There is a Robot That Learns to Play Jenga with humans

There is a Robot That Learns to Play Jenga with humans

Jenga—that game that needs careful use of agile and deft fingers, as well as careful consideration of which block can be removed without toppling the tower. Yup, that game! A robot can play that game.

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a self-learning robot with a soft-pronged gripper, a force-sensing wrist cuff, and an external camera, which it uses to see and feel the structure of the Jenga tower and its individual blocks. The details of the Jenga-playing smart machine were published in the journal Science Robotics.

The machine-learning approach of the Jenga-playing robot could help robots in assembling small parts in a manufacturing line like mobile phones

The Jenga-playing Robot

With the information it receives from its camera, the robot can analyze and compare this information to the moves it has previously made. It considers the outcomes of those moves to make a calculation about which individual piece could be moved and how much force is needed to be used to remove the piece successfully. The robot “learns” in real-time about the best moves for different situations in the game.

Alberto Rodriguez, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, said the Jenga-playing smart machine achieved something that cannot be done by previous smart systems:

“Unlike in more purely cognitive tasks or games such as chess or Go, playing the game of Jenga also requires mastery of physical skills such as probing, pushing, pulling, placing, and aligning pieces. It requires interactive perception and manipulation, where you have to go and touch the tower to learn how and when to move blocks. This is very difficult to simulate, so the robot has to learn in the real world, by interacting with the real Jenga tower. The key challenge is to learn from a relatively small number of experiments by exploiting common sense about objects and physics.”

How the Jenga-playing Robot learned to Play

For a robot to learn how to play Jenga, it would need at least tens of thousands of block-extraction attempts as initial data. The self-learning robot, however only needed about 300. The researchers used a more data-efficient way to let the robot to learn how to play Jenga. It is inspired by human cognition, the way we ourselves learn and approach the game.

The team used a customized industry-standard ABB IRB 120 robotic arm. It was first trained with 300 random extraction attempts on the Jenga tower. With each attempt, a computer would record the associated visual and force measurements of the move and mark each of them with a success or failure.

It clusters one attempt with many similar measurements and outcomes to represent one behavior to increase efficiency. This is the same way in which humans cluster similar behavior.

“The robot builds clusters and then learns models for each of these clusters, instead of learning a model that captures absolutely everything that could happen,” said Nima Fazeli, MIT graduate student and lead author of the paper.

Beyond Playing Jenga

This robot is not just a playing companion for those who cannot find someone to play Jenga with. The researchers highlighted that its ability to quickly learn the best way to carry out a task, not just from visual cues but from real situations, could be applied to creating robots that can do tasks that need careful physical interaction.

“In a cellphone assembly line, in almost every single step, the feeling of a snap-fit, or a threaded screw, is coming from force and touch rather than vision,” Rodriguez said. “Learning models for those actions is prime real-estate for this kind of technology.”

Experts Found a Cellular Mechanism to Stop Cancer Before it Starts

Experts Found a Cellular Mechanism to Stop Cancer Before it Starts

Cancer is one of the most deadly diseases that leave most people hopeless. According to the National Institutes of Health, for every 100,000 people, there are 439.2 new cases of cancer every year. Meanwhile, for every 100,000 people, there are a total of 163.5 cancer deaths per year.

Researchers at the Salk Institute had a new discovery about the mechanisms of cancer. A cellular recycling process called autophagy—which was generally thought to fuel cancer’s growth—can actually lead to its death, thus preventing cancer before it starts.

The Telomeres

In the paper published in the journal Nature, researchers investigated molecular tips called telomeres to find out how they are linked to cancer. The researchers likened the telomeres to the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces. Those tips “keep the laces from fraying when we tie them,” similarly the telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes to “keep them from fusing when cells continually divide and duplicate their DNA.”  However, while the loss of the plastic tips may lead to messy laces, losing the telomere may lead to cancer.

Every time the cells duplicate their DNA to divide and grow, their telomeres are slowly chipped away. The researchers explained that once the telomeres become too short “that they can no longer effectively protect chromosomes,” the cells stop dividing permanently.

However, due to cancer-causing viruses or other factors, cells may continue to divide. And because the telomeres are either too short or missing, the unprotected chromosomes undergo “crisis.” They can fuse and become dysfunctional, which may result in the initiation of some types of cancer.

The Autophagy

The team dug deeper to understand this “crisis.” The typical response to this crisis is widespread cell death in order to stop the dangerous fused cells to become full-blown cancer.

