Video: Robots Finally Enter Crippled Japanese Nuclear Reactor, Find High Radiation Levels

In Through the Out Door Tokyo Electric Power Co.
PackBots enter areas where workers cannot safely go

Nudging open a door with its extendable arm, a bomb-disposal robot became the first robot to enter a reactor building at Japan's stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, confirming high radiation levels that are unsafe for humans.

A pair of iRobot PackBots carefully rolled through double doors at the reactor building on Unit 3 and Unit 1, both of which were damaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials spent much of the day Sunday using the robots to conduct radiation and oxygen-level surveys in the crippled reactor buildings. A robot also explored Unit 2 on Monday.

Although details are still scarce, the robots apparently confirmed the high radiation levels that officials had already feared: readings of up to 49 millisieverts per hour inside Unit 1 and up to 57 inside Unit 3, way too high for humans. For comparison, workers in the U.S. are exposed to a maximum of 50 milliserverts per year, according to the Associated Press.

In the days after the natural disasters - and ensuing hydrogen explosions that destroyed the reactor buildings' roofs - power plant workers initially remained on site trying to avert further problems, but they could only remain in the buildings for a few moments.

iRobot has four robots in Japan, including the two PackBots and two Warriors, which were equipped with radiation-monitoring equipment and other payloads. The robots were the first to enter the plant, although previous reports from Japanese media indicated some Japanese monitoring robots have also been at the site.

The British defense firm QinetiQ also sent in a tank-like robot called Talon, which was used to drive through the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11. Talon is equipped with radiation monitoring equipment. QinetiQ also has modified Bobcat front-end loaders, powered by Xbox 360 controllers, which can move debris, according to the BBC.

The iRobot PackBots and Warriors both roll along tank-like treads, using video cameras and other equipment to conduct surveillance and other activities. The U.S. military uses them for bomb disposal, bunker searches and other dangerous situations.

It appears Japan may need the robots' services for some time to come. On Monday, Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials said fuel pellets at the reactors had melted, sometimes called a partial meltdown. Officials had assumed as much, but Monday was the first time the company described the damage in detail, according to the AP.

Robots will be able to perform some functions, including monitoring and debris removal, but humans will eventually have to enter the facilities to fix electrical and cooling systems, officials told AP.

"What robots can do is limited," TEPCO official Takeshi Makigami said.

Officials hope the robots can remove some stagnant radioactive water and other debris to limit workers' radiation exposure.

[via New York Times/AP, IDG News]



Shawn Fanning And Sean Parker Are Back With An Ambitious New Project; Investors Abound

Longtime collaborators Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker are back together working on an ambitious new project, we've learned. In 1999, Fanning and Parker introduced the world to Napster. Their music sharing service was absolutely culture changing and ushered in a new wave of excitement about the web. Now, over a decade later, they're back at it. And the new project is nothing if not interesting. Think: Chatroulette ? but done right.


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mSpot Lowers Video On Demand Pricing For Newly Released Movies

Mobile entertainment startup mSpot, which lets users stream and watch full-length movies on their mobile phones and on the web, is lowering the pricing for newly released movies today, making the startup's movies more of a bargain than movies available on competitors like iTunes. mSpot says that average pricing for instantly streamed new releases is typically $3.99 and now mSpot users can get many new releases for as low as $3.00 as part of their mSpot membership. In case you aren't familiar with the service, mSpot has struck deals with Sony, Disney, Paramount, NBC/Universal, Lionsgate, Warner, Image Entertainment, and Screen Media Ventures to stream full-length movie rentals to users? PCs and cell phones, allowing you to switch between both devices as you pick up and leave off throughout a movie.



Hydrocarbons Could Form Deep In the Earth From Methane, Not Animal Remains

No More Oil Steve Jurvetson via Flickr
Study lends credence to abiogenic petroleum theory, which means there may be more oil in our future than we thought

A new study demonstrates how high hydrocarbons could be formed from methane deep within the Earth, aside from the compression and heating of ancient animal remains over the eons. Fused-methane oil would be far less common than your typical petroleum, of course, but the study shows abiogenic hydrocarbons could conceivably occur in some of the planet's high-pressure and high-temperature zones.

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory used supercomputers to simulate what would happen to carbon and hydrogen atoms buried 40 to 95 miles beneath the Earth's crust, where they would be subjected to prodigious pressures and temperatures.

They found at temperatures greater than 2,240 degrees F and pressures 50,000 times greater than those at the Earth's surface, methane molecules can fuse to form hydrocarbons with multiple carbon atoms. Interactions with metal or carbon sped up the fusion process, the researchers said. These conditions are present about 70 miles down, according to an LLNL news release.

