Want Awesome Robots? You’ll Have to Best These Challenges

We are living in the midst of a profound technological restructuring of human society. The machines that once only frolicked in science fiction have begun to infiltrate our lives. If you don’t already work alongside a robot, you may in the near future. Self-driving cars promise to transform our roads, and the first truly sophisticated robots have begun laboring in hospitals and construction sites and even Walmart.

But behind the autonomous revolution is a mountain of problems. Well, challenges, if you want to be more optimistic. To that end, a panel of roboticists have laid out the 10 biggest challenges for the field in the journal Science Robotics, challenges that touch on a fascinating array of fields. New motors from electrical engineers, new materials from the materials scientists, and even ethical guidelines from the social scientists. Where exactly the robot revolution is headed is unclear, but what’s certain is that it will impact a slew of scientific disciplines.

“We read more

NASA’s Proposed Moon Mission Offers Little Value at Astronomical Cost

When it comes to space policy, reliving the glory days too often means pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into black holes. Preliminary budget plans suggest that the Trump Administration will provide funding for Space Policy Directive 1, which tasks NASA with getting humans back to the moon for the first time in over 45 years.



Ross Marchand (@RossAMarchand) is the policy director for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance in Washington DC.

NASA is already testing the feasibility of using the Orion space capsule to get humans to and from alien worlds. President Trump’s directive, hatched from a unanimous recommendation from the National Space Council in June, has the agency eager to prove that it can once again taxi humans into space.

The itch to have a crewed mission to another world is one that afflicts every Administration, regardless of ideology. President George W. Bush also tried to set read more

The Physics of One of the Craziest Big Air Snowboard Tricks Ever

Behold the stomach-clenching spectacle of the quad cork 1800. The dizzying snowboarding trick—first landed by British Olympian Billy Morgan, above—involves catapulting off a ramp into four off-axis flips (called corks) and five full spins. Only four people have ever completed the 1,800-degree stunt. But this month in Pyeongchang, South Korea, expect to see more attempts as elite winter athletes compete in the Olympic debut of Big Air, an event in which boarders barrel off a 110-foot-tall ramp to perform seemingly impossible flips and spins. We enlisted physicist John Eric Goff, author of Gold Medal Physics: The Science of Sports, to break down the forces at play behind the quad cork 1800.

1 Launch

Olympic boarders will accelerate down 240 feet of slope, 39 degrees at its steepest, before hurtling off the ramp. Speed is key here: Too slow, and they won’t get enough air to complete four flips. Goff estimates Morgan hits approximately 40 mph at takeoff.

2 Initiate Spin

Achieving read more

Olympics Could Require Athletes’ Genetic Code to Test For Doping

For years, the World Anti-Doping Agency has considered requiring all Olympic athletes to submit copies of their genetic code. It would work as a check on so-called “gene doping,” the idea of changing the body’s biological machinery to make it stronger, run faster, or recover more quickly. A clean slate would reveal any nefarious performance-boosting tweaks—like, theoretically, altering the expression of fast-twitch muscle genes to engineer a perfect sprinter.

Establishing a genetic baseline for every professional athlete has long been cost-prohibitive—especially if it calls for a full genome sequence. But on Monday, February 5, the proposal is being seriously discussed for the first time today at WADA’s headquarters in Montreal. As the cost of sequencing a person’s entire genome drops to only a few hundred dollars, read more

To Advance Artificial Intelligence, Reverse-Engineer the Brain

Your three-pound brain runs on just 20 watts of power—barely enough to light a dim bulb. Yet the machine behind our eyes has built civilizations from scratch, explored the stars, and pondered our existence. In contrast, IBM’s Watson, a supercomputer that runs on 20,000 watts, can outperform humans at calculation and Jeopardy! but is still no match for human intelligence.



