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Talk nerdy to me

This week we investigate internet addiction, robots that can remake themselves, the connection of proteins in your appendix to Parkinson’s disease, people who volunteer to be microchipped, and more.

Are you an internet addict?

<strong>Do you lose your mind</strong> when the Wi-Fi goes down? You’re more likely to if you are an extrovert with higher levels of neuroticism and FOMO, a recent study finds. How do you cope when your Wi-Fi stops working? Some see an opportunity to take a break from work, or maybe interact with other humans. But, if you get frustrated and angry, your personality might be to blame.

A study by psychologists Lee Hadlington and Mark Scase from De Montfort University in the UK showed that people who react badly to a technology outage had some traits in common. In an online questionnaire, 630 participants aged 16-68 self-reported on how they feel when technology fails. The results showed that the participants who were most psychologically dependent on digital technology were the ones more likely to have a maladaptive response to an outage.

Those most dependent on technology reported having higher levels of extroversion, neuroticism, and a fear of missing out (FOMO). Perhaps unsurprisingly, older subjects reported less frustration with technology breakdowns. In either case, Dr. Hadlington warns that having extreme reactions tends to make things worse.

Shape-shifting robots

No one’s calling them transformers  but these modular robots are designed to reconfigure their shapes as needed to accomplish the task at hand. Courtesy Tarik Tosun.

Say you’ve got a robot that is great at performing the task it was designed to do. But when you ask it to accomplish something different, it fails miserably. The problems is, it’s not shaped to fit it’s new environment and isn’t fitted with the right tools. Now a team of researchers at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania are working to overcome this problem.

The researchers have developed modular robots capable of perceiving their surroundings and deciding autonomously to assume the different shapes required to perform tasks. The wheeled robots are constructed from cube-shaped modules that form new shapes by detaching and reattaching from and to each other. A sensor equipped with multiple cameras and a small computer are connected to each module.

The team ran three experiments in which the robots were instructed to find, retrieve, and deliver objects to designated zones in different environments. They had to physically reconfigure in order to accomplish these tasks.

The researchers found that the hardware and low-level software produced the most errors. Stairs were particularly challenging. Once the bugs are worked out, this technology has the potential to be used for jobs like cleaning up after an earthquake or other natural disasters.

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Would VR convince you to take a job?

<strong>Virtual recruitment.</strong> Employers are finding that virtual reality is a good way to attract potential employees at job fairs—whether through skill simulation or an in-depth tour of corporate culture. Photo by Science Node.Job fairs used to be boring. Human resources representatives sat at tables in a big room and handed out brochures to would-be recruits. A backdrop might display the company logo and other visuals. But today’s technology is changing that 2D model.

Lincoln Electric is a welding company that uses virtual reality (VR) at job fairs to let potential employees simulate the experience of welding. Job candidates use the company’s VRTEX training simulators to virtually fuse steel with fire.

Recruiters for administrative positions use ‘Day in the Life’ VR applications to give candidates a feel for a firm’s brand and culture. Employers can even use VR to reach job seekers remotely with linear VR experiences like YouTube 360.

Tom Haak, director of HR Trend Institute, says it’s all about improving the experience for candidates and employers. Would you be more likely to work for an employer who used VR as a recruitment tool?

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Does your appendix increase Parkinson’s risk?

More than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson’s disease (PD). In the US, 60,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. PD is a neurodegenerative disorder in which brain cells progressively die. Symptoms include tremors, rigidity, extreme slowness of movement, and impaired balance.

Experts don’t know exactly what causes PD, but they’re learning more every year. Viviane Labrie and a team of researchers at the Van Andel Research Institute in Michigan are exploring the presence of a protein in the appendix, called α-synuclein.

This protein is found in the brains of people who have PD and is thought to be a main driver of the disease. In a recent survey of the medical records of 1.7 million Swedes, Labrie’s team found that patients whose appendix had been removed were 19% less likely to develop Parkinson’s.

But don’t rush out and have your appendix removed just yet: the α-synuclein protein is also found in other areas of the body. It’s also though that PD is triggered by a genetic mutation in 10% of cases. 

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Open doors with a wave of your hand

A chip in the hand can make payments, unlock doors, and eliminate the need for passwords. Does it also mean we can be tracked by the government or hacked by bad actors? Courtesy AP Archive.

Microchips implanted in humans is a decades-old science fiction trope, but now reality is catching up. Researchers have explored using chips to address medical issues like dementia and patient mix-ups in hospitals. But what about having an implanted chip that could unlock doors or make purchases?

Swedish company Biohax International has introduced rice-sized microchips that are implanted between a person’s thumb and first fingers. Sixty percent of employees at Three Square Market, a Wisconsin-based tech company, have agreed to be chipped. Three Square’s co-founder, Patrick McMullan, who is chipped, cites the elimination of passwords on computers as one of the advantages of the implants.

Some critics worry that these chips could be used by authoritarian governments to track citizens. The risk of hackers stealing people’s biometric data is another major concern. Still, the technology moves forward.

Biohax International CEO Jowan Österlund, envisions a day when implantable chips will replace all physical tokens in everything from grocery checkout to tracking dementia patients. He says, "chip implants could dramatically change the way we go about our daily lives, and they could greatly enhance security."

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