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Sunday, 18 April 2010

Technology updates, 04.2010

First of all - check out this awesome video! This rat is actually laughing!!!

You can find more about the video at link.
Today:

  1. Rudiments of Language Discovered in Monkeys
  2. Scientists say dolphins should be treated as non-human persons
  3. Experts: Man controlled robotic hand with thoughts
  4. Scientists use virus to kill cancer cells while leaving normal cells intact
  5. 'Rock-breathing' bacteria could generate electricity and clean up oil spills
  6. Micromachined piezoelectric harvester drives fully autonomous wireless sensor

Rudiments of Language Discovered in Monkeys

Campbell’s monkeys appear to combine the same calls in different ways, using rules of grammar that turn sound into language. Whether their rudimentary syntax echoes the speech of humanity’s evolutionary ancestors, or represents an emergence of language unrelated to our own, is unclear. Either way, they’re far more sophisticated than we thought.

“This is the first evidence we have in animal communication that they can combine, in a semantic way, different calls to create a new message,” said Alban Lemasson, a primatologist at the University of Rennes in France.

Lemasson’s team previously described the monkeys’ use of calls with specific meanings in a paper published in November. It detailed the monkeys’ basic sound structures and their uses: “Hok” for eagle, “krak” for leopard, “krak-oo” for general disturbance, “hok-oo” and “wak-oo” for general disturbance in forest canopies. A sixth call, “boom,” was used in non-predatory contexts, such as when calling a group together for travel or arguing with neighboring groups.

Impressive as that was, however, it was still relatively one-dimensional, not much different from verbalizations heard in many animal species, from other non-human primates to songbirds. The team’s latest findings, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describe something far more complicated: syntax, or principles of word sequence and sentence structure.

Though some researchers have ascribed syntax to animals, it’s never been formally demonstrated — until now.

For example, male monkeys called “boom boom” to gather other monkeys to them, but “boom boom krak-oo krak-oo” meant that a tree or branch was about to fall. Adding a “hak-oo” to that sequence turned it into a territorial warning against stray monkeys from neigboring groups. Multiple “krak-oo” calls added to an original “krak” meant not only that a leopard was in the area, but that it posed an immediate threat.

The research raises the question of whether early humans or our primate ancestors combined calls in a similar way, turning a small set of sounds into a rich verbal reportoire.

According to Lemasson and to Jared Taglialatela, a chimpanzee communication researcher at Clayton State University, it’s too soon to say whether the monkey talk is proto-human.

“I’d shy away from that. But this is certainly syntax,” said Taglialatela, who was not involved in the study. But he described the proto-human question as secondary to a far more intriguing possibility: that the potential for language is widespread in the animal kingdom.

Lemasson’s analysis was based on a vast set of recordings, gathered from 10 monkey groups observed for two full years in their African rain forest homes.

Lemasson, who is further investigating Campbell’s monkey talk by measuring their reactions to recorded calls, suspects that a dense jungle environment drove the evolution of syntax. Since the monkeys had trouble seeing each other, they compensated by talking.

The same compensatory dynamic could operate in other species, such as whales that live in mostly sunless waters, he said. source

My comment: I agree, it's much more interesting if language is something widespread in the animals kingdom, because then, one more boundary we put between humans and animals will fall. After the view and sound of laughing rats, I'm ready to bet on that. Though for me, it's very possible that animals have also a very well defined body language, because when they see each other, it's clear they don't need a sound to know what others are up to.

Scientists say dolphins should be treated as non-human persons

January 6, 2010 by Lin Edwards
(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists studying dolphin behavior have suggested they could be the most intelligent creatures on Earth after humans, saying the size of their brains in relation to body size is larger than that of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, and their behaviors suggest complex intelligence. One scientist said they should therefore be treated as "non-human persons" and granted rights as individuals.

The behavioral studies showed (especially the bottlenose) have distinct personalities and self-awareness, and they can think about the future. The research also confirmed dolphins have complex social structures, with individuals co-operating to solve difficult problems or to round up shoals of fish to eat, and with new behaviors being passed from one dolphin to another.

Several examples of learning being passed on to other individuals have been observed. In one case a rescued dolphin in South Australia, taught to tail-walk during recuperation, in turn taught the trick to other wild dolphins in the Port Adelaide river estuary when she was released. According to Mike Bossley it was "like watching a dance craze take off", with the dolphins apparently learning the trick just for fun, since tail-walking has no natural function.

Work carried out by professor of psychology at the City University of New York, Diana Reiss, showed dolphins could recognize themselves in a mirror, and could use it to inspect other parts of their bodies, an ability previously only demonstrated in humans and a few animals such as apes, elephants and pigs. In another study Reiss was able to teach captive dolphins a rudimentary language based on symbols.

In anatomical studies of the dolphin, zoologist Lori Marino and colleagues from Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia in the US, used MRI () scans to map the brains of dolphins and compare them with the brains of primates. She found the ratio of dolphin brain mass to body size to be second only to the human brain, which means dolphin brains are relatively larger than those of chimpanzees.

