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Alt-week 2.16.13: robo-rats, a young black hole and a computer that cannot crash


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Alt-week peels back the covers on some of the more curious sci-tech stories from the last seven days.

Seven days, 26,000 lightyears, 637 languages, two groups of terrorised rats and one computer that never, ever crashes. We're light on intro, heavy of the numbers. You know the drill by now, this is Alt-week.

It's common for mice and rats to be the subject of testing during research ultimately intended to benefit humans. Something which makes this first story all the more worrying. Researchers at Waseda University in Tokyo have created a robotic "Terminator Rat" designed to torment its biological rodent counterparts. The team set the cyber-rat loose on two different groups of the furry subjects. One group was harassed constantly, while the other, slightly luckier set, only received "intermittent" abuse. Fear not, however, as the object of the research isn't to test out future cyborg oppressors. Instead the idea is to model different psychological conditions that could assist in the development of antidepressants. A relief for us, perhaps, but not much consolation for the poor test subjects. It's also worth making sure that your boss doesn't find out the results. According to team, led by Hiroyuki Ishii, the rats under constant attack suffered less stress than the group receiving more lenient punishment.

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In other -- slightly less mean sounding -- research, an algorithm has been developed at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver that can rewind the evolution of languages, giving us a better understanding of how ancient dialects may have sounded. Working with probabilistic models, the algorithms were tested on words from 637 Austronesian languages, and over 85 percent of the generated reconstructions were within one character of those manually provided by a specialized linguist. The new technique could assist with automated translation, as well as unpicking a language's evolutionary progress. It's not just about a better understanding of communication over the ages, either, as the timeline of a language can also play a useful role in determining the order of pre-history events, such as the movement of populations over a continent.

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On a cosmic scale, the odd meteorite shower is a fairly modest event. Supernovas, on the other hand, truly run with the big boys. The picture below shows the remnants of one such event -- called W49B -- that happened 26,000 light-years away from Earth. But it's NASA's description of this as a "rare explosion" that hints at there being more to this than an astronomic postcard picture. New data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory indicates that this distorted supernova remnant potentially hosts the youngest black hole in our galaxy. Why so rare? Well the asymmetrical spread of matter suggests it was ejected from the top and bottom of the star faster than elsewhere, unlike typical supernova remnants that leave symmetrical patterns. The juvenile black hole would be only a 1,000 years old as seen from earth, much more recent than other examples such as SS433, another potential host estimated to be between 17,000 and 22,000 years old from our perspective.

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If you've got this far in one go, then that likely means your device hasn't crashed. Thankfully, as technology matures this modern phenomenon is hopefully on the decline. A new computer in operation at University College London, however, claims to be able to reprogram itself in a way that means it will never crash. The "systemic" machine operates very differently to conventional PCs and desktops, which execute instructions in an ordered, linear fashion. UCL's system takes its inspiration from the distributed and decentralised patterns often found in nature. Essentially, data is coupled up with information on what to do with it. These pairings are then set up as pods of "systems" bundled in with contextual data linking it to similar sets of instructions. A pseudorandom number generator tells the computer when to run any of these systems, which can be done simultaneously. The crash-proof part comes from multiple copies of these instruction sets being distributed throughout the system, so if one tanks, there's a fresh copy of it waiting in the wings. The technique could ultimately lead to machines that can repair and adapt after damage, too. No one tell Skynet.

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Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

[Image credits: PNAS / University of British Columbia, Chandra X-ray Observatory]

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