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Nadia Thalmann

'Social Robots' May One Day Help Your Doctor

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Nadia Thalmann

When a strikingly realistic humanoid robot named Nadine made her public debut last month in Singapore, the world reacted with fascination—and a bit of unease. Something like Apple’s Siri in human form, Nadine has soft, life-like facial features and relatively authentic human expressions. She can remember names and faces and even recognize and express emotion. Yet she never loses her calm, professional demeanor.

Meet Nadine.

Nadine is a so-called social robot: a robot that can interact with humans and follows their social rules. She is a work in progress. Everything she “learns” has to be programmed. Right now, for example, Nadine’s creators are programming her to grasp things with her hands. This will enable her to play games or retrieve items, important skills for a robot that could be the prototype for a future companion or health care provider.

“We know the robot is not a human friend, but it is at least a professional friend that is aware of who you are and what are your needs and can respond to them in a professional way,” Nadia Thalmann, Nadine's creator, tells mental_floss. Thalmann, whom Nadine was modeled after, is a professor and the director of Institute for Media Innovation at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

For Thalmann, Nadine is a glimpse at a future in which humanoid robots may provide personal assistance, social support, and perhaps even health care, particularly for older people. Nadine can already call for help if she detects someone has fallen and will be programmed to perform other care tasks. 

Will humanoid robots ever replace human doctors and nurses? Certainly not in the next couple of decades, according to Thalmann. But as the population ages and the current shortage of nurses and other care providers worsens, robots may, at the very least, assist with basic nursing assistance tasks—something that’s already happening in Japan

As the technologies are refined in the coming years, precision robotic devices will increasingly assist with specific medical procedures, including surgery, while social robots like Nadine may occupy supporting roles in situations where patients need a more human touch.

Other service robots have been programmed to take blood pressure and other vital signs, remind people to take their medication and send data to a doctor. That could help physicians better monitor their patients and intervene more quickly if the robot reports anomalies in the patient’s regimen or vital signs.

The trick is to combine the functionality of these service robots with a more human touch, characteristics that will make people more likely to interact with and confide in them, rather than being made uneasy by a robot that is both eerily human-like and yet fundamentally not—a phenomenon sometimes called the uncanny valley

Elizabeth Broadbent is an associate professor of health psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. She studies how people respond to different types of robots in various settings in order to understand what characteristics make a robot most effective at providing care—particularly to the elderly. 

With an aging population, robots could become especially important in eldercare. Broadbent’s research has found that some people actually prefer to have a robot looking after their most intimate personal needs, like bathing or using the toilet. 

“It’s embarrassing to ask someone to help you, but if you have a robot you wouldn’t be embarrassed,” Broadbent says. “So I definitely think there are some advantages in that.”

According to Broadbent, many people—particularly older people—feel less indebted to robots than to human care providers. Relying on a robot helps them alleviate worries about imposing too much on the precious time of a doctor or nurse.

“Some people say, ‘I’d like to have a robot because I wouldn’t be bothering the doctor,’” she says. A robot could take care of their basic needs, making them more relaxed about spending time talking to doctors and nurses about their health. 

Here are Nadine and Edgar, a less human-like robot, making small talk. 

Non-human health care providers may have other advantages over humans in those roles. A 2014 University of Southern California study found that people were more willing to share personal health information with a virtual human on a screen than with an actual human during a mental health intake. The virtual human could show empathetic responses, facial expressions and body language, yet the participants felt it was less judgmental than an actual human in the same role.

So perhaps the perfect health care robot of the future will combine the intellect, physical features, strength and precision of a human with the pleasant, if slightly detached, mien of a Nadine-like humanoid. It might happen sooner than we think.

Bonus: Watch Nadine's chilling cover of Adele's 2011 chart-topper "Rolling in the Deep." 

All images courtesy of Nadia M. Thalmann

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9 Facts about Physicist Michael Faraday, the 'Father of Electricity'
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A self-taught scientist, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) excelled in chemistry and physics to become one of the most influential thinkers in history. He’s been called the "father of electricity," (Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison also wear that crown) and his appetite for experimenting knew no bounds. "Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature; and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency," he wrote. Faraday discovered laws of electromagnetism, invented the first electric motor, and built the first electric generator—paving the way for our mechanized age. Read on for more Faraday facts.

