One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure, Thanks to Plasma

This post is written by guest blogger Beth Kelly, a Midwestern freelance writer with a passion for sci-fi and analog photography, as well as all kinds of other outdated and obsolete technology. She graduated from DePaul University with a degree in Art History and Communications in 2011. In the fall she’s moving to Shanghai to teach English. She collects Soviet-era memorabilia and vintage silent movie posters. Find her on Twitter @bkelly_88

plasma weapon

Explosive weaponry is a constant presence in film, music, and television. Countless scripts, songs and one-liners have been written about the badass mechanisms we use to wreak havoc upon the world and ourselves. Science fiction in particular is full of imaginative weapons of mass destruction—lasers, particle guns and plasma cannons are wielded by numerous life forms throughout the galaxy, firing searing beams and blasts into the depths of space. Plasma is, however, capable of escaping the realm of fantasy. While it might be most famous for powering the weapons and warp drive on Star Trek, it also might be the answer to some of our most pressing problems here, on planet Earth, particularly when it comes to the accumulation of trash and the ways people, such as ship-breakers in Bangladesh, try to manage it.

Even though Star Trek tells the story of a universe over 200 years into the future, contemporary concerns surrounding animal rights and extinction can be found in the various incarnations of the franchise’s television episodes and films, as well as profound commentary on our responsibility as stewards of the spaces we inhabit.

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, an environmental ethos prevails as the crew comes to terms with the consequences of destructive human behavior. After discovering that humpback whales (now extinct) were imbued with the power to communicate with an alien probe, they must travel back in time to the late 20th century and recover two samples of the species. Another example of “eco-friendly” transmissions could be found in an episode of Star Trek: TNG entitled “Force of Nature.” Over the course of the show it was discovered that at certain high speeds, ships were capable of damaging the spatial continuum. Picard, realizing that his love of exploring the universe may have in fact been harming it, rapidly works to implement rules for warp speeds that won’t damage the fabric of the spatial environment.

trash heap

Taking a hint from Star Trek and science fiction, some hope plasma might be the key to unlocking our toxic relationship with trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, each individual American produces about 4.4 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) every single day. In 2012, we generated over 250 million tons of waste, and that number has been climbing ever since. Into landfills go everything from our clothes to our appliances, our rotten apple cores to our dusty Gameboy cartridges—300,000,000,000 pounds of items that we no longer use. About 12 percent of that trash makes its way back into the energy cycle via a waste-to-energy (WTE) plant, but plasma, an ionized gas with no electrical charge found in both nuclear fusion reactors and stars, has another trick up its sleeve.

Plasma gasification plants transform trash from “waste” into usable commodities such as “syngas,” a synthetic, hydrogen-carbon monoxide mixture burned to produce electricity. While most “renewable” power providers looking for alternatives to fossil fuel, such as Columbia Gas of Ohio or Elon Musk’s Solar City, continue to devour the Earth’s resources in some capacity, plasma succeeds in helping us re-use what we’ve already consumed. Plasma provides a transition from traditional “waste management,” or the landfill model, and moves us towards a more sustainable and productive method of disposing used materials.


British Airways recently made headlines with the announcement of its commitment to power planes with MSW by 2017—the first project to attempt to convert trash to airline fuel. Analyses indicate that using this type of gasification process could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95 percent in comparison to fossil fuels. “What we get from that is a very pure, high-quality fuel,” said Jonathon Counsell, head of environment for British Airways. A number of U.S. airliners have signed a letter of intent to work with Solena Fuels, the company behind British Airway’s plasma gasification technology plans. We can hope that American airlines will pick up with plasma wherever British Airways leaves off.

The plasma waste utilization method occurs within a closed system, releasing zero waste remnants, toxic gases or particulate matter into the environment. Plasma technology allows for very hot plasma to melt all types of waste—metals, silicon, toxic materials—into a non-toxic dross. Biological and chemical compounds, plastic, and toxic gases completely dissociate into simple gases, primarily hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Regained metals are returned to metallurgic industry, slag reincorporated into road construction materials, and non-toxic gases utilized for fuel and energy production. Atom by atom, our trash can be rearranged back into something useful.

space debris

Without the emission of harmful ash and terrible odors (as are typically found at incinerating plants), plasma is a remarkable solution for waste disposal—one of our most immediate environmental concerns. But planet Earth is not the only environment suffering from pollution. Scientists have estimated that there are approximately 29,000 objects 10 cm or larger orbiting Earth. Only 7 percent of this debris are working satellites; the rest fall under the broad umbrella of “space junk”, a dangerous potpourri of defunct objects hurtling around the planet at speeds up to 17,500 mph. At these speeds even the smallest piece of debris can be incredibly dangerous. Scientists are already seeing proof of the Kessler Syndrome and are racing to find solutions to the problem, but international cooperation is needed to move forward with any of their audacious plans. For now, the best plan might still be to give Quark a call.

Star Trek’s ecological morals, though sometimes hidden beneath layers of complex storyline, Spock ears, and sci-fi humor, serve to send us Earth-bound individuals an important message. While our resources may be limited, creativity is not. If plasma can’t solve our perilous trash problem, we’re the only ones responsible for coming up with a better solution.

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Are You Being Controlled By Mind Parasites?

If something you can’t quite explain stops you from reading this post, you might be in trouble.


One of the science fiction books that has stuck with me most over the years is Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites. Working like a mental cancer, mind parasites infect people they find threatening—generally, brilliant and inquisitive scientists—and consume them with darkness and dread from the inside, causing a rash of suicides across the world.

