SciTech Now episode 420

In this episode of SciTech Now, we see how humans have an impact on our oceans; how to protect today’s highly computerized cars from hackers; exploring space; and discovering new ways to give robots and drones brains of their own.




Coming up, the human impact on our oceans.

We need to be trying to understand ways that we can alleviate the effects of some of these global stressors, like ocean acidification and climate change.

Protecting your car from hackers.

The car is basically a network of very, very weak computers, and there's not any real security on that network.

New glimpses of Pluto.

There's a lot of nitrogen ice and methane ice that flows back and forth every year on Pluto.

Creating artificial intelligence.

You have to think about how it's designed mechanically, how the linkages come together to get the kind of behavior you want.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology and innovation.

Let's get started.

The world's oceans cover 70 percent of the Earth and are comprised of 321 million cubic miles of seawater, so vast in size it would seem unimaginable that humans could alter its chemistry, but scientists at Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, Florida, are researching how we have altered the pH of oceans and estuaries.

This segment is part of an ongoing public media reporting initiative called 'Peril and Promise,' telling the human stories and solutions of climate change.


Ocean acidification has been called the other carbon dioxide problem or the evil twin of climate change.

It's the osteoporosis of the sea, and basically, what it's related to is the fact that we are putting a lot of anthropomorphic carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

So we're burning a lot of fossil fuels, and there's other ways that CO2 is getting into the atmosphere, but we're putting it in the atmosphere at a faster and faster rate, and about 30 percent of that CO2 gets absorbed by our oceans.

It's basically dropping the pH, which is where we get the terminology ocean acidification.

It's becoming more acidic than what levels that it has been normally in the past, and that kind of brings about a couple of consequences for some of our marine species, our marine organisms and even our marine communities.

It can cause dissolution of shells or skeletons.

Those same organisms that build their own shells and build their own skeletons, they actually take chemicals from the seawater to do that, and this change, this ocean acidification, is starting to prevent that, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Dr. Emily Hall studies the impact of ocean acidification and global warming on corals and other ocean species dependent on calcium carbonate.

We're looking to see if there's going to be changes in growth rates or other physiological changes on these individual organisms, and we are finding that there are.

There are negative effects from ocean acidification, and when coupled with warming or climate change, we can even see doubly stressed on these organisms.

Her research on coral is done to exacting standards.

We manipulate the chemistry of the seawater, so we bubble carbon-dioxide gas into the seawater, and we monitor it by looking at the change in pH, and so we take that water that we bubbled carbon dioxide into, and we use it in a flow-through system running over the corals.

Her experiments include normal or ambient seawater as the control and this newly acidified water using the pH scale as measurement.

The two targets that we're looking at just here in this facility are about 8.1, which is our ambient seawater.

We are using that as our ambient because that's our typical open-ocean seawater pH, and then about 7.7, which is what we're calling our acidified water, and that's based on reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that has put out different models talking about what we expect to see our ocean acidification levels in 50 years from now, 100 years from now.

The research on coral reefs continues in an effort to save a critical ocean resource.

They provide us with, for example, protection, so protection against big storms, like hurricanes that come through.

They provide money to the state of Florida.

This is a place where people go for fishing, where people go for ecotourism, to go scuba diving, and not only that, people who like to eat fish.

A lot of fish in our sea have either a part of their life or something that they depend on that is intricate with a coral reef ecosystem.

One of those food sources we depend on are stone crabs.

Dr. Philip Gravinese, a postdoctoral fellow at Mote Marine Lab, has been studying the stone crab fishery.

He's researching the impact of acidification on them in Florida's estuaries.

We're focusing on them particularly because it's such a large fishery here in Florida.

It's a local fishery.

It's been around for several decades, but they also live in habitats where the pH is becoming more acidic at a faster rate during certain times of the year.

Some of the causes for that is increased precipitation during the rainy season that results in more nutrients' getting into the water, organic nutrients, which then cause the pH to decline at a faster rate.

The rainy season in Florida just so happens to coincide with the stone crab's reproductive season.

So he now leads research on the effects of low-pH environments on stone crab reproduction.

Previous work that I've done has shown that when the females that have eggs on their abdomen, are put into acidified conditions that mimic the future conditions for the ocean, we see a significant decrease in their hatching success.

About 30 percent less larvae hatch, and we also see their development, their embryonic development slow, but we also have noticed that the females that are in the acidified treatment have a higher stress level than the females that are placed in a control.

And how does one measure stress in stone crabs?

Dr. Gravinese explains that normal reflexes is a sign of no stress.