1. HE NEVER HAD A FORMAL SCIENTIFIC EDUCATION.

Born in south London in a working-class family, Faraday earned a rudimentary education in reading, writing, and math. When he turned 14 he was apprenticed to a London bookbinder for the following seven years. In his free time, Faraday read Jane Marcet's Conversations in Chemistry, an 1806 bestseller that explained scientific topics for a general audience.

2. HE WAS A SELF-STARTER.

Like Marcet, Faraday was fascinated by the work of Sir Humphry Davy, a charismatic chemist who had found fame by testing the effects of nitrous oxide on himself. (He let others, including poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, inhale the gas on the condition that they keep diaries of their thoughts and sensations while high.) In spring 1812, a customer at the bookbindery gave Faraday tickets to see Davy’s upcoming lectures. Faraday compiled his notes from the lectures in a bound volume (the one benefit of his toil at the bookbinder's) and sent the book to Davy, requesting to become his assistant—an unheard-of notion for a tradesman with no university degree. Sensing his intelligence and drive, Davy secured him a job at the Royal Institution, where Davy ran the chemistry lab.

3. HE INVENTED A MOTOR WITH MAGNETS AND MERCURY.

By 1820, other scientists had shown that an electric current produces a magnetic field, and that two electrified wires produce a force on each other. Faraday thought there could be a way to harness these forces in a mechanical apparatus. In 1822, he built a device using a magnet, liquid mercury (which conducts electricity) and a current-carrying wire that turned electrical energy into mechanical energy—in other words, the first electric motor. Faraday noted the success in his journal [PDF]: "Very satisfactory, but make more sensible apparatus."

4. HE ALSO CREATED THE FIRST ELECTRIC GENERATOR.

A decade after his breakthrough with the motor, Faraday discovered that the movement of a wire through a stationary magnetic field can induce an electrical current in the wire—the principle of electromagnetic induction. To demonstrate it, Faraday built a machine in which a copper disc rotated between the two poles of a horseshoe magnet, producing its own power. The machine, later called the Faraday disc, became the first electric generator.

5. HE SHOWED THE PULL OF MAGNETIC FORCE.

In a brilliantly simple experiment (recreated by countless schoolchildren today), Faraday laid a bar magnet on a table and covered it with a piece of stiff paper. Then he sprinkled magnetized iron shavings across the paper, which immediately arranged themselves into semicircular arcs emanating from the ends—the north and south poles—of the magnet. In addition to revealing that magnets still exert pull through barriers, he visualized the pattern of magnetic force in space.

6. YOU CAN VISIT HIS MAGNETIC LABORATORY IN LONDON.

Faraday served in a number of scientific roles at the Royal Institution, an organization dedicated to promoting applied science. Eventually Faraday was appointed as its Fullerian Professor of Chemistry, a permanent position that allowed him to research and experiment to his heart's content. His magnetic laboratory from the 1850s is now faithfully replicated in the Royal Institution's Faraday Museum. It displays many of his world-changing gadgets, including an original Faraday disc, one of his early electrostatic generators, his chemical samples, and a giant magnet.

7. HE POPULARIZED NEW SCIENTIFIC TERMINOLOGY.

Faraday's work was so groundbreaking that no descriptors existed for many of his discoveries. With his fellow scientist William Whewell, Faraday coined a number of futuristic-sounding names for the forces and concepts he identified, such as electrode, anode, cathode, and ion. (Whewell himself coined the word "scientist" in 1834, after "natural philosopher" had become too vague to describe people working in increasingly specialized fields.)

8. PRINCE ALBERT GAVE HIM SOME SWEET REAL ESTATE.

In 1848, the Prince Consort, also known as Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert, gave Faraday and his family a comfortable home at Hampton Court—not the royal palace, but near it—free of charge, to recognize his contributions to science. The house at 37 Hampton Court Road was renamed Faraday House until he died there on August 25, 1867. Now it's known simply by its street address.

