A nest is “a disordered stick bomb,” resilient in ways that humans have hardly begun to understand, much less emulate.

 

The term “bird’s nest” has come to describe a messy hairdo, tangled fishing line and other unspeakably knotty conundrums. But that does birds an injustice. Their tiny brains, dense with neurons, produce marvels that have long captured scientific interest as naturally selected engineering solutions — yet nests are still not well understood.

 

One effort to disentangle the structural dynamics of the nest is underway in the sunny yellow lab — the Mechanical Biomimetics and Open Design Lab — of Hunter King, an experimental soft-matter physicist at the University of Akron in Ohio.

 

“We hypothesize that a bird nest might effectively be a disordered stick bomb, with just enough stored energy to keep it rigid,” Dr. King said. He is the principal investigator of an ongoing study, with a preliminary review paper, “Mechanics of randomly packed filaments — The ‘bird nest’ as meta-material,” recently published in the Journal of Applied Physics.

 

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A psychological theory could kickstart improvements in the way robots are able to walk, thanks to a University of Manchester study.

 

The study – a unique collaboration between a clinical psychologist, robotics engineers and a robotics entrepreneur is published in the Journal of Intelligent and Robotic Systems. It analyzed what happens when standard algorithms driving a self-balancing robot – made from simple Lego – were replaced with those based on ‘perceptual control theory’.

 

The theory was encoded into the little droid, allowing it to control what it sensed so that it moved around more effectively, just as humans and other animals can. Though the robot moves on two wheels, it is an ‘inverted pendulum’, which requires nimble balancing in a similar way to how our bodies are kept upright when we walk. So, the better the robot can balance, the better prepared it will be for walking like a human.

 

In the study, the more lifelike robot balanced more accurately, more promptly and more efficiently than its rivals by assessing its environment at least 100 times a second. It also moved to a new location, even when disturbed by sideways nudges, more effectively than its competitors.

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To date, teaching a robot to perform a task has usually involved either direct coding, trial-and-error tests or handholding the machine. Soon, though, you might just have to perform that task like you would any other day. MIT scientists have developed a system, Planning with Uncertain Specifications (PUnS), that helps bots learn complicated tasks when they’d otherwise stumble, such as setting the dinner table. Instead of the usual method where the robot receives rewards for performing the right actions, PUnS has the bot hold "beliefs" over a variety of specifications and use a language (linear temporal logic) that lets it reason about what it has to do right now and in the future.

 

To nudge the robot toward the right outcome, the team set criteria that helps the robot satisfy its overall beliefs. The criteria can satisfy the formulas with the highest probability, the greatest number of formulas or even those with the least chance of failure. A designer could optimize a robot for safety if it’s working with hazardous materials, or consistent quality if it’s a factory model.

 

MIT’s system is much more effective than traditional approaches in early testing. A PUnS-based robot only made six mistakes in 20,000 attempts at setting the table, even when the researchers threw in complications like hiding a fork — the automaton just finished the rest of the tasks and came back to the fork when it popped up. In that way, it demonstrated a human-like ability to set a clear overall goal and improvise.

 

The developers ultimately want the system to not only learn by watching, but react to feedback. You could give it verbal corrections or a critique of its performance, for instance. That will involve much more work, but it hints at a future where your household robots could adapt to new duties by watching you set an example.

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The world’s hardest-hit countries are trying a variety of measures to stop the spread of the virus. Here’s how they’re doing.

 

Milan, Italy. Daegu, South Korea. Qom, Iran. Many of the world’s largest coronavirus outbreaks took root in and around well-traveled cities, but they have since grown to encompass entire countries.

Cases have spread across Italy’s north and down to Rome, leading to a lockdown of the entire country. Iran’s capital, where leaders dismissed the virus just two weeks ago, has seen thousands infected. And cases continue to surge across Europe.

 

The outbreaks are not all heading in the same direction. South Korea has managed to slow growth of new cases for now, through intensive testing and monitoring of infections. Italy, Iran and the United States are still reporting large numbers of new cases every day.

 

Official case totals are an imperfect method of judging the world’s outbreaks. Every country has more cases than it has been able to detect through lab tests. And a shortage of testing kits in some countries, like Indonesia and the United States, along with a lack of public disclosure in others, like Egypt, means official reports are probably masking large outbreaks.

 

Here’s the extent of some of the largest outbreaks in the world and information on how these countries are trying to slow the spread of the virus.

