The International Giant Mech Duel Is Finally Here in All Its Goofy Glory

Many, many things about living in the future have actually turned out to be pretty terrible, but at least we get to live in a world where giant robots are punching each other for our entertainment. We’ve gotta take our wins where we can get them, I guess.

This mech battle, between MegaBots from the U.S. and Suidobashi Heavy Industry’s Karatas robot from Japan, has been a few years in the making, and the results are … mixed, to say the least. The robots themselves are really impressive and undeniably fun to watch in action, but the whole battle isn’t exactly Gundam—it’s not even Robot Jox. The rules are also a little strange, with the final MegaBots machine weighing in at nearly double Kuratas, as well as some fairly nebulous victory parameters.

On the other hand, there’s plenty of time to iron all that out as MegaBots works towards attracting new challengers and setting up a giant robot battle league. Sure, the whole thing might feel more like a cheesy ’80s movie than anything else, but it’s also pretty awesome to see that come alive in the real world, rather than through special effects.

(via The Verge, image: screengrab)

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It’s Only a Matter of Time: Time Travel in Fiction and Real Life – Time travel is more than just a far-fetched possibility—it’s already a reality, in real life and in fiction.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on ThePortalist.com, and is reposted here with permission.

Science fiction books, movies, and television shows get a lot of mileage out of driving their characters through space and time. In some cases, the hero manages to travel through both with the benefit of a Time and Relative Dimensions in Space (TARDIS) machine. You probably know that space travel is already a reality. But did you also know time travel is possible?

To save space (not time) I will focus on leaps into the future.

Before I get science-y on you, I want to point out you are always traveling through time and space. If you jog a distance of five miles at an average speed of five miles per hour, then you have moved five miles through space and one hour through time.

I know this is obvious. But I want to point out that space and time are so intertwined in the physics of the universe that they must always be considered together. Physicists came up with a creative name for this unification: spacetime. Punchy, right? The unification is also sometimes referred to as the space-time continuum.

RELATED: The 13th Doctor Can Teach Us a Lot About Being Human 

time travel

Still from the 1960 movie adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.”

Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Albert Einstein went deeper by connecting space and time to the speed of light. In the vacuum of space, the speed of light is about 300,000 kilometers/second (about 671,080,888 miles/hour). This is the same speed from all points of view. It is absolute. If you are zipping along in your starship at 100,000 kilometers/second to chase down an enemy’s signal which contains the plans to your Death Planet, it will still be traveling ahead of you at a speed of 300,000 kilometers/second. If you speed up to 250,000 kilometers/second, guess what. The signal will still be moving at a speed of 300,000 kilometers/second away from you. I repeat: the speed of light is absolute from all points of view. In your case, the point of view is from your ship.

RELATED: 15 Great Time Travel Movies Worth Being Present For 

time travel

Still from the seminal time travel movie “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”

Photo Credit: Orion Pictures

From this fact, Einstein deduced that time is flexible, relatively speaking. As we travel through spacetime, we take our frame of reference—clocks—with us. On earth, our personal clock is mostly in sync with everyone else’s because of our slow speeds relative to each other. Now, if we board a starship and accelerate from our home planet at a great speed, our clocks will begin to differ from those we left behind. With this in mind, the easiest way to understand special relativity is to understand: the faster we travel through space, the slower our journey through time becomes. In other words, as our speed increases, time bends to conserve the speed of light. This time bending is called time dilation. If this weren’t true, then the speed of light wouldn’t be absolute from all points of view. Since we know it is, time dilation must also be true.

Within spacetime, distances may also be relative. Take Tabby’s Star, for instance. It is about 1,500 light years from earth tucked away in the Cygnus constellation. What makes Tabby’s star so intriguing is that it flickers odd patterns. The drops in light are too significant to be due to a passing planet. What is going on out there? According to our earthly clocks, it took the light from Tabby’s star 1,500 years to reach us. Yes, the light shining into our telescopes right now started its journey while the Franks were battling the Visigoths. Maybe you’re thinking that this makes this star too far for us to explore during our lifetimes. Well, not necessarily. If you flew there in a starship capable of travelling at 99.99 percent the speed of light, according to the clocks for those aboard the starship the distance is only 21 light years, not the 1,500 light years for those homebodies waiting for you on earth. It’s not so far anymore. The distance has contracted. I’m not suggesting that it is possible to propel a ship that fast (without a warp drive), only that distance within this framework is as flexible as time.

