Science Weekly Podcast: Our place in the cosmos, and a test for empathy

Filed Under Uncategorized | Comments Off on Science Weekly Podcast: Our place in the cosmos, and a test for empathy

Author of The Address Book, Tim Radford, answers the perennial question, where are we? Plus, Simon Baron-Cohen discusses a scientific test for measuring empathy

Science Weekly Extra: Simon Baron-Cohen on empathy and evil

Filed Under Uncategorized | Comments Off on Science Weekly Extra: Simon Baron-Cohen on empathy and evil

Simon Baron-Cohen talks to Ian Sample about his proposal that we should redefine ‘evil’ as an absence of empathy, by Peter Murray April 27th, 2011 A robotics team at ETH-Zurich has created a tiny robot that is injected into the eye and then moved around using a remote control.

The MagMite is made out of magnetic material and is controlled by OctoMag, an electromagnetic system that allows for wireless micromanipulation. OctoMag sits around the head of the patient and consists of eight electromagnets which can be controlled individually to guide the microdevice – which currently measures around 0.3mm in length — around the eye.




Dr. Bradley Nelson’s remotely-controlled MagMite may pave the way

to future nanotechnology-based medicine.


Bradley Nelson is a Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH-Zürich and is the founder of the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems where he leads the Multi-Scale Robotics Lab. Dr. Nelson and his team have created a robot that, once injected into the eye, can be moved forwards, backwards, and turned in place–all by remote control. If they can shrink their micrometer-scale robot enough to fit into a 23 gauge needle it could be injected into the eye with little or no anesthetic.

The MagMite, as it’s called, is driven by magnetic propulsion. At the center of 8 overlapping magnetic fields (and their magnets) the MagMite’s movements are the net result of changes in the strengths of the magnetic fields. It has a mass of 30-50 µg and, measuring 300 µm x 300 µm x 70 µm, the microbot (a nanobot, of course, would have dimensions in the hundreds of nanometers) is comparable in size to the blood vessels in the human retina having diameters of approximately 150 µm. This is important as Dr. Nelson hopes MagMite will one day be used to treat retinal vein occlusion, a common cause of glaucoma or macular edema. The spatial resolution afforded by the MagMite would allow physicians to deliver drugs in a precise, site-specific manner. People with age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness among older people, would also benefit. Age-related macular degeneration is often treated with injections directly into the eye. But this leads to rapid diffusion of the drug and the need for regular injections. MagMite could remain in the eye for months, dispensing the drug in a time-release fashion.

So far it’s only been tested in synthetic eyes or eyes dissected from animals (the demonstration in the clip below is in a pig eye). Plans are in the works for human trials. Any takers? Try not to look at the needle headed right for your eye. Remember, it probably won’t hurt.

The magnetic control system developed by Dr. Nelson’s group is a major improvement over robotic propulsions systems of the past. A common strategy for designing medical robots has been to give it a kind of motor with the idea of enabling them to swim their way to targets in the body such as a tumor where they could deliver local chemotherapy. As we’ve pointed out before these mechanical approaches have several drawbacks including tissue damage caused by moving parts and the possibility of the motor getting snagged. These robots would also require nano-sized batteries which simply don’t exist yet. The ideal situation would be a robot that doesn’t require internal propulsion or power. That’s what Dr. Nelson has in his MagMites. We can conceive of letting them course through the bloodstream, passively going with the flow, until they near their target where the magnets could then be turned on and guide it the rest of the way.

The MagMite is a major achievement, but there are some additional major advances that need to be developed before anything like the scenario I described above becomes a reality. For one, the robot has to be seen. Dr. Nelson’s group chose to develop their MagMite in the eye because they can watch it from the outside-in (I’m certain it was experimental feasibility rather than a desire to treat eye conditions that drove their test target–but I digress). But even the eye presented difficulties. The various types of tissues that make up the eye scatter light differently. It was a major challenge for the team to tweak the optics so they could properly monitor the MagMite’s movements. Good luck trying to reach that lung tumor. For that to happen, the MagMite technology will probably have to be merged with that of carbon nanotube transmitters that would transmit the robot’s precise location. Again, this technology is a ways off yet.

