Check this out. Asteroid 2002 AM31 whizzed past Earth on July 22.
At its closest point, it was about 3.2 million miles away, so it wasn’t as if the planet was in any danger, but this video from Space.com gives you some idea of just how fast these things move. The asteroid is estimated to be about the size of a city block.
SpaceX recently launched the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the international space station. The company’s success proved that space travel isn’t the sole purview of nation-states; businesses, not just agencies, can reach for the stars.
Check out this amazing video of the successful mission, courtesy of SpaceX.
Can robots be programmed to behave in an ethical manner? That was the key issue in a story I wrote last year for The Oklahoman.
In case you missed it, here’s the full text:
“Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. … They never stop to ask if they should do something. They conveniently define such considerations as pointless. If they don’t do it, someone else will. Discovery, they believe, is inevitable. So they just try to do it first. That’s the game in science.” — Michael Crichton, “Jurassic Park”
On Aug. 8, a select group of 25 people met at a San Francisco hotel to discuss a topic that used to exist solely in the realm of science fiction.
The workshop, hosted by Oklahoma City University professors Ted Metzler and Susan Barnes and a colleague from New Hampshire, focused on robot ethics, particularly in regard to elder care.
“There are two sides to this,” said Barnes, OCU’s chair of Transformative and Global Education. “One is, are we dealing with ethical questions when we assign robots to interact with humans who are elderly and vulnerable? The second is, can robots make ethical decisions, or decisions based on an ethical paradigm? …
“We had two cohorts represented. One consisted of individuals who are currently being funded by research or commercial entities to build robots to help with elder care. They’ve bypassed the ethical question. The other group was saying we should stop a minute here and consider personhood and viewpoint and what happens to a person who interacts with a robot instead of a human.
“Can you use a robot as a replacement for human contact? The general answer to that is no.”
Robot-human interaction is an increasingly relevant topic in elder care. As baby boomers age, long-term care facilities, already struggling with insufficient staffing levels, are likely to reach a critical mass.
“Japan has the same situation,” said Metzler, OCU’s director of the Darrell Hughes Program in Religion and Science Dialogue. “They have a very large proportion of the population in the upper age range, and they have a relatively low birthrate. … So they and South Korea have led the way in the development of this technology.
“But it’s a problem that is being recognized in other countries. In the U.S., it’s been recognized for some time. With a shortage of nurses and an increasing demand for elder care, assistive robotics may be a solution. It is in the process, I would say, of becoming an industry.”
Consider PARO, for example.
PARO is a robotic baby harp seal that simulates the behavior of a real pet, providing the therapeutic benefits of pet ownership without the responsibilities.
The $6,000 robot is covered in soft fur and has exaggeratedly long eyelashes.
It coos, squeaks, moves and sleeps. It responds to touch and speech, knows when it’s being held and pouts if it doesn’t get enough attention.
So far, the automatons can’t be found in Oklahoma facilities. That’s likely to change.
Christine Hsu, a company representative, told The Oklahoman in an email that more than 1,500 PARO robots have been sold in Japan and Europe since 2003.
“In (the) U.S.,” she wrote, “we started to introduce PARO since last year, and currently we have users in military retirement communities, Alzheimer associations, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospitals, school(s) for autistic children and individuals across the country.”
By most accounts, patients respond well to the robots. The Washington Post reported on an 81-year-old woman who cried and said, “I love her,” when a PARO was put in her lap. An Illinois newspaper, the Herald-News, said some nursing home residents who wouldn’t respond to humans immediately played with a PARO; some mistook it for a real animal.
And therein lies the rub.
“To create an entity that seems designed to deliberately fool the person it’s interacting with that it cares and has feelings that can be hurt is unethical,” said Susan Anderson, professor emerita of philosophy at the University of Connecticut.
“But what if there is no one human to interact with that person? In that circumstance, it may be the lesser of two evils.”
“Robots do not hold on to life. They can’t. They have nothing to hold on with — no soul, no instinct. Grass has more will to live than they do.” — Karel Capek, “R.U.R.”
Anderson and her husband, Mike Anderson, a computer science professor at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, attended the California workshop. They are the editors of a recent book called “Machine Ethics” and have endeavored to program a robot to behave ethically.
The couple work with an Aldebaran Nao, a mass-production humanoid robot that stands more than 2 feet tall and costs about as much as a new economy car. Working with an ethicist, the Andersons developed software that generalizes appropriate responses from a pool of specific cases, effectively giving their robot the ability to make decisions based on experience.
