Why everyone may have a personal air vehicle

The idea of having a part car, part plane, part drone parked outside your home may not be as far-fetched as it seems. There really aren’t any technological hurdles to this.

We are going to have personal air vehicles that are both cars and planes, at least that’s Missy Cummings’s vision of the future. It’s basically the intersection of a drone with a robotic car, so that your plane is also your car, but the big leap in technology is that you are actually driving neither, says the Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Drones have a negative bias in the media, says Cummings, because they are essentially seen as spy cameras. But most people don’t realise that when they are on a plane they are effectively travelling on a drone. The fly-by-wire technology that exists on all Airbus and many Boeing craft is the exact same technology that exists on drones.

The reason why drones are the answer to the future is that the truth is we are terrible drivers. Humans inherently have a half-second lag in almost any quick response that they need to have, like a ball rolling out in a street or seeing an aircraft in the sky and you have to take evasive action. Even a half-second delay can mean the difference between life and death, and computers and automated systems don’t have that - they have microseconds.

So, our transportation network of the future, both on the ground and in the air, will actually be safer when we turn it over to computers.

There really aren’t any technological hurdles to this idea, says Cummings. The biggest hurdles we have are psychological and cultural, in terms of giving up the car. But no new tech needs to be developed to have your own personal flying car. What we have to do is improve production and reduce manufacturing costs, and what that means is that we need more robots. So this is almost a self-circular process, where we need robots to build robots to make them cheaper.

Should we worry about the machines rising up and taking over? No, what Cummings says she is worried about is hackers and terrorists who want to do wrong. One of the things she is working on is trying to develop technology that allows any flying robot to be able to fend off any attack and be able to navigate itself without any GPS or any other external signal.

There are lots of different possibilities for what your personal air vehicle could look like. You could own your own in your driveway or garage, and you could jump in it. Or we could have a shared network like the plane version of Zipcar. People should be excited about this: it promises much in terms of safer travel, and in parts of the world where the road and air networks are poor, people will be able to get the goods and services they need.

So, when we look at globalising this concept of personal air vehicles, it means we will see the quality of life improve dramatically for everyone around the world.


 

Hacking our senses to boost learning power

Some schools are pumping music, noises and fragrances into the classroom to see if it improves exam results - could it work?

What did your school smell like? Was it noisy or peaceful?

It might not seem important, but a growing body of research suggests that smells and sounds can have an impact on learning, performance and creativity. Indeed, some head teachers have recently taken to broadcasting noises and pumping whiffs into their schools to see whether it can boost grades. Is there anything in it? And if so, what are the implications for the way we all work and study?

There is certainly some well-established research to suggest that some noises can have a detrimental effect on learning. Numerous studies over the past 15 years have found that children attending schools under the flight paths of large airports lag behind in their exam results.

But general noise seems to have an effect too. Bridget Shield, a professor of acoustics at London South Bank University, and Julie Dockrell, now at the Institute of Education, have been conducting studies and advising politicians on the effects of all sorts of noises, such as traffic and sirens, as well as noise generated by the children themselves. When they recreated those particular sounds in an experimental setting whilst children completed various cognitive tasks, they found a significant negative effect on exam scores. “Everything points to a detrimental impact of the noise on children’s performance, in numeracy, in literacy, and in spelling," says Shield. The noise seemed to have an especially detrimental effect on children with special needs. `

Shield says the sound of “babble" - the chatter of other children, is particularly distracting in the classroom. Architects that fashion open-plan classrooms in schools would do well to take this on board. “People are very distracted by speech - particularly if it’s understandable, but you’re not involved in it." This phenomenon is also known as the irrelevant speech effect, she says, adding that “it’s a very common finding in open-plan offices as well."

Whether background sounds are beneficial or not seems to depend on what kind of noise it is - and the volume. In a series of studies published last year, Ravi Mehta from the College of Business at Illinois and colleagues tested people’s creativity while exposed to a soundtrack made up of background noises - such as coffee-shop chatter and construction-site drilling - at different volumes. They found that people were more creative when the background noises were played at a medium level than when volume was low. Loud background noise, however, damaged their creativity.

