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Sending robots to space is the 'first step' to bringing AI to everday life: Group Leader and Technologist at NASA JPL and Caltech – Yahoo Finance



Ali Agha, Caltech Project Lead, JPL Nebula Autonomy and AI, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, talks testing Boston Dynamics’ Spot AI robot for Mars mission.

Video Transcript

Welcome back to “Yahoo Finance Live. Deeper space exploration missions come with their own set of challenges. Not only are instruments farther away, which make the delay in reacting to certain things difficult, but tricky terrain on the Martian surface has made wheel travel less ideal, as well. And that has researchers turning the Boston Dynamics dog-like robot– you may remember that one from a lot of viral videos– SPOT, as it’s called, for potential solutions.

For more on that partnership, happy to welcome in our next guest here. Ali Agha, who has a plethora of titles here. But I’m just going to go ahead and call him group leader and roboticist at Nasa JPL. And Ali, really what you’re focusing in on here in the project you lead is kind of the autonomy around some of these robots, to maybe try and figure out some of the things on their own to make the missions easier. But talk to me about how SPOT and that side of robotics helps.

ALI AGHA: Exactly, yeah. We here work on autonomy and artificial intelligence for robotic platforms. In some sense, you can think of our work as focused on building brains for robots. And typically, these brains are agnostic to specific robotic platforms. We integrate these. We have wheeled rovers. We have legged platforms, as the one you can see from Boston Dynamics. Even drones and flying robots with applications for terrestrial settings, search and rescue, mining and so on, as well as our main goal, which is space exploration.

And among these different locomotion capabilities and different mobility systems, legged robots are one of the most promising ones because specifically for NASA, targeting exploration of Mars surface, moon surface. We don’t have roads there. It’s all rugged terrain, off-road setting.

And even on Earth, when you have no road conditions, you typically have animals with legs, right? So legs offer much more capable locomotion ability to go over rocks and different extreme environments. And that’s why we are very excited to integrate our autonomous solutions with these legged platforms to enable new kinds of missions.

I assume, too, that the cost has maybe become a little bit more complicated here. When you’re thinking about SPOT off the shelf, I think what? It’s like $75,000 for one of those things. And then you add on what you guys are working on. So how much more does it kind of come out to you, when you retrofit or add the capabilities that you need to kind of help in these missions?

ALI AGHA: Yeah. First of all, cost is coming down very rapidly. These technologies are just at– these are the first steps in bringing these technologies to everyday life, to different types of missions. So the cost is rapidly going down and we are hoping that the legged platforms that are going to get cheaper and cheaper.

But you’re right. At the moment, a based platform would cost something like around 70k or so. And adding AI, and autonomy, and the sensing payload on top of it kind of doubles the price, roughly speaking. And that’s for terrestrial applications. Once there is really a mission to send these to Mars or the moon, there’s all plethora of new challenges to be resolved, such as making sure thermally or radiation-wise, you make these robots Mars ready or moom ready, which would be a totally different scale of cost and need there.

I mean, all the time, these videos go viral for, I guess, stoking fears in what the autonomous robot future might look like. So there are people out there who might be watching who might be afraid of the idea of adding autonomy to that SPOT dog.

But in the tests that you guys have been running so far, what have you learned about how it can help, and how maybe some of those fears are overblown? But also, the timeline to actually get these things up there for the next mission. What’s it all look like?

ALI AGHA: Yeah, there’s always that perception about what will happen with AI growing and being more and more capable. But I think something typically being missed is it’s not growing in isolation. As it grows and gets more capable, humans are getting capable, as well. It’s kind of part of us. It’s part of the system we’re building.

And in that sense, I think we see, similar to many other technologies in the last century and decades, the benefits typically are much higher. And you might remember the event a few years ago, the Thailand boys got stuck in a cave. If there was technologies that autonomously we send robots, they exactly pinpoint, this is the location. This is what capability is needed, or how rescue people can get to the exact point to save these boys, the mission could have been much faster. We save more lives, and so on.

And similarly, in mining disasters, after natural disasters, and oil and gas industry, there’s a lot of application domains that these systems can make a very positive impact on everyday human life.

And when it comes to the second part of your question on NASA missions, of course, there’s a long road ahead. The steps we are taking here are initial steps to demonstrate that when we go to extreme environments such as caves, such as places on Mars that are really interesting science-wise, this system is able to actually autonomously get to those points without us having prior information about the environment.

