Courtesy Andy Field (Field Offie)Researchers at Virginia Tech are working on several versions of robotic jellyfish that someday could be used by the military, or for mapping the ocean floor, or cleaning up oil spills.
Known affectionately as RoboJelly, the silicone blobs range from the size of a baseball to a giant five-foot floating monster. Each mimics the swimming technique used by jellyfish, those huffing and puffing water-bags that populate the world's oceans.
In nature, most jellyfish propel themselves by the seemingly simple expansion and contraction of their umbrella, using it to push water out like a rocket blast that propels it forward. But the fluid dynamics are a little more complicated than than just expelling out a big blast of water and moving the other way. It's more like when your cigar-smoking uncle would blow smoke rings into the air to impress you. Remember that? I do. These are called vortex rings, and it's the efficiency of the hydromedusean's self-created fluid flow that interest the VT researchers.
Students at VT's College of Engineering use thin layers of silicone - the same material used for swimming masks - to construct the robots. Electric batteries in watertight plexiglass boxes are used to power the mechanical blobs. The researchers are also looking into ways of extracting hydrogen from water to power them.
“Nature has done great job in designing propulsion systems but it is slow and tedious process," said Shashank Priya, associate professor at Virginia Tech, and the project's lead researcher. "On the other hand, current status of technology allows us to create high performance systems in a matter of few months.”
The on-going project involves a number of U.S. universities and industries, and will warrant several additional years of research before any prototypes are released for use. Besides possible military application, RoboJelly could be employed for such things as monitoring ocean currents and conditions, cleaning up oil spills, and studying sea-bottom flora and fauna.
Only a few days after Google published satellite photographs of possibly secret nuclear facilities in Iran, new images of obviously manmade structures have been spotted in the Gobi desert in China. All of the structures are located in northwestern China, near the borders of Xinjiang and Gansu province. This is an area that China uses for its military, space and nuclear programs.
In this Google Map image, burnt-out vehicles can be see seen in what is speculated to be a military training facility. Northwest of that site can be seen an additional manmade facility. Another image reveals what appear to be large manmade bodies of water. This radial structure may be a targeting site.
Courtesy Public DomainOn August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb "Little Boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The bomb worked though nuclear fission, forcing a mass of uranium-235 to absorb extra neutrons to become uranium-236. The uranium 236 then immediately broke apart into lighter elements, releasing a vast amount of energy. Nearly 70,000 people were killed in the blast from Little Boy, and more than 100,000 others would die from the bomb's long-term radioactive effects in the following years.
After just one test explosion, Little Boy was only the second nuclear weapon ever to be detonated, and the first to be used against humans. Three days later, a larger, plutonium-based bomb, "Fat Man," would be dropped on the city of Nagasaki. On August 15, the Emperor of Japan announced the country's surrender, ending World War II, a conflict that had already claimed over 60 million lives.
August 6th marks an important and frightening day for science and humanity. Although only two bombs were used in conflict, since then thousands of nuclear weapons have been tested, in the process of building more powerful or more precise bombs, and for one country to show others just what it could do.
Here's an interesting visualization of all the nuclear bombs detonated between 1945 and 1998, showing who tested them, and where:
A new robot developed by Boston Dynamics can leap over obstacles such as fences and walls as tall as 25 feet. Its developers say the jumping robot's military application could help reduce troop casualties in urban warfare settings. Newly released video of the Precision Urban Hopper doing its thing can be seen here.
Courtesy JGordonHave we never talked about the uncanny valley on Science Buzz? I searched for the term, and got nothing. (Although… I’m beginning to suspect that my computer doesn’t accept voice commands. “Computer, display LOLcats,” gets me nothing, and I know that there are LOLcats out there.)
So… the uncanny valley. It has to do with robots, and human-simulation thingys. It’s like… like… well, here’s an example:
Think about factory assembly line robots—big arms, repetitive movements… it doesn’t do much for you, does it? They’re just boring ol’ machines.
