You may have missed… honeybee life spans, little robots, near-sightedness genes, and ear pod hearing aids.

A low-cost robot that’s ready for any obstacle

Researchers have designed a robotic system that enables a little legged robot to go almost anywhere – from climbing and descending stairs almost its own height; traversing rocky, slippery, uneven, and varied terrain; walking across gaps; and even operate in the dark.

The research paper will be presented at the upcoming 2022 Conference on Robot Learning, in Auckland, New Zealand.

The researchers trained the robot with a computer simulator in which 4,000 clones of the robot practiced walking and climbing on challenging terrain. The simulator was so speedy that it allowed the robot to gain six years of experience in a single day.

The motor skills learned during training were stored in a neural network that was then copied to the robot in real life, an approach that didn’t require any hand-engineering of its movements.

Most robotic systems use cameras to create a map of the surrounding environment and use that to plan movements before executing them, but not this one.

“This system uses vision and feedback from the body directly as input to output commands to the robot’s motors,” says co-author Ananye Agarwal, a Ph.D. student in machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University. “This technique allows the system to be very robust in the real world. If it slips on stairs, it can recover. It can go into unknown environments and adapt.”

A small black four legged robot climbs a rock
A robotic system designed by researchers at CMU and Berkeley allows small, low-cost legged robots to maneuver in challenging environments. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

Honeybee life spans are 50% shorter today than half a century ago

Colony turnover is a normal part of beekeeping, as bee colonies naturally age and die off. But US beekeepers have reported high loss rates over the past decade, which has meant having to replace more colonies to keep operations going.

Now, a new study in Scientific Reports has found that the lifespan for individual honeybees kept in a controlled, laboratory environment is 50% shorter than it was in the 1970s, and it could be due to their genetics.

Researchers isolated bees just before they emerged as adults, which means that whatever is reducing their lifespan is happening before that point.

“This introduces the idea of a genetic component. If this hypothesis is right, it also points to a possible solution. If we can isolate some genetic factors, then maybe we can breed for longer-lived honeybees,” explains lead author Anthony Nearman, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Entomology in the University of Maryland, US.

Honey bee experimental conditions
Despite improved standards for keeping honey bees in the lab, UMD research shows caged bees have shorter lifespans than they did 50 years ago, suggesting something other than environmental conditions could be causing higher rates of honey bee colony loss for commercial bee keepers. Credit: Anthony Nearman/UMD

Wireless headphones can work as well as hearing aids

Hearing loss has broad health impacts, but professional hearing aids are expensive and require multiple visits to otolaryngologists and audiologists for tuning; factors which lead to major barriers to access them.

Now, Taiwanese researchers have found that some commercial earbuds can perform as well as hearing aids and are often far cheaper.

Graphical abstract
Graphical abstract of the study “Smartphone-bundled earphones as personal sound amplification products in adults with sensorineural hearing loss”. Credit: Adapted from DOI: 10.1016/j.isci.2022.105436

Apple came out with a feature called “Live Listen” in 2016 that allows people to use its wireless earphones, AirPods, and iPhone for sound amplification.

The team tested the four devices – Airpods 2, AirPods Pro, premium hearing aids and a basic pair of hearing aids – with 21 participants with mild to moderate hearing loss. The researchers read a short sentence, such as “the electricity bills went up recently,” to participants, who were asked to repeat their words verbatim wearing the devices.

AirPods Pro performed similarly well compared with basic hearing aids in a quiet environment and was  only slightly inferior to premium hearing aids. AirPods 2, while having the lowest performance among the four, helped participants hear more clearly, compared to wearing no hearing aids.

The study published the journal iScience could help a large proportion of people with hearing loss access more affordable sound amplification devices.

Genes that increase your risk of being nearsighted, the longer you’re at school

Researchers have found five genetic variants that could increase a person’s risk of becoming nearsighted the longer they stay in school.

People often become nearsighted as children, and the condition appears to result from a mix of genetics, too little time spent outdoors and many years of education. In a new study, researchers used genetic and health data from more than 340,000 participants (with European ancestry) to perform a genome-wide study – identifying genetic variants that make people more susceptible to becoming nearsighted in combination with intensive schooling.

“As well as requiring the need for glasses or contact lenses, myopia (near-sightedness) is a leading cause of un-correctable visual impairment. Building on our previous research linking education and myopia, the new study identifies 5 genes associated with myopia development whose effects are amplified by additional years spent in education,”

Three of the genetic variants identified were previously unknown, while two were found in studies of East Asian cohorts, where about 80% of children become nearsighted.

The findings have been published in a new study in PLOS Genetics.

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