Talking Robots & Voyager 1 | SciByte 51

Talking Robots & Voyager 1 | SciByte 51

We take a look at what robots teach us about language, helping find exoplanets, emergency stretchers, Chinese space program, sugar powered implants, space telescopes, the pitcher plant, Voyager 1 and as always take a peek back into history and up in the sky this week.

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Teaching a robot to talk

Credit: Professor Chrystopher Nehaniv and Dr Joe Saunders

  • The low down
  • In an attempt to replicate the early experiences of infants, researchers in England have created a robot that can learn simple words in minutes just by having a conversation with a human.
  • The robot named DeeChee is three-feet-tall [1 m] knew no words at the start of the study but was built with the ability to pronounce and syllable in the English language
  • The programming was built to put together those syllables and store them in memory
  • It was also designed to recognize words of encouragement, like “good” and “well done”
  • Significance
  • Human volunteers were used to try and teach DeeChee simple shapes and colors,
  • The words that were learned were ranked by how often they came up in conversation
  • The feedback from the volunteers helped transform the robot’s babble into coherent words, sometimes in as little as two minutes.
  • Words that form the connective tissue of our language – words like “at,” “with” and “of” – are spoken in hundreds of different ways, making them difficult for newbies to recognize
  • While more concrete words like “house” or “blue” tend to be spoken in the same way nearly every time
  • Of Note
  • DeeChee was programmed to smile when it was ready to pay attention to its teacher and to stop smiling and blink when it needed a break
  • Although it was designed to have a gender-neutral appearance, humans tended to treat it as a boy
  • There is a theory on how comfortable humans are with the realism of robots
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube | robotcan learn simple words by conversing with humans | NhanTech12
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • British researchers create robot that can learn simple words by conversing with humans (w/ Video) |
  • Uncanny Valley robots essay resurfaces 42 years later |
  • Uncanny valley |


Eye spy an exoplanet

  • The low down
  • One of the ways exoplanets are detected is by repeating dips in the light of a star
  • Trying to identify these scientists have acquired huge amounts of data to process
  • A research team at Yale University is using over 150,000 volunteers to help sort through the publicly released data from Kepler
  • Significance
  • The project has led to the discovery of several new planets while also confirming many findings made by Kepler scientists
  • Earlier this year they announced two new exoplanet candidates that NASA’s computer data crunching failed to detect
  • While some updated programs are getting better at detecting the dips in light, scientists still view the citizen volunteers’ contributions invaluable
  • Of Note
  • Volunteers are very good at identifying large potential exoplanets
  • Algorithms are still better at finding tiny dips in light from smaller planets when visual detection isn’t sensitive enough.
  • Social Media
  • The Zooniverse @the_zooniverse
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Planet Hunters
  • Participate in Science | Zooniverse
  • Zooniverse
  • Amateur scientists find niche in locating new planets |


Student Design : Emergency Stretcher

  • The low down
  • A student working on a final year Product Design has created a Rapid Evacuation Stretcher (RES) device made of the same heat resistant materials the fire services use
  • The prototype stretcher, rolls up so that it could be strapped up alongside the firefighter’s breathing apparatus
  • Unrolled the RES could be strapped to an injured person, then carry handles could be used to move them
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Student’s ‘emergency stretcher’ invention could prove a lifesaver |

Chinese Space Program

  • The low down
  • China sent its first person into space in 2003
  • Significance
  • June 16, 2012 china launched its fourth manned space mission from the Gobi desert (NW china)
  • They docked two spaceships in orbit for the first time Monday, June 18
  • On board are 3 taikonauts , 1 who has been to space twice and China’s first female astronaut, a fighter pilot
  • The mission will last 13 days and perform a manual space docking the Chinese Spacelab Tiangong–1 which was launched late last year
  • Of Note
  • China hopes to have its own space station in orbit in 2020
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube : [[China] Launch of Manned Shenzhou 9 Spacecraft on Long March 2F Rocket | SpaceVidsNet](
  • YouTube : [[China] Crew Enter Tiangong–1 Space Lab | SpaceVidsNet](–5T1U)
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • China sends its first woman astronaut into space (Update) |
  • Shenzhou 9 Launches With First Chinese Woman |
  • China Successfully Docks Manned Space Capsule at Orbiting Module |

Sugar to power medical implants!?

  • The low down
  • MIT engineers have developed a fuel cell that runs on glucose, the same sugar that powers human cells
  • The silicon wafer consists of glucose fuel cells of varying sizes; the largest is 64 by 64 mm
  • Significance
  • This glucose fuel cell could be used to drive highly efficient brain implants of the future, which could help paralyzed patients move their arms and legs again
  • So far, the fuel cell can generate up to hundreds of microwatts — enough to power an ultra-low-power and clinically useful neural implant.
  • In the 1970s, scientists showed they could power a pacemaker with a glucose fuel cell, but the idea was abandoned in favor of lithium-ion batteries, which could provide significantly more power per unit area than glucose fuel cells
  • Glucose fuel cells also utilized enzymes that proved to be impractical for long-term implantation in the body, since they eventually ceased to function efficiently
  • The new twist is that it is fabricated from silicon, using the same technology used to make semiconductor electronic chips
  • These new silicon chips have no biological components, that consists of a platinum catalyst that strips electrons from glucose
  • Of Note
  • The work is a good step toward developing implantable medical devices that don’t require external power sources.
  • New ultra-low-power electronics, have pioneered such designs for cochlear implants and brain implants
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • New energy source for future medical implants: sugar |

