Bees can link symbols to numbers

Researchers have trained honeybees to match a character to a specific quantity, revealing they are able to learn that a symbol represents a numerical amount. It’s a finding that sheds new light on how numerical abilities may have evolved over millennia and even opens new possibilities for communication between humans and other species.


The discovery, from the same Australian-French team that found bees get the concept of zero and can do simple arithmetic, also points to new approaches for bio-inspired computing that can replicate the brain’s highly efficient approach to processing. The RMIT University-led study is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Associate Professor Adrian Dyer said while humans were the only species to have developed systems to represent numbers, like the Arabic numerals we use each day, the research shows the concept can be grasped by brains far smaller than ours.

Studies have shown that a number of non-human animals have been able to learn that symbols can represent numbers, including pigeons, parrots, chimpanzees and monkeys. Some of their feats have been impressive — chimpanzees were taught Arabic numbers and could order them correctly, while an African grey parrot called Alex was able to learn the names of numbers and could sum the quantities.

Source (RMIT University. “Bees can link symbols to numbers, study finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 June 2019.)

Original article: Howard, S.R., Avarguès-Weber, A., Garcia, J.E., Greentree, A.D. and Dyer, A.G., 2019. Symbolic representation of numerosity by honeybees (Apis mellifera): matching characters to small quantities. Proceedings of the Royal Society B286(1904), p.20190238.

New e-skin innovation for an exceptional sense of touch

Robots and prosthetic devices may soon have a sense of touch equivalent to, or better than, the human skin with the Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES), an artificial nervous system developed by a team of researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The new electronic skin system achieved ultra-high responsiveness and robustness to damage, and can be paired with any kind of sensor skin layers to function effectively as an electronic skin.

Drawing inspiration from the human sensory nervous system, the NUS team spent a year and a half developing a sensor system that could potentially perform better. While the ACES electronic nervous system detects signals like the human sensor nervous system, it is made up of a network of sensors connected via a single electrical conductor, unlike the nerve bundles in the human skin. It is also unlike existing electronic skins which have interlinked wiring systems that can make them sensitive to damage and difficult to scale up. ACES can detect touches more than 1,000 times faster than the human sensory nervous system. For example, it is capable of differentiating physical contacts between different sensors in less than 60 nanoseconds — the fastest ever achieved for an electronic skin technology — even with large numbers of sensors. ACES-enabled skin can also accurately identify the shape, texture and hardness of objects within 10 milliseconds, ten times faster than the blinking of an eye. This is enabled by the high fidelity and capture speed of the ACES system.

Pairing ACES with the transparent, self-healing and water-resistant sensor skin layer also recently developed by Asst Prof Tee’s team, creates an electronic skin that can self-repair, like the human skin. This type of electronic skin can be used to develop more realistic prosthetic limbs that will help disabled individuals restore their sense of touch. Other potential applications include developing more intelligent robots that can perform disaster recovery tasks or take over mundane operations such as packing of items in warehouses. The NUS team is therefore looking to further apply the ACES platform on advanced robots and prosthetic devices in the next phase of their research.

Source (National University of Singapore. “New e-skin innovation gives robots and prosthetics an exceptional sense of touch: Unique sensor system responds 1,000 times faster than the human sense of touch, the fastest ever achieved for an e-skin.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 July 2019.)

Original article: Lee, W.W., Tan, Y.J., Yao, H., Li, S., See, H.H., Hon, M., Ng, K.A., Xiong, B., Ho, J.S. and Tee, B.C., 2019. A neuro-inspired artificial peripheral nervous system for scalable electronic skins. Science Robotics4(32).

Nanoprobes – the Future of Human-Machine Interfaces

Machine enhanced humans — or cyborgs as they are known in science fiction — could be one step closer to becoming a reality, thanks to new research Lieber Group at Harvard University, as well as scientists from University of Surrey and Yonsei University. The ability to read electrical activities from cells is the foundation of many biomedical procedures, such as brain activity mapping and neural prosthetics. Developing new tools for intracellular electrophysiology (the electric current running within cells) that push the limits of what is physically possible (spatiotemporal resolution) while reducing invasiveness could provide a deeper understanding of electrogenic cells and their networks in tissues, as well as new directions for human-machine interfaces.


Credit: Yunlong Zhao

Dr Yunlong Zhao from the ATI at the University of Surrey said: “If our medical professionals are to continue to understand our physical condition better and help us live longer, it is important that we continue to push the boundaries of modern science in order to give them the best possible tools to do their jobs. For this to be possible, an intersection between humans and machines is inevitable. “Our ultra-small, flexible, nanowire probes could be a very powerful tool as they can measure intracellular signals with amplitudes comparable with those measured with patch clamp techniques; with the advantage of the device being scalable, it causes less discomfort and no fatal damage to the cell (cytosol dilation). Through this work, we found clear evidence for how both size and curvature affect device internalisation and intracellular recording signal.”

Source (University of Surrey. “Ultra-small nanoprobes could be a leap forward in high-resolution human-machine interfaces.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 July 2019.)

Original paper: Zhao, Y., You, S.S., Zhang, A., Lee, J.H., Huang, J. and Lieber, C.M., 2019. Scalable ultrasmall three-dimensional nanowire transistor probes for intracellular recording. Nature nanotechnology14(8), pp.783-790.


The ROboMObil, or ROMO is a ‘wheeled robot’ with a wheel at each corner, steered with a joystick or by remote control, and with numerous pairs of cameras that survey the surrounding environment with their stereo views, which incorporates technology that the DLR Robotics and Mechatronics Center uses in their robots like ‘Space-Justin’ and their rover. Coordination of the wheeled robot is done using an intelligent central control.Using individually steered wheels, ROMO is able to move in a crab-like fashion, travelling diagonally and sideways as well as turning on the spot. A total of eight stereo cameras allow 360-degree 3D viewing. ROMO can travel autonomously, without a driver; the cameras and computer then select the optimal route and driving characteristics.

Source (Sia Magazin, “A Car With Space Technology – Driving With The ROboMObil”, 08.01.2018)

Water purification inspired by a rose

The rose may be one of the most iconic symbols of the fragility of love in popular culture, but now the flower could hold more than just symbolic value. A new device for collecting and purifying water, developed at The University of Texas at Austin, was inspired by a rose and, while more engineered than enchanted, is a dramatic improvement on current methods. Each flower-like structure costs less than 2 cents and can produce more than half a gallon of water per hour per square meter.



Fan and her team experimented with a number of different ways to shape the paper to see what was best for achieving optimal water retention levels. They began by placing single, round layers of the coated paper flat on the ground under direct sunlight. The single sheets showed promise as water collectors but not in sufficient amounts. After toying with a few other shapes, Fan was inspired by a book she read in high school. Although not about roses per se, “The Black Tulip” by Alexandre Dumas gave her the idea to try using a flower-like shape, and she discovered the rose to be ideal. Its structure allowed more direct sunlight to hit the photothermic material — with more internal reflections — than other floral shapes and also provided enlarged surface area for water vapor to dissipate from the material. The device collects water through its stem-like tube — feeding it to the flower-shaped structure on top. It can also collect rain drops coming from above. Water finds its way to the petals where the polypyrrole material coating the flower turns the water into steam. Impurities naturally separate from water when condensed in this way.

Source (University of Texas at Austin. “A rose inspires smart way to collect and purify water.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 May 2019.)

Original paper: Li, W., Li, Z., Bertelsmann, K. and Fan, D.E., 2019. Portable low‐pressure solar steaming‐collection unisystem with polypyrrole origamis. Advanced Materials31(29), p.1900720.