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New Robot Hand Works Like a Venus Flytrap to Grip Objects

A team from MIT and Harvard has created a robot hand that's not only strong, but also soft — and it could usher in a new era in robotics.

Versatile Touch

If we want robots to take over more tasks for humans, we need to give them more versatile hands.

Right now, many robot hands can only complete specialized tasks. Ones that are strong often have trouble with tasks that require a delicate touch, and soft hands often don’t pack much of a punch when it comes to strength.

But now, a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University have created a robot hand that’s not only strong, but also soft — and it could usher in a new era in robotics.

Show of Hands

The team drew inspiration for its hand from the origami magic ball. Rather than using some sort of finger-like grippers, their cone-shaped robot hand envelopes an object and then collapses around it, much like a Venus flytrap captures its prey.

The pressure applied is enough for the hand to lift objects up to 100 times its own weight, but it can also handle far more delicate, light objects. A video released by MIT demonstrates the hand’s ability to pick up everything from a soup can to a banana.

Soft, but Strong

University of California at Santa Cruz robotics professor Michael Wehner, who was not involved in the project, praised the hand, noting its novelty in an interview with MIT News.

“This is a very clever device that uses the power of 3-D printing, a vacuum, and soft robotics to approach the problem of grasping in a whole new way,” Wehner said. “In the coming years, I could imagine seeing soft robots gentle and dexterous enough to pick a rose, yet strong enough to safely lift a hospital patient.”

READ MORE: Robot hand is soft and strong [MIT News]

More on robot hands: This AI-Operated Robotic Hand Moves With “Unprecedented Dexterity”

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New Robot Hand Works Like a Venus Flytrap to Grip Objects

Astronomers Just Found 83 Giant Black Holes at Universe’s Edge

An international team of researchers says it's found 83 new supermassive black holes at extreme end of the visible universe.

Hole Story

An international team of researchers says it’s found 83 new supermassive black holes at extreme end of the visible universe — by looking at light that took so long to reach Earth that it dates from the early universe.

“It is remarkable that such massive dense objects were able to form so soon after the Big Bang,” said Michael Strauss, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University involved in the research, in a press release. “Understanding how black holes can form in the early universe, and just how common they are, is a challenge for our cosmological models.”

Squad Goals

The discovery was made by 48 astronomers around the world who described the findings in five new papers in The Astrophysical Journal and the Publications of the Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

The finding was based on data taken with the Hyper Suprime-Cam, a “cutting-edge instrument” at the Subaru Telescope at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, in Hawaii, which the researchers combined with readings from three more powerful telescopes around the world.

Quasar Theory

The newly-discovered black holes are quasars, which shoot out matter in powerful jets. The researchers are hoping that more datagathering and analysis will shed light onto how some of the earliest quasars in the universe formed.

“The quasars we discovered will be an interesting subject for further follow-up observations with current and future facilities,” said Yoshiki Matsuok, a researcher at Ehime University who worked on the discovery. “We will also learn about the formation and early evolution of [super massive black holes], by comparing the measured number density and luminosity distribution with predictions from theoretical models.”

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Astronomers Just Found 83 Giant Black Holes at Universe’s Edge

The Pentagon Wants an Orbital Space Weapon to Blast Enemy Missiles

Space Laser

You know the scene in “Akira” where Tetsuo rips a satellite space weapon out of orbit?

Now the U.S. military wants to try something similar, according to Defense One. The Pentagon is requesting hundreds of millions of dollars to ramp up space-based weaponry including particle beams and space lasers that’ll fire downward at Earthly targets — a dark vision of the militarization of space.

Ballistic Missiles

According to Defense One, a Missile Defense Agency document released this week describes the military’s ambitions to disable ballistic missiles right as they launch.

“The addition of the neutral particle Beam effort will design, develop, and conduct a feasibility demonstration for a space-based Directed Energy Intercept layer,” it reads. “This future system will offer new kill options for the [Ballistic Missile Defense System] and adds another layer of protection for the homeland.”

Orbital Weaponry

Several contractors have prepared prototype orbital weaponry designs for the Pentagon over the years, according to Defense One, but they’ve been enormous and impractical. But now officials hope advances could make such a weapon feasible for a test by 2023.

“We’ve come a long way in terms of the technology we use today to where a full, all-up system wouldn’t be the size of three of these conference rooms, right?” said a senior defense official, according to Defense One. “We now believe we can get it down to a package that we can put on as part of a payload to be placed on orbit.”

