All posts in “Science”

Obsessively checking social media during a crisis might harm your mental health

Survivors of three recent disasters — the northern California fires, the Las Vegas mass shooting, and Hurricane Maria — used social media and texting as lifelines to connect with loved ones, seek aid, and search for the latest developments. 

A new study, however, suggests that people who get updates during a major crisis from unofficial channels like random social media accounts are most exposed to conflicting information and experience the most psychological distress. 

The study, published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, surveyed 3,890 students whose campus was locked down after a shooter fired on people. Since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to begin a scientific study during a life-threatening disaster or crisis, the researchers asked students about their experience a week after the incident and analyzed five hours of Twitter data about the shooting. (Details about what happened were anonymized at the university’s request.) 

“If random people you don’t know are tweeting information that seems really scary, that’s anxiety-provoking.” 

“If random people you don’t know are tweeting information that seems really scary — and, in particular, if you’re in a lockdown and someone is tweeting about multiple shooters — that’s anxiety-provoking,” says Nickolas M. Jones, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine. 

While nearly everyone said they turned to officials like school authorities and the police, some people reported seeking more information from other sources, including social media, family, and friends. The researchers found that the people who most sought and believed updates from loved ones and social media encountered the most misinformation. They also said they felt more anxiety; heavy social media users who trusted online information, in particular, felt extreme stress. People who relied more on traditional media sources like radio and television didn’t have the same experience.

Jones says that people might turn to social media to feel more control in the midst of a crisis, especially if authorities aren’t sharing regular updates. But that sense of control just might be an illusion if someone instead sees rumors and conflicting information and feels more anxious as a result. 

“You’re going to feel something no matter what because you’re a human being,” says Jones. “Where you go from there to mitigate anxiety is what really matters.”

In other words, it’s perfectly normal to seek information from any available source and to have an emotional response to rapidly unfolding events. But people who feel helpless during a crisis may be primed to see patterns where none exist, making rumors and misinformation particularly dangerous. Their ability to process and scrutinize information may also be diminished. 

While Jones and his co-authors only surveyed those affected first-hand by the lockdown, he believes the public might experience a similar dynamic during crises. Think, for example, of the last time you scrolled through social media during a disaster and tried to sort through confusing accounts and rumors. It’s probably not that hard to recall a sense of creeping anxiety. 

Part of the broader problem is that the public now seems to expect fast and frequent updates thanks to the speed of social media, but authorities often still operate with tremendous caution. In the campus shooter case, 90 minutes transpired between two official updates from the police. During the entire incident, Jones and his co-authors found that a handful of false rumors were retweeted hundreds of times, including information about multiple shooters and what they were wearing. 

The study’s authors recommend that emergency management officials stay in regular contact with people. Even if they don’t have new information, they can still send messages that help alleviate anxiety and uncertainty by addressing the situation and reassuring the public. They should also monitor social media for rumors and “tackle them head on,” says Jones.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, compiled a list of debunked rumors regarding Hurricane Maria recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. The city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, both of which were devastated by fires in Northern California last week, posted tweets to address rumors. Efforts like these are crucial. It’s equally important to ensure people can actually access official websites, social media pages, and text message updates in the midst of a disaster. 

But the bottom line, says Jones, is learning to seek news carefully: “For anybody who’s turning to social media to get critical updates during a crisis, I think they just need to be skeptical about some of the information they’re seeing from unofficial sources.” 

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Robots will touch more tenderly when they wear this sensitive skin


Robots increasingly have to interact with ordinary (that is to say, human-focused) objects and environments, and part of that is imitating the extremely delicate and complex human grip. A new type of electronic skin allows a robot to feel not just the pressure from its grip, but whether and in what direction an object is sliding or slipping.

It may sound like that’s just something that happens when it’s about to drop something, but the data is actually extremely useful. Telling when and how an object is moving within your grip (it’s called shear force) lets you reposition utensils, feel how far your finger has gone along a surface and how fast, and of course alert you when your grip isn’t ideal.

In order to make a sensor that detects this type of movement, University of Washington researchers took human fingers for inspiration. When you slide your finger along something (or vice versa), the friction causes one side of that finger to become a bit more taut, while the other bulges out a bit. That’s not really how we experience shear force, but it is a good phenomenon to take advantage of for robotic purposes.

The team created a silicone skin that can sit over an ordinary robotic appendage and not interfere with its pressure sensors or the like. On each side of the “finger” are tiny channels cut into the material and filled with a conductive liquid metal. As the finger moves and the skin deforms, it causes the channels to change shape, compressing or stretching out. This changes their electrical properties, which are constantly tracked.

“It’s really following the cues of human biology,” said Jianzhu Lin, the lead author of the study describing the system. “Our electronic skin bulges to one side just like the human finger does and the sensors that measure the shear forces are physically located where the nailbed would be, which results in a sensor that performs with similar performance to human fingers.”

