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Cockatoos can learn from each other how to make and use tools - not by simply copying the action

Cockatoos can learn from each other how to make and use tools - not by simply copying the action | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Figaro, a Goffin’s cockatoo (Cacatua goffini) housed at a research lab in Austria, stunned scientists a few years ago when he began spontaneously making stick tools from the wooden beams of his aviary. The Indonesian parrots are not known to use tools in the wild, yet Figaro confidently employed his sticks to rake in nuts outside his wire enclosure. Wondering if Figaro’s fellow cockatoos could learn by watching his methods, scientists set up experiments for a dozen of them. One group watched as Figaro used a stick to reach a nut placed inside an acrylic box with a wire-mesh front panel; others saw “ghost demonstrators”—magnets that were hidden beneath a table and that the researchers controlled—displace the treats. Each bird was then placed in front of the box, with a stick just like Figaro’s lying nearby.


The group of three males and three females that had watched Figaro also picked up the sticks, and made some efforts reminiscent of his actions. But only those three males, such as the one in the photo above, became proficient with the tool and successfully retrieved the nuts, the scientists report online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. None of the females did so; nor did any of the birds, male or female, in the ghost demonstrator group. Because the latter group failed entirely, the study shows that the birds need living teachers, the scientists say. Intriguingly, the clever observers developed a better technique than Figaro’s for getting the treat. Thus, the cockatoos weren’t copying his exact actions, but emulating them—a distinction that implies some degree of creativity. Two of the successful cockatoos were later given a chance to make a tool of their own. One did so immediately (as in the video above), and the other succeeded after watching Figaro. It may be that by learning to use a tool, the birds are stimulated to make tools of their own, the scientists say.

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$1.2 Billion Human Brain Project Is Underway

$1.2 Billion Human Brain Project Is Underway | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

The HBP is a €1.2 billion worth and 10 years long global project that will give us a deeper and more meaningful understanding of how the human brain operates. It is comprised of 130 research institutions throughout Europe and coordinated through the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EFPL) in Switzerland (1).

 

Experimental mapping of the brain turned out to be a dead end, given that it takes 20,000 experiments to map just one neural circuit and that our brain consists of 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. The HBP came up with a better solution by building the first human brain model. These are neuromorphic computing systems which use the same basic principles of computation and cognitive architectures as the brain (1, 2, 3, 4).

 

The plan is to determine fundamental principles of how neurons are connected and use those principles to construct statistical simulations. A simulation model will then predict how the certain parts of the brain, for which we have none or little experimental information, are wired and then compare the results with real biological data. In other words, the idea is to find some underlying principle that governs brain’s morphology and reverse-engineer the human brain with the help of supercomputers (1, 2, 3).

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CR7 was not alone—Many super bright galaxies in the early universe

CR7 was not alone—Many super bright galaxies in the early universe | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Astronomers have identified a family of incredible galaxies that could shed further light on the transformation of the early Universe known as the 'epoch of reionisation'. Dr David Sobral of Lancaster University will present their results on Monday 27 June at the National Astronomy Meeting in Nottingham.

 

About 150 million years after the Big Bang, some 13 billion years ago, the Universe was completely opaque to high energy ultraviolet light, with neutral hydrogen gas blocking its passage. Astronomers have long realised that this situation ended in the so-called 'epoch of reionisation', where ultraviolet light from the earliest stars broke open neutral hydrogen atoms, and could start to travel freely through the cosmos. This reionisation period marks a key transition between the relatively simple early cosmos, with normal matter made up of hydrogen and helium, and the universe as we see it today: transparent on large scales and filled with heavier elements.

 

In 2015 Sobral led a team that found the first example of a spectacularly bright galaxy within the epoch of reionisation, named Cosmos Redshift 7 or CR7, which may harbour first generation stars. The team also discovered a similar galaxy, MASOSA, which, together with Himiko, discovered by a Japanese team, hinted at a larger population of similar objects, perhaps made up of the earliest stars and/or black holes.

 

Using the Subaru and Keck telescopes on Hawaii, and the Very Large Telescope in Chile, Sobral and his team, along with a group in the US, have now found more examples of this population. All of the newly found galaxies seem to have a large bubble of ionised gas around them. Sobral comments: "Stars and black holes in the earliest, brightest galaxies must have pumped out so much ultraviolet light that they quickly broke up hydrogen atoms in the surrounding universe. The fainter galaxies seem to have stayed shrouded from view for a lot longer. Even when they eventually become visible, they show evidence of plenty of opaque material still in place around them."


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Future physicians 'become' Alfred, a 74-year-old patient, using virtual reality

Future physicians 'become' Alfred, a 74-year-old patient, using virtual reality | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
A virtual reality experience transforms the user into a 74-year-old named Alfred in order to see his perspective as a medical patient.

 

He's speaking to you, but you can't hear him clearly. There's a large black smudge where his face should be, so you're unable to really read his lips. What he's saying is important, so you lean in. But you're frustrated as you struggle to understand what's going on.

 

You're experiencing life through the eyes of a 74-year-old patient named Alfred -- seven minutes in the shoes of an elderly man whose audiovisual impairments are misdiagnosed as cognitive ones -- and a story that students across many disciplines have worked together to create. A virtual reality experience transforms the user into a 74-year-old named Alfred in order to see his perspective as a medical patient.

 

"We're trying to portray different kinds of medical conditions, sensory changes from the first-person perspective of a patient," said Carrie Shaw, a master's student in biomedical visualization and content creator of the case study titled, "We Are Alfred." The project was the focus of Shaw's research this year. It won first place in the Art/Design/Humanities & Social Sciences Category among graduate student projects at the UIC Research Forum, as well as the Vesalius Trust Scholarship Award. Their goal was to craft an interactive, experiential product that could be used for curriculum in geriatrics -- the health and care of elderly people -- because of predicted growth in future U.S. aging populations and a disconnect between patients and the students or doctors who treat them.