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The Pentagon Wants an Orbital Space Weapon to Blast Enemy Missiles

Computer Fraud Laws are Flawed, this Lawyer is Fighting Against Them

Tor Ekeland, hacker lawyer, fights back against the harsh punishments decreed using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And one of those fights can be seen in “Trust Machine,” available now at Breaker.io.

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Computer Fraud Laws are Flawed, this Lawyer is Fighting Against Them

NASA Engineer: Humans Should Consider Settling Saturn’s Moon Titan

nasa-engineer-humans-settling-titan

Destination: Titan

If the Earth becomes inhabitable, a NASA engineer named Janelle Wellons says we should think about settling Saturn’s moon Titan, and she has a laundry list of reasons why — including that you might be able to fly by flapping your arms.

“It has a thick atmosphere that could help protect us from space radiation,” Wellons wrote on Reddit. “It is so dense that we could actually attach wings to our arms and fly on this moon. I don’t know, it just seems like an awesome place to live.”

Largest Moon

Wellon’s comments came in a Reddit appearance in which NASA engineers, scientists and pilots fielded questions from the public. One Redditor asked where the team would recommend settling if conditions on Earth became untenable, and Wellons chimed in with what she said was a “more interesting answer than the standard Mars or Moon response.”

“How about we consider one of the water worlds in our solar system — Titan,” she wrote. “Titan is the largest moon of Saturn, larger than the planet Mercury even, so I think we could settle with plenty room.”

Swim Good

In spite of Wellon’s enthusiasm, there are definite downsides to Titan. It only gets about one percent of the sunlight Earth does, and according to NASA’s research its maximum temperature is a wintry -292 degrees Fahrenheit.

But Wellon is still a fan.

“Now as for the conditions on the surface — not as rough as you may think,” she wrote. “Titan is the only place besides Earth known to have liquids in the form of lakes and seas on its surface. These liquids are made of methane but, armed with the right kind of protective gear, one could theoretically be able to swim without harm!”

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Pilots Were Worried About Boeing 737 Max Before Deadly Crash

Boeing's 737 Max planes were involved in two deadly crashes. Pilots have warned repeatedly prior to both crashes that its anti-stall system is dangerous.

Grounded

Boeing has a lot of questions to answer.

Its 737 Max passenger jetliner was supposed to provide more comfort for passengers and better fuel efficiency. But the plane’s reputation has been tarnished by two recent crashes that have captured international attention: October’s Flight 61, operated by Indonesian airline Lion Air and which killed 189, and a second crash only four months later of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 which killed more than 150.

Now more bad news is coming out for the aerospace giant: pilots have reportedly been complaining about the jet’s automatic flight features since before the latest crash.

“The fact that this airplane requires such jury rigging to fly is a red flag,” said an unnamed pilot in a November statement to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the aftermath of the October crash, as quoted by Politico. The pilot had reportedly experienced the aircraft pitching its nose down within seconds of turning on the feature back in November.

“Criminally Insufficient”

The 737 Max 8’s futuristic Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) automatically adjusts the pitch downwards to reduce the risk of stalling the engine. It turns itself off automatically when the angle of attack — essentially the horizontal angle of the plane — is sufficiently lowered.

Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

“Now we know the systems employed are error prone — even if the pilots aren’t sure what those systems are, what redundancies are in place, and failure modes,” the pilot said in the FAA statement. “I am left to wonder: what else don’t I know? The Flight Manual is inadequate and almost criminally insufficient.”

“Not Airworthy”

Despite the flagged issues, the exact link between the MCAS anti-stall system and the two deadly crashes has not been confirmed by authorities.

A preliminary report by Indonesian investigators found that the 737 Max 8 plane was “not airworthy” weeks after the deadly crash. The investigation also found that the plane’s nose dove down repeatedly, even when it wasn’t stalling.

Boeing was clear in its response to the report: “As our customers and their passengers continue to fly the 737 Max to hundreds of destinations around the world every day, they have our assurance that the 737 Max is as safe as any airplane that has ever flown in the skies.”

The FAA has yet to follow a large number of countries in banning the use of Boeing’s 737 Max altogether. Its reasoning: it’s too early. “Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft,” reads a statement from yesterday.

