A yellow flower with its stem sitting in an Erlenmeyer flask.
Jun 1, 2017

Axios Science

The short week was not short on science. Before we get to our top stories, expert voices on computer-generated creativity, and soft robots, here's an announcement:

Tomorrow, Axios launches our Future of Work vertical led by Steve LeVine. His weekly Sunday newsletter will cover the intersection of robots, AI, jobs, and global economics. It's the fruits of science in action. I can't wait. Sign up here and check out our shared Axios Future Facebook page.

1 big idea: Robots show a softer side

Advances in materials science and 3D printing have launched a soft robot research boom, potentially easing the integration of robots into our lives. "We've been promised robots among us, but the big shortfall has been how they interact with humans," Harvard researcher Michael Wehner says. He built the first entirely soft autonomous robot, called octobot.

Three other recent examples:

  1. Last week, researchers demonstrated a 3D printed robot that has both soft and hard parts in its legs so it can climb over sand and uneven ground.
  2. Another team recently created an artificial Venus fly trap that is pliable and snaps.
  3. Scientists built a self-powered squishy robotic fish that can tread water and operate for three hours without recharging.

Why it's needed: If robots are going to live and work with humans, they'll need to be safe and perform better around people (more soft on the outside, less hard edges, and more flexible and adaptable). Other applications — like rescuing people after earthquakes or remediation after a toxic chemical spill — require agile robots with the ability to squeeze into tight spaces. And, overall, robots need to be able to better deal with the unpredictable world — a challenge soft robots might meet.

Read more here.

The next great test for computers: creativity

Computers already beat us at our own games, surpass us in diagnosing some diseases, and fool our senses. Some of us worry about them taking our jobs while others envision they'll free us up to do more meaningful, creative work. But, as algorithms acquire and improve human skills, will they also become creative?

An annual contest at Dartmouth serves as a Turing test for creativity and, so far, has assured us this hasn't happened yet. Contestants submit algorithms that produce sonnets, complete short stories, or perform as one partner in a dancing and singing duet. Last year's submissions for coding to complete short stories, for example, only fooled one human judge, one time.

But will creativity remain a seemingly untouchable aspect of human intelligence? That's the question we asked researchers.

Axios stories to spark your brain:
  1. Prairie vole love: Researchers figured out how the brain rewards monogamy.
  2. Mummy DNA, finally: Ancient Egyptians' genomes were sequenced for the first time, revealing Mediterranean and European ancestry.
  3. Einstein's still right: He predicted massive bodies would create ripples in space and time that we feel as gravity. They've been detected for the third time.
What we're reading elsewhere:
  1. Heartbreaking: The Washington Post's powerful story about "the worst disease you've never heard of."
  2. Fasting: Bob Grant at The Scientist on the growing body of research on fasting.
  3. Wearables on the farm: Microphones, GPS trackers, and skin sensors now track the health of animals, per Wired.
Tried and true: manipulating the brain with light

In the study of monogamy in prairie voles, scientists applied optogenetics, a technique which uses light to control neurons that have been genetically modified to be sensitive to light. A 2014 study pioneered the use of the tool to switch traumatic memories on and off in mice. How did that work?

The seminal study: Scientists attached light-sensitive markers to memory-associated neurons in male mice and mildly shocked their feet as they crawled in a particular place. Later, the researchers moved the mice to another place, and switched on those same neurons by shining light on them. The mice froze in fear after this triggered a negative memory of being shocked (without the actual shock).

Next, they put the mice in a space with female mice. They activated the neurons again to change the emotional content of the memory and four days later reactivated the neurons. They found the mice no longer froze and instead crawled around with the females. (They also successfully did the inverse.)What happened: The memory of a place and what happened was still there but the researchers were basically able to re-assign an emotion to that context and content.The legacy: The experiment was one of the first to demonstrate how light can be used to precisely manipulate one of the brain's central functions. Optogenetics is now used to probe the brain in myriad ways and some scientists suggest that instead of electrically stimulating neurons, brain-machine interfaces would be better off using light.

Something wondrous

Speaking of soft and flexible, marine invertebrates that make up nearly 98% of animal species in the ocean are models for roboticists. This image of the red-eyed Medusa — typically just an inch long — was taken by the California Academy of Science's Susan Middleton and is part of Spineless, an exhibition at the National Academy of Sciences in D.C.

Thanks for reading. Pass it on and, as always, send me your comments at alison@axios.com.