April 12, 2018 --Visit this online directory of the nearly 200 faculty members at Hampshire College and you'll find that, listed between a professor of communications and a visiting professor of video and film, is a petri dish of yellow schmutz. The schmutz is a plasmodial slime mold, Physarum polycephalum, a glob of living cells that exhibits decidedly non-schmutzlike behavior, such as solving mazes and anticipating periodic events – so much so that in 2017 Hampshire, a private liberal arts school in Amherst, Mass., awarded it a position of "visiting non-human scholar." The abilities of non-animals to remember events, recognize patterns, and solve problems are prompting scientists and philosophers to rethink what thinking is. In the 20th century, science demolished the notion that humans are the only animals to exhibit complex thinking; in the 21st, biologists are beginning to see cognition in other biological kingdoms – not just slime molds, but also plants. This shift in thought could not only help scientists better understand cognition's workings and its origins, but it could also help in the search for intelligence beyond Earth.
January 23, 2018 --As we push into the final frontier, we are leaving our mark. We have already left more than 400,000 pounds of human-made material on the moon. Rovers and bits of defunct orbiters litter the surface of Mars. And scientists have sent robotic spacecraft hurtling out past Pluto with no final destination.
September 12, 2017 --The hunt for habitable (and already inhabited) worlds has largely focused on a "Goldilocks zone" around a star, where it's neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist. But astrobiologists have begun to broaden their search – thanks to discoveries by NASA's Cassini orbiter. Saturn sits too far from the sun for its rays to melt ice, and yet Cassini discovered that one of the planet's moons, Enceladus, has a vast ocean sloshing beneath its icy crust. Instead of sunlight, tidal forces keep Enceladus's ocean warm. The gravity of Saturn pulls at Enceladus's core, driving thermal processes that create a new Goldilocks zone inside the moon itself.
August 2, 2017 --C-3PO's fluency in more than 6 million forms of communication in "Star Wars" set a high bar for human-robot interaction, and the field has been struggling to catch up ever since. They started in the factories, taking over physically demanding and repetitive tasks. Now robots are moving into hospitals, shopping malls, even the International Space Station, and experts don't expect their expansion into human spaces to slow down anytime soon. "Even 10 years ago, the primary use of the robots was in the dangerous, dirty, and dull work," says Julie Shah, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "You'd deploy them to operate remotely from people, but [now] robots are integrating into all aspects of our lives relatively quickly."
July 14, 2017 --According to Norse mythology, the god Odin has two ravens that fly all over Midgard to gather information. Their names are Huginn and Muninn, the Old Norse words for "thought" and "memory." The ancient storytellers who bestowed these names on the birds were onto something: A new study finds that ravens can flexibly plan for events outside their present sensory awareness, a cognitive skill once considered exclusive to humans and other great apes. This research does more than just reveal that the raven is smarter than we thought, that apes' intellectual abilities are less unique than we thought, and that a mammalian lineage is a not a prerequisite for complex thinking. It also adds to the growing body of evidence that intelligence has evolved more than once.
June 27, 2017 --A lie can travel halfway around the world, goes the well-known Mark Twain quote, before the truth can get its boots on. Twain himself might have appreciated this quotation's self-reflexivity: There's no record of him ever having said or written it. Today, with half of Americans now turning to social media for news, many of us are getting misinformation – for instance, that NASA has contacted intelligent extraterrestrials, that a'breatharian' couple can survive on a "food-free lifestyle" – mixed in with the legitimate news articles in our feeds. And, as the news cycle accelerates, it's becoming harder to tell the difference. A new study reveals the mathematics underlying this phenomenon, modeling how information overload can erode an individual's ability to distinguish high-quality information from its opposite, causing falsehoods to propagate.
June 1, 2017 --If all had gone according to plan, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) would be celebrating its 10th anniversary of capturing stunning portraits of distant galaxies, NASA would be hard at work on its dark energy detector, Virgin Galactic would be running two daily tourist flights to the edge of space for just $50,000 a head, and a Russian company would be doing brisk business with its orbiting luxury space hotel. Of course, that's not how it worked out in reality. Last month, Virgin Galactic made its tenth annual prediction that "next year" it will finally shuttle tourists to space, joining the JWST on the horizon of 2018, and the inaugural mission of NASA's new Space Launch System slipped to 2019. As for that space hotel, don't ask. Planning for the future is part of what it means to be human, but cognitive biases, development challenges, and financing conventions conspire to make accurate predictions next to impossible.
May 4, 2017 --Imagine: At the push of a button a team of machines jumps into action, taking a digital blueprint and transforming an empty lot into one with a physical home in just days. They finish on time, on budget, and with zero waste. This Jetsons-like vision of an automated future has come largely true for car manufacturing. Now engineers hope buildings will be next. From Apis Cor's 3-D printed house to the MIT Media Lab's new multipurpose robotic arm, startups and research teams alike aim to spark a digital revolution in an analog industry that has thus far proved resistant to disruption.
April 24, 2017 --Three years out of a PhD in physics in 1953, John Kelly Jr. published a breakthrough paper about insider information in horse racing in an unlikely place: the Bell Labs Technical Journal. Dr. Kelly had not just cracked the mathematics underlying a type of gambling, but he had also revealed deeper patterns about the nature of prediction. The formula is powerful in its simplicity. It tells us to put money on every horse for which we have an informational or statistical edge, and then calculates exactly what fraction of our bankroll to bet on each horse, depending on the strength of that edge. While this basic idea had long been known – the larger the difference in the track odds and the real odds, the bigger the opportunity for the gambler – Kelly quietly revolutionized the practice of prediction by writing down the optimal exchange rate between knowing something that others do not and the benefits of that knowledge.