SciTech Briefs

Rethink Robotics creates human-like robot

Rethink Robotics, a start-up company in Boston, has taken artificial intelligence to the next step with the development of the two-armed robot, Baxter. The robot displays human-like characteristics, such as facial expressions and the ability to adjust to unexpected situations. Baxter was designed to be integrated into the workforce with humans and perform simple, repetitive tasks involved with manufacturing and assembly.

Unlike past robot models, Baxter has mechanisms to ensure that it is not a safety threat. For example, it can sense a human nearby and adjust itself accordingly. Rethink Robotics hopes to sell such robots for an inexpensive price in order to make the use of robots widespread.

Source: The New York Times

Scientists believe to have spotted oldest galaxy

A team of astronomers at Johns Hopkins University discovered a galaxy believed to be the oldest and most distant galaxy ever observed. It was detected using NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer Space telescopes and a technique known as cosmic magnification.

The observed galaxy is believed to be 13.2 billion years old, just a half billion years younger than the estimated age of the universe. Galaxies of this age are believed to have contributed to the “re-ionization period,” when the universe began to transition from a total darkness to the galaxy we see today. Because of its age, the galaxy will be a useful tool in studying the early history of our universe, such as the rise of the first stars and galaxies.

Source: Science Daily

People with PTSD may find help in ecstasy use

A research team, led by David Nutt of Imperial College London in the U.K., conducted a study to determine the effects of the drug ecstasy on the brain, and whether it can serve as a therapeutic drug for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In the study, participants took ecstasy pills, had their brains scanned, and were told to report back a week later and describe their most positive and most negative memories, rating them by their vividness. The team found that negative memories were less vivid to the participants. The study suggests that ecstasy could help reduce the shock individuals feel when accessing traumatic memories, and therefore help them better cope with PTSD.

Source: New Scientist

Climate change could bring back ancient plants

In a conference in Toronto, Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier, of the University of Montreal’s department of geography, presented findings showing that fossilized forests in Northern Canada could return due to the warming of the Arctic. He studied a 2.6- to 3-million-year-old Bylot Island fossilized forest, which had been preserved over time by peat and permafrost.
Guertin-Pasquier and his team discovered pollen that would normally be found in regions where the average climate was 32°F, while the current average temperature of Bylot Island is 5°F. However, his data models show that over time, the climate of Bylot Island will once again be able to support this type of growth, sprouting trees such as willow, pine, and spruce.

Source: Science Daily

Ecologist wonders: Are we running out of plants?

Steven Running, a forest ecologist at the University of Montana, claims that we may be reaching the limit of the world’s plant growth. He and his team have studied NASA satellite observations since 1982 to infer how plant growth has changed over time. The observations showed that plant growth has remained mostly unchanged, meaning that human efforts to increase plant growth will perhaps be ineffective.

Running claims that plant growth is a planetary boundary, which is an underlying idea that there are certain environmental conditions that must be met to avoid irreversible damage. He suggests that we may be approaching Earth’s limit of plant growth and suggests monitoring it closely.

Source: The New York Times

Behavioral characteristics of autism explained

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel conducted a study that could explain the causes of behavioral traits in autistic individuals.

The researchers scanned the brains of 28 participants, half autistic and half not. They then studied the participants’ reactions to a series of dots projected at a fixed point on a computer screen and a series of beeps. While non-autistic individuals showed constant responses, autistic individuals had widely varied reactions.

The study concluded that, for autistic individuals, repetitive behaviors may be a coping mechanism for these “erratic brain responses.”

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette