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Users of prosthetic limbs could soon be able to feel sensation on them, thanks to an “electronic skin” (e-skin) invented by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The artificial nervous system can detect touch more than 1,000 times faster than the human equivalent and is the first e-skin in the world to do so, according to Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the NUS Faculty of Engineering, who led the research.

Previously, damaged e-skins would lose their function due to their interlinked wiring system.

But if a corner of the Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (Aces) nervous system tears, the rest of the skin continues to have sensation, just like human skin, the researchers said.

This is because the Aces detects signals like the human nervous system and it comprises a network of sensors – each working independently – connected via a single electrical conductor.

The research team, which took 11/2 years to develop the sensor system, published its innovation in Science Robotics journal today.

“When you lose a limb and get fitted with a prosthetic that doesn’t feel, it’s almost like you’re always feeling numb and cannot control things very well,” said Prof Tee. “If we have a skin that can make prosthetics smarter, we can restore motor functions, productivity and general quality of life for these people.”

In human skin, receptors send information about touch to the brain, which enables humans to intuitively sense touch.

When the Aces is attached to a prosthetic hand, a neural implant must be inserted into the patient’s arm so that the brain can detect the sense of touch from the e-skin.

The team will work with prosthetics researchers abroad to conduct a clinical trial of the e-skin with a patient using an artificial hand.

The Aces has also been designed for robots. “Robots need to have a sense of touch to interact better with humans, but robots today still cannot feel objects very well,” said Prof Tee.

For instance, a search-and-rescue robot digging through rubble will need sensation to know that it has to push away rocks and concrete to rescue a trapped person.

E-skin such as the Aces can be commercialised for robots within a year or two, Prof Tee said, but it will take five to 10 years for prosthetics that sense touch to reach patients, to allow for clinical trials.

https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/prosthetics-can-sense-touch-with-electronic-skin-invention

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By Katie Camero

Watching a movie with a friend can make you feel closer to that person, and more likely to hang out with them in the future. The same, it turns out, is true of chimpanzees.

Researchers analyzed 36 pairs of chimpanzees in the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda. They led the apes—two at a time—into two adjacent, caged rooms with a closed door between them. The scientists then played several 1-minute videos of baby chimps swinging on tree branches on a computer screen. In one trial, the apes watched one screen placed outside of their rooms together. In the other trial, the team added a screen and put a plastic barrier in between them, blocking the apes from watching the same video together. An eye-tracking camera was used to monitor what the apes were looking at as the videos played, with red dots showing their shifting focus (as seen in the video above).

When the videos ended, the researchers opened the door separating the chimps’ rooms. The apes spent about seven more seconds in the same room with each other after watching the videos together than when they watched the videos separately. They also only groomed each other when they had watched the video together, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

In a separate experiment, the researchers paired apes with a human instead. They found that the apes were more motivated to approach the human, who sat on the other side of the cage, after watching the video with them—approaching them 12 seconds faster, on average—than when the two species watched the video separately.

The scientists say apes don’t seek out shared experiences just to connect with others, like humans do. But they claim their study is the first to suggest apes have some of the psychology required to do so. More studies need to be done to see whether such short-term interactions, like sharing a video, strengthen great ape relationships in the long run, the team notes.

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/07/chimpanzees-grow-closer-when-they-watch-movie-together

By Adam Vaughan

Pumping colossal amounts of ocean water onto the West Antarctic ice sheet could stop it collapsing and causing drastic sea level rise that would threaten cities including Tokyo and New York.

But the German and US researchers who have explored the idea admit the drastic intervention would require an “unprecedented effort for humankind in one of the harshest environments of the planet”. The fix would also be extremely expensive, incredibly hard to do and risk potentially devastating impacts for the region’s unique ecosystem.

Five years ago, studies suggested the West Antarctic ice sheet had already started an unstoppable collapse. While the process will take centuries, it would raise sea levels to a height that would have dire consequences for major coastal cities.

Bold ideas
The threat is so grave, it requires an exploration and discussion of bold ideas to stop the ice sheet’s collapse, says Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute in Germany. “I’m certain the impact is so big it justifies this sort of thinking. It doesn’t mean it justifies the measure,” he says.

Previous far-out ideas to stop the loss of the ice sheet have included building an island to stop the flow off the ice shelf. Levermann and colleagues instead modelled a more direct approach that would involve pumping ocean water onto the sheet, adding it either in liquid form or as snow. They found stabilising the collapse would require at least 7400 gigatonnes of the stuff over 10 years. “It’s a lot of ice. It’s huge,” says Levermann. He says while he is against global scale geoengineering proposals such as giant sunshades, the water pumping idea is different and more surgical.