The neocortex and cerebral cortex of the bottlenose dolphins were particularly large and the cortex had similar convoluted folds to those found in human brains and strongly associated with intelligence.

Reiss and Marino say their behavioral and anatomical findings and our new understanding of dolphin intelligence mean it may not be ethical to keep dolphins in aquatic amusement parks for our entertainment, or to kill them for food. Around 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die each year, with some being killed for food, such as the annual killing of thousands of dolphins and small whales in Taijii, Japan, or even to prove the manhood of those killing them, such as the slaughter of Calderon dolphins at Faroe Island, in Denmark. source

My comment:I completely agree with that article. Completely. I hope someone, somehow manage to stop the killing of large marine species, simply because, we don't know them, ok? We cannot be sure that they are not even as intelligent as we are. I mean, obviously, they don't build nuclear plants and skyscrapers, but that's not exactly a measure for intelligence, right? Many societies would build them, no matter how advanced, simply because they don't need them and they don't like them. Maybe they are like us, maybe they are not. But hey, they taught each other stuff merely for the fun of it! That's not something that an animal does! It's much much more. And after all - we don't need to eat dolphins or whales! Then why killing them.

Experts: Man controlled robotic hand with thoughts

By ARIEL DAVID, Associated Press Writer Ariel David, Associated Press Writer Wed Dec 2, 5:06 pm ET

ROME – An Italian who lost his left forearm in a car crash was successfully linked to a robotic hand, allowing him to feel sensations in the artificial limb and control it with his thoughts, scientists said Wednesday.

During a one-month experiment conducted last year, 26-year-old Pierpaolo Petruzziello felt like his lost arm had grown back again, although he was only controlling a robotic hand that was not even attached to his body.

"It's a matter of mind, of concentration," Petruzziello said. "When you think of it as your hand and forearm, it all becomes easier."

Though similar experiments have been successful before, the European scientists who led the project say this was the first time a patient has been able to make such complex movements using his mind to control a biomechanic hand connected to his nervous system.

The challenge for scientists now will be to create a system that can connect a patient's nervous system and a prosthetic limb for years, not just a month.

The Italy-based team said at a news conference in Rome on Wednesday that in 2008 it implanted electrodes into the nerves located in what remained of Petruzziello's left arm, which was cut off in a crash some three years ago.

The prosthetic was not implanted on the patient, only connected through the electrodes. During the news conference, video was shown of Petruzziello as he concentrated to give orders to the hand placed next to him.

During the month he had the electrodes connected, he learned to wiggle the robotic fingers independently, make a fist, grab objects and make other movements.

After Petruzziello recovered from the microsurgery he underwent to implant the electrodes in his arm, it only took him a few days to master use of the robotic hand, Rossini said. By the time the experiment was over, the hand obeyed the commands it received from the man's brain in 95 percent of cases.

Petruzziello, an Italian who lives in Brazil, said the feedback he got from the hand was amazingly accurate.

"It felt almost the same as a real hand. They stimulated me a lot, even with needles ... you can't imagine what they did to me," he joked with reporters.

While the "LifeHand" experiment lasted only a month, this was the longest time electrodes had remained connected to a human nervous system in such an experiment, said Silvestro Micera, one of the engineers on the team. Similar, shorter-term experiments in 2004-2005 hooked up amputees to a less-advanced robotic arm with a pliers-shaped end, and patients were only able to make basic movements, he said.

Experts around the world have developed other thought-controlled prostheses. One approach used in the United States involves surgery to graft shoulder nerves onto pectoral muscles and then learning to use those muscles to control a bionic arm.

While that approach is necessary when the whole arm has been lost, if a stump survives doctors could opt for the less invasive method proposed by the Italians, connecting the prosthesis to the same system the brain uses to send and receive signals.

It will take at least two or three years before scientists try to replicate the experiment with a more long-term prosthesis, the experts said. First they need to study if the hair-thin electrodes can be kept in longer.

Results from the experiment are encouraging, as the electrodes removed from Petruzziello showed no damage and could well stay in longer, said Klaus-Peter Hoffmann, a biomedical expert at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the German research institute that developed the electrodes.

More must also be done to miniaturize the technology on the arm and the bulky machines that translate neural and digital signals between the robot and the patient. source

My comment: Of course, he's going to feel the arm as his own, after all what is our body if not a very well built machine, that we learn to master from the beginning of our life. It's natural for the brain to connect with different hardware. I found myself feeling the mouse as a continuation of my hand! But anyway, good work and I hope they continue it soon.

Scientists use virus to kill cancer cells while leaving normal cells intact

December 3, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A virus that in nature infects only rabbits could become a cancer-fighting tool for humans. Myxoma virus kills cancerous blood-precursor cells in human bone marrow while sparing normal blood stem cells, a multidisciplinary team at the University of Florida College of Medicine has found.

The discovery could help make more patients eligible for self-transplant therapy and reduce disease relapse rates after transplantation.

