University of Miami to hold conference about robotics and the law

If my autonomous humanoid robot causes an injury to a guest in my home, am I liable? What if the injury could have been prevented by a firmware update that I willfully chose not to install? Or, what if an amputee, upon receiving a stronger-than-human bionic arm, gets in a fistfight and inadvertently kills his opponent with said robotic arm? Legal minds could explore these situations and many more at the University of Miami Law School’s “We Robot” conference, which will be held in Coral Gables, Florida, on April 21 and 22, 2012.

We seek reports from the front lines of robot design and development, and invite contributions for works-in-progress sessions. In so doing, we hope to encourage conversations between the people designing, building, and deploying robots, and the people who design or influence the legal and social structures in which robots will operate.

Robotics seems increasingly likely to become a transformative technology. This conference will build on existing scholarship exploring the role of robotics to examine how the increasing sophistication of robots and their widespread deployment everywhere from the home, to hospitals, to public spaces, and even to the battlefield disrupts existing legal regimes or requires rethinking of various policy issues.

People will undoubtedly ask these questions on an increasing basis as robots become a more common part of our lives. We’re on the verge of a day when humans will be living and working with robots designed to operate in human environments, such as homes and offices, as opposed to environments designed for them, like a factory’s manufacturing floor. We’ll also be incorporating robotics into our bodies in ways ranging from bionic limbs and artificial organs to nanobots. When that day comes, and when something inevitably goes wrong, the law will need to address it. This conference is a step in telling us all how it will do so.

(Via Boing Boing)

The Singularity may be closer than Paul Allen thinks

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen caused quite a stir among transhumanists and singularitarians this week when he penned an article titled, “The Singularity Isn’t Near.” In it, he and co-author Mark Greaves argue that while a Kurzweil-esque technological singularity “might one day occur,” it is a long way off – certainly further out than Kurzweil’s predicted date of 2045.

The authors’ rationale for the article rests on the fact that humans have barely begun to understand exactly how our own brains work, and therefore could not possibly create a human-equivalent (or smarter-than-human) AI without massive, revolutionary advancements in neuroscience and/or AI research occurring in the near future, of which Allen and Greaves  are skeptical.

But I think this is the fatal flaw in Allen’s and Greaves’ argument – those who believe the Singularity will occur in the next 20 – 50 years (including thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge, who coined the term) do not argue that a smarter-than-human AI needs to be modeled after the human brain, or employ human-like cognition. Indeed, there is a far better chance this AI will be totally alien – at this point, however, we simply don’t know. As the Singularity Institute notes, the reason we don’t know is because “we’re not that smart.” In other words, our inherent cognitive limitations make it difficult for humans to imagine how a vastly smarter alien intelligence will behave, or operate.

That said, technology marches on, and advancements in computing speed and power continue to escalate at an exponential rate. Allen and Greaves even note that we’re on the verge of developing Exaflop-class computers that “could probably deploy the raw computational capability needed to simulate the firing patterns of all of a brain’s neurons, though currently It happens many times more slowly than would happen in an actual brain.”

Given this dramatic increase in raw computational power and the advancements that will likely continue to occur in the decades to come, is it so unreasonable to think humans will see the birth of human-equivalent (if not human-level) or smarter-than-human AI? As plenty of thinkers have shown, Kurzweil among them, it is not.

Supercomputer speed title to return to United States in 2012

When it comes to the world’s fastest supercomputers, the United States has several that rank in the top 10, but hasn’t held the top spot since Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Jaguar supercomputer was dethroned by China’ s Tianhe-1 in 2010. The current speed champion, Japan’s K computer, is capable of a blistering 8.162 petaflops – more than three times faster than the previous record holder.

Never a group to be outdone, Oak Ridge has announced plans for a new supercomputer that will be more than double the speed of K computer. Appropriately named “Titan,” the machine will deliver up to 20 petaflops and will be operated by the U.S. Department of Energy for a number of research projects, including “energy technology and science research.”

Titan’s pioneering simulation projects will include the commercially viable production of biofuels and biomaterials from cellulosic materials, such as switchgrass and poplar trees. Another project investigates combustion, responsible for most energy use, to burn fuels cleanly in efficient engines.