The way one side is stretched and the other compressed indicates movement in a certain direction and with a certain force. Thus, the robot knows that either its hand is slipping, or the object it’s gripping is.

It’s only one part of the incredibly complex system of touch feedback and other senses that we use every day for a thousand different things, but those parts are starting to add up. Before long a robot’s touch may be a very passable imitation of a human one.

Tesla reportedly shipped Powerpacks to Puerto Rico

Elon Musk tweeted last week that Tesla would shift its attentions to help with the aid and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico following the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

Now, it appears that the company is making good on his word: Tesla has reportedly begun to ship its Powerpack batteries, which can be used to store large amounts of energy generated by the sun and other means, to the island. These are Tesla’s massive batteries meant for commercial and utility use, as opposed to the smaller Powerwall packs meant for the home. 

After Musk expressed his willingness to get involved, he and Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rossello exchanged tweets about Tesla’s role on the island, and later spoke in private about the issue. Tesla VP of global infrastructure operations Cal Lankton then met with Rossello, according to Electrek, presumably to discuss a strategy at greater length. The Powerpacks could be the next step in Tesla’s recovery efforts.  

An image showing what appears to be three of the units was published by Electreck, which claims the photo was taken after the rigs were unloaded at San Juan’s airport over the weekend.   

The 3,575-pound Powerpacks can store up to 210 kWh of power, and have been used in Tesla’s projects on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and American Samoa’s Ta’u to create sustainable power grids. The units could conceivably be pressed into service in Puerto Rico to help rebuild the grid using what power can be produced, but it’s not exactly clear what they’re meant for yet. 

If the image is the real deal, the Powerpacks expand on Telsa’s contribution of “hundreds” of smaller Powerwall units sent to Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The company also provided certified employees to help install the batteries, and Musk pledged that even more qualified workers would be sent from the mainland to train local installers and combat opportunistic price gougers on the island.  

Tesla representatives didn’t immediately respond to our questions about the Powerpacks and the company’s role in Puerto Rico’s recovery, and the company has stayed largely silent about the efforts outside of Musk’s tweets. 

At press time, just 13.7 percent of Puerto Rico has power. Rossello set an “aggressive” goal to restore power to 95 percent of the grid by Dec. 15 of this year, and maybe Tesla’s renewable energy tech will be part of those efforts — but the company shouldn’t be seen as the island’s one and only savior. 

Building a brand-new energy grid based on Tesla’s tech would take far longer than a few months and would require a large number of Powerpacks — the Kauai project, which is on a much smaller scale, depends on a network of more than 270 units. 

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MIT’s The Engine wants to fuel bold tech ideas in Boston


Boston and its surrounding universities are jam-packed with big ideas, but the problem is that many of them never get out of the lab. MIT president Rafael Reif recognized this and decided the city needed an engine to push those ideas and The Engine — part venture capital firm, part business incubator — was born.

When smart people are working on hard problems inside a lab, they have access to all of the resources of the university including all that expensive lab equipment and faculty brain power. Once they leave academia, it can be hard to get access to either one, especially when the equipment alone could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more).

The other issue is the problem every smart person with a good idea and no business experience faces. How do you translate that idea into a repeatable business that solves a real-world problem? “While these people tend to be incredibly smart and experts in their field, they [often] don’t know how to run a company. They need support and mentorship and they need access to industry partners to prototype their ideas,” Fran Barros, design director at The Engine told me in a recent meeting in their Cambridge headquarters.

The Engine was launched with a $200 million fund in September to help solve this challenge.

They are looking for big, bold ideas in science and engineering that have the potential to benefit society in some way, and that might have trouble getting off the ground otherwise. “We have a mission for impact in the world, not just cool technology, but something that addresses a societal need and has great impact and the drive to be a big ambitious company,” Ally Yost, an associate at The Engine explained.

Like any VC out there, the company is trying to find a promising team with a crazy good idea. Among the areas they are exploring include advanced manufacturing, robotics, space, energy, life sciences and biotech. And they especially like to see multi-disciplinary ideas that move across these broader categories.

The Engine is looking for startups based in Boston or who are willing to relocate. The company itself offers a startup space with equipment for those who need it. Then there is the matter of being in Boston, which as Barros points out, is a city full of experts that can act as an external network for the company’s startups to fill in knowledge gaps.

Among the ideas in the first batch is C2Sense, a company that has developed a digital sense of smell of sorts that could help food companies detect gasses that signal when their food is going to spoil before it happens, and Analytical Space, a company run by two former White House employees involved in space research, who want to develop a more efficient way to move lots of data being collected by satellites to storage on earth, a problem that is hard to solve right now.

The Engine has a broad vision for the company as a concept. The first batch consists of seven companies, but they expect to fund between 50 and 60 before they are said and done with this round of funding. Eventually, they hope to spawn Engines in other cities throughout the world and spread the concept.