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This week we explore how Civil War remedies could combat modern bacteria, cars that can learn to navigate new roads, and the genetics of owning a dog.

Secrets from the Civil War

The American Civil War was the most violent conflict the US has ever engaged in. One estimate puts the total number of dead at around 750,000, while countless more survived only to live with debilitating injuries.

<strong>Plant remedies</strong> relied upon to combat infections in Civil War hospitals, like this one at Gettysburg in July 1863, may prove useful today in defeating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Courtesy US National Archive.This brutality, combined with a shortage of medical supplies, forced doctors in the South to get creative with their treatments. To that end, the Confederate Surgeon General created a guide listing natural remedies such as tulip poplar, white oak, and the devil’s walking stick.

A recent study from Emory University has found that these remedies have interesting antiseptic abilities. Further review is needed to better understand how these medicines work, but the study’s authors make it clear that these plants could have saved many lives and limbs during the Civil War. Perhaps more importantly, extracts from these plants show antimicrobial activity against three major strains of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria that we are facing today.

Writing robots

The number of skills that only humans can perform is dwindling fast. In fact, an undergraduate student at Brown University has knocked another item off this list by teaching robots to write words by hand, just like a human would.

Teaching robots to draw. Deep-learning networks analyze images in realtime. After observing the target image for the first time, robots will immediately start drawing to reproduce the image. Courtesy Atsunobu Kotani.

This project relies on deep learning networks that can look at images of handwriting examples and figure out which pen strokes are needed to write the words. With enough analysis, this allows the robot to estimate how a human would have written those words and then attempt to sketch them out. This algorithm also can reproduce rough sketches.

Eventually, the scientists behind this study hope that this work could lead to robots being able to leave written notes for people or even take dictation.

Driverless driver’s ed

There are few moments as frustrating as realizing you’re utterly lost in an unfamiliar area. Thankfully, humans are pretty good at using the surrounding environment to find our way. Robots, on the other hand, are not.

Driving with human reasoning. Autonomous control system learns to use simple maps to navigate new routes. Courtesy Alexander Amini.

In order for an autonomous vehicle to navigate successfully, a human driver in the car first has to map and analyze the roads. This can take a lot of time, which is why researchers at MIT have created an autonomous vehicle that can navigate roads it’s never driven on before.

To learn how to navigate independently, the car observes the steering patterns of a human driver exploring a defined area. Then, the vehicle is taken to a completely new place where it must drive autonomously.

Unlike other self-driving cars, this vehicle doesn’t need in-depth analysis of the areas that it’s driving in. Rather, it relies on driving techniques it picked up from its human counterpart. This enables it to learn how to drive in the city, but still fair well when in a different environment, such as a forested area. 

When love of dogs runs in the family

It’s hard to say when humans helped transform wolves into our favorite four-legged friends. Timeline estimates range from 10,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago, and we aren’t certain exactly where it first happened. What we do know is that dogs are in our collective DNA – literally.

<strong>Born to love dogs.</strong> A recent twin study indicates that our genes may play a significant role in determining whether you choose to make a home with man’s best friend. Courtesy Lance Cheung, USDA.A study based on 35,035 twin pairs from the Swedish Twin Registry has found that the decision to get a dog is motivated by a person’s genes. The researchers discovered that concordance rates of dog ownership in fraternal twins was lower than that of identical twins. This matters because fraternal twins only share half of their genetics, while identical twins share the full genome.

Although scientists can’t determine which genes control the desire for dog ownership, the study shows that there is a clear genetic base for this decision.

Temperature-controlled life

What if you could have your own personal air conditioner? That may one day be possible with the technology recently designed by researchers at University of California San Diego.

<strong>Personal custom cooling.</strong> Prototype of the cooling and heating patch embedded in a mesh armband. Courtesy David Baillot/UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.These engineers created a wearable patch that is able to regulate its temperature based on the surrounding environment. This flexible device can cool or warm its user to fight against the surrounding temperature.

While this could help people feel more comfortable in hot or cold areas, the researchers behind this project also see benefits within energy efficiency. For instance, a person could use this patch to cool just themselves rather than using air conditioning to cool an entire room or building.


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