while the situation may be grim, it’s not hopeless and that the last thing scientists should do is to stop looking for ways to keep them alive.
Now, as we slide into the last weeks of summer, is Bradbury seeming more prescient? Is it clearer that we’re a year closer to the demise of one of more diverse and vibrant ecosystems the Earth has seen? Most experts would tell you no, that they’re not ready to concede coral reefs are going the way of dinosaurs. But they haven’t had much reason to be more hopeful, either.
A study from Stanford University, published last month, concluded that if carbon emissions stay near where they are now, there will, by the end of the century, be no water left on Earth that has the chemical makeup to support coral growth. The ocean will simply be too acidic.
Another research paper, published in the journal Current Biology earlier this week, suggests that without serious action on climate change, reefs in the Caribbean will likely stop growing and start to break down within the next 20 to 30 years. They’ll basically wear away. An extensive survey is being done in the Caribbean this summer to determine how much of its coral reefs has already been lost. Some estimates are as high as 80 percent.
Clouds as umbrellas
It’s reached the point where some scientists think they can no longer rely on natural forces to keep reefs alive; instead they’re developing ways to use technology to save them. A team of British researchers, for instance, believes geoengineering is called for. Their idea is to turn clouds into umbrellas that would protect reefs by bouncing more sunlight back into space.
They would do this by spraying tiny droplets of seawater up into the clouds above the reefs, which would have the effect of making the clouds last longer and cause their tops to brighten and reflect more sunlight. That should lower the water temperature and slow any bleaching of the coral down below.
Geoengineering makes a lot of people nervous because once humans starts manipulating nature on that large a scale, it’s nearly impossible to foresee all of the possible ripple effects. But they could be minimized in this case because the cloud spraying would be targeted to skies only above reefs. That said, even its boosters don’t see this as a long-term solution; at best it buys some time.
Robots that work like ants
Another group of scientists, this one based at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, is thinking even more boldly. Their idea is to set loose swarms of small robots on dying reefs and have them transplant healthy coral into places where it’s needed. Each robot would have a video camera, along with the ability to process images, and basic tools, such as scoops and “hands” that can grab the coral.
Clever, but also quite challenging. The robots, called coralbots, would need to learn to identify healthy coral and distinguish it from everything else down there. And they would need to be able to navigate their way around the ocean bottom and keep from running into other obstacles and, God forbid, healthy coral.
A key to this approach is how successful the scientists are at programming the robots with “swarm intelligence.” They would work together like ants or bees to perform complex tasks, with different robots having different roles. One might know how to spot places where coral can be planted; another might focus solely on planting.
But it could be a while before we find out if swarming robots is an answer for saving reefs. The researchers hoped to raise about $100,000 on Kickstarter, but weren’t able to reach their goal.
One piece of technology that is functional, however, is the device that’s performing the Caribbean coral reef survey mentioned above. Custom-designed lenses on three camera bodies, mounted at the end of a six-foot pole and propelled by a motorized sled, are capturing amazing 360-degree images of life on the ocean floor. See for yourself.
Here are more recent developments in the world of coral reefs, ocean life and beaches:
- Just beware of crevasse-seeking fish: CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, has helped develop the first sunscreen filters that mimic the sun protection used by corals on the Great Barrier Reef. But you may have to wait a bit to take advantage of the Reef’s special powers. The filters, which are resistant to both UVA and UVB rays, may not be incorporated into commercial sunscreens for another five years.
- Where fish pray never to be caught: Earlier this month an artificial reef more than 200 feet long and designed to look like a rosary was lowered into the sea off the coast of Sto. Domingo in the Phillipines. In addition to becoming a home for sea life, the rosary reef was created with the hope that it will become a tourist attraction.
- Hard to get past the idea of glass in your trunks: Meanwhile, back on the beaches, pulverized glass may begin replacing actual sand. In Florida’s Broward County, officials are considering using finely-crushed glass to help fill in sections of beaches where sand has eroded.
- The bad old days: Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego say that the last time Earth was a “greenhouse world”–when the planet had very high levels of greenhouse gases 50 million years ago–it had few coral reefs, tropical water that felt like a hot bath and a paucity of sharks, tuna, whales and seals.
- Finally, we get jet packs, and now this?: A state agency in Hawaii has begun a review of the use of water-powered jet packs. Seems that the devices, which have become popular among tourists wanting to launch themselves over the ocean, may be doing damage to coral reefs.
Video bonus: Take a breather and see what’s going on at the bottom of the sea. Check out NOAA’s live-streaming video camera.
Video bonus bonus: See how statues are being turned into a man-made reef off the coast of Mexico.
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August 7, 2013
A few days ago, scientists in London unveiled the first lab-grown burger created from stem cells taken from the muscle tissue of cow. The small strips of synthetic meat were collected into pellets and ultimately shaped into the hamburger patty rolled out before the cameras.