Even if society agreed on such a scheme, it faces mind-boggling obstacles. Around 145GW of wind farm capacity would be needed for the pumping, 12 times that installed in Europe last year. Temperatures would be too low for existing turbines, so new materials would be needed. The infrastructure would also turn the region into an “industrial compound”, says Levermann. Costs would likely be hundreds of billions of dollars, he adds.

Not going to happen
“This publication gives an indication of quite how challenging it would be to attempt to halt ice sheet collapse through direct human intervention,” says Emily Shuckburgh at the University of Cambridge.

Clive Hamilton at Charles Sturt University in Australia says: “The conditions under which such a scheme could be implemented are beyond anything feasible. It’s not going to happen.”

The priority for limiting sea level rises remains cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Levermann emphasises. Shuckburgh says the paper underlines the best option of managing the risk from Antarctica is to rapidly reduce emissions.

Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw4132

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2210043-a-drastic-plan-might-prevent-catastrophic-antarctic-ice-sheet-collapse/

By REV. DR. WILLIAM J. BARBER II

This week, the House of Representatives will have a chance to end a pernicious legacy of slavery. Lawmakers will vote on the Raise the Wage Act, which would boost the minimum wage across the country to $15 an hour by 2024. This would be a crucial step toward the first federal minimum wage increase in more than a decade.

A just-released Congressional Budget Office report finds that a $15 minimum wage would have tremendous benefits for low-wage workers of all races and ethnicities. Yet the stakes are particularly high for black workers. The share who would benefit from the Raise the Wage Act is far larger than the share of white workers who would benefit—38 percent compared with 23 percent.

There’s another provision in the legislation—eliminating the subminimum tipped wage—that corrects a wrong that goes much further back than the previous federal minimum wage increase. For workers regularly making more than $30 a month in tips, employers can currently pay as little as $2.13 an hour. That subminimum wage has been frozen at this level for decades. Should the Raise the Wage Act pass the House, it will mark the first time that either chamber of Congress has moved to eliminate the subminimum wage, which not only deepens economic inequalities but also happens to be a relic of slavery.

You might not think of tipping as a legacy of slavery, but it has a far more racialized history than most Americans realize. Tipping originated in feudal Europe and was imported back to the United States by American travelers eager to seem sophisticated. The practice spread throughout the country after the Civil War as U.S. employers, largely in the hospitality sector, looked for ways to avoid paying formerly enslaved workers.

One of the most notorious examples comes from the Pullman Company, which hired newly freed African American men as porters. Rather than paying them a real wage, Pullman provided the black porters with just a meager pittance, forcing them to rely on tips from their white clientele for most of their pay.

Tipping further entrenched a unique and often racialized class structure in service jobs, in which workers must please both customer and employer to earn anything at all. A journalist quoted in Kerry Segrave’s 2009 book, Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities, wrote in 1902 that he was embarrassed to offer a tip to a white man. “Negroes take tips, of course; one expects that of them—it is a token of their inferiority,” he wrote. “Tips go with servility, and no man who is a voter in this country is in the least justified in being in service.”

The immorality of paying an insufficient wage to workers, who then were forced to rely on tips, was acknowledged at the time. In his popular 1916 anti-tipping study, The Itching Palm, writer William Scott described tipping as an aristocratic custom that went against American ideals. “The relation of a man giving a tip and a man accepting it is as undemocratic as the relation of master and slave,” Scott wrote. “A citizen in a republic ought to stand shoulder to shoulder with every other citizen, with no thought of cringing, without an assumption of superiority or an acknowledgment of inferiority.”

Several states sought to end the practice in the early 1900s, often in recognition of its racist roots. But the restaurant industry fought back and was powerful enough to roll back local bans on tipping. And tipped workers—along with most others, as the act applied to industries that together made up only one-fifth of the labor force—were excluded from the first, limited federal minimum wage law passed in 1938.

It took until 1966 for advocates to win a base wage for tipped workers, and that amounted to only 50 percent of the minimum wage already guaranteed to other workers. Congress continued to raise the subminimum tipped wage until 1996, when Herman Cain, who headed the National Restaurant Association at the time, offered legislators a bargain: The industry would accept a small increase in the minimum wage as long as the tipped wage was frozen at $2.13 an hour.