 

"Medical students are usually in their early 20s and not experiencing those kinds of challenges yet, so we decided to create something that would give them the experience of what it might be like to go through the aging process," Shaw said.

Users experience that with some headphones and the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2, a headset that can immerse them into a 360-degree virtual reality experience. The headset also includes a Leap Motion device that tracks and projects user's hands in the story to make them feel like they're Alfred. Becoming Alfred helps users empathize with and better understand elderly patients.

 

"The project is focusing on comfort," said Eric Swirsky, clinical assistant professor of biomedical and health information sciences and a faculty adviser for the project. "It's not curing, it's not curative, it's not even treatment-oriented. It's about comforting and understanding where the patient is so that you can be with him."

 

The group started with Alfred .5, the first iteration of the project. The prototype had a completely virtual environment. But after tests, trials, discussion and input from expert geriatricians, the second iteration was refocused to include graphic elements, real people and live scenes -- a redesigned interactive cinema on an almost zero-dollar budget.

 

"Interactive cinema is a kind of marriage of directing for film and directing for theater because you're directing a 360-degree space where the user has the freedom to look wherever they want," said the film's director, Ryan Lebar, a student collaborator from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

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The top 10 emerging technologies of 2016 | KurzweilAI

The top 10 emerging technologies of 2016 | KurzweilAI | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

The World Economic Forum’s annual list of this year’s breakthrough technologies, published today, includes “socially aware” openAI, grid-scale energy storage, perovskite solar cells, and other technologies with the potential to “transform industries, improve lives, and safeguard the planet.” The WEF’s specific interest is to “close gaps in investment and regulation.”

 

The top 10 technologies that made 2016's list are:

  1. Nanosensors and the Internet of Nanothings (IoNT)  — With the Internet of Things expected to comprise 30 billion connected devices by 2020, one of the most exciting areas of focus today is now on nanosensors capable of circulating in the human body or being embedded in construction materials. They could use DNA and proteins to recognize specific chemical targets, store a few bits of information, and then report their status by changing color or emitting some other easily detectable signal.
  2. Next-Generation Batteries — One of the greatest obstacles holding renewable energy back is matching supply with demand, but recent advances in energy storage using sodium, aluminum, and zinc based batteries makes mini-grids feasible that can provide clean, reliable, around-the-clock energy sources to entire villages.
  3. The Blockchain — With venture investment related to the online currency Bitcoin exceeding $1 billion in 2015 alone, the economic and social impact of blockchain’s potential to fundamentally change the way markets and governments work is only now emerging.
  4. 2D Materials — Plummeting production costs mean that 2D materials like graphene are emerging in a wide range of applications, from air and water filters to new generations of wearables and batteries.
  5. Autonomous Vehicles — The potential of self-driving vehicles for saving lives, cutting pollution, boosting economies, and improving quality of life for the elderly and other segments of society has led to rapid deployment of key technology forerunners along the way to full autonomy.
  6. Organs-on-chips — Miniature models of human organs could revolutionize medical research and drug discovery by allowing researchers to see biological mechanism behaviors in ways never before possible.
  7. Perovskite Solar Cells — This new photovoltaic material offers three improvements over the classic silicon solar cell: it is easier to make, can be used virtually anywhere and, to date, keeps on generating power more efficiently.
  8. Open AI Ecosystem — Shared advances in natural language processing and social awareness algorithms, coupled with an unprecedented availability of data, will soon allow smart digital assistants to help with a vast range of tasks, from keeping track of one’s finances and health to advising on wardrobe choice.
  9. Optogenetics — Recent developments mean light can now be delivered deeper into brain tissue, something that could lead to better treatment for people with brain disorders.
  10. Systems Metabolic Engineering — Advances in synthetic biology, systems biology, and evolutionary engineering mean that the list of building block chemicals that can be manufactured better and more cheaply by using plants rather than fossil fuels is growing every year.

 

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The ultimate discovery power of the gene chip is coming to nanotechnology

The ultimate discovery power of the gene chip is coming to nanotechnology | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

The discovery power of the gene chip is coming to nanotechnology, as a Northwestern University research team develops a  tool to rapidly test millions — and perhaps even billions — of different nanoparticles at one time to zero in on the best nanoparticle for a specific use.

 

When materials are miniaturized, their properties — optical, structural, electrical, mechanical and chemical — change, offering new possibilities. But determining what nanoparticle size and composition are best for a given application, such as catalysts, biodiagnostic labels, pharmaceuticals and electronic devices, is a daunting task.

 

“As scientists, we’ve only just begun to investigate what materials can be made on the nanoscale,” said Northwestern’s Chad A. Mirkin, a world leader in nanotechnology research and its application, who led the study. “Screening a million potentially useful nanoparticles, for example, could take several lifetimes. Once optimized, our tool will enable researchers to pick the winner much faster than conventional methods. We have the ultimate discovery tool.”

 

Combinatorial libraries of nanoparticles - more than half never existed on Earth.

 

Using a Northwestern technique that deposits materials on a surface, Mirkin and his team figured out how to make combinatorial libraries of nanoparticles in a controlled way. (A combinatorial library is a collection of systematically varied structures encoded at specific sites on a surface.) Their study was published today (June 24) by the journal Science.

The nanoparticle libraries are much like a gene chip, Mirkin says, where thousands of different spots of DNA are used to identify the presence of a disease or toxin. Thousands of reactions can be done simultaneously, providing results in just a few hours. Similarly, Mirkin and his team’s libraries will enable scientists to rapidly make and screen millions to billions of nanoparticles of different compositions and sizes for desirable physical and chemical properties.

 

“The ability to make libraries of nanoparticles will open a new field of nanocombinatorics, where size — on a scale that matters — and composition become tunable parameters,” Mirkin said. “This is a powerful approach to discovery science.”

Mirkin is the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and founding director of Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology.

 

Using just five metallic elements — gold, silver, cobalt, copper and nickel — Mirkin and his team developed an array of unique structures by varying every elemental combination. In previous work, the researchers had shown that particle diameter also can be varied deliberately on the 1- to 100-nanometer length scale.

