Robot Rights: We've all heard the amusing anecdotes about people saying please and minding their manners when speaking to Siri. But our emotional responses in interactions with machines may go further than mere politeness. While it's true that we still think nothing of tossing out an old remote-control car, new research at MIT is finding that humans become disturbed when more sophisticated and social robots come to harm. In light of such findings, scientists have begun thinking seriously about codes of ethics for robotics. The time when philosophers, lawyers, and the general public will have to grapple with such issues seemingly isn't far off.
Ring Around The Moon?: Yet another example of a dawning Golden Age for the private space industry. A Japanese firm is proposing to orbit a ring of solar collectors around the moon and transmit the energy back to Earth. In light of the citizen backlash against nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster, I can't help but wonder if there might be a new boom in Japanese green energy projects.
The Clocks In Your Brain: Scientists have long known that a part of the brain called the hippocampus plays an important role in keeping track of memories of the past and may be important to actually keeping track of time as well. But a new experiment in which the the functioning of the hippocampus was blocked in rats is helping scientists to understand more about how our brains perceive and measure time. And things may not be quite as simple as first thought.
Floating Around The World: A firm based in Florida has plans to build a mile-long floating city that would boast 50,000 permanent residents. It would come complete with an airport, docking facilities, restaurants, schools, a hospital, and all the other comforts of home and would make one complete circuit around the world every two years.
The Aliens That Used To Exist: One factor that is seldom considered in the search for life in the universe is that we have to contend with unimaginably vast amounts of time along with the unimaginably vast distances. A civilization that died out a million years ago obviously won't be communicating with us. Fortunately, astrobiologists are developing a more sophisticated understanding of how life changes a planet's atmosphere, knowledge that may help us search for those alien life forms that used to exist but don't any longer. Of course, even the discovery of alien life that's currently extinct would be monumental, since it would be proof that life could and did evolve in a location other than Earth.
How Life Changes The Land: The presence of life not only changes the atmosphere, but also constantly affects and reshapes the land. Sophisticated new computer models are letting planetary scientists in Germany learn more about how biological life affected the physical evolution of the Earth's surface.
A Digital Lollipop: Digital technology already does a good job with sight and hearing and engineers are at work trying to replicate touch and smell too. But what about taste? Researchers in Singapore are working on ways to digitally reproduce the sense of taste and, surprisingly, the problem doesn't even seem to be all that complicated.
The Psychopath In You: Finally this week, imagine that you're a prominent neuroscientist. Now imagine that you're studying the brains of psychopaths. Now imagine that due to another research project, you happen to have brain scans for yourself and members of your family on hand. Now suppose you come to a brain scan that's an obvious textbook example of a psychopath and it is a scan for one of your family members. Suppose further that you just couldn't resist using that little number on the brain scan to find out which member of your family it belonged to. So then you type in the number of the brain scan, the one that is from a psychopath, and you discover that it's yours.
In the rush to push everything online, not many people think about the "digital divide" in technology and how offering only online options excludes many people. But a new study by the Pew Research Center's Internet Project confirms that around 15 percent of people aged 18 and over do not use the Internet. Reasons range from finding the Internet challenging or frustrating to a lack of computer know-how to a lack of physical access to the Internet caused by financial or other factors.
Even when we can make everything high-tech, there are often serious questions about whether we should. From the "One Nation Under Surveillance" Department comes this story about using technology in classrooms not to enhance the learning experience, but to track students' every move. Because it's not as if today's kids have enough to worry about already with attending militarized schools, being under constant surveillance, and being over-scheduled by their neurotic and hyper-obsessive helicopter parents. Not to mention the frequent searches and ever-present fear of arrest if you dare think about playing cops and robbers with pretend guns.
Even when we have the ability to go high-tech and when it's a good idea to do so, we need to be careful about how the technology is deployed, since our computer networks are threatened by the same hackers, spies, and rogues that plague the offline world. Cyber-security is becoming not only a big issue, but big business as well, with some security professionals reportedly making hundreds of dollars an hour. As this story from the Christian Science Monitor points out, the creation of such a "cyber industrial complex" raises some serious concerns, not the least of which is increased worries about our privacy and civil liberties being attacked in the name of over-hyped threats.
Admittedly, this week's Science Friday has started out on something of a gloomy note. Okay, here's something cool. As National Geographic celebrates its 125th anniversary, take a look at just a few of the stunning photographs that its photographers have taken over the decades. The photography is one of many reasons that I collect them and have over 400 at last count.
A recent study co-authored by a space physicist at UCLA has made some fascinating new discoveries about space weather and the Northern/Southern lights.
There is increasing interest in the colonization of Mars, but what would it actually be like to live there? Since terraforming is only an option in the longer term, the first settlers would face a challenging life, including planet-wide dust storms, a harsh climate even in the best of times, and the need to be prepared for any possible technological failure that could threaten human survival. Since humans evolved on and have adapted over thousands of years to life on Earth, there would also have to be some of Earth incorporated into the daily routine as much as possible as this story points out.
Some people aren't content to settle for Mars. There's a small but growing community of people who are keenly interested in a possible manned mission to Europa -- and they aren't necessarily willing to sit back and wait for NASA to take an interest.