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Autonomous Talking Robot Helps Old People Feel Less Lonely

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  • If nothing else, robots will definitely make care home life more interesting

When we start talking about robots and the future, they usually get a bit of a bad rap. On the milder end of the scale, we’re worried about them replacing human workforce and contributing to unemployment.

On the other end, we got the full-blown robot uprising. Think about Terminator or The Matrix. That kind of stuff.

But what if we told you about a robot that goes into care homes and talks to the elderly residents so that they’ll feel less lonely and depressed? That sounds less like Terminator and more like a Pixar movie, right?

Well, it’s actually reality. A research group coordinated by the University of Genova in Italy has developed a robot that does just that – takes care of old people.

Named Pepper, the fully autonomous care-bot was introduced to care home patients in Japan and the UK as part of the CARESSES project. Over a period of two weeks, Pepper interacted with them by playing music and actually holding real conversations.

The results of the study were pretty positive. According to the University of Bedfordshire – which is a partner in the study – the elderly who interacted with Pepper saw “a significant improvement in their mental health”.

More precisely, the robot had a “positive impact on loneliness severity” that the residents were reporting. Additionally, the researchers reported the old folks developed an improved attitude towards robots.

Way to go, Pepper. Breaking down the barriers on human-bot relations.

“Statement: It is bingo hour in activity room. Inquiry: Would you like to play, Mabel?”

A Sorely Needed Solution

The CARESSES study is funded by the European Union and the Japanese government. Both of them are facing a similar issue – a diminishing number of people available to take care of their rapidly aging populations.

In the EU, the share of people aged over 65 has increased from 17.4% in 2009 to 20.3% in 2019. Japanese 2018 statistics show that 28.4% of the country’s population was aged over 65.

“In the UK alone, 15,000 people are over 100 years of age and this figure will only increase. Socially assistive, intelligent robots for older people could relieve some pressures in hospitals and care homes,” says Irena Papadopoulos, Professor of Transcultural Health and Nursing at Middlesex University, who helped develop cultural concepts for Pepper’s AI.

While the researchers couldn’t have foreseen it when they started the study in 2016, the COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on global senior care facilities. Pepper is entering the stage at an opportune moment.

But wait, isn’t this just what we said people are afraid of earlier? Are swarms of Peppers going to replace human care staff?

According to Papadopoulus, that is not the aim.

“No one is talking about replacing humans – the evaluation demonstrates that we are a long way from doing that – but it also reveals that robots could support existing care systems,” she says.

Papadopoulos notes that while Pepper performed its duties well, there is ample room for improvement. Some participants reported less-than-great interactions with the robot,  but that was most likely due to limitations in speech recognition.

While Pepper’s plastic shell can’t replace the human touch, it just might provide some much needed help.

One of Its Kind

As we said in passing already, Pepper is fully autonomous. That means there is no piloting or directing the robot – a sophisticated artificial intelligence controls all its actions.

Dr Sanjeev Kanoria, founder and chairperson of UK’s largest dementia care network Advinia Health Care, says Pepper’s AI is one of its kind.

“This is the only AI that can enable an open-ended communication with a robot and a vulnerable resident. We are working towards implementing this into routine care of vulnerable people to reduce anxiety and loneliness and provide continuity of care,” Kanoria says.

An important part of Pepper’s intelligence is that the robot is – as the researchers put it – culturally competent. That means it’s able to respond to the old people’s needs based on a specific cultural context.

For example, Pepper used different kinds of phrases and modes of behavior when interacting with both the Japanese and British seniors. The countries have different standards on how you should behave towards the elderly, and Pepper is able to take that into account, at least to some extent.

Professor Antonio Sgorbissa from the University of Genova led the development of Pepper’s AI. He says that despite the current limitations, the CARESSES study has shown that culturally competent robots improve the lives of older people.

“Our trial was one of the most rigorous, complex and largest of its kind to date and limitations need to be viewed against this backdrop,” Sgorbissa said.

“It is essential to continue this research to maximize the potential of AI and use it for social good.”

It’ll be a good long while before Pepper the Friendly Robot becomes a regular sight at care homes. But when it does, it sounds like the robot has what it needs to make life more pleasant for the old folks.

Want to tell your strange story? Tell us about it and it could be featured on Oddee. You can remain fully anonymous.



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Thank You, Turkey: Ancient Feather Blanket Sheds Light on American History

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  • They keep us warm and they taste great with cranberry sauce. Let’s be thankful for turkeys.

Happy Turkey Day, everybody! Or Thanksgiving, whichever you want to call it.