The narrator of the book starts digging for clues (literally) and finds some basalt monoliths that are part of an underground city (Wilson is a self-proclaimed admitted fan of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, and based some aspects of the parasites on Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones.”) When the narrator and his friends investigate, they all start suffering from headaches, fear, and depression, and they become more convinced that something is “destroying the human power of self-renewal.” They call the mind parasites Tsathogguans—another nod to Lovecraft—and try to figure out how to defeat them.

The book explores some profound existential questions. Who hasn’t thought about historical, societal, environmental, and political problems and wondered how certain trends and movements (Naziism, to name the most obvious) could have taken hold? Who hasn’t decried classism, war, tyranny, unsustainable environmental practices, corruption, etc, and wondered how humans could possibly do the things they do? The Mind Parasites explores the possibility that such atrocities are caused by “the existence of mind vampires.” Of course, humans are deeply flawed, and the mind parasites may seem like an excuse for appalling and mind-boggling behavior, but Wilson’s examination of those symptoms as rooted in something deep, dark, and unnatural residing within a person’s psyche is creepily compelling. Could we be infected by something akin to mind parasites?


Parasites can drastically change the behavior of animals by turning them into zombies. There are countless horrifying parasites, and some of them focus more on messing with an animal’s mind rather than its body, such as the horsehair worm, which makes insects act like some of the afflicted humans in Wilson’s book. The horsehair worm targets grasshoppers, crickets, cockroaches, and other insects and makes them crave water to the point that the afflicted find a big puddle or pond and drowns itself, leaving the worm to escape, mate, and perpetuate the cycle of infection, because water sources are popular places.

Leucochloridium paradoxum is another mind-controlling parasite that starts life in a pool of fecal matter until a hungry snail eats it. Sounds great already, doesn’t it? It gets worse. This worm then moves into the eyes of the snail, stretching them out to the extent that they look like caterpillars—or more importantly, bird snacks. The poor snail can’t retract them like it usually does. And from there, the worm becomes a mind parasite, forcing the snail into the open where it’s vulnerable and irresistible to birds. The poor snail can only sit idly by as it is forced to meet its doom—or at the very least, lose an eye. And the nefarious parasite hangs out inside the bird with its progeny later being born in the same kind of poop puddle from whence the parent came. Emerald wasps similarly control cockroaches—their favorite egg-laying environment—by injecting venom into the exact area of the roach’s brain that control its ability to flee or defend itself.

Scientists recently learned that parasites can turn plants into zombies too. A team of scientists from the UK published research in PLOS Biology describing how parasitic bacteria control plants such as sugarcane and coconut, making them do crazy things like turning flowers into shoots, changing the color of their petals, and sending up “witches’ brooms,” stalks that function as an open invitation to pollinating insects. These zombified plants can no longer reproduce and become an eating, breeding, and bacteria-transmitting playground for insects. The plant itself is effectively dead and is on the equivalent of life support, existing only to sustain the bacteria and its potent SAP54 protein, which focuses on messing up the plant protein in charge of cell molecules. The bacterial protein and the plant protein do a strange dance that affects the plant’s behavior and that of the insects living and eating there; the presence of the SAP54 protein draws in more insect visitors. Fungi such as Puccinia monoica can also control plants, making them sprout enticing fake flowers full of cells that insects spread to other plants.

As it turns out, plants and animals aren’t the only creatures susceptible to mind parasites. The ones previously mentioned don’t affect humans, but some parasites can. Toxoplasma gondii, a one-celled organism, messes with animals by controlling their survival instincts. Instead of running away from a cat, for example, a mouse infected with this parasite would instead be drawn to the cat. Cats happen to be at the root of this parasite, which was first discovered in 1908. For an unknown reason, Toxoplasma seems capable of sexual reproduction only in a cat’s stomach, from where it hitches a ride down and out the digestive system. And that’s where humans can get the parasites—cat litter. It’s also possible for the parasite to spread through food or water.

Scientists believe 3 billion people around the world have it. Pregnant women are particularly susceptible (this is why you may have heard that pregnant women shouldn’t clean cat litter—it’s not because it’s too hard to stoop down), and the parasite can have particularly damaging effects on fetal tissues and organs. Most people only experience mild, flu-like symptoms, and their immune systems can beat the parasite back into something like remission, but it stays forever in a person’s cells cordoned off in something called a tissue cyst. If the immune system becomes compromised (organ transplants are particularly dangerous in this regard), the parasite can—much like the mind parasites when the scientists start uncovering threatening information—reactivate and wreak havoc.


Toxoplasma gondii

Up to 95% of people in some countries may be carrying these parasites in their brains, including roughly 60 million people in the U.S. The good and the bad news are one in the same: most people don’t demonstrate symptoms of Toxoplasma. But regardless of symptoms, the parasites are hard at work rearranging molecules in brain cells. Because of the high percentages of people who may have this parasite, scientists are starting to wonder whether humans’ health and behavior might be shifting as a result.

In fact, some studies suggest that the parasite “explains a statistically significant portion of the variance in aggregate neuroticism among populations, as well as in the ‘neurotic’ cultural dimensions of sex roles and uncertainty avoidance.” 20-80% of infected humans demonstrate clinically significant behavioral changes , and “in populations where this parasite is very common, mass personality modification could result in cultural change.” This may be more likely in humid regions that rarely or never experience freezing temperatures. Some studies also suggest that “some cases of schizophrenia may be associated with…exposure to the ubiquitous protozoan Toxoplasma gondii” and that some medications used to treat schizophrenia and other disorders are effective against the parasite.

