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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sam Worley
January 12, 2019

Robots performing spinal surgery. Robots wandering about and asking for directions. A mysterious series of shifts in the earth’s magnetic field. Are conditions on Earth getting a little too strange in this week’s 5 Coolest Things? Fear not: At least we may be closer to figuring out hyperspace travel.


Robot Gives Spinal Surgeons A Hand

 width= Nottingham Trent University's Philip Breedon with the spine surgery robot. Image credit: Nottingham Trent University.

What is it? A team from the UK’s Nottingham Trent University has designed a method of spinal surgery whereby two robotic arms semi-autonomously lend doctors a hand by drilling holes in vertebrae. They reportedly can do so “with greater accuracy than humanly possible.”

Why does it matter? The tech, while not yet available to doctors, is meant to aid surgeons to treat spinal deformities like scoliosis, in which the spine curves to the side, and kyphosis, in which the spine curves outward. Doctors insert rods via back surgery to help straighten things out, but they’ve got to attach the rods to the spine by drilling holes in the vertebrae — a highly sensitive part of the operation in which accuracy is paramount. Enter the bots.

How does it work? The system designed by the British team consists of two arms, the datum robot and the tooling robot: The former attaches to the vertebrae and passes along its data to a computer, helping the latter bot drill as precisely as possible. After they’ve done their job, the surgeon can go ahead and insert the screws and rods that help realign the spine.


Robots Aren’t Too Shy To Ask For Directions

 width= The autonomous robot, named Hosh, will navigate environments and interact with people, including researchers Jeffrey Mark Siskind (left), Thomas Ilyevsky (center) and Jared Johansen (right), seen here through the robot’s computer vision. Image and caption credits: Hope Sale / Purdue Research Foundation.

What is it? How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. It’s as true for aspiring musicians as it is for a new autonomous robot, under development by researchers at Purdue University. The robot is learning to navigate unfamiliar environments while asking for directions from “ordinary, untrained people” in “natural language.”

Why does it matter? The robot, called Hosh, is expected to play a role in the burgeoning consumer robotics industry. It could help self-driving cars ask for directions or complete routine tasks in business settings like delivering the mail. If researchers can coax Hosh to perform as hoped, the big achievement would be a droid imbued with “common sense knowledge,” according to doctoral candidate Thomas Ilyevsky: “The robot needs human-level intuition in order to understand navigational conventions. This is where common sense knowledge comes in. The robot should know that odd- and even-numbered rooms sit across from each other in a hallway or that Room 317 should be on the building's third floor.”

How does it work? The researchers are designing software that can help Hosh integrate linguistic and visual data and use this information in tandem — understanding, for instance, a combination of speech and physical gestures might indicate direction. Per Purdue: “If the response is ‘Check for that person in Room 300,’ the robot will need to process the statement in a visual context and identify what room it is currently in as well as the best route to reach Room 300. If the response is ‘That person is over there’ with a physical cue, the robot will need to integrate the visual cue with the statement's meaning in order to identify Person A.” The team is starting with small indoor tasks, such as navigating a single floor of a building, and hopes to send the machine outside in the spring.


A Measure Of Pain

 width=  The National Institutes of Health is challenging doctors and scientists to come up with a device that can measure how much patients hurt. One tracks the pupils of patients. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? The National Institutes of Health is challenging doctors and scientists to come up with a device that can measure how much patients hurt: a “stethoscope for pain.”

Why does it matter? The feeling of pain is subjective, variable from person to person, and often difficult to describe — particularly for babies, who can’t talk. That all makes it hard for physicians to know what kinds of drugs, and dosage amount, to prescribe for its treatment. According to the NIH, some 25 million people in the U.S. live with pain on a daily basis, and the difficulty of treatment has contributed to the ongoing opioids epidemic. Sharper measures of where and how badly pain is experienced could allow doctors to target their prescriptions more carefully.

How does it work? Researchers are seeking solid metrics by which pain might be measured: One device under consideration, for instance, tracks the pupils of patients, and the NIH is also funding study of brain scans and other biomarkers. “There won’t be a single signature of pain,” said David Thomas, who oversees the research for NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, in an interview with The Associated Press. “My vision is that someday we’ll pull these different metrics together for something of a fingerprint of pain.”


Polar Express

 width= The behavior of the Earth's magnetic field has been so erratic that scientists decided to update their model sooner than planned. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? If you didn’t get any presents this past Christmas, don’t feel too bad: It could just be Santa’s GPS malfunctioned. As a new report in Nature explains, the earth’s magnetic field has recently been acting strangely. The magnetic north pole wandered across the International Date Line and is headed toward Siberia.

Why does it matter? Actually, the magnetic north pole is regularly on the move, part of an overall constant flux in the planet’s magnetic field driven by the interplay between Earth’s liquid-iron outer core surrounding the solid-iron inner core, as well as other factors. Every so often, then, researchers update the World Magnetic Model — important because it “underlies all modern navigation, from the systems that steer ships at sea to Google Maps on smartphones,” according to Nature. The last revision, in 2015, was expected to hold until 2020, but the behavior of the magnetic field has been so erratic that scientists decided to update the model sooner, on Jan. 15 of this year. (The U.S. government shutdown has further complicated matters, however; the new target date is Jan. 30.)

How does it work? The magnetic field responds to forces somewhat understood and somewhat mysterious: In the former category, for instance, a strong geomagnetic pulse beneath South America in 2016 helped to push the last model out of whack. The motion of the north pole could have to do with “a high-speed jet of liquid iron” that’s weakening the magnetic field underneath Canada and causing the pole to wander. The myriad factors at play, Nature concludes, mean “the world’s geomagnetists will have a lot to keep them busy for the foreseeable future.”


Black Hole Fun

 width= Black holes might open "gentle portals for hyperspace travel," says Dartmouth's Gaurav Khanna. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? University of Massachusetts Dartmouth physics professor Gaurav Khanna proposes rotating black holes could serve as “gentle portals for hyperspace travel.”

Why does it matter? Black holes, which seem to present a shortcut through space-time, have long been alluring to aspiring hyperspace travelers: They’re, Khanna says, “the consequence of gravity crushing a dying star without limit, leading to the formation of a true singularity,” a point of infinite density. But there are some problems. Setting aside the fact that the nearest black holes are thousands of light-years away, there’s the small matter of what happens as you approach the singularity: You’d be too busy being stretched, squeezed and ultimately vaporized to really enjoy the journey. Khanna and his team, though, have crunched the numbers and found some variability in the kinds of black holes out there. Their result: black holes that are large and rotating might offer an easier ride.

How does it work? Khanna oversaw a PhD student, Caroline Mallary, who set out to test some assumptions behind the 2014 Christopher Nolan film, “Interstellar,” in which Matthew McConaughey’s character falls through a fictional rotating black hole called Gargantua. Mallary discovered, because the singularity inside such a black hole is relatively “weak,” it may not damage the objects that come into contact with it: In other words, one might be able to come out on the other side of such a voyage and feel (sorry) alright, alright, alright. And not just in film but with a real-life black hole such as Sagittarius A*, which sits at the center of the Milky Way.