SciTech Roundup 12/5


Robots that can sense layers of clothing

To humans, folding something like a jacket or pants is easy. To a robot that doesn't quite understand the concept of multiple layers of cloth, picking up and folding everyday clothing can be hard. Because robots primarily use their vision to sense objects, when they see clothing, they often only see and pick up the top layer. This makes it difficult for robots to perform household tasks like folding laundry.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon's Robotic Institute speculated that what the robots needed was to have a sense of touch in addition to their sense of vision. They partnered with Meta AI to develop ReSkin, an inexpensive tactile sensor to be attached to robot fingertips, also released as open source. ReSkin senses changes in magnetic fields from depressions or movement of the skin, so that when a robot pinches clothing, it can determine how many layers of cloth there are. In experiments, they found that this tactile sensor improved how well it grabbed multi-layered clothing.

Legged robots that climb up stairs and recover after slipping

Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley researchers have created a four-legged robot that adapts according to the terrain, climbing slippery stairs and rocky terrain on hills. The robot is controlled by a small onboard computer with a machine learning model trained on 4,000 clones in a simulator, giving the robot "six years of experience in a day." It also has a vision system that is directly connected to the robot's controls: Instead of first mapping the environment and planning actions, the robot acts on whatever it sees. This allows for faster, more adaptive response to changes in the environment. This functionality also makes the robot 25 times cheaper than alternatives.

In addition, the researchers added functionality that mirrored the way humans and four-legged animals move. For example, when humans walk up stairs, they use their hips to rotate their legs to the side to give them more space. Cats and four-legged animals have hind legs that mimic the movements of the front legs, avoiding the same obstacles without needing another pair of eyes.

A noninvasive ICP monitoring practice that doesn't require drilling holes in heads

While intracranial pressure (ICP) is important to monitor in cases of traumatic brain injury, types of brain hemorrhaging, and other life-threatening brain conditions, in many instances monitoring ICP requires drilling a hole in the skull. A probe is then placed inside the skull to measure the pressure. ICP is also an indicator of brain health.

However, this practice is expensive and risks giving the patient an infection or even damaging the brain. The practice hasn't changed much since the 1970s despite numerous attempts to find a noninvasive alternative.

In light of this, Carnegie Mellon biomedical engineering researchers have managed to find two noninvasive approaches for ICP monitoring. These approaches utilize near-infrared spectroscopy and diffuse correlation spectroscopy in which a sensor is placed on the head and measures how much light has interacted with the brain. A machine learning algorithm examines the blood flow change data from the sensors and determines ICP.

Jana Kainerstorfer's biomedical optics lab then partnered with UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in a clinical trial with 15 participants, and found that the results from noninvasive approaches were similar to those of invasive approaches. The findings were published in Journal of Neurosurgery.


Does the decline of Twitter mean the rise of Mastodon?

Amid the chaos of Twitter, smaller but similar social media platforms have been gaining attention. The most attention-grabbing is Mastodon, which calls itself "decentralized social media."

Mastodon is part of the fediverse, which the Electronic Frontier Foundation describes as "a large network of independently operated social media websites." Basically, anyone on the network can host a Mastodon server, or an instance, for their community and connect them to other instances. Each instance operates like a hashtag of Tweets, except each instance moderator can decide who joins and can block posts from other instances. As Mastodon likes to say, "Everybody owns Mastodon."

Despite some Twitter users claiming they would join Mastodon if Twitter's situation doesn't improve, some analysts beg to differ. An article from NewsScientist reports that "Of more than 140,000 Twitter users who announced they were moving to Mastodon, just 1.6 percent have actually quit Elon Musk’s social media platform."

COP27 Recap

This year's United Nations Climate Change conference COP27 took place in Egypt from Nov. 6. to Nov. 20. Here's a quick recap:

  1. The Loss and Damage Fund: The UN agreed that richer countries would pay for the "loss and damages" faced by poorer countries due to climate change and established a dedicated fund for it. The idea is that larger countries have contributed more to global climate change, and therefore should pay for the consequences caused in other countries. The EU and U.S. have previously been against it, but at COP27 agreed on the condition that China, classified as a developing country, also pays for loss and damages.

  2. The small wins: As the global temperature continues to rise, weather extremes and natural disasters will increase. The UN has released the Early Warning for All plan to warn people in low-income countries of climate-related hazards such as extreme storms and floods. The plan calls for $3.1 billion over the next five years, and hopes to use machine learning and data tools to provide these warnings. The U.S. and dozens of other countries are formally pledging to cut down on methane emissions.

  3. Trouble getting nations to explicitly agree to cut down on fossil fuels: Some nations called for cutting down on fossil fuels to be explicitly included in the final agreement. However, oil lobbyists and speakers from UN nations that profit largely from fossil fuels discouraged including such statements. Instead, "countries should cut down on how much coal they use unless they're taking steps to reduce emissions, and it says countries should stop giving subsidies to the fossil fuel industry that make it harder to cut emissions," as NPR reports.