Monthly Archives: March 2017

How Do You Make The Same Robot?

Which robot do you find easier to like — “Iron Man” Tony Stark’s efficient helper J.A.R.V.I.S., or the error-prone Dummy, which fumbled with kitchen equipment and sprayed an exasperated Stark with fire-extinguishing foam?

You might think a robot would be more likely to win people over if it were good at its job. But according to a recent study, people find imperfect robots more likable.

In previous studies, researchers noticed that human subjects reacted differently to robots that made unplanned errors in their tasks. For their new investigation, the study authors programmed a small, humanoid robot to deliberately make mistakes so the scientists could learn more about how that fallibility affected the way people responded to the bots. They also wanted to see how these social cues might provide opportunities for robots to learn from their experiences[Super-Intelligent Machines: 7 Robotic Futures]

The researchers found that people liked the error-prone robot more than the error-free one, and that they responded to the robot’s mistakes with social signals that robots could possibly be trained to recognize, in order to modify future behavior.

For the study, 45 human subjects — 25 men and 20 women — were paired with a robot that was programmed to perform two tasks: ask interview questions, and direct several simple Lego brick assemblies.

For 24 of the users, the robot behaved flawlessly. It posed questions and waited for their responses, and then instructed them to sort the Lego bricks and build towers, bridges and “something creative,” ending the exercise by having the person arrange Legos into a facial expression to show a current emotional state, according to the study.

But for 21 people in the study, the robot’s performance was less than stellar. Some of the mistakes were technical glitches, such as failing to grasp Lego bricks or repeating a question six times. And some of the mistakes were so-called “social norm violations,” such as interrupting while their human partner was answering a question or telling them to throw the Lego bricks on the floor.

The scientists observed the interactions from a nearby station. They tracked how people reacted when the robots made a mistake, gauging their head and body movements, their expressions, the angle of their gaze, and whether they laughed, smiled or said something in response to the error. After the tasks were done, they gave participants a questionnaire to rate how much they liked the robot, and how smart and human-like they thought it was, on a scale from 1 to 5.

The researchers found that the participants responded more positively to the bumbling robot in their behavior and body language, and they said they liked it “significantly more” than the people liked the robot that made no mistakes at all.

However, the subjects who found the error-prone robot more likable didn’t see it as more intelligent or more human-like than the robot that made fewer mistakes, the researchers found.

Their results suggest that robots in social settings would probably benefit from small imperfections; if that makes the bots more likable, the robots could possibly be more successful in tasks meant to serve people, the study authors wrote.

And by understanding how people respond when robots make mistakes, programmers can develop ways for robots to read those social cues and learn from them, and thereby avoid making problematic mistakes in the future, the scientists added.

“Future research should be targeted at making a robot understand the signals and make sense of them,” the researchers wrote in the study.

“A robot that can understand its human interaction partner’s social signals will be a better interaction partner itself, and the overall user experience will improve,” they concluded.

The findings were published online May 31 in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI.

How To Deal With Nuclear Attack?

North Korea has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead that could be fitted onto an intercontinental ballistic missile, and has now threatened to attack Guam, a U.S. territory, according to several news reports.

In response, President Donald Trump used some apocalyptic rhetoric of his own.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, according to news reports. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” [7 Strange Facts About North Korea]

The saber rattling has raised concerns about the possibility of a nuclear attack on U.S. soil and heightened fears of doomsday. But is a global nuclear winter just around the corner?

While the effects of a detonation on American soil would certainly be scary and could set off a larger global catastrophe, one nuclear attack in itself isn’t a certain death sentence, as many people assume, said Michael May, a professor emeritus at the Engineering-Economic Systems and Operations Research Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

In addition, survival rates depend on whether the weapons are deployed by a well-armed hostile nation like Russia; a country, like North Korea, that has with a limited nuclear arsenal; or a terrorist group, he said. It also depends on how far people are from the epicenter, May said.

When most people think of nuclear war, they imagine a Cold War-type, mutually assured destruction scenario in which two countries lob a flurry of nuclear weapons at each other, decimating each other’s military, food and power infrastructure and raining radioactive fallout on large swaths of the world.

But despite the current tensions with Russia, a terrorist attack using a dirty bomb — a nuclear weapon patched together from explosives and radioactive nuclear waste — or a lone attack from a country such asNorth Korea is slightly more likely, May said. While the United States has a prototype nuclear missile-defense shield, this technology doesn’t work very well, Live Science previously reported. Still, the likeliest scenario would be one detonation, rather than the hundreds that would leave America a post-apocalyptic wasteland, May said. [Doomsday: 9 Real Ways Earth Could End]

“If it’s a lone, single weapon, [then] outside that central area, there’s a pretty good chance of survival,” May told Live Science.

Even Cold War analyses that forecasted a complete war of annihilation between Russia and the United States would likely result in “only” 40 million casualties on American soil, said May. Of course, the food and water infrastructure would likely be destroyed in such a scenario, leading to catastrophe, he added.

Immediate blast zone

The worst effects would likely be felt in the heart of an urban blast zone, May said.