Now think about R2D2, Star Wars’ trashcan robot. Beep beep, whistle! Cute, huh? He rolls around, and does sassy things we can’t understand, and we know he’s a robot, and he’s pretty likeable.
Now think about Johny 5 from Short Circuit. He can talk, he’s got a face, and expressive eye-flaps. And we still kind of like him, despite the attitude. (Great, you can read fast. Clean my kitchen before I have you recycled, robot.)
Now think abut C3PO, Star Wars’ deeply uncomfortable, shuffle-gaited robot. He’s pretty much human shaped, he speaks human (with an accent too…), and he’s clearly grappling with some of the same personal identity issues we real humans deal with. And… he’s just a little bit creepy, isn’t he? He’s like us, but not like us… How do we deal with this goldbot?*
And then there’s the “Simroid,” the Japanese robotic monstrosity used for dentist training. See the Simroid:
Clearly Lady Simroid has discovered what it means to be human, and she is, appropriately, horrified. And it doesn’t help that her existence is limited to sitting in a chair and having dental students see what hurts.
But, see, robots like the Simroid, in their appearance and limited behavior, are quite like humans. And it’s weird! They make us uncomfortable. So like us, but they’re absolutely missing the piece that makes a person a person. Brrrr
And then, moving on, we have healthy, living humans. Or maybe Blade Runner replicants. And they aren’t so weird any more. We’re back up to something we’re comfortable with.
It’s the Simroid point on this scale where the familiarity/comfort level takes a huge dive. That’s the uncanny valley.
(Another way to think about it might be cartoons. Stick figures. Disney’s Aladdin. Toy Story. The Polar Express movie adaptation. Pirates of the Caribbean. Which of these are you least likely to see on a poster in a kid’s bedroom? Well, maybe stick figures, but do you see what I’m getting at?)
There are different theories as to why objects in the uncanny valley creep us out so much. The remind us of dead things. (Like zombies!) They are similar enough to us that, on a biological level, we perceive them as a threat (because a genetically similar creature is more likely to pass diseases to us, I guess), and so we feel revulsion towards them. Or they’re no longer like robots, but when we judge them on the human scale, they come up disturbingly lacking. Basically, they’re weird.
So, when you’re building your humanoid, you have to decide early on where you’re going to shoot for on the uncanny valley scale. If you aim too high, you may end up dooming your creation to the same hate we have for ventriloquists’ dummies. (In my opinion, you should probably set your expectations somewhere around R2D2, unless you’re making a baby. And even then…)
Enter the military-funded “Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot,” or BEAR. BEAR was designed to be able to rescue wounded people in combat areas, and to do heavy, potentially dangerous tasks. It’s basically some big treads and a torso with arms, and each new version is a little stronger, and more nimble and damage resistant. And the newest versions have bizarre teddy bear heads, apparently because that’s the sort of thing that’s reassuring to an injured soldier.
So where does this fall on the uncanny scale? We like teddy bears. But teddy bears are usually soft and fuzzy, not six-foot-tall human-torsoed robots, able to dead lift 500 pounds. Also, their dark lifeless eyes aren’t usually set in hard, urban camo faces. For me, at least, a face like that seems to promise physical dismemberment with utter, robotic detachment (pun intended, I guess?).
Am I alone? Am I relating too much (but not enough) to the BEAR? How do y’all feel? Anything else in the uncanny valley that you feel deserves a shout out for its creepiness? Let’s have it.
*I’m aware that R2D2 and C3PO are supposed to be spelled out phonetically. I won’t be doing that. Ever.
Two nuclear submarines using anti-sonar technology apparently could not see each other when they collided somewhere in the Atlantic ocean.
"This is clearly a one-in-a-million chance when you think about how big the Atlantic is. It is actually unbelievable that something happened."
Click this link to read more in the Daily Tech: Collision leaves two nuclear-armed subs badly damaged,
Courtesy Whit Welles“Hey, quiet down up there. We can’t hear a thing down here.”
No, it’s not the lament of some landlord who’s rented out the upper level apartment to a rock-and-roll loving tenant. It’s a case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court right now pitting whales off the coast of California against the U.S. Navy.