Research has shown a correlation between neuroticism and a high prevalence of the parasite. One of the forms of neuroticism most displayed by infected humans is something called “guilt proneness.” And here I thought that was simply being Jewish or Catholic. I guess if there’s an upside to the parasite, it’s that, according to one research, they “add to our cultural diversity.” Yay?

Suffice it to say, Toxoplasma is one of many strange organisms that stows away in human bodies. It’s tough to isolate the influence of any one factor on our behavior, which is precisely why the prospect of mind parasites is so terrifying. Humans are bizarre creatures, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the concealed forces that make us that way. And while the idea of mind parasites is even more plausible than I suspected, I can’t help but laugh at the idea that we’re possessed by ancient, evil alien forces.

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No Light? No Problem.


Any superhero worth his or her salt has night vision: Doctor Mid-Nite, Wolverine, Peter Parker, Superman, Catwoman. Regular humans have desired this power for quite some time—night-vision devices have been around since World War II. But most of them look more like binoculars than anything else, though some of them do mount on a helmet for hands-free use. Still, who wants a bulky gadget when slinking around in the darkness? Not superheroes. And not Science for the Masses, a California-based biohacker group that has developed a high-tech eye drop that allows humans to see in the dark.

Their approach was simply to enhance eyesight so much that a person could see in the dark. Like many scientists, the group was inspired by nature—namely, deep-sea fish that have adapted the ability to see in the pitch black of the ocean bottom. These fish produce a type of chlorophyll called Chlorin e6 (Ce6), a naturally-occurring molecule and photosensitizer. Ce6 has had various medical purposes over the years, both for vision and for cancer treatment.

night vision

In their recent experiment, researchers conducted what amounts to the longest eye-drop session ever. One of the researchers, Gabriel Licina, volunteered to have his eyes stretched open and to have a relatively small dose (50 microliters) of Ce6 dripped into them, specifically into the conjunctival sac that allows for speedy passage to the retina. Licina reported seeing a dark blur which quickly absorbed into his eyes.

After about an hour, they went out to test the effects, conducting three rounds of “subjective testing” involving three stages of assessment: recognizing symbols from a distance, recognizing symbols against various backgrounds at the same distance, and recognizing moving objects against different backgrounds at different distances. At first, Licina was able to discern shapes roughly the size of his hand from about 30 feet. Then they increased the distances, and still Licina could see the objects, even when they were small. For another test, people walked into the woods and stood among the trees—a particularly tough background when it comes to distinguishing objects in the dark and at a distance. Still, Licina was able to distinguish people from trees from about 160 feet away with 100% accuracy. The control group, which hadn’t been dosed with Ce6, was able to perform the same identification roughly 33% of the time. The group has documented and released its findings.

night vision

The group plans on doing more testing and lab experimentation and hopes to quantify the effects of the Ce6 with hard numbers, especially what happens in the user’s eye when it comes to electrical stimulation and light augmentation. The project’s success demonstrates that we don’t have to wait for companies with deep pockets to start testing this kind of stuff. “There are rules to be followed and don’t go crazy, but science isn’t a mystical language that only a few elite people can speak,” says the group’s medical officer, Jeffrey Tibbetts.

Deep-sea fish aren’t the only creatures that can see in the dark. It’s not as pleasant of an association for most people, but some of nature’s most famous night-seers are also some of the grossest: cockroaches. While they’re pretty disgusting, especially because their excretions contain allergens that can cause reactions or trigger asthma attacks, they can do a whole slew of awesome stuff, like live without water for a month and without food for three months. They can survive radiation (if you want to test this out, pop a cockroach in the microwave) and can live without a head for a number of weeks. I’m not sure why some of the most vile creatures are also the most resilient (bed bugs come to mind as well), but who are we to question nature, especially when we can try to replicate it? To that end, cockroaches’ ability to see in the dark is a little different from those animals that benefit from Ce6. The cockroach approach is more akin to time-lapse photography, according to Finnish physicists who recently conducted experiments on the insects’ night vision.

nightvision goggles

What’s even cooler about this experiment is that the researchers used virtual reality to test the night vision of 30 American cockroaches. They put the roaches on a tracking ball in a room that they darkened incrementally, in front of a curved screen onto which they projected black and white stripes. As the stripes moved, the roaches walked toward them. To assess how much light the roaches were able to detect in these dark conditions, researchers put microelectrodes into one of the roaches’ eyes and recorded the activity in the photoreceptor cells, which are activated by light particles. In a room roughly as dark as the outdoors when there’s no moon lighting the way, the roaches’ photoreceptors received one photon every 10 seconds.

That’s not a lot—humans couldn’t see by that amount of light. But the roaches could. The researchers concluded that the nervous systems of the roaches collect information from its photoreceptors over an extended period of time, using the amassed neural signals to see in the dark. Dung beetles have a similar strategy (they also navigate at night using the Milky Way, which is pretty awesome).

Researchers aren’t entirely sure how these insects are able to do this, and night vision technology could benefit from them figuring it out. But until then, eye drops seem like a better idea—borrowing an approach from deep-sea fish sure seems less icky than borrowing an approach from one of the most detested household pests around. One of the drawbacks to seeing in the dark, though, would be the ability to see these light-averse creatures before they scatter. Maybe there are some things humans aren’t meant to see.