Simulations will aid the development of new materials for photocells that will convert more sunlight into electricity and new battery technology to store that energy for use when the sun isn’t shining. Moreover, Titan’s users will study safe extension of the lifecycles of nuclear power plants. Titan will also be used to study the reactions and flow of contaminants in the ground as well as the impacts of energy use on climate.

“All of these areas of science will benefit from Titan’s enormous increase in computational power,” said ORNL Director Thom Mason. “Titan will allow for significantly greater realism in models and simulations and the resulting scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations will provide the return on this national investment. Discoveries that take weeks even on a system as powerful as Jaguar might take days on Titan.”

Titan is currently under development, and is expected to reach its full speed by the second half of 2012.

For some, certain vitamin and mineral supplements may do more harm than good

For decades doctors have recommended vitamin and mineral supplementation, which is supposed to provide a net benefit for our health. A new study, however, indicates this may not be the case for everyone – particularly women. From the Montreal Gazette:

After looking at the health history and supplement intake of 38,772 American women in their 50s and 60s, scientists at the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Minnesota say that the use of multivitamins is associated with a 2.4 per cent increased risk of earlier death in older women. The average age of those in the group was 61.

The authors of the study, published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, pointed to vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc and copper as supplements associated with increased risk of death in the study population.

The researchers claim there is little evidence supporting the need for vitamin supplementation, although not all supplements were found to increase mortality. Calcium, for instance, was found to improve longevity. This corroborates other studies that find the mineral (when combined with vitamin D) can contribute to longevity by reducing osteopathic fractures and subsequent disability.

While I’m no doctor, I worry that research like this may lead to people (particularly women) abandoning vitamin and mineral supplementation entirely, even where it’s shown to have clear benefits, such as the aforementioned calcium and vitamin D supplementation.

If nothing else, however, this study does serve as a reminder that more is not necessarily better, and each person has different nutritional needs. Rather than popping a daily multivitamin that may contain excess vitamins and minerals we don’t need or may actually be harmful in excess (such as iron), a more sound approach is to evaluate our diets and lifestyles and supplement where needed.

Monkeys control virtual arm and “feel” virtual textures through thought

For the first time, researchers at Duke University have demonstrated a brain-machine-brain interface in monkeys that enabled the subjects to manipulate a virtual arm in a computer program and discern various “textures” of visually identical virtual objects through thought alone.

Each monkey received continuous electrical signals directly to their motor neurons that enabled them to move their avatar’s arm. By delivering different patterns of electrical signals to sensory neurons, researchers were able to simulate various sensations of texture for the on-screen objects.

Study lead Miguel Nicolelis, MD, PhD, says he hopes the research will be used to help disabled individuals achieve improved mobility:

“Someday in the near future, quadriplegic patients will take advantage of this technology not only to move their arms and hands and to walk again, but also to sense the texture of objects placed in their hands, or experience the nuances of the terrain on which they stroll with the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton,” said study leader Miguel Nicolelis, MD, PhD, professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center and co-director of the Duke Center for Neuroengineering. …

“We hope that in the next few years this technology could help to restore a more autonomous life to many patients who are currently locked in without being able to move or experience any tactile sensation of the surrounding world,” Nicolelis said.

Study results were published today in the journal Nature.

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New iPhone’s killer app – voice controlled personal assistant

Casual observers of this morning’s new iPhone 4S announcement might be disappointed in the device’s hardware upgrades. Essentially, Apple took the iPhone 4, dropped in a new chip (the same silicon that powers the iPad 2), a better camera, and some new internals and called it a day. However, they also announced a new functionality that could change the way many of us interact with our phones – “intelligent assistant” software called Siri.

On stage, Apple CEO Tim Cook demonstrated Siri’s abilities, which make it possible to perform a number of tasks through vocal commands and questions, including looking up information, scheduling meetings, obtaining restaurant recommendations (and making reservations) or sending text messages .

However, voice control has been around for years, and hasn’t caught on. So why should Siri be different? The apparent beauty of Siri is that the software is intelligent enough to understand what a user is asking even if the question isn’t completely direct. In other words, it allows humans to speak naturally rather than tailor their speech patterns to the machine.

For instance, many types of software might be able to provide an answer to “What will the weather be like today?” The thing is, humans don’t always ask questions like that. We might ask, “Should I wear a raincoat today?” Siri can determine you’re actually asking about the weather, and provide the appropriate response.