So if you see back here, it's a hard shell, and then right in here, there's kind of a softer tissue, and so it's very similar like when you're kicking your knee with the doctor hitting your knee.

You just poke there.

You see how he moves?

So that means he's not stressed.

He has that reaction.

But the response is different for those crabs in low-pH conditions.

They must be undergoing some type of physiological compensation to acclimate and adjust to the lower pH, and that could be the reason why their stress level is a little bit higher when they're in low-pH conditions.

As scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory delve deeper into understanding the effects of climate change and ocean acidification, they gain new insights for how we all could participate in solutions.

We need to be trying to understand ways that we can alleviate the effects of some of these global stressors, like ocean acidification and climate change, and sometimes it's as simple of an answer as plant more trees, put more seagrass in the water or keep your backyards clean as well as trying to reduce our carbon emissions and trying to slow down the process of ocean acidification or climate change.

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Today's vehicles are highly computerized, putting them at a greater risk of being compromised by hackers.

Thankfully, researchers are developing a system to protect your car's software against cyber attacks.

Justin Cappos, professor at New York University Tandon School of Engineering, joins us to discuss.

So, you know, people want cars to help them do little things that are, you know, otherwise inconveniences, and some people are really interested in cars driving themselves, but the more computers you put into a car, the more points of vulnerability we have.


Certainly as these systems get more and more complex, there are more and more opportunities for hackers.

Now, it's not actually clear whether having cars that drive themselves or have advanced safety systems are actually more risk or at less risk because effectively, anything an attacker can do with a car, they can probably do today with a car or with a car that doesn't have the safety systems in it, and so those safety systems may actually reduce risk in some ways because they may be fighting against the attacker who wants to go and drive the car into a crowd of pedestrians or things like that.

You know, it used to be the stuff of sci-fi, but we've seen a couple of kind of journalists go out there and do test cases and have the car sort of take over, where they are trying to control it, and they no longer have control, or, at least, the car shuts down in a very inopportune place.

I mean, this is the stuff that people fear, right, and this is a pretty significant hurdle, I would think, in people adopting the next generation of vehicles.

It's a big challenge.

There are a lot of problems in that when you go and you get sold a car, that car is supposed to be operational and work well and not have any sort of major hardware-based updates at least, you don't expect, over an extended period of time, 20, 30 years, the lifetime of a car.

And now there's a lot of things that have been out there and deployed that were made by vendors when maybe security wasn't a primary concern back when those cars first came off the assembly line.

So how do they actually... How do hackers get into our cars?

Well, there's actually a surprising number of different wireless networks that connect to your car, to a modern car, that you don't necessarily think about.

There are some things you might think a little bit about, such as the, like, the GPS or OnStar-style units.


But...And, of course, there's the door locks and other things like that, that can go over shorter-wave radio.

But there's also things that you don't really think about.

So some researchers at the University of Washington and UCSD showed that they could go and actually, over the radio, go and get on a car's network because you know how you're in the car listening to the radio, and it plays the name of the station and the song and everything?


That's a little computer inside your radio that's showing that, and, you know, like other computers, it might have bugs in it, and if you can exploit that, you can actually do something like, for instance, potentially play something that then takes over those radios and gets an attacker on the network, disables brakes or does other things like that.

So it's one little computer that has a vulnerability that gives the hacker access to other computers that are controlling other systems in the car.



The car is basically a network of very, very weak computers that are all stuck together doing things, and there's not any real security on that network.

Is there an effort by, say, everyone from Ford and Chrysler and GM in the United States to Toyota and Honda and everywhere else, all the major manufacturers, have they kind of gotten around the kitchen table and said, 'Okay,' or a conference room table and said, 'Here's the thing.

Let's at least agree on this because it's going to be very important to all our consumers, not just our particular brands'?

Well, one of the things that I've been doing in my research is working on a way to securely distribute over-the-air updates within vehicles, and I don't want to name individual companies or others, but I will say that over three-quarters of the cars on the road in the US had representatives from those companies in our meetings, and you can draw whatever conclusions you want about that, but we have substantial vendor presence and actually have had substantial adoption by a lot of different communities because there is this real knowledge that these companies need to do something about security now.

If they don't, there's going to be, you know, very scary times ahead of us.

Justin Cappos, professor at New York University Tandon School of Engineering, thanks so much.

Thank you.

Advancements in technology now afford scientists greater opportunities to explore space.

In 2006, spacecraft was launched on a mission to take images of Pluto.

Flyover images from the spacecraft reveal a new perspective on Pluto.

Take a look.

was launched way back in 2006.

