Rats and other whiskered animals use senses that we don’t yet possess. In addition to being able to run mazes and lick our faces to confirm we aren’t covered in BBQ sauce, scientists have confirmed that some animals use their flowing front whiskers to sense wind position, a technique that could be used in future direction-sensing robots.
A team of students working at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering have found that rats “use their whiskers to help locate airflow sources.” While this seems like common sense, there has been no way to prove this until now.
￼To perform the experiment that led to this discovery, Yan Yu and Matthew Graff, co-first authors of the work, placed five, equally-spaced fans in a semicircle around the edge of a 6-foot circular table. In each trial, one of the five fans was randomly selected to blow air toward a “start-door” located on the opposite side of the table. A rat had to run from the door toward the fan blowing air, and go down a rat-sized hole directly in front of that fan. Each of the five holes (one in front of each fan) led to a tunnel beneath the table, where the rat was rewarded for choosing the correct fan. Cameras positioned above the table recorded the rats’ performance.
During the trials some of the rats were given a painless whisker haircut, a move that resulted in a 20 percent decrease in performance. The rats could have used any sense data to perform the task — from feeling the wind on their fur or sticking their little rat noses into the wind — but it was clear the whisker usage was far better at the task.
“The rat clearly uses more than one cue,” said study author Chris Bresee. “But rats still choose to rely heavily on their whiskers, which suggests that whiskers facilitate wind-sensing even when wild rats explore naturally.”
The team is working on artificial “flow sensors” that can be added to robots, creating bendable systems that vibrate in the wind. Receptors at the base of the whisker can then be read and translated into location data. This means future robots could use these sensors to read their positions, sense their speed or even move toward high or low pressure areas.
“Estimating the structure of airflow is particularly important when locating an odor source,” said Professor Mitra Hartmann. “And odor localization is important for finding explosives, chemical spills, and biological agents.”
Not bad for some foof.
Spearheading change: 3 questions that drive innovators, from Fast Company cofounder Bill Taylor
Anyone, at any level, who aims to make an impact, buck the status quo, and define his or her industry can take a page from Fast Company cofounder Bill Taylor’s book. He addressed top-level IT professionals in his recent Microsoft Virtual North America CIO Summit keynote speech, but his advice is relevant to professionals across sectors. Like a true sage, Taylor asked attendees to consider a variety of questions and seek the answers within themselves to reach greatness. These three questions offer a roadmap for those looking to raise their game to the next level.
Instead of focusing on being the best player, how can you redefine the game you’re playing?
Changing the nature of the competition is a great way to get ahead. By “embracing one-of-a-kind ideas in a world filled with me-too copycat thinking,” innovators come out on top. “The job today is not to be the best at what lots of other people already do. It’s to be the only one who does what you do,” asserted Taylor. One example is Umpqua Bank, a regional institution that was smaller than small—just six branches—until Ray Davis took the helm in 1994. Now boasting nearly 400 locations, Umpqua is Oregon’s largest bank, and this change was driven in large part by a focus on culture: the tellers also act as baristas, each transaction concludes with a piece of chocolate, and the branches become community centers after business hours. Umpqua is winning because it dares to redefine a bank as a regional resource.
Changing the nature of the competition is a great way to get ahead. By "embracing one-of-a-kind ideas in a world filled with me-too copycat thinking."
What single sentence will describe you?
Taylor stressed the importance of simplification for both individuals and corporate entities. Inspired by the story of Clare Boothe Luce—who told President Kennedy that “a great man is one sentence” before she asked him what sentence would describe his presidency—Taylor stressed the importance of this kind of simplification for both individuals and corporate entities. This reductionist method forces leaders, companies, or job seekers to zero in on their goals, minus buzzwords and jargon. Once you know how you want to be described, you can make changes to bring that fantasy into reality.
It doesn’t matter what keeps you up at night. What gets you up in the morning?
Taylor was emphatic that success is rooted in caring more than anyone else, whether it’s about your customers, your colleagues, or the way your organization conducts itself in the marketplace. It’s up to companies to provide their employees and their leaders with this motivation.
One exemplar is USAA, the financial services company for active and retired military. Taylor said new employees are immersed in the world of their customers on day one, engaging in a deployment simulation (to develop empathy while learning about the financial issues service people face), eating MREs at training instead of a catered lunch, even volunteering to go through the brutal first day of basic training. USAA takes work that might seem passionless (such as selling renter’s insurance) and gives staff a reason to believe this work is valuable and necessary and important. This directly translates to better customer service and, of course, more revenue.
Taylor summarized his thesis with contributions from two unusual thought leaders: cognitive-psychology pioneer Jerome Bruner and acerbic comedian George Carlin. Bruner once wrote that learning (or as Taylor extrapolated, innovation) “is, most often, figuring out how to use what you already know in order to go beyond what you currently think.” Carlin famously cracked wise about “vuja de”—“the strange feeling that somehow none of this has ever happened before.” Taylor believes fostering this feeling is a way to inspire Bruner-style breakthroughs.
The questions Taylor poses are a few ways to intentionally make the familiar feel unfamiliar, to look at your profession or your career or your industry as you’ve never seen it before. The answers may be surprising.
Whether it’s 3D printing, a Kinect robotics hack or a drone, Star Wars enthusiasts have found ways to emulate their favorite gadgets from the series into functional, real-life apparatuses. These are just a few of them.
A French 3D printing outfit called LeFabShop has created a set of files that can be used to print almost any type of lightsaber in any color, like this crossguard saber from The Force Awakens. The Instructable includes handle, switches, and even printable beams.
Skywalker, shmiwalker. This hovercraft, the Aero-X, can fly up to 10 feet off the ground at 45 mph. Great for getting back to Uncle Owen's place...if the Empire doesn't get there first.
Stanford robotics students created this "JediBot" from an articulating arm and a Kinect. The Kinect tracks the location of both "lightsabers" and has the robot make an attack or defending move based on their positions. En Garde.