Man dies in robot accident at Volkswagen. Who is responsible?

The glass car silo known as the Autodstadt, a visitor attraction next to the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany. Credit: Wikipedia

The glass car silo known as the Autodstadt, a visitor attraction next to the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany. Credit: Wikipedia

A 22-year-old contract worker died last week after being crushed by a stationary robot at Volkswagen's Baunatal plant north of Frankfurt.

Media reports of the accident said the man was "killed by a robot", although a spokesman for the automaker said it was more likely that human error was to blame. He said the robot normally operated within a confined area at the plant, grabbing auto parts and manipulating them.

The Guardian's report on the case ended with the sentence: "German news agency DPA reported that prosecutors were considering whether to bring charges, and if so, against whom."

Commenting on the case the director of the Centre for Cognitive Science at the University of Sussex, Ron Chrisley, predicted that accidents such as this would become more common as the use of robots in the workplace increased. 

But he added: "Although there is a sense in which it is legitimate to refer to this as a case of 'Robot kills worker' as some reports have done, it would be misleading, verging on irresponsible to do so." This was because the robots now in use in factories were not autonomous or responsible for their actions, he said. Therefore they can only kill "in the sense that a hurricane can kill". 

Blay Whitby, a lecturer in artificial intelligence at the University of Sussex agreed but added: "It is important for journalists to take an interest in this sort of event because in an increasingly automated world where we delegate more and more decision-making to machines of various sorts there should be much more public awareness of the technology and public scrutiny of the ethical issues involved."



How mussels and oysters could become deadly due to climate change

[Credit: Herbert Lehmann/Getty Images]

[Credit: Herbert Lehmann/Getty Images]

Mussels and oysters could become deadly to humans thanks to climate change, according to research being presented today at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology in Prague.

Rising sea temperatures combined with increased rainfall in tropical areas will reduce the salt concentration of the surface layer of the sea, Dr Lucy Turner, a biologist from Plymouth University in the UK explains.

This would dramatically affect the microscopic communities of bacteria and plankton that inhabit the oceans, impacting species higher up the food chain.

These conditions may favour disease-causing bacteria and plankton species which produce toxins, such as the lethal PST (paralytic shellfish toxin), which can accumulate in shellfish such as mussels and oysters, putting human consumers at risk.

Turner describes recent research investigating how climate change is likely to affect the fledgling Green Mussel industry in South-West India.

Working on the Mangalore coast, the scientists raised mussels under high temperature/low salt conditions whilst simultaneously exposing them to toxic plankton and bacteria species. The results showed that the combination of both a warmer temperature and reduced salinity had a significant effect on the health of the mussels.

"If the changes in the environment put the mussels' bodies under higher stress levels than usual, and we then challenge them with these microorganisms, the immune system may become compromised," Turner said. 

According to Dr Turner, this could threaten the rapidly-growing tropical shellfish industry, already under pressure from India's increasingly urbanised population.

"The demand for marine products is growing at an unprecedented rate...there is also a drive to move from small scale fishing methods to larger scale commercial operations".

Ebola reappears in Liberia

West African doctors receive training in how to use protective clothing provided by the World Health Organisation during the Ebola outbreak. Credit: Wikipedia

West African doctors receive training in how to use protective clothing provided by the World Health Organisation during the Ebola outbreak. Credit: Wikipedia

Three new cases of Ebola have appeared in Liberia in the past week despite the West African nation being declared free of the deadly virus more than seven weeks ago.

A teenage boy died of Ebola last Sunday in the village of Nedowein, the BBC reports. Since then two other people from the same village who had contact with the boy have shown symptoms of Ebola.

It is not known how the teenage boy who died became infected with the virus. Health officials report that the area has been quarantined and that the boy's funeral was conducted safely.

Health official Cestus Tarpeh told AFP that a herbalist who had been treating the boy had evaded authorities.

More than 11,000 people have died of Ebola since December 2013, most of them in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.


Identifying humans by their sense of smell

A person's sense of smell is distinctive and may be unique to them, new research has found. Credit: Weizmann Institute of Science

A person's sense of smell is distinctive and may be unique to them, new research has found. Credit: Weizmann Institute of Science

Each individual human's sense of smell may be unique, with new research suggesting a person could even be identified by their "olfactory fingerprint".