To investigate this crisis and the resulting cell death, the research team used healthy human cells in experiments to compare the normally growing cells with the cells they forced into crisis. They then investigated the cellular mechanisms which occur during the crisis; such as apoptosis and autophagy.

Results revealed that when they prevented autophagy in the crisis cells, the cells replicated tirelessly. Additionally, they were fused and disfigured. The severe DNA damage in the cells indicates that they have become cancerous cells. This means that autophagy is an important early cancer-suppressing mechanism.

Surprising Reversal

Previously, the so-called autophagy was generally thought of as a survival mechanism of cancer cells; A process that supports the unsanctioned growth of cancerous cells by eating other cells to recycle raw materials.

However, it seems that this understanding was wrong. The researchers claimed autophagy to be a “completely novel tumor-suppressing pathway.” They added the treatment programs that block the autophagy in order to curb cancer may have the opposite effect and unintentionally promote cancer instead.

Even the researchers were taken by surprise by the results of their study. “These results were a complete surprise. There are many checkpoints that prevent cells from dividing out of control and becoming cancerous, but we did not expect autophagy to be one of them,” said Jan Karlseder, a professor in Salk’s Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory and the senior author of the study.

Experts Design a New Electricity System to Reduce Electricity Prices

Experts Design a New Electricity System to Reduce Electricity Prices

Have you ever found yourself asking why your electricity bills seem to be increasing even as your consumption remains the same? You are not alone. That is a problem that brings headaches to many homeowners. While there are many ways to save on electricity to lower the bills, there as just as many outside factors that spike electricity costs that you cannot control.

In the US, the price of electricity has increased for an average of 33 percent over the last 10 years. Factors that may affect electricity rates include the cost of generating fuel, utility expenses of the company, weather conditions, as well as the distribution cost through power lines.

But here’s a piece of good news! Researchers at the University of Waterloo have designed a new hybrid distribution system that could cut the prices of electricity by more than five percent, while also improving service reliability.

Two Kinds of Electric Current

The researchers explained their design in a paper published in the International Journal of Electrical Power & Energy Systems. Instead of just one type of electric current, it involves the integration of both kinds of electric current—alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC).

Currently, the world uses AC-only distribution systems to power homes around the world.  The researchers explained that this is because the power transformers can only accommodate AC in order to reduce voltage for more efficient distribution and increase voltage for greater long-distance transmission efficiency.

However, not all electronics are powered by AC. Your televisions, computers, and mobile phones, for example, require DC current which must be converted from the AC power that arrived at your home.  This conversion results to system loss which further burdens the electricity consumption.

New Hybrid System

In the new AC-DC hybrid system, the AC to DC converters were located at strategic points in the distribution system itself. This new system could increase efficiency by minimizing the conversions from one kind of current to the other.

“Minimizing power conversion requirements creates a simpler system with greater efficiency and less loss. As you reduce the number of converters, you also reduce the chances of service interruptions due to breakdowns,” said Haytham Ahmed, a postdoctoral fellow who led the research with electrical engineering colleagues at Waterloo.

The AC-DC hybrid system is created through a sophisticated computer modeling and optimization. The researchers highlighted that it has a good potential to be adopted on existing systems that need expansion or in new residential and commercial areas where there is a need to build a new system.

Projected Savings

Researchers compared the new AC-DC system with the current AC-only distribution system. It resulted in an estimated savings of about five percent.

This is not just due to less energy loss but also the lower infrastructure and production costs of electronic gadgets. The researchers explained that if DC-powered electronics no longer needed converters. Their prices would also be cheaper on top of the lesser electricity consumption.

“When you feel heat coming off the charger for your laptop, that is lost energy. We can eliminate those losses so we consume less power,” Ahmed explained.

Scientists Genetically Modified Hens to Lay Eggs with Human Proteins

Scientists Genetically Modified Hens to Lay Eggs with Human Proteins

Chicken eggs are good, nutritional food sources on their own. However, if we can make them to be more useful, why not?

Scientists genetically modified chickens to produce human proteins in their eggs. This breakthrough can offer a new cost-effective method for producing high-quality drugs with cheaper ingredients.

Genetically Modifying the Chickens

According to the researchers, the project was initially aimed at creating high-quality proteins that can be used for scientific research. However, they soon found that drugs created using these proteins.