But when it comes to the time to really create a mission around these, there are other considerations, such as entry descent landing. Can we land these sorts of platforms nearby those caves or destinations of interest? How do we handle radiation in places like the moon or Mars where there’s no thick atmosphere to protect from that? And similarly, how do we handle thermal variation? There’s extreme temperatures, and a hot side and a cold side.

And those are the kind of things that, down the road, after the proof of concept is finalized, need to be studied before a mission with a legged robot to Mars becomes a reality.

Yeah, you say humanity’s progressing, as well. I don’t know. It might just be the smart people in your lab. You might be overestimating how much humanity outside of the lab has progressed here.

But when you look at Elon Musk and what he is doing at Tesla, also similarly last month introduced their own kind of concept idea of a Tesla bot, an autonomous robot, as well, which is interesting because he’s been pretty outspoken about some of those fears of a Terminator like future, as well. So I guess he’s changed his mind on that.

But when you look at the progress on autonomy and what you guys are working on to have these robots do things that, to your point, would benefit humanity, how far off is that technology from maybe the consumer space where you could go out and buy one of these on your own?

ALI AGHA: Yeah, I think, first on Elon Musk, I would say what they’re doing in SpaceX, it’s amazing in the sense that the increase in the frequency of launches from private sector, SpaceX, Blue Origin, all other companies is going to basically expedite by far the amount of technologies and opportunities that’s going to be there to colonize other planets. And that’s an amazing push there, and it’s very, very helpful for developing these sorts of technologies and expediting them.

And when it comes to benefits to humanity, I think it is– in my opinion, the next era is a robotic and AI era, where basically, the AI comes to physical systems, and embodies and tries to help people. We can see already the impact on education. You can see all sorts of different robots that kids can use to learn coding, to help with their education.

We can see slowly the entrance of robots to health care. We can see a direct impact on– in the COVID era, basically we saw the direct impact, how robots can sometimes isolate and reduce the risk to the patient, doctor, in hospitals. And search and rescue is definitely another very big application domain where, after natural disasters, there’s a clear need to send these robots to save lives or make the operations way more efficient for rescue personnel.

And we’ve been seeing a growing number of those natural disasters here. We might need more robots out there than were expected to help on the front. But Ali Agha, group leader and roboticist at NASA JPL, appreciate you coming on here to explain it all for us, man. Have a great weekend. Exciting to see all the progress there.

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This Canadian 'Dark Sky Highway' is a stargazer dream – The Weather Network



E.C. Manning Provincial Park is one of the most popular provincial parks in British Columbia.

Located in the heart of the Cascade Mountains, its climate and geography have combined to make this park a go-to destination for stargazers across the country.

The park is within a three-hour drive from either the Lower Mainland or the Okanagan, with the closest city being about 45 minutes away. Road trippers can get there using BC Highway 3, also known as the Crowsnest Highway, located along what has become known as the Dark Sky Highway, due to the limited light pollution.

Photo of the night sky captured along B.C.’s Dark Sky Highway. The five bright stars stretched out through the right-hand side of the image are part of the constellation Ursa Major, aka the Big Dipper. (Mia Gordon)

Every year, photographers from around the country come out here to get a good glimpse of the Milky Way and other incredible constellations, and now the Manning Resort and the park are working towards becoming a dark sky designation.

“That means it is a continued commitment to preserve and protect the night and the environment but more specifically the organisms that live in the park that rely on the night to hunt and navigate,” explained Manning Park Communications Manager Emma Schram.

Every year, the resort partners with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for an Astronomy Weekend, where visitors can speak with experts, learn how to use a telescope, and even participate in yoga under the stars. This year’s event is taking place October 15-17, and while it is sold out, any time of year is the perfect time to go stargazing in the park.

Learn more about this stargazer’s dream destination in the video above.

Thumbnail image courtesy: Getty Images

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Faces of 3 Egyptian mummies revealed for the first time – Editorials 99



New DNA sequencing technology is giving us a first glimpse at what ancient men looked like — before they were mummies.

Genetic researchers have revealed highly detailed three-dimensional renderings of the faces of three Egyptian men who lived more than 2,000 years ago, using DNA pulled from their mummified remains.