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These Walls Have Ears

fringe glass

In season 5, episode 10 of Fringe, the Observers, hot on the trail of Walter and the gang, use an “LQ-7 unit” in Nina’s office to reconstruct the conversation she had a few minutes earlier. The Observers stick sensors to the glass doors, spray the doors with a special resonance-enhancing mist, and then capture the echoes of the soundwaves. A device then tries to convert them into audible words, which takes some doing, but eventually the Observers get the information they need. Nina never imagines that her glass doors will spill her secrets, which raises the question of what information objects in our homes can hang on to and whether bald time travelers or anyone else could possible gain access to it.

doppler unit

It’s unclear whether the Observers specifically use ultrasound technology in that scene, but the process of putting suction cups on the glass and then spraying it with mist before scanning it with a handheld device mirrors the process by which doctors check out what’s going on in the womb of a pregnant woman. There is an ultrasound machine called LOGIQ 7, which may be where the Fringe writers got the idea. The LOGIQ 7 has a unit that resembles the Doppler decoding one used on the show, and its “TruAgent Detection” (a particularly fitting name, no?) software can collect echoed sound wave data in a number of different ways, which can help doctors figure out whether blood is flowing normally through a blood vessel, or whether arteries are blocked, much like the transducer used during a pregnancy ultrasound.

MIT researchers have developed another technology that can record sounds from objects, which they call the “visual microphone.” This process requires different equipment than the LQ-7, namely a high-speed video camera that captures the vibrations. The researchers cause objects, such as a potato chip bag, to vibrate–not by having classified conversations, but by playing music. Then, using an algorithm they devised, they can work backward to figure out the sounds that caused the vibrations. In the video below, scientists played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” from a speaker located near a plant. The naked eye can’t discern the vibrations of the plant when the music plays, but they’re there, as recorded by their camera, which has a frames-per-second rate higher than the frequency of the audio signal. Generally, the more high-tech the camera, the more clear the sound, but even fairly basic cameras can record enough information for them to use the algorithm and figure out the number of people speaking and their genders.

You don’t need something this high-tech in order to spy on people, though. In a scenario straight out of Orwell’s 1984, Samsung has warned that customers should “be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.” That’s right—if users activate voice recognition, their “voice data” is sent to Nuance Communications, Inc. (which Samsung named after the furor surrounding this warning) before it’s sent “to a server, which searches for the requested content then returns the desired content to the TV.” In other words, the Observers don’t have to go to your house with their LQ-7 unit or a visual microphone-style algorithm. They can simply pull your pertinent conversations from your television, or more accurately, from the third party that gathers all that info for Big Brother.

Hello Barbie

And if that’s not dystopian enough for you, check out the new “Hello Barbie” by Mattel, which is supposed to “learn about its users over time” after kids talk to it. But here’s the catch—kids don’t just talk to Barbie. Instead, they press a button, which records what they’re saying and then sends it to someone at ToyTalk, the company that developed the technology. And then that person comes up with a response. Oh, and everything the doll records can be forwarded to kids’ parents, too. This Barbie is definitely going to fix Mattel’s plummeting sales. Many consumer groups have protested the new Barbie, but Mattel insists that the toy is legal and that “girls have always wanted to have a conversation with Barbie.” Yeah, I bet that’s what Winston thought too.

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Robo-Journalist Wins The Pulitzer


Okay, so that hasn’t happened yet, but the folks over at Narrative Science, a company that has created software that performs “automated narrative generation,” confidently predicts that its computer program will win the coveted prize by 2016.

Let’s back up a second, you might be thinking. As far as we know, there’s no such thing as the “homeostatic newspaper” that autonomously gathers and publishes its own news, as described by Philip K. Dick in his short story “If There Were No Benny Cemoli.” And this is, after all, the real world, not some science fictional one in which robots do everything. But that distinction grows smaller and smaller by the day. In fact, computer programs have been writing short news briefs for a few years now. One of the first examples was a summary of a football game between the University of Nevada Las Vegas and the University of Wisconsin. A mere minute after the third quarter ended, the following post appeared online:

Wisconsin appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter.

Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3. The Badgers started the drive at UNLV’s 28-yard line thanks to a Jared Abbrederis punt return.

A one-yard touchdown run by Montee Ball capped off a two-play, 42-yard drive and extended Wisconsin’s lead to 51-3. The drive took 42 seconds. The key play on the drive was a 41-yard pass from Wilson to Bradie Ewing. A punt return gave the Badgers good starting field position at UNLV’s 42-yard line.

A 69-yard drive that ended when Caleb Herring found Phillip Payne from six yards out helped UNLV narrow the deficit to 51-10. The Rebels threw just three passes on the drive.
UNLV will start the fourth quarter with the ball at the 41-yard line.

That might not seem so remarkable, but remember, it was posted a minute after the third period ended. Either a human writer was drafting that during the first half of the game, or something else was. The Big Ten Network has been using Narrative Science since 2010, boosting its web traffic by an estimated 40% for football and basketball score reports. Information like sports scores or crime statistics are perfect material for robo-journalists because little analysis is required and the numbers pretty much tell the story. Narrative Science’s software program can convert the quantitative data into language, but not just any language. It delivers grammatically and structurally sound sentences and paragraphs, and a 500-word article only costs about $10 to generate.

Narrative Science uses a three part article-generation system. First, it gathers data to “create an appropriate narrative structure to meet the goals of your audience.” Then it uses a program called Quill to harvest and organize the most important facts into a story. Lastly, it increases the piece’s sophistication by “answer[ing] important questions, provid[ing] advice, and deliver[ing] powerful insight in a precise, clear narrative.” And presto, you’ve got an article.

