SciTech Now Episode 505

In this episode of SciTech Now, we look at how dogs are being trained to sit inside an MRI Scan; see how low cost efficient solar cells can be massed produced; the varying perceptions of Laurel Versus Yanny; and discover the Rosamond Gifford Zoo



Coming up, understanding man's best friend.

The thing that continues to surprise me the most is how different the dogs are from each other.

The most efficient and accessible solar cell yet.

This falls in the category of thin film, which is organic solar cells.

Laurel versus Yanny explained by a neurologist.

The sound actually is ambiguous, and it actually contains all of the information for both the words 'Yanny' and 'Laurel.'

Training animal behavior.

The training here at the zoo is based on mainly operant conditioning, which means, for every action, there's a consequence.

It's all ahead.

Hello. 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.

You might have wondered what's going on inside the mind of a canine.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, of Emory University in Atlanta, is training dogs to sit inside MRI scans to see what's happening inside their brains.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

They were the first animals to live with us, and so, to me, it makes a lot of sense to understand what's going on in their heads.

Oh, I don't mind kisses from you.

[ Laughs ] My name is Gregory Berns.

I'm a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and I train dogs to go in an MRI scanner so I can figure out what they're thinking.

♪♪ A lot of other scientists would say that we'll never know what it's like to be another animal.

I think the crux of that is because, as far as we know, no other animal can talk and tell us what it's like to be that animal.

I don't think the situation is at all that severe.

So, the dog we're scanning today -- his name is Zen.

In many ways, his name reflects his personality.

He's a very chill dog.

Zen has been with the Dog Project almost from the beginning.

We started this project, which we just call the Dog Project.

We recruit people from the community to teach their dogs how to go in an MRI scanner.

It's really just a matter of getting the dog used to laying down, putting their head in a chin rest, learning to wear ear protection, like earplugs, and then getting used to the really quite loud noise of the scanner.

[ Whirring ] The thing that continues to surprise me the most -- and it comes up in every experiment we do -- is how different the dogs are from each other.

The level of this individuality is the same level that we see in humans, doing these experiments.

The approach that we've taken treats the dogs as individuals, in the sense that they're not anesthetized and they're not restrained.

And so they can walk in the scanner.

They can walk out.

This is really quite a radical change in the way we do biomedical research.

[ Film projector clicking ] With dogs, historically, we've been limited to what we call behavioral experiments.

Oftentimes, they'll get a choice of going to one stimulus or another.

And then, from that, you have to deduce what they're thinking.

I think it's very difficult to just know what a dog is thinking and how they see the world from their behavior.

What the imaging gets us is a way around that, because we don't really ask the dogs to do anything except just stay still in the scanner.

Good boy, Zen!

And then we go directly to their brain to try to read out how they're processing the world.

[ Whirring ] That's excellent.

When we're studying the brain with MRI, every little pixel that we see contains thousands of neurons.

So it's like looking at a country like the United States from outer space.

You can see the roads and you can see movement of things, but you can't see the people there.

With imagings, we can't see the neurons, but we can see how they're connected to each other.

And then we can deduce how it's functioning.

We take those images, which are simply just digital slices through the dog's brain, which measure changes in blood flow and blood oxygen, linked to activity in the brain, and then we try to figure out what parts of the brain are involved in responding to whatever the subject is doing.

Mammalian brains tend to look fairly similar in a lot of ways.

A large part of this project with the dogs is trying to identify parts of their brain that seem analogous to parts in human brains.

And the way we do that is -- we do the same experiments that we've done in humans in the scanner and adapt it to make a dog version.

Many of our experiments focus on a particular structure that's associated with reward processing.

We might show a dog an object or we might present them with a scent and then we'll look in that region to see if there are increases in signal intensity, and that will tell us that the dog's responding to it in a particular way so we can understand, in some sense, what a dog is thinking and feeling.

What we're doing right now is -- we're trying to understand how dogs process two-dimensional images.

It's very peculiar how dogs react to images, and it's not clear what they get out of an image.

Humans are really good at knowing that a picture is a representation of something real.

It's unclear whether other animals can do that or how well they do that.

Just small earplugs.



He's being shown his objects, and one of them has been associated with a treat.

So we want to see how he responds to the thing that was associated with the treat, as well as its 3-D or 2-D equivalent.

So, that will tell us if there's a specific part of the brain that differentiates 2-D and 3-D, as there is in humans.

We're watching his brain right here.

What we have to do after the fact is go and sync that up with the stimuli that he's seeing and look for changes in activity in certain parts of his brain.

With regards to dogs, I think we are just at the beginning.

When I started the project, I had no expectations.