Although food critics on hand agreed that the burger felt like real meat in their mouths and tasted okay, most of the coverage of the event came with a heavy dose of snark, usually accompanied with shots of people chomping on big, thick, juicy burgers straight from the cow.
But there was science behind it all–with the research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was motivated to help find more imaginative and planet-friendly ways to produce food. As he put it, “If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.”
This summer has been full of stories like that, where on the surface the science may seem strange, but it’s spurred by innovative thinking that finds out something new about the world or may make a difference in the way we live some day. Here are 10 more of them:
1) So much for minty breath: Last week, Chinese scientists shared the latest example of why science often isn’t pretty. They reported that they’ve been able to grow rudimentary teeth from human urine. Technically, they transplanted stem cells from urine into mice and those cells were able to grow into knobby things resembling teeth–they had pulp, dentin and enamel-forming cells. While they were only about a third as hard as the real thing, one day, as the researchers wrote in the journal Cell Regeneration, dentists may be able to plant little buds in your jaw that started out in urine.
2) I love the sound of slot machines in the morning. It sounds like…winning: And scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada say that based on their analysis, the cacophony emanating from slot machines not only makes gambling more exciting, but it also can cause gamblers to think they’ve won more times than they actually have. All that noise, the scientists suggested, can make losses feel like wins.
3) How else would we show how big was the one that got away?: One of the highlights of the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology in Spain last month was the presentation of Cornell University Andrew Bass, who contends that talking with our hands may have its roots in fish. That’s right, fish. Bass, aptly named, said his research indicates that the evolutionary origins of the link between speech and gesturing can be traced to a compartment in a fish’s brain. And that part of its brain, notes Bass, allows a fish to vocalize and gesture with its pectoral fins simultaneously.
4) When rocks scream: Who knew that volcanoes “scream” before they erupt? Okay, it’s not a blood-curdling wail–more like a harmonic vibration–but in some cases, such as Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano, the mountain makes a sound so loud it can actually be heard by humans. A study published in July says that in Redoubt’s case, the sound–high-pitched and increasing in volume–is produced by a succession of small earthquakes caused by quick movements of magma pushed by building pressure before an eruption.
5) I’m too sexy for this cave: While we’re on the subject of nature noise, give props to the male bat. It apparently is quite the romantic singer, according to research by Texas A&M biology professor Mike Smotherman, at least when it comes to enticing a mate. In short, a male bat needs to cut to the chase–he has less than a second to grab a female’s attention as she flies by at 30 feet per second. If he gets her to stop by, he then mixes up his songs to keep her entertained long enough to get to the matter at hand.
6) They need to listen to some slot machines: A Duke University study of chimps and bonobos not only found that apes are quick to throw tantrums when things don’t go as expected, but that they can become particularly agitated when they gamble and lose. In one part of the research, the apes could choose to accept a very small portion of food or wait longer for a larger serving of a meal they weren’t able to see. If the gamble paid off, the apes were able to chow down on a large helping of their favorite fruit. But if it didn’t work and they ended with a big heaping of something like cucumbers, they flipped out, or tried to switch their choice at the last minute. The researchers also found that chimps were both more willing to wait for food and much bigger gamblers than the bonobos.
7) But wait until they get a load of their first kangaroo: Okay, go with me on this: If Martians did exist and if they wanted to take a getaway vacation, but to a place that still felt a little like home, they would head to the Australian outback. So says University of Sydney geologist Patrice Rey, who believes that the red dirt in the central part of the continent might be very much like what’s found on Mars. He has researched why precious opal can be found all over the place there, but hardly anywhere else on Earth, and believes that it started forming when a giant sea that covered much of Australia began drying out about 100 million years ago–conditions similar to those seen on the surface of Mars.
8) The first nano smile: Scientists at Georgia Tech have recreated the world’s most famous painting–the Mona Lisa–on the world’s smallest canvas–a surface about one-third the width of a human hair. The nano-art, titled “Mini Lisa,” is meant to demonstrate a technique in which an atomic force microscope is used to vary the surface concentration of molecules. Da Vinci the scientist would be thrilled, da Vinci the artist, not so much.
9) Show me you care: Humans have much more positive feelings about a robot that cares for them than one they have to take care of. According to a study by an international team of scientists, people think a robot that seems to look out for them is smarter and more human than one that appears to need help. The researchers say this helps them better understand how to get humans to trust robots.
10) When there aren’t enough brains to go around: And finally, researchers using a zombie-themed game found that people under pressure tend to make dumb decisions when evacuating a building. In fact, the more pressure players were under, the more likely they were stick to evacuation routes they knew, even if they meant it took longer for them to escape. The study, reported last month, was part of real science incorporated into a ZombieLab event held at London’s Science Museum earlier this year.
Video bonus: Here’s a clip of the taste test of the first in vitro burger. And an animation that explains how a cow’s muscle tissue grows into a burger, although it sure doesn’t make it very appetizing.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s a look at how science and zombies mix.
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