Robots can learn just like babies do

Scientists have demonstrated how robots can learn much like tots do.

Babies learn by exploring how their bodies move, grabbing toys, pushing things off tables and by watching and imitating adults.

But when roboticists want to teach a robot, they typically either write code or physically move a robot's body to show it how to perform an action.

A study undertaken at the University of Washington has shown how robots could learn from babies, by amassing data through exploration, watching a human perform a task and determining how best to carry out that task.


Study senior author Rajesh Rao said: "You can look at this as a first step in building robots that can learn from humans in the same way that infants learn from humans."

Researchers find 'door' to Godly encounters

History is filled with cases of people claiming to have had encounters with a higher power - Joan of Arc perhaps the most famous. Now, Kiwi and US scientists have pointed to a possible explanation for these so-called mystical experiences.

Using results from a group of Vietnam War veterans who had taken cognitive tests before and after the war, they examined how damage to certain parts of the brain affected the likelihood of having a mystical experience. Their results supported one enduring theory - that those who suffered traumatic injury to a part of the brain called "God Spots" were more likely to have mystical experiences.

"This suggests that these spots may be linked to inhibitory cognitive functions, and a suppression of these functions - which typically help us regulate and resolve our perceptual experiences - appears to open up a 'door of perception', exposing people to more mystical experiences," study co-author Dr Irene Cristofori explained.

Old faces for new wearers

Nicholas Cage and John Travolta swap faces in Face/Off.
Nicholas Cage and John Travolta swap faces in Face/Off.

The recipients of transplanted faces - unlike the characters in the movie Face/Off - actually look different and age faster than the original owners due to their underlying muscle and bone structure, according to findings from a small study.

Over 30 face transplants have been performed to date, but little is known about the long-term outcomes.

A study published in the American Journal of Transplantation reveals that faces, when transplanted, change their appearance based on the bone structure of the recipient, and they seem to age at an accelerated rate.

The scientists think that, contrary to normal ageing related to facial fat loss or thinning skin, the premature sagging and wrinkling commonly seen in transplanted faces is due to muscle and bone. However, because face transplantation is a new practice, they say they still need to explore other possible causes such as inadequate blood supply or ongoing rejection.


Children might pay for sins of the father

The amount of food consumed by fathers could have a direct impact on their unborn children's health and wellbeing, new research has suggested.

An Australian study, published this week in Psychoneuroendocrinology, indicated a dad's diet before they conceive could be genetically passed on, with a subsequent impact on those children's mental health.

While mothers' diet and impact on children had been widely researched, this was believed to be the first time the behavioural and hormonal effects of the male diet on offspring had been studied.

In the study, male rats allowed to eat abundant amounts of food were compared to those with access to 25 per cent fewer calories in their diet.

"Even though the fathers had no contact with their offspring and the mother's behaviour remained relatively unchanged, the offspring of the food-limited rats were lighter, ate less and showed less evidence of anxiety," said Professor Antonio Paolini.

Cold-hearted kiwi shocks researcher

A kiwi destroying a robin nest and causing the death of the chicks in it has been caught on camera by a Victoria University of Wellington researcher. The footage, taken at Zealandia over two consecutive nights, shows a little spotted kiwi pushing the robin nest down a slope, pecking the chicks, and returning the next night to tear the nest apart. Supplied/Victoria University

A Victoria University researcher investigating the mysterious deaths of a group of robin chicks found it was none other than our cherished national bird behind the attack.

Dr Rachael Shaw, who is studying robins at Wellington sanctuary Zealandia, was shocked to discover footage of a little spotted kiwi pushing a nest of robins down a slope, pecking the chicks, and returning the next night to tear the nest apart.

Although the kiwi didn't directly kill the chicks, they had "pretty severe injuries", she said.

"The video shows that the chicks were still alive after being pecked by the kiwi and then fell out of the nest, most likely to their deaths."

She couldn't say for certain why the kiwi destroyed the nest, but speculated it may have been acting defensively. "One possibility is that the robin may have lined the nest with kiwi feathers, because robins do like to use these as nest lining."