The human nose has about six million smell receptors of around 400 types. How they are distributed varies from person to person according to research recently published by scientists from Israel's Weizmann Institute in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The research looked at how different – or similar – smells were to one another. In an experiment led by Lavi Secundo, volunteers were asked to rate 28 smells according to 54 descriptive words such as "lemony" or "masculine".  These ratings then formed the basis of a mathematical formula that was used to determine how similar any two odours were to the human nose.  The 28 odours made for 378 different pairs, each with a different level of similarity. Using this tool, the scientists determined that each person tested had a unique pattern – an olfactory fingerprint.

The next stage of the research will examine how this olfactory fingerprint ties in with an individual's immune system. The researchers believe the method could be used for the early detection of diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and could also be used to help determine whether bone marrow or organ donors are a good match.  


Cosmic fireworks from a cluster of new stars

NGC 133 is a star cluster located about 780 light years from Earth populated with many young stars (shown in pink) that are less than two million years old. Above it is the Serpens cloud, a similar cluster of young stars about 1100 light years away.

The above image is a composite, combining X-rays from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory which reveal the young pink stars, along with infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope in red. Optical data from the Digitised Sky Survey and the National Optical Astronomical Observatories' Mayall four-metre telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona (red, green and blue) has also been included.

The Chandra data revealed 95 young stars glowing in X-ray light, 41 of which had not been previously identified.

Electric pulse can replenish collagen in skin

Billions are spent each year on treatments that promise to preserve a youthful complexion. 

Billions are spent each year on treatments that promise to preserve a youthful complexion. 

A non-invasive technique that harnesses pulsed electric fields to generate new skin tissue growth has been devised by a team of Tel Aviv University and Harvard Medical School researchers.

Existing therapies to rejuvenate the skin use physical and chemical methods to affect cells and the extracellular matrix, but also induce scarring. Researchers say pulsed electric fields affect only the cell membrane and release multiple growth factors to spark new cell and tissue growth.

The study was published in Scientific Reports and led by Alexander Goldberg of TAU's Porter School of Environmental Studies. "Degenerative skin diseases affect one in three adults over the age of 60," he said. "This has the potential to be a game changer."

Goldberg said experiments in rats has shown the "secretion of new collagen at treated areas without scarring". The researchers are now developing a low-cost device to be used in human clinical trials.

Since 2000 botulinium toxin – or Botox – has been a popular treatment to smooth lines and wrinkles on an ageing face. But Botox injections are only a temporary solution and carry risks, some neurological.

Gathering storm - a beautiful time-lapse captures formation of a supercell

This time-lapse, taken over several hours, shows an amazing stationary supercell being produced over the Black Hills of South Dakota on 1 June.

"I was fortunate enough to have the entire event unfold right in front of me over," writes the video's creator, Nicolaus Wegner. "Truly one of the most beautiful natural weather phenomenon I have ever witnessed."

The time-lapse was taken at one second intervals.

Wegner is on Facebook here.

Existing drugs could treat Alzheimer's

Two licensed drugs that are already on the market and used for other ailments may be used to treat Alzheimer's Disease. 

The Guardian has reported that the drugs were hailed as "hugely promising" at the annual research conference of the Alzheimer's Society, held at Manchester this week.

The scientists have chosen not to name the drugs until after clinical trials have been done to prevent patients taking the drugs before they have been declared an effective Alzheimer's treatment.

The findings arose after a 2013 study that showed brain death in mice could be stopped by switching off a faulty signal in the brain that stops new proteins being produced. The proteins, known as plaques, are the most visible sign in the brain of Alzheimer's patients. Since then researchers have been searching for safe drugs that could have the same effect on the human brain.

But scientists said that before a human trial could take place a brain imaging study must be done to confirm that the same faulty signal the drugs target in mice is responsible for the devastating symptoms of Alzheimer's disease in the human brain.