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Scientists Find Explanation for Sounds of Northern Lights

Scientists Find Explanation for Sounds of Northern Lights | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
The popping and crackling sounds associated with Aurora borealis (or the Northern Lights) are born when the related geomagnetic storm activates the charges that have accumulated in the atmosphere’s inversion layer causing them to discharge, according to researchers at Aalto University, Finland.

 

In 2012, Prof. Unto K. Laine of Aalto University and co-authors proved that the source of auroral sounds is located close to the ground at an altitude of approximately 230 feet (70 m).

Now, by combining their measurements with the temperature profiles measured by the Finnish Meteorological Institute, the researchers have found an explanation for the mechanism that creates the sounds.

 

“Temperatures generally drops the higher the altitude. However, when temperatures are well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) and, generally in clear and calm weather conditions during the evening and night, the cold is near the surface and the air is warmer higher up,” Prof. Laine said. “This warm air does not mix, instead rising up towards a colder layer carrying negative charges from the ground.”

 

“The inversion layer forms a kind of lid hindering the vertical movements of the charges. The colder air above it is charged positively.”

 

“Finally, a geomagnetic storm causes the accumulated charges to discharge with sparks that create measurable magnetic pulses and sounds.”

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A.I. Downs Expert Human Fighter Pilot In Dogfights

A.I. Downs Expert Human Fighter Pilot In Dogfights | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

In the military world, fighter pilots have long been described as the best of the best. As Tom Wolfe famously wrote, only those with the "right stuff" can handle the job. Now, it seems, the right stuff may no longer be the sole purview of human pilots.

 

A pilot A.I. developed by a doctoral graduate from the University of Cincinnati has shown that it can not only beat other A.I.s, but also a professional fighter pilot with decades of experience. In a series of flight combat simulations, the A.I. successfully evaded retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Gene "Geno" Lee, and shot him down every time. Lee called it "the most aggressive, responsive, dynamic and credible A.I. I've seen to date."

 

And "Geno" is no slouch. He's a former Air Force Battle Manager and adversary tactics instructor. He's controlled or flown in thousands of air-to-air intercepts as mission commander or pilot. In short, the guy knows what he's doing. Plus he's been fighting A.I. opponents in flight simulators for decades. But he says this one is different. "I was surprised at how aware and reactive it was. It seemed to be aware of my intentions and reacting instantly to my changes in flight and my missile deployment. It knew how to defeat the shot I was taking. It moved instantly between defensive and offensive actions as needed."

 

The A.I., dubbed ALPHA, was developed by Psibernetix, a company founded by University of Cincinnati doctoral graduate Nick Ernest, in collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory. According to the developers, ALPHA was specifically designed for research purposes in simulated air-combat missions.

 

The secret to ALPHA's superhuman flying skills is a decision-making system called a genetic fuzzy tree, a subtype of fuzzy logic algorithms. The system approaches complex problems much like a human would, says Ernest, breaking the larger task into smaller subtasks, which include high-level tactics, firing, evasion, and defensiveness. By considering only the most relevant variables, it can make complex decisions with extreme speed. As a result, the A.I. can calculate the best maneuvers in a complex, dynamic environment, over 250 times faster than its human opponent can blink.

 

After hour-long combat missions against ALPHA, Lee says, "I go home feeling washed out. I'm tired, drained and mentally exhausted. AI has superhuman reflexes and there is no way to win. This may be artificial intelligence, but it represents a real challenge." 

 

The results of the dogfight simulations are published in the Journal of Defense Management.

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Google Has A List Of The A.I. Behaviors That Would Scare It Most

Google Has A List Of The A.I. Behaviors That Would Scare It Most | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Google is one of the companies at the forefront of robotics and artificial intelligence research, and being in that position means they have the most to worry about. The idea of a robot takeover may still be an abstract, science fictional concept to us, but Google has actually compiled a list of behaviors that would cause them great concern, both for efficiency and safety in the future.


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Saturn moon Enceladus’ ice shell likely thinner than expected

Saturn moon Enceladus’ ice shell likely thinner than expected | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
A vast ocean of water beneath the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus may be more accessible than previously thought, according to new research. A new study has revealed that near the moon’s poles, the ice covering Enceladus could be just two kilometers (one mile) thick—the thinnest known ice shell of any ocean-covered moon. The discovery not only changes scientists’ understanding of Enceladus’ structure, but also makes the moon a more appealing target for future exploration, according to the study’s authors.

 

Until recently, scientists saw Jupiter’s moon Europa as the moon most likely to yield new understanding into worlds with ice-covered oceans, according to Gabriel Tobie, a planetary scientist at the Laboratory of Planetology and Geodynamics of CNRS, the University of Nantes, and the University of Angers in Nantes, France and co-author of the new study.

 

Estimates of Europa’s ice shell thickness range from just a few kilometers to over 10 kilometers to over 20 kilometers (12 miles) thick. By comparison, Enceladus’ ice was previously thought to be 20 to 60 kilometers (12 to 37 miles) thick. But the new study suggests that at its south pole, Enceladus’ ice is less than five kilometers (three miles) thick, and possibly as little as two.

 

The thinness of the ice opens up future mission possibilities, according to authors of the new study published inGeophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. With ice this thin, an orbiting probe could use radar to see what lies beneath the moon’s shell. Though substantial engineering challenges would have to be solved first, scientists could even land a probe on the moon itself to drill down through the ice and sample the water below, Tobie said. Other scientists have proposed that ocean-covered moons like Europa could harbor life, and getting a look at Enceladus’ oceans could help us understand whether life could exist there, according to the authors.

 

The study yielded a second unexpected result: Enceladus’ core is likely much hotter than previously thought. Ice acts as an insulator, keeping the planet’s global oceans warm, but a thinner ice shell holds less heat. To maintain the same amount of water in the global oceans, with a thinner ice shell, Enceladus’ rocky core would have to generate much more heat than previously thought, according to the authors.