READ MORE: From the flight manual to automation, why pilots have complained about Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 [USA Today]

More on Boeing’s 737 Max plane: Boeing Promises Software Update for Plane That Crashed

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Pilots Were Worried About Boeing 737 Max Before Deadly Crash

See the Robot Head That Might Interview You for Your Next Job

An AI-powered robot head named Tengai could make the applicant screening process less biased while still providing a

You’re Hired

The next time you interview for a job, the recruiter you need to impress might not be human.

Since October, Swedish recruitment agency TNG has been using an artificially intelligent robot head called Tengai to conduct test interviews in place of a human recruiter. Starting in May, the device will begin interviewing candidates for actual jobs with the goal of eliminating the biases human recruiters bring to the hiring process — an encouraging example of an AI eliminating discrimination rather than amplifying it.

Perfect Tengai

Tengai is the work of Furhat Robotics, a conversational AI and social robotics startup. Furhat designed the robot head to be placed on a table where it rests at about eye level with a job candidate. It then asks the person a series of questions, with its voice and face designed to mimic human inflections and expressions.

Unlike a human recruiter — who might develop unconscious biases about a candidate based on anything from their gender and ethnicity to how they answer informal chit chat before the interview — Tengai will ask every question in the same order and the same way.

It then provides a human recruiter with a transcript of the candidate’s answers so that they can make a decision about whether or not to move forward with that person.

Eventually, Furhat hopes to program the robot to make its own decisions on which applicants should proceed to the next round of interviews. It already has an English-language version of the bot in development, with plans to roll that out in early 2020.

Robotic Delivery

According to a recent TNG survey, 73 percent of job seekers in Sweden believe they’ve been discriminated against during the job application process. By replacing the human recruiter with Tengai, TNG and Furhat believe they can make the screening process more fair while still providing a “human” touch.

“I was quite sceptical at first before meeting Tengai, but after the meeting I was absolutely struck,” healthcare recruiter Petra Elisson, who has been involved in the testing, told the BBC. “At first I really, really felt it was a robot, but when going more deeply into the interview I totally forgot that she’s not human.”

As for ensuring that Tengai doesn’t reflect the biases of its creators and training data — a problem that has cropped up with other AIs — Furhat’s chief scientist, Gabriel Skantze, told the BBC the company is making it a point to conduct test interviews with a diverse mix of recruiters and volunteers before Tengai is ever in the position to actually decide an applicant’s employment fate.

READ MORE: Meet Tengai, the job interview robot who won’t judge you [BBC]

More on HR: You May Have to Go Through a Robot Recruiter to Land Your Next Job

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See the Robot Head That Might Interview You for Your Next Job

Ethicist Warns: Future AI Could Take Revenge for How We Treat It Now

Right now, we can tip robots over and insult smart homes without fear of a robotic revolution. But ethicist Nicholas Agar warns that may someday change.

BattleBots

Right now, the bulk of artificial intelligence systems are computer programs that are particularly good at spotting patterns within data. Sure, there are impressive robots out there, but they still have serious limitations.

If machines become truly intelligent or sentient, an ethicist at Victoria University Wellington named Nicholas Agar is sharing a dire warning: future machines may want payback for how we treat their insentient ancestors today.

“Perhaps our behaviour towards non-sentient AI today should be driven by how we would expect people to behave towards any future sentient AI that can feel, that can suffer,” Agar wrote in an essay for The Conversation published on Tuesday. “How we would expect that future sentient machine to react towards us?”

Payback Time

The idea of abused robots turning violent has pervaded science fiction from “Westworld” to “Bladerunner.” In short, according to Agar’s thinking, you’d better stop calling Alexa a butthead or telling Cortana to spell “icup” lest a Terminator kick down your door.

“If we are going to make machines with human psychological capacities, we should prepare for the possibility that they may become sentient,” Agar wrote. “How then will they react to our behaviour towards them?”

Real World

The notion of mistreating robots does raise the issue of how humans treat other beings. Advocates of robot brothels, for instance, argue that people with violent tendencies may be able to act on their impulses without hurting anyone, while others worry that this may give people a taste of violence that they seek out with real people.

Agar likened the situation to how animals are currently killed for their skin and meat, arguing that people have an outdated tendency to act violently toward their perceived inferiors, and that the potential future ability of robots to fight back should give us pause.

“Animals cannot take revenge,” he argued. “But sentient machines just might.”

READ MORE: Careful how you treat today’s AI: it might take revenge in the future [The Conversation]

More on sentient AI: Artificial Consciousness: How To Give A Robot A Soul

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Russian Scientists Used a Quantum Computer to Turn Back Time

Russian physicists, armed with a quantum computer, managed to send a single electron back in time, resetting the computer to its state from a moment earlier

Fall Back

Russian scientists have apparently reversed the flow of time in an experiment they conducted on a quantum computer.

