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Reading Roundup: Good Robot, Enza Again, Money Matters

January 12, 2018
by Pat Joseph

Good Robot, Bad Robot

MIT Technology Review says 2017 was the year robots backflipped into our hearts, with exhibit A being Atlas, Boston Dynamics’ incredibly gymnastic bot, which (resisting the urge to say ‘who’) not only sticks the landing on an honest-to-god backflip, but raises its arms afterward as if in celebration.

Exhibit B: UC Berkeley Professor Ken Goldberg’s demonstration of a prehensile robotic arm capable of grasping a large array of objects without any advance programming or practice. Rather, the robot learned on its own by studying a data set of more than a thousand objects and the physics involved in grabbing them.

When it comes to flipping for robots, though, you’d be hard-pressed to outcharm UC Berkeley’s high-bouncing SALTO, which debuted in 2016, and was modeled after galagos, the leaping African primates also known as bush babies.

As usual, researchers say they hope such robots will one day be used on search and rescue missions to, say, bound over rubble and locate victims after an earthquake. Lord knows it’s not hard to imagine such scenarios, what with the recent spate of disasters in California, from the state’s epic fires to the landslides in Montecito, where scent dogs are being used to find victims. At the same time, readers of dystopian sci-fi can’t help but envision a darker possibility; namely, that robots will be used to search and destroy. Which may help explain why this article is still one of the most-read stories on our site.

In Flies Enza … Again

Flu season is in full swing across the country, and in California alone 42 deaths of individuals under 65 have already been reported.

Seasonal flu epidemics are an annual occurrence, of course, but the severity of this year’s may seem especially ominous in that it’s the centennial of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

We wrote about that pandemic and about how it played out in Berkeley for our Bugged Issue. The virus arrived on campus in October of that year, as the university and the nation were mobilizing for WWI. In the end, the flu would prove far more deadly than the conflict, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide.

Could it happen again? It could. There is still no universal vaccine for the flu. And while we now have antibiotics to fight secondary infections like pneumonia, which is responsible for most flu deaths, the speed of modern travel and the crowding of people in sprawling megacities, often together with poultry and livestock, are exacerbating factors that would likely make matters worse. As Berkeley epidemiologist Tomás Aragón told California in 2014, “Everything considered, the modern world is a downside when it comes to disease control.”

Go Figure

California Governor (and Cal alum; Classics, ‘61) Jerry Brown released his final state budget on Wednesday, which includes a small boost in education spending, including a three-percent increase for the CSU and UC systems.

Brown is a singular figure in California politics, having the distinction of being both the the oldest and longest-serving executive in Golden State history, not to mention the son of former governor Edmund Gerald “Pat” Brown. Back in 2012 we asked Calbuzz founder Jerry Roberts to muse on Brown’s political career, just as he was embarking on what he called his “third act.”

The state is far better off economically than it was then, but Brown didn’t seem to want to take credit. At the press conference, when asked about his legacy, he responded in a way that was either artful dodge or oracular wisdom–or maybe both. He said: “Can you tell me the legacy of Goodwin Knight? Or Governor Merriam? Or Deukmejian? Governors don’t have legacies, that’s my No. 1 proposition. … Look, we have a whole political system that judges our executives by the state of the economy, over which they have virtually no impact. So, you figure it out.”


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