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Seeds of ancient black holes could be revealed by gravitational wave pattern

Seeds of ancient black holes could be revealed by gravitational wave pattern | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

The amplitude and frequency of gravitational waves could reveal the initial mass of the seeds from which the first black holes grew since they were formed 13 billion years ago and provide further clues about what caused them and where they formed, the researchers said.

 

The research is being presented today (Monday, June 27, 2016) at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting in Nottingham, UK. It was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the European Research Council and the Belgian Interuniversity Attraction Poles Programme.

 

The study combined simulations from the EAGLE project - which aims to create a realistic simulation of the known Universe inside a computer - with a model to calculate gravitational wave signals.

 

Two detections of gravitational waves caused by collisions between supermassive black holes should be possible each year using space-based instruments such as the Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA) detector that is due to launch in 2034, the researchers said.

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Hairs, feathers and scales have a lot in common

Hairs, feathers and scales have a lot in common | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Mammalian hairs and avian feathers develop from a similar primordial structure called a 'placode': a local thickening of the epidermis with columnar cells that reduce their rate of proliferation and express very specific genes. This observation has puzzled evolutionary and developmental biologists for many years because birds and mammals are not sister groups: they evolved from different reptilian lineages. According to previous studies, reptiles' scales however do not develop from an anatomical placode. This would imply that birds and mammals have independently 'invented' placodes during their evolution.

 

In 2015, a team from Yale University (USA) published an article showing that scales, hairs and feathers share molecular signatures during their development. These results fueled an old debate between two schools. One defends that these molecular signatures suggest a common evolutionary origin of skin appendages, whereas the other proposes that the same genes are re-used for developing different skin appendages.

 

Now, Nicolas Di-Poï and Michel C. Milinkovitch at the Department of Genetics and Evolution of the UNIGE Faculty of Science and at the SIB put this long controversy to rest by demonstrating that scales in reptiles develop from a placode with all the anatomical and molecular signatures of avian and mammalian placodes. The two scientists finely observed and analysed the skin morphological and molecular characteristics during embryonic development in crocodiles, snakes and lizards. 'Our study not only provides new molecular data that complement the work of the American team but also reveals key microanatomical facts, explains Michel Milinkovitch. Indeed, we have identified in reptiles new molecular signatures that are identical to those observed during the development of hairs and feathers, as well as the presence of the same anatomical placode as in mammals and birds. This indicates that the three types of skin appendages are homologous: the reptilian scales, the avian feathers and the mammalian hairs, despite their very different final shapes, evolved from the scales of their reptilian common ancestor.'

 

During their new study, the researchers from UNIGE and SIB also investigated the bearded dragon, a species of lizard that comes in three variants. The first is the normal wild-type form. The second has scales of reduced size because it bears one copy of a natural genetic mutation. The third has two copies of the mutation ... and lacks all scales. By comparing the genome of these three variants, Di-Poï and Milinkovitch have discovered the gene affected by this mutation. 'We identified that the peculiar look of these naked lizards is due to the disruption of the ectodysplasin-A (EDA), a gene whose mutations in humans and mice are known to generate substantial abnormalities in the development of teeth, glands, nails and hairs', says Michel Milinkovitch. The Swiss researchers have demonstrated that, when EDA is malfunctioning in lizards, they fail to develop a proper scale placode, exactly as mammals or birds affected with similar mutations in that same gene cannot develop proper hairs or feathers placodes. These data all coherently indicate the common ancestry between scales, feathers and hairs.

The next challenge for the Swiss team, and many other researchers around the world, is to decipher the fine mechanisms explaining the diversity of forms of skin appendages. How has the ancestral scaly skin given rise to the very different morphologies of scales, feathers and hairs, as well as the astonishing variety of forms that these appendages can take? These future studies will hopefully fine-tune our understanding of the physical and molecular mechanisms generating the complexity and the diversity of life during evolution.

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Nucleus of Barium-144 is Surprisingly Pear Shaped

Nucleus of Barium-144 is Surprisingly Pear Shaped | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
Experiments confirm that the barium-144 nucleus is pear shaped and hint that this asymmetry is more pronounced than previously thought.

 

Most nuclei are round or slightly squashed, like a football. But in certain nuclei, protons and neutrons arrange in a more pear-shaped configuration. Only a handful of these distorted nuclei have been seen in experiments. Now, researchers have confirmed that barium-144 (144Ba) is a member of this exclusive club. Moreover, it may be more distorted than theorists expected, a finding that could challenge current nuclear structure models.

 

The most direct test of whether a nucleus is pear shaped is to look for so-called octupole transitions between nuclear states, which are suppressed in more symmetric nuclei. Using this method, researchers have confirmed that radium-224, radium-226, and a few other heavy nuclei are pear shaped. For decades, theorists have predicted that 144Ba , a relatively light nucleus, should also be asymmetric. But until now, there were no techniques that allowed a sufficient number of the short-lived barium isotopes to be prepared and studied before they decayed.

 

A team of scientists from the US, the UK, and France used Argonne National Lab’s CARIBU fission source and ATLAS accelerator to prepare a beam of 144Ba, which they collided with a lead foil to kick the nuclei into excited states. By analyzing the spectrum of gamma rays emitted by the nuclei, the researchers found that the strengths of several octupole transitions—and hence the distortion—were more than twice the values predicted by nuclear structure models. The finding might mean that these models need to be revised. But it’s too soon to say because the experimental uncertainty in the measured distortion is still large.

 

This research is published in Physical Review Letters.

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Termites figured out farming 25 million years before people did

Termites figured out farming 25 million years before people did | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Scientists discovered an ancient fungus garden grown by termites millions of years ago.

 

The fossil structures bore every hallmark of a prehistoric farm: Crops were arranged according to an intricate, complex plan. Material for harvesting littered the ground. Analysis revealed that the crop was a species that only grows when cultivated.

This was agriculture — but underground and on a micro scale. At 25 million years old, it was also far more ancient than anything constructed by humans; Homo sapiens didn't even exist yet.

