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Is the robot future now?

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

I freely admit, I will cry over space robots. When the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars in 2012, when the Cassini orbiter at Saturn plunged to its doom in 2017, when the Voyager 2 spacecraft crossed into interstellar space in 2018, I was misty-eyed and full of emotion. Exploring deep space is a job well suited for robots. Months to years spent crossing a cold, airless expanse, sometimes with no final destination at all, is not work for squishy, social humans.

In the classic contradictory nature of humans, though, I have very different feelings when I encounter robots on Earth. A small robo-bellhop in a Tokyo hotel nearly scared the bejeezus out of me, and videos of animal-like machines “dancing” fill my head with visions of the robot uprising. I’m not alone, I know, given that many of us prefer a cartoon-like robot (above left) than the more realistic, Ex-Machina type (above right).

It’s OK, I think to myself, we have not reached the level of Terminator or Horizon Zero Dawn just yet. But how close are we to actually embracing robots as part of the human experience?

“People have to understand that this isn’t science fiction; it’s not something that’s going to happen 20 years from now,” Manuela Veloso, an AI roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, tells writer David Berreby in this month’s issue of National Geographic. “It’s started to happen."

Robots are already ingrained in our daily lives, from farming to digging to warehouse shelving, Berreby finds. In one example, a robot in Japan (above right, with its inventor) does the traveling and errands for a secretary with limited mobility, who directs it remotely from her Tokyo home (above left). These increasingly capable machines are often taking over tough, repetitive work that would be grueling and unrewarding for people. Not only are robots looking more like us, they are edging into our creative and spiritual lives. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic raging, people are seeing added value in mechanical workers that can deliver food, disinfect surfaces, and enforce social distancing without compromising anyone’s health.

Of course, this robot revolution comes with a healthy amount of debate. Throughout history, automation has altered the workforce, forcing people to adapt or find themselves unemployed. “The evidence is fairly clear that we have many, many fewer blue-collar production jobs, assembly jobs, in industries that are adopting robots,” says MIT economist Daron Acemoglu. Experts are also seeing strain where robots and human manage to work side by side, as people struggle to adjust their patterns and behaviors.

As any telegraph operator or steam engineer might tell you, progress waits for no one. The robots are here, and technological advances are bringing them closer every day to the AI-powered automatons of the silver screen.

But we don’t have to make the mistakes of our cinematic counterparts; there is time to figure out the best ways to weave machines into modern life. As Berreby writes: “However far they advance, there’s one task that robots won’t help us solve: Deciding how, when, and where to use them.” Below, a harvesting robot uses suction to pull apples off trees in an orchard in Grandview, Washington.

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Today in a minute

Tracking the environment: Which U.S. presidential candidate stands for what on the air, water, and chemicals the country uses? Our new Environmental Tracker shows, in one place, the positions of President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, on those issues and more. Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever will be updating the candidates' dueling visions on topics such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and methane emissions. See the list.

Methanol poisoning: Less than a tablespoon can kill you. Yet reported cases of methanol poisoning, by people drinking it thinking it's a COVID-19 cure or unknowingly drinking cheap moonshine, are at record levels, Carrie Arnold reports. Many of the early reports came from Iran, where coronavirus misinformation was rife and liquor prohibitions have prompted homemade booze, but cases have occurred worldwide. That includes in the U.S., where some people were drinking hand sanitizer with methanol. If it doesn't kill you, it could permanently blind you.

Not isolated enough: The “Arrow People” describes a group of Indigenous people in Brazil’s far west reaches of the Amazon. Now members are showing signs of COVID-19 after handling what may have been infected foodstuffs, tools, and clothing left by a group of nomads, Scott Wallace reports. Health experts say such tribes are at exceptionally high risk for the contagion, as they lack immunological defenses to pathogens that have evolved in faraway population centers. Brazil trails only the United States in the number of reported cases and deaths from the coronavirus.

Not a dinosaur? A hummingbird-sized fossil encased in amber had been heralded in March as the world’s tiniest dinosaur. However, researchers had only seen the skull of the bug-eyed, crested-nose thing when they made that determination. With a second, more complete fossil discovered, they’ve changed their mind, Nat Geo’s Michael Greshko reports. “It’s weird,” concludes paleontologist Susan Evans, “but it’s a lizard.”

Mask me! Don’t have a face mask? See a jogger or runner without one? A new invention can “fire” it onto a face, Gizmodo reports. Inventor Allen Pan used a pistol grip from a spray paint can and a solenoid valve to control the air flow from a pressurized CO2 canister. In one shot, Pan says a weighted mask can wrap around a head, and the unmasked are masked. Two words of advice: Ask first.

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Close to catastrophe: Flying over southern Spain, photographer Aya Okawa saw starkly what toxic waste looks like. “I got a clear look at the dramatic views of toxic waste pools, byproducts of phosphate-based fertilizer production,” Okawa says. “At this site, phosphogypsum is stored in holding pools, directly adjacent to marshland and the major river that also supplies irrigation to agricultural lands of Andalusia.” What separates the chemicals from waterways? Only an eight-foot holding wall. “Specialists say it is a disaster waiting to happen,” Okawa says.

Related: These aerial photos show the beauty and pain of the human planet

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This week in the night sky

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Tip me over, and pour me out: Moonless nights this week are ideal for exploring the Milky Way. Look to the right of Saturn and Jupiter in the southern evening skies for a pattern of stars known as the Cosmic Teapot (illustrated above). Nestled within the constellation Sagittarius, the Teapot is tilted, with celestial “steam” rising into the sky. Binoculars show that the steam is really made from rivers of stars and glowing clouds that form the central hub of our galaxy, 27,000 light-years away. Sagittarius is spotted with colorful gas clouds or giant star factories, such as the Lagoon Nebula. Binoculars show off this stellar nursery as a faint fuzzy glow, about 6,500 light-years from Earth. — Andrew Fazekas

Related: The dwarf planet closest to Earth is geologically alive

The big takeaway

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Next steps: For generations, people living in floating homes on Cambodia's biggest lake made their living from the water. Then an extended drought took away much of the lake and the fish within it. A fire destroyed 80 percent of the increasingly dry forest around it. Now, residents are turning to agriculture, growing chilis, and saying goodbye to work on the water, Stefan Lovgren writes for Nat Geo.

In a few words

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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.

The last glimpse

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The good news: The universe, surprisingly, doesn’t look like it will collapse in 2020. However, Dan Falk covers a scenario of how the universe WILL end, involving a series of bangs and a whimper, based on new calculations of remnant stars. These ancient, seemingly burned-out dwarf stars (above, in the Milky Way) may outlast the rest of the objects in the universe, before finally exploding. Exploding when? Not to worry. The new calculations put these bangs starting at least 101100 years away. So enjoy your day, I guess.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse and production help from Kimberly Pecoraro. Have an idea, a link, or a dwarf star story? Send it our way at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good week ahead.