RELATED: How Science Fiction Predicted the Future of Genetics 

As you can imagine time travel is a great scientific tool for the science fiction toolbox. When the science in fiction is accurate, characters traveling at high velocities through space should be experiencing (suffering from, really) time dilation. Two award-winning science fiction classics that use relativistic time travel as a plot device are Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

In Forever War, time dilation makes itself known when troopers travel in fast ships to military encounters on different planets. Each battle takes our hero centuries farther from the earth he knows. When eventually the protagonist returns home, he is so socially displaced that his language is archaic and his heterosexuality is repulsive. Imagine two races fighting each other hindered by time dilation, unaware of the enemy’s stage of development when they next engage.

RELATED: Legendary Author Joe Haldeman Shares the Story Behind The Forever War 

Ender’s Game also revolves around a relativistic war. The humans have charmingly named their alien enemies “buggers.” A secondary character, a hero from an earlier confrontation with the buggers, has been stashed away in the spaceship (eighty years before the book’s setting) and sent on journey at near light speed. He will return, nearly unaged, to earth when the humans have their fleet ready for the final battle against the buggers.

Both books offer realistic depictions of the science of time travel, at least into the future. I’ll leave you with this: science also allows for time travel to the past. So, why haven’t we met any time travelers from the future? There is a science answer. If we ever meet again somewhere in time and space, I’ll tell you.

(top image: The BBC)

David Siegel Bernstein is the author of BLOCKBUSTER SCIENCE: THE REAL SCIENCE IN SCIENCE FICTION , which comes out October 10, 2017. He has written two science fiction novelettes and many short stories for various science fiction magazines and anthologies. David works as a managing consultant for BLDS LLC, where he applies mathematical and statistical modeling to discrimination and civil rights matters. He previously worked at LECG and the Center for Forensic Economic Studies in Philadelphia.

 

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The One Thing All of Twitter Agrees On: No One Wants More Twitter – Truly bringing people together.

You know what no one feels like we need in a time when Twitter helped deposit an ignorant maniac in the White House and is also a breeding ground for hate groups? More Twitter. So, in typical Twitter fashion, that’s exactly what we got with the social media platform’s small test run of 280-character tweets—double the usual limit.

The responses have generally ranged from complaints that the 140-character limit was good for creativity, snark about how much value there really is in such a change, and genuine criticism that the platform’s function as a haven for abuse and harassment is the problem the company should be looking to solve. While they have improved their tools to combat those issues, users are still running into difficulty when reporting obvious threats and abuse inexplicably ends with Twitter’s team deciding not to punish the offender. (It’s far from the only social platform with this problem.)

It’s hard to imagine the character limit change, which has only rolled out to select users so far, took much in the way of development resources, but with the platform’s monthly user count stagnating and even dropping in recent months, it feels like the company is trying to combat that by just throwing together generally meaningless features rather than addressing its actual problems. Twitter’s own co-founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey, acknowledged the response to the change, but he unsurprisingly focused more on the “snark” and less on complaints about the company’s response to the toxic elements the platform has enabled.

Meanwhile, this user edited down his original, Long Tweet about the change to fit the 140-character limit:

Some mocked how, despite complaints, users have already been circumventing the character limit:

And some just mocked:

(That one was predictably, hilariously misconstrued to be serious by way too many people.)

And then, of course, there are those of us who would like to see the service prioritize saving us all from death-by-manbaby-tweet before their own benefit and relevance, but their own explanation as to why  makes it clear we’re wasting our breath—or, at least, our characters. But now we have twice as many to waste!

(image: Twitter, Universal Pictures)

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This Biohacking Broadcaster Is Documenting What It’s Like to Adapt to A Bionic Hand

Nicole Kelly, a former Miss America contestant who was born without a left forearm, has been putting her master’s degree in broadcasting to use by teaching others about her experience with a new “bionic hand.” Though Kelly rarely wore a prosthetic arm growing up, preferring to instead perform most tasks one-handed, she recently started using the Coapt Complete Control system, a robotic arm that “uses sensors in the arm that work with Kelly’s muscles” and “allows her to control the arm by thinking about what she wants to do.”