Congress agreed to the deal, and the tipped minimum wage remains just $2.13 to this day. Employers are supposed to pay the difference if tips don’t bring workers to the full regular minimum wage. But too often that law is not enforced. When the Department of Labor conducted an unusual compliance sweep of 9,000 full-service restaurants between 2010 and 2012, they found that 84 percent had violated the subminimum wage system.

A century later, the industry lobby continues its fight to uphold this two-tiered pay system. Where social movements have gotten cities to pass minimum wage hikes, the lobby has pressured state legislatures to ban local wage increases altogether. The industry also fought to overturn voter-approved initiatives in Maine and Washington, D.C., that would have ended the subminimum tipped wage, while they lobbied legislators in Michigan to keep the issue from reaching the ballot in the first place.

That’s why national action to finally reverse this particular vestige of slavery is so vital. No one can live on $2.13 an hour—a poverty wage.

We may live in a very different society from 150 years ago, but the subminimum tipped wage still exacerbates the inequalities passed down from that time. Workers in the restaurant industry are far more likely to be poor or near-poor than the general population. Sure, upscale restaurants where wealthy patrons offer servers good tips on expensive menu items can provide a good living, but those jobs are few and far between—and dominated by white men.

Research also shows that tipping itself has a racial component: Customers generally give white workers bigger tips than black workers, regardless of service quality. Thanks in part to segregation within the industry and discrimination from patrons, restaurant worker poverty rates are highest for women and people of color.

Ending the subminimum wage would right one of the historical wrongs keeping certain groups of workers from receiving the full protections they are due, but ultimately, low wages driven by racism hurt workers of all races. Three times as many white workers as black workers stand to get a raise if the federal minimum wage hike passes. Undoing systemic racism opens up opportunities for all people.

With a Republican Senate and president, the Raise the Wage Act might not become national law in the immediate future. But a vote by the House to end the subminimum tipped wage would send an unmistakable signal to the several states considering similar legislation: The days of these racist tiered wage systems are coming to an end.

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/07/17/william-barber-tipping-racist-past-227361

by George Dvorsky

Fancy algorithms capable of solving a Rubik’s Cube have appeared before, but a new system from the University of California, Irvine uses artificial intelligence to solve the 3D puzzle from scratch and without any prior help from humans—and it does so with impressive speed and efficiency.

New research published this week in Nature Machine Intelligence describes DeepCubeA, a system capable of solving any jumbled Rubik’s Cube it’s presented with. More impressively, it can find the most efficient path to success—that is, the solution requiring the fewest number of moves—around 60 percent of the time. On average, DeepCubeA needed just 28 moves to solve the puzzle, requiring 1.2 seconds to calculate the solution.

Sounds fast, but other systems have solved the 3D puzzle in less time, including a robot that can solve the Rubik’s cube in just 0.38 seconds. But these systems were specifically designed for the task, using human-scripted algorithms to solve the puzzle in the most efficient manner possible. DeepCubeA, on the other hand, taught itself to solve Rubik’s Cube using an approach to artificial intelligence known as reinforcement learning.

“Artificial intelligence can defeat the world’s best human chess and Go players, but some of the more difficult puzzles, such as the Rubik’s Cube, had not been solved by computers, so we thought they were open for AI approaches,” said Pierre Baldi, the senior author of the new paper, in a press release. “The solution to the Rubik’s Cube involves more symbolic, mathematical and abstract thinking, so a deep learning machine that can crack such a puzzle is getting closer to becoming a system that can think, reason, plan and make decisions.”

Indeed, an expert system designed for one task and one task only—like solving a Rubik’s Cube—will forever be limited to that domain, but a system like DeepCubeA, with its highly adaptable neural net, could be leveraged for other tasks, such as solving complex scientific, mathematical, and engineering problems. What’s more, this system “is a small step toward creating agents that are able to learn how to think and plan for themselves in new environments,” Stephen McAleer, a co-author of the new paper, told Gizmodo.

Reinforcement learning works the way it sounds. Systems are motivated to achieve a designated goal, during which time they gain points for deploying successful actions or strategies, and lose points for straying off course. This allows the algorithms to improve over time, and without human intervention.

