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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.

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Oregon Hires Goats to Combat Wildfires

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  • Don’t believe Smokey Bear’s lies. Goats can stop forest fires, too.

As you’re probably aware of, the US West Coast is kinda-sorta on fire at the moment. The gender reveal parties they’re throwing aren’t really helping, either.

In fact, the gender reveal fire – known officially as the El Dorado fire – has claimed the life of one firefighter, according to Associated Press.

With the blazes spreading and emergency services battling 50-hour shifts, exploding trees, and choking smoke, it’s no wonder the West Coast states are turning unorthodox solutions. Any solutions, as long as they work.

They’re so desperate that even to local fauna is being called upon to help. In Oregon, firefighters are going to be getting some baah-dly needed aid.

A herd of 230 goats has arrived in the city of Forest Grove, 25 miles from Portland. Over the next week, they will be eating the dry undergrowth in a 140-acre wood as a wildfire prevention measure, wrote Oregon Public Broadcasting.

It might sound a bit off, but using sheep and goats is a fairly well-established firefighting method. Excess of dry vegetation is often one of the primary sources of fuel that ends up feeding wildfires.

Feeding that brush to the goats instead of the fire could make the difference between an area getting slightly scorched and turning into an inferno.

Seems like a good chance to quote an old saying – it’s not dumb if it works.

Is he working or on a lunch break?

A Man and His Goats

The owner of the goat herd is a fellow by the name of Craig Madsen. He runs Healing Hooves, a Washington-based landscaping service relying on ungulate power.

Madsen used to be a federal office worker, but 18 years ago he was bitten by the goat bug. Well, maybe not literally, but he decided to quit his job and become a full-time shepherd.

In the summer months, he packs his herd into a trailer and drives around the northwest. He sells his goaty services at the request of public officials and private landowners.

It takes about two and a half minutes to get the entire herd out of Madsen’s trailer. Local onlookers have likened the scene to unpacking a clown car.

“I get a lot of requests from people who want [my goats] to do their backyards,” Madsen told OPB, explaining his business practices.

“And I say: ‘I don’t do those, because I can’t put 230 goats in your backyard.’ But there are people who’ll have a dozen or so goats. They’ll come out and do those projects.”

When he’s out on a gig, Madsen lives out of the back of his truck. While the goats chew on grass, his primary duty is putting up an electric fence to keep the herd where it’s supposed to be.

According to Madsen, the fence is needed because his animals can get mischievous. Goats live climbing, and sometimes the closest climbable thing might be someone’s brand new BMW or something.

Madsen also has two other employees – Irish wolf hound Gigi and Nessie, a miscellaneous herding dog. Gigi is the security officer who keeps coyotes and even cougars away, while Nessie is in charge of moving the goats in and out of the trailer in an orderly fashion.

Natural Solutions

According to the Healing Hooves website, the goats provide many other benefits in addition to cost savings. First of all, rough or rocky ground doesn’t deter them, and the goats happily munch away on plants that are harmful to humans, such as poison ivy.

The goats help protect both crews and local residents since they reduce the need to use toxic herbicide and potentially dangerous heavy machineries. Not only that, they often get rid of unwanted plants more effectively.

Some plants’ seed producing parts might escape lawn mower and weed whacker blades. The goats, on the other hand, will consume the plants down to ground level at the speed of roughly an acre per day.

“Goats will open up blackberry thickets, knock back scotch broom and eat a variety of other weeds. When the goats are done the area will not look mowed but they will have a significant impact,” Healing Hooves says.

A Goat-load of Fun

Last, but not least, the goats have a hidden bonus: they’re entertaining.

“They’re fun to watch. Your crew and your family will love watching the herd at work (to them, it’s play) and hearing their gentle bleats as they call to each other,” the company says.

Madsen’s firm is not exaggerating. In Forest Grove, he has been shower facilities and lodging by locals who know and love his goats.

Madsen, however, usually turns down the offers, though he might pop by occasionally to wash up. His work gets lonely, sometimes, but he likes to spend his time reading in the company of his dogs.

Once his goats are done in Forest Grove, Madsen will head over to Spokane.

“I’ll be doing some work in the city of Spokane, and the primary purpose is to reduce fuel loads. And second is to try and manage noxious weeds,” he said.

Mr. Madsen, we thank you and your goats for your service.

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Tesla Driver Caught Sleeping and Driving Faces Criminal Charges

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  • It has drive autonomously features but owners are asked to keep their hands on the wheels and pay attention at all times.

Canadian Federal Police, also known as Alberta RCMP, reported about a strange incident involving a Tesla vehicle on autopilot:

“Alberta RCMP received a complaint of a car speeding on Highway 2 near Ponoka. The car appeared to be self-driving, traveling over 140 km/h with both front seats completely reclined and occupants appeared to be asleep.”

Along with the report, they shared a picture of the Tesla Model S vehicle in Twitter.

Tesla Autopilot is not a “self-driving” system but instead meant as a suite of driver assist features. While it technically can drive, unassisted, Tesla urges drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and pay attention at all times.

Tesla even implemented a system requiring drivers to frequently apply a bit of torque to the steering wheel to keep the Autopilot active. Some drivers are skirting the system by attaching a weight to the steering wheel. US regulators, and honestly anyone with some common sense, considers this a dangerous practice.