She’s decided to document her learning curve on YouTube, so that she can help to normalize the process. “I wanted to show my growth,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that I put on the arm and now magically I changed and I am like everyone else…I want to be able to educate you on my level of capability.”

Kelly previously competed in beauty pageants, eventually becoming Miss Iowa and competing in the 2014 Miss America contest. Though the pageant and its deeply problematic beauty standards have been around since 1921, Kelly was only the second women in its history to have a disability. She told Today, “That was the most attractive thing to me — I can wear a sparkly dress and talk about difference. That is why I did it.”

As awesome as it is that Kelly’s pushing back against ableist ideas of beauty, she undeniably fits conventional beauty standards in a number of ways. However, she certainly doesn’t fit the mainstream narrative about who’s “biohacking” and leading the way in the day-to-day of robotics research, so I’m excited to watch as she progresses.

Here’s Kelly trying to pick up a bottle of juice:

And here’s Kelly practicing brushing her teeth:

I certainly don’t want to downplay how frustrating and difficult it must be for Kelly to adjust to her new hand. It clearly requires tons of practice, and it’s crucial for the people in her life to accommodate her as she works with it, gets annoyed with it, and takes a longer time to complete tasks. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone dealing with an arm like this to be full of good humor all the time, and Kelly’s smiles and can-do attitude don’t make it any less crucial for our society to do a whole lot better by disabled people.

However, I have to appreciate the joy and normalcy in her videos, where she laughs, tries again, gets creative, and explains what makes using the prosthetic arm (or one hand, in her older videos) difficult. Her videos demonstrate how people with disabilities aren’t necessarily tragic or helpless figures, like we so often see in fiction. Instead, they’re going to discuss their bodies with the same infinite variety of approaches we see people use for every other bodied experience. Some of those stories will be tragic; some will be angry; some will be funny; some will be gross; and others – like Kelly’s videos – will be about the humor, struggle, and joy of experimentation and persistence.

(Via Today; image via screengrab)

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NASA Just Opened the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility

After dedicating the facility back in May of 2016, yesterday NASA opened the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility (CRF) at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Johnson, whose life was one of the inspirations for Hidden Figures, worked as a “human computer” at Langley in the 1960s, calculating the trajectories for the first US space flights, including John Glenn’s orbital mission and the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

According to NASA’s fact sheet, the $23-million facility consolidates more than 30 server rooms into a state-of-the-art, energy-saving structure. This CRF will “enable innovative research and development supporting NASA’s air mobility and space exploration missions” and “advance[] Langley’s capabilities in modeling and simulation, big data, and analysis” – a fitting tribute to Johnson’s own achievements, and to the achievements of other women who powered NASA, like Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, who are also honored on the walls of the facility.

In a pre-recorded video interview, Johnson answered a number of questions about the honor. Asked what she thought about NASA naming a building after her, she laughed, “You want my honest answer? I think they’re crazy.”

Continuing more earnestly, she urged, “But give credit to everybody who helped. I didn’t do anything alone but try to go to the root of the question, and succeeded there.”

In the rest of the video, Johnson emphasized two of her favorite pieces of advice: like what you do, and do it to the best of your ability. “Do your best,” she advised young engineers, “but like it! Like what you do, and then you will do your best.”

My favorite part of the video has to be near the end, when you can still see Johnson’s wonder and curiosity as she remembers her groundbreaking calculations. She looks off into the distance as she talks about work and the stars. “I liked work,” Johnson said. “I liked the stars, and the stories we were telling. And it was a joy to contribute to the literature that was going to be coming out. But little did I think it would go this far.”

I dare anyone to watch her, at 99 years old, talk about space and math that way and tell me STEM is some sort of boy’s trade.

One of Johnson’s interviewers suggested that, perhaps, the trajectories that finally get humanity to Mars may be calculated in the Johnson CRF – and that’s the future I like to think they’ll create here. Here’s hoping one generation of black women engineers, who brought us to the moon, inspires the next generation to reach Mars.

