NewsBeast: Ideas

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Rise of the Robot Band
Watch out, Bono. A new machine orchestra may be the future of music.

In a custom-designed room on the campus at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif., there hangs a small orchestra of life-size robots tucked up in the rafters. The robots are instruments in the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra, an ongoing project from the university's music-technology department to develop machines that can perform songs alongside humans. Among the 10-odd robots, there's the Glockenbot (made up of 13 pieces of precut metal), Tammy (a man-size robot with a skeleton of bells and marimba pieces), and the mother of them all, MahaDeviBot, a 12-armed percussion machine that sits, Indian style, on the ground. Students interact with the robotic instruments through their computers. Performing robots aren't new, but the technical abilities and scale of the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra mark a giant leap toward a future when we might go to concerts to hear machines play. On May 12 the machines will come to life for a giant jam session open to the public. —Brian Ries

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Body Electric
Need a little pick-me-up before the big morning meeting? Put down the coffee, and grab a thinking cap—literally. That's the vision of Allan Snyder, a researcher at the Center for the Mind at the University of Sydney in Australia. Snyder is working on a device that sends tiny electric shocks to the brain. Those bursts have been shown to boost creativity. Snyder's research is part of a boom in studies exploring the possible benefits that electric stimulation can have on learning, coordination, addiction, and mood. Direct-current stimulation is most associated with the electroshock therapy used in the 1940s to treat depression. But despite that shaky past, neuroscientists are buzzing that this may be a new frontier for their research.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Born This Way
Always go against your instincts? It may be in your genes.

Everyone knows someone who always follows bad advice. According to researchers, they could be born that way. A new paper in The Journal of Neuroscience details how genetic variations can predict whether people will act in a way others suggest, even if their experience proves they should not. People use two parts of their brain for this kind of reasoning: the prefrontal cortex manages received advice, whereas the striatum, located deeper in the brain, processes experience. Depending on genes, the striatum will cave more easily to what the prefrontal cortex is telling it. The study provides a window into something called confirmation bias—in which acquired beliefs tend to be resistant to new information—and might explain everything from political attitudes to a passion for astrology.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Bad Medicine: How Diet Pills Make You Lazy
Popping a diet drug or some multivitamins could actually be bad for your health. In a series of experiments performed at research institutions in Taiwan, scientists found that people taking diet supplements behaved in ways that worked against their best interests: they exercised less and ate more. A researcher called this "the curse of licensed self-indulgence."