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Octopus tentacles could teach more flexible robots

Octopus arms are laced with a special chemical that stops their hundreds of suckers sticking to themselves, researchers have found, allowing their flexible limbs to act semi-autonomously in ways that could have implications for tomorrow’s robotics. The average octopus has nearly 2,000 suckers across its eight arms, but despite the potential for tying itself up in sticky knots, it never actually does. Now, we know why that’s the case.

The research, carried out by Nir Nesher, Guy Levy, Frank W. Grasso, and Binyamin Hochner, describes a chemical-based self-recognition system the octopuses use to autonomously identify which are their own limbs.

By putting samples of octopus skin on other objects, the team was able to show that the animal would not grab them. When objects were partially covered, the octopus would grab the uncovered parts but avoid the skin.

However, while the proclivity toward avoidance of skin from its own species seems autonomic – i.e. the octopus brain does not need to actively differentiate between materials – it can also be overruled if it’s in the animal’s best interest. Faced with a tasty torn-off tentacle from another octopus, and the test subjects ignored the chemical marker and snatched up the tidbit to eat.

However, they continued to ignore their own detached limbs, refusing to consume them.

It’s not the only biological shortcut that octopuses rely upon to make moving more straightforward, the researchers point out. For instance, while the potential for movement and positions of an octopus limb is effectively infinite, in actual fact the animals only follow around three.

Those “stereotypical motion patterns” can be coded into the motor programs within the arms, and merely triggered rather than fully instructed each time by the brain, reducing cognitive load.

As both the study’s authors and National Geographic’s Ed Yong points out, the research may be focused on the animal world, but it could have implications for smarter robotics.

“The concept of embodied organization, proposed as a tool for designing autonomous robots, is that adaptive behavior emerges from the reciprocal and dynamic interactions of sensory and physical information among body, controller, and environment. In this form of organization, in contrast to hierarchical organization, the system functions as a whole, as it allows self-organizational processes to set the relevant dynamic properties of the elements building up the system – the embodiment. In robotics, this approach has led to the emergence of adaptive behavior by a robot in a specific environment” N. Nesher, G. Levy, F, W. Grasso, and B. Hochner

In short, by spreading the robot’s intelligence throughout its construction, rather than relying on a single, centralized processing hub that keeps overarching control of the entire system, robots could be more efficient and more flexible.

Researchers are already experimenting with robotic octopuses, but the tech needn’t be tentacle-based.

Rather, any robot with multiple components – whether it be bipedal or otherwise – could allow each subsystem to react to its environment of its own accord, with the “brain” more of a manager-of-divisions than attempting to micromanage the whole process.

VIA National Geographic

SOURCE Current Biology

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Black Widow Spiders Could Teach Nanomaterial Experts A Thing Or Two

Black widows spin some of the strongest strands of all the spiders, so researchers zapped its silk fluid with an electron beam to see what it was made of. Depositphotos

Using a super-cooled electron microscope, a motley team of biochemists and materials scientists has delved deeper into the black widow’s silk glands than ever before. Their work, which appeared Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirms that the spider’s proteins gather into nano-scale balls, and for the first time reveals the flake-like structures inside those balls. The researchers hope their contribution will help those trying to churn out spider silk the way we currently mass produce nylon. “The practical applications for a material like this are essentially limitless,” Nathan Gianneschi, a nanomaterials chemist at Northwestern University and one of the team’s leaders, said in a press release.

The first concrete proof that spidroins were indeed linking up came from San Diego State University biochemist Gregory Holland. Based on how they moved through liquids in various circumstances, he concluded that the particles measured a few hundred billionths of a meter across—too big to be solitary proteins. Holland felt those results were promising, but it wasn’t until he ran into Gianneschi at a conference that he realized they could go farther. “Nathan got to talking and I said, ‘God, if we could just get the images of what they look like,’” Holland recalls.

Gianneschi specializes in cryo-transmission electron microscopes—devices that create images of objects too small for optical microscopes by firing electrons through a thin sample at extremely cold temperatures. Others had tried this on spider fluid before, they learned, but no one had found a way to prepare the sample without ruining the delicate protein structures. “If you breathe on it, it starts changing,” Holland says. “Stick a needle in and you can pull a fiber right out.”