It went by Jupiter to get a boost to fly out to Pluto, took another 9 years or so to get to Pluto, so but 2 years ago, on July 14, 2015, it flew by Pluto and got incredible pictures, like opened up Pluto, you know, from what it was, which was a blob even from Hubble Space Telescope.

It was just a blob, and, you know, imaged it as a whole new world for us to see.

Before we see the new Pluto flyover, Dr. Gladstone shows us the path the video will take us on by using this globe of our distant neighbor.

This is a globe of Pluto produced by if you want to give them credit, and it's got the nominal names of different features on Pluto.

So here's the big glacier called Sputnik Planitia, and all that's nitrogen frost here.

The darker spots are different materials, but you can see a lot of the contrast, and this was the side that flew past.

So we flew by really quickly, you know, in hours.

Like, one day we had flown from one side to the other and taken all these pictures that make up this globe, and now they've made this digital elevation model, so they know the height of a lot of the regions we looked at.

So in those flyover movies, there's one of Charon as well, but the one of Pluto starts out down here in this region sort of to the southwest of Sputnik Planitia.

There's some mountains down there.

There's some volcanoes and some cryovolcanoes down here, and they fly over there.

It starts out dark, and then they fly up along this boundary just to the west of Sputnik Planitia, where there's a lot of mountains.

Then they fly up here past what's called Voyager Terra, and then they turn around and come back south again past Pioneer Terra, and then they fly over -- they fly over over here in this region of the Bladed Terrain, which is eroding methane ice called Tartarus... I think it's Tartarus Dorsa, right over here.

So that's the flyover for Pluto.

Dr. Gladstone narrates the Pluto flyover for us from a perspective never seen by human eyes until now.

So this is the Pluto flyover movie, and we start near the night side, and we're flying north roughly near the southwest of the Sputnik Planitia, and in this region, there are some cryovolcanoes that erupt and drop... You know, there's a whole bunch of relief there, so it's fun to look at on the digital elevation model here, and I mention again maybe that the relief here is about two to three times what it really is just so you can see it more strongly.

Now we're flying up the western boundary of Sputnik Planitia, where there's all this white area to the right and what's called Cthulhu Macula on the left, where it's all dark red, and there's a lot of craters and mountains along that edge, and so it shows up well in the relief map.

And now we're flying past... Here's a little lake that's drying out, it looks like, but up to the northwest corner of Sputnik Planitia past a bunch of mountains that ring Sputnik Planitia, but it's a big basin, basically.

So there's... The edges are mountainous.

Now we're up into the Voyager Terra, which is getting up towards the north pole of Pluto.

We don't go quite up that far, but you can see a lot of places where there's evidence of a crater that's almost eroded away by now, but there's a lot of nitrogen ice and methane ice that flows back and forth every year on Pluto, which is 248 Earth years.

Now we're flying back south again, and we're looking at this strange region called Tartarus Dorsa, which are made up of blades of methane ice that are being eroded away, and it's just a weird place, but that's it.

What's next for the spacecraft?

An encounter with a much further away Kuiper belt object called MU69 on New Year's Day 2019.

So has flown by Pluto, and it's going to fly by MU69 pretty soon, and then it's going to leave the solar system entirely, and it'll be the fifth of... You know, four other spacecraft have left the solar system, and it'll be the fifth.

There's not many more planned after that, but its legacy really opened up the outer solar system.

So Pluto and the Kuiper belt, all that area, was totally unexplored except by ground-based telescopes, which don't really tell you a whole lot about that region.

But will be the first one to go there.

Hopefully, we'll go back, and we'll get better pictures and see the part of Pluto that we didn't see on this flyby because the flyby happened fairly quickly, but to leave movies such as, you know, the flyover movies, shows you what, you know, the capability of Even though it went by really quick, got all this great data, and we're still analyzing it after 2 years.

Hopefully MU69 will give a similar haul of data about the Kuiper belt, and that is, you know, unrepeatable.

This is the only time you get to do that, so this is a big thing to go out and explore a place for the first time and see what it's like up close.

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Scientists at Caltech in Pasadena, California, are discovering new ways to give robots and drones brains of their own with the hope of helping humans in their everyday lives.

Here's the story.

Imagine a world where robots and drones are all around us, interacting with us, helping us, accompanying us, a world where robots and drones are not remotely controlled.

They work autonomously.

That's what scientists like Dr. Aaron Ames at the California Institute of Technology are working towards.

Caltech in Pasadena has just opened its brand-new Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies, also known as CAST.

Dr. Ames and his fellow science brainiacs say their goal is to get robots and drones to partner with humans.

For example, what if you could have a robot take care of your aging parents who have health problems and live alone?

