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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
We’ve learned about the widely known benefits of exercise. It enhances and maintains your overall health and wellness as well as physical fitness. It can also help in increasing body growth and development, strengthening muscles, weight loss, preventing cardiovascular diseases and aging.
But if you think that’s all there is to exercise, you are largely mistaken. A new study reveals it may benefit the brain function in older adults, and prevent or delay the onset of dementia.
Brain Effects of Exercise
In a paper published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Diseases, researchers revealed that exercise was associated with a change in the blood flow in key regions in the brain. This, in turn, resulted in an improved cognitive performance in a group of healthy older adults and a group diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
The researchers had two groups of older adults go through an exercise training program. The program consists of 30-minute sessions of moderate-intensity treadmill walking or aerobic exercises, four days per week for a total of 12 weeks.
One group was composed of those with mild cognitive impairment while another was composed of healthy older adults without MCI. Before and after the program, the participants underwent aerobic fitness testing, neuropsychological assessment, and an MRI scan.
Both groups yielded positive results. The healthy group had increased cerebral blood flow in the frontal cortex after 12 weeks, which significantly improved their performance on cognitive tests.
On the other hand, the MCI group had decreased cerebral blood flow in the left anterior cingulate cortex and left insula after 12 weeks. This resulted in their improved performance on a test used to measure memory and cognitive health.
How Reduced Blood Flow Increases Brain Function
According to Dr. J. Carson Smith, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology in the University Of Maryland and one of the authors of the study, when we begin to experience subtle memory loss, the brain responds to the crisis by trying to “compensate” the inadequate brain function by increasing the blood flow.
However, while increased cerebral blood flow can be beneficial in normal brain situations, in those diagnosed with MCI, it gives the opposite effect. Dr. Smith states that there is evidence that it may bring further memory loss to those in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Dr. Smith explains the result of the study:
“A reduction in blood flow may seem a little contrary to what you would assume happens after going on an exercise program. But after 12-weeks of exercise, adults with MCI experienced decreases in cerebral blood flow. They simultaneously improved significantly in their scores on cognitive tests.”
These findings provide evidence that exercise can improve brain function in older adults—whether or not their cognitive abilities are already in decline.
Dr. Smith added that that exercise can positively affect “biomarkers of brain function in a way that might protect people by preventing or postponing the onset of dementia.” He highlighted how exercise influences the brain’s neural networks which are linked to memory loss and amyloid accumulation—both signs of MCI and Alzheimer’s.
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.
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.
When we breathe in polluted air, it irritates our respiratory system and we may experience breathing difficulties. In the long run, exposure contaminated air and smoke produced by industries and vehicles can lead to decreased lung function, diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly other cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as cancer. Now another health problem might be added to the list—childhood obesity.
Impacts of Obesity in Children
Looking at the many severe diseases linked to air pollution, obesity seems a little insignificant. However, this condition should not be overlooked.
Obesity affects up to 15-20 percent of children worldwide. Aside from the various health hazards linked to obesity such as diabetes, high cholesterol, asthma, sleep apnea, gallstones, and cardiovascular diseases. Overweight and obesity also affect the psychological being of children.
Several studies reveal that childhood obesity can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. This is commonly due to social exclusion, negative stereotypes, and bullying. In fact, some experts described being overweight as “one of the most stigmatizing and least socially acceptable conditions in childhood.”
Obesity and Air Pollution
Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) claimed that exposure to air pollution, especially at school, might be liked with a higher risk of overweight and obesity during childhood. In a study published in Environment International, researchers investigated 2,660 children ages 7-10 years old from 39 schools in Barcelona under the BREATHE project.
The team collected data on the children’s height and weight to calculate their body mass index (BMI). They also assessed the levels of pollution in the school areas. Among the pollutants they measured are nitrogen dioxide, elemental carbon, particle matter, and ultrafine particles. They examined the pollutants twice; during a week in summer and another week in winter.
Jeroen de Bont, a researcher at ISGlobal and first author of the study concluded that children exposed with medium to high levels of the measured air pollutants had “a higher risk of obesity and overweight as compared to those exposed to lower levels.”
It was also revealed that many children were exposed to air pollution levels above the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended levels. To be specific, more than 75 percent were exposed to unsafe levels of particle matter. While more than 50 percent were exposed to the above-recommended level of nitrogen dioxide.
The researchers, however, highlighted that their study has limitations. One of the reasons is because their analysis was done with only estimates of exposure levels. Martine Vrijheid, ISGlobal researcher and study coordinator explained:
“The study has however some limitations, which means that the results are to be cautiously interpreted. Being a cross-sectional study, we only have data at one time-point, and we do not have enough data to establish the nature of the association. To draw more solid conclusions, we need new longitudinal studies that follow the study participants over time.”
But how can air pollution possibly affect obesity? Researchers explained the underlying mechanisms on the idea. Previous animal studies reveal that air pollution can induce insulin resistance, oxidative stress, and systemic inflammation. These are known factors that contribute to obesity.
In the study in particular researchers identified that ultrafine particles were the pollutants that had the most effect in increasing the risk of overweight or obesity. “This may be explained by the fact that the ultrafine fraction of the particles deposit in greater number and deeper into the lungs than do large-size particles, having more capacity to reach the circulation and induce oxidative stress and inflammation,” the researchers wrote.