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A New Robot Hand Can Play the Piano Without Moving its Fingers

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robot hand

The robotic hand resting on the piano. (Credit: Josie Hughes)

Halloween may be behind us, but The Nightmare Before Christmas proved you can combine the spooky holiday with the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” to get some fabulous music. With that in mind, we present a robot hand, shaped like a human skeleton’s, that can play jingle bells:

Credit: Josie Hughes

To paraphrase a Russian proverb, the marvel is not that the robot skeleton hand plays well, but that the robot skeleton hand plays at all. It’s the latest work from a robotics lab at the University of Cambridge, and it’s more significant than it might at first appear.

Gotta Robot Hand It To ’em

The new robot hand, described today in Science Robotics, recreates the most important human structures south of the wrist: bones and ligaments. The thing effectively has joints with adjustable stiffness, resulting in a device that can play various types of musical notes solely through “passive” dynamics — the fingers themselves don’t move, but they react differently based on the conditions they encounter.

Basically, the robot hand only moves at the wrist and arm level, whose motor skills are provided by a standard robot arm attachment. The skeletal fingers react to the piano keys differently, depending on their joints’ stiffness and how they’re placed on the keys. So this single hand design, 3-D printed in one go with various materials, can play various musical styles: a staccato single-finger technique, a Fats Waller inspired crawling baseline and a glissando the researchers charitably call the opening of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Credit: Josie Hughes

Today Piano, Tomorrow the World

This variety from a single passive system — simpler and more energy efficient than a system that powers each individual finger — is why we can forgive the robot hand’s finger fumbles. A different system might be more accurate with individual notes, but this one is more versatile, and capable of much subtler movements. “This approach allowed the printing of a passive anthropomorphic hand that provided the ability to reproduce complex human hand capabilities,” the authors write, “and to show hand behaviors that cannot be performed by other conventional robots.”

Ultimately, piano playing is just a stand-in for any sufficiently advanced display of human dexterity. It’s technology with obvious practical applications, from improved designs for prosthetics (including, yes, hand design) to uses for any industry that needs delicate control over automated processes, such as manufacturing or storage. And, as the authors point out, their research can even help biologists better understand animal anatomy “by building bioinspired robotics that explore biological design and function.”

So let’s cut the robot hand some slack on the piano. We just have to give the technology time to develop — as any good musician knows, the only way to improve is to practice, practice, practice.

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Ecology

Globe Climate: Canada’s resource reckoning is coming

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Good afternoon, and welcome to Globe Climate, a newsletter about climate change, environment and resources in Canada.

This afternoon, the Alberta government announced that it is restoring a coal mining policy it revoked last spring. At the time, the move provoked a widespread public backlash detailed by The Globe. The original decision, which opened up more than 1.4 million hectares to exploration, was made without public consultation. Premier Jason Kenney previously defended the changes.

Lots more on coal and Canada’s resources industry in this week’s newsletter edition.

Now, let’s catch you up on other news.

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Ecology

‘Incredibly destructive’: Canada’s Prairies to see devastating impact of climate change

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As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.

However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.

“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.

Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”

“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.

According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.

The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”

“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”

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Ecology

Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

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Meat has an enormous carbon footprint, with livestock liable for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we have beforehand mentioned on this e-newsletter. That is prompted specialists to suggest consuming much less meat for sustainability (and well being) causes.

However what about your pet? One research discovered that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by canine and cat meals within the U.S. alone had been equal to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the quantity produced by 13.6 million automobiles. And it might be getting worse, with a development towards feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That is prompted some pet meals makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — together with bugs.

Research present that producing insect-based meals requires far much less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse fuel emissions per kilogram than meats comparable to beef, pork or rooster.

That is one of many causes increasingly more pet meals containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a model owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of canine and cat meals containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier began promoting canine treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and pet food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to broaden to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this yr and cat meals in 2022 due to “a ton of demand,” mentioned firm co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier initially labored with animal nutritionists on insect-based merchandise to unravel a unique downside — specifically, the founders’ canines had allergy symptoms to frequent meats utilized in canine meals. Poirier mentioned now about half its prospects hunt down the product due to their pets’ allergy symptoms and about half for environmental causes.

Dr. Cailin Heinze, a U.S.-based veterinary nutritionist licensed by the American School of Veterinary Vitamin, has written concerning the environmental influence of pet meals. She mentioned we’re typically “not as involved as we probably ought to [be]” concerning the environmental footprint of pets.

Alternatively, she famous that the longer-term influence of newer diets, comparable to vegan meals and people containing bugs, hasn’t been nicely examined in comparison with conventional pet meals.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences on the College of Illinois who research novel proteins for pet meals (together with bugs, yeast and plant-based substances), mentioned such substances are rigorously examined to find out their security and diet earlier than being added to pet meals. 

“This can be a very extremely regulated trade,” she mentioned, however admitted it is also evolving.

Relating to bugs, she mentioned constructive information “reveals promise in direction of utilizing them increasingly more in pet meals.” Insect-based proteins have additionally earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Affiliation, which says some insect-based meals could also be higher for pets than prime steak.

However Godoy famous that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all resolution, and pet homeowners ought to take into consideration the wants of their very own particular person pet and analysis whether or not a specific weight loss plan can be appropriate.

She mentioned that other than the kind of protein, issues like packaging and manufacturing strategies may also make a distinction. For instance, utilizing meat byproducts that may in any other case turn into waste would not drive elevated meat manufacturing the identical approach as utilizing human-grade meat.

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