A device that is not quite a robot and not quite a computer but has characteristics of both

via North Carolina State University

Inspired by octopuses, researchers have developed a structure that senses, computes and responds without any centralized processing – creating a device that is not quite a robot and not quite a computer, but has characteristics of both. The new technology holds promise for use in a variety of applications, from soft robotics to prosthetic devices.

“We call this ‘soft tactile logic,’ and have developed a series of prototypes demonstrating its ability to make decisions at the material level – where the sensor is receiving input – rather than relying on a centralized, semiconductor-based logic system,” says Michael Dickey, co-corresponding author of a paper on the work and Alcoa Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at North Carolina State University.

“Our approach was inspired by octopuses, which have a centralized brain, but also have significant neuronal structures throughout their arms. This raises the possibility that the arms can ‘make decisions’ based on sensory input, without direct instruction from the brain.”

At the core of the soft tactile logic prototypes is a common structure: pigments that change color at different temperatures, mixed into a soft, stretchable silicone form. That pigmented silicone contains channels that are filled with metal that is liquid at room temperature, effectively creating a squishy wire nervous system.

Pressing or stretching the silicone deforms the liquid metal, which increases its electrical resistance, raising its temperature as current passes through it. The higher temperature triggers color change in the surrounding temperature-sensitive dyes. In other words, the overall structure has a tunable means of sensing touch and strain.

The researchers also developed soft tactile logic prototypes in which this same action – deforming the liquid metal by touch – redistributes electrical energy to other parts of the network, causing material to change colors, activating motors or turning on lights. Touching the silicone in one spot creates a different response than touching in two spots; in this way, the system carries out simple logic in response to touch.

“This is a proof of concept that demonstrates a new way of thinking about how we can engineer decision-making into soft materials,” Dickey says.

“There are living organisms that can make decisions without relying on a rigid centralized processor. Mimicking that paradigm, we’ve shown materials-based, distributed logic using entirely soft materials.”

The researchers are currently exploring ways to make more complex soft circuits, inspired by the sophisticated sensors and actuators found in biological systems.

The paper, “Materials tactile logic via innervated soft thermochromic elastomers,” is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Learn more: ‘Soft Tactile Logic’ Tech Distributes Decision-Making Throughout Stretchable Material

 

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Predicting people’s decision-making in moral dilemmas via mirror neuron activity

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Researchers found that the brain’s inferior frontal cortex (circled) is more active in people who are more averse to harming others when facing moral dilemmas.

It is wartime. You and your fellow refugees are hiding from enemy soldiers, when a baby begins to cry. You cover her mouth to block the sound. If you remove your hand, her crying will draw the attention of the soldiers, who will kill everyone. If you smother the child, you’ll save yourself and the others.

If you were in that situation, which was dramatized in the final episode of the ’70s and ’80s TV series “M.A.S.H.,” what would you do?

The results of a new UCLA study suggest that scientists could make a good guess based on how the brain responds when people watch someone else experience pain. The study found that those responses predict whether people will be inclined to avoid causing harm to others when facing moral dilemmas.

“The findings give us a glimpse into what is the nature of morality,” said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, director of the Neuromodulation Lab at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center and the study’s senior author. “This is a foundational question to understand ourselves, and to understand how the brain shapes our own nature.”

In the study, which was published in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, Iacoboni and colleagues analyzed mirror neurons, brain cells that respond equally when someone performs an action or simply watches someone else perform the same action. Mirror neurons play a vital role in how people learn through mimicry and feel empathy for others.

When you wince while seeing someone experience pain — a phenomenon called “neural resonance” — mirror neurons are responsible.

Iacoboni wondered if neural resonance might play a role in how people navigate complicated problems that require both conscious deliberation and consideration of another’s feelings.

To find out, researchers showed 19 volunteers two videos: one of a hypodermic needle piercing a hand, and another of a hand being gently touched by a cotton swab. During both, the scientists used a functional MRI machine to measure activity in the volunteers’ brains.