Space Telescope Donations

  • The low down
  • A pair of space telescopes that were donated to NASA from the secretive National Reconnaissance Office could be repurposed for a wide variety of science missions
  • The two spy satellite telescopes were originally built but they were never used and are currently being stored in Rochester, N.Y., in facilities belonging to the hardware’s manufacturer
  • Significance
  • Given budget projections for the next several years it will likely be years before the agency’s budget can accommodate them.
  • The cost to keep them in storage is about $70,000 a year, which is not insignificant, but it’s not something that’s unmanageable
  • NASA does not anticipate being able to dedicate any funding to the newly acquired telescopes until the James Webb Space Telescope successfully launches
  • The two telescopes have main mirrors that measure nearly 8 feet wide (2.4 meters), making them comparable to the veteran Hubble Space Telescope
  • Of Note
  • In the meantime, NASA is investigating different uses for the telescopes, and hopes to have input from the scientific community to guide the decision-making process
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Spy Satellite Telescopes Donated to NASA ‘Came Out of the Blue’ |

Pitcher plants capturing their food

  • The low down
  • Pitcher plants (Nepenthes) rely on insects as a source of nutrients, enabling them to colonise nutrient-poor habitats where other plants struggle to grow
  • Prey is captured in specialised pitcher-shaped leaves with slippery surfaces on the upper rim and inner wall similar to the ‘aquaplaning’ effect of a car tire on a wet road.
  • If an insect tries to walk on the wet surface, its adhesive pads (the ‘soles’ of its feet) are prevented from making contact with the surface and instead slip
  • Significance
  • Scientists simulated ‘rain’ with a hospital drip and recorded its effect on a captive colony of ants that was foraging on the nectar under the lid
  • During heavy rain, the lid of the pitchers acts like a springboard, catapulting insects that seek shelter on its underside directly into the fluid-filled pitcher
  • Further research revealed that the lower lid surface of the N. gracilis pitcher is covered with highly specialised wax crystals
  • The surface seems to provide just the right level of slipperiness to enable insects to walk on the surface under ‘calm’ conditions but lose their footing when the lid is disturbed (in most cases, by rain drops).
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Pitcher plant uses power of the rain to trap prey (w/ Video) |


Voyager 1 takes one step closer to interstellar space

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Looking back

  • June 21, 1893 : 119 years agg : Ferris wheel : The first Ferris wheel premiered at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, America’s third world’s fair. It was invented by George Washington Ferris, a Pittsburgh bridge builder, for the purpose of creating an attraction like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Each of the 36 cars carried 60 passengers, making a full passenger load of 150 tons. Ferris didn’t use rigid spokes: instead, he used a web of taut cables, like a bicycle wheel. Supported by two 140 foot steel towers, its 45 foot axle was the largest single piece of forged steel at the time in the world. The highest point of the wheel was 264 feet. The wheel and cars weighed 2100 tons, with another 2200 tons of associated levers and machinery.
  • June 22, 1978 : 34 years ago : Charon discovered : Evidence of the first moon of Pluto was discovered by astronomer James W. Christy of the Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. when he obtained a photograph of Pluto that showed the orb to be distinctly elongated.. Furthermore, the elongations appeared to change position with respect to the stars over time. After eliminating the possibility that the elongations were produced by plate defects and background stars, the only plausible explanation was that they were caused by a previously unknown moon orbiting Pluto at a distance of about 19,600 kilometers (12,100 miles) with a period of 6.4 days. The moon was named Charon, after the boatman in Greek mythology who took the souls of the dead across the River Styx to Pluto’s underworld.

Looking up this week

  • Keep an eye out for …
  • Wed, June 20 : Summer Solstice for the Northern Hemisphere. Longest Day and Shortest Night; sun reaches its most Northern point in the sky. While the Southern Hemisphere winter begins [shortest day/longest night]
  • Thurs. June 21 : Mercury is very low in the East-Northeast as twilight starts. It looks like a bright star to the upper right of the crescent Moon, but will be hard to spot because of its short distance to the horizon.
  • Fri. June 22 : Venus is visible low in the Eastern sky at early dawn, with Jupiter to its upper right. The coming weeks will bring both higher in the sky.
  • Fri. June 22 : At twilight will be a slender crescent Moon, with Mercury to the West
  • Sat. June 23 : Mercury will still be barely visible in the W horizon, it will be left (S) of a a pair of bright stars Castor and Pollux.
  • Sat. June 23 : By the moon will be the star Regulus 1 fist-width to the E/SE and Mars is 2 hand-spans to the SE, another 2 hand-spans will get you to Spica and Saturn

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