The police reported strange behaviors from the vehicle, which appeared to be in Autopilot:

“After the responding Officer activated emergency lights on their vehicle, the Tesla automatically began to accelerate. The Officer was able to obtain radar readings on the vehicle, confirming that it had automatically accelerated up to exactly 150 km/h.”

According to police, the car did stop eventually, and the driver was given a speeding ticket. The driver was also later charged with dangerous driving under the criminal code.

This isn’t the first time that people have been reported sleeping while their car while driving in Autopilot, and it’s safe to say that it won’t be the last. But paying attention in the car is essential and honestly, driverless cars should not be allowed in 2020.

This year has been trying enough, who can’t agree with that? Fast, heavy, machinery driving down the road on its own is just not needed to finish out the year.

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Die and Let Live: Dutch Company Develops Fungus-Powered Green Coffin

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  • There might be life after death, even if it’s in the form of mushrooms

It’s pretty safe to say that, in general, we as humans like to live long and prosper. To that end, we’re constantly developing new and innovative ways to stave off our eventual demise.

We’re pretty good at it, too. The average life expectancy is rising pretty much all around the world. It’s thanks to leaps in medical science, availability of better food, and other more esoteric technological advances – like robots that care for the elderly.

But despite all our rage against the dying of the light, the rules to the great game of life say that eventually it must end. Not to be morbid or anything, but’s that just how it goes – we’re all going to die.

Here’s where we’re running into a bit of an issue. With the constantly growing human population, there are more living people than ever on planet Earth.

The problem arises when the masses of living people become dead people. While ways to dispose of the deceased vary between cultures, by far the most popular method is a good old-fashioned burial.

Unfortunately, that’s also the most inefficient method. Many places in the world are running out of burial space, as reported by the BBC already back in 2015.

To cope with the problem, cemeteries have started coming with their own ways to deal with the issue. For example, in Israel graveyards have started digging multi-story burial tunnels, while in Spain and Greece bodies are moved to communal graves once they have decomposed sufficiently.

It’s a bit of a conundrum, really. The dead should be able to rest in peace, but at the same time, they take up way too much space.

If only the dead could decompose with dignity, and maybe even help the planet while they’re at it…

Looking plump today, grandpa.

Ashes to Plants, Dust to Mushrooms

Well, there are ways to do that. Some of them are already pretty well known, like pressing your cremated ashes into diamonds.

But now Dutch biotech company Loop has taken a further step in cultivating the Circle of Life. With their invention, a fun guy from life can become literal fungi in death.

The vessel for that grand transformation is called the Living Cocoon. That’s a fancy name for what’s essentially a biodegradable coffin made out of fungus spores, microbes, and plant roots.

The coffin, covered on the inside with soft green moss for a comfortable final rest, is “powered” by mycelium. That is, the underground “roots” of a fungal network. You probably learned about them in elementary school biology.

“Mycelium is nature’s biggest recycler. It is continuously looking for dead organic matter to transform into key nutrients,” Loop’s founder Bob Hendrikx told Vice.

The Living Cocoon offers a corpse an all-natural ticket back into the cycle of life. Once buried, the presence of ground water activates the fungi in the coffin and the decomposition process begins.

According to the Loop team, the coffin itself will biodegrade completely in 35 to 45 days, depositing the corpse and now thriving mushrooms into the ground. Within roughly three years, there will be nothing left but fungus and nutrient-rich soil.

Oh yes, that’s one of the intentional benefits of the Living Cocoon. Your body will pass on and in turn help new life flourish.

“[The coffin] also hosts bacteria and microorganisms that neutralize toxins in both the body and surrounding soil, enabling people to enrich and clean the soil with their own nutrients.

“Your own body will increase biodiversity and allow new seedlings to thrive,” Loop says.

The coffin has already been, uh, test-driven, too. A person was recently buried in it in the Hague.

‘Parasites’ on the Planet

With the Living Cocoon, Hendikx and Loop want to help transform the way we think about cemeteries and burying our dead.

“We have a dream of having super-new natural funeral-based concepts in which we go to different cities and search for the most dirty soil and start cleaning that up,” envisioned Hendrikx.

If Loop would have its way, in the future we would not visit our loved ones in somber graveyards. Instead, we would pay our respects for the dead in lush woodlands teeming with life.

The company’s vision is rooted in a – shall we say – harsh view on the human condition. Loop says that we as people “parasitize” on the plant not only in life, but also in death.

“To be buried, we cut down a tree, work it intensively and try to shut ourselves off as well as possible from microorganisms,” the company says.

“And for those that don’t want to be buried, we waste our nutrient-rich body by burning it with cremation, polluting the air and ignoring the potential of our human body.”

Furthermore, according to Loop, the modern lifestyle causes the human body to continue polluting even beyond the mortal life.

“The average human body contains 219 chemicals that can endanger ecosystems,” the firm claims.

The phrasing might be radical, but they have a point. If we have to decay eventually, we might as well help new life grow while we’re at it.

It’s the circle of life and it moves us all, sang Sir Elton John. Maybe we should be more willing to participate in it.

What do you think? Would you rather take the fungus train or be preserved like the Egyptian pharaohs? Let us know in the comments!

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