Researchers later asked the participants how they would behave in a variety of moral dilemmas, including the scenario involving the crying baby during wartime, the prospect of torturing another person to prevent a bomb from killing several other people and whether to harm research animals in order to cure AIDS.

Participants also responded to scenarios in which causing harm would make the world worse — inflicting harm on another person in order to avoid two weeks of hard labor, for example — to gauge their willingness to cause harm for moral reasons and for less-noble motives.

UCLA Health Dr. Marco Iacoboni

Iacoboni and his colleagues hypothesized that people who had greater neural resonance than the other participants while watching the hand-piercing video would also be less likely to choose to silence the baby in the hypothetical dilemma, and that proved to be true. Indeed, people with stronger activity in the inferior frontal cortex, a part of the brain essential for empathy and imitation, were less willing to cause direct harm, such as silencing the baby.

But the researchers found no correlation between people’s brain activity and their willingness to hypothetically harm one person in the interest of the greater good — such as silencing the baby to save more lives. Those decisions are thought to stem from more cognitive, deliberative processes.

The study confirms that genuine concern for others’ pain plays a causal role in moral dilemma judgments, Iacoboni said. In other words, a person’s refusal to silence the baby is due to concern for the baby, not just the person’s own discomfort in taking that action.

Iacoboni’s next project will explore whether a person’s decision-making in moral dilemmas can be influenced by decreasing or enhancing activity in the areas of the brain that were targeted in the current study.

“It would be fascinating to see if we can use brain stimulation to change complex moral decisions through impacting the amount of concern people experience for others’ pain,” Iacoboni said. “It could provide a new method for increasing concern for others’ well-being.”

The research could point to a way to help people with mental disorders such as schizophrenia that make interpersonal communication difficult, Iacoboni said.

Learn more: Mirror neuron activity predicts people’s decision-making in moral dilemmas, UCLA study finds

 

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Mexican university develops climatological software for use by everyone

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via UNAM

Researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) make available for anyone the opportunity to know their community, state or country’s weather activity for today and months ahead.

Understanding the weather behavior may not be as complicated as once thought, and would help to have more elements for decision making and prevention of natural disasters, as hurricanes or typhoons.

Researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) make available for anyone the opportunity to know their community, state or country’s weather activity for today and months ahead.

A group of specialists from the Center of Environmental Geography Research designed the software Moclic (Monitoring Climate Change) trough which is possible to organize, store and operate geo-referenced data from climate elements.

Francisco Bautista Zúñiga, researcher at CIGA and head of Monoclic project, points out that the software allows an agronomist to obtain annual rainfall records and relate them to the crops production figures for explanation of a possible event.

“Likewise, is possible to identify desiccation processes in a region, which comes useful when considering the use of improved seeds that can resist droughts, or the optimization of rainwater catching techniques, storage or types of irrigation.

“A physician can obtain information about the climatic tendencies of specific periods of time to know the behavior of intestinal diseases in certain weather conditions”, explains Bautista Zúñiga.

He points out that knowing the tendencies regarding the change of atmospheric conditions is needed by every federal entity, since it can help taking measures prior to a possible flood.

Moclic can calculate bio and agroclimatic indicators, such as humidity, aridity, rain erosion and rainfall concentration.

The software was designed for Windows, looking to favor practicality for the user. It feeds on data from weather stations in any state or country, unlike current software that use global information, with which what happens in a small ranch regarding temperature can be known more accurately and foresee the maximum, minimum and average records.

“The use of Moclic with local data is of great importance because global models don’t include land relief nor closeness to sea data, among others. The software is very simple and can be used by decision making characters, as governors, breeders, physicians, farmers, students, or anyone whose repercussions could have economic, politic or social effects”.

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Delaying climate policy would triple short-term mitigation costs

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Further delay in the implementation of comprehensive international climate policies could substantially increase the short-term costs of climate change mitigation.