9. HE WAS FEATURED ON THE UNITED KINGDOM'S £20 NOTE.

To honor Faraday's role in the advancement of British science, the Bank of England unveiled a £20 bill with his portrait on June 5, 1991. He joined an illustrious group of Britons with their own notes, including William Shakespeare, Florence Nightingale, and Isaac Newton. By the time it was withdrawn in February 2001, the bank estimated that about 120 million Faraday bills were in circulation (that's more than 2 billion quid).

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4 Expert Tips on How to Get the Most Out of August's Total Solar Eclipse
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As you might have heard, there’s a total solar eclipse crossing the U.S. on August 21. It’s the first total solar eclipse in the country since 1979, and the first coast-to-coast event since June 8, 1918, when eclipse coverage pushed World War I off the front page of national newspapers. Americans are just as excited today: Thousands are hitting the road to stake out prime spots for watching the last cross-country total solar eclipse until 2045. We’ve asked experts for tips on getting the most out of this celestial spectacle.

1. DON’T FRY YOUR EYES—OR BREAK THE BANK

To see the partial phases of the eclipse, you will need eclipse glasses because—surprise!—staring directly at the sun for even a minute or two will permanently damage your retinas. Make sure the glasses you buy meet the ISO 12312-2 safety standards. As eclipse frenzy nears its peak, shady retailers are selling knock-off glasses that will not adequately protect your eyes. The American Astronomical Society keeps a list of reputable vendors, but as a rule, if you can see anything other than the sun through your glasses, they might be bogus. There’s no need to splurge, however: You can order safe paper specs in bulk for as little as 90 cents each. In a pinch, you and your friends can take turns watching the partial phases through a shared pair of glasses. As eclipse chaser and author Kate Russo points out, “you only need to view occasionally—no need to sit and stare with them on the whole time.”

2. DON’T DIY YOUR EYE PROTECTION

There are plenty of urban legends about “alternative” ways to protect your eyes while watching a solar eclipse: smoked glass, CDs, several pairs of sunglasses stacked on top of each other. None works. If you’re feeling crafty, or don’t have a pair of safe eclipse glasses, you can use a pinhole projector to indirectly watch the eclipse. NASA produced a how-to video to walk you through it.

3. GET TO THE PATH OF TOTALITY

Bryan Brewer, who published a guidebook for solar eclipses, tells Mental Floss the difference between seeing a partial solar eclipse and a total solar eclipse is “like the difference between standing right outside the arena and being inside watching the game.”

During totality, observers can take off their glasses and look up at the blocked-out sun—and around at their eerily twilit surroundings. Kate Russo’s advice: Don’t just stare at the sun. “You need to make sure you look above you, and around you as well so you can notice the changes that are happening,” she says. For a brief moment, stars will appear next to the sun and animals will begin their nighttime routines. Once you’ve taken in the scenery, you can use a telescope or a pair of binoculars to get a close look at the tendrils of flame that make up the sun’s corona.

Only a 70-mile-wide band of the country stretching from Oregon to South Carolina will experience the total eclipse. Rooms in the path of totality are reportedly going for as much as $1000 a night, and news outlets across the country have raised the specter of traffic armageddon. But if you can find a ride and a room, you'll be in good shape for witnessing the spectacle.

4. PRESERVE YOUR NIGHT VISION

Your eyes need half an hour to fully adjust to darkness, but the total eclipse will last less than three minutes. If you’ve just been staring at the sun through the partial phases of the eclipse, your view of the corona during totality will be obscured by lousy night vision and annoying green afterimages. Eclipse chaser James McClean—who has trekked from Svalbard to Java to watch the moon blot out the sun—made this rookie mistake during one of his early eclipse sightings in Egypt in 2006. After watching the partial phases, with stray beams of sunlight reflecting into his eyes from the glittering sand and sea, McClean was snowblind throughout the totality.

Now he swears by a new method: blindfolding himself throughout the first phases of the eclipse to maximize his experience of the totality. He says he doesn’t mind “skipping the previews if it means getting a better view of the film.” Afterward, he pops on some eye protection to see the partial phases of the eclipse as the moon pulls away from the sun. If you do blindfold yourself, just remember to set an alarm for the time when the total eclipse begins so you don’t miss its cross-country journey. You'll have to wait 28 years for your next chance.

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