Giovanna Mallucci, a Cambridge neuroscientist who gave the presentation at the conference, said if the scanning experiments are done shortly and confirm the link as expected, clinical trials of the drugs could take place in a couple of years. 



Australian dragon lizards can change their sex

An eastern bearded dragon. Credit: Wikipedia.

An eastern bearded dragon. Credit: Wikipedia.

Australian bearded dragon lizards can change gender in the egg – and hotter temperatures might be the reason, according to new research.

In a phenomenon known as sex reversal, the animal's chromosomes, what they look like and how they act, do not match up. "So your genes are telling you that you should be a male, but you're actually living out your life as a female," Claire Hollely, from the University of Canberra, told ABC news. 

She said the lizards that changed sex in this way could reproduce and were "completely functional" females. "The bearded dragons are the first species where we've actually been able to demonstrate this genetically. This is the first time ... in a reptile, that we've actually found and established that sex reversal happens in the wild."

The study of 131 adult lizards using controlled breeding experiments has been published in Nature.

The sex reversal took place during a period of "thermosensitivity in the middle of incubation". If the egg is exposed to a hot temperature, this triggers the loss of the lizard's sex chromosome (the equivalent of a male human losing the Y chromosome).

She said that the rate of sex reversal increased over the course of the study, which might be due to the rise in global temperatures, and required further study.

But for her the most interesting result was that the sex-reversed animals laid twice as many eggs as a regular female. "Basically dads make better mums," she said. 

Hollely said a type of skink was believed to experience the sex reversal phenomenon and that it also happened in fish.


Sinkholes found on a comet

Comet 67P, image taken by the European Space Agency's Rosetta orbiter.

Comet 67P, image taken by the European Space Agency's Rosetta orbiter.

Sinkholes have been detected on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko halfway between the Earth and Mars.

The European Space Agency's Rosetta orbiter has been collecting data on 67P since it arrived at the comet last August. Comets spew ice, dust and gas into space – and for the first time researchers have been able to link these activities to features on the comet's surface. 

Planetary scientist at the Max Planck Institute Jean-Baptiste Vincent  and colleagues have published the results in Nature.

Vincent said sinkholes on comets form in the same way they do on Earth. Material under the surface is eaten away, creating a hollow cavity. When the topmost layer can no longer be supported it collapses, revealing a deep circular hole.

Rosetta's images have revealed that 67P is covered in pits which hold "strange things", said Vincent. "We see lots of fractures and features that look like pebbles – some call them dinosaur eggs. They look like the primordial pieces that make up comets to begin with."

The comet will approach the Sun in coming weeks. As it heats up, the jets will become more active. Researchers hope Rosetta's chemical sensing instruments will be able to detect rarer compounds, possibly including amino acids, which have been found on meteorites. 

Sabre-toothed cat's teeth grew twice as fast as modern lions'

The fossilised jaw of an adult Smilodon fatalis shows the fully erupted canine. [Credit: © AMNH/J. Tseng]

The terrifying, dagger-like teeth of the sabre-toothed cat Smilodon fatal is grew at twice the rate of those of modern big cats, a new study has found.

However, the teeth in the prehistoric species emerged later in life and even despite their relatively fast growth-rate, the canine teeth were not fully developed until the cat was three years old.

The findings, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, are based on a new technique that combines isotopic analysis and x-ray imaging. It provides for the first time specific ages for developmental events in Smilodon, notably in their teeth.

The study estimates that the eruption rate of permanent upper canines was six millimeters a month – double the growth rate of an African lion's teeth. 

"For predators such as big cats, an important determinant of an individual's full hunting ability is the time required to grow their weapons – their teeth," said Z. Jack Tseng, a National Science Foundation and Frick Postdoctoral Fellow in the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Paleontology and a coauthor on the new paper.

"This is especially crucial for understanding sabre-toothed predators such as Smilodon."

S. fatalis lived in North and South America until going extinct about 10,000 years ago. About the size of a modern tiger or lion but more solidly built, the cats are famous for their protruding canines, which could grow to be 18 centimeters (about 7 inches) long. Although well-preserved fossils of S. fatalis are available to researchers, very little is known about the absolute ages at which the animals reached key developmental stages.