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Talk nerdy to me

When you hear the word “robot” you might think of the loveable BB-8 from Star Wars, or the machine that replaced your brother-in-law at the auto plant. Many people fear that robots will take over our lives, and some experts say there’s a chance that artificial intelligence (AI) will someday turn on us. Before you panic, let’s look at some examples of robots and AI being used to make things better for us humans.

A robot with a pulse

HAL needs help. This realistic robot boy helps train medical professionals to better understand how young patients respond to treatment. HAL has a pulse and can cry, bleed, talk and go into anaphylactic shock. Courtesy MedXclusive Learning.

Meet Hal, the robot boy. Hal is a medical training robot built to feel your pain. Medical professionals used to train on lifeless mannequins. They relied on an instructor for the fake patient’s vital signs, symptoms, etc. But Hal functions much as a human does. His tongue can swell to simulate anaphylaxis, a pneumatic system allows him to breathe, and motors in his face can be activated to make him look angry or scared. 

The company behind Hal has developed other humanoid robots including Victoria, a robotic woman who gives birth to a baby robot, and Super Tory, a newborn robot devised to train nurses to identify neonatal illness.

The next time you receive expert treatment from a human practitioner, you might be thankful for the robot that trained her.

Storytime with your robot buddy

<strong>Reading to a robot</strong> may help reluctant students improve their reading skills. ‘Minnie’ reacts to story developments with fear and excitement, tracks progress, and recommends the next read. Courtesy Division of Continuing Studies/UW-Madison. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have built a robot reading companion named Minnie for middle school children. Their goal is to see if reluctant readers can be encouraged by interacting with a robot buddy. In a two-week program, children paired with Minnie read aloud to the robot. Minnie reacted to events in the story and tracked each child’s progress through their book.

Minnie can react, summarize, and engage with the child in a conversational style. It might remark, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!” at a surprising point in the plot. It can also recommend books from a library of 25 titles.

The kids in the study reacted positively and developed an attachment to Minnie. They thought it funny and silly and looked forward to seeing it again. The researchers even received family photos that included Minnie. The researchers have now begun testing a version of the robot that interacts with learners in the sciences.

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Robotic roaches to the rescue

<strong>This roach only wants to help.</strong> Remotely-controlled cyborg cockroaches may one day be able to locate trapped victims during search-and-rescue operations in collapsed buildings. Courtesy Abhishek Dutta/UConn.Most people’s reaction to spotting a cockroach is to reach for the nearest shoes to smash it flat. But researchers at the University of Connecticut are betting that one day, you might be glad to see one. They have created cyborg cockroaches, by fitting the insects with a tiny neuro controller that allows scientists to manipulate their movements.

Controller wires are connected to the creature’s antennae lobes. When electrical charges are sent to one of the lobes, the insect thinks it has detected an obstacle and moves to avoid it. Their goal is to gain more precise control of cyborg roaches already being tested in collapsed building search-and-rescue missions. Would it change your feelings about cockroaches if one saved your life?

Bug business

<strong>Call the exterminator.</strong> Bug bounty hunters around the world scrutinize software from major companies for vulnerabilities. When they find one they get paid—in everything from cash to T-shirts. Courtesy Brooke Cagle/Unsplash.Cockroaches are icky, and they carry a range of diseases, but software bugs might be an even bigger nuisance. That’s why people like Evan Ricafort spend up to 75 hours a week searching for vulnerabilities in the software of major tech companies like Apple, Google, and PayPal.

Ricafort only gets paid when he finds a bug. In the past four years, he has caught vulnerabilities in the code of more than 200 companies. His largest payout was $5,000, but most of his catches net a lot less. One company offered him a tour of Washington, DC as payment. The Dutch government paid him with a t-shirt.

Ricafort enjoys his work and even manages to make a living as a bug bounty hunter, but he says he would be open to an offer for a full-time cybersecurity position. If you get a kick out of exterminating cyber bugs, take a look at this article on the risky business of crowdsourcing software bug hunters.

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Brewing better beer

<strong> Better beer, better health?</strong> A machine-learning algorithm that’s helping brewers fine-tune their flavors through a new understanding of the metabolization of yeast may also benefit patients with diseases like diabetes.Scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in the UK have developed a machine learning algorithm to help brewers better control the flavor of their beer. The algorithm gives beer makers a greater understanding of the way brewer’s yeast metabolizes to produce flavor compounds.

In the past, experts have questioned whether metabolism is self-regulating or controlled by changes in gene expression. This algorithm found that metabolism is controlled by a number of enzymes acting simultaneously.

Better beer is not the only results. Biotechnologists that use yeast to produce vaccines will also benefit. The researchers are hoping the work will one day transfer to inform the treatment of patients with metabolic diseases such as diabetes.

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