Narrative Science isn’t the only company creating story-writing programs. Last March, within three after an earthquake shook the Los Angeles area, the L.A. Times had an article about it on its website. That article was written by Quakebot, an algorithm developed by L.A. Times journalist and programmer Ken Schwencke. The earthquake shook him awake at 6:25 am, and by the time he got to his computer, a story about the quake was already waiting for him–all he had to do was click “publish.” Schwencke programmed Quakebot to pull data from U.S. Geological Survey alerts, which it then used to fill in a template. This is what the Quakebot wrote:

A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning five miles from Westwood, California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The temblor occurred at 6:25 a.m. Pacific time at a depth of 5.0 miles.

According to the USGS, the epicenter was six miles from Beverly Hills, California, seven miles from Universal City, California, seven miles from Santa Monica, California and 348 miles from Sacramento, California. In the past ten days, there have been no earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and greater centered nearby.

This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author.

Sure, it’s just the basics, but within six hours, human reporters developed it into a longer, front-page story. The L.A. Times has a similar bot that churns out informational posts whenever there’s a homicide. Schwencke isn’t threatened by programs such as Quakebot, but instead argues that they help journalists by getting the basic information out there quickly so journalists can start in on the digging for details and insights.

automated insights

The Associated Press has also been using robot journalists for months. Last summer, the AP established a partnership with Automated Insights, a company that uses its own platform called Wordsmith to “automatically turn financial data into stories.” Yahoo, Comcast, and Allstate also use Automated Insights to publish millions of articles per week—the Wordsmith system can apparently crank out a staggering 2,000 articles per second. If you’re curious about what those articles look like, check out this Automated Insights-generated article on Apple’s first-quarter earnings. Most of the time, the only way to know who or what wrote the piece is by the one-sentence disclaimer at the bottom. Just before his death, N.Y. Times journalist David Carr Tweeted about a computer-generated article about the paper’s earnings:

While a lot of the computer-generated articles seem fairly rote and devoid of personality, it may only be a matter of time until, in the immortal words of South Park, robot journalists take our jobs. If you think those concerns are premature, check out the two samples below, as published in a special issue of Journalism Practice about the future of journalism. Which do you think was written by a human and which was written by a computer?

chargers chiefs
three quarterbacks walking2
The test revealed that the “software-generated content … [was] perceived as… descriptive, boring and objective, but not necessarily discernible from content written by journalists.” Respondents generally found the computer-written article more informative and trustworthy, but less readable than the human-written one. “Perhaps the most interesting result in the study is that there are [almost] no … significant differences in how the two texts are perceived by the respondents,” study author Christer Clerwall wrote. ?The lack of difference may be seen as an indicator that the software is doing a good job, or it may indicate that the journalist is doing a poor job – or perhaps both are doing a good (or poor) job?”

In case you were wondering, the second example was written by the human.

I suppose it’s only fitting that robots start writing the news, seeing as how robots are now also delivering it.

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Exoskeletons, Cyborgs, and Prosthetics—Oh My!


Ellen Ripley’s power-loader, Matt Damon’s Elysium exoskeleton, and Iron Man’s get-up aren’t just fiction anymore. Italy’s Perceptual Robotics Laboratory has created a “body extender” that allows wearers to curl 100 pounds in each hand.

Someone who calls himself Hacksmith has been posting videos on YouTube featuring his Elysium-inspired homemade exoskeleton, which enables him to curl a 170-pound barbell. And anyone who saw the opening ceremonies of the World Cup witnessed a paraplegic teenager kick a soccer ball thanks to the exoskeleton built by Walk Again Project scientists, including Miguel Nicolelis, whose pioneering work with monkeys who control avatars and robots with their minds paved the way for the breakthrough. Exoskeletons are just one innovation for people with limited mobility. Prosthetics are another, and that field is advancing just as rapidly.

Back when Oscar Pistorius was more famous for his incredible track career than he was for shooting his girlfriend, he started a pretty huge debate about whether he should be allowed to compete in the Olympics after having earned a slew of gold medals and world records at the Paralympics. The IAAF challenged him, citing an amended rule that banned “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” On the one hand, it seemed ridiculous to argue that a double-amputee could possibly have an advantage over someone with fully functional natural limbs, but some people believed that his carbon-fiber blade-shaped prosthetics allowed him to expend less energy to run and took less work to move because of their relative lack of friction against the ground. Ultimately, he was allowed to compete in the 2012 Athens Olympics, though he didn’t medal.

Pistorius brought to light the issue of prosthetics in sport competitions. While the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs has generated countless scandals, the question of fairness when it comes to prosthetics is more difficult, especially when it involves someone for whom the use of a prosthetic is about functionality and mobility, rather than performance enhancement.

Although the word cyborg generally conjures images of Star Trekian borgs and the Six Million Dollar Man, someone with a prosthetic (or an exoskeleton, though those tend to be worn temporarily) could be considered a cyborg. But there are a lot of other cyborgs out there, both in the sci-fi world–Luke Skywalker, Geordi LaForge, Dr. No, even Inspector Gadget–and in the real world. Think of how many people have titanium knees and hips, or pacemakers.

Achilles' Choice

Science fiction not only popularized the idea of the cyborg, but it also predicted the integration of cyborgs into athletic competitions such as the Olympics. In Achilles’ Choice (that’s some cover, eh?), a book by Larry Nivens and Steven Barnes, the futuristic world is ruled by an elite class who are enhanced and linked by internal computers. In order to become one of the elite, people have to compete in an Olympics competition that tests academic, athletic, and artistic abilities. The contenders have to choose whether to “boost”—basically dialing up their bodies to a maximum and unsustainable output—to improve their chances of winning. Boosting makes competitive success far more likely, but if one boosts and doesn’t win, death within ten years is certain. The detrimental effects of boosting can only be mitigated by winning the competition and becoming one of the linked.