It’s a day for getting together with family (with appropriate pandemic precautions, mind you), eating and drinking well, and all around having a good time. Well, except for the 46 million turkeys that are eaten on this day every year.

But not every turkey goes gentle into that good night. Just to give you an update on our earlier story, the turkey that terrorized a park in Oakland for almost half a year has finally been caught and relocated.

It’s not just us modern people who exploit turkeys for our own gain, though. The birds have a long history of being a source of sustenance and providing valuable raw materials for native peoples in the Americas.

Now, a new study has analyzed a nearly millennium-old turkey feather blanket, crafted and used by past residents of the U.S. Southwest. Based on the blanket, the researchers were able to glean some fascinating insights into the life of these ancient Americans.

“Blankets or robes made with turkey feathers as the insulating medium were widely used by Ancestral Pueblo people in what is now the Upland Southwest, but little is known about how they were made because so few such textiles have survived due to their perishable nature,” Bill Lipe, emeritus professor at Washington State University and the study’s lead author, said.

“The goal of this study was to shed new light on the production of turkey feather blankets and explore the economic and cultural aspects of raising turkeys to supply the feathers.”

In honor of this Turkey Day, let’s take a look at what secrets the old blanket has to tell us.

Photos courtesy of Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum and Trent Myles Raymer.

A Blanket for the Ages

The blanket the research team from Washington State University analyzed is roughly 800 years old. According to the researchers, whoever wove the blanket was an ancestor of today’s Pueblo peoples – such as Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande Pueblos.

Measuring at 39 inches in width and 42.5 inches in length, it is made from roughly 11,500 turkey feathers. These feathers are wrapped around about 200 yards of cold, made from fibers of the yucca plant.

To determine how many turkeys it would take to make the blanket, the scientists counted the body feathers from the skins purchased from ethical Idaho turkey producers. The results? The blanket needed anywhere between four to 10 turkey-loads of feathers, depending on their size.

Blankets! Get Your Blankets!

Blankets such as this were instrumental in humanity expanding into higher altitudes and harsher environments. And for good reason – it gets chilly up in the mountains.

Originally, the residents of the U.S. Southwest would’ve used strips of rabbit skin to make twined blankets, the researchers say. However, around 200 CE they started replacing the rabbit skins with turkey-down blankets.

These blankets were made by women, and they served the Ancestral Pueblos throughout the entirety of their lives. They were worn as cloaks during cold weather, used as blankets while sleeping, and when their owner was laid to their final resting place, the blanket served as funerary wrappings.

“It is likely that every member of an ancestral Pueblo community, from infants to adults, possessed one,” said Shannon Tushingham, the study’s co-author and assistant professor of anthropology.

“As ancestral Pueblo farming populations flourished, many thousands of feather blankets would likely have been in circulation at any one time.”

Seems like the blanket business must’ve been booming for the ancestral Pueblos. At the expense of four to 10 turkeys per blanket.

Humane Harvest

But hold your horses! It turns out that the ancestral Pueblos weren’t quite as expedient with their turkeys as we are.

Additional results of the study indicate that the feathers

used for the blankets were harvested painlessly. Instead of plucking feathers from living – or dead – birds, the native Americans gathered them during the turkeys’ natural molt.

Now that they’ve said it, it makes sense. Turkeys can live up to 10 years, so letting them shed their feathers naturally gives you a whole bunch of them, several times a year.

If you killed the turkey, well, you can have the feathers already on it. And that’s all you’re ever going to get.

A Lesson in Respect

It seems the ancestral Pueblos didn’t eat turkeys like we do, either. Turkey consumption didn’t really take off until around 1100-1200 CE when over-hunting depleted other sources of meat.

Prior to this, it seems the Pueblos had a special reverence for the turkey. Archeologists have found entire turkey skeletons in constructed graves, indicating that they received a proper, solemn burial.

“When the blanket we analyzed for our study was made, we think in the early 1200s CE, the birds that supplied the feathers were likely being treated as individuals important to the household and would have been buried complete,” said Lipe.

“This reverence for turkeys and their feathers is still evident today in Pueblo dances and rituals. They are right up there with eagle feathers as being symbolically and culturally important.”

The researchers hope that their work can lead to a better appreciation for the importance of turkeys to Native American cultures. And perhaps we could all also learn a thing or two about treating them with the respect they deserve.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day, let us all be thankful for the turkey. They’ve given so much for us, both today and in the days gone by.