By itself, Siri is a neat trick, but it becomes useful when paired with Internet resources like Wolfram Alpha, Yelp, Google Maps, OpenTable, and so on. If it works as advertised, Siri may be the first time a gadget has delivered on the promise of legitimately useful voice control.

Boston Dynamics’ AlphaDog looks like a worthy successor to BigDog

Boston Dynamics just posted a brand new video of their latest prototype robot – AlphaDog – which appears to be the successor to their BigDog robot. This video demonstrates some of AlphaDog’s capabilities, including walking over various obstacles, running, and recovering after being pushed and kicked. In a new trick, AlphaDog also shows its ability to get up on its feet after being placed on its side.

AlphaDog is designed to be “10x quieter” than BigDog, and will be capable of travelling up to 20 miles while lugging 400 pounds of gear over rough terrain.

(Via Koen De Paus)

Physician peels a grape with da Vinci surgical robot

We’ve seen the physicians who operate the da Vinci surgical robot perform some pretty impressive (non-surgical) feats before that demonstrate the robot’s remarkable degree of precision. This stunt, however, might take it to a new level. Here, in an effort to raise awareness of mens’ cancers, Dr. Ramesh Thurairaja of Southmead Hopsital uses the da Vinci to peel a grape.

The da Vinci robot is often used as a minimally invasive option for prostate cancer treatment. Hopefully prospective patients may take some comfort in seeing what this machine is capable of.

(Via Neatorama) 

Humans will adapt as robots “take our jobs”

Over at The Technium, Kevin Kelly has written a neat little post titled “The 7 Stages of Robot Replacement,” which demonstrates how humans deal with robots encroaching on our professional turf.

Robots have been a natural fit for dangerous or repetitive jobs for decades. Increasingly, however, we’re seeing robots move into domains that have been, until now, strictly occupied by humans. It won’t be long before robots and software can take over most jobs, including those in “creative” fields. (When will we see the first non-spammy robot-authored blogs?)

However, as Kelly’s stages illustrate, when robots move into niches currently occupied by humans, humans will move on to other new fields, just as we have when all new disruptive technologies emerged. After all, there are reasons that in 1870, almost half of the workforce was employed by agriculture, and 100 years later that number dropped to 3.6 percent. The biggest part of that drop is mechanization – technological advancements in planting and harvesting have enabled a single farmer to do the work of several men (and animals) a century ago.

More recently, the United States has begun to move from an industrial society to a post-industrial society, where nearly all workers are or will be employed in service jobs.

No disruptive technology takes hold without, by nature, disrupting the status quo – not everyone will come out unscathed as robots begin to work in restaurants, clean buildings, schedule appointments for human executives, and so on. However, advancing technology has always opened new paths for humans where they didn’t exist before, thus making up, and then some, for jobs lost.

While the road won’t be smooth, humans will adapt to the new technology in the workplace, and come out better for it. We always do.

Stem cell therapy lengthens telomeres for those with premature aging disease

People with a rare premature aging disease called dyskeratosis congenita (DKC) experience many of the symptoms we associate with the normal aging process – such as gray hair – but also experience serious symptoms such as anemia and a predisposition to cancer.

It is thought that the symptoms of DKC are brought on by the body’s inability to properly maintain telomeres, the caps on the end of chromosomes that get shorter as we age. Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston were able to “reprogram” cells using a stem cell therapy that actually lengthened telomeres, providing hope for those diagnosed with DKC but also those of us who hope to escape the ravages of aging:

In the new study, Suneet Agarwal, a physician and researcher at Children’s Hospital, and collaborators took skin cells from three patients with the disease and genetically engineered the cells to express a set of genes that triggers reprogramming, reverting the cells to an embryonic state. They were surprised to find that the reprogrammed cells grew and divided, their telomeres lengthening with subsequent divisions.

“They show that they can make the cells young,” says Lorenz Studer, a physician and scientist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in New York, who was not involved in the research. The defect in the telomerase enzyme “seems to be repressed or overridden during reprogramming, which probably explains why patients do reasonably well in the early stages of life,” he says. “Patients still have same mutation whether in the [skin cell] or iPS cell, but the mutation only manifests itself in the differentiated cell.”

The results of the study were published online last week in the journal Nature.

(Via Instapundit)