(Via The Guardian and NASA; featured image via YouTube thumbnail)

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Did Researchers Really Try and Say Urination Games Are the Reason Boys Score Higher in Physics? – Urine-trouble.

I’ve been seeing the above article circulating around Twitter with the appropriate amount of snark lately, as a piece in Telegraph Education attributes the fact that boys tend to score higher in physics tests (specifically regarding projectile motion) to the fact that they are taught to pee and participate in “playful urination practices” like “Peeball.” Yes, that is a literal claim that having a penis makes you better at physics.

Now the piece on Telegraph is quite narrow, and not a perfect representation of the research it links to (though that is also not a perfect piece either). The article links to a article on the Times Education Supplement (TES), which is full of puns and begins with a description of the gender gap that’s pretty level-headed.

“Some of you will think we’re daft,” they write, “Our intentions, however, are honourable.” There are some good points made about the history of the field, the lack of role models for girls in physics, as well as curricula and greater forces of culture. However, in zooming into the notable gap in projectile questions specifically, the theory questions whether that might be because of participation in ball sports or…..peeing.

Yes, really. The article then goes into the culture of peeing (even citing Alexander Pope’s the Dunciad at one point), and argues that, “All this is experienced up to five times a day, so by 14, boys have had the opportunity to play with projectile motion around 10,000 times. And 14 is when many children meet formalised physics in the form of projectile motion and Newton’s equations of motion for the first time.”

Their solution, ultimately, is that curricula might think to put off projectile motion off to a later stage, therefore creating a more even structure. It’s bizarre, but the whole thing is clearly written with self-awareness and, honestly, good intentions. It doesn’t attempt to say that women or girls should stay out of physics, or that this gap is unfixable.

Still I have some questions.

  • How are these individuals scoring so well on projectile motion when they can’t stop pissing on the floor in every public bathroom?
  • How do squatting toilets fit into this equation?
  • Seriously, have you been inside a boy’s restroom before?

The piece is mostly laughable (with a less laughable exclusion of transgender and non-binary folks). The Telegraph Education framing makes it sound like an Onion article or some weird argument from the 19th century to keep women out of universities. The TES piece is mostly misguided, but reading it, one might recognize a dangerous undertone which is the way we tend to frame gender discrimination in fields.

Mainly, the argument that men are more inclined or naturally better at a discipline rather than culturally encouraged and historically brought up is one I’m cautious about. How we frame a problem dictates how we address it. If we say that men are naturally better at science and math, instead of understanding that it’s a skill that needs to be worked at (a point brought up in our Hidden Figures talk) it changes how we try to fix our problems. The TES article hits on a fact, which is that despite lots of campaigns girls still seem to be underrepresented and underperforming (“For example, Wise was set up in the UK in 1984. In that time, the fraction of female students studying physics in the final two years of school has hovered around 20 per cent.”).

But changing a culture that has existed since the beginning of science-as-a-profession is going to take time. There are so many causes and influences from as young as six that contribute to these numbers. How does trying to ascribe the gender gap to biology make a young girl feel about their capabilities? What does it say about where our priorities lie in trying to change this gender gap? I was told that girls are inherently worse at science and math and I thought it was true past high school. Even when I was doing great in advanced calculus and being curious about science, that stuck in my mind and still does.

We need to be aware that gender discrimination in science is a thing that exists, and the discrepancy/under-performance we can observe from youth to even adulthood is the result of a culture that has historically excluded women, used pseudo-science to justify that exclusion, and then pushes them out with misogyny. That is where our energy needs to be direction, not at Peeball.

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A Neural Network Invents D&D Spells, and Decides “Dave” Is the Most Magical Name Of All

Research scientist Janelle Shane, whose wonderful neural networks we’ve covered before, has turned her experiments from guinea pig names to D&D spells – and the results are just as entertaining.

She first ran a dataset of 365 examples, and the results weren’t particularly useful or amusing. However, one of her readers – Jo Scott – helped her out by compiling all 1,300 spells from the 4th edition. “Using the new dataset,” Shane explained, “I was able to train a much better-performing neural network. It simply had many more examples of spells to work with; that is, more examples of the words and letter combinations that appear in D&D spells, and thus was able to deduce better rules about how to create them.”