“This is a new strategy to remove cancer cells before the transplant,” said virologist Grant McFadden, senior author of the paper and a member of the UF Genetics Institute. “This is the first time anyone has shown in a living animal that a can distinguish normal bone marrow stem cells from cancerous stem cells.”

The major therapeutic applications will likely be for blood cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma and bone marrow cancers, the researchers say.

In mouse studies, myxoma virus was used to purge from leukemia patient bone marrow samples before they were infused into the test animals. The technique was effective against an aggressive form of leukemia that is resistant to conventional chemotherapy.

Today, patients who have certain types of cancer such as acute myelogenous leukemia are usually treated with using high doses of chemotherapy. But that can destroy the patient’s own immune system unless he or she receives a transplant of blood stem cells, which can be from the patient’s own marrow samples or from a donor.

Although reinfusion of a patient’s own bone marrow stem cells is generally safer in the short run, those patients are at high risk of dying from return of disease because of leukemia contaminating the infused bone marrow.

Previous methods to remove contaminating cancer cells from bone marrow have resulted in loss or damage of normal blood-forming stem cells.

The UF team’s work demonstrates that a live virus can be used to target diseased cells and separate them from normal cells in a gentler way than currently used.

When the researchers mixed healthy human stem cells with myxoma virus they did not become infected, and their development potential was not stunted. On the other hand, most of the leukemia cells that were subjected to the same treatment became infected and their growth and spread was dramatically restricted.

The virus was able to eliminate the cancer from 90 percent of the test mice, and was shown to be safe when it did not infect even animals whose immune systems were severely compromised.

It is possible that re-infusing patients with marrow in which cells were killed by viruses might vaccinate those patients against the tumor, which becomes detectable by the immune system, researchers said. source

My comment: Cool, what more can I say. Really cool. I just hope that virus won't find a way to enjoy its life in humans, because that would suck.

'Rock-breathing' bacteria could generate electricity and clean up oil spills

December 14, 2009

A discovery by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) could contribute to the development of systems that use domestic or agricultural waste to generate clean electricity.

The findings could be applied to help in the development of new microbe-based technologies such as fuel cells, or 'bio-batteries', powered by animal or human waste, and agents to clean up areas polluted by oil or uranium.

The vast proportion of the world's habitable environments is populated by micro-organisms which, unlike humans, can survive without oxygen. Some of these micro-organisms are bacteria living deep in the Earth's subsurface and surviving by 'breathing rocks' - especially minerals of iron.

Iron respiration is one of the most common respiratory processes in oxygen-free habitats and therefore has wide environmental significance.

Prof Richardson said: "We discovered that the bacteria can construct tiny biological wires that extend through the cell walls and allow the organism to directly contact, and conduct electrons to, a mineral. This means that the bacteria can release electrical charge from inside the cell into the mineral, much like the earth wire on a household plug." source

My comment: Iron respiration, huh? Sounds pretty nice to me :) I don't get how they survive on this, it's more like they produce electricity, but after all, what is oxygen for - for energy. If they can produce energy in another way, they won't need the oxygen. And obviously they can. I don't know how useful they could be, but considering the growing stockpile of radioactive waste, we desperately need something to clean it up.

Micromachined piezoelectric harvester drives fully autonomous wireless sensor

December 15, 2009
For the first time, a piezoelectric harvesting device fabricated by MEMS technology generates a record of 85μW electrical power from vibrations. A wafer level packaging method was developed for robustness. The packaged MEMS-based harvester is used to power a wireless sensor node. Within the Holst Centre program on Micropower Generation and Storage, imec researchers developed a temperature sensor that can wirelessly transmit data in a fully autonomous way.

Micromachined vibrational energy harvesters operating in the frequency domain between 150 and 1000Hz are ideal devices to convert vibrations from machines, engines and other industrial appliances into electricity. Thanks to their smaller dimensions, the micromachined devices are the prefered candidates for powering miniaturized autonomous sensor nodes.

By using cost-effective, CMOS compatible processes on 6' silicon wafers, developed piezoelectric energy harvesters capable of generating up to 85μW of power.

The piezoelectric harvester was connected to a wireless temperature sensor, built op from of-the-shelf components. After power optimization, the consumption of the sensor was reduced from 1.5mW to ±10μW, which is an improvement by three orders of magnitude. When subjected to vibrations at 353Hz at 0.64g (indicating a realistic amplitude of the vibrations), the system generated sufficient power to measure the environmental temperature and transmit it to a base station with an interval of fifteen seconds. The result proves the feasibility of building fully autonomous harvesters for industrial applications.

Once fully mature, the technology can be used to power sensors in industrial applications such as tire-pressure monitoring and predictive maintenance of moving or rotating machine parts. Imec and Holst Centre do not go to market themselves, but perform the research together with industrial players interested in commercializing the technology. source

My comment: Yeah, nice, the only problem is who's going to regulate the use of those tiny sensors. I mean, the technology is really a step forward, what bothers me is that it will allow not only the monitoring of the tires pressure, but of other stuff, not all of which we would like them monitored.

In New Way to Edit DNA, Hope for Treating Disease

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