The finding is unlikely to lead to a time machine that would work on people. But the team of physicists managed to restore IBM’s public quantum computer to the state it had been in just a moment earlier, according to research published Wednesday in the journal Nature Scientific Reports — a nuanced result, but one that could have striking implications for the future of computing, quantum physics, and our understanding of time itself.

“We have artificially created a state that evolves in a direction opposite to that of the thermodynamic arrow of time,” Gordey Lesovik, a quantum physicist from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology who led the research project, said in a university-published press release.

 Great Scott

Lesovik’s team worked with scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois to run thousands of experiments on a quantum system programmed to reverse time’s arrow on a single electron.

After thousands of trials, the physicists managed to restore the quantum computer’s earlier state about 85 percent of the time, but only if they were working with a simplified, two-qubit system. A more complex quantum computer with three qubits was too chaotic, and the time reversal experiment only worked 49 percent of the time.

Just like research into quantum teleportation has nothing to do with transporting people, there’s no reason to link this study to the notion of a machine that could travel through time. Rather, the scientists hope that their work can help quantum computer scientists make sure their software is actually doing what it’s supposed to by kicking it back through time and double checking its work.

READ MORE: Physicists reverse time using quantum computer [Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology newsroom via EurekAlert]

More on quantum computers: Scientists Are Building a Quantum Computer That “Acts Like a Brain”

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Russian Scientists Used a Quantum Computer to Turn Back Time

Get Ready For More Interactive Netflix Programming

More interactive Netflix programming is on the way following the success of Bandersnatch, a choose-your-own-adventure style episode of

Under Control

In December, Netflix released Bandersnatch, a choose-your-own-adventure style episode of its hit dystopian sci-fi series “Black Mirror.”

Based on the positive response to that episode, Netflix’s VP of product Todd Yellin has now announced the company’s intentions to make interactive storytelling a more regular part of its programming — a sign that the future of entertainment could put more control in viewers’ hands.

Doubling Down

On Tuesday, Yellin delivered a keynote presentation at a media and entertainment conference in India during which he shared plans for more interactive Netflix programming.

“[Bandersnatch is] a huge hit here in India, it’s a huge hit around the world, and we realized, wow, interactive storytelling is something we want to bet more on,” he told the audience, according to a report by Variety. “We’re doubling down on that. So expect over the next year or two to see more interactive storytelling.”

Pick Your Poison

As for the kinds of interactive Netflix stories viewers can expect, that’s still up in the air.

“[I]t won’t necessarily be science fiction, or it won’t necessarily be dark,” Yellin said, according to Variety. “It could be a wacky comedy. It could be a romance, where the audience gets to choose — should she go out with him or him.”

READ MORE: Netflix ‘Doubling Down’ on Interactive Series After ‘Bandersnatch’ Success [Variety]

More on Netflix: Netflix’s Bandersnatch Teases the Future of Entertainment

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Get Ready For More Interactive Netflix Programming

NASA Might Send Astronauts Around the Moon on Commercial Rocket

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested NASA might use a commercial rocket to boost its Orion crew capsule around the Moon in 2020.

Private Ride

NASA’s several-billion-dollar Space Launch System (SLS) is on thin ice. The culprit: the enticingly low-cost and high-performance rockets of its private industry competitors.

At a Senate hearing today, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested that NASA might use a commercial rocket to boost its Orion crew capsule around the Moon in 2020.

“We need to consider, as an agency, all options to accomplish that objective,” Bridenstine said of the first launch of its Orion crew capsule. “We’re talking about a rocket that’s taller than the Statue of Liberty with a fairing that can put really big objects into space — and into deep space.”

Delays

NASA’s SLS was supposed to use a massive two-stage rocket design to launch astronauts towards the Moon and even Mars. But when that will happen is hard to say.

“SLS is failing to meet its schedule,” Bridenstine said during the hearing.

NASA initially signed a contract with Boeing to build those two stages in 2012. The first planned uncrewed test flight was scheduled for December 2017. Next time window: June 2020 — but even that date is likely to change.

Over Budget

And that’s not to mention the fact that the SLS is grossly over budget. Conservative 2017 estimates pegged the cost for each launch at $1.5 to $2.5 billion. Estimates for the total authorized budget of the SLS is $46 billion since its conception, according to Ars Technica.