Global economic growth would be cut back by up to 7 percent within the first decade after climate policy implementation if the current international stalemate is continued until 2030 – compared to 2 percent if a climate agreement is reached by 2015 already, a study to be published next tuesday by scientists of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) shows. Higher costs would in turn increase the threshold for decision-makers to start the transition to a low-carbon economy. Thus, to keep climate targets within reach it seems to be most relevant to not further postpone mitigation, the researchers conclude.

“The transitional economic repercussions that would result if the switch towards a climate-friendly economy is delayed, are comparable to the costs of the financial crisis the world just experienced,” lead-author Gunnar Luderer says. The later climate policy implementation starts, the faster – hence the more expensive – emissions have to be reduced if states world-wide want to achieve the internationally agreed target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. A binding global agreement to implement the emissions reductions required to reach this target is currently still under negotiation, while global emissions have continued to rise.

“For the first time, our study quantifies the short-term costs of tiptoeing when confronted with the climate challenge,” Luderer says. “Economists tend to look at how things balance out in the long-term, but decision-makers understandably worry about additional burdens for the people and businesses they are responsible for right now. So increased short-term costs due to delaying climate policy might deter decision-makers from starting the transformation. The initial costs of climate policies thus can be more relevant than the total costs.”

Future energy price increases could be limited

The researchers investigated a number of cost dimensions, including climate policy effects on energy prices. If emissions reductions are delayed beyond 2030, global energy price levels are likely to increase by 80 percent in the short term. Such price increases are of particular concern because of the burden they put on the world’s poor. In the past, comparable energy price increases in developing countries have resulted in massive public opposition and social unrest, like in Indonesia in 1998 after a cutback of fuel subsidies. If an agreement on emissions reductions compatible with the 2 degree target is reached until 2015, short-term energy price increases could be limited to 25 percent.

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The Reign of Robots May Be Closer Than You Think

An assortment of United States coins, includin...

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An ultrafast all-machine phase in which machines dictate price changes

 
The futurist Ray Kurzweil has famously predicted that humanity is approaching a “singularity,” a fateful moment when our technology becomes smarter than us and able to learn faster than we can, when it becomes the principal creator of new technologies and machines race far ahead of us. Humans may effectively fall out of the loop — a species demoted, if not eliminated.

For now, this world remains science fiction, at least at the level of humanity. But finance is flirting with a similar transition, as ever-faster computing and communications technology takes high-frequency trading into a regime of speed where human beings can no longer keep up. In fact, we may have already arrived.

The Flash Crash of May 6, 2010, was a landmark event hinting that something may be amiss in the high frequency markets. Now it is clear that odd market behavior at high frequencies is systematic.

In a recent study, physicist Neil Johnson and colleagues found more than 18,000 instances over the past five years where markets, in about a second and a half or less, either ticked up or down at least 10 times in a row, making prices rise or fall in that span by more than 0.8 percent. Many of these mini- crashes and mini-booms took place in well under a tenth of a second, effectively instantaneous from a human perspective. And they have been happening roughly 10 times per day. It’s as if the markets are throwing off sparks reflecting mysterious frictions or stresses.
Striking Difference

These sparks show up in market statistics, too. The same study looked at the incidents on different timescales, both above one second and below, and found a striking difference. Over periods of one second or longer, the distribution of events by size has the familiar “fat tailed” distribution — the norm for markets, broadly speaking, which reflects their pronounced susceptibility to large price changes.

In contrast, the distribution for events that last less than one second looks very different. Here, the distribution is “fatter than fat” and shows an even greater than normal tendency for Black Swan-type upheavals.

What’s so special about one second? Why is this sharp and distinctive boundary located at that period of time, rather than at, say, one minute or a 10th of a second? Well, it is more than a little suspicious, the researchers point out, that one second happens to be right around the speed limit for fast human decision making. Experiments with chess grandmasters, for example, show they can assess a complex chess situation and identify a threat of checkmate in about two thirds of a second. Other people operate at comparable speeds in their own areas of expertise.

Read more . . .
 
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