Instead, the farmers who tilled these ancient plots were termites. And their harvest was fungus. The fossilized termite gardens, uncovered from exposed cliff sides in the Rukwa Rift Basin of southwestern Tanzania, are the oldest physical evidence of farming on Earth, scientists report in the journal PLOS One this week.

 

"It captures a record of the evolutionary coupling of termites and fungus ... and allows us to trace back the antiquity of this symbiotic relationship," lead author Eric Roberts, a geologist at James Cook University in Australia, wrote in an email. "The new fossils help us to calibrate our evolutionary clocks and use them to better understand when this symbiosis first developed, which we now think was probably around 31 million years ago."

 

Across Africa, the massive, edible "termite mushrooms" grown by these tiny insects are famous. But European scientists didn't realize the significance of what was happening inside termite colonies until the mid-20th century. When researchers dissected towering termite mounds, which contain dozens of interlocking chambers and can grow taller than a person, they saw that the insects weren't just eating the fungus that grew alongside them — they were cultivating it.


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Huge helium discovery 'a life-saving find'

Huge helium discovery 'a life-saving find' | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
A new approach to gas exploration has discovered a huge helium gas field, which could address the increasingly critical shortage of this vital yet rare element.

 

Helium doesn't just make your voice squeaky - it is critical to many things we take for granted, including MRI scanners in medicine, welding, industrial leak detection and nuclear energy. However, known reserves are quickly running out. Until now helium has never been found intentionally - being accidentally discovered in small quantities during oil and gas drilling.

 

Now, a research group from Oxford and Durham universities, working with Helium One, a helium exploration company headquartered in Norway, has developed a brand new exploration approach. The first use of this method has resulted in the discovery of a world-class helium gas field in Tanzania.

 

Their research shows that volcanic activity provides the intense heat necessary to release the gas from ancient, helium-bearing rocks. Within the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, volcanoes have released helium from ancient deep rocks and have trapped this helium in shallower gas fields. The research is being presented by Durham University PhD student Diveena Danabalan at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Yokohama, Japan.

 

Diveena Danabalan, of Durham University's Department of Earth Sciences, said: "We show that volcanoes in the Rift play an important role in the formation of viable helium reserves. Volcanic activity likely provides the heat necessary to release the helium accumulated in ancient crustal rocks. However, if gas traps are located too close to a given volcano, they run the risk of helium being heavily diluted by volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide, just as we see in thermal springs from the region. We are now working to identify the 'goldilocks-zone' between the ancient crust and the modern volcanoes where the balance between helium release and volcanic dilution is 'just right'."

 

Prof. Chris Ballentine, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, said: "We sampled helium gas (and nitrogen) just bubbling out of the ground in the Tanzanian East African Rift valley. By combining our understanding of helium geochemistry with seismic images of gas trapping structures, independent experts have calculated a probable resource of 54 Billion Cubic Feet (BCf) in just one part of the rift valley. This is enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners. To put this discovery into perspective, global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year and the United States Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world's largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 BCf. Total known reserves in the USA are around 153 BCf. This is a game changer for the future security of society's helium needs and similar finds in the future may not be far away."


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Could a space-based solar farm become a reality by 2040?

Could a space-based solar farm become a reality by 2040? | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

It was just over 40 years ago that the concept of a solar power satellite (SPS) first emerged. American scientist and aerospace engineer Dr. Peter Glaser won a patent for a broadcast system using a one-square kilometer antenna to channel power via microwaves to a receiver on the ground. The advantage of such a system, and space-based solar power in general, is that it harnesses the unobstructed output of the sun, unlike land-based solar systems which are affected by the weather and Earth's day/night cycle.

 

While Glaser's proposal never got off the ground, it did inspire further investigation of the potential of space-based solar power by various government departments and institutions. In 2008, a company called Space Energy conducted a long-range wireless power transmission test using a microwave beam between two Hawaiian islands, a distance of 148 km (91.96 mi). The result was a power yield of 1/1000th of one percent on the receiving end, raising questions over whether the technique could be employed over the much larger distance between a satellite in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) and a ground station.

 

Writing in IEEE Spectrum, Professor Emeritus at JAXA, Susumi Sasaki, argues that this experiment failed largely due to the dense atmosphere disturbing the microwaves' phases as a result of the horizontal transmission. In detailing the agency's proposal he emphasized that in a space-based system the microwaves only need to pass through this dense atmosphere for the last few kilometers of their journey. This, along with new designs for the solar power satellites and anticipated advances in technology over the coming decades, gives JAXA confidence that it can eventually achieve an effective wireless transmission of solar energy over the necessary 36,000 km (22,500 miles) from GEO.

 

JAXA is working on two concepts. The simpler one involves a huge square panel that measures 2 km (1.24 mi) per side. The top surface would be covered with photovoltaic elements, with transmission antennas on the bottom side. A small bus housing controls and communication systems would be tethered to the panel via 10 km (6.2 mi) long wires. A limitation with this design is that the orientation of the panel is fixed, meaning that as the Earth and the satellite spin, the amount of sunlight the panel receives will vary, impacting its ability to generate power.


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When it comes to brown dwarfs, “how far away?” is a key question

When it comes to brown dwarfs, “how far away?” is a key question | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Brown dwarfs are too small to sustain the hydrogen fusion process that powers stars. Their temperatures can range from nearly as hot as a star to as cool as a planet, and their masses also range between star-like and giant planet-like. They are of particular interest to scientists because they can offer clues to star-formation processes.

 

The intrinsic brightness of brown dwarfs, particularly cool brown dwarfs, is poorly known, but this key parameter can only be determined once an object’s distance has been measured.

 

Intrinsic brightness is a determination of how bright an object would be if observed at a common distance, eliminating the fact that a bright star can seem dimmer if it is far away and a dim star can seem brighter if it is close.