But Dr. Nelson’s proof of principle is indeed a beautiful display of technological finesse. To manipulate 8 magnetic fields with such a soft touch as to precisely control a micrometer-sized robot is mastery. The MagMite’s speed tops out at 12.5 mm/s or 42 times the robot’s body length per second. At such speeds the robot can produce enough force to push objects of comparable size. It’s easy to get excited about the prospects of using MagMites for noninvasive surgery, at least in the eye where small changes in structure lead to big changes in vision. And the magnetic power required to move it is 2 mT, about 50 times the average magnetic field of the Earth and a thousand times less power than a typical MRI magnet.

At this point, the MagMite is really just a small magnet, not much of a robot at all. But that’ll change soon when Dr. Nelson enables it with drug delivery capabilities. At hundreds of microns the MagMite is not the ideal vehicle for drug delivery. Nanobots, with dimensions in the hundreds of nanometers, would be able to go where MagMite cannot (nanoparticles small enough to pass through cell membranes are already being created in labs). The dream application, of course, is to unleash trillions of robots into the body that would deliver drugs to specific sites, including specific organelles inside of cells. And yes, again, this technology is quite a ways off. But with Dr. Nelson’s demonstration, it was brought that much closer., by Peter Murray April 27th, 2011


Two 510 PackBots enter one of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors damaged by the March 11 earthquake to find radiation levels were too high for humans.



The trend to put robots in harm’s way, instead of humans, continues. On April 17th a pair of robots entered two reactor buildings of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant–the plant most severely damaged by the March 11th earthquake. Their job was to determine whether or not the plant was safe for reentry by human repair crews. The robots confirmed what Japanese officials feared: radiation levels were way too high for humans.

The robots used by the Japanese officials were a pair of 510 PackBots. Built by iRobot, the Bedford, Mass. company that makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner, PackBots are already being used by U.S. forces to carry out dangerous operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

PackBots have helped save soldiers lives by neutralizing roadside bombs, car bombs, and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs); they screen vehicles, buildings and people, and they search through high-risk structures such as buildings and sewers.

Upon request by Japanese officials, iRobot sent over a pair of PackBots to help in the “war zones” of crippled nuclear factories. The company modified its 510 PackBots to better investigate the ruined factories, outfitting it with the company’s full hazmat gear: an array of sensors able to detect air oxygen levels, temperature, gamma radiation, as well as hazardous materials and chemicals. The PackBots’ lightweight frames–between 48 and 60 pounds–allow them to nimbly navigate factory debris. Precise control of the manipulator arms enable controllers to adjust equipment or objects inside the plant. The robots are also fitted with a camera that sees in either visible light or infrared and streams the images through a fiber optic cable to a control team safely located hundreds of feet away. In addition to the radiation readings, the video data will allow repair teams to map out salvage strategies for other, heavy-lifting robots as well as for human crews.

After pushing their way through the outer doors of reactor buildings Unit 1 and Unit 3 the PackBot pair collected and analyzed air samples. The news was not good. Radiation levels were 49 millisieverts per hour in unit 1; in Unit 3 they reached 57 millisieverts per hour. To put that into perspective, workers in the U.S. can legally be exposed to 50 millisieverts per year and radiation sickness occurs at 1,000 millisieverts, according the associated press. Prior to the earthquake the radiation limit for Japanese workers was 125 millisieverts. Japanese authorities doubled the limit after the earthquake to 250 millisieverts per year. But even at the increased limit workers at Fukushima Daiichi would absorb their year’s worth of exposure in just 5 hours. The video below shows some great footage from the PackBots as they maneuver inside one of the debris-strewn reactors.


Robots show inside Fukushima reactor buildings


With more than 3,000 PackBots in military and civil service around the world, the 510 PackBot is one of the world’s most successful battle-tested robots. Behind its versatility is its capacity to accommodate a wide range of payloads and sensors, including manipulators, all of which are controlled by iRobot’s Aware 2 intelligence software that allows for modular, mission-specific configuration.

