Are humans really that different from artificial intelligence?

UK psychologists have just reported children learn new words using the same method as robots.

This suggests that early learning is based not on conscious thought but on an automatic ability to associate objects which enables babies to quickly make sense of their environment.

Researchers from Lancaster, Sussex and Plymouth universities wanted to find out how young children learn new words for the first time.

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They programmed a humanoid robot called iCub designed to have similar proportions to a 3-year-old child, using simple software which enabled the robot to hear words through a microphone and see with a camera.

They trained it to point at new objects to identify them to solve the mystery of how young children learn new words.

"We know that 2-year-old children can work out the meaning of a new word based on words they already know," study co-author Dr Katie Twomey said.

"That is, our toddler can work out that the new word 'giraffe' refers to a new toy, when they can also see two others, called 'duck' and 'rabbit'."

It was thought toddlers achieve this through a strategy known as "mutual exclusivity" where they use a process of elimination to work out that because the brown toy is called "rabbit," and the yellow toy is called "duck," then the orange toy must be "giraffe".

But what the researchers found was that the robot learned in exactly the same way when shown several familiar toys and one brand new toy.

"This new study shows that mutual exclusivity behaviour can be achieved with a very simple 'brain' that just learns associations between words and objects," Twomey said.

"In fact, intelligent as iCub seems, it actually can't say to itself 'I know that the brown toy is a rabbit, and I know that the yellow toy is a duck, so this new toy must be giraffe' because its software is too simple.

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"This suggests that at least some aspects of early learning are based on an astonishingly powerful association-making ability which allows babies and toddlers to rapidly absorb information from the very complicated learning environment."

These bugs have their own social media

Carpenter ants exchanging fluid mouth-to-mouth by trophallaxis. Photo / Adria C. LeBoeuf
Carpenter ants exchanging fluid mouth-to-mouth by trophallaxis. Photo / Adria C. LeBoeuf

Scientists have observed one of the most curious forms of communication in the natural world: the mouth-to-mouth sharing of liquids among social insects.

As strange as this seems, there's a fascinating point to it: these liquids contain proteins and small molecules that can influence the development and organisation of their colonies.

It's demonstrated in a new study that suggests Florida carpenter ants can collectively influence their communities by shifting the cocktail of proteins, hormones and other small molecules that they pass mouth-to-mouth to one another and their young through a process called trophallaxis.

"Food is passed to every adult and developing ant by trophallaxis," explained study author Professor Laurent Keller, of Switzerland's University of Lausanne.

"This creates a network of interactions linking every member of the colony."

Many researchers have previously considered trophallaxis only as a means of food-sharing yet, as it also happens in other situations, the researchers had sought to see if it also involved passing along "chemical messages".

How sand 'holds its breath'

Researchers have demonstrated how sand can
Researchers have demonstrated how sand can "hold its breath". Photo / RF123

Melbourne's popular Middle Park Beach is under the international spotlight following a world-first study by Monash University chemists who have discovered how sand "holds its breath".

Sand is full of algae called diatoms, but this environment is mixed about continuously so these organisms might get light one minute then be buried in the sediment with no oxygen the next.

"This is a new mechanism by which this type of algae survive under these conditions," said Associate Perran Professor Cook, a co-author of the new study in Nature Geoscience.

"Our work has found that they ferment, like yeast ferments sugar to alcohol."

In this case, the products were hydrogen and "fats" such as oleate, a component of olive oil.

Sand often had high concentrations of algae, which were highly productive and an important food source for local food webs.

It was therefore important to understand how these organisms survived in the harsh environment in which they live, the researchers said.

They say the findings have major implications and potential uses in the biofuels industry.

Could platypus venom help treat diabetes?

Could platypus venom help treat diabetes? Photo / File
Could platypus venom help treat diabetes? Photo / File

Another team of Australian researchers have discovered remarkable evolutionary changes to insulin regulation in two of their country's most iconic native animal species - the platypus and the echidna - which could pave the way for new treatments for type 2 diabetes in humans.

The researchers, from Flinders University and the University of Adelaide, have shown that the same hormone produced in the gut of the platypus to regulate blood glucose is also surprisingly produced in their venom.

The hormone, known as glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), is normally secreted in the gut of both humans and animals, stimulating the release of insulin to lower blood glucose.

But GLP-1 typically degrades within minutes.

In people with type 2 diabetes, the short stimulus triggered by GLP-1 isn't sufficient to maintain a proper blood sugar balance.

As a result, medication that includes a longer-lasting form of the hormone is needed to help provide an extended release of insulin.

"Our research team has discovered that monotremes - our iconic platypus and echidna - have evolved changes in the hormone GLP-1 that make it resistant to the rapid degradation normally seen in humans," co-lead author Professor Frank Grutzner explained.

"We've found that GLP-1 is degraded in monotremes by a completely different mechanism.

"Further analysis of the genetics of monotremes reveals that there seems to be a kind of molecular warfare going on between the function of GLP-1, which is produced in the gut but surprisingly also in their venom."