Reinforcement learning makes sense for a Rubik’s Cube, owing to the hideous number of possible combinations on the 3x3x3 puzzle, which amount to around 43 quintillion. Simply choosing random moves with the hopes of solving the cube is simply not going to work, neither for humans nor the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

DeepCubeA is not the first kick at the can for these University of California, Irvine researchers. Their earlier system, called DeepCube, used a conventional tree-search strategy and a reinforcement learning scheme similar to the one employed by DeepMind’s AlphaZero. But while this approach works well for one-on-one board games like chess and Go, it proved clumsy for Rubik’s Cube. In tests, the DeepCube system required too much time to make its calculations, and its solutions were often far from ideal.

The UCI team used a different approach with DeepCubeA. Starting with a solved cube, the system made random moves to scramble the puzzle. Basically, it learned to be proficient at Rubik’s Cube by playing it in reverse. At first the moves were few, but the jumbled state got more and more complicated as training progressed. In all, DeepCubeA played 10 billion different combinations in two days as it worked to solve the cube in less than 30 moves.

“DeepCubeA attempts to solve the cube using the least number of moves,” explained McAleer. “Consequently, the moves tend to look much different from how a human would solve the cube.”

After training, the system was tasked with solving 1,000 randomly scrambled Rubik’s Cubes. In tests, DeepCubeA found a solution to 100 percent of all cubes, and it found a shortest path to the goal state 60.3 percent of the time. The system required 28 moves on average to solve the cube, which it did in about 1.2 seconds. By comparison, the fastest human puzzle solvers require around 50 moves.

“Since we found that DeepCubeA is solving the cube in the fewest moves 60 percent of the time, it’s pretty clear that the strategy it is using is close to the optimal strategy, colloquially referred to as God’s algorithm,” study co-author Forest Agostinelli told Gizmodo. “While human strategies are easily explainable with step-by-step instructions, defining an optimal strategy often requires sophisticated knowledge of group theory and combinatorics. Though mathematically defining this strategy is not in the scope of this paper, we can see that the strategy DeepCubeA is employing is one that is not readily obvious to humans.”

To showcase the flexibility of the system, DeepCubeA was also taught to solve other puzzles, including sliding-tile puzzle games, Lights Out, and Sokoban, which it did with similar proficiency.

https://gizmodo.com/self-taught-ai-masters-rubik-s-cube-without-human-help-1836420294


The cicada-infecting Massospora cicadina fungus makes an amphetamine called cathinone, which spurs cicadas to mate and spread fungal spores. Other species of the fungus produce psilocybin, more often found in hallucinogenic mushrooms.

A cicada-infecting fungus produces drugs that make the insects literally mate their butts off.

Massospora fungi make either a drug found in hallucinogenic mushrooms or an amphetamine found in khat leaves, plant pathologist Matthew Kasson of West Virginia University in Morgantown reported June 22 at the ASM Microbe 2019 meeting.

The fungi may use psilocybin, which causes people to hallucinate, or the amphetamine cathinone to suppress cicadas’ appetites and keep the insects moving and mating even after they lose big chunks of their bodies. The finding marks the first time that researchers have discovered a fungus, other than mushrooms, producing psilocybin, and the first organism outside of plants to make an amphetamine.

Massospora fungi are transmitted sexually from cicada to cicada. Huge plugs of fungi form on the insects’ abdomens, and during mating, parts of the abdomens may break away, Kasson said.

Losing body parts would surely slow most organisms down, and yet for the fungal-infected cicadas, “two-thirds of their body might be missing, and they would be whistling as they walk down the street,” Kasson said. The infected insects mate nearly nonstop, spreading the fungi to partners, he and colleagues report June 25 in Fungal Ecology.

Overall, the team discovered 1,176 small molecules in fungus-infected cicadas, including the two psychoactive drugs. The researchers aren’t sure how the fungi produce the drugs, which in other organisms require enzymes that seem to be missing from Massospora. So the fungi may be using new ways to make the compounds, Kasson said. The team is also trying to determine what the other molecules do to influence cicada behavior.

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/massospora-fungi-cicadas-psilocybin-amphetamine-nonstop-mating

If the 50th anniversary coverage of the first Moon landing is getting you inspired, step back in time to the real thing. Apollo 11 in Real Time is a website that will drop you into the mission in progress at that very second, exactly 50 years ago.

The website streams photos, television broadcasts, film shot by the astronauts and transcripts of the mission in real time — including, for the first time, 50 channels of mission-control audio.

https://apolloinrealtime.org/11/?utm_source=Nature+Briefing&utm_campaign=c2e1c3b228-briefing-dy-20190716&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c9dfd39373-c2e1c3b228-44039353