Friday, January 29, 2010

Dining with machines that feel

By Carol Clark

The Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry's annual Faculty Response Forum recently brought together dozens of high-powered intellects for food, wine and deep discourse. The menu of ideas included topics like “Queer Practices of the Self,” “Art and the Neurosciences” and “Torture, Knowledge and the State.”

At the table devoted to “Machines that Feel,” Michael Moon flourished a copy of “Tomorrow’s Eve.” The 1886 science fiction novel was the first text to use the word “android,” explained Moon, a professor in the Institute of Liberal Arts.

“The word ‘computer’ first referred to humans,” pointed out Elizabeth Wilson, a psychologist and professor of women’s studies.

“I think it goes back to the 1600s,” said Benjamin Kahan, a Fox Center fellow researching the history of celibacy. He pulled out his iPhone and within seconds had an exact date. “From 1613, a person who carried out calculations and computations. This is Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt.”

By the way, could you pass that shaker?

During World War II, Wilson continued, “computers” came to mean the people creating ballistic firing tables for big guns. “They were all very well-trained mathematically and they were mainly women, because the men were out firing the guns,” she said.

Moon mentioned a co-worker who dreamed that the cursor escaped from her computer. It ran amok in the office, cursing out all her colleagues. “We had to explain to her that it was her subconscious,” he said.

Talk turned to a strange psychosis that has recurred in both fact and fiction throughout the technological age: People who think that they are machines. In one story a 10-year-old boy needed to plug himself in to function. His belief was so compelling the staff in the hospital kept stepping over the imaginary cords.

“The boundary is getting blurred,” said Tim Bryson, South Asian studies librarian, referring to implants used to control artificial limbs. “What do you lose when you start replacing neurons with microchips?”

Will emotion ever become embedded into machines?

“It’s in them already,” Wilson said, picking up her iPhone. “The joy of the person who designed this is in here. Affect is the primary motivator of human behavior, and it’s everywhere.”

“I’m intrigued by the iPad,” said James Mulholland, a Fox Center fellow researching 18th-century poetry and the effect of early “virtual voices,” such as megaphones.

“The iPad is very, very tempting,” agreed Wilson, regarding the latest Apple product.

“In the future, my machine and I are going to be seamless,” said someone in an oddly dispassionate tone. It wasn’t clear whom the voice came from.

Why robots should care about their looks

Monday, January 25, 2010

Working through the bugs of evolution

The science blog recently paid a visit to two of the leading labs that use parasites and bugs to research evolutionary ecology. Both of the labs are in Emory's biology department, headed by Nicole Gerardo and Jaap de Roode. Check out the photo tours of their research, featured on

Farming ants reveal evolution secrets
Bug splatter study is data driven

Friday, January 22, 2010

Why are you looking at me like that?

Nobody knows more about staring than people who are disfigured. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson takes the perspective of people who differ from the norm in her groundbreaking research. The Emory professor works at the intersection of psychology, biology and sociology to understand how we perceive and treat one another. Watch this video and you will see what she means:

Staring expert named visionary

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Joining forces to fight neglected diseases

The Emory Institute for Drug Discovery (EIDD) is partnering with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals to develop new drugs for neglected tropical diseases in the poorest countries. Emory is the first university to join GSK's new intellectual property pool, consisting of hundreds of patents and patent applications, scientific reports and analyses.

"We look forward to accessing and contributing to this knowledge pool, and to making significant progress in addressing these challenging and devastating diseases," said organic chemistry professor Dennis Liotta, director of the EIDD.

The 16 neglected diseases targeted by the new program are: tuberculosis, malaria, blinding trachoma, buruli ulcer, cholera, dengue/dengue haemorrhagic fever, racunculiasis, fascioliasis, human African trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis, leprosy, lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, soil transmitted helminthiasis and yaws.

The EIDD formed in 2009, to build on Emory's strong history of drug discovery research, including the invention of drugs taken by more than 94 percent of the patients in the U.S. with HIV/AIDS and thousands more around the globe.

Read more about the new partnership.

Related stories:
University drug development enters new era
Mosquito hunters invent better disease weapon

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Queen bee eats her way to the top

Honey bees begin life with the same genotype, and yet the queen bee develops a different anatomy and social role. How is this possible?

The secret lies in the queen bee's diet. Watch a video of Biology Chair Victor Corces describing this striking example of epigenetics during the recent predictive health symposium:

DNA is not destiny

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Home as a state of mind

What and where is home? Atlanta photographer Don Chambers’ portraits of the homeless show faces filled with a sense of belonging despite their lack of an address. “I wanted to do dignified portraits of these folks in environments that they were familiar with, rather than shoot them in a studio or in a shelter,” says Chambers, who won third prize in the “Picturing Home” juried photo exhibit, on display at Emory through Jan. 29.

You can also view the winning photographs online in the Journal of Family Life, published by the Emory Center on Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Do dolphins deserve special status?

From the London Times:

"Dolphins have long been recognized as among the most intelligent of animals but many researchers had placed them below chimps, which some studies have found can reach the intelligence levels of three-year-old children. Recently, however, a series of behavioral studies has suggested that dolphins, especially species such as the bottlenose, could be the brighter of the two. The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future.

"'Many dolphin brains are larger than our own and second in mass only to the human brain when corrected for body size,' said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, who has used magnetic resonance imaging scans to map the brains of dolphin species and compare them with those of primates.

"'The neuroanatomy suggests psychological continuity between humans and dolphins and has profound implications for the ethics of human-dolphin interactions,' she added."

Marino and colleagues will present new evidence about dolphin intelligence at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, set for Feb. 18-22 in San Diego.

Marino worked on a 2001 study demonstrating mirror recognition in bottlenose dolphins (see photo), a cognitive trait shared by only a few mammals outside of humans.

Marino's work is also featured in Discovery News.

Should killer whales be captive?
Finally, 'Noble' Prizes for animals
Dolphin therapy is all wet
What is the impact of zoos?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Finally, 'Noble' Prizes for animals

Emory psychologist Frans de Waal writes in the Huffington Post:

"Time has just chosen its "Man of the Year," whose intelligence was immediately questioned, so why not review some genuine, proven Einsteins, even if they are animals?

"Animals seem to be getting smarter all the time. Since 2000, discovery after discovery has put a dent in human uniqueness claims. At the start of the decade, most of us believed that only chimpanzees might come anywhere near our wonderful human intellect, but by 2010 we realize that also dogs, birds, monkeys, and elephants challenge the human-animal divide, which has begun to look like Swiss cheese."

De Waal goes on to list "10 Animal 'Noble' Prizes for Overall Smartness," topped by a juvenile chimpanzee who surpassed humans on a cognitive task. "This is my way of celebrating the end of a decade," de Waal explains, "which has been miserable in so many ways, but not for the field of animal cognition, which is on a roll!"


Do dolphins deserve special status?

Watch the video, above, on chimpanzee culture filmed at Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center.