This makes sense for a couple of reasons, says psychologist Dr Nick Perham, at Cardiff Metropolitan University in the UK, who studies the effect of sounds on learning but was not involved in the study.  Firstly, he says, sounds that are most distracting tend to be very variable.  A general hum in the background suggests a steady-state sound with not much acoustical variation. “So there’s not much there to capture your attention - nothing distracting the subjects," he says. At the same time, the background noise might cause the subjects to be in a slightly heightened state of arousal, says Perham. You don’t want too much or too little arousal. “Medium arousal is best for good performance. So it might be that a general hum in the background gives an optimum level of arousal." With that in mind, Perham suggests there may be some benefit to playing music or other sounds in an art class or other situations where creativity is key.

Many teachers all over the world already play music to students in class. Many are inspired by the belief that hearing music can boost IQ in subsequent tasks, the so-called Mozart effect. While the evidence actually suggests it’s a stretch to say classical music boosts brainpower, researchers do think pleasant sounds before a task can sometimes lift your mood and help you perform well, says Perham, who has done his own studies on the phenomenon. The key appears to be that you enjoy what you’re hearing. “If you like the music or you like the sound - even listening to a Stephen King novel - then you did better. It didn’t matter about the music," he says.

However, it’s worth considering that music is not always helpful while you’re trying to work. Trying to perform a task which involves serial recall - for instance, doing mental arithmetic - will be impaired by sounds with acoustic variation, which includes most types of music, says Perham. (Except a few, like extreme death metal.) Songs with lyrics, on the other hand, are more likely to interfere with tasks that involve semantics - such as reading comprehension. “The task and the sound are important, when you have both of them using the same process then you get problems," he says.

So, it seems that schools that choose to screen out disturbing noises and create positive soundscapes could enhance the learning of their students, so long as they make careful choices.

This isn’t the only sense being tweaked to affect learning. Special educational needs students at Sydenham high school in London are being encouraged to revise different subjects in the presence of different smells - grapefruit scents for maths, lavender for French and spearmint for history.

Less research has gone into the idea of whether scents can help with cognitive performance, although there have been intriguing findings. In 2003, psychologist Mark Moss, at Northumbria University, carried out a range of cognitive tests on subjects who were exposed either to lavender or rosemary aromas. “Rosemary in particular caught my attention as it is considered to be arousing and linked to memory," he says, whereas lavender is considered to be sedating. Moss found that those who were smelling lavender performed significantly worse in working memory tests, and had impaired reaction times for both memory and attention-based tasks, compared to controls. Those in the rosemary group, on the other hand, did much better than controls overall in the memory tasks, although their reaction times were slower.

Why might this be? It’s perhaps not surprising that smells affect memory, given that the brain’s olfactory bulb is intimately linked to the hippocampus, which deals with learning. But Moss suspected there was more to it. To explore the pharmacological effects of rosemary on the body, he drew blood samples from volunteers who had just undergone cognitive tests in a rosemary-infused room, and found that they had elevated levels of a compound called 1,8-cineole in their blood. Previous research has shown that this compound increases communication between brain cells, which might explain how it improves brain function.
 
So, as you finish reading this story, take a moment to tune into your senses. Close your eyes and take a few nice deep breaths. What can you hear and smell? The answer, it seems, may affect how much you learnt in the past few minutes. 


 

Sporting superstitions: Why do we have them?

How psychology experiments on hungry pigeons can explain sports champions' (and our) curious habits and rituals.

Black cats are being overlooked for rehoming, Cambridgeshire animal charities say.

Legendary Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff used to slap his goalkeeper in the stomach before each match. Tennis ace Serena Williams always bounces her ball five times before her first serve. Jennifer Aniston, it is reported, touches the outside of any plane she flies in with her right foot before boarding.

From touching wood for good luck, to walking around ladders to avoid bad luck, we all have little routines or superstitions, which make little sense when you stop to think about them. And they are not always done to bring us luck. I wait until just after the kettle has boiled to pour the water for a cup of tea, rather than pouring just before it boils. I do not know why I feel the need to do this, I am sure it cannot make a difference to the drink.

So, why do I and others repeat these curious habits? Behind the seemingly irrational acts of kettle boiling, ball bouncing or stomach slapping lies something that tells us about what makes animals succeed in their continuing evolutionary struggles.