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Doctors are using brain scanners to ask patients who cannot speak about their treatment wishes

 

When a person sustains a severe brain injury that leaves them unable to communicate, their families and doctors often have to make life-or-death decisions about their care for them. Now brain scanners are being tested in intensive care to see if mind-reading can enable some patients to have their say, New Scientist can exclusively reveal.

 

At the moment, doctors ask the families of people who have a poor prognosis and cannot communicate if they think their relatives would want to continue life-sustaining treatments such as being on a ventilator. “Life would be so much easier if you could just ask the person,” says Adrian Owen at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

 

Owen’s team previously developed a brain-scanning approach for a much smaller group of people – those in states between consciousness and being in a coma, for example, those in a vegetative state. Such people show few signs of awareness and have to be fed through a tube.

 

Owen found that some of these people can direct their thoughts in response to instructions, which can be picked up on brain scans. If someone is asked to imagine playing tennis, for instance, the part of their brain involved in movement lights up in the scan. This has let him and other teams ask those who are able to respond in this way yes/no questions, which can give people a say over their living conditions. About a fifth of people the technique is tried on can respond.

 

Owen is now using the same technique on people who are in intensive care in the first few days after sustaining a severe brain injury. In such circumstances, just over a quarter of people end up having their treatment withdrawn due to a poor prognosis. For example, in some cases, doctors may predict that if the person survives, they would be paralyzed and unable to speak. “A decision will typically be made in the first 10 days about whether to go on or pull the plug,” says Owen.

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More than half of mainland China’s Covid-19 patients did not have a fever when admitted to hospital, a leading researcher said on Saturday, calling on the Hong Kong government to introduce social distancing measures such as flexible lunch hours when civil servants resume work next week, as the city recorded its 95th infection.

 

Chinese University respiratory medicine expert Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, who co-authored the study, also urged for more tests to be conducted in private and public clinics to enable early detection and isolation of suspected cases after the study findings showed more than 80 per cent of coronavirus inpatients had reduced lymphocyte count in their blood.

 

Hong Kong has been battling the spread of a novel strain of coronavirus, which causes the disease Covid-19. The newest case, announced by the Centre for Health Protection late on Saturday, concerned a 46-year-old woman admitted to United Christian Hospital in Kwun Tong. She is the daughter-in-law of a 70-year-old woman infected on Thursday after visiting the Fook Wai Ching She Buddhist worship hall. The infection was the 15th related to the North Point venue.

 

“She developed sore throat today and her deep throat saliva specimen was tested positive for Covid-19 virus,” the center said in a statement. It said the woman was in a stable condition. She had not travelled during the virus’s incubation period, and did not visit the worship hall. Her husband and son, who live with her, were also under quarantine.

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Doctors used CRISPR to edit genes of cells inside a patient’s eye, hoping to restore vision to a person blinded by a rare genetic disorder. A similar strategy might work for some brain diseases.

 

For the first time, scientists have used the gene-editing technique CRISPR to try to edit a gene while the DNA is still inside a person’s body. The groundbreaking procedure involved injecting the microscopic gene-editing tool into the eye of a patient blinded by a rare genetic disorder, in hopes of enabling the volunteer to see. They hope to know within weeks whether the approach is working and, if so, to know within two or three months how much vision will be restored.

 

 

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Coronavirus can kill, but experts are still puzzling over how deadly the disease it causes truly is. Seoul’s aggressive screening regime might hold the answer.

 

Within a month of confirming its first case of Covid-19 on January 20, South Korea had tested nearly 8,000 people suspected of infection with the new coronavirus that causes the disease. A little over a week later, that number had soared to 82,000 as health officials mobilized to carry out as many 10,000 tests each day Neighboring Japan on the other hand, tested only a fraction of that number, with fewer than 2,000 people checked on any given day since the beginning of its outbreak in late January. So far, more than 6,000 cases have been confirmed in South Korea and over 1,000 in Japan, if you include the  Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in the Port of Yokohoma.
 
In the United States, where the number of confirmed cases has surpassed 100, health authorities had as recently as this week tested fewer than 500 people in total, hindered by legal and technical barriers to mass screening.
 
Which is where South Korea’s massive testing effort can come in, providing a valuable reference point for public health experts around the world who are starved of hard data – offering potentially the most comprehensive picture yet of the threat posed by Covid-19 to the general public.

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Astronomers have validated their first exoplanet with the Habitable Zone Planet Finder instrument on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, one of the world’s largest telescopes, located at The University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory.

 

About twice the size of Earth and possibly 12 times as massive, the planet could be similar to Neptune, but in miniature. Called G 9-40b, it orbits a small star called a red dwarf about 100 light-years from Earth. It completes a full orbit every six Earth days.

 

 

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