“From an artificial intelligence standpoint,” Mike Anderson said, “it’s using machine learning techniques that permit you to get to this generalized principle.”
The Anderson’s robot is programmed to remind patients when to take pills. It’s a straightforward task until a patient refuses to listen.
That scenario presents an ethical dilemma for the robot. Humans have free will; they can decide whether they want their medicine or not. But if they continue to refuse medications, their lives could be endangered.
“The robot is able, in this case, to weigh those factors and decide when to alert a physician or the human nurse charged with this person’s care,” Metzler said. “This is the kind of thing that weighs patient autonomy against the welfare of the patient, the kinds of things that are in the domain of moral reasoning.”
Metzler is no Luddite. He has worked on artificial intelligence applications for the Army, Navy and Border Patrol and has been a member of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence for 20 years.
Even so, he and Barnes worry that interacting with robots could prove dehumanizing, changing how we view ourselves and our obligations to society.
“The technology has to serve human purposes,” Metzler said, “not the other way around.”
Putting a PARO in the hands of a dementia patient concerns Barnes.
“You already have someone who is having difficulty retaining their perspective of the here and now,” she said. “If they’re approached by a human artifact (a robot), does it push them further away from reality and decrease their personhood?”
The answer isn’t clear. For most of our existence, humans have created items in our own image — baby dolls, for example, or GI Joes. Children can distinguish between real babies and fake ones, even those designed to wriggle and cry. It stands to reason that adults should be able to do the same.
In fact, people don’t want to blur the line between human and machine. In 1978, Japanese robot builder Masahiro Mori noticed something surprising. People liked his human-shaped robots until they became too lifelike; then they were regarded as profoundly unsettling. Mori dubbed this disconnect the Uncanny Valley.
Researchers at New Zealand’s University of Auckland have documented the Uncanny Valley phenomenon with regard to the elderly.
“They found out from doing focus groups that the elders were very receptive to the idea of the robot detecting falls and reporting them in an emergency situation,” Metzler said. “But they didn’t want robots to have human faces. They preferred them to be not tall, roughly 4 feet in height.”
“Let’s start with the three fundamental Rules of Robotics. … We have: one, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Two, a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. And three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.” — Isaac Asimov, “Astounding Science Fiction”
Of course, the prime mover behind the robotics industry is the military. Unmanned combat systems put fewer American lives at risk. (At least one member of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is tasked with ensuring American troops have a technological advantage over all foes, attended the workshop.)
From Aug. 16-19, weapons makers showcased their wares at the Unmanned Systems North America exhibition in Washington.
The Wall Street Journal described one of the offerings like this: “One look at the unblinking electronic eye and dark contours of the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System and it’s hard not to think of Skynet, the fictional computer in the Terminator film that becomes aware of its own existence and sends robotic armies to exterminate humans.
“The brawny combat robot … rolls on tank-like treads. It boasts day and night-vision cameras, a four-barrel grenade launcher and a 7.62 mm machine gun.”
Drone aircraft have been used over Pakistan, Yemen and Libya. A consulting firm mentioned in the Journal article estimated that worldwide spending on unmanned aerial vehicles will nearly double by the end of the decade.
Last year, South Korea posted a non-humanoid robot to stand guard over the border with North Korea. The robot, made by Samsung and equipped with a variety of audio and video sensors, is armed with a machine gun and grenade launcher. It can exchange passwords with soldiers.
“This raises a number of situations where there might be, for example, a farmer straying into the area who doesn’t know the password,” Metzler said. “He could get shot. This kind of situation is a little more stark in its call for responsible, moral behavior.”
The Andersons are troubled by tactical robots, as well.
“We have always said that if we’re not comfortable that the robot can behave in an ethically acceptable fashion, then we don’t think it should be put out there,” Susan Anderson said. “This includes killer robots.”
Clearly it’s too late to interrupt the development of new robotic systems. But Metzler and the others want to make sure ethics are an integral part of technological advances.
“I’m trying personally to raise awareness of these issues,” Metzler said, “because if somebody doesn’t, we’re just going to slide into a different way of living without thinking about it and wake up someday saying, ‘How did this happen?’”
Did you know?