Repeat behaviour

We refer to something that we do without thinking as being a habit. This is precisely why habits are useful - they do not take up mental effort. Our brains have mechanisms for acquiring new routines, and part of what makes us, and other creatures successful is the ability to create these habits.

Even pigeons can develop superstitious habits, as psychologist B. F. Skinner famously showed in an experiment. Skinner would begin a lecture by placing a pigeon in a cage with an automatic feeder that delivered a food pellet every 15 seconds. At the start of the lecture Skinner would let the audience observe the ordinary, passive behaviour of the pigeon, before covering the box. After fifty minutes he would uncover the box and show that different pigeons developed different behaviours. One bird would be turning counter clockwise three times before looking in the food basket, another would be thrusting its head into the top left corner. In other words, all pigeons struck upon some particular ritual that they would do over and over again.

Skinner's explanation for this strange behaviour is as straightforward as it is ingenious. Although we know the food is delivered regardless of the pigeon's behaviour, the pigeon doesn't know this. So imagine yourself in the position of the pigeon; your brain knows very little about the world of men, or cages, or automatic food dispensers. You strut around your cage for a while, you decide to turn counter clockwise three times, and right at that moment some food appears. What should you do to make that happen again? The obvious answer is that you should repeat what you have just been doing. You repeat that action and - lo! - it works, food arrives.

From this seed, argued Skinner, superstition develops. Superstitions take over behaviour because our brains try and repeat whatever actions precede success, even if we cannot see how they have had their influence. Faced with the choice of figuring out how the world works and calculating the best outcome (which is the sensible rational thing to do), or repeating whatever you did last time before something good happened, we are far more likely to choose the latter. Or to put it another way: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it", regardless of the cause.

Habit forming

University of Cambridge psychologist Tony Dickinson has taken the investigation of habits one step further. Dickinson trains rats to press a lever for food and perform another action (usually pulling a chain) for water. The animals can now decide which reward they would like most. If you give them water before the experiment they press the lever for food, if you give them food beforehand they pull the chain for water.

But something strange happens if the animals keep practising these actions beyond the point at which they have effectively learnt them - they seem to “forget" about the specific effects of each action. After this “overtraining", you feed the animal food before the experiment and they keep on pressing the lever to produce food, regardless of the fact that they have just been fed. The rat has developed a habit, something it does just because it the opportunity is there, without thinking about the outcome.

Sound like anyone we know? To a psychologist, lots of human rituals look a lot like the automatic behaviours developed by Skinner's pigeons or Dickinson's rats. Chunks of behaviour that do not truly have an effect on the world, but which get stuck in our repertoire of actions.

And when the stakes are high - such as with sports - there is even more pressure on our brains to “capture" whatever behaviours might be important for success. Some rituals can help a sportsperson to relax and get “in the zone" as part of a well-established routine before and during a big game. But some of the habits you see put my kettle boiling routine to shame. Tiger Woods always wears red the last day of a golf tournament, because he says it is his “power colour". In baseball, Wade Boggs claimed he hit better if he ate chicken the night before. Soccer’s Kolo Toure once missed the start of the second half because refused to come out - superstition dictated he had to be the last player to re-emerge from the dressing room, but on that occasion he was stuck there waiting for a stricken teammate to finish treatment.

We cling to these habits because we - or ancient animal parts of our brains - do not want to risk finding out what happens if we change. The rituals survive despite seeming irrational because they are coded in parts of our brains, which are designed by evolution not to think about reasons. They just repeat what seemed to work last time. This explains why having personal rituals is a normal part of being human. It is part of our inheritance as intelligent animals, a strategy that works in the long-term, even though it clearly does not make sense for every individual act.


 

Why you think your phone is vibrating when it is not

Most of us experience false alarms with phones, and as Tom Stafford explains this happens because it is a common and unavoidable part of healthy brain function.

Sensing phantom phone vibrations is a strangely common experience. Around 80% of us have imagined a phone vibrating in our pockets when it’s actually completely still. Almost 30% of us have also heard non-existent ringing. Are these hallucinations ominous signs of impending madness caused by digital culture?

Not at all. In fact, phantom vibrations and ringing illustrate a fundamental principle in psychology.