For instance, for a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon, equivalent to the size ofthe Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, would immediately kill about 50 percent of the people within a 2-mile (3.2 kilometers) radius of ground detonation, according to a 2007 report from a Preventive Defense Project workshop. Those deaths would be caused by fires, intense radiation exposure and other fatal injuries. Some of these people would be injured by pressure from the explosion, while most would be exposed to injuries from collapsed buildings or from flying shrapnel;  most buildings in a 0.5-mile (0.6 km) radius of the detonation would be knocked down or heavily damaged.

Injuries to extremities would be extremely common, according to the Preventive Defense Project study. A few people would be injured by thermal burns caused by the fireball after the detonation. People in this area may also be exposed to extremely high levels of radioactivity, and many first responders and search-and-rescue workers would have to wait to enter these areas until the radiation levels had dropped, meaning assistance would be limited. [Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth]

People with subsurface basements in the primary blast zone may be able to survive the primary blast, assuming there’s only one, May said.

Even those who are a mile away from the epicenter of the explosion may have time to increase their survival odds; the light flash from the detonation travels much faster than the pressure and shock waves, meaning people may have a bit of time to close their eyes, move away from windows, duck and cover themselves, according to the Preventive Defense Workshop report.

The next immediate hazard to deal with is the radioactive fallout. When a nuclear bomb explodes, it pulverizes thousands of tons of earth, comingling that material with radioactive particles from the explosion. This process forms the iconic mushroom cloud, and as those thousands of tons of radioactive bits of ash, rock and dust float toward the ground, they emit radioactivity. The largest, heaviest particles of this nuclear snow settle first and are mostly contained in the initial blast area.  Smaller particles may float higher and farther and reach 10 to 20 miles (16 to 32 km) downwind, but the bulk of their radioactivity rapidly decays over time and they often take a long time to settle back to ground level.

In the absence of snow or rain — which would help to pull the fallout to the ground faster — far-flung particles may have minimal radioactivity by the time they float to Earth, according to the handbook “Nuclear War Survival Skills” (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 1987)

By 48 hours after the blast, an area that is initially exposed to 1,000 roentgens per hour of radiation will experience only 10 roentgens per hour of radiation, according to “Nuclear War Survival Skills.” About half of the people who experience a total radiation dose of about 350 roentgens over a couple of days are likely to die from acute radiation poisoning, according to the handbook. (A typical abdominal computed tomography scan may expose people to less than one roentgen.)

Those in the blast area can take some measures to protect themselves, if they have some warning. For example, they can go into a heavily reinforced building and stay away from windows; fall to the ground and cover their bodies (duck and cover), waiting at least 30 seconds after the blast for the shock wave to hit; and remain in a shelter until word comes that it’s safe to evacuate. After the blast, people should remove their outer clothing and shower if possible to remove radioactive particles. [Top 10 Largest Explosions Ever]

In a full-scale nuclear war, there may be more long-term contamination of the food supply. For instance, fallout may land on croplands and be taken up by the food supply, which could then cause longer-term problems such as cancer, May said. Radioactive iodine, in particular, could be a problem, he said.

“Cows are concentrating the iodine in the milk, and children concentrate the iodine in the milk into the thyroids,” leading to thyroid cancer, May said.

Nuclear detonations also cause electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) that can damage a wide range of electrical and communications equipment, especially within a radius of 2 to 5 miles (3.2 to 8 km) from a ground-level, 10-kiloton explosion. Vehicles could stall, communications and cell towers would be disrupted, computers would be destroyed, and the water and electrical grid could also be destroyed. First responders that come in from outside the area with unaffected electronics should still be able to operate their devices, according to the 2007 report.

Among preparatory steps people can take, the coordination and planning of first responders would likely have the biggest effect on casualty levels, but individuals can also take a few easy preventive steps, May said. The ultrawealthy may build high-end bomb shelters, but even the average person can take steps to minimize risks, he said. Some of those steps — such as having extra food, water and first-aid supplies available — will work for other emergencies, too.

Other steps may be unique to a nuclear attack. For instance, respiratory protection, such as cheap face masks or even cloths held over the nose and mouth, can help reduce radiation exposure, according to the workshop report.

Nuclear attacks would also necessitate equipment for measuring radiation. People who are waiting to emerge from their shelter after a blast will want to know which areas have dangerous levels of radiation.

“You might get yourself a radiation meter. They don’t cost very much,” May told Live Science.

Other safety tips: Keep a radio to maintain communications with the outside world. This radio can be placed in a metal storage box to protect it against EMPs, along with a sealed, large plastic bag for containment to protect against humidity, according to the “Nuclear War Survival Skills” handbook.

Last Day to Order Eclipse Glass from Amazon

We’re just days away from the Great American Eclipse, a total solar eclipse viewable along a swath of the United States and one we won’t witness again until 2024. But as excited as we are about the upcoming eclipse, one should never look at a partial solar eclipse without proper eye protection.

For skywatchers buying their eclipse glasses via Amazon, today is the last day you can order glasses via ground shipping with delivery in time for the Aug. 21 event. (Prime members can of course still get deliveries in as little as two days, though we recommend ordering sooner rather than later to ensure they arrive on time.)