 

An ongoing planet-hunting survey run by Carnegie co-authors Alycia Weinberger, Alan Boss, Ian Thompson, Sandy Keiser, and others has yielded the distances to 134 low mass stars and brown dwarfs, of which 38 had not been previously measured. “Accurate distances are the foundation upon which we can determine the physical properties and luminosities of brown dwarfs and low mass stars,” Weinberger said.

 

The team built a special instrument for precisely measuring the locations of stars over time, the CAPSCam—the Carnegie Astrometric Planet Search Camera—and they use it at the DuPont Telescope at our Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

 

The primary goal of the CAPS project is to search for extrasolar planets by the astrometric method, where the planet's presence can be detected indirectly through the wobble of the host star around the center of mass of the system. But CAPSCam also measures parallaxes to stars and brown dwarfs, including the 134 objects published in this study.

 

“There is still so much about brown dwarfs that remains unknown,” explained Weinberger. “As we learn more about them, it could improve our knowledge about the star formation process and possibly also refine our understanding of the distribution of matter in the universe, since it seems that there are far more brown dwarfs than initially thought.” The study revealed some other useful distance measurements in addition to the brown dwarf discoveries.

 

The team used the motion of two stars and compared them to others in two different stellar groups to confirm the age of the two stars age, between 30 and 50 million years old for one and 100 million years old for the other. This is because distance measurements can tell researchers about the location of a star in 3-D, not just the star’s position in 2-D on the sky, and let them measure the star’s velocity. Finding groups of young stars moving together lets astronomers study them in aggregate and better estimate how old they are and learn about their evolution.

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Garage Biotech: New drugs using only a computer, the internet and free online data

Garage Biotech: New drugs using only a computer, the internet and free online data | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Pharmaceutical companies typically develop new drugs with thousands of staff and budgets that run into the billions of dollars. One estimate puts the cost of bringing a new drug to market at $2.6 billion with others suggesting that it could be double that cost at $5 billion.

 

One man, Professor Atul Butte director of the University of California Institute of Computational Health Sciences, believes that like other Silicon Valley startups, almost anyone can bring a drug to market from their garage with just a computer, the internet, and freely available data. In a talk given at the Science on the Swan conference held in Perth this week, Professor Butte outlined the process for an audience of local and international scientists and medics.

 

The starting point is the genetic data from thousands of studies on humans, mice and other animals, that is now freely available on sites from the National Institute of Health and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. The proliferation of genetic data from experiments has been driven by the ever decreasing cost of sequencing genetic information using gene chip technologies.

 

Professor Butte, students, and research staff have found a range of different ways of using this data to look for new drugs. In one approach, they have constructed a map of how the genetic profiles of people with particular diseases are related to each other. In particular, to look for diseases with very similar genetic profiles. Having done that, they noticed that the genetic profile of people with heart conditions were very closely related to that of the much rarer condition of muscular dystrophy. What this potentially suggested was that drugs that work for one condition could potentially work in the other. This process of discovering other uses of drugs, called “drug repositioning”, is not new.

 

Drugs like Viagra were originally used for treatment of cardiovascular conditions. The difference is that Viagra’s repositioned use resulted from the observation of side-effects in patients taking the drug for its original intended purpose.

Professor Butte on the other hand is using “Big Data” and computers to show that given the close relationship in the genetic profile of two diseases, the potential cross-over effect of drugs working for one condition working in another.

 

Still in the garage, the next step from discovering a potential drug is to test if it actually works in an experimental setting on animals. Here again, Professor Butte has turned to the internet and sites like Assay Depot. This is a site, structured like Amazon, from which a researcher can order an experiment to be carried out to test a drug on a range of animal models. It is literally a case of choosing the experiment type you want, adding it to a shopping cart, paying by credit card and getting the experimental results mailed back in a few weeks time. “Shoppers” are given the choice of laboratory they want to use, including a choice of which country the lab is based.

 

Once a new use for a drug has been shown to work in an animal model, the next step would be to test the drug in humans, get approval for the use of the drug for that condition and then finally take the drug to market.

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Elephantnose fish has no cortex but intelligently switches between senses

Elephantnose fish has no cortex but intelligently switches between senses | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
The elephantnose fish was in an aquarium connected to two different chambers; the animal could choose. Behind openings to the chambers there were differently shaped objects: a sphere or a cuboid. The fish learned to steer toward one of these objects by being rewarded with insect larvae. Subsequently, it searched for this object again, to obtain the reward again. When does the fish use a particular sense? To answer this question, the researchers repeated the experiments in absolute darkness. Now the fish could rely only on its electrical sense. As shown by images taken with an infrared camera, it was able to recognize the object only at short distances. With the light on the fish was most successful, because it was able to use its eyes and the electrical sense for the different distances. To find out when the fish used its eyes alone, the researchers made the objects invisible to the electrical sense. Now, the sphere and cuboid to be discriminated had the same electrical characteristics as the water.
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Gaseous - dark - metallic liquid: Probing giant planets’ hydrogen layers

Gaseous - dark - metallic liquid: Probing giant planets’ hydrogen layers | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Hydrogen is the most-abundant element in the universe. It's also the simplest--sporting only a single electron in each atom. But that simplicity is deceptive, because there is still so much we have to learn about hydrogen.

 

One of the biggest unknowns is its transformation under the extreme pressures and temperatures found in the interiors of giant planets, where it is squeezed until it becomes liquid metal, capable of conducting electricity. New work published in Physical Review Letters by Carnegie's Alexander Goncharov and University of Edinburgh's Stewart McWilliams measures the conditions under which hydrogen undergoes this transition in the lab and finds an intermediate state between gas and metal, which they're calling "dark hydrogen."

 

On the surface of giant planets like Jupiter, hydrogen is a gas. But between this gaseous surface and the liquid metal hydrogen in the planet's core lies a layer of dark hydrogen, according to findings gleaned from the team's lab mimicry. Using a laser-heated diamond anvil cell to create the conditions likely to be found in gas giant planetary interiors, the team probed the physics of hydrogen under a range of pressures from 10,000 to 1.5 million times normal atmospheric pressure and up to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. They discovered this unexpected intermediate phase, which does not reflect or transmit visible light, but does transmit infrared radiation, or heat.