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Banded Mongoose Females Send Their Pack to War… And Then Have Sex with the Enemy

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  • We’ve heard about “blood lust”, but this is ridiculous.

We usually associate animal behavior with cuteness. Whether they’re running, jumping, bouncing, nibbling, or anything else, it’s usually adorable, right?

But if you’re read Oddee at all – or paid any attention to nature for that matter – you’ll know that just as often animals aren’t quite as innocent as we make them out to be. In fact, they can get downright disturbing.

For an example, you could go read our story about naked mole rats and their infant-enslaving ways. You can then come back here for the latest chapter in our series of wanton animal cruelty.

This time around, we’ll be taking a look at the banded mongoose. These animals engage in something that in general is pretty exclusively human behavior – they wage war.

If you were to see a mongoose battlefield, you might think it sort of resembles something out of The Lord of the Rings. The critters will arrange themselves in battle lines and await the command of their leader before charging into the enemy formation.

But there’s nothing so noble as defeating a Dark Lord motivating this battle. A recent study has found has found that banded mongooses will march to war for one reason only.

The female leading the army wants to mate.

And you thought human dating got messy.

All pictures courtesy of the Banded Mongoose Research Project.

A Mongoose Explained

As we usually do with articles like this, let’s first answer question: what the heck is a banded mongoose?

These 1.5-feet-long critters live in the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa. They get their name from the dark bands that run across their otherwise brownish-gray fur.

The banded mongooses are carnivorous and will eat pretty much anything small enough, such as insects, crabs, birds, eggs, and snakes. Unlike most other mongooses, they live in packs of 10-40 individuals that move between burrows and other hiding places every few days.

At the head of the pack stands one dominant female. However, when a female goes into heat, he may find his position is not quite as all-powerful as he might think.

Unwanted Attention

According to the new study, when a banded mongoose female enters estrus – the fertile period of her reproductive cycle – she will understandably start attracting the attention of the males from her pack. Only, that may not be what she wants.

Michael Cant, a biologist at the University of Exeter and one of the authors of the study, said that nearly all inter-group mongoose battles are initiated by females in estrus.

“We think females play a role in inciting these conflicts to escape the males in their own family groups during the confusion and chaos of battle,” Cant told the Associated Press.

Banded mongooses are usually extremely loyal to their birth pack. They live together, they guard their burrows together, and they raise their pups together.

This loyalty, however, seems to fall apart when a female starts looking for a mate. The researchers found that females take the lead in steering their packs into places where they’re likely to run into competing mongoose bands.

“This is fascinating research on a pretty unique situation,” said biological anthropologist Michael Wilson from the University of Minnesota, who was not affiliated with the mongoose study.

“What’s driving this is partly the dilemma the females find themselves in.”

A dilemma? What is he talking about?

A Bloody Distraction

Wilson is talking about incest, that’s what. Since the mongooses live in such tightly-knit groups, inbreeding can become a real problem.

To avoid this situation, Wilson said the female mongooses have a strong drive to find mates from other mongoose groups.

“But it’s really hard to do that because as soon as they come into estrus, they get followed doggedly by a male in their own group. The only way they can shake him off is to visit the neighbors and start a fight,” Wilson explained.

And so, the female will lead her lusty followers into bloody battle. After forming into the aforementioned battle lines, the males of two mongoose armies will charge each other with fire and fury.

“They bunch up into writhing balls, chaotic and fast-moving, and you hear high-pitched screeches,” Cant described the battle.

So Violent They’re Almost Human

While the mongoose warriors are tearing each other to pieces, the instigating female will sneak behind enemy lines and mate with their males. And so the mongoose pack receives new genetic material – bought with the blood of their own.

According to Cant, this is a classic example of “exploitative leadership”. The instigating female benefits at the cost of her own pack.

“The findings do not fit a heroic model of leadership, in which leaders contribute most to aggression and bear greatest costs, but rather an exploitative model, in which the initiators of conflict expose others to greater risks while contributing little to fighting themselves,” he said in a statement.

You could argue that the group does end up benefiting from the battle in the long run by avoiding inbreeding. The study found that 20% of a banded mongoose band’s pups are fathered by males from different groups.

Still, the immediate result of a mongoose war is that good number of a pack’s males will be either severely injured or dead. No matter how good it was for the instigating female, you can’t help but ask whether it was worth it.

But the large numbers of casualties highlighted another curious fact that the researchers picked up on. Apparently, the mongoose battles aren’t extraordinarily bloody when compared to some other war-waging species.

“The mortality costs involved are similar to those seen in a handful of the most warlike mammals, including lions, chimpanzees, and – of course – humans,” the researchers said.