James J. DiCarlo, MD/PhD, is a professor of neuroscience, an investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines, and the head of the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Neither Watson, nor any other artificially “intelligent” system, can navigate new situations, infer what others believe, use language to communicate, write poetry and music to express how it feels, and create math to build bridges, devices, and life-saving medicines. Why not? The society that solves the problem of intelligence read more

The Era of Quantum Computing Is Here. Outlook: Cloudy

After decades of heavy slog with no promise of success, quantum computing is suddenly buzzing with almost feverish excitement and activity. Nearly two years ago, IBM made a quantum computer available to the world: the 5-quantum-bit (qubit) resource they now call (a little awkwardly) the IBM Q experience. That seemed more like a toy for researchers than a way of getting any serious number crunching done. But 70,000 users worldwide have registered for it, and the qubit count in this resource has now quadrupled. In the past few months, IBM and Intel have announced that they have made quantum computers with 50 and 49 qubits, respectively, and Google is thought to have one waiting in the wings. “There is a lot of energy in the community, and the recent progress is immense,” said physicist Jens Eisert of the Free University of Berlin.

Quanta Magazine

author photo
Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

There is now talk of impending “quantum supremacy”: the moment when a quantum computer can carry out a task beyond the means of today’s best classical read more

Space Photos of the Week: The Curiosity Rover Snaps a Selfie on Mars

This colorful nebula has been likened to a penguin guarding an egg. See it? Well, NASA does, anyway—so just go with it. The penguin-shaped galaxy, dubbed NGC 2336, was likely once a spiral galaxy that’s since become flattened and warped. The egg’s technical name is NGC 2937, and its teal glow indicates that it contains a collection of older stars. Eventually these two galaxies will become one and merge; while they might appear cozy, they’re still separated by 23 million light years.

Even your greatest selfie can’t compare to the ones Curiosity snaps of itself on Mars. The little rover recently took this photo surrounded by slopes of ancient clay on Vera Rubin Ridge; peeking right behind its mast (head) is Mt. Sharp, the highest point in Gale Crater and the focus of Curiosity’s scientific research. The rover is about to begin its ascent up the slope to the right of the frame, where it will continue taking samples—and selfies.

This is the Tarantula Nebula, a large region read more

The Squishy Ethics of Sex With Robots

Sarah Jamie Lewis was thinking about an internet-connected cock ring.

As a computer scientist, she could understand the nominal use case. It was studded with accelerometers and other sensors. People with penises were supposed to put it on before having penetrative sex and record things like thrust length, speed, overall time of session … the things that sex experts tell people not to worry about but people with penises worry about anyway. And then—here’s the climax—the user could upload that data into a smartphone app. Anonymous, the manufacturer promised, unless you wanted to share. A social network of penises.

Lewis is a privacy researcher; this was where the bell went off. Collecting tons of data and comparing it against a dataset without giving away where the data comes from is no easy move. Ask Strava. “Whenever someone makes a claim that they can do anonymous comparisons I get interested,” read more

Could a Vaccine Protect Football Players From Concussions?

It’s been a turbulent year for the NFL. Ratings plummeted 12 percent in the regular season, even more during the playoffs. It’s hard to know what hurt the league more, its public feuding with the White House over players protesting police brutality during the national anthem or the fact that people don’t watch TV anymore. But it’s not hard to know what’s hurting the league’s players: This season, the NFL reported 281 concussions, the most since the league began sharing that data in 2012.

As the nation tunes in to Super Bowl LII on Sunday, the link between repeated blows to the head and the neurodegeneration of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, has never been stronger. Strong enough that the NFL has agreed to an estimated $1 billion class-action lawsuit brought by some 18,000 retired players. Strong enough that John Urschel, an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, retired this past July at read more

The Dirty Secret of California’s Cannabis: It’s Dirty

This is a story about marijuana that begins in a drawer of dead birds. In the specimen collections of the California Academy of Sciences, curator Jack Dumbacher picks up a barred owl—so named for the stripes than run across its chest—and strokes its feathers. It looks like a healthy enough bird, sure, but something nefarious once lurked in its liver: anticoagulant rodenticide, which causes rats to bleed out, and inevitably accumulates in apex predators like owls. The origin of the poison? Likely an illegal cannabis grow operation in the wilds of Northern California.

“It’s a mess out there,” says Dumbacher. “And it costs taxpayers millions of dollars to clean up the sites.”

Marijuana doesn’t just suddenly appear on the shelves of a dispensary, or the pocket of a dealer. Someone’s gotta grow it, and in Northern California, that often means rogue farmers squatting on public lands, tainting the ecosystem with pesticides and other chemicals, then harvesting read more