To put that into perspective: the White House budget proposal for all of NASA’s operations in 2020 is just $21 billion.

Ditching the SLS altogether would be a huge admission of failure, but Bridenstine isn’t about to give up on NASA.

“The Space Launch System, SLS, the largest rocket that’s ever been built in American history, is a critical piece of what the United States of America needs to build,” Bridenstine said during the hearing.

READ MORE: NASA considers using a commercial rocket for upcoming trip around the Moon [The Verge]

More on the SLS: How Does NASA’s New Mega-Rocket Compare to the Falcon Heavy?

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NASA Might Send Astronauts Around the Moon on Commercial Rocket

First Graphene-Based Device Is A “Few Months” Away, Says Startup

A University of Cambridge spin-out company claims it has found a way to produce graphene at commercial scale and will release a device soon.

The Waiting Game

Scientists first isolated graphene — a transparent layer of carbon just one atom thick — in 2004. Almost immediately, we began hearing about all the wondrous ways the material could transform our world, ushering in everything from quantum computers to unlimited drinking water.

Fifteen years later, that transformation has yet to take place, as graphene’s complex, expensive manufacturing process has prevented it from reaching the mainstream.

Now that could be poised to change, with a University of Cambridge spin-out company claiming it’s found a way to produce graphene at commercial scale — meaning the world might finally be able to make good on the promise of this “wonder material.”

Mystery Device

In 2018, a trio of Cambridge researchers created a spin-out company they named Paragraf.

On Tuesday, Cambridge announced that Paragraf had started to produce graphene at commercial scale, generating wafers of the material up to eight inches in diameter using a method the researchers developed in 2015.

According to a press release, the company’s first graphene-based electronic device will be “available in the next few months.”

Limitless Opportunity

While the press release doesn’t specify what Paragraf’s first device will be, the applications for graphene are nearly endless — the material is 200 times stronger than steel and 10 times better at conducting heat than copper, the conductor used in most electronics.

Graphene is also 250 times better at conducting electricity than silicon, and Cambridge anticipates that if we replaced the silicon chips in today’s transistors with graphene-based chips, we could increase the speed of electronic devices ten-fold. The university also estimates that graphene could make chemical and electrical sensors 30 times more accurate.

“Paragraf has the potential to transform a wide range of industries, including electronics, energy, and healthcare,” Paragraf chairman Colin Humphreys said in the press release. “It will enable the basic science results achieved in laboratories worldwide using small graphene flakes to be commercially exploited in graphene-based devices and to realise the potential and benefits to society of graphene, the wonder material.”

READ MORE: Cambridge spin-out starts producing graphene at commercial scale [University of Cambridge]

More on graphene: Five Ways Graphene Could Transform Our World

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Experts Call for Temporary World Ban on Gene-Hacked Children

Global Moratorium

Late last year, Chinese scientist He Jiankui carried out a highly controversial gene-editing experiment by altering the genome of a human embryo.

In a response to growing concern over future changes or edits to hereditary genes, some of the biggest names in gene editing signed an open letter published in the journal Nature this week, calling for a global moratorium on editing DNA to make genetically modified children.

Unintended Consequences

The reasoning behind the letter, which is signed by 18 scientists from across the globe, is rooted in the fact that we simple don’t know how exactly germline editing could affect the human body — or the bodies of future generations.

“By ‘global moratorium,’ we do not mean a permanent ban,” reads the letter. “Rather, we call for the establishment of an international framework in which nations, […] voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met.”

An initial fixed period would allow no germline editing to allow for the creation of said framework.

International Framework

The letter points out that about 30 nations have legislation that “directly or indirectly bars all clinical uses of germline editing” already. But the international framework the letter suggests would cover all other countries as well.

The moratorium would exclude any experiments that don’t intend to implant live embryos and produce children. But any experiments meant to “improve” individuals “will require extensive study” and even then “substantial uncertainty would probably remain,” according to the letter.

READ MORE: CRISPR experts are calling for a global moratorium on heritable gene editing [MIT Technology Review]

More on gene editing: Tiny New CRISPR Protein Could Make Human Gene-Hacking Less Risky

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Experts Call for Temporary World Ban on Gene-Hacked Children

Why IBM Thinks Quantum Computers Will Boost Machine Learning

IBM figured out how to use a quantum computer to make machine learning algorithms better than ever before. But no quantum computer is good enough yet.

Quantum Leap

When full-scale quantum computers finally arrive, they could give machine learning algorithms a major boost, letting the AI systems find hidden patterns in data that today’s best technology has no hope of spotting.

At least, that’s the gist of research by IBM scientists, first shared online last year that was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday — findings that could help make much more powerful AI without requiring fundamentally-new algorithms.

Connect The Dots

This quantum AI would excel at what’s called feature mapping — breaking down the data into its core components to figure out everything about it. For example, a machine learning algorithm trained to analyze images could analyze the color of every single pixel in the image, looking for patterns that might reveal what the picture depicts.

Modern machine learning systems running on a classical computer are already pretty good at that. But according to the new research, a quantum computer could give the AI such a boost that it would be able to look for subtler patterns within huge datasets, according to an IBM-published blog.

That may mean finding new trends within troves of data from medical research or new insights into climate change. But Antonio Córcoles, an IBM quantum computing scientist, told Futurism that he has a hard time predicting how these systems may be used, since scientists aren’t aware of the patterns and discoveries that they don’t know to look for.

Stepping On Toes

But this quantum-boosted AI isn’t about to solve any scientific mysteries just yet. The IBM scientists concede that even their best quantum computer isn’t nearly sophisticated enough to outperform a classical computer at machine learning tasks.

Rather, the team figured out how such a could enhance machine learning, should the researchers working on the hardware side of the problem figure out how to catch up.

Córcoles told Futurism that he thinks quantum computer research will get there in about five years, but it will take a community effort as scientists in more fields find ways that the devices will be able to help them crack problems previously thought unsolvable.

READ MORE: Researchers Put Machine Learning on the Path to Quantum Advantage [IBM Newsroom]

More on quantum computers: Scientists Are Building a Quantum Computer That “Acts Like a Brain”

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Why IBM Thinks Quantum Computers Will Boost Machine Learning

Mercury Is Every Planet in the Solar System’s Closest Neighbor

Every picture of the solar system shows Venus as our closest neighbor. Sure, it comes closer to Earth than any planet, but on average Mercury is closer.

Well, Actually

You probably learned in school — or space camp — that Venus is Earth’s closest planetary neighbor.

Ready to get your mind blown? A new model of the planets’ orbit shuffles things around, calculating that Earth’s closest neighbor, on average, is actually Mercury. In fact, it says that every other planet in the solar system’s nearest neighbor is Mercury as well.

Averaging Out

Sure, Venus comes closer to Earth than Mercury, but it also spends a lot of time on the opposite side of the sun. Scientists from NASA, Los Alamos National Lab, and the U.S. Army put together a new model published Tuesday in Physics Today that breaks down the average distance among planets — and it turns out that they’re all, on average, closest to Mercury.

The team built an animation showing how even though Earth and Venus briefly pass each other, Mercury’s close proximity to the sun meant that its nearest and farthest distances from Earth weren’t that different. It’s that tight orbit around the sun which, when averaging out all the distances between the planets, keep Mercury from ever getting too far away from any given planet.

Orbituary

Sure, this doesn’t change much. The planets are still in the same order that they were in when you learned about them as a kid, in terms of orbits.

But if you want to blow someone’s mind — or maybe bore them with math — at Happy Hour, you can whip out some nifty new space trivia about the solar system.

READ MORE: Venus is not Earth’s closest neighbor [Physics Today]

More on space: Mercury is Alive: New Photos Show Evidence of Tectonic Activity

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Mercury Is Every Planet in the Solar System’s Closest Neighbor

New Google App Describes Objects to Blind People

Google has released a new app called Lookout that describes objects and reads text or currency for people with visual impairments.

Gift of Sight

An estimated 1.3 billion people across the globe live with some sort of vision impairment, and of those, 36 million are blind.

Now, Google has released an artificial intelligence-powered app designed to serve as a helpful pair of “eyes” for those people, providing them with a level of independence they may have previously lacked — and showing the world yet another way AI can help people with disabilities.

On the Lookout

Google named the app Lookout, and the way it works is simple: open the app on your phone, and listen while Lookout audibly describes whatever the phone’s camera is pointed at.

The app features three modes designed for specific situations.

Explore mode is useful for navigating a new setting. Google suggests in a blog post that people with severe visual impairments might choose to wear their phones around their necks, perhaps in a lanyard or in their shirt pocket, so that Explore can provide them with constant updates on their surroundings as they navigate the world.