It was an idea in search of a question.

'Hey, can I train my dog to go in the scanner to see what she's thinking?'

It slowly built from just really basic reward processing to really complicated questions about how they see the world, you know, things like how they process human speech, really pushing it to the level that we use with human subjects.

In essentially all the experiments we've done, we see evidence that dogs also experience basic emotions.

Many of the things these animals experience also exist within us.

We have words to describe it.

The dog doesn't.

But that doesn't mean that they don't exist there.

And I think perhaps the only way that we're gonna figure it out is by looking into their brains because they can't speak to us.

In the past, solar cells, a source of clean energy, have not been cheap or easily accessible.

But now André Taylor, associate professor at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering, has led a team of researchers who have made a major step toward a low-cost, efficient solar cell that can be mass-produced.

He joins us today to talk about his work.

So, first of all, the big picture -- what's so difficult about making a solar cell efficient and inexpensive?

So, one of the challenges with solar cells is the cost, and so people want to drive the cost down.

And, so, the majority of solar cells that are used in the industry now are silicon-based solar cells.

But silicon is very expensive.

So, it's a wafer-based process -- very, very expensive.

And that's a big barrier to doing wide-scale adoption of solar-cell technology.

This thin-film technology, which is perovskites, which represents the third generation of solar-cell technology.

It's very promising, because it can be made from very, very cheap materials and can be made for scalable nanomanufacturing technology techniques, such as roll-to-roll manufacturing.

What's roll-to-roll manufacturing mean?

Yeah, so, roll-to-roll manufacturing is if you have -- If you can imagine you have a flexible web that goes through various rollers, and it's a continuous process.

So if you can imagine a big roll, like if you're looking at, like, a roll of paper or something that goes through different chambers, then that's a roll-to-roll process.

So the solar film would be kind of pasted together?

Exactly. So, the solar film would go across a web.

It would go over these rollers.

You could add the different layers on top of the web, and then you have a full solar cell.

And then you could roll it up.

It's flexible.

And then, when you want to dispense it, you can dispense it across wide areas.

And you can't do that with silicon.

Instead of changing the process, you're talking about changing the components so that you can -- or what's being rolled together?

Yeah. So we're talking about -- This falls in the category of thin film, which is organic solar cells.

And organic solar cells have the possibility of being flexible.

And they also are made out of cheap materials.


And so that's an advantage that this has over silicon is -- it can be made very cheap.

So, if you look at this almost sandwich-like process of putting all these different layers together, what parts of the sandwich are you changing?

Yeah, so, the part that we're working on, in the perovskites -- so, there's lots of different layers, so it is a sandwich type of structure.

People work on the intrinsic layer, which is the perovskite crystal itself.

Some people work on the whole transport layer, and some people work on the electron transport layer and how to interface those layers in between.

My research group for this production -- we worked on the electron transport layer, which we use a spray-coating technique which is compatible to roll-to-roll processing.

So you sprayed the middle layer of this sandwich on it?

Yes. So, typically, on a research scale for perovskites, they use spin casting.

So you put it on a chuck and you spin-cast and you put your layers on.

But that's not necessarily compatible for scalable manufacturing for roll-to-roll.

So what we're showing here in this technique is -- by using a spray-cast technique, we can actually spray the electron transport layer and we can get a very good layer, which conducts electrons very effectively and gives a very good performance for perovskite solar cell.

So, what we're seeing are actually the outer layers of this, what I had in my hand.

You're talking about a layer that's in between, something that I can't actually physically see, correct?

Right, right.

So, this is one out of, I would say, maybe 3 or 4 layers that we're talking about.

So, how long do you think it is until there is parity between the existing process that we have today and the type of things that you're working on?

Yeah. So, I think it's gonna take a while.

There was a paper that was published maybe a few months ago, in the journal Joule, where they talked about there's a time lag.

So, they said between when you have a solar cell and the research scale and when it becomes commercially available, it's about 2.4 years.

And I think this is gonna take some time.

I think there's a lot of problems that come along with it.

So although the efficiencies of perovskites have been up to 22% or a little bit higher, the area size, the durability, all those things come into play.

So, for example, this solar-cell device here -- this is five devices on one device.

The active area is only 1.8 millimeters squared.

So that's very, very small.

So it's, you know, very, very different from a silicon panel, which is a large area.

So, first, you have to get the efficiencies up.

Once you get the efficiencies up, then you have to work on figuring out how to create a large-area solar cell.

And then once you can get the large areas maintaining good efficiency, then you have to work on the durability.

So there's a lot of different steps.

And when we're talking about durability, we're talking about silicon panels that have been proven for 20 to 30 years.

