Science & Technology


Japanese bank to introduce robots that provide customer service

© Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Programmers work on NAO, a humanoid robot developed by Aldebaran Robotics at the 2014 IEEE-RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots in Madrid in November.
Customers at some branches of Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ in Tokyo will soon be greeted by a robot, in what the bank says will be a first for any major financial institution in the world.

The 58-centimeter robots, named NAO, can answer most basic customer-service questions in 19 languages, as well as analyze customers' facial expressions and behavior, the bank says.

"We can ramp up communication with our customers by adding a tool like this," said Kazunobu Takahara, a bank spokesman. The bank will start by placing the robots in one or two branches, likely in April, and then proceed according to customer feedback.

Video of customers recorded by the robot's forehead-mounted camera can also help the bank develop new financial services in the future, Mr. Takahara said.

NAO was developed by the French company Aldebaran Robotics, which is owned by Japanese telecom and technology giant SoftBank Corp. It costs around $8,000 and has been mainly used at schools and research institutes.

His bigger brother Pepper, also developed by Aldebaran, started working in a similar role at SoftBank's Tokyo stores last year. Softbank placed Pepper, which has a 120-centimeter body, in around 90 stores.

Pepper is more mobile, but NAO is a better communicator and is more skilled at reading people's facial expressions, BTMU said.

Comment: How long before even more jobs are taken by robots in place of humans? The human race is fascinated with advancing technology, but at what cost?


New report: Robo-advisors will manage $255 billion within 5 years

© Flickr/Toshihiro Oimastsu
Assets managed by robo-advisors are growing.
You may have heard of robo-advisors, the nickname for online investment platforms that use algorithms to manage clients' money.

Robo-advisors suffer from what we could call Bitcoin syndrome: It sounds cool, but who actually uses it?

According to a new report from Swiss research company MyPrivateBanking Research, a lot of people do - and more of us will get on board in the near future. By the end of 2014, the report finds, robo-advisors may be managing $14 billion, 83% of that in the US. In the next five years, that number is expected to skyrocket to about $255 billion worldwide.

Comment: Most Americans are living on minimum wage or food stamps and have no savings to invest. This is only useful for the wealthiest few who create and maintain the Wall Street illusion.


Almost success: Space X landed a rocket on a platform in the ocean

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket
© space X
This morning's launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Elon, we have touch down!

Today, SpaceX launched and landed a Falcon 9 rocket in a game-changing event that is paving the way for a new era of reusable rocket technology.

After several delays and reschedulings, SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon spacecraft full of cargo destined for the International Space Station (ISS) this morning, January 10, at 4:47 a.m. EST.

What was most exciting about this was the Falcon 9 rocket's descent onto the floating platform of a drone ship floating a couple hundred miles off the northeast coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.

Using GPS tracking, the rocket made it to the drone ship, a pretty amazing feat!

But sadly it landed too hard, Musk announced shortly after the landing attempt.

Comment: This is one of those rare scientific innovations, a private American company spearheading a project useful to space travel.See: Elon Musk uses this ancient critical-thinking strategy to outsmart everybody else


Incoming! Mars pockmarked by over 400 recent meteor impact craters

Impact crater on Mars
Impact crater on Mars.
The surface of Mars is a well worn place in the Solar System, heavily pounded by countless meteor impacts. And some of these craters are hundreds of millions of years old. So it's unusual for there to be a completely fresh impact on the surface of Mars: but that's just what NASA scientists discovered looking through a recent batch of images returned from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

You're looking at an image taken by the Mars Context Camera, an instrument on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In an older photograph taken of the region in February 2012, there was just a bunch of old craters. And then, in the newer image, taken June 2014, this fresh scar on the surface of Mars is clearly visible.

Comment: The only reason we haven't seen over 400 recent impact craters on Earth too is because our planet's dense atmosphere, which Mars doesn't have, is decimating the space rocks currently pelting our planet. At least, it is for now:

A Puzzling Collapse of Earth's Cooling Upper Atmosphere

Earth's magnetic field is weakening 10 times faster now

Better Earth

Kepler discovery: The 1000th exoplanet

Kepler search space
As far as the eye can see!
How many stars like our sun host planets like our Earth? NASA's Kepler Space Telescope continuously monitored more than 150,000 stars beyond our solar system, and to date has offered scientists an assortment of more than 4,000 candidate planets for further study -- the 1,000th of which was recently verified.

Using Kepler data, scientists reached this millenary milestone after validating that eight more candidates spotted by the planet-hunting telescope are, in fact, planets. The Kepler team also has added another 554 candidates to the roll of potential planets, six of which are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of stars similar to our sun.

Three of the newly-validated planets are located in their distant suns' habitable zone, the range of distances from the host star where liquid water might exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. Of the three, two are likely made of rock, like Earth.

"Each result from the planet-hunting Kepler mission's treasure trove of data takes us another step closer to answering the question of whether we are alone in the Universe," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "The Kepler team and its science community continue to produce impressive results with the data from this venerable explorer."

Comment: It's nice to have options, well, sort of. However, maybe we should first learn how to take care of the one we've got.


Super-massive black hole pair on course for cosmic collision

In a galaxy far, far away, a pair of supermassive black holes appear to be spiraling together toward a cosmic collision of unimaginable scale, astronomers said on Wednesday.