Shopping mode is useful for scanning barcodes or reading currency — a person with a visual impairment might use this mode if they aren’t sure whether the bill they’re holding is worth $10 or $20.

Quick Read mode, meanwhile, is pretty self-explanatory. A person points their phone at text — anything from a sign in a grocery store to a piece of mail — and Lookout reads it to them.

It’s a Start

While Google points out in the blog post that the app “will not always be 100 percent perfect,” Lookout has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of life for people with visual impairments.

That’ll be especially true if Google expands Lookout to include more languages, locations, and devices — it currently speaks only English and is only available for U.S. owners of Pixel devices — which the company claims in the blog post it plans to do soon.

READ MORE: With Lookout, discover your surroundings with the help of AI [Google]

More on AI: Instagram Will Use AI to Describe Images for Visually Impaired Users

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This Guy is Hacking Printers to Warn About Job-Stealing AI

Beware of Bots is a new marketing campaign that hacked printers to send out a warning about automation, urging people to switch careers.

Viral Marketing

If you work in finance, your printer may have recently spewed out a bizarre warning about the future of your industry.

The warning, which took the form of a glitchy-looking letter conveyed the warning that 94 percent of finance professionals could be replaced by AI by 2024. It’s been sent to over 623,000 printers with publicly-accessible ports, according to its creators — an ambitious piece of futuristic protest art for the era of automation.

“It’s 94% likely that by 2024 I will replace millions of accountants, auditors and financial analysts, no matter how experienced or talented ‘they’ may be,” the letter reads, maintaining the voice of an AI narrator. “The same fate will befall all professions based on structured and algorithmic processes.”

Cyber-Nagging

The project, called Beware of Bots, is the brainchild of Vlad Sitnikov, the same guy who told Futurism he wanted to launch giant billboards into space.

This time, his advertising has gone hyperlocal — in the philosophical opposite of that annoying “learn to code” movement, he urges people to pivot to graphic design and other creative fields that artificial intelligence is less likely to automate.

“I will not be able to replace creative professions in the near future,” the letter reads, still in the voice of the AI. “Only 8% of graphic designwork will be replaced by bots by 2024.”

Sitnikov could stand to profit from the hack: the letter he sent to thousands of hacked printers contains a coupon for a design course by author Michael Janda, with whom Sitnikov collaborated, and he was working on behalf of Skillbox, the online learning platform hosting Janda’s courses.

Singles In Your Area

To reach the finance bros’ printers, Sitnikov built a bot that accessed what’s called port 9100, through which many printers send and receive data. It’s not uncommon for hackers to exploit these publicly-accessible ports, so the hack itself isn’t all that revolutionary.

Accessing internet-connected printers by exploiting port 9100 is technically illegal, though most exploits tend to be harmless pranks. However,others have previously exploited port 9100 to commit hate crimes or send spam.

What is new, however, is using the vulnerability for a viral marketing campaign. While this ad comes under the guise of benevolence, Sitnikov’s campaign could open the doors to all sorts of advertisements churning out of your printer.

READ MORE: Bot Hacks Printers Worldwide to Warn Humans That Their Jobs Are at Risk from AI [Little Black Book]

More on viral marketing: The British Army Has an Official Viral Content Division

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This Guy is Hacking Printers to Warn About Job-Stealing AI

DARPA Is Building an Open Source Voting Machine

DARPA is developing technology that could finally lead to secure voting machines. It plans to have experts from professors to hackers kick the tires.

Cracking Down

Voting booths are notoriously buggy. Whether they’ve been actively hacked or just improperly calibrated, every election season is rife with complaints that machines misrecorded ballots or that an election has been compromised by hackers.

To prevent us from having to take a technological step backwards to paper ballots, U.S. Department of Defense’s research division DARPA is working with cybersecurity firm Galois to develop open source voting machine technology that would let people verify that their votes were tallied correctly, according to Motherboard.

Open Source

The ultimate goal isn’t to sell machines, but to develop tech that would beef up existing voting machine vendors’ security.

“We will not have a voting system that we can deploy. That’s not what we do,” Linton Salmon, the DARPA scientist managing the project, told Motherboard. “We will show a methodology that could be used by others to build a voting system that is completely secure.”

Kicking The Tires

To make sure that any new voting machines built with DARPA software are actually better than today’s, the plan is to invite experts ranging from academic computer scientists to hackers to test it out and search for vulnerabilities, according to Motherboard.