So when you buy a panel, then you want it to last for, you know, at least that amount of time.

And if you have a higher efficiency, then, of course, you get a faster payback from your investment into solar technology.

And it has to last, hopefully, the lifetime of your house, right?

Exactly. Yes.

André Taylor, NYU Tandon School of Engineering, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you. Appreciate it.

[ Computerized voice saying 'Yanny/Laurel' ]

The Laurel versus Yanny debate quickly fascinated the online community worldwide, and the debate continues.

Neurologist Matthew Leonard, from the University of California, San Francisco, joins us via Google Hangout to discuss the varying perceptions of Laurel versus Yanny.

So, your field of study -- how does this help us explain what's happening when people hear this sound?

Yeah, so, the Laurel versus Yanny illusion is a really interesting example that actually tell us a lot about the work that our brains do to make a noisy and ambiguous world around us make sense.

So, just to kind of explain the illusion itself a little bit, the sound actually is ambiguous, and it actually contains all of the information for both the words 'Yanny' and 'Laurel.'

So, how we know that --

So they're both in there.

They're both in there.


So, sound and speech are made up of a lot of different frequencies that change over time.

You can kind of think of that like, you know, musical pitch or harmony.

And what happens is that the ears break down those sounds into those individual frequencies and pass that information along to the brain.

[ Computerized voice saying 'Yanny/Laurel' ] And then it's up to the brain to somehow interpret it and make sense of it for the listener.

So, when we actually look at the Yanny/Laurel sound itself, it just happens to be a really strong mix of the frequencies that make up both of those words.

If all of the information is in there, can you actually design sounds that would have multiple, well, words in it?

I had a feeling that it had something to do with particular combinations of frequencies that were making people hear it one way or another.

So, what I actually did was -- I took the sound file and I just completely removed all of the higher frequencies.

And the higher frequencies are actually the ones that more strongly resemble Yanny.

And so what I heard, when I removed those higher frequencies, was -- it actually switched for me, from sounding like 'Yanny' to sounding like 'Laurel.'

And when you do the opposite, removing the lower frequencies, you can change the perception from 'Laurel' to 'Yanny.'

So, this sound actually is a good example of that, where both of the words are there.

So, this was a case of our ears and our auditory senses thrown for a loop?

A few months ago, we had the case of the dress and how people perceived it.

That was kind of one of these scenarios that you're describing, but with our eyes.

Exactly. And I think, you know, that also just kind of highlights the fact that this is not something that we could call modality-specific.

So, really, you have these kinds of -- You know, we have the five senses, and each of those is connected to the perceptual systems of the brain.

And the perceptual systems, you know, are areas that we're very interested, in a lot of our work, to be able to understand, you know, not only how we sense the world around us and navigate it, but actually understand it.

How common are these sorts of instances where our sense perception is out of whack?

They're incredibly common.

Just in the auditory domain and even just the speech-and-language domain alone, it's actually incredibly common.

We've done some work with some of our colleagues to look at a phenomenon that's called phoneme restoration.

And the idea is that you take a word and you completely remove one sound from it and you replace that with noise.

So this is really analogous to if we're having a conversation, instead of you're in a quiet studio, I'm in a quiet office, we're out on the street corner.

There's traffic.

There's, you know, cars honking.

Or, if we're in a restaurant, there's a lot of commotion.

It's actually incredibly common for certain sounds not to even really reach the brain.

But we don't notice that.

Most of the time, we just go on as if we heard something.

And so, in this phoneme restoration, we've kind of -- There's a way that you can kind of stimulate that.

And what we've done in our work is -- we've looked at how some of the perceptual regions of the brain respond to that sound when it's perceived one way or another.

Does this happen often as we walk through life or is this just these kind of outlier cases, and thanks to social media that we're sharing it and we're seeing it?

I mean, I think the Yanny/Laurel example is kind of an extreme case of this, where my understanding is that the sound itself was just -- The actual word that was recorded was 'Laurel,' but through the way that the sound was recorded on a phone or something like that, there was some interference that was introduced to it, and it kind of distorted the frequencies a little bit.

But there are definitely just everyday examples of these kinds of ambiguities that exist all over the place.

All right.

Matthew Leonard, from the University of California, San Francisco, thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

Training wild animals to behave can be a challenging job for zookeepers.

In this segment, let's discover how the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York, guides animals to keep them safe and comfortable.


The Rosamond Gifford Zoo is an amazing resource for our community.

It's got a high level of animal care, being one of 231 accredited zoos around the country.

That means any visitor that comes through the door is gonna see animals that are housed and are being cared for to the highest possible level.