The final act of this mating dance, perhaps a mere million years from now, could release as much energy as 100 million of the violent supernova explosions in which stars end their lives, and wreck the galaxy it is in, said S. George Djorgovski of the California Institute of Technology.

Most of that energy would go into gravitational waves, the violent ripples of space-time that are predicted but not yet directly detected by Einstein's theory of general relativity, Dr. Djorgovski said. And there could be electromagnetic fireworks as well.
black holes collide
© Santiago Lombeyda/Center for Data-Driven Discovery, Caltech
An artist’s conception of two black holes in close orbit. In the distant future, scientists expect two black holes to collide and give off a huge amount of energy.
According to theory, he explained in an email, the interactions of the black holes would drive nearby stars away, like shingles in a tornado. "However," he added, "I think that the nature is never so neat."

Dr. Djorgovski, one of the authors of a paper published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, will discuss the research at a meeting in Seattle. The lead author is Matthew Graham, a computational scientist at Caltech's Center for Data-Driven Discovery.

The merging black holes manifested as a regular flicker in a quasar - a mass of light and energy - in a remote galaxy known as PG 1302-102. The most logical explanation, Dr. Graham and his colleagues wrote, is a pair of black holes circling each other less than a light-year apart.

Comment: The Electric Universe theory gives an interesting alternative to mainstream science's view of black holes.


Cyborg-style implant could allow paralyzed to walk again

The implant is so effective because it mimics the soft tissue around the spine so that the body does not reject its presence
Paralysed patients have been given new hope of recovery after rats with severe spinal injuries walked again through a 'groundbreaking' new cyborg-style implant.

In technology which could have come straight out of a science fiction novel or Hollwood movie, French scientists have created a thin prosthetic ribbon, embedded with electrodes, which lies along the spinal cord and delivers electrical impulses and drugs.

The prosthetic, described by British experts as 'quite remarkable', is soft enough to bend with tissue surrounding the backbone to avoid discomfort.

Paralysed rats who were fitted with the implant were able to walk on their own again after just a few weeks of training.

Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne are hoping to move to clinical trials in humans soon. They believe that a device could last 10 years in humans before needing to be replaced.

Comment: While this would be a fantastic advancement towards allowing those paralyzed to walk again, it should be concern to have a one's body connect to an implant that mimics the body's most sensitive area, the spine and brain. This will only further blur the line between man and machine, and while some will say it is worth it to be able to cure paralysis, it's worth considering the ramifications of such an invention.


NASA releases 3-D imagery of superstar Eta Carinae

Some 8,000 light-years from the sun, there lies Eta Carinae, a massive, unstable stellar system featuring two stars locked in a violent orbital tussle. It's the most luminous star system within 10,000 light-years of our solar system.

This week, NASA unveiled new imagery of the two-star struggle, allowing viewers to explore Eta Carinae in 3-D, from the inside out.
Alarm Clock

Adding extra second to 2015 could cause computer chaos

Reddit, Linkedin and other websites were hit by problems by the last leap second, in 2012
The year 2015 will have an extra second - which could wreak havoc on the infrastructure powering the internet.

At 11.59 on June 30, clocks will count up all the way to 60 seconds. That will allow the Earth's spin to catch up with atomic time.

The Earth's spin is gradually slowing down, by about two thousandths of a second per day, but atomic clocks are constant. That means that occasionally years have to be lengthened slightly, to allow the slowing Earth to catch up with the constant clock.

But last time it happened, in 2012, it took down much of the internet. Reddit, Foursquare, Yelp and LinkedIn all reported problems, and so did the Linux operating system and programmes using Java.

The reset has happened 25 times since they were introduced in 1972, but the computer problems are getting more serious as increasing numbers of computers sync up with atomic clocks. Those computers and servers are then shown the same second twice in a row - throwing them into a panic.

If a computer is told to do an operation at the time that is repeated, for instance, the computer is unsure what to do. Or if an email is received in that moment, it could find its way in the wrong bit of the server.

Last time, Google anticipated the problem and built a smart update, which it called "leap smear". It modified its servers so that they would add a little bit of extra time every time they were updated, so that by the time of the leap second they were already caught up with the new time. It said when it laid out the plan in 2011 that it would use the same technique in the future, when new leap seconds are announced.

Leap seconds were initially added at least once a year, but have slowed since 1979. The US wants to get rid of them entirely, arguing that they cause too much disruption, but others have opposed the change.

Britain, for example, has said that the leap second should stay. Getting rid of it would mean the end of Greenwich Mean Time, which is measured by the sun and would no longer be accurate.
Cloud Lightning

Forecasters to use number of lightening strikes to predict supercell formation

A jump in lightning strikes inside a thunderstorm might be a severe weather early warning, says research by Sarah Stough, a UAH graduate student in atmospheric science.
A sudden jump in the number of lightning strikes inside a garden-variety thunderstorm might soon give forecasters a new tool for predicting severe weather and issuing timely warnings, according to research at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

The sudden increase in lightning is one sign a normal storm is rapidly evolving into a supercell, with a large rotating updraft - or mesocyclone - at its heart.

"Supercells are more prone to produce severe weather events, including damaging straight line winds and large hail," said Sarah Stough, a UAH graduate student in atmospheric science. "Supercells also produce the strongest and most deadly tornadoes."

Comment: Considering the bizarre weather being witnessed globally, even minutes of advance warning and preparation could mean the difference between life and death for many. Here is a map showing storms around the world in the past month: