Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012 1:30 PM
Turns out that the myth of the 8-hour sleep is a recent phenomenon—and that lying awake at night could be good for you.
Get ready for the Bourdain stamp of approval on a new line of foodie books.
Neiman Watchdog asks: Do politicians know anything at all about schools and education?
A perfectly preserved 300 million year old forest discovered under a coal mine in China features trees with branches and leaves intact.
We were totally OK with climate change until it started to affect our Shiraz.
How to ask political candidates questions and get answers.
What does a 55-gallon drum of sex lubricant say about the way we interact with Facebook?
Dexterous robots toil at the bottom of the sea to safeguard the web.
Mandarin, Arabic, or Spanish? Of all the world’s tongues, what is the best language to learn?
One woman’s brief, backbreaking, rage-inducing, low-paying time inside the online-shipping machine.
Image by Alyssa L. Miller, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, January 06, 2012 3:51 PM
Lots of people think that farming has gotten too industrialized. But there are others who believe it’s not nearly industrialized enough—such as the Iowa inventor who envisions armies of robots growing our food in the future.
Discovery News reports on David Dourhout’s new Prospero, a six-legged farm robot that works in teams to plant and fertilize crops. Scuttling across the land like oversized, high-tech crabs, the group of intercommunicating robots resemble an alien invasion more than a farm crew. Watch them at work in this video:
Dourhout, who based his Prospero design in part on the swarming behaviors of insects, birds and fish, believes that robotic farming will help ramp up food production for a heavily populated planet. He “hopes the next step will be to create more advanced robots that can weed, fertilize and harvest the crop,” writes Eric Niller at Discovery News.
Count me among those who are skeptical that large-scale robotic farming is the answer to our pressing food-supply needs. While I understand that not every tomato and strawberry can be lovingly hand-picked by an organic farmer in a bucolic setting, it seems equally a stretch to think that complete robotic automation is the future of farming.
The popular science press seems perpetually entranced by the prospect of a heavily roboticized future, to the point where my own response to such stories has become automated. When asked “Should robots grow our food?” I have the same answer as I do to the question recently posed on the cover of Discover: “Should robots run airport security?”
Source: Discovery News, Discover
Thursday, January 07, 2010 2:23 PM
Humanitarian work can be dangerous, often when it’s most needed. Rather than sending people directly into crisis situations, some companies are trying to give relief workers another option: robots. Global Post reports that companies are developing machines that can fly, dig, or crawl their way into dangerous places, and could save lives. The Dragonfly unmanned aerial vehicle, for example (video below), could fly over a collapsed building with a mobile camera, beaming valuable information back to rescue workers. At $15,000 per vehicle, however, most humanitarian agencies would have trouble coming up with the money. “The justification for buying equipment rather than medical supplies might be a little blurred,” robotics expert Robert Richardson told Global Post, “but you have to balance the cost of the equipment against the value of someone’s life.”
Source: Global Post
Friday, May 29, 2009 6:40 PM
Who knew Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet could help robots navigate mine fields? Matt Palmquist reports in Miller-McCune that the classic whodunit board game inspired engineers at Duke University to create an algorithm that combines the treasure hunt nature of the detective game with aspects of minesweeping, and it has been overwhelmingly successful at beating experienced Clue players even. The findings suggest robots might be able to use it to locate mines more quickly and efficiently because the success of the algorithm rests on “its strategy of selecting movements and optimizing its ability to incorporate new information, while minimizing the distance traveled by the pawn,” according to a lab director at Duke. Frankly I can’t quip a better conclusion than Palmquist’s summary, “In other words: It was the robot, in the library, with the minesweeper.”
Miller-McCune won an Utne Independent Press Award this year for its superb science/tech coverage.
Image by katherine lynn, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009 2:44 PM
As the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to rise, robots are looking like an increasingly attractive alternative to human soldiers. Sending robots into battle is politically easy, because it ostensibly avoids some of the human cost of war. There is, however, a hidden, paradoxical cost of waging war with robots, P. W. Singer writes in the Wilson Quarterly: “By appearing to lower the human costs of war, they may seduce us into more wars.”
Technological advancements now allow everyone to watch combat footage from anywhere, and sometimes to be a part of it. Soldiers may be able to drive to work, launch some missiles from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and then drive home in time for dinner. Singer, the author of the book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, connects that to the popularization of “war porn” videos, some of which show UAVs launching missiles at people. The footage allows viewers to “watch more but experience less,” according to Singer, which “widens the gap between our perceptions and war’s realities.”
Even supporters of the robotic soldiers concede that the technology can lead to overconfidence. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb is quoted by Singer saying, “Leaders without experience tend to forget about the other side, that it can adapt. They tend to think of the other side as static and fall into a technology trap.”
Excessive optimism is already a psychological bias that leads countries into war, Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon wrote for Foreign Policy in 2007. One doesn’t need to look beyond the predictions of a “cakewalk” in Iraq to know the problems of overconfidence in the lead up to a conflict. The distance allowed by military robots could exacerbate this psychological bias.
The hidden costs of these robotic warriors doesn’t mean the military should abandon technological advances, according to Singer. In an excerpt from the New Atlantis, Singer writes, “High technology is not a silver bullet solution to insurgencies, but that doesn’t mean that technology doesn’t matter in these fights.”
Tuesday, December 16, 2008 2:47 PM
In 2007, Japan installed an average of 4.1 robots every hour, according to IEEE Spectrum. And while Japan leads the way in robots per person, the magazine deemed Europe the “epicenter of global automation,” with an average of 50 robots in use for every 10,000 workers. Some $18 billion were spent on robots worldwide in 2007, and futurists don’t see humans stopping their push for automated helpers any time soon.
In fact, the next 15 years may bring about a “mass hybridisation between humans and robots,” professor Antonio Lopez Pelaez of Spain's National Distance Learning University told the Guardian newspaper. Pelaez predicts a rise in artificial robotic body implants, and believes that humans will develop greater emotional attachments to the machines. “Just as you can see dog owners talking to their pets today,” according to Pelaez, “soon we will be talking to robots.”
Wednesday, June 18, 2008 11:40 AM
Talking stuffed animals may be cute on the outside, but creepy robotic hearts often lurk beneath their fuzzy exteriors. Matt Kirkland dissected a number of stuffed toy robots and found out what they were made of. The results are quite revealing.
Images by Matt Kirkland
Saturday, January 05, 2008 11:42 AM
Robotics, in my view, is a science filled with empty promises. It’s the scientific equivalent of the Nintendo my dad promised me as a child: the one that never arrived. Robotics is filled with dreams of future mechanical companions: dancing, car-driving, fun-loving robot friends. In reality, scientists continue to focus on more practical robots to assist in assembly lines and kick hard-working Americans out of their jobs.
Despite the continual let-down, the Scientific American still reports that 2007 was a good year for robots. Alright, the robot that can play the violin is pretty cool. But a dancing, mechanical friend seems more important to me than a robot to perform surgeries in outer space.
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