What if you could have robots and drones respond to natural disasters, like fires or hurricanes, to save people so you don't endanger the lives of rescuers in certain situations?

What if you could have a robotic prosthetic that works on its own if you are an amputee, or what if you're simply a couch potato and want a robot or drone to do all of your shopping for you?

This is really cool.

Yes, it is.

This is Cassie.

It's a walking robot built by Agility Robotics and newly arrived at Caltech, and the hope is on this robot to test autonomous-related concepts.

When you say autonomy, I mean, you're kind of saying this thing is going to have its own brain and work on its own.

That's right, all of engineering in one package.

You have to think about how it's designed mechanically, how the linkages come together to get the kind of behavior you want.

You have motors, right?

But those motors have to be controlled by processors, which then have to be controlled by other processors.

So at the core of all that, there's algorithms, and the algorithms represent the map that describes what walking is.

So you have mathematics, algorithms, computer science, electrical engineering, driving all the motors, how you design the motors and mechanical engineering the actual, you know, construction of the system, so it really brings together all these different disciplines of engineering in one single package.

It's going to be able to make its own decisions.

So we have to understand what that means by decisions, though.

You know, we don't mean that it's going to decide where to shop or not or whether to, you know, buy shoes from Amazon or not.

We mean just local decisions about how will it go forward, how does it handle the terrain that it's walking on, right?

You have robots that can do repetitive tasks very well but have difficulty with unstructured things.

You have artificial intelligence that can deal with structured things very well, like chess and Go.

How do we bring this together?

So how do we take capable bodies like this and put capable minds on them?

And importantly, how do we have those minds be able to reason in unstructured and uncertain environments?

And it's that that will be the key to autonomy down the line.

Taking the reins and walking the Caltech campus with Cassie was not what I expected.

Can I be honest with you?


It seriously freaks me out, though.

Why is that?

I don't know.

Just because it's something that's not human.

I don't really have to guide her.

I mean, she's practically walking herself.


She wants to pull away from you, right?

Well, that's the thing.

That's right.

It's as if she has a mind of her own, and she's walking on her own.

That's right.

And that's kind of freaky.

It is kind of freaky, and people, they think this is a result of artificial intelligence sometimes, and they think that it has a life of its own, but it doesn't.

This is a result of very clever and interesting mathematics' being implemented on the robot.

I design the brains behind the robots here at CAST.

Dr. Anima Anandkumar is a computer science professor at Caltech.

Anandkumar specializes in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

She helps program Cassie.

For me, like, artificial intelligence and machine learning is asking how we can take in all the data of the world and create knowledge.

In other words, help give Cassie intelligence, help get her her brain.

Anandkumar explains that Cassie is able to walk around the university with us because she has basically been given instructions on how to walk.

These instructions are the AI that has been programmed into the robot.

This artificial intelligence allows Cassie to know how to walk on certain kinds of surfaces, like the concrete here.

However, you see her struggle when we try to walk with her on uneven pavement or grass.

Scientists are working towards a day when they won't have to program specific instructions.

With improved processors and sensors, robots like Cassie could be able to take information from their environment and learn how to adapt and react on their own.

Full autonomy is indeed the challenge, right?

So that's why we don't aim for full autonomy right in the beginning.

What we do is, can we augment human and manual control with AI?

So in the beginning, they AI system is, you know, absorbing what the humans are doing, how they're controlling, and over time, hopefully, it learns better and better.

Scientists and researchers at Caltech are trying to give drones those same capabilities.

This is the largest drone-testing facility in the United States.

What you're seeing here at the lab is a giant wind tunnel.

This wind tunnel simulates all different types of weather patterns, things like wind gusts, high turbulence, even tornadoes.

The goal is to design a state-of-the-art drone system to operate autonomously in any type of weather condition.

Once the mission is defined, they have to solve every problem in between.

It means if they have to go from point A to point B, they have to learn and also resolve issues like going around the buildings or avoid people or making sure that they deliver the objects or parts that they're designed for.

One of the big problems with flying a drone is that when they encounter storms, like high wind around building, it has to have a brain.

Otherwise, it won't be able to reason and solve problems.

Drones are going to play a big role in the future of our society.

Think of drones that they have to go scout in dangerous areas, or they have to go save people or find people that need help.

In that respect, operators cannot be there all the time.

They have to be able to think.

It sounds like you're trying to turn a drone into a human.

Well, we are trying to make the drone to a partner for humans.

Partners for humans?

How funny is that, though?

What's your dog's name?


You have Dash.

We have Cassie.

There you go.



And that wraps it up for this time.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