Amazon still has a wide selection of eclipse glasses available, but remember to buy glasses that have been approved by the American Astronomical Society (AAS). These glasses (see list below) effectively block harmful radiation from the sun, which in turn protects your eyes from any potential damage. (If you’re up for a project, you can also make your own solar eclipse viewer as a backup.)

The AAS has published a list of reputable vendors they recommend. Alternatively, you can also browse through our buying guide of eclipse glasses and gear with price points for every budget and skywatcher. Just remember to buy today if you’re choosing ground shipping.

Here’s a list of the solar eclipse-viewing glasses that are approved by AAS (the asterisks indicate they are sold outside the U.S.):

  • American Paper Optics (Eclipser) / EclipseGlasses.com / 3dglassesonline.com
  • APM Telescopes (Sunfilter Glasses)*
  • Baader Planetarium (AstroSolar Silver/Gold Film)* [see note]
  • Celestron (EclipSmart Glasses & Viewers)
  • DayStar (Solar Glasses)
  • Explore Scientific (Solar Eclipse Sun Catcher Glasses)
  • Lunt Solar Systems (SUNsafe SUNglasses) [see their unique kid-size eclipse glasses]
  • Meade Instruments (EclipseView Glasses & Viewers)
  • Rainbow Symphony (Eclipse Shades)
  • Seymour Solar (Helios Glasses)
  • Thousand Oaks Optical (Silver-Black Polymer & SolarLite)
  • TSE 17 (Solar Filter Foil)*

Very Difficult Neutrino Detected in Interactions that Never Seen

Forty-three years ago, theoretical physicist Daniel Freedman predicted that neutrinos, the little-understood and elusive particles that travel through all types of matter, can, under certain circumstances, interact in a way that would make them much easier to detect. Now, for the first time, an international research team has proved the phenomenon, called coherent scattering, experimentally with the world’s smallest neutrino detector.

The results could pave the way for major advances in neutrino researchand novel technologies for monitoring nuclear reactors, the scientists said.

“It has been kind of a holy grail in neutrino physics,” Juan Collar, a professor of experimental physics at the University of Chicago told Live Science. [The 18 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]

Collar is one of 80 researchers from 19 institutions and four nations involved in the new study, which was published online Aug. 3 in thejournal Science. “For 40 years, we have tried to measure this process. I have myself tried with other technologies at least twice before, and a lot of other people have tried, and we have been failing,” Collar said.

Typically, neutrino detectors weigh thousands of tons, but Collar and his colleagues built a novel detector that weighs only 32 lbs. (14.5 kilograms), which makes it easily portable and therefore suitable for use in various situations, they said.

For the experiment, the physicists placed the detector approximately 65 feet (20 meters) away from the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. SNS is used mainly as a source of neutrons, but it manufactures neutrinos as a byproduct. The scientists were able to measure the coherent scattering of the neutrinos off atom nuclei of the detector. Typically, neutrinos interact with individual protons or neutrons inside a nucleus. But in coherent scattering, predicted by Freedman in 1974, an approaching neutrino interacts with the entire charge of the nucleus.

“This form of interaction is kind of unique — it’s very different from all other ways in which we have seen neutrinos in action,” Collar said. “The problem is that the outcome of this interaction, what we can detect, after the neutrino hits your target, is very subtle. It’s just a very-low-energy kick to the nucleus.”

The effect is akin to what happens at the beginning of a game of pool: The cue ball strikes the first ball in a triangle of balls placed in the middle of the pool table, and the energy spreads from one ball to the next, sending them in many directions, Collar explained.

“It’s similar to what’s happening on the atomic scale,” Collar said. “The neutrino comes and kicks the whole nucleus, and the nucleus bumps into the nuclei nearby. And it creates a little bit of concentrated disorder, and out of that, a little bit of light comes out.”

But unlike in the game of pool, the effect of the neutrinos on the nuclei is extremely subtle, Collar said. [Wacky Physics: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature]

To measure the light coming from the interaction, the researchers used a special scintillatorcrystal that emits light when hit by a particle. To increase the luminescence, the researchers doped the cesium iodide crystal with sodium.

According to Collar, this technique makes it up to 100 times more probable to detect neutrinos.

“Neutrinos are very mysterious particles,” Collar said. “People call them ‘ghost particles’ because they can go through the Earth without interacting. Of all the particles we know, they are the ones that have the smallest probability of interaction with any other known form of matter.”

Because neutrinos are reluctant to interact, physicists still have a limited understanding of these particles, which were discovered in 1959.

Collar hopes the new research will lead not only to advances in neutrino science but also practical applications, especially in the nuclear industry. For example, because neutrinos travel effortlessly through the walls of nuclear reactors, they could be used to understand what is going on inside the reactor, he said.

“You could take such a portable detector next to a nuclear reactor and monitor the neutrino flux coming out of it,” Collar said. “This neutrino flux is actually incredibly rich in information about what the reactor operator is really doing inside. It’s relatively easy for a reactor operator to declare intentions of just generating power, but behind the scenes, they can be producing weapons-grade material.”

The recent experiment was part of the COHERENT project, which will now continue with testing other detectors.