The first use of the word “robot” was in the play, “R.U.R.,” written by Czech author Karel Capek in 1920. Its roots are in Old Czech words meaning slave, forced labor or drudgery. In Capek’s play, robotic workers, which are more like clones, rise up to destroy their human masters.
About 35 years ago, Earth came as close as it’s ever come to communicating with extraterrestrials.
At 11:16 p.m. eastern time on Aug. 15, 1977, the Big Ear radio telescope in Ohio detected a narrow band radio transmission from what appeared to be outer space. Jerry R. Ehman discovered the signal a few days later, while examining computer printouts from the telescope.
There it was, a combination of six letters and numbers: “6EQUJ5.”
To most, the output would’ve been gibberish. But Ehman had written much of the software. To him, the letters and numbers spelled out a series of signal-to-noise ratios — the same ratios scientists expected to see if an alien culture, somewhere in the vastness of space, aimed a radio transmission at Earth. It could, Ehman knew, be first contact.
He scrawled a single word in the margin beside the output code: “Wow!” And thereafter, the transmission became known as the Wow! signal.
What the signal represents is ambiguous. Big Ear never detected the signal again, despite repeated attempts. Analysis indicated the signal probably lasted no longer than 150 seconds.
Was it really an alien transmission, or was it something more prosaic — a coded transmission from a satellite or spacecraft, a ground-based signal somehow picked up by the telescope, planetary noise or a one-time quirk, like a terrestrial radio transmission that had bounced off of a piece of space junk for a couple minutes? If it was alien, why didn’t it repeat? Were the aliens doing like Big Ear and searching an ever-changing grid? Could the telescope have happened upon it just before the transmission turned to focus on a different slice of space?
What is sure is that the signal was 30 times stronger than any other detected before or since by SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
“To this day it remains unexplained,” according to a news release from the National Geographic Channel, “and more importantly, unanswered. But if the Wow! signal really was a cosmic ‘tweet’ from our nearest neighbors, we think it’s high time we send an @reply.”
From 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. central time on June 29, National Geographic will collect tweets that bear the hash tag #ChasingUFOs. On Aug. 15, the tweets and videos from earthly notables will be packaged together and transmitted into space by the Arecibo Observatory, a massive radio telescope in Puerto Rico.
The effort ties in with National Geographic’s new television series, “Chasing UFOs,” which looks really cheesy (see videos below). But even if it’s a publicity stunt, it’s kind of cool to send a tweet into outer space.
For more information, go online to www.thewowreply.com.
The folks at Deadspin.com described this perfectly. I can’t do any better. This happened during last night’s Giants’ game.
Oh, Matt Cain threw a perfect game? Sorry, didn’t notice. Was too busy having my head explode after seeing a secret agent fly around the Bay on his personal water-powered jetpack. This was the first inning. You knew it was going to be a special game.”
About the video (courtesy of NASA):
Launched on Feb. 11, 2010, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, is the most advanced spacecraft ever designed to study the sun. During its five-year mission, it will examine the sun’s atmosphere, magnetic field and also provide a better understanding of the role the sun plays in Earth’s atmospheric chemistry and climate. SDO provides images with resolution 8 times better than high-definition television and returns more than a terabyte of data each day.
On June 5 2012, SDO collected images of the rarest predictable solar event–the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. This event happens in pairs eight years apart that are separated from each other by 105 or 121 years. The last transit was in 2004 and the next will not happen until 2117.
The videos and images displayed here are constructed from several wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light and a portion of the visible spectrum. The red colored sun is the 304 angstrom ultraviolet, the golden colored sun is 171 angstrom, the magenta sun is 1700 angstrom, and the orange sun is filtered visible light. 304 and 171 show the atmosphere of the sun, which does not appear in the visible part of the spectrum.
Want a way to kick-start your creativity? Break out of your daily routines.
So says psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, who discusses the findings of researchers from the Netherlands in an interesting article on the Huffington Post website.
Everyone has the ability to be creative, but as any writer staring at a blank screen can tell you, it isn’t always easy to find your muse. Experiences that take you outside your normal routines can trigger the creative spark. Psychologists have long known that to be the case for major life events, such as the death of a parent or a move to a new place.
Now, Kaufman reports, the researchers in the Netherlands have found that innovation doesn’t have to be inspired by a major event; just about any change will do.