While not Nivens’ best book by any means, the concept of athletes—or anyone, really, who has to make a weighty decision to keep up with the technologically enhanced elite rings more true all the time. These days, there are drugs that enhance physical performance, as well as drugs that enhance attention span, focus, memory, and other aspects of mental performance. But now, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

While it might seem drastic, there are people who would opt for voluntary amputations, and some who would rather have prosthetics than even functional human limbs. This gets back to Pistorius and whether his prosthetics offer advantages. This also makes me think of an article I read recently about Daniel Engelbrecht, a German soccer player who began suffering serious career- and potentially life-threatening heart problems at the age of 22. In an effort to save his game, as well as his life, doctors implanted a defibrillator that can deliver up to 800 volts to try and jumpstart a failing heart rhythm. Because of an irregular heartbeat caused by a rogue node that doctors had difficulty disabling, there was a terrifying span of time in which Engelbrecht’s defibrillator could have killed him, but that was corrected during surgery and Engelbrecht—now a cyborg—made an improbable return to professional soccer this fall. It seems likely that we’ll hear more and more stories like this, which raises the question: Could we eventually reach a point that we opt to substitute our working human parts for more efficient bionic ones?

Time will tell the answer to that question, but regardless, a futuristic version of the Olympics is on the way: the Cybathon. The National Center of Competence Research is sponsoring the Cyborg Olympics, which will be hosted in Switzerland next October and will feature a bike race, leg race, wheelchair race, exoskeleton race, arm prosthetics race and Brain Computer Interface race for competitors with full paralysis. Competitors’ efforts represent a partnership between their own physical and mental abilities and the abilities of the machines they’re using to compete. Thus, both the athletes and the companies that create the technology will win awards.

It will be interesting to compare the cyborg athletes’ achievements to those of non-technology-assisted athletes. The Cybathon might raise more questions than it settles with regards to the benefits of technology and how much of a “boost” it gives competitors, but it sure will be interesting.

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I, Snowbot


In science fiction, robots perform all kinds of tasks. Sometimes they dictate the fate of humanity, such as in Isaac Asimov’s “Reason,” in which Q-T, a robot with impressive and frustrating existential curiosity, keeps an energy beam steady during an electron storm, thus saving everyone relying on that energy. In Asimov’s “Runaround,” a robot named Speedy is sent on a dangerous mission to gather selenium on Mercury. These two stories exemplify the three Ds of modern robotics—making robots to perform tasks that are dull, dirty, and/or dangerous.

It makes sense that robot development would head in this direction—even Rosie of the Jetsons regularly attended to two of the three Ds. Now we have “family” robots such as Jibo to help us realize the domestic dreams fueled by Rosie, and robots such as Rapiro and Nextage that can make us our daily cup of joe (though the speed of the preparation and the quality of the coffee might be up for debate). Then again, making a cup of coffee isn’t particularly dull, dirty, or dangerous. But I’ll tell you what is—shoveling snow.

After digging out of this week’s snowpocalypse, I can say with confidence that I’m over shoveling. It was fun for the first ten minutes or so, bearable for the next hour, and then it got pretty old, especially as my fingers and toes started freezing while other parts of me started overheating. Omni Magazine, a groundbreaker in the then genre of science writing back in 1978 when it debuted, predicted that “by 2010, robots would “clean the rug, iron the clothes, and shovel the snow.” Omni, Asimov, and so many other sci-fi writers were right.


Check out Yuki-taro, a robot that looks like Pikachu made babies with a tank (“yuki” means snow in Japanese, and “Taro” is a common Japanese name for a boy). The thing eats snow—even dirty, salty, slushy, snow, and then it poops out snow bricks, like of like those plastic igloo-making snow toys, except way better because—well, because it’s a robot. Duh. Yuki-taro “the friendly snowbot” comes equipped with two omni-directional VGA cameras, twin servomotors, a GPS positioning sensor, laser and ultrasonic range sensors, and obstacle recognition software, all of which enable it to guide itself to snowy streets. It spent its early days practicing its snow removal in Niigata, Japan, which receives an average of 85 inches of snowfall per year. Its developers first debuted the machine back in 2005 with the promise of bringing a version to market at an estimated cost of roughly $9,000. They said it would only take five years or so, and now it’s been ten. Sadly, it seems that even after winning the Good Design Award, Yuki-taro has gotten stuck in its tracks. I’d like to make an official plea now to bring it back—and to bring it to Boston.

While $9,000 might seem a bit extravagant to get out of shoveling duty, I can’t help thinking how handy it would be to have a couple of these around Boston right now (especially given the $18.5 million snow removal budget, which will likely be exceeded).


One of the biggest challenges associated with a large snowstorm is what to do with all the snow. The city is so dense that there’s really nowhere to put it all—there are snowbanks twice my height, at least half of the usual parking spots are nonexistent, and roads in some areas are still dodgy. Once upon a time, dump trucks used to toss snow into the Charles River, which may explain, in part, how the water got so polluted. I love this retrospective on Boston snow removal over the past couple centuries, particularly the SNOWTRON snow melter used in the 60s (and which cost the equivalent of $750,000). Maybe the ultimate problem with SNOWTRON is that it wasn’t a robot, even though its name suggests that it should be.