The forces of normal pipette techniques collapse the spidroins into thread fibers, so the team painstakingly dissected black widow spiders and prepared drops of silk fluid slowly and gently, using various custom-made tools. Eventually, they managed to secure samples that, as far as they can tell, preserved the natural structure of the molecules.

The team then reconstructed layer-by-layer images of the samples to take the first peek at what the bundles of silk proteins really look like. Far from simple spheres, they found the micelles were packed with hundreds of smaller bundles, which Gianneschi describes as “flakes” or “disks,” each its own tangle of spidroin fibers. When properly pressurized, the researchers suspect these flakes stretch out into the fibers that go on to become a silk strand. They hope this new model will eventually let those trying to cook up synthetic spider silk troubleshoot their recipes, checking that their spidroins are tangling up in the desired ways.

Left: A single spidroin protein bunches into a “flake” with other proteins. Center: Hundreds of these flakes group together to form a structured “micelle.” Right: Shearing forces stretch flakes into fibers. Courtesy of Gregory Holland

Anna Rising and Jan Johansson of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden are two such researchers, heading up an international team that described the strongest synthetic silk yet early last year. They praised the new study for expanding the basic theory of silk proteins, but pointed out that many details are still missing. “Ideally one would like a picture of how the spidroins are arranged at atomic resolution,” they wrote in an email. Previous research has studied the ends of the protein, but the intermediate chain remains uncharted.

They also said that cryo-electron microscopy will be a valuable tool for filling in some of these blank spots on the silk-protein map, a result that has Gianneschi and Holland excited too. The black widow’s silk is some of the strongest in the arachnid class, and they plan to look at other species to see if their various types of silk match up with different shapes of protein bundles.

“Now that you know how to look,” Gianneschi says, “you can go look.”

Flexible Seating Elevates Student Engagement

Breaking up rows of desks fosters collaboration and empowers kids to think about how they work best.

Overview

Providing the Learning Environment That Kids Need

Flexible classrooms give students a choice in what kind of learning space works best for them, and help them to work collaboratively, communicate, and engage in critical thinking.

Since implementing flexible classrooms, Albemarle County Public Schools have noticed that:

Their students’ grades have improved.

Their students seem happier and more engaged.

Their students are participating more and having more invigorating conversations.

How It’s Done

Giving Students a Choice in How They Learn

“From day one, I’ve said, ‘You may sit anywhere you like as long as you’re safe in our classroom,'” says Katie Collins, a Woodbrook Elementary School second grade teacher.

Becky Fisher, the director of educational technology at Albemarle County Public Schools, is interested in learning about the thinking that drives student choice. “What we’re really striving for are those choices that have a lot of thought behind them. We want kids to really be strategic about where they go,” Fisher says.

She painted the picture of walking into a classroom and seeing kids:

Lying on the floor

Sitting at low tables on their knees

Standing up

When Fisher walks into a classroom, she asks the students the reasoning behind why they choose their particular learning space.

“Why are you standing right now?” she asks one TK student.

“Well,” says the student, ”we’re using math manipulatives, and I move better when I’m standing up than when I’m sitting down.”

Fisher once heard a kindergarten student articulate that she was a belly reader. She loved reading on the floor while lying on her belly, her class was reading, and that’s why she was sprawled out on the floor. “That’s awesome that, at five or six years old, you know your preferences,” Fisher says. And that’s critical to their work.

Justin, a seventh grade student from Sutherland Middle School, was also able to articulate his preferred learning environment. He chooses a table and chair, unlike the couch that many of his fellow students choose. “When I get down into a couch and am more comfortable, it’s almost like it’s a bit distracting. It’s not exactly the environment I want to be working in, but for the other people, clearly they have their optimum working environments,” Justin says.

Krishan, also in seventh grade at Sutherland, likes that his teacher gives him a choice in how he works. “Since she lets us choose, we ultimately choose what’s best for us. We work better together and individually,” Krishan says.