The digital reconstructions show the men at age 25, who were unearthed in the vicinity of the ancient Egyptian city of Abusir el-Meleq, in the south of Cairo. Scientists estimate the men were each buried sometime between 1380 B.C. and A.D. 425, Live Science has reported. Their DNA was previously sequenced in 2017 at the Max Planck institute in Germany — at the time, the first successful reconstruction of an Egyptian mummy’s genome in history.

Since then, researchers at Parabon NanoLabs in Reston, Virginia have used forensic DNA phenotyping to create 3D models of the men’s faces, a process by which genetic data is used to predict facial features and other physical characteristics of the sampled mummy.

“This is the first time comprehensive DNA phenotyping has been performed on human DNA of this age,” Parabon said in a statement

The technology is already being used to solve modern cold cases involving unidentified victims.
Parabon NanoLabs

The lab used a combination of efforts to reconstruct the faces. Some features, including skin and eye color, can be predicted via genetic markers in the individual’s genome, while others are measured through what’s left of their physical remains.

Parabon’s methods revealed that the men had light brown skin with dark eyes and hair, and that the men were more genetically similar to modern-day Mediterranean populations than that of Egypt today.

Their process had to account for the fact that human DNA degrades over time, and is likely to be contaminated by bacterial DNA. In this case, researchers use genetic commonalities between human populations to fill in the gaps of their mummy genome.

Researchers see that this process could eventually be used in contemporary forensics, in order to identify more recent remains of unknown individuals.

Parabon’s work in genetics has already been used to crack 175 cold cases, including nine solved using the methods described in the current study, they told Live Science.

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Some animal species can survive successfully without sexual reproduction: study – CTV News



An international team of researchers have found that some animals can survive over very long periods of time — possibly millions of years — without sexual reproduction.

By studying a tiny beetle mite species, just one-fifth of a millimetre in size, scientists found that asexual reproduction can be successful in the long term.

The study authors note that until now, the survival of an animal species over a geologically long period of time without sexual reproduction was considered very unlikely, if not impossible.

Asexual reproduction involves one parent and produces offspring that are genetically identical to each other and the parent, while sexual reproduction involves two parents and produces offspring that are genetically unique.

Using the Oppiella nova beetle mite, an all-female species, researchers from the Universities of Cologne and Göttingen, the University in Lausanne in Switzerland and the University of Montpellier in France, demonstrated for the first time the so-called Meselson effect in animals.

According to the study, the Meselson effect is a characteristic trace in the genome of an organism that suggests “purely asexual reproduction.”

In the study, researchers looked at different populations of the Oppiella nova and the closely related, but sexually reproducing species, Oppiella subpectinata in Germany and sequenced their genomes. The study found that the sequencing of the Oppiella nova genomes showed the Meselson effect.

The findings were published Tuesday in peer-reviewed scientific journal PNAS.

Scientists had previously considered the Oppiella nova species an “ancient asexual scandal” as they couldn’t determine how the beetles were managing to reproduce without having sexual intercourse.

Initially, the study notes that biologists thought these beetles were hiding their acts of reproduction.

“There could be, for example, some kind of ‘cryptic’ sexual exchange that is not known. Or not yet known,” first author of the study Alexander Brandt of the University of Lausanne said in a press release.

“For example, very rarely a reproductive male could be produced after all — possibly even ‘by accident’,” he added.

However, the Oppiella nova beetle mite clones itself rather than reproducing, according to the study.

Researchers say the existence of ancient asexual animal species can be difficult to explain as asexual reproduction can seem “very disadvantageous” in the long term due to a lack of genetic diversity.

Biologists say there is typically an “evolutionary advantage” to having two different genomes that only a pair of parents can supply. Through sexual reproduction, this ensures a “constant ‘mixing’ of the two copies” of the genome in each of their cells.

This means that the two sets of genetic information remain very similar, but there are differences that allow organisms on earth to adapt over time, evolving characteristics that best suit the changing environment.

Researchers also found that it is possible for asexually reproducing species to introduce genetic variance into their genomes and thus adapt to their environment during evolution, despite producing genetic clones of themselves.

Scientists say that lack of “genome mixing” compared to sexual species causes the two genome copies of asexual animals to accumulate separate mutations and evolve independently over time.

While the survival rate of a species without sexual reproduction is quite rare, scientists conclude that it is not impossible.

“Our results clearly show that O. nova reproduces exclusively asexually. When it comes to understanding how evolution works without sex, these beetle mites could still provide a surprise or two,” Jens Bast, junior research group leader at the University of Cologne, said in the press release.

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