13 December 2019

Trash-Talking Robot

Trash Talk: Disparaging, taunting or boastful comments especially between opponents trying to intimidate each other (Merriam-Webster). OK, but what if your trash-talking opponent is a robot?

Welcome back. Looking ahead to our future with robots, researchers with Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study of the effect of linguistic nuances and social behavior on human-robot interactions.

Rather than add to the large body of work on cooperative interactions (e.g., robots assisting humans), they examined the case of robots and humans having different or even conflicting objectives. This would occur, for example, if a sales robot is programmed to convince a human customer to buy a specific item, but the customer thinks other items would be better.

The question addressed by the study was how would an opponent’s comments about one’s game playing ability impact a human if the opponent were a robot?

Pepper, the humanoid robot that voiced encouraging and discouraging comments during a strategic game with humans (www.softbankrobotics.com/emea/en/pepper).
Let the Games Begin
The researchers enlisted 40 participants to compete against a humanoid robot in a strategic game (Stackelberg Security Game). The participants were not initially advised of the true purpose of the study. Each participant played two practice rounds of the game without the robot, then 35 rounds with the robot.

During the 35 rounds, the robot played with optimal strategy and offered expressive verbal commentary either encouraging or discouraging its human opponent. Whether encouraging or discouraging, the comments had nothing to do with the participant’s actual performance.

A selected group of the participants also played another 35 rounds, during which the robot’s comments were opposite to its comments during the first 35 games with those participants; encouraging comments became discouraging and vice versa. 

Examples of the robot’s encouraging and discouraging
comments when playing a strategic game with human
(from arxiv.org/pdf/1910.11459.pdf).
The researchers collected a variety of data on the participants’ game strategy and their perceptions of the task, their performance and the robot. These included a pre-task questionnaire of demographic information, familiarity with robots and technology, and emotional state; records of actions taken during the game; a post-task questionnaire; a post-game verbal semi-structured interview (video recorded); and, for some participants, video of the participant playing the game against the robot.

Did the Robot’s Comments Matter?
The study found that, overall, the robot’s comments strongly influenced the participants’ feelings in the two-opponent, competitive interaction. This occurred regardless of the participants’ level of technical sophistication.

Discouraging comments caused the humans to play the game less rationally and perceive the robot more negatively--as being less optimistic, cheerful, cooperative and cute. In contrast, encouraging comments caused the humans to play the game more rationally and