 

"This observation would explain how heat can easily escape from gas giant planets like Saturn," explained Goncharov. They also found that this intermediate dark hydrogen is somewhat metallic, meaning it can conduct an electric current, albeit poorly. This means that it could play a role in the process by which churning metallic hydrogen in gas giant planetary cores produces a magnetic field around these bodies, in the same way that the motion of liquid iron in Earth's core created and sustains our own magnetic field.

 

"This dark hydrogen layer was unexpected and inconsistent with what modeling research had led us to believe about the change from hydrogen gas to metallic hydrogen inside of celestial objects," Goncharov added.

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DOT and FAA Finalize Rules for Drones

DOT and FAA Finalize Rules for Drones | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

he Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration has finalized the first operational rules (PDF) for routine commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or “drones”), opening pathways towards fully integrating UAS into the nation’s airspace. These new regulations work to harness new innovations safely, to spur job growth, advance critical scientific research and save lives.

 

“We are part of a new era in aviation, and the potential for unmanned aircraft will make it safer and easier to do certain jobs, gather information, and deploy disaster relief,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We look forward to working with the aviation community to support innovation, while maintaining our standards as the safest and most complex airspace in the world.”

 

According to industry estimates, the rule could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.

 

The new rule, which takes effect in late August, offers safety regulations for unmanned aircraft drones weighing less than 55 pounds that are conducting non-hobbyist operations.

 

The rule’s provisions are designed to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground. The regulations require pilots to keep an unmanned aircraft within visual line of sight. Operations are allowed during daylight and during twilight if the drone has anti-collision lights. The new regulations also address height and speed restrictions and other operational limits, such as prohibiting flights over unprotected people on the ground who aren’t directly participating in the UAS operation.

 

The FAA is offering a process to waive some restrictions if an operator proves the proposed flight will be conducted safely under a waiver. The FAA will make an online portal available to apply for these waivers in the months ahead.

 

“With this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “But this is just our first step. We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.”

 

Under the final rule, the person actually flying a drone must be at least 16 years old and have a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, or be directly supervised by someone with such a certificate. To qualify for a remote pilot certificate, an individual must either pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center or have an existing non-student Part 61 pilot certificate. If qualifying under the latter provision, a pilot must have completed a flight review in the previous 24 months and must take a UAS online training course provided by the FAA. The TSA will conduct a security background check of all remote pilot applications prior to issuance of a certificate.

 

 

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Proof-Reading Capability of RTX Polymerase Corrects Errors While Copying RNA

Proof-Reading Capability of RTX Polymerase Corrects Errors While Copying RNA | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

For 3 billion years, one of the major carriers of information needed for life, RNA, has had a glitch that creates errors when making copies of genetic information. Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a fix that allows RNA to accurately proofread for the first time. The new discovery, published June 23 in the journal Science, will increase precision in genetic research and could dramatically improve medicine based on a person's genetic makeup.

Certain viruses called retroviruses can cause RNA to make copies of DNA, a process called reverse transcription. This process is notoriously prone to errors because an evolutionary ancestor of all viruses never had the ability to accurately copy genetic material.

 

The new innovation engineered at UT Austin is an enzyme that performs reverse transcription but can also "proofread," or check its work while copying genetic code. The enzyme allows, for the first time, for large amounts of RNA information to be copied with near perfect accuracy.

 

"We created a new group of enzymes that can read the genetic information inside living cells with unprecedented accuracy," says Jared Ellefson, a postdoctoral fellow in UT Austin's Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology. "Overlooked by evolution, our enzyme can correct errors while copying RNA."

 

Reverse transcription is mainly associated with retroviruses such as HIV. In nature, these viruses' inability to copy DNA accurately may have helped create variety in species over time, contributing to the complexity of life as we know it.

 

Since discovering reverse transcription, scientists have used it to better understand genetic information related to inheritable diseases and other aspects of human health. Still, the error-prone nature of existing RNA sequencing is a problem for scientists.

 

"With proofreading, our new enzyme increases precision and fidelity of RNA sequencing," says Ellefson. "Without the ability to faithfully read RNA, we cannot accurately determine the inner workings of cells. These errors can lead to misleading data in the research lab and potential misdiagnosis in the clinical lab."

 

Ellefson and the team of researchers engineered the new enzyme using directed evolution to train a high-fidelity (proofreading) DNA polymerase to use RNA templates. The new enzyme, called RTX, retains the highly accurate and efficient proofreading function, while copying RNA. Accuracy is improved at least threefold, and it may be up to 10 times as accurate. This new enzyme could enhance the methods used to read RNA from cells.

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Smart glass goes from clear to opaque and back again – 27 million times

Smart glass goes from clear to opaque and back again – 27 million times | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
A smart material that switches back and forth between transparent and opaque could be installed in buildings or automobiles, potentially reducing energy bills by avoiding the need for costly air conditioning.

 

Imagine a glass skyscraper in which all of the windows could go from clear to opaque at the flick of a switch, allowing occupants to regulate the amount of sunlight coming through the windows without having to rely on costly air conditioning or other artificial methods of temperature control.

 

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a type of 'smart' glass that switches back and forth between transparent and opaque, while using very low amounts of energy. The material, known as Smectic A composites, could be used in buildings, automotive or display applications.

 

Working with industrial partners including Dow Corning, the Cambridge researchers have been developing 'Smectic A' composites over the past two decades. The team, based at the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Electronics (CAPE), has made samples of Smectic A based glass, and is also able to produce it on a roll-to-roll process so that it can be printed onto plastic. It can be switched back and forth from transparent to opaque millions of times, and can be kept in either state for as long as the user wants.

 

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Quantum computer makes first high-energy physics simulation

Quantum computer makes first high-energy physics simulation | Amazing Science | Scoop.it
The technique would help address problems that classical computers can't handle.

