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by Jeff and Jenn Eckert
Bots At Center of Chinese Space Effort
It's no secret that the Chinese intend to become a major player in the
space race and, in fact, a display model of the Tiangong I (trans. Heavenly
Palace) module was recently given public view at the China Academy of Space
Technology ( www.cast.cn). The lift date has been put on hold pending
analysis of the August 19 failure to launch an experimental satellite — the
result of a dud launch rocket. When it does enter orbit, however, this will
constitute the first step toward completing a 60 ton space station by 2020.
"The ability to do that robotically is going to certainly be a
technological step forward for them," said Joan Johnson-Freese, chairwoman of the Department of National Security
Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. "Some people have compared this to where we were at with Gemini. But
we were doing it with people. If they can do it with robotics, it's a demonstration of a technological step forward."
Display model of Tiangong I module.
Credit: Gregory Kulacki/People's Daily Online.
Quail vs. Robots: Questionable Research, but a Great Lunch
It's difficult to put the whole thing together, but we surmise that some
researchers at the University of Rennes ( www.univ-rennes1.fr) were discussing
lunch one day and decided on caille en escabeche. While harvesting a covy of
quail, academic curiosity got the better of them, and someone wondered if a
robotic hen can raise chicks as well as a real one. Dying to find out, they divided
24 Japanese quail chicks into six groups of four. At the age of 36 hours, three
groups were placed in a cage with a heated mobile robot and the other three in a
cage with the same type of robot, only with locomotion disabled. For one hour
per day for 10 days, the chicks were allowed to interact with the robots. From here
on, it gets a little murky, but it seems that the chicks that spent time with the
mobile robot temporarily navigated the cage faster than the others on their own.
However, the others caught up after five days. It also was shown that the chicks
that were exposed to the mobile robot emitted more distress calls, but that effect
wore off after only one day. Somehow, the researchers found this significant and
concluded that the study "shows that robots can underscore the results of past studies that show the importance of a
mother hen's mobility on the normal development of her chicks." More importantly, they discovered that a bottle of Château
Philippe-Le-Hardi Mercurey goes perfectly with seared quail, and will run you only about $22.
Seven-day-old quail chicks stand with
the heated robot. Credit: E. de Margerie, et
al. © 2011 IOP Publishing Ltd.
Rat Brain Enhancement
Another breakthrough of sorts has been announced by Matti Mintz —
a professor of psychobiology at Tel Aviv University
( international.tau.ac.il). Although more in the realm of cybernetics than
strict robotics, his work does involve replacing living tissue with an
electrical device, so we're letting it slip through. Much like cochlear
implants and prosthetic devices can restore physical functions, Prof. Mintz's
development of a synthetic cerebellum offers the promise of restoring
brain functions in higher animals. In the case at hand, Mintz et al.
analyzed brainstem signals feeding into a rat's cerebellum and noted the
generated output. They then anesthetized the rat, disabled its cerebellum,
and hooked up their synthetic version. At that point, the team taught the rat a conditioned motor reflex (i.e., a blink) by
generating an auditory tone while hitting its eye with a puff of air. Eventually, the animal blinked on hearing the tone, even
without the puff, thus proving that the chip was working. According to Mintz, prostheses based on this principle "might one
day be used to enhance brain function in healthy people — to speed up learning or enhance memory." It was also noted
that we may have to wait until the end of the century for replacements for specific, well-organized brain parts such as the
hippocampus or the visual cortex, so you still need to avoid head injuries.
Cut-rate artist's conception
of a synthetic cerebellum.
8 SERVO 12.2011