Animal brains in robotic bodies.

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 9 2007 7:51 AM

Insect Propellant

Animal brains in robotic bodies.

(For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)

Binge-drinking women are rupturing their bladders. British doctors report three cases and urge their colleagues to look out for more. Symptoms: "free pelvic fluid," "suprapubic pain," and "re-absorption of urine through the peritoneum." How it happens: 1) You overload your bladder with urine from booze. 2) The alcohol "dulls the senses," leaving you with "a reduced urge to void despite the increased bladder volume." 3) You fall down, causing your swollen bladder to burst. Old assumption: "Women, because of the short length of the urethra and the less pronounced sphincter mechanism, would have a tendency to leak rather than rupture." New view: Women are binge drinking like men, so they're bursting their bladders like men. Question: Why does Britain allow advertising of alcohol but not cigarettes?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Scientists have built a robot controlled by a moth brain. They "immobilized" the moth and attached an electrode to a neuron in the vision area of its brain. Result: The moth's eye movements steer the robot. Proposed applications: 1) Perfecting brain-machine connections so amputees and paraplegics can manipulate artificial limbs. 2) "A robot hooked into the moth's sophisticated olfactory system might one day be used to detect bombs." ("If it blows up, all you've lost is a moth.") 3) Down the road, "machines that can see and smell the world just as living things do." Related: a robot controlled by a roach; a robot controlled by a detached eel brain; remote-controlled pigeons; remote-controlled rats; fighting terrorists with bomb-detecting robots. Human Nature's prediction: Animal brain components will be the next stage of robots, because we're learning that it's a lot easier to engineer bodies than brains. Discussion question: Is it wrong to detach an animal brain and put it in a robot? Why?

The U.S. and Colombia have captured 13 drug-smuggling submarines in two years. Colombia just found two more under construction. Lengths: 50 to 100 feet. Cocaine capacity: five to 10 tons. Drug warriors' spin: The bad guys are building submarines in desperation because we've blocked other transit routes. Anti-drug-war spin: The bad guys are building submarines, thereby circumventing blockage of other transit routes. Sunny side: Anyone can build a submarine these days, thanks to instructions on the Internet. Dark side: And if they can smuggle tons of cocaine into the United States, they can smuggle tons of explosives, too. (Related: the submarine terrorist attack we should have anticipated.)

A big study suggests the harm of excess weight is overhyped. Downside of obesity: higher risk of death from heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and some kinds of cancer. Downside of overweight: higher death risk from diabetes and kidney disease, but no higher risk from cancer or heart disease. Upside of overweight (compared with "normal" weight): much lower death risk from Alzheimer's, emphysema, lung cancer, Parkinson's, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Net result: 100,000 lives saved per year by being overweight instead of "normal." Theory: Extra weight includes "reserves" that help you resist or recover from disease. Supportive reactions: 1) Fat isn't bad for you. 2) "Overweight" is normal, and "normal" is underweight. Critiques: 1) The study only measured deaths, so it missed the fact that fat causes disease, impairment, and lower "quality of life," even if it doesn't kill. 2) The reason fat kills fewer people is that we're medicating them. 3) Overweight may not harm you directly, but it leads to obesity, which does harm you. 4) Other studies say fat is harmful. 5) If we tell people fat is harmless, they'll eat crap and stop exercising, which is bad for them regardless of weight. (Related: Is fat a cultural problem? Is it a bigger world problem than hunger? Is it OK to eat like a pig if you don't get fat?)

A ballot measure to fund embryonic stem-cell research failedin New Jersey. The margin was 53 percent to 47 percent. It's the first defeat of a New Jersey ballot measure in 17 years. The governor campaigned for it but lost to fiscal conservatives, pro-lifers, and the Catholic Church. Old argument for funding the research: It'll cure diseases. New argument in New Jersey: It'll create jobs by attracting drug companies and high-tech industry. Old argument against funding it: It kills embryos. New argument: If this is a money issue, the state can't afford to be "venturing into highly risky business ventures." Supporters' postmortem spin: The voters support the research; they just want us to straighten out our fiscal situation first. (Human Nature's take: Biotech is a new kind of political issue that mixes morality with economics.)