Methane, CH4, has one carbon and four hydrogen atoms; high hydrocarbons, like propane and butane, have more carbon atoms.

About 99 percent of all the hydrocarbons in oil and natural gas are derived from the compressed, heated remains of ancient living organisms like zooplankton and algae. These critters were buried under layers of sediments five to 10 miles beneath the surface of the Earth.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, some scientists believed hydrocarbons could form from abiogenic (non-biological) processes, too. The existence of methane on several solar system bodies shows hydrocarbons can exist without organic ingredients. But the theory fell out of favor, in part because no one ever found any abiogenic oil deposits.

The LLNL researchers don't claim to know where such deposits would be, nor did they examine whether or how such deep deposits could ever migrate higher into the mantle where they could be retrieved. But the researchers say abiogenic hydrocarbons are technically possible in some settings like rifts or subduction zones, according to Giulia Galli, a professor at UC-Davis and senior author on the study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We don't say that higher hydrocarbons actually occur under the realistic 'dirty' Earth mantle conditions, but we say that the pressures and temperatures alone are right for it to happen," she said.

[Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory]



Hooking a 9-Volt Battery To Your Brain Improves Your Video Game Skills, Researcher Finds

9-Volt Battery Wikimedia Commons
(But don't try this at home)

We've already seen how magnets hovering close to a person's head can affect speech, behavior and learning patterns. Now it appears zapping your brain with a 9-volt battery will make you better at video games, at least according to one researcher. Don't try this yourself, though.

Neuroscientists at the University of New Mexico asked volunteers to play a video game called "DARWARS Ambush!", developed to help train American military personnel. Half of the players received 2 milliamps of electricity to the scalp, using a device powered by a simple 9-volt battery, and they played twice as well as those receiving a much tinier jolt. The DARPA-funded study suggests direct current applied to the brain could improve learning.

This type of brain stimulation, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), is controversial but could show promise for treatment of various neurological disorders and cognitive impairments. Click through to Nature News for a thorough overview.

It's different from transcranial magnetic stimulation, in which a magnetic coil running at high voltage is positioned close to the head. The magnets stimulate electrical responses in the brain. Transcranial direct current stimulation is just what it sounds, applying the current directly to the brain.

We've been hearing quite a lot about these methods lately, and the scientific literature indicates the fields - tDCS in particular - are experiencing a revival, Nature News points out. Scientists hope the methods could be used to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, stroke and autism, as well as to improve learning by increasing the brain's plasticity.

Researchers are beginning to understand how an external electrical current affects brain function, including by inducing changes to the flow of electricity across neurons and increasing the expression of certain synapse proteins.

Apparently, it takes very little electricity to do all this. But please, don't start hooking up 9-volt batteries to your brain - leave that to the scientific studies.

[Nature News]



The Age of the Avatar Has Arrived, Letting You Go Everywhere Without Going Anywhere

Meeting of the Minds (and Their Virtual Bodies) Cade McCall via NYT

Getting up for class or an early meeting always goes the same way: you get out of bed, and it goes downhill from there. But if a couple of researchers from Stanford and UC Santa Barbara are correct in their new book, in a few years we'll all be meeting in virtual classrooms and conference rooms anyhow. This isn't just the same old future hype, they say; technology has caught up with the vision, and the age of the avatar is imminent.

Which technology? Specifically, Drs. Jim Blascovich (of UCSB) and Jeremy Bailenson (of Stanford) cite the Microsoft Kinect, the Nintendo 3DS, and IBM's Watson computer. They call these technologies "paradigm-shifting" for avatar conferencing and say that they make virtual meetings ready for the living room, classroom, and conference room.

This isn't like videoconferencing--it's far more immersive--nor is it like two avatars chatting in two-dimensional environs like Second Life. Essentially, you would use a photo to generate a true 3-D avatar to your liking--perhaps one that's had a shower and dresses a bit more smartly than you do--and you and each of your meeting-mates would sit around looking, gesturing, and talking to each other in 3-D.

But it gets better. The Watson piece of the technology means avatars could be put on a kind of autopilot, where an AI takes over your digital presence, nodding politely at good points, laughing at jokes, and otherwise feigning attention while you hit the snooze button for the seventh straight time.

You could even tamper with your physical traits, Blascovich and Bailenson say, to make a better impression. Research shows that when a person's face is subtly digitally morphed with that of a politician's in an image, the person receives that politician more warmly even if they don't share simpatico political views. The person won't even realize the photo has been altered.

That means you could doctor your own features to exhibit some of those of a professor, a client, or a superior to gain a little extra goodwill. Of course, that might be considered unethical. Since you're already sleeping straight through your 8:30 while some AI keeps your avatar nodding attentively, you might not want to push it.