 

Physicists have performed the first full simulation of a high-energy physics experiment — the creation of pairs of particles and their antiparticles — on a quantum computer1. If the team can scale it up, the technique promises access to calculations that would be too complex for an ordinary computer to deal with.

To understand exactly what their theories predict, physicists routinely do computer simulations. They then compare the outcomes of the simulations with actual experimental data to test their theories.

 

In some situations, however, the calculations are too hard to allow predictions from first principles. This is particularly true for phenomena that involve the strong nuclear force, which governs how quarks bind together into protons and neutrons and how these particles form atomic nuclei, says Christine Muschik, a theoretical physicist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria and a member of the simulation team.

 

Many researchers hope that future quantum computers will help to solve this problem. These machines, which are still in the earliest stages of development, exploit the physics of objects that can be in multiple states at once, encoding information in ‘qubits’, rather than in the on/off state of classical bits. A computer made of a handful of qubits can perform many calculations simultaneously, and can complete certain tasks exponentially faster than an ordinary computer.

 

Esteban Martinez, an experimental physicist at the University of Innsbruck, and his colleagues completed a proof of concept for a simulation of a high-energy physics experiment in which energy is converted into matter, creating an electron and its antiparticle, a positron.

 

The team used a tried-and-tested type of quantum computer in which an electromagnetic field traps four ions in a row, each one encoding a qubit, in a vacuum. They manipulated the ions’ spins — their magnetic orientations — using laser beams. This coaxed the ions to perform logic operations, the basic steps in any computer calculation.

 

After sequences of about 100 steps, each lasting a few milliseconds, the team looked at the state of the ions using a digital camera. Each of the four ions represented a location, two for particles and two for antiparticles, and the orientation of the ion revealed whether or not a particle or an antiparticle had been created at that location.

 

The team’s quantum calculations confirmed the predictions of a simplified version of quantum electrodynamics, the established theory of the electromagnetic force. “The stronger the field, the faster we can create particles and antiparticles,” Martinez says. He and his collaborators describe their results on 22 June in Nature1.

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New evidence that sperm whales form clans with diverse cultures, languages

New evidence that sperm whales form clans with diverse cultures, languages | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Sperm whales share something fundamental with humans. Both of our species form groups with unique languages and traditions known as "cultures." A new study of sperm whale groups in the Caribbean suggests that these animals are shaped profoundly by their culture, which governs everything from hunting patterns to babysitting techniques. Whale researcher Shane Gero, who has spent thousands of hours with sperm whales, says that whale culture leads to behaviors that are "uncoupled from natural selection."

 

Gero and his colleagues recently published a paper on Caribbean whale culture in Royal Society Open Science, in which they describe the discovery of a new clan. Though this clan may have lived in the Caribbean for centuries, it's just coming to light now because sperm whales live and hunt in vast territories. This makes them hard to track. Like many scientists who study these wide-ranging creatures, Gero observes them by lowering specialized microphones into the water and recording the sounds they make to communicate.

Scientists working throughout the world have identified 80 unique "codas," the sperm whale equivalent of words, which they produce by emitting sounds called clicks. Each sperm whale clan has its own dialect, a unique repertoire of codas shared only with the other families who make up their clan. In the Pacific, there are five known dialect clans, and many of them co-exist in the same general regions without ever interacting. Atlantic whales have their own dialects too, and in the Caribbean there are two known clans.

Sperm whale society is very complicated, and every whale belongs to multiple social groups. Individuals spend most of their time in small family units, and multiple families converge to form larger groups. All the groups who share a dialect form a clan, and members of a clan may be so widely dispersed that they never meet one another even though they speak the same language. Families are made up of adult females and calves, while adult males tend to roam widely between clans and sometimes even swim from one ocean basin to the other. But even these general social structures vary a lot between oceans.

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Making Computers Reason and Learn by Analogy

Making Computers Reason and Learn by Analogy | Amazing Science | Scoop.it

Northwestern University's Ken Forbus is closing the gap between humans and machines. Using cognitive science theories, Forbus and his collaborators have developed a model that could give computers the ability to reason more like humans and even make moral decisions. Called the structure-mapping engine (SME), the new model is capable of analogical problem solving, including capturing the way humans spontaneously use analogies between situations to solve moral dilemmas.

 

"In terms of thinking like humans, analogies are where it's at," said Forbus, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering. "Humans use relational statements fluidly to describe things, solve problems, indicate causality, and weigh moral dilemmas."

 

The theory underlying the model is psychologist Dedre Gentner's structure-mapping theory of analogy and similarity, which has been used to explain and predict many psychology phenomena. Structure-mapping argues that analogy and similarity involve comparisons between relational representations, which connect entities and ideas, for example, that a clock is above a door or that pressure differences cause water to flow.

 

Analogies can be complex (electricity flows like water) or simple (his new cell phone is very similar to his old phone). Previous models of analogy, including prior versions of SME, have not been able to scale to the size of representations that people tend to use. Forbus's new version of SME can handle the size and complexity of relational representations that are needed for visual reasoning, cracking textbook problems, and solving moral dilemmas.

 

"Relational ability is the key to higher-order cognition," said Gentner, Alice Gabrielle Twight Professor in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. "Although we share this ability with a few other species, humans greatly exceed other species in ability to represent and reason with relations."

Supported by the Office of Naval Research, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Forbus and Gentner's research is described in the June 20 issue of the journal Cognitive Science. Andrew Lovett, a postdoctoral fellow in Gentner's laboratory, and Ronald Ferguson, a PhD graduate from Forbus's laboratory, also authored the paper.

 

Many artificial intelligence systems -- like Google's AlphaGo -- rely on deep learning, a process in which a computer learns examining massive amounts of data. By contrast, people -- and SME-based systems -- often learn successfully from far fewer examples. In moral decision-making, for example, a handful of stories suffices to enable an SME-based system to learn to make decisions as people do in psychological experiments.

 

"Given a new situation, the machine will try to retrieve one of its prior stories, looking for analogous sacred values, and decide accordingly," Forbus said.

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