Researchers at Harvard have built a robotic prototype of a stingray. Its skeleton is made of gold, but its novelty is the tissue: two hundred thousand rat heart cells are embedded in a rubber layer, similar to the gel used for breast implants. This artificial ray fish responds to light cues for its propulsion. The scientists created the robot to understand better cardiac behavior, as the movements of the stingray actually mimic heartbeats. “It turns out the musculature in the stingray has to do the same thing as the heart does: it has to move fluids,” said lead researcher, Prof. Kevin Kit Parker of Harvard University. Regardless of the insights the experiment may yield, the big questions are unrelated to the study’s goal. They have created a half-robotic, half-living creature, one that invites us to question if life is simply a body connected by tissue, blood, and the nervous system. Each of these components can be synthetically replicated today.
Recent research that suggest pea plants have the ability to make complex decisions according to varying conditions. The study, by a joint team of Oxford University and Israel’s Tel-Hai College, indicates that pea plants would grow more roots in a pot that consistently offered a high level of nutrients. No surprises there. However, when given a choice between a pot that consistently offered low level of nutrients and one that offered varying levels, the pea plants showed a preference for the latter, taking a calculated risk. In other words, they went with the varying yields rather than the consistently low returns. This may not come entirely as a surprise to farmers or to people who have grown around plants. People who have grown up to old age near trees they planted in their youth can attest to a je ne sais quoi about vegetable life’s wisdom. Surely many would refrain from speaking to avoid being the target of taunts, but we much look forward to hearing more on this. At a time when our attention is so captivated by the advances of artificial intelligence, this experiment comes to remind of us of how little we still know about the life that surrounds. More importantly, it invites to reconsider what we have assumed “intelligence” to be.
In March 1946, a group of British scientists recorded the birth of every baby in the country in one particular week with the goal of studying their lives as they unfolded. The study still runs and it has become, as it happens, a continuous insight, from cradle to grave. Throughout the years and the decades, these dedicated scientists, for the most part anonymous to the world, have put under the microscope these men’s and women’s birth, childhood, education, marriage and work, and now, that they are approaching the sunset of their lives, how they are coping with old age. Throughout commonalities—educational shortcomings, for instance, were shocking to discover, as well as health conditions such as obesity and cholesterol—one common pattern emerged: social class, or where we stand in terms of income and opportunities already at birth, has a major impact in determining the path our lives follow. It was startling to note that those born in 1958 had a better shot at social mobility than the 1970 class. The study has helped shape British government policies to remedy some of these inequalities.