Doctors are trying to fix a girl with eight arms and legs. (Pictures here and here.) She had a twin in the womb, but it merged with her body, giving her two extra arms, two extra legs, two extra kidneys, and an extra spine. Medical term for the absorbed twin: parasite. Frequency of this kind of merger: Once per 50,000 births. Surgeons are severing the extra limbs and organs, rearranging her blood vessels, rebuilding her pelvis, and patching her skin where the extras were. Surgery death risk: 20 percent to 25 percent. Indian villagers' view: The girl is a reincarnated, multiarmed Hindu goddess. (Related: Human Nature's five previous takes on twinning and cloning and the soul.) Question: If it was wrong to kill a mindless, living human body in the Terri Schiavo case, is it wrong to dismember this "parasite"? Discuss.

Google announced a plan to turn cell phones into Web PCs. Applications destined for phones: Web browsing, social networking, video sharing, multiplayer games. Old cell business model: Charge monthly fees. Microsoft model: Sell the software. Apple model: Sell the phone. Google model: Give away the software; sell ads. Google's promises: 1) Better Web browsing and other software. 2) Lower fees and cheaper phones, because the ads provide the revenue. 3) More innovation and customization. Critiques: 1) The announcement is all hype, no product. 2) It'll take forever to be produced, become commercially available, and penetrate the market. 3) Yes, we are all individual … Google pawns. Upside: Your phone will work just like a PC! Downside: Your phone will be buried in ads, just like a PC.

The anti-smoking movement is invading apartments and condos. In recent years, two cities, 50 public housing agencies, and thousands of apartment complexes have banned smoking. Many plaintiffs have won suits against smoking in their buildings. Anti-ban argument: It's my right to smoke in my own home. Banners' arguments: 1) Research shows that your smoke bleeds into neighboring units no matter what you do. 2) It's bad for your neighbors' health. 3) Smokers' apartments cost more to clean after they move out. 4) Apartment complex owners have a right to ban smoking on their own property. 5) So do condo associations. 6) If the owners don't ban it, we'll ban it through the city council. Human Nature's take: Because of secondhand smoke, we're on the way to de facto prohibition. (Do you have a legal or moral right to smoke in your own condo? Discuss in the Fray.)

Parents are installing car surveillance devices to monitor their kids' driving. Insurers are offering discounts to encourage them. What the devices report: Where your car is, how fast it's going, and whether the driver is wearing a seat belt. How they report it: They send you a text message or e-mail. Bonus tricks: 1) You can program a speed limit, distance limit ("virtual fence"), or curfew. 2) When your kid exceeds any of these limits, you get a cell phone call, text message, or e-mail. 3) You can program an alarm to go off if the driver speeds, brakes hard, or accelerates too fast. 4) You can set off the horn or disable the starter by remote control. Official rationale: I'm teaching my kid to be responsible. Unofficial rationale: I'm gonna catch my irresponsible, no-good kid. (Related: car alcohol sensors; traffic surveillance cameras.)

People are buying jammers to knock out nearby cell-phone conversations. Typical range: 30 feet. Cost: $50 to $1,000. Buyers: Restaurants, salons, hotels, theaters, bus drivers, and transit riders. One company sells about 5,000 jammers a year; another sells hundreds. Motives: 1) Shut up the chatty teen next to you. 2) Shut up your chatty employees. 3) Prevent people from taking calls during your show or speech. 4) Shut up anyone who ignores your initial request to shut up. 5) Just for the fun of playing God. Objections: 1) The jammers knock out any other call within range, affecting the innocent as well as the guilty. 2) They prevent communication in emergencies. 3) They're illegal. Rebuttal: Good luck catching my hidden mobile jammer, copper! (Related column: Saving lives in Iraq by jamming cell-phone bomb detonators.) Human Nature's view: The government should approve private jammers to enforce no-cell-phone zones.

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) Are Jews genetically smart? 2) Newt Gingrich, environmentalist. 3) Race, intelligence, and James Watson. 4) The lessons of Iraq. 5) Rethinking the age of consent. 6) The best sex stories of 2007. 7) Are conservatives stupid? 8)  Larry Craig's anti-gay hypocrisy. 9) The jihad against tobacco. 10)  Fat lies and fat lies revisited.

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