Making Unique Observations in a Very Cluttered World

Monday, 15 July 2013

Robots to revolutionize farming, ease labor woes... -

Robots to revolutionize farming, ease labor woes... - 

On a windy morning in California's Salinas Valley, a tractor pulled a wheeled, metal contraption over rows of budding iceberg lettuce plants. Engineers from Silicon Valley tinkered with the software on a laptop to ensure the machine was eliminating the right leafy buds.

The engineers were testing the Lettuce Bot, a machine that can "thin" a field of lettuce in the time it takes about 20 workers to do the job by hand.

The thinner is part of a new generation of machines that target the last frontier of agricultural mechanization - fruits and vegetables destined for the fresh market, not processing, which have thus far resisted mechanization because they're sensitive to bruising.

Researchers are now designing robots for these most delicate crops by integrating advanced sensors, powerful computing, electronics, computer vision, robotic hardware and algorithms, as well as networking and high precision GPS localization technologies. Most ag robots won't be commercially available for at least a few years.

In this region known as America's Salad Bowl, where for a century fruits and vegetables have been planted, thinned and harvested by an army of migrant workers, the machines could prove revolutionary.

Farmers say farm robots could provide relief from recent labor shortages, lessen the unknowns of immigration reform, even reduce costs, increase quality and yield a more consistent product.

"There aren't enough workers to take the available jobs, so the robots can come and alleviate some of that problem," said Ron Yokota, a farming operations manager at Tanimura & Antle, the Salinas-based fresh produce company that owns the field where the Lettuce Bot was being tested.

Many sectors in U.S. agriculture have relied on machines for decades and even the harvesting of fruits and vegetables meant for processing has slowly been mechanized. But nationwide, the vast majority of fresh-market fruit is still harvested by hand.

Research into fresh produce mechanization was dormant for years because of an over-abundance of workers and pressures from farmworker labor unions.

In recent years, as the labor supply has tightened and competition from abroad has increased, growers have sought out machines to reduce labor costs and supplement the nation's unstable agricultural workforce. The federal government, venture capital companies and commodity boards have stepped up with funding.

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Smart Diaper Can Monitor Baby's Health -

Smart Diaper Can Monitor Baby's Health - 

A couple with two children has enlisted a team of scientists and engineers to develop a high tech diaper that can monitor a baby's health by revealing signs of urinary tract infections, dehydration and developing kidney problems. The new startup company, which is called Smart Diapers, utilizes a QR code on a baby's diaper to collect data which is then sent to the parents' smart phone, allowing them to send the information directly to their pediatrician for a diagnosis. 
On their indiegogo site, the developers say, "Our goal is not to create another quantified self gadget but to create a product that is unobtrusive in you daily life and only speaks up when there is a reason to see a pediatrician or specialist." 
The company is currently raising funds to conduct a study with the University of California San Francisco Benoiff Children's Hospital to monitor babies in the pediatric ICU. 

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PRE-CRIME: Brain scans may identify prison inmates likely to reoffend... -

PRE-CRIME: Brain scans may identify prison inmates likely to reoffend... - 

It began with a casual question that neuroscientist Kent Kiehl posed to a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory who had been conducting brain scans on New Mexico prison inmates.

"I asked, 'Does ACC activity predict the risk of reoffending?'" Kiehl recalls, using the scientific shorthand for the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain structure associated with error processing.

The postdoctoral fellow, Eyal Aharoni, decided to find out. When he compared 96 inmates whose brains had been monitored while they performed a test that measures impulsiveness, he discovered a stark contrast: Those with low ACC activity were about twice as likely to commit crimes within four years of being released as those with high ACC activity.

"We cannot say with certainty that all who are in the high-risk category will reoffend — just that most will," Kiehl says. "It has very big implications for how we think about treatment and rehabilitation."

The study is the latest paper from Kiehl's lab reporting on experiments performed in a powerful functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner mounted in a semi-trailer. Kiehl and his team at the nonprofit Mind Research Network have used the scanner to study the brains of nearly 3,000 convicted criminals at facilities in New Mexico and Wisconsin since 2007.

Each inmate who volunteers for testing is paid a small hourly stipend and receives a copy of the brain scan, Kiehl says. But the scan is just part of a lengthy process in which Kiehl's assistants interview the inmates, review their prison files and assign scores on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, a standard test for measuring psychopathy.

The MRI trailer is parked in a secure area of the prison compound, but no guards are present during the testing, Kiehl says. "Our staff are trained in prison security protocols," he says.

The trove of data they have gathered has revealed telltale abnormalities in the structure and functioning of psychopaths' brains. On the whole, they have less gray matter in the paralimbic system — believed to help regulate emotion — which may help account for their characteristic glibness, pathological lying, lack of empathy and tendency to act impulsively.

Kiehl often briefs judges and legal groups on his findings and has consulted in more than 100 criminal cases where, for example, psychopathy might be raised as a mitigating factor to account for a defendant's impaired self-control.

The mere suggestion that it might be possible to predict future criminal behavior may conjure up such futuristic films as "Minority Report," but Kiehl cautioned that the new study merely averages test results from a large group and cannot at this point predict whether any particular individual will reoffend.

But with further refinement, he says, brain imaging might one day be considered in civil commitment proceedings, where convicted sexual offenders can be held indefinitely if it is believed they have a propensity to reoffend.

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