The First Step

According to Lisa Molinaro, the principal of Woodbrook Elementary School, the first thing that needs to happen for Albemarle teachers to successfully create a flexible classroom is:

The teacher must have a vision for his or her room.

The teacher must be willing to say, “I’m going to throw out some of this stuff. I don’t need this traditional schooling equipment.”

Design a Collaborative Learning Space

“We’re really looking at how we support kids working collaboratively,” Fisher says. “And we can’t do it if we’re isolated in rows and every kid is an island.”

She believes that Albemarle classrooms work well with these design elements:

They have at least three kinds of classroom seating.

They use flexible bookshelves.

Instead of individual workspaces, they use large round or rectangular tables, or put four desks together to form a more collaborative space.

“You’ll see flexible bookshelves that can be moved so that the room can be totally opened up — or little nooks and crannies can be created — so that everybody can see everybody, and we can participate as a community,” Fisher says.

Create a Variety of Seating Options

“My kids love to be under things, behind things, around things,” says Collins about her second grade classroom. “We have five-gallon buckets in my room that we sit on. We sit on crate seating that I made in my backyard out of a crate and some plywood and some foam. And I also just threw a lot of pillows on the floor.”

For classroom seating, Collins also uses:

Couches

Chairs

Bunk beds

Canoes

Fund Your Flexible Classroom: The DIY Approach

Teachers at Albemarle use these low- to no-cost strategies to furnish their classrooms:

Fund Your Flexible Classroom: The District Approach

Over the past ten years, Albermarle district leadership has been very intentional in changing the physical nature of classrooms. Although not every classroom in its 26 schools has gotten a makeover, when the district budgets for a furniture-replacement cycle, there are some core pieces to redesigning a classroom. Before picking those core pieces, teachers need a vision for redesigning a classroom, and they should be willing to get rid of the traditional school furniture for more innovative pieces.

When comparing quotes for traditional and more innovative furniture, Fisher was delighted to learn that the cost is almost the same. “You pay roughly the same amount, and our durability has been good. There has been no reason to not go in that direction,” she says.

When Albemarle “does” a room, you’ll see:

Evolving the classroom space to meet students’ individual needs impacts how they learn, how they interact, and the entire classroom experience. Moran has noticed that when a learning space evolves, students’ work improves immensely, their grades improve, and “just the conversations they have with each other are so invigorating to hear,” Moran says.

Resources

Privatevpn Review: Simple And Flexible

Pros

Very easy to use

Power users can choose their desired VPN protocol

Interface now shows server ping times

Cons

Drop in speeds compared to our last tests

Our Verdict

PrivateVPN is a very easy-to-use VPN service with fair speeds and the ability to access a variety of region-specific services including Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. It’s also well priced around $60 per year.

PrivateVPN in brief:

P2P allowed: Yes

Business location: Sweden

Number of servers: 200+

Number of country locations: 63

Cost: $60 per year

VPN protocol: OpenVPN

Data encryption: AES-128-GCM(server-side negotiation can improve to AES-256)

Data authentication: SHA-256 with HMAC

Handshake encryption:TLS-ECDHE-RSA-AES256-GCM-SHA384(AEAD)

Sweden-based PrivateVPN’s catch phrase is unlock anything, protect everything. And let’s be honest, that’s all most of really want from a VPN. This simple and easy-to-use service has something for everyone.

It offers a higher degree of complexity and choice for VPN users who want it, as well as a far simpler interface for those new to VPNs. Beyond speeds, PrivateVPN promises Netflix access in several countries, as well as access to other premium streaming services.

Note: This review is part of our best VPNs roundup. Go there for details about competing products and how we tested them.

PrivateVPN in Simple mode.

Since the last time we looked at it PrivateVPN has undergone some changes. The service still offers two basic interface modes: Simple and Advanced. The simple mode is the first thing that all users see, and the new design is very similar to many other VPNs. It offers a single-pane window that is not adjustable in terms of size. It has a large Connect/Disconnect button in the center, and below that is a location tile, and then below that is the button to switch to Advanced View. When a connection is active, it says in large green letters “VPN Is ON,” and below that there’s a timer showing how long you’ve been connected to the VPN.