Yuki-taro’s snow removal system is ingenious. It doesn’t push or blow snow to the side or into massive drifts—it essentially eats the snow through its shovel-like mouth, uses an internal compressor to “digest” them, and then poops out small, stackable snow bricks. Sure, one would have to find something to do with the poop-bricks, but kids could play with them, they could be stored for later use, or fashioned into some kind of awesome snow house—perhaps a garage to house the machine, because even snowbots deserve a little shelter from the storm.

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Microsoft’s Holographic System Will Project More Than Princess Leia

help me obi wan

When I first watched R2D2 beam a hologram of a distraught Princess Leia onto a tabletop, I was more interested in how I could get my hands on that technology than I was about her problem (don’t judge—I was little and it was the beginning of the movie). I wasn’t allowed to touch our family’s answering machine, so the idea of a holographic message blew my mind. And then there was Star Trek’s holodeck, an entire simulated environment used for training, crime scene investigation, and recreation (Deep Space Nine’s Quark has particular fun renting out holosuites). The Emergency Medical Hologram could stand in for an real doctor, though unlike the holographic Leia, the EMH is an actual character who has a family and other relationships, many with actual people. There are even holo-novelists who write narratives for the holodeck—perhaps this will turn out to be a job of the future.


This technology is now reality. This week Microsoft revealed its HoloLens. The holographic computing system is part Star Wars, part Star Trek, and part something else that transcends both of them. The system projects holograms, but does so in three dimensions, rather than two, taking images “out of the screen and into the world.” What’s really exciting about the HoloLens isn’t just that it can project these images, but that it also the actual physical stuff in a user’s environment into holograms users can interact with, thus merging digital and actual reality. It seems appropriate that Google should retire Glass at the same time this system was announced—what the HoloLens does is far beyond anything Glass could do (except perhaps the looking silly part).

minecraft hololens

Those invited to test out the visor-like system experienced a few different scenarios that merged the virtual world with the actual world. For example, one demo turned a user’s real environment into a Minecraft version of that environment, transforming, among other objects, the actual coffee table into a Minecraft one. Microsoft has been pretty tight-lipped about how the system works, but it’s thought that the holographic images are actually projected into the eye of the user, tricking their brain into thinking, in this case, that the coffee table is made from Minecraft bricks (the visor is also equipped with sensors to monitor the wearer’s head movements to make sure the projections are properly oriented). So what happens when the user takes a virtual Minecraft hammer and smashes the table? It splinters into pieces before their eyes.


Other demos included getting electrical (or plumbing) help via the HoloLens camera, which allowed an actual electrician to see the light switch in question and give verbal and drawn instructions about how to fix it. There’s also something called HoloStudio, an app for creating 3D objects that can then be printed. But I think the most exciting scenario involves scientists using the HoloLens to “work” on Mars. This one uses OnSight software developed by folks at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It allows scientists to see through the eyes of the Curiosity rover so they can explore Mars, interact with 3D holographic images, and even perform experiments on Mars.


The system sounds similar to that of Magic Leap, a company recently purchased by Google that is developing “cinematic reality,” which is a step beyond virtual or augmented reality. The HoloLens may end up competing with Magic Leap, especially for hardware, but Microsoft doesn’t see virtual reality systems such as Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus, or Glyph as competitors: “We are integrating holograms into the world around you–transforming the ways you create, connect, and explore. Oculus, Magic Leap, Glass developers and everyone else, we humbly invite you–come create holograms with us.” It’s worth noting that Oculus Rift can be used to generate holographic environments too, including a room that pays homage to the holodeck.

In conjunction with the announcement, Microsoft also revealed Windows 10, which will feature “holographic experiences.” Windows 8 and 8.1 users can upgrade for free (right now the Technical Preview is available to “Windows Insider” users). And if my previous experiences with Windows updates are any indication, we’ll all be forced to upgrade at some point soon whether we want to or not–unless Obi Wan can do something to stop it.

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The Apes Shall Inherit The Earth (Or At Least A Little Piece)

planet poster

One of the reasons Planet of the Apes resonates so deeply with viewers is the plausibility of its premise. Have you ever seen monkeys up close? Their profound intelligence is clear, and there’s no question we evolved from them. Their eyes convey not just their cognitive abilities, but a deep level of awareness. Monkeys, apes, and gorillas are also emotional creatures—if you’ve ever seen Koko grieve the loss of her kitten or hang out with Robin Williams, you know they’re capable of love, sadness, and even compassion. Given their intelligence, sentience, and opposable thumbs, it’s not too difficult to imagine them ruling the world.

Planet of the Apes subeverts the paradigm that humans are the smartest and most capable life forms around. We keep primates in zoos because despite their intelligence and capabilities, we generally still believe we have the right to study them and hold them captive. I’ve seen monkeys at sub-par zoos that seem downright depressed (I even saw a monkey smoking a cigarette in a zoo once). Sure, sometimes protective measures are necessary, especially when it comes to gorilla poaching and other abhorrent practices. But to put these animals behind bars diminishes the vary qualities that fascinate and endear us—not to mention the qualities we’ve inherited from them—and much like sci-fi movies that feature robots seeking revenge for past enslavement, Planet of the Apes suggests that primates could, like robots, exceed human intelligence and even turn the tables on us by taking over. It also asks whether that would be such a bad outcome in the grand scheme of things.

Among other things, the movie challenges the morality behind keeping these animals in captivity, and it turns out that courts are deliberating the same question. In December, a criminal appeals court in Argentina ruled in favor of an orangutan named Sandra, granting her the right to life and liberty, as well as to protection against harm. Sandra was born in a German zoo in 1986 and has lived in captivity ever since, now residing at the Buenos Aires Zoo. The habeas corpus petition was filed by the Argentina’s Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights, who argued that it is illegal to deny Sandra her freedom. The petition was initially denied before being granted by the appeals court.