The PackBots are joined at Fukushima Daiichi by two other types of robots: two 710 Warriors–also made by iRobot–and a more rugged robot called Talon, created by a British defense firm called QinetiQ (QinetiQ’s American group, QinetiQ North America sent the robots to Japan). Like the PackBots, both the Warriors and Talons specialize in high-risk reconnaissance and the disposal of explosives and hazardous materials–they just do it with more muscle. The Talon weighs about twice as much as a PackBot and its not-so-delicate platform can be outfitted with ordinance from rifles to anti-tank missiles in combat theaters. The Warrior, also much larger and stronger than the PackBot, is able to carry payloads up to 68 kilograms (150 pounds). iRobot engineers attached an arm to the Warriors that is capable of dragging a fire hose and potentially positioning it to cool off the hot reactors. A Warrior can also carry a PackBot, which comes in handy if the PackBot needs to be placed through a raised target such as a window.

Even with the brawn of the Warrior and Talon robots, the capacity to move objects inside the factories without human help is extremely limited. Nevertheless, given the high levels of radiation any amount of removal is precious. Japanese safety officials are hopeful that the robots can get rid of some of the contaminated water and other debris before having to send in their crews.

The Fukushima Daiichi robots are the most recent examples of the ever-increasing reach of robotic helping hands. As was the case for the PackBot, Warrior, and Talon, modern warfare has been the main proving grounds for removing humans from danger and replacing them with robots. The most extraordinary example as of late is the U.S. Navy’s X-47B, an unmanned aerial vehicle with strike capabilities. Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk drone is being used to take crucial video in the radioactive skies above Fukushima Daiichi.

Sitting on the rim of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan’s high risk for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions has given rise to a country with an emphasis for natural disaster rescue technologies. On the other side of the Ring, California too is developing technologies to prepare for the inevitable. In natural disaster as in war, robots are already rapidly stepping up to the front lines so we don’t have to. In the future we’ll see them grow even more integral, and we’ll see even more human lives be saved.

video: IDG Communications

Kurzweil gives his now famous speech on the Singularity at the Presidential Conference in Israel.


If at first you don’t succeed in convincing the world that a Technological Singularity is near then try, try again. Ray Kurzweil has been sharing his predictions about the disruptive effects of exponential growth in technology for decades now, but he never seems to get tired of bringing his message to a new audience. Case in point, the Presidential Conference in Israel. At the second annual Conference in 2009, Kurzweil gave his standard speech on the Singularity to Shimon Peres, the President of Israel, along with hundreds of other dignitaries, industrial leaders, and average citizens who were in attendance. You can watch his opening day comments, followed by his full 40+ minutes presentation, in the video below. If you’ve never sat through and listened to Kurzweil’s entire pitch before, now is the time.

The Presidential Conference has only recently started to release these videos online. Thankfully they decided to break them up into easy to digest pieces. The first clip covers most of Kurzweil’s opening remarks while the following four videos are his main presentation in its entirety.

If you’ve heard Kurzweil speak before, the videos above were probably nothing new. Honestly, I’ve seen this presentation so often I think I can quote much of it verbatim. Yet I’m delighted to share these videos with readers because even after listening to this talk dozens of times, I still find it pretty damn good. There are many other futurists out there that discuss the potential of the Singularity, but Kurzweil has a clarity of vision and a logical progression that make his presentations stand out. You can argue about his predictions, scrutinize his life for two years while filming him, or just subtly tease him about his beliefs, but you have to show the guy some respect. When he believes in something he’s not afraid to tell you about it. Again, and again. And again. And again…

Raymond “Ray” Kurzweil – Part 1, Tomorrow

Presidential Conference




Raymond “Ray” Kurzweil – Part 2, Tomorrow

Presidential Conference




Raymond “Ray” Kurzweil – Part 3, Tomorrow

Presidential Conference




Raymond “Ray” Kurzweil – Part 4, Tomorrow

Presidential Conference