PrivateVPN has also added ping times to each server location from your actual location to help find the best server in your desired country.

Features and services

PrivateVPN’s Advanced view.

At the top of the window is an on/off button. The left-hand rail also offers several menu options: Dashboard, Settings, Connection Guard, Stealth VPN, and Help & Support. The Dashboard allows you to pick not only the location, but the type of VPN protocol to use, as well as the level of encryption for OpenVPN. This dashboard also shows how much data you’ve used during your session in gigabytes.

The Settings section lets you adjust various options, most of which are not enabled by default, such as booting PrivateVPN on system startup, connecting automatically on startup, and minimizing the app window on startup.

Connection Guard houses options such as IPv6 and DNS leak protection, and an internet kill switch, all of which are enabled by default. There’s also an application guard that terminates certain apps when the VPN connection drops.

The Stealth VPN setting is new and is for getting around VPN blockers and DPI (deep packet inspection) firewalls. If you find you aren’t getting through you can specify a port to see if that works.

PrivateVPN’s pricing has changed since last time we looked and is a little strange compared to the competition. There is no longer a one-year option (technically it was 13 months). Instead, it has a standard two-year price for $60 total, and then the company charges $60 per year after that. In other words, new customers get one year free. If two years is too long a commitment, there’s a month-to-month option of $9, or three months for $18. PrivateVPN offers apps for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS.

Performance

PrivateVPN’s Connection Guard.

PrivateVPN had acceptable speeds in our tests. The service retained 27.25 percent of the base speed across five locations over multiple testing days. That’s quite a drop from the 50 plus percent average we saw last time. Still PrivateVPN’s speeds should be acceptable for most uses. 

Privacy, anonymity, and trust

PrivateVPN’s privacy policy says it does not track your web activity or any traffic while using the company’s VPN. It does, however, set cookies and track usage on its site—the cookies part is not surprising since you need that to log in to the site to access your account. To set up an account, the company requires an email address, and it sends a confirmation message to make sure the address is authentic.

Payments are accepted via credit card, PayPal, and Bitcoin, allowing for varying levels of pseudo-anonymity.

PrivateVPN is owned by PrivateVPN Global AB, which is based in Sweden. The company chief is Martin Müller.

Conclusion

PrivateVPN is a good choice for Netflix access, ease of use, and flexibility for power users. The first two years are available at a good price, and after that the pricing is pretty standard.

That you can now pick locations based on ping speed is an excellent addition, and the increase in servers and locations is also good.

Editor’s note: Because online services are often iterative, gaining new features and performance improvements over time, this review is subject to change in order to accurately reflect the current state of the service. Any changes to text or our final review verdict will be noted at the top of this article.

Electric Cars Could Suddenly Get A Lot More Expensive

Electric cars could suddenly get a lot more expensive

The $7,500 tax credit for electric car buyers in the US faces an unexpected premature death, with a new Republican tax plan cutting the credit immediately. The credit gives EV buyers a sizable cut on their tax bill when they purchase a new car, and has been instrumental in driving the adoption of electric vehicles across the country. Now, Republicans are proposing doing away with it altogether.

It’s difficult to understate how much of an impact that could have. Currently, when federal and state tax benefits and credits are combined, potentially as much as $10,000 can be offset from the cost of a new electric car. Manufacturers like Tesla and Chevrolet often quote the post-credit figure as the bottom line drivers face for their car, in the process bringing what are often expensive vehicles more in line with their gas-powered counterparts.

Of those credits, though, it’s the federal contribution that is the most sizable. The plan, created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), was never intended to last forever. Indeed, manufacturers’ cars were only to be eligible for the full, $7,500 credit until the automaker produced 200,000 qualifying vehicles in the US.

After that point, the credit would enter a so-called phase-out period. That would cut the credit by 50-percent for the first six months – bringing it down to $3,750 – and then down to just 25-percent of the original amount for a further six months. After that, it would end altogether.