They also found that the exploitative leadership model is very much human-like.

“A classic explanation for warfare in human societies is leadership by exploitative individuals who reap the benefits of conflict while avoiding the costs,” they added.

Seems the mongooses are painting a caricature of humanity. And it’s not a pretty picture.



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Alien Monolith Discovered in Utah Desert

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  • Dear extraterrestrials, please stop leaving your weird metal constructs on public land.

Are we alone in the universe? Or do alien creatures occasionally – or maybe even regularly – descend from the skies to walk on Earth?

Some people certainly think so, and not all of them are UFO-hunting crackpots either. For example, you could go read our story of the ex-U.S. military boss who thinks we should have a defense plan against UFOs.

But if aliens do visit Earth, why don’t we ever see anything they might’ve left behind? Sure, there’s an occasional purported alien artefact – in addition to whatever what was involved in the Roswell crash – but if there were regular extraterrestrial visitors to Earth, you’d think they’d leave behind otherworldly sandwich wrappers or something.

But now we may have just found something. State officials in Utah have discovered a strange object sticking out of the ground in the middle of the desert.

What they found sure looks alien. It’s a 10-foot-tall shiny metal monolith, jutting out of Utah desert.

Anyone who’s watched 2001: Space Odyssey should be having chills right about now. The find is eerily similar to the black ominous rectangle responsible for human evolution that was depicted in the movie.

But what on Earth is the strange object? Is it even from Earth?

Photos courtesy of Utah Department of Public Safety.

A Strange Discovery

The strange object was discovered on November 18 by officials from the Utah Department of Public Safety, who were giving a helicopter ride to their colleagues from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

They had taken to the air to perform a count of bighorn sheep in a part of southeastern Utah. As they were flying over the Red Rock Country – a particularly famous desert landscape – one of the biologist onboard the chopper noticed something on the ground.

Between the red rock faces, something metallic was shining.

“One of the biologists is the one who spotted it and we just happened to fly directly over the top of it,” the helicopter’s pilot Bret Hutchings told KSL TV.

“He was like: ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, turn around, turn around!’ And I was like: ‘What?’ And he’s like: ‘There’s this thing back there – we’ve got to go look at it!’”

Not one to turn down such an enthusiastic request, the pilot identified a suitable landing spot. He brought the craft down, and the officials began to walk toward the thing they’d found.

And there it was. In the middle of nowhere, hidden between tall cliffs, stood a rectangular, polished silvery metal monolith.

“I’d say it’s probably between 10 and 12 feet-high,” Hutchings said.

The Out-of-place Oddity

Not only was the monolith itself strange, but its location made it even more eerie. There was no immediate indication of who had brought it there.

The officials found no footprints or car tracks. It was as if the thing had fallen out of the sky and buried itself in the ground.

What’s weirder, the soil around the spot is particularly hard-packed. It would’ve taken some serious effort to dig and cut a hole big enough to hold the monolith upright.

Yet, there was no sign of such activity either.

“That’s been about the strangest thing that I’ve come across out there in all my years of flying,” Hutchings told KSL TV.

“We were kind of joking around that if one of us suddenly disappears, then the rest of us make a run for it.”

The crew couldn’t figure out the purpose of the object, either. They speculated that it might have some space-based applications.

“We were, like, thinking is this something NASA stuck up there or something. Are they bouncing satellites off it or something?”

Maybe it was NASA. Or maybe it was… Aliens.

Alien Artwork?

Well, probably not. At least the helicopter crew doesn’t think so.

The thing is definitely an artificial construct, but the helicopter crew figured that it’s more of an art piece than any alien object.

“I’m assuming it’s some new wave artist or something or, you know, somebody that was a big Space Odyssey fan,” Hutchings said.

Whatever the monolith’s purpose, Utah Bureau of Land Management is currently determining whether it warrants a further investigation. Meanwhile, they’ve decided not to reveal the object’s exact location to the public.

“It is in a very remote area and if individuals were to attempt to visit the area, there is a significant possibility they may become stranded and require rescue,” Utah Department of Public Safety said.

Yeah, right. That sounds exactly the kind of story they’d come up with to keep us in the dark about alien encounters!

Speaking of aliens, if the monolith is of extraterrestrial origin, its owners might be in for a hefty fine if Utah officials catch them trying to retrieve their metal rectangle.

“It is illegal to install structures or art without authorization on federally managed public lands, no matter what planet you’re from,” the Department of Public Safety reminded.



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