“Even this more-sophisticated neural network is not without some oddities,” Shane continues. “For example, you’ll notice in the results below that it seems to have a particular fondness for bears. And it has invented the name ‘Dave’ which is now, for some reason, its favorite.”

I leave you now with just a few of the wonderful Dungeons & Dragons spells generated by the latest neural network. For the full list of results, including all the Daves, check out Shane’s Lewis & Quark blog.

  • Crackling claus
  • Tidal treket
  • Wall of Storm
  • Grasping Mane
  • Tweel Strike
  • Trickstrak empester
  • Phantasmal assault
  • Bund Wind
  • Dance of Sack
  • Poxsare
  • Dumination
  • Storm of the gifling
  • Chorus of the dave
  • Song of the doom goom
  • Death’s Death’s Proud Bear
  • Shield of Farts
  • Ward of Snade the Pood Beast
  • Summon Storm Bear
  • Divine Boom
  • Song of blord
  • Spirit Boating
  • Treeking of Star
  • Primal Prayer Bear
  • War Cape
  • Gate Sail
  • Chilled arrow
  • Charm of the cods
  • Curse Clam
  • Cursing wink
  • Conjure Mare
  • Healing of Bat
  • Mordenkainen’s lucubrabibiboricic angion

Tag yourselves, I’m Curse Clam.

Next up, Shane hopes to use her neural network to generate Dungeons & Dragons character names. You can help her with this new project by entering your D&D character’s name, race, and class via this form. As with the spells, the more data she has on hand, the better the results will be – so let’s help her out!

(Via Lewis and Quark; image via Wizards of the Coast, LLC)

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Science Confirms What the Vikings Repeatedly Told Us: Women Were Warriors, Too

Researchers in Sweden have confirmed that a warrior skeleton previously assumed to have XY chromosomes instead has XX chromosomes – meaning that the Vikings, unlike modern MRAs, weren’t particularly bothered about your “biological sex” if you were strong and vicious enough to fight. Based on the additional cultural evidence, the researchers are initially taking this as evidence that the warrior in question was a woman, but to be fair, there’s more than one possible interpretation: (1) the Vikings’ understanding of gender made room for this woman to serve as a warrior alongside the men (2) the Vikings’ understanding of gender made room for a trans man to serve as a warrior alongside the other men.

Either way: goodbye forever, gender essentialists.

The authors of the paper, published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology (impact factor 2.824), are interpreting this warrior as a woman based on the surrounding cultural evidence. As they wrote, “Already in the early middle ages, there were narratives about fierce female Vikings fighting alongside men. Although continuously reoccurring in art as well as in poetry, the women warriors have generally been dismissed as mythological phenomena.”

They point out that, despite repeated evidence suggesting that women served as fighters, the scientific community resisted this interpretation for years. (Seriously, this whole paper is a giant side eye to institutional sexism.) When the body in this paper was originally identified as a woman based on osteological (bone) evidence, the resistance was strong enough to necessitate the DNA analysis performed here.

“Though some Viking women buried with weapons are known, a female warrior of this importance has never been determined and Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons,” explains the paper.

“Similar associations of women buried with weapons have been dismissed,” the authors continue, “arguing that the armaments could have been heirlooms, carriers of symbolic meaning or grave goods reflecting the status and role of the family rather than the individual. Male individuals in burials with a similar material record are not questioned in the same way.”

It’s important to acknowledge that this grave is quite unique, and that there haven’t been very many women found buried this way, but that doesn’t make it any less real. This female warrior died with a pretty impressive spread, buried alongside grave goods that include “a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior” as well as “a full set of gaming pieces [which] indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy, stressing the buried individual’s role as a high-ranking officer.”

From the global cities of the Renaissance to the multiracial Roman Empire, the more we understand about past cultures, the more multifaceted and complex they start to look. As the researchers themselves write in their paper: “This study shows how the combination of ancient genomics, isotope analyses and archaeology can contribute to the rewriting of our understanding of social organization concerning gender, mobility and occupation patterns in past societies.”

