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Nadia Thalmann
Nadia Thalmann

'Social Robots' May One Day Help Your Doctor

Nadia Thalmann
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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Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Ancient Poop Contains First Evidence of Parasites Described by Hippocrates
Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati
Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati

The long-held mystery of Hippocrates and the parasitic worms has finally been solved, and it’s all thanks to a few samples of ancient poop.

Researchers don’t know much about the parasites that plagued the Greeks thousands of years ago, and what they do know is largely from the Hippocratic Corpus, the medical texts that the father of medicine and his students put together between the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. Modern historians have spent years trying to figure out which diseases and parasites Hippocrates and his followers were referring to in their writing, relying solely on their descriptions to guess at what ailments the ancient Greeks might have suffered from. Now, they finally have concrete evidence of the existence of some of the intestinal worms Hippocrates mentioned, Helmins strongyle and Ascaris.

As part of a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, an international group of researchers analyzed the ancient remains of feces in 25 prehistoric burials on the Greek island of Kea to determine what parasites the people were carrying when they died. Using microscopes, they looked at the soil (formed by the decomposed poop) found on the pelvic bones of skeletons dating back to the Neolithic, Bronze, and Roman periods.

A roundworm egg under the microscope
A roundworm egg
Elsevier

Around 16 percent of the burials they studied contained evidence of parasites. In these ancient fecal samples, they found the eggs of two different parasitic species. In the soil taken from the skeletons dating back to the Neolithic period, they found whipworm eggs, and in the soil taken from the Bronze Age skeletons, roundworm.

With this information, researchers deduced that what Hippocrates called the Helmins strongyle worm was probably what modern doctors would call roundworm. The Ascaris worm probably referred to two different parasites, they conclude, known today as pinworm (which was not found in this analysis) and whipworm (pictured below).

Whipworm under a microscope
A whipworm egg
Elsevier

Though historians already hypothesized that Hippocrates's patients on Kea had roundworm, the Ascaris finding comes as a particular surprise. Previous research based solely on Hippocrates’s writing rather than physical evidence suggested that what he called Ascaris was probably a pinworm, and another worm he mentioned, Helmins plateia, was probably a tapeworm. But the current research didn’t turn up any evidence of either of those two worms. Instead of pinworm eggs, the researchers found whipworm, another worm that’s similarly small and round. (Pinworms may very well have existed in ancient Greece, the researchers caution, since evidence of their fragile eggs could easily have been lost to time.) The soil analysis has already changed what we know about the intestinal woes of the ancient Greeks of Kea.

More importantly, this study provides the earliest evidence of ancient Greece’s parasitic worm population, proving yet again that ancient poop is one of the world’s most important scientific resources.

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science
Arctic Temperatures are Rising So Fast, They're Confusing the Hell Out of Computers
iStock
iStock

This past year was a brutal one for northern Alaska, which saw temperatures that soared above what was normal month after month. But you wouldn't know that by looking at the numbers from the weather station at Utqiaġvik, Alaska. That's because the recent heat was so unusual for the area that computers marked the data as incorrect and failed to report it for the entirety of 2017, leaving a hole in the records of the Climate Monitoring group at the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), according to the Huffington Post.

The weather station in the northernmost tip of Alaska has been measuring temperatures for nearly a century. A computer system there is programed to recognize if the data has been influenced by artificial forces: Perhaps one of the instruments isn't working correctly, or something is making the immediate area unnaturally hot or cold. In these cases, the computer edits out the anomalies so they don't affect the rest of the data.

But climate change has complicated this failsafe. Temperatures have been so abnormally high that the Utqiaġvik station erroneously removed all its data for 2017 and part of 2016. A look at the region's weather history explains why the computers might have sensed a mistake: The average yearly temperature for the era between 2000 and 2017 has gone up by 1.9°F from that of the era between 1979 and 1999. Break it down by month and the numbers are even more alarming: The average temperature increase is 7.8°F for October, 6.9°F for November, and 4.7°F for December.

"In the context of a changing climate, the Arctic is changing more rapidly than the rest of the planet," Deke Arndt, chief of NOAA's Climate Monitoring Branch, wrote for climate.gov. The higher temperatures rise, the faster Arctic sea ice melts. Arctic sea ice acts as a mirror that reflects the Sun's rays back into space, and without that barrier, the sea absorbs more heat from the Sun and speeds up the warming process. “Utqiaġvik, as one of a precious few fairly long-term observing sites in the American Arctic, is often referenced as an embodiment of rapid Arctic change,” Arndt wrote.

As temperatures continue to grow faster than computers are used to, scientists will have to adjust their algorithms in response. The team at NCEI plans to have the Utqiaġvik station ready to record our changing climate once again within the next few months.

[h/t Huffington Post]

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