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facts & arguments

Still from the 2004 movie I, Robot

Is humanity being outsourced?

"Are you prepared to meet your robot overlords?" writes Tia Ghose of Live Science. "The idea of super-intelligent machines may sound like the plot of The Terminator or The Matrix, but many experts say the idea isn't far-fetched. Some even think the singularity – the point at which artificial intelligence can match, and then overtake, human smarts – might just happen in 16 years. … Some scientists think we are already in the midst of the singularity. Humans have already relinquished many intelligent tasks, such as the ability to write, navigate, memorize facts or do calculations, [says] Joan Slonczewski, a microbiologist at Kenyon college and the author of a science-fiction book called The Highest Frontier (Tor Books). Since Gutenberg invented the printing press, humans have continuously redefined intelligence and transferred those tasks to machines. Now, even tasks considered at the core of humanity, such as caring for the elderly, or the sick, are being outsourced to empathetic robots, she said."

Storytelling pyjamas

"Juan Murdoch, a father of six from Idaho Falls, Idaho, has invented interactive pyjamas which, when scanned with a camera phone or tablet, can tell bedtime stories," says the Mail Online. "The pyjamas are adorned with 47 clusters of dots that act like bar codes. When a child scans each cluster with a tablet or smartphone camera, a different bedtime story or lesson about an animal is launched." The stories and lessons are written in text and narrated out loud, but they can also be muted so children can read on their own. Reactions to the futuristic sleepwear have been mixed. One critic said: "Outsourcing bedtime stories to a tablet device is horrible and lazy no matter how many kids you have."

Robot can climb cliffs

"A sticky-footed robot that can climb rocky cliff faces while carrying five times its own mass has been developed in Switzerland," reports the New Scientist. "It could act as a scout for mountain rescue teams, help construction crews on skyscrapers or simply scoot up your wall to paint your ceiling. The robot's secret is its footpads, which heat rapidly to melt plastic compounds that ooze into the nooks and crannies of a surface it wants to climb, briefly bonding to it. Rapidly cooling the footpad allows the robot to disengage and take its next step."

Ancient words survive

"'You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!' It's an odd little speech," writes David Brown of The Washington Post. "But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying. That's because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language

that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then." The research was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Thought du jour

"You have to have a lot of patience to learn patience."

Stanislaw Lec, Polish writer (1909-66)