This is not the first time eggs have shown their usefulness in drug production. Previously, eggs were used to grow strains of viruses that can be used in vaccines. But this time, researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute tweaked the chickens themselves. They encoded the DNA of the chickens to produce human protein as part of the egg whites

In the study published in BMC Biotechnology, the researchers made sure the genetic modification did not have adverse effects on the chickens—they can lay eggs as normal. The proteins on eggs, on the other hand, can be harvested in high quantities using a simple purification.

High quantities of the proteins can be recovered from each egg system and there are no on the chickens themselves, which lay eggs as normal.

Researchers say the findings provide sound evidence for using chickens as a cheap method of producing high-quality drugs for use in research studies and, potentially one day, in patients.

Eggs are already used for growing viruses that are used as vaccines, such as the flu jab. This new approach is different because the therapeutic proteins are encoded in the chicken’s DNA and produced as part of the egg white.

Three Eggs for a Dose of Drug

The researchers focused on developing two types of protein. One is a human protein called IFNalpha2a which is important to the immune system. This protein has antiviral properties and can be used to fight against cancer. The second is the human and pig versions of a protein called macrophage-CSF which has therapeutic potential. It is being developed to stimulate damaged tissues to repair themselves.

A dose of drug only needs three eggs. The researchers have not produced a drug for patients yet. However, the study offers proof of a new feasible drug production method.

If researchers adapted the same method to produce other human proteins, it can greatly contribute to the production of many protein-based drugs. A few examples of these drugs are Avastin and Herceptin, which are used for treating cancer and other diseases.

Looking at how costly anti-cancer medicines are currently, this would certainly be a more economical substitute. It is less expensive than the current production method of similar drugs. Currently, the only way to produce these proteins is through mammalian cell culture techniques. This is not only very expensive, but it also produces a low yield.

“We are not yet producing medicines for people, but this study shows that chickens are commercially viable for producing proteins suitable for drug discovery studies and other applications in biotechnology,” said Professor Helen Sang, of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute.


Rocking Motion Aids to Better Sleep and Memory in Adults

Rocking Motion Aids to Better Sleep and Memory in Adults

Parents always use the trick of putting kids into a hammock and swaying it gently to put them to sleep—and it has always been effective. However, if you think you don’t need it now that you are older, you are largely mistaken. New studies reveal the benefits of rocking motion to adults. It does not just aid sleep it also boosts memory.

Rocking Motion in Sleep

In a study published in Current Biology, researchers investigated the effects of rocking motion to sleep as well as its associated brain waves throughout the night. The study was headed by Laurence Bayer and Sophie Schwartz from the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

The researchers observed 18 healthy young adults which underwent sleep monitoring in the lab. They first had the volunteers get used to sleeping in the lab before observing them for two nights. On one night they slept on a gently rocking bed. On the other night, they slept on an identical bed that wasn’t moving.

Results revealed that volunteers slept better on a rocking bed. They were able to fall asleep faster and deeper. They also stayed longer in non-rapid eye movement sleep and woke up less.

Bayer explains:

“Having a good night’s sleep means falling asleep rapidly and then staying asleep during the whole night. Our volunteers — even if they were all good sleepers — fell asleep more rapidly when rocked and had longer periods of deeper sleep associated with fewer arousals during the night. We thus show that rocking is good for sleep.”

Sleep is very important for our body functions. During the non-rapid eye movement sleep, our body does its daily repair of cells and tissues. However, as we grow older, we sleep less deeply. Aging is also associated with shorter sleep.

Rocking Motion in Memory

Researchers also assessed how better sleep, and thus, the rocking motion influenced memory. They had the volunteers study word pairs before sleep and tested them the next morning. The results of the tests where higher when they were rocked during sleep.

Bayer and his colleagues highlighted that the rocking motion affects brain oscillations during sleep It helped synchronize neural activity in the networks of the brain, which resulted in both sleep and memory consolidation.

On the other hand, a separate study investigated the effects of rocking motion on other species. In a study led by Paul Franken, University of Lausanne, Switzerland, they found that mice slept better with a rocking motion. In fact, their most efficient rocking frequency is four times higher than in humans. However, they did not find any evidence of sleeping more deeply.

The researchers explain the study could provide new insights into developing a treatment for those people with sleep disorders.

Franken stated:

“Current tools, such as optogenetics, can help us decipher which structures, or even neuronal populations, receive the stimulus from the otolithic organs and transfer it further to the structures of the sleep circuitry. Mapping the network of communication between the two systems will provide with a basic understanding, as well as novel clinical targets to cope with sleep disorders, like insomnia.”