It’s been a hot week in the Southeast — all the better for researchers to lock themselves inside their labs and work on robots that, like MacGyver, can combine objects to create novel tools (Georgia), or robots that both look like dogs and can be trained like them to assist in search-and-rescue missions (Florida). This week’s coolest scientific discoveries begin and end on the robot frontier, with climate-cooling roofs and methane-belching cattle in between.
What is it? MacGyver’s back, and we’re not just talking about the reboot: At Georgia Tech, researchers have created a robot that, much like the resourceful TV hero, can “create basic tools by combining objects.”
Why does it matter? According to the university, artificial intelligence agents could be “on the verge of their own version of the Stone Age,” able to creatively manipulate random objects into tools they can use. The inspiration isn’t just MacGyver; researchers also point to the real-life Apollo 13 mission, in which astronauts had to create a makeshift filter for their carbon dioxide removal system if they were going to survive the flight home. “They were able to make this filter, but the solution took a long time to come up with,” said Lakshmi Nair, a doctoral student who worked on the project. “We want to make robots that can assist humans in these kinds of scenarios to take the pressure off of them to come up with innovative solutions and potentially save their lives.”
How does it work? Using machine learning, researchers trained the AI to match certain forms to certain functions — for instance, the ability of concave objects to hold liquid like a spoon. Thus educated, the robots were able to create scoops, squeegees, hammers, spatulas and screwdrivers. “The screwdriver was particularly interesting because the robot combined pliers and a coin,” Nair added. “It reasoned that the pliers were able to grasp something and said that the coin sort of matched the head of a screwdriver. Put them together, and it creates an effective tool.” The team presented its findings in a paper (PDF) at the 2019 Robotics: Science and Systems conference.
What is it? If every building in California were installed with “cool” roofs — roofs that are white, or made of sunlight-reflecting tiles — by 2050, it could help mitigate the effects of heat waves related to climate change, according to researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Why does it matter? July was the hottest month on the planet since record-keeping began 140 years ago, and already this summer heat waves have swept India and Pakistan, Europe and the U.S. Berkeley Lab researchers estimated that California heat waves are expected to become two to 10 times more frequent by midcentury, with conditions hot enough to cause sunstroke and even organ damage. Their study says the widespread adoption of cool roofs, particularly in the state’s urban areas, could reduce heat wave exposures — “each time a person experiences a heat wave” — by 35 million each year, down from 80 million cases otherwise. “Urban spaces are a small fraction of the globe, but they are where most people live,” said Pouya Vahmani, lead author of the study in Environmental Research Letters. “If we’re able to cool those areas even a little bit, it can have a huge impact on health and roll back significant impacts of climate change.”
How does it work? Urban areas are also more susceptible to the effects of heat waves because of the heat island effect — they heat up more than nearby rural areas, and stay warmer overnight too. Deflecting the sun’s rays, cool roofs are a relatively simple and affordable technology that “reduce the amount of heat cities absorb during the day,” according to study co-author Andrew Jones, “which can indirectly lower the heat available for release in the night.”
What is it? At Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast, researchers are hatching a plan to mass-farm a particular kind of seaweed that stops cows from belching methane.
Why does it matter? Methane emissions from cattle and other ruminents, which comes as part of the digestive process — mostly out of the mouth, occasionally issuing from the other end — forms a significant part of the methane that human-related activity is releasing into the atmosphere: Of all greenhouse gas emissions related to agriculture, more than a third can be traced back to livestock. According to Nick Paul, leader of USC’s Seaweed Research Group, Australia could cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 10% if the country were able to grow enough of the methane-inhibiting seaweed for every cow.
How does it work? Five years ago a study found that Asparagopsis, a “puffy pink seaweed” that grows off of the Queensland Coast, could reduce methane emissions in cows, who apparently like the stuff, Paul said: “They will actually wander down to the beach and have a bit of a nibble.” He added, “When added to cow feed at less than 2% of the dry matter, this particular seaweed completely knocks out methane production. It contains chemicals that reduce the microbes in the cows’ stomachs that cause them to burp when they eat grass.” Now the team is working on developing a way to farm the seaweed sustainably, as well as figure out whether particular growing methods might enhance the concentration of the methane-fighting compounds in it.
What is it? “There may be more genes in the collective human microbiome than stars in the observable universe,” according to a new study by scientists at Harvard Medical School and Joslin Diabetes Center, published in Cell Host & Makeup. Moreover, about half of those genes are unique to the individual they’re living in.
Why does it matter? First author Braden Tierney, a graduate student at Harvard Medical School, said, “Ours is a gateway study, the first step on what will likely be a long journey toward understanding how differences in gene content drive microbial behavior and modify disease risk.” The human microbiome is itself a relatively new area of study for scientists, who are just beginning to understand all of the ways that the vast array of bacteria living in our bodies, particularly in our guts, affects our health. Most of those bacteria are benign, some are beneficial, and some could be linked to diseases like diabetes and multiple sclerosis — and could be the key to precision-targeted treatments, explained co-author Alex Kostic: “Such narrowly targeted therapies would be based on the unique microbial genetic make-up of a person rather than on bacterial type alone.”
How does it work? The team started by collecting all publicly available info on human oral and gut microbiomes, which amounted to DNA from some 3,500 human samples, which yielded almost 46 million bacterial genes. Half of those occurred only once — meaning they were unique to the individual, a fact that raises intriguing questions about those genes’ evolutionary purpose. “Some of these unique genes appear to be important in solving evolutionary challenges,” said Tierney. “If a microbe needs to become resistant to an antibiotic because of exposure to drugs or suddenly faces a new selective pressure, the singleton genes may be the wellspring of genetic diversity the microbe can pull from to adapt.”
What is it? You can teach an e-dog new tricks, according to researchers at Florida Atlantic University: They’ve introduced Astro, a “four-legged seeing and hearing intelligent robodog” who can be trained via deep learning.
Why does it matter? FAU has big plans for Astro, whose “key missions will include detecting guns, explosives and gun residue to assist police, the military, and security personnel,” according to a release from the university. He can also act as a service dog to visually impaired people and is being trained to be a first responder for search-and-rescue missions.
How does it work? Astro’s got a head 3D-printed to resemble a Doberman pinscher’s but, more importantly, it’s got a brain inside of it — or rather a neural network, a processor modeled after the human brain that allows Astro to learn in response to inputs. At about a hundred pounds, Astro weighs just a little bit more than your typical adult male Doberman pinscher, and unlike other breeds he also comes equipped with radar imaging capabilities, cameras and a microphone. Like other dogs, he can respond to both verbal commands and hand signals.