As we continue to learn more about the past, may we hopefully come to recognize that women, queer people, and people of color have always been here: contributing, thriving – and, sometimes, wasting our enemies and getting buried with a mighty stash of grave goods.

(Via Gizmodo and The American Journal of Physical Anthropology; image via MGM Television)

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Maybe We Should Be Afraid of Murderous Sex Robots, But I Am Instead Intrigued

The New York Post, as is its wont, recently published a story about how “hackers could program sex robots to kill,” and—well, please. Tell me more.

Dr. Nick Patterson, a cybersecurity lecturer at Australia’s Deakin University, told Star Online: “Hackers can hack into a robot or a robotic device and have full control of the connections, arms, legs and other attached tools like knives or welding devices … Once hacked, they could absolutely be used to perform physical actions for an advantageous scenario or to cause damage.”

The Star Online article goes even further, imagining “ARMIES” of these reprogrammed murderous sex robots coming after their owners. (There is definitely a metaphor here.)

Given the fact that many of today’s most successful “hacking” techniques, such as phishing, rely more on inducing a user error than complicated, remote reprogramming, I’d say you wouldn’t even need to program the robot to do this damage itself. You’d just need to program it to ask the user to do something dangerously stupid, in a reassuringly and coaxingly sexy voice, and—buh-bye!

Of course, hacked sex robots are just the…well, sexier version of a real, increasing security problem for the “internet of things.” As smart home devices connect lightbulbs, door locks, and even gas lines to the internet, hacking a home to kill someone becomes more feasible. Toasters could be hacked to electrify you. Someone could hack your coffee machine in order to find out everything about you via your wi-fi network.

As with so many things in life, this is all the internet’s fault. Cybersecurity experts don’t seem hugely worried that sex robots will develop their own murderous, Terminator-style intelligence any time soon, even as deep/machine learning capabilities continue to expand. (It’s the more powerful, non-bodied AI who’ll cause the problems.) The real danger isn’t the robots themselves, but the humans who would use them.

So, folks, there’s a simple lesson here. Don’t let your sex robot go on the internet, and it shouldn’t be able to kill you!

Yet. 

(Via The New York Post; image via Universal Pictures)

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Here’s How the Department of Energy Is Censoring Science That Doesn’t Support Its Message

Fears about what will become of scientific investigation under the Trump administration is nothing new, but a report from the Department of Energy yesterday seemingly confirmed those fears, followed by some full-blown climate change censorship.

The DOE report on our country’s electrical grid conveniently came to exactly the conclusion you’d expect to hear from the Trump administration: We need coal and nuclear power plants to keep the grid stable, despite advances is renewables and natural gas. However, a draft of the report leaked weeks ago by career DOE employees, before the more politically inclined ones could get their fingerprints all over it, tells a much different story.

A comparison between the draft of the report and the final version shows that some coal and nuclear-friendly language was added in places, despite not really being supported by the findings still published in the final report. We can only wonder if more drastic changes would’ve been made had the draft not been leaked.

The draft version found that cheap natural gas was the main cause of decline in coal plants, rather than renewable energy sources and government subsidies that foster their growth. The final report pointed vaguely blamed those subsidies for tipping the energy market too much in one direction. Similarly, recommendations were added that coal and nuclear plants be shored up in order to save power grid reliability, while the report’s actual data showed no reliability problem in need of solving.

Really, the report found that there’s no energy-based need to save coal and nuclear plants, and the added political talking points skirted the one real reason to keep nuclear power around: climate change. That comes as no great surprise considering Trump’s past claims that climate change is made up, as well as reports that the current DOE has banned the term altogether, for political reasons.

In case there were any doubts about that, a DOE grant recipient, just yesterday, posted an email that asked her to remove the terms “climate change” and “global warming” from the abstract (basically the summary) of a report, in addition to future reports:

Just like with the grid report, they’re trying to control the public’s understanding of scientific findings by changing how they’re portrayed, if they can’t change the actual science. Keeping things on message is nothing new in politics, but climate change is not an issue we can afford to downplay for political points.

(image: Xenja Santarelli on Flickr)

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