One way that the new system might improve upon others is by printing out a sheet showing a voter’s selections so that they can look it over before feeding it into a separate machine that will actually record the vote.

“That receipt does not permit you to prove anything about how you voted, but does permit you to prove that the system accurately captured your intent and your vote is in the final tally,” Galois principal scientist Joe Kiniry told Motherboard.

READ MORE: DARPA Is Building a $10 Million, Open Source, Secure Voting System [Motherboard]

More on election security: Could Digital Voting Create a Society That Is Truly Governed by the People?

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DARPA Is Building an Open Source Voting Machine

New Research: People Who Get Defeated By AI Feel Horrible

According to a new experiment, people find losing to robots and AI particularly demoralizing, which could have implications for our automated workplaces.

Rigged Game

Whether it’s chess, Go, or Starcraft II, computer scientists are getting pretty good at building artificial intelligence that excels at games once dominated by people.

For the hapless humans who are left eating the pro-gamer AI’s dust, coming second to the bots again and again has a noticeable demoralizing effect, according to a study presented at a recent conference on human-robot interaction. While the psychological effects of playing games against a robot may not be groundbreaking, the study has dire implications for people who see more and more of their co-workers replaced by robots and AI — in other words, as we all start to lose at the game of work.

On Your Mark

In the study, human participants competed against an algorithm in a letter-counting task. Presented with a random string of letters, people had to count the amount of times the letter “G” appeared and drag a block on a computer screen to a space corresponding with the right answer. A correct answer earned them a point, while an incorrect answer froze their screen for ten seconds.

Earning more points than the AI competitor within a two-minute span would earn the participant the chance to win a cash prize, which the experimenters tweaked every now and then to see how it affected people’s motivation.

Throwing in The Towel

It turns out that people weren’t motivated by a higher pot on its own, but the extent to which they were discouraged by a superior AI increased when the prize value grew.

“I felt very stressed competing with the robot,” one participant is quoted in the research paper. “In some rounds, I kept seeing the robot’s score increasing out of the corner of my eye, which was extremely nerve-racking.”

READ MORE: Here’s what robots destroy when they compete with humans [MarketWatch]

More on automation: North America Put More Robots to Work in 2018 Than Ever Before

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New Research: People Who Get Defeated By AI Feel Horrible

Mayor Announces $10 Billion Plan to Save NYC From Rising Seas

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a plan to

Climate Proof

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has a plan to “climate-proof” his city.

In an op-ed published in New York Magazine on Wednesday, de Blasio detailed his $10 billion plan to protect Manhattan from the coming rising sea levels and powerful storms that seem almost inevitable in the face of climate change.

“It will be one of the most complex environmental and engineering challenges our city has ever undertaken,” de Blasio wrote, “and it will, literally, alter the shape of the island of Manhattan.”

$10 Billion Buffer

To fortify most of Lower Manhattan, de Blasio’s plan allocates $500 million toward the creation of grassy stationary barriers in parks and removable barriers that the city can deploy just prior to a storm.

But those types of barriers won’t work to protect the eastern edge of Lower Manhattan, which de Blasio noted is just 8 feet above sea level — and tightly packed with vulnerable utilities, sewer systems, and subway lines.

The only option then, according to de Blasio, is to build more land — by pushing the coastline of Lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Battery up to 500 feet into the East River.

“When we complete the coastal extension, which could cost $10 billion, Lower Manhattan will be secure from rising seas through 2100,” de Blasio wrote.

National Security

Ninety thousand people call Lower Manhattan home, but the need to protect the area is about far more than the local population. Lower Manhattan is also home to New York’s Financial District, which includes the United States’ — and, arguably, the world’s — economic center: Wall Street.

According to de Blasio, climate-proofing this area “should be as much a national priority as a local one — protecting the global center of commerce, the Federal Reserve, the home to a sector of our economy that touches every town and region in America.”

But the threat of climate change isn’t limited to New York — as de Blasio noted, other coastal cities, including Miami, Houston, and Charleston, are also staring down the same alarming fate.

“Preparing for climate change has to be a national priority, backed by tens of billions in federal investment,” de Blasio wrote. “Lives are on the line.”

READ MORE: My New Plan to Climate-Proof Lower Manhattan [New York Magazine]

More on climate change: Why Sea Levels Along the US East Coast Are Rising at Different Rates

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Mayor Announces $10 Billion Plan to Save NYC From Rising Seas


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