Thursday, January 28, 2010

Meet George Jetson

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Messy people, rejoice! Your salvation is near... The Korea Institute of Science and Technology has revealed what could be the future of home cleaning; a humanoid robot maid with rotating arms and legs, six fingers, and an eternally pleasant disposition.

Or, in other words, Rosie without the attitude. "Mahru-Z" is a 1.3 meter, 55 kg robot assistant capable of tasks surpassing any of its (his? her? It looks like a boy, so I'm going with that) robot predecessors.

He can pick up dirty clothes, put them in the washing machine and turn it on. Put fruit in a bowl and place it on the dinner table. Turn on microwave ovens and toasters (presumably only when there's something inside them.) And pick up numerous other objects like sandwiches and cups, recognizing when a task needs to be done, and performing it by remote control through interaction with a computer server.

What makes Mahru-Z unique from previous robots is his autonomy. He can "see" three dimensional objects with visual sensors, and navigate rooms with total independence. So his greatest potential isn't only in the domestic domain. It's also in situations that are too dangerous for humans, like operating machinery in space, or on the moon.

So when can you buy this Jetson-esque robo-butler? Well unfortunately, they're nowhere near the mass production stage. But really, this is probably for the best. Because truth be told, we all know deep down that Mahru's [bring fruit to table] command is just one glitch away from [bring sharp knife to owner's head].

For now, it's probably best to stick with the Roomba.

- Brit Trogen

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Flipper, PhD

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The word "person" has always been synonymous with "human." But if one group of scientists is successful in their quest to grant the status of "non-human personhood" to dolphins, that link might finally be severed. The reason for this sudden status shift? Dolphins have officially been declared the world's second most intelligent creature after humans, finally booting chimps into third once and for all.

Of course, we've always known dolphins were smart. Who hasn't seen Flipper save the day, time and again, with his goofy grin and Kookaburra-like call? (In fact, they actually did use a Kookaburra.) But dolphins are now believed to be so intelligent that the scientists claim we humans have a moral imperative to stop treating them like circus acts, shark bait, and hotdog filler.

Among the more compelling evidence for this are studies proving that dolphins can recognize and inspect themselves in the mirror, engage in group problem solving, learn rudimentary symbol-based language, cooperate with military precision to round up fish, and pass on complex behaviors amongst groups. In one case, a wild dolphin kept in captivity for three weeks was taught to "tail-walk," and after she was released scientists were astonished to see the trick spreading among wild dolphins, who had learnt it from the former captive.

The fact that dolphins have distinct personalities, the ability to think about the future, a sense of self and culture, and complex communication all seem like good reasons not to treat them like garbage. But more importantly, shouldn't it be our "moral imperative" as the most intelligent life form to treat all life with respect and decency?

To do otherwise seems, for lack of a better word, inhuman.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, January 18, 2010

Teleportation is here...or there

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One of the coolest concepts ever in Star Trek was the idea of teleportation. And, as with most things Star Trek does - it is slowly coming true.

For the first time, scientists have teleported material across space...okay, only about a meter...but still!

Teleportation means the transportation of matter through space in a non-matter state. In other words, transmission of information only... also know as - really effing cool. From a physics perspective, its complicated, REALLY complicated - this transmitted information has to be first read and understood, transmitted and then recreated at the destination. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that we can never accurately measure the state of an atom or the precise location of any of its subatomic particles like electrons. So, if we can't figure out where particles are in space, how can we recreate their locations?

It comes down to a principle called entanglement, essentially we can't know the state of one atom and its particles but we can predict the state of two particles so long as they interact. Then, with ridiculously complicated mathematical formulae like the one shown here, physicists are able to predict the position of atoms and particles in space.

|\Phi^+\rangle = \frac{1}{\sqrt{2}} (|0\rangle_A \otimes |0\rangle_{B} + |1\rangle_A \otimes |1\rangle_{B}),
If we can know the physical properties of atoms in space, then we can transmit that information using quantum mechanics where information is transmitted as qubits.

Confused? You aren't the only one. One of the leading theoretical physicists Richard Feynman says "I think it is safe to say, no one understands quantum mechanics". So don't feel bad, you are not alone.

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Unnatural Disaster

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There was a perfect, deadly storm of circumstance in the Caribbean this week. Some reports are estimating the dead from the Haitian earthquake to reach 200,000. It’s the most devastating loss of life since the Sumatran tsunami of 2004. The kind of loss that pulls you, even for a moment, to that place.

The perfect storm was a collision of three unfortunate facts. Firstly, the earthquake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, similar in strength to the San Francisco quake that shut down the World Series in 1989.

Secondly, the event occurred at a depth of only 9km, meaning there wasn't much earth to absorb the shock of massive, shifting tectonic plates. The last, most brutal front: it hit under the capital city, Port-au-Prince, a city in shambles from centuries of economic abuse from European colonizers and North American-backed coups.

A city without building codes, with dwellings constructed level by level, as needed, without any rebar or other enforced structural support. Hillside communities are now pancaked to the ground by the worst earthquake to hit there in 240 years. Ironically, the many who were living in cardboard boxes are probably among the more well-off at this moment in Haitian history.