Justices heard oral arguments yesterday on the case. Environmentalists are challenging the Navy’s claim to perform training exercises along the California coast which use extensive and strong sonar transmissions. The sound waves of those sonar blasts can harm whales and other marine mammals, petitioners contend, with sounds that can be up to 2,000 times louder than a jet engine. Some scientists feel that sounds that loud can cause whales to lose hearing loss, bleed on the brain and possibly lead to mass strandings on beaches.
Courtesy Thor CarlsonThe Navy says that strong sonar level is critical to be able to detect submarines that can elude weaker modes of sonar.
Based on justices’ questions and reactions, however, it appears that court is leaning toward siding with the Navy and national security concerns.
Here’s a full report on yesterday’s court session. Justices were pretty upfront in stating their lack of expertise in mammal biology and national defense matters.
So if you had to decide on this conflict, where would you come down on this question? Does the health and a comfort of whales trump national security? Is loud sonar just an unfortunate byproduct of keeping our national interests safe? Share your thoughts here with other Buzz readers.
Courtesy US Dept. of Defense (not Mark Ryan)Click here and look at the photograph accompanying the story. Agence France-Presse claims the image was obtained from a website of the media arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The photo makes it look like the Iranians are flexing their military muscle during a recent missile test launch, but in reality they seem to be merely flexing their Clone Stamp Tool in their (probably illegal) copy of Adobe Photoshop.
Now look at the stock photo on the right. This is a minuteman test done by the US military over the Pacific Ocean. I swear to God I have not manipulated this image in any way whatsoever. Not at all. Not one single pixel has been changed in this original photograph. Really.
Well, okay, actually I may have enhanced it just a bit, but only to make a point.
Photo tampering has been around since the earliest days of photography. It was (and still is) a practice used often in advertising, propaganda, magazine covers, and even news (where it is gravely frowned upon). So this kind of thing is nothing new. But advances in digital photography and computer software that allows for pixel-level image manipulation has really created an atmosphere ripe for extreme skepticism of any kind of photograph you see out there nowadays. And the Internet is full of such “real photographs”; stuff like the guy who keeps his dead wife encased in a coffee-table, paratroopers coming in over a lake full of hungry alligators, or president Bush having a good time in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. All lies!!
When I published a composite photo in a magazine some years ago, the publisher credited it as a “photo illustration” rather than photograph. And I had no problem with that. I’ve also sold (as photographs) images that were extensively manipulated by the addition and removal of elements to enhance the composition. Since I wasn’t trying to make any kind of editorial statement, I have no problem doing that. I look at it more as painting with pixels than tampering with photography. But it does raise the issue of photo ethics. Evidently, it’s okay when used in some ways (such as advertising where everybody expects everything to be a lie), but not okay in other ways (such as news photos).
If done correctly, and with a good deal of thought and meticulous attention to detail, a remarkable “photograph” can be created that even the experts will have difficulty determining whether it’s been doctored or not. Such as my fine illustrative example above. If I hadn’t told you otherwise, I’m sure you would have thought it was an actual photograph of multiple launches. People can be so gullible.
So, perhaps you want to join the Photo Tampering Bandwagon and learn the finer points of image manipulation, but you just don’t have the time to invest in reading the manual that came with your copy of Photoshop. Who can blame you? The thing is massive! I don’t even like reading it. But now, fortunately, there’s a wonderful series on YouTube called “You Suck at Photoshop”, which makes learning the ins and outs of what truly is a complicated program both fun and educational (especially if your current relationship is on shaky ground).
And, lastly, for those of you insisting on some sort of “science” angle to these posts, go here for that.
A story on CBS news claims that military veterans commit suicide at a much higher rate than the general population. However, blogger Bill Sweetman argues that the report is flawed. It fails to account for the fact that the vast majority of veterans are men, who have a higher suicide rate than average. Most veterans are also young, and young people commit suicide far more often than older people. Once you account for these two factors, the supposed difference in veterans’ suicide rates disappears.