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Living Lab Radio: The Robots Of The Pyeongchang Olympics

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The Olympic flame is lit during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018.
Dmitri Lovetsky/AP
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Despite the increased size of the 2019 budget, President Trump's 2019 spending proposal calls for slashing funding for many science programs, including a 37 percent cut to EPA’s Office of Science and Technology, and 20 percent reductions to the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The research outreach and extension program Sea Grant and the National Estuarine Research Reserve network would both be eliminated.

At some agencies, funding boosts would be balanced by targeted cuts. The Department of Energy could see an additional $1.5 billion for research and the elimination of an experimental program known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. At NASA, an overall funding increase of just shy of one percent would prioritize exploration and come at the expense of the International Space Station, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, and many earth science programs.

The only agencies to benefit from the Congressional budget increase were the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The White House plan originally cut the NIH budget by more than a quarter, and the NSF budget by nearly 30 percent. An addendum called for restoring funding to 2017 levels.

“It’s not an administration that’s really trying to prioritize science and technology,” said Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “What they’re really trying to do is save money.”

This effort to cut spending went farther than most administrations by leaving about $57 billion in available funds on the table.

“What we’ve got here is a budget that is literally saying, ‘We’re going to cut all these programs -- we could’ve restored that funding, but we’d rather simply let those dollars evaporate,’” Hourihan said.

MIT is the latest in a string of prestigious universities to reveal ties to slavery that go back to the founding of the institution. The information comes from an undergraduate research course called “MIT and Slavery,” led by MIT reference archivist Nora Murphy and history professor Craig Steven Wilder.

MIT was founded 1861 and the first classes took place in 1865, which brackets the Civil War. Murphy says there was discussion among archivists and researchers that the school’s founding president William Barton Rogers might have been a slave holder, but that did not prepare her to see the proof of it first-hand.

“To actually find in the ... census that there were [slaves] in the household was something we didn’t expect to find in as concrete a way,” Murphy said.

Wilder says the industrial revolution in the North was fueled, in a large part, by the slave economy in the American South. That fact has a direct link to MIT and other science and engineering schools. 

“Cotton manufacturers in New England who need skilled engineers to build factories, design machines, and maintain production, begin pouring money into engineering schools” around the time of the Civil War, he said. 

Students also researched racist language and culture in MIT’s early years, and the course is slated to continue probing the history of race at MIT. MIT’s president, Rafael Reif, has encouraged the investigations, saying that uncovering and grappling with such difficult facts is at the core of the scientific endeavor.

The news organization "Climate Home News" this week obtained and published a draft of a U.N. climate science report. The report assesses the feasibility and likely benefits of achieving the most ambitious goal set by the Paris climate agreement – which is to hold total global average warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The conclusion is that it will be difficult to cut emissions quickly enough.

While there could be concerns about the U.S. obstructing the release of the report, Phil Duffy, president and director of the climate change think tank Woods Hole Research Center, says that a leak like this doesn’t necessarily imply that. The review process gives many people access to the drafts, and it is neither uncommon nor surprising for a media outlet to end up with a copy.

Duffy says the report’s findings are equally unsurprising. As research has progressed, he says, it has become evident that climate change is happening faster than previously expected. There is also increasing concern that we may soon reach thresholds – points of no return – that would commit us to the complete melting of Greenland’s glaciers.

That means that it will be difficult to cut greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to avoid dramatic impacts, and the leaked report emphasizes that renewable energy and energy efficiency won’t be enough. We will need technologies that can pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and developing those will require financial and political support.

But Duffy cautions against excessive pessimism. He says the economic models used to evaluate emissions reduction schemes don’t take into account technological innovations that are yet to come. And he points to the U.S. space program of the 1960s as an example of the rapid advancements the science community can make.

The Pyeongchang Olympics are likely to be remembered for the joint Korean team, wind delays, and robots. Yes, robots. South Korea is taking advantage of the international spotlight to show off its leadership in robotics, with 11 types of robots – eighty five total – in action at the Olympics. And that’s not counting the swarm of drones featured in the Opening Ceremonies.

A humanoid robot known as HUBO made history by being the first robot to carry the Olympic torch. The former winner of the DARPA Robotics Challenge drove a car, while its inventor, professor Oh Jun-ho of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), held the torch in the passenger seat. HUBO then got out, walked several steps with the torch, cut a hole in a wall, and handed the torch through the hole back to Oh. 

There are floor-cleaning robots that resemble Star Wars’ BB-8, translator robots modeled after the white tiger mascot of the games, artist robots that render murals based on recent Olympic highlights, and ponds of robotic koi purely for entertainment.

Robots even competed in their own pseudo-Olympic event – a downhill skiing contest. Eight Korean teams put their robots to the test, skiing a short slalom course without the human direction.

Emily Matchar has written about the Olympic robots for Smithsonian Magazine, and she says Olympic athletes and spectators are seeing a “friendly face of robotics.” Korean robotics companies are hoping that will translate into increased interest in purchasing their products.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the 1860 census showed that MIT founder's owned slaves. It was the 1850 census that showed this.

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