ABC News has some dramatic before and after photos, and Life has some of the latest photos from the battered island nation. See this blog post from the Daily Beast to find ways you can help, or visit the Canadian Red Cross site here.

And let's hope this tragedy can illuminate the mistreatment of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere at the hands of our own nation, and many others that now come so nobly as rescuers.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Six Minutes to Midnight

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This morning at 10am, for the twentieth time since its creation, the Doomsday Clock changed position.

This isn't another one of those crazy conspiracies maintained by tinfoil hat-wearing loonies, but a symbolic prediction made by the directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, meant to predict how far humankind is from "catastrophic destruction," or midnight.

The Doomsday Clock was originally set up in 1947 as an analogy to indicate our closeness to the threat of nuclear war, but has since been expanded to include relevant issues like climate change and other technologies and developments that could potentially produce irrevocable harm (read: crazy evil robots). And the last time it was moved was in 2007, when North Korea and Iran were playing around with nukes, and the clock slipped forwards two minutes from 11:53 to 11:55.

Which brings me to this morning. The clock has now moved backwards one minute, bringing us to 11:54. Now, granted, this isn't a significant improvement. But in the grand scheme of things it makes me ask: What exactly have we fixed?

According to the atomic scientists, the move is due to "worldwide cooperation to reduce nuclear arsenals and pledges to limit climate-changing gas emissions," which in laymen's terms comes down to talk... and more talk. But while talking about our problems is swell, I don't think anyone should be pretending that it's good enough to do any tangible good to our planet.

Don't kid yourselves, atomic scientists. Talk is cheap.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, January 11, 2010

Coming soon to a couch near you

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The new buzz word in technology this year is
"Three Dee".

3D is amazing, just ask the James Cameron and the incredible success of Avatar with $242 million dollars in box office sales so far.

With all the consumer electronics shows happening in January, it is clear that a 3 dimensional experience is coming soon.... to a couch near you. 3D home televisions will be hitting the market this year from all the major players in entertainment - Sony, Panasonic and Samsung - all ready for the new 3D channels waiting to hit the airways.

The most common form of 3D technology is stereoscopic - where two cameras catch all the action at the same distance of your pupils. Then, when the video is rendered, both video images are displayed in the same frame.

This type of technology requires the viewer to wear glasses so that the two video inputs can be received at the same time. So, if two color channels are separated by a bit of a distance, and you wear those cereal box glasses, you can make this image look 3D.

This technology is coming so be ready and start getting excited. 3D TV's, computer monitors and web sites will be in your home as soon as you can afford the price tag.

A receiver catching a pass so close you can feel it, aliens jumping out of the screen, McDreamy life size in your living room - whatever your motivation, 3D TV is here.

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Party Time, Excellent

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2009 was pretty spectacular for space enthusiasts - the Hubble telescope was fixed and NASA released some stunning images, the 40th anniversary of the Moon Landing passed by, and to celebrate, a group of engineers crashed a module right into it, spewing out all sorts of useful information.

The new year is picking up the pace already. Several new planets have been spotted in distant star systems - including one bigger than Jupiter with a density of styrofoam, a new space telescope, Hershcel, might even overshadow Hubble in the months to come, and data from the moon crash are showing more water than we previously thought, making the Moon even more attractive for colonization.

To underscore this point, Japanese and German scientists have been analyzing high-resolution images of the Moon from the Kaguya spacecraft, and have discovered a cave that could be a perfect candidate for human colonization, as it would provide shelter from the harsh lunar surface. Not to mention a wicked party space (think Matrix Reloaded).

The cave is likely a lava tube - a geological formation fairly common on Earth but never discovered on the Moon before. Kaguya photos showed a circular hole which they believe is a sort of skylight, a collapsed part of the cave roof.

Add to all of this the unveiling of the VSS Enterprise, the first commercial spaceship from Virgin Galactic…and sometimes it truly feels like the dawning of a new age.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What is Green?

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A strip of California's Mojave Desert is the latest site of what is shaping up to be a new area of debate in the struggle towards a new "greener" future.

It's the location a company called BrightSource Energy has chosen to set up over 400,000 solar panels, in an effort to harness the sun's energy and help move the nation towards energy independence. It's also the home of two dozen endangered tortoises, the Western burrowing owl, and more than a few stately Bighorn Sheep.

Which raises the question: What is "green?" Which of these options is really helping us protect the environment?

This isn't the first time we've been faced with a conflict of interests in an effort to save the planet from the ravages of human habitation, or ask ourselves WWCPD? (What Would Captain Planet Do?) But the question is getting ever more murky.

Recycling, for example, has been the hippie go-to for decades, and one of the first thing we teach kids about environmental responsibility. But as it turns out, recycling of plastics can actually do more harm than good (though this argument doesn't stand for paper and glass). And wind turbines, another source of renewable energy, are also estimated to cause between 30,000 and 60,000 bird deaths per year, and may also interfere with bird migration patterns.

In the end, there is no simple answer. If it was up to me, I'd leave the fricking tortoises alone and pick a different spot, but they probably have their reasons. And I have no doubt whatsoever that these types of issues are only going to get more common as our past decisions come back to haunt us, and we're left more and more frequently caught between a rock and a sad place.

- Brit Trogen