You are an example of a perceptual system, just like a fire alarm, an automatic door, or a daffodil bulb that must decide when spring has truly started. Your brain has to make a perceptual judgment about whether the phone in your pocket is really vibrating. And, analogous to a daffodil bulb on a warm February morning, it has to decide whether the incoming signals from the skin near your pocket indicate a true change in the world.

Psychologists use a concept called Signal Detection Theory to guide their thinking about the problem of perceptual judgments. Working though the example of phone vibrations, we can see how this theory explains why they are a common and unavoidable part of healthy mental function.

When your phone is in your pocket, the world is in one of two possible states: the phone is either ringing or not. You also have two possible states of mind: the judgment that the phone is ringing, or the judgment that it isn’t. Obviously you'd like to match these states in the correct way. True vibrations should go with “it's ringing", and no vibrations should go with “it's not ringing". Signal detection theory calls these faithful matches a “hit" and a “correct rejection", respectively.

But there are two other possible combinations: you could mismatch true vibrations with “it's not ringing" (a “miss"); or mismatch the absence of vibrations with “it's ringing" (a “false alarm"). This second kind of mismatch is what’s going on when you imagine a phantom phone vibration.

For situations where easy judgments can be made, such as deciding if someone says your name in a quiet room, you will probably make perfect matches every time. But when judgments are more difficult - if you have to decide whether someone says your name in a noisy room, or have to evaluate something you’re not skilled at - mismatches will occasionally happen. And these mistakes will be either misses or false alarms.

Alarm ring

Signal detection theory tells us that there are two ways of changing the rate of mismatches. The best way is to alter your sensitivity to the thing you are trying to detect. This would mean setting your phone to a stronger vibration, or maybe placing your phone next to a more sensitive part of your body. (Don't do both or people will look at you funny.) The second option is to shift your bias so that you are more or less likely to conclude “it’s ringing", regardless of whether it really is.

Of course, there’s a trade-off to be made. If you don't mind making more false alarms, you can avoid making so many misses. In other words, you can make sure that you always notice when your phone is ringing, but only at the cost of experiencing more phantom vibrations.

These two features of a perceiving system - sensitivity and bias - are always present and independent of each other. The more sensitive a system is the better, because it is more able to discriminate between true states of the world. But bias doesn't have an obvious optimum. The appropriate level of bias depends on the relative costs and benefits of different matches and mismatches.

What does that mean in terms of your phone? We can assume that people like to notice when their phone is ringing, and that most people hate missing a call. This means their perceptual systems have adjusted their bias to a level that makes misses unlikely. The unavoidable cost is a raised likelihood of false alarms - of phantom phone vibrations. Sure enough, the same study that reported phantom phone vibrations among nearly 80% of the population also found that these types of mismatches were particularly common among people who scored highest on a novelty-seeking personality test. These people place the highest cost on missing an exciting call.

The trade-off between false alarms and misses also explains why we all have to put up with fire alarms going off when there isn't a fire. It isn't that the alarms are badly designed, but rather that they are very sensitive to smoke and heat - and biased to avoid missing a real fire at all costs. The outcome is a rise in the number of false alarms. These are inconvenient, but nowhere near as inconvenient as burning to death in your bed or office. The alarms are designed to err on the side of caution.

All perception is made up of information from the world and biases we have adjusted from experience. Feeling a phantom phone vibration isn't some kind of pathological hallucination. It simply reflects our near-perfect perceptual systems trying their best in an uncertain and noisy world.

 

 

 


 

Czech Republic: Wolves return after a century absence

A hidden camera has captured an image of a wolf crossing a wooded clearing in the Czech Republic, a hundred years after the predator disappeared from the area, it's been reported.

here have been some signs near the town of Doksy suggesting a wolf may be in the region, Radio Prague reports. But wolves haven't roamed free in Bohemia since the late 19th Century.

Right now, there is probably just one wolf or maybe a pair, says environmental expert Miroslav Kutal. The animal is likely to have strayed into Bohemia from the border regions of Germany and Poland, where the wolf population has been thriving.

But Kutal tells Radio Impuls the conditions in Bohemia - especially in former military zones and in the mountainous border regions - seem to be good for breeding. This is something to be encouraged, he adds, since wolves can regulate the deer population and draw tourists to the area. But the arrival of poachers could become a concern.