“To test their idea,” Kaufman wrote, “the researchers put people in a virtual reality world where participants took a virtual three-minute stroll through the university cafeteria, and during the course of their walk experienced weird events that violated the laws of physics. In one event, as people walked closer to a suitcase standing on a table, the size of the suitcase decreased, but as they walked away, its size increased. In another event, people were made to feel as though they were walking faster than they really were, and in a third event, as people walked toward a table, a toy car inched closer to a bottle, but when the car actually hit the bottle, instead of falling to the ground it slowly moved upwards!
“They also had people take a test of cognitive flexibility where they were required to come up with as many ideas as possible to the question ‘What makes sound?’ Those who generated a greater variety of categories were scored as more cognitively flexible. Those who were actively engaged in the weird virtual-reality world scored higher on the test of cognitive flexibility than a group of people who engaged in a normal version of the virtual world, and higher than a group of people who just watched a film showing the unexpected events. They also found that their results couldn’t be explained by differences in positive or negative emotion.
“In a second experiment they asked participants to prepare a sandwich with butter and chocolate chips (apparently, this is a breakfast delicacy in the Netherlands …). Some people were told to prepare the sandwich in an unusual order, first putting chocolate chips on a dish, then buttering the bread, and then placing the bread buttered-side-down on the dish with the chocolate chips. They had another group make the sandwich in the usual order, and another group just watched a video of a person making the sandwich in either the unusual way or the usual way. Again, people who actively made the sandwich in the unusual order scored highest in cognitive flexibility compared with the other groups, and the results couldn’t be explained by differences in positive or negative emotion.”
The research suggests, then, that simple changes in perspective can inspire creativity. When what you expect to happen doesn’t, you’re forced to think about things in a new way.
“If you want to get into a creative mindset,” Kaufman concludes, “do your normal routine in a completely different way. Write with your other hand. Moonwalk backwards on your way to work. Eat something new for lunch. Smile at strangers. Be weird. With your brain re-shuffled, you’ll be in a better position to be creative.”
This is the most amazing photo of the Venus transit that I’ve seen so far. It’s an extreme ultraviolet image from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Absolutely beautiful.
Here’s something a bit less rare than the Venus transit but unusual nonetheless.
It’s video of a large iceberg tipping over.
The video was posted to YouTube in March by a user called osibaruch.
“This Iceberg was ‘calved’ by Argentina’s Uppsala glacier,” osibaruch wrote. “While we were passing by it with a catamaran, the huge berg lost a part of itself (look at the right side sinking) and then flipped over with a huge roar. In the process of melting this happens all the time, but it is seldom that it is captured on video WHEN it happens.”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (not standing on it, as the rest of us are), you know that a rare astronomical event is drawing near.
On June 5-6, Venus will pass in front of the sun. It’s called the Venus transit, and it happens only once or twice in a lifetime.
The last transit was in 2004, but folks in Oklahoma couldn’t see it. If you miss this week’s transit, you won’t have a chance to see another. Venus and Earth won’t line up for a transit again until Dec. 10-11, 2117.
The transits generally occur on a 243-year pattern: For 105.5 years, Earth won’t see any transits. Then it will witness two transits over eight years, followed by a 121.5-year dry spell and two transits over the next eight years. Then it repeats: 105.5 years, 8 years, 121.5 years, 8 years. That pattern will continue until the year 2846.
What will you see? Something really cool but not terribly exciting.
Oklahomans, as staff writer Adam Kemp reported last week, should be able to witness about 2.5 hours of the celestial alignment. We’ll see the beginning of the transit and a good chunk of Venus’ passage across the face of the sun. Once night falls, Oklahoma’s view will end.
Over those 2.5 hours, we’ll see a small black dot appear on the sun and slowly move across it. That’s all. A black dot.
Won’t seem like much unless you think about what you’re seeing. That’s a planet, one of Earth’s siblings, that we’ll be able to see without a telescope. Over the course of centuries, our ancestors watched similar transits and divined meaning from them, even though they didn’t realize what exactly they were seeing. Nearly four centuries ago, astronomers used the transits to triangulate the distance between the Earth and the sun, giving them a way to measure the size of our solar system. Human ingenuity operating on a cosmic scale.
I hope humanity will see the transit as I do: a reminder of how vast is the universe and how petty our problems and prejudices. We’re all in this together, those of us on this rocky Earth, this bright blue marble — all together, spinning through space, lonely but amazing. Long after we’re gone, our children and our children’s children will look to the sky and see the same reminder. We are but a moment on this Earth, but space goes on and on.