Sandra (credit: Buenos Aires Zoo)

That ruling will lead to another legal proceeding—this time to figure out where Sandra should live. A committee will be appointed by the Argentine justice system to decide the best home for the orangutan, considering factors such as her ability to travel, her age, and available and appropriate sanctuaries.

This isn’t the first time such claims were filed, both in and out of Argentina. Similar motions have been made in Brazil and in New York State. In 2012, PETA unsuccessfully tried to apply the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery and servitude, to captive orcas. The ruling in favor of Sandra would have widespread effects—first and foremost for 17 chimpanzees currently in Argentinian zoos. The ruling will also fuel a growing movement to return primates, as well as other intelligent animals such as dolphins and whales, to their natural environments, or in cases where that’s not possible, to sanctuaries. Such animals have been shown to possess “sentience, self-consciousness, and individuality,” according to University of Buenos Aires primatologist Aldo Giúdice. “We cannot be accomplices and let them suffer in prison.”

Perhaps such rulings will help build humans’ credibility and goodwill. If primates evolve to be the superior species on Earth or on some other planet we happen to land on, maybe they’ll think twice before performing brain surgery on us or putting us behind bars.

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Wake Me Up Before You Go Go


British neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote Awakenings in 1973, detailing his experiences giving a drug called L-Dopa (Levodopa, now commonly used to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s by increasing the brain’s supply of dopamine) to catatonic patients. The book was later made into the movie Awakenings, starring Robin Williams as the doctor and Robert De Niro as one of the patients who awoke after being administered L-Dopa. Sudden awakenings from catatonic or comatose states are staples in science fiction, as writers and directors can fling unsuspecting and unconscious characters into space, as in Pandorum; give them post-awakening psychic abilities, as in Dead Zone; or suddenly awake mass numbers of comatose patients with the directive to stop World War III, as in the forthcoming Coma. Even though these sudden awakenings may seem unbelievable, Sacks’ L-Dopa treatments really were that effective—at least for a while. They allowed patients to increasingly participate in aspects of life that otherwise would have been forever unavailable to them.

Recently, a medical breakthrough in Italy allowed a patient who had been in a “minimally conscious state” for two years not just to regain consciousness, but to engage in conversation. The man wasn’t in exactly the same state as Sacks’ patients, who suffered from something called encephalitis lethargica, which attacks the brain and causes everything from headaches and double vision to Parkinson’s-like symptoms to catatonia or a coma-like state. An encephalitis lethargica epidemic began in 1917 and lasted over a decade, resulting in the deaths of roughly 5 million people. The patients Sacks treated contracted the disease during that epidemic and had been hospitalized and catatonic for over 30 years.

The Italian patient had been in a car accident, after which he was comatose for 40 days. He then awoke from the coma, but remained minimally conscious—he had a sleep-wake cycle, he could reach out and touch things, and he could open and close his eyes, but that was about it. When he was released from the hospital about a year after his accident, he couldn’t communicate or respond when people asked him to blink. Then his cognition took a nosedive in a way that mirrored the decline of Sacks’ patients. His movements became excruciatingly slow, and he sometimes exhibited random, almost tic-like behavior, such as clapping.

Roughly two years after his car accident, he underwent a CT scan so doctors could get a better idea of what was going on. As is typical, the doctors administered midazolam, a mild sedative often used for such procedures. What isn’t typical is the man’s response—within minutes, he began talking and interacting. He didn’t just have rudimentary conversations, either. According to the case report, the man “talked by cellphone with his aunt and congratulated his brother when he was informed of his graduation; he recognized the road leading to his home.”

This is the first time doctors have reported midazolam as promoting an “awakening” in a patient, as detailed in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience. However, the effects of the midazolam wore off after a couple hours, after which the man reverted to his previous state. Doctors wanted to confirm that the drug was indeed responsible for the dramatic shift in the man’s state, so they gave him the drug again. After just a few minutes the patient was not only responsive and talkative, but was also able to do some simple math problems. Brain scans before, during, and after the second dose of midazolam revealed that the regions of the brain affected by the drug are associated with catatonia.


Unfortunately, the long-term effects of this treatment mirror those of the patients in Sacks’ memoir. He found that his patients built up a tolerance to the drug, so he had to administer more and more of it, which resulted in side effects such as irritation, increased physical tics, spasms, and even psychosis: “For the first time, then, the patient on L-DOPA enjoys a perfection of being, an ease of movement and feeling and thought, a harmony of relation within and without. Then his happy state – his world – starts to crack, slip, break down, and crumble; he lapses from his happy state, and moves toward perversion and decay.” Eventually, the patients relapsed, and a decade after Sacks published his memoir, 17 of those patients had died, most of them from Parkinsonism. The movie Awakenings ends with Williams and De Niro once again using a Ouija Board to try and communicate.

Researchers ran up against this same problem with their Italian patient. They tried giving him another drug of the same class called lorazepam, which is generally thought to be safer than midazolam, but after a few days, the patient became agitated and angry. The doctors switched him to an epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, which apparently has allowed him to “maintain the improvement of his ability to interact and communicate with people,” though perhaps not to the same degree as he could while on the midazolam.

Still, the Italian patient’s experience, as well as other accounts of sedatives, particularly sleeping pills such as Ambien, inducing temporary consciousness in patients, gives researchers hope for treating patients in catatonic, comatose, and vegetative states. It also provides a solid lead for treating Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and other neurological disorders. And hey, it beats using a Ouija board.

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