If you want to trust a robot, look at how it makes decisions
Robots, and autonomous systems in general, can cause anxiety and uncertainty, particularly as their use in everyday tasks becomes a more immediate possibility. In order to lessen at least some of that anxiety, we should shift our focus from the decisions robots could make on our behalf to how they actually make them in the first place. In some ways, they may be more trustworthy than a human. Like it or not, autonomous systems are here and here to stay. By “autonomy” we mean the ability of a system to make its own decisions about what to do and when to do it. So far, most of the examples you might have come across, such as robot vacuum cleaners, aircraft autopilots and automated parking systems in your car, are simple and not even particularly autonomous. These systems adapt to their environment, responding automatically to environmental changes. They are pre-programmed to adapt to environmental stimuli. But old science fiction stories warn us about systems that go further. What worries us is what happens when a human pilot, driver or operator is replaced by software that makes its own choices about what to do. In air travel, an autopilot system can keep an aircraft flying on a certain path, but there is a human pilot deciding which path to take, when to divert, and how to deal with unexpected situations. Similarly, cruise control, lane control and soon convoying will allow our cars to carry out path following activities though drivers will continue to make the big decisions. But once we move to truly autonomous systems, software will play a much bigger part. We will no longer need a human to decide when to change the route of an aircraft or when to turn off the motorway onto a side road. (via If you want to trust a robot, look at how it makes decisions)
If you want to trust a robot, look at how it makes decisions
Elephants recognize human voices
Elephants are able to differentiate between ethnicities and genders, and can tell an adult from a child - all from the sound of a human voice. This is according to a study in which researchers played voice recordings to wild African elephants. The animals showed more fear when they heard the voices of adult Masai men. Livestock-herding Masai people do come into conflict with elephants, and this suggests that animals have adapted to specifically listen for and avoid them. The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (via BBC News - Elephants recognise human voices)
Cosmos airs Sundays at 9/8c.
Researchers Increase and Decrease Pain Sensitivity Using Light
Read the full article Researchers Increase and Decrease Pain Sensitivity Using Light at NeuroscienceNews.com.
The mice in Scott Delp’s lab, unlike their human counterparts, can get pain relief from the glow of a yellow light.
Right now these mice are helping scientists study pain — how and why it occurs, and why some people feel it so intensely without any obvious injury. But Delp, PhD, professor of bioengineering and of mechanical engineering, hopes one day the work he does with these mice could also help people who are in chronic, debilitating pain.
The research is in Nature Biotechnology. (full access paywall)
Research: “Virally mediated optogenetic excitation and inhibition of pain in freely moving nontransgenic mice” by Shrivats Mohan Iyer, Kate L Montgomery, Chris Towne, Soo Yeun Lee, Charu Ramakrishnan, Karl Deisseroth and Scott L Delp in Nature Biotechnology. doi:10.1038/nbt.2834
Image: A histological image demonstrating opsin transduction in unmyelinated axons. Credit Shrivats Iyer and Kate Montgomery/Stanford University.
MIT researchers propose gas stations in space
-Getting into space is an expensive business where every little bit of extra weight, which includes the fuel powering the spacecraft, can add thousands of dollars to the cost of a mission. A team of researchers at MIT proposes establishing gas stations in space as a possible way to help cut the cost of future missions to the Moon. Before you point out that establishing a “gas station” in space would require fuel to be hauled up to it in the first place, rendering such a concept moot, the MIT team points out that lunar missions carry a supply of “contingency propellant”. This is essentially the equivalent of a can of extra gas thrown in the boot that can be pulled out in the case of an emergency. Rather than just leaving this backup fuel on the Moon or burning it up on re-entry as is usually the case, the MIT team suggests spacecraft could drop it off at a depot positioned between Earth and the Moon on their way home. This way, following missions could dock at the depot to pick up the fuel tank for use as its own contingency propellant before continuing on to the Moon. Then, on it’s return journey, it could drop off the fuel again if it wasn’t used. The team calls this a “steady-state” approach. (via MIT researchers propose gas stations in space)
Confronted with a simple mathematical problem, most children ages 4 to 6 can use algebraic concepts intuitively to solve for a hidden variable, say researchers. “These very young children, some of whom are just learning to count, and few of whom have even gone to school yet, are doing basic algebra and with little effort,” says Melissa Kibbe, a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University. “They do it by using what we call their ‘Approximate Number System:’ their gut-level, inborn sense of quantity and number.” Kibbe, lead author of a report in the journal Developmental Science, says the “Approximate Number System,” or “number sense,” is the ability to quickly estimate the quantity of objects in their everyday environments. Humans and a host of other animals are born with this ability, probably an evolutionary adaptation to help them survive in the wild, scientists say. Previous research has revealed that adolescents with better math abilities also had superior number sense when they were preschoolers, and that number sense peaks around age 35.
Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) summarizes the problem with defining knowledge in his ‘Theory of Knowledge’ (1913):
via Philosophy Now (subscription)
The neurochemistry of power has implications for political change
Power, especially absolute and unchecked power, is intoxicating. Its effects occur at the cellular and neurochemical level. They are manifested behaviourally in a variety of ways, ranging from heightened cognitive functions to lack of inhibition, poor judgement, extreme narcissism, perverted behaviour, and gruesome cruelty. The primary neurochemical involved in the reward of power that is known today is dopamine, the same chemical transmitter responsible for producing a sense of pleasure. Power activates the very same reward circuitry in the brain and creates an addictive “high” in much the same way as drug addiction. Like addicts, most people in positions of power will seek to maintain the high they get from power, sometimes at all costs. When withheld, power – like any highly addictive agent – produces cravings at the cellular level that generate strong behavioural opposition to giving it up. In accountable societies, checks and balances exist to avoid the inevitable consequences of power. Yet, in cases where leaders possess absolute and unchecked power, changes in leadership and transitions to more consensus-based rule are unlikely to be smooth. Gradual withdrawal of absolute power is the only way to ensure that someone will be able to accept relinquishing it. (via The neurochemistry of power has implications for political change)