So, zoos around the country are changing all the time to help better themselves.

This yard is 4 acres, and it really helps us to be able to display our whole herd and kind of mimic a wild setting for them.

And it's really helped us, in that manner, to get a good social structure with our herd.

The fact of the matter is -- they are wild animals, a species of wild animal, but we want them to be as comfortable as possible.

We can't undermine the value of what people get to experience when they're here, but we want to explain it in a way that's positive for the animal, positive for the visitor.

And, overall, the priority is to sustain the population and the individual animals as low-key and as stressless as possible.

Good Romani. Come here.

Good girl.

The training here at the zoo is based on mainly operant conditioning, which means for every action, there's a consequence.

And we use a heavy base on positive reinforcement.

Steady. Good girl.

Essentially, with the elephants, a lot of the training initially is about relationship-building and making sure that the animal trusts you.

And, from there on out, we go through and we habituate the animal to a specific situation, whether it's doing foot-care or blood draws or trunk washes.

All that stuff is tiny baby steps all the way, until we can get to the finish line, which is very rewarding once we can actually draw blood with no issue.

Good girl, Romani.


So, very early on, even in the quarantine period, every animal goes through a quarantine period of at least 30 days.

We'll start to develop a plan -- what its favorite foods are, what might stimulate it.

What it doesn't like.

Then we go from there to develop a training plan.

So, what are our goals gonna be?

The first goal is to get it to go into a crate so it's not stressed when we move it from the quarantine area to its exhibit home.

So that will be the first thing, and that's a -- It could be a 5- or 25-step thing, depending upon the animal.

We start to build the bond of trust between animal and keeper.

A long, long time ago, we had to sedate an animal.

Specifically, in an elephant program, we would bring them into a restricted area and give them a drug to sedate them.

Now we are able to train them to voluntarily do all of those medical procedures and husbandry procedures that we do every day with no stress.

Steady. Good.

So, this is our veterinary hospital treatment room.

And a lot of our smaller patients will come here for regular checkups, all the way up to diagnostic procedures or surgical procedures.

And, so, this is Muppet.

She's an adult female North American porcupine, who is just here for a regular checkup.

Sarah, our animal keeper, is giving her a treat, and I'm watching her to see how she's chewing, how she looks, how she's using her claws and her paws.

And her eyes are clear, nose is clear.

I can do things like listen to her heart.

There are many, many different species that we see here, and each of those species has its own unique anatomy and physiology and medical problems that they develop, which may be very different from a dog or a cat or a domestic animal.

So we are challenged by trying to apply domestic-animal medicine and unique things about exotic animals to our everyday jobs.

So, basically, we store the information of every single animal every single day of its life, so to speak.

So, any event in the animal's life is logged into this system.

So simple things as, for instance, the weight of the animal will be logged into this system.

The day that it was born will be logged into this system.

So, before we had this type of record keeping, it was word of mouth, so to speak, and trying to find out where animals had come from.

And some we wouldn't know the genetics of the animals.

We didn't know where they originated.

That would make it very difficult for us to introduce these animals into these breeding programs.

But it is stored every single day.

Good job, bud.

Hugo, station. Good.

Penguins are a typically very skittish-type species -- Humboldts, in particular, through our research.

So one of the things that we wanted to ensure once we started a colony here was to get them as comfortable as possible as quickly as possible.

One of the things that we initially started with our colony was the scale training, basically getting them conditioned to come in an area that isn't as familiar to them, making it a positive experience for them, and realizing that nothing really bad happens out here.

And now that we pretty much have our entire colony that we can get weights on voluntary each and every month, without having the stress of picking them up and having to transport them somewhere for those procedures.

When we opened this exhibit, back in 2005, we were told, amongst many, many very reputable, accredited facilities, that, 'Well, don't expect to see any breeding with your colony until they become settled.

And it may take anywhere from 3, 4, 5, years.

And, so, we started the conditioning with our training right away, getting them as comfortable as possible, conditioning them to come in and out, and trying to just make it so comfortable for them that, within the first year, we were able to successfully have a reproductive breeding colony and were able to have chicks within the first year of us opening, which was remarkable, and we were really ecstatic about that.

So, every day, every keeper of every animal that lives here at the zoo, one of their biggest challenges of the day is -- the animal's living in the same space for much of its life here.

We might move it around or it might have come or gone from another zoo, but while it's here, we want to make its life as enriched as possible.

Romani, all right. Good.

Good girl.

And, you know, we're here to display the animals and make sure that people see them and make a connection with an endangered species, but we're also here to contribute to the survival of the wild populations.


And that wraps it up for this time.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.