Now, though, it faces a much sooner end, Bloomberg reports. The proposed tax plan would axe the federal EV credit altogether, and immediately, in the name of streamlining the number of tax brackets and reducing the rate of tax that corporations pay.

It could bring chaos to the electric vehicle market. Automakers are already seeing EVs as not just offering slim margins but potentially costing them on every car sold. Tesla announced its worst financial quarter in the company’s history earlier this week, with significantly lower Model 3 production than expected. Elon Musk’s company has spent more than $2.5bn in cash in Q2 and Q3 this year already.

The fear is that, if it is removed, the loss of the credit could have a significant impact on sales of Tesla’s most affordable car, the Model 3, and indeed similar vehicles like the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Nissan Leaf. Tesla already faced running out of full-value credits anyway: the $7,500 it counts on to help bring the well-publicized $35k price tag for its newest car is set to run out sometime in 2023 if Musk’s predictions on production pan out.

For the moment, the tax plan is far from decided upon, never mind law. As we’ve seen from the government in recent months, negative feedback from the public and industry around proposed legislation can lead to lawmakers backtracking, anxious to avoid embarrassing defeat. Nonetheless, if you were saving up for a Model 3 and, like many, have estimated delivery dates at the end of 2023 or into 2023, your future purchase might get unexpectedly more expensive.

Market Analysis: Adoption Of Humanoid Robots

The biggest indicator shows that this humanoid robotics trend will continue to rise.

With the evolution of the fourth industrial revolution, the world has come to the edge of a seismic shift in robotics, from machines that are just used for the design, construction, operation, and control to industrial robots capable of performing heavy work. The emergence of collaborative robots (Cobots) also have made them significant to the real world, working together with human workers in a shared space. The latest iteration in robots now even talk, walk, and express a wide range of gestures like humans such as Sophia – the humanoid robot. Sophia, was introduced by Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics two years ago. She is the most developed model in the ongoing trend of robotics. Currently, Sophia is treated like a star and has become the biggest indicator showing that this robotics trend will continue to rise. According to Analytics Insight, the global market of humanoid robots is projected to reach from US$765.54 million in 2023 to US$8027.53 million by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 34.1% throughout the estimated timeframe. On the basis of region, Asia Pacific is leading the humanoids market with a 62% adoption rate, followed by Europe (18%), North America (16%), and ROW (4%). In the Asia Pacific, the humanoid robot market was accounted for US$474.64 million in 2023 and is predicted to worth US$5571.60 million by 2026, at a growing CAGR of 36.1%. Conversely, in Europe, the market is expected to reach from US$137.80 million in 2023 to US$1365.68 million in 2026, at a CAGR of 33.2%.

With the evolution of the fourth industrial revolution, the world has come to the edge of a seismic shift in robotics, from machines that are just used for the design, construction, operation, and control to industrial robots capable of performing heavy work. The emergence of collaborative robots (Cobots) also have made them significant to the real world, working together with human workers in a shared space. The latest iteration in robots now even talk, walk, and express a wide range of gestures like humans such as Sophia – the humanoid robot. Sophia, was introduced by Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics two years ago. She is the most developed model in the ongoing trend of robotics. Currently, Sophia is treated like a star and has become the biggest indicator showing that this robotics trend will continue to rise. According to Analytics Insight, the global market of humanoid robots is projected to reach from US$765.54 million in 2023 to US$8027.53 million by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 34.1% throughout the estimated timeframe. On the basis of region, Asia Pacific is leading the humanoids market with a 62% adoption rate, followed by Europe (18%), North America (16%), and ROW (4%). In the Asia Pacific, the humanoid robot market was accounted for US$474.64 million in 2023 and is predicted to worth US$5571.60 million by 2026, at a growing CAGR of 36.1%. Conversely, in Europe, the market is expected to reach from US$137.80 million in 2023 to US$1365.68 million in 2026, at a CAGR of 33.2%. In North America, the market will be worth US$122.49 million to US$1010.29 million, with a CAGR of 30.2%, while in ROW, it will reach from US$30.62 million to US$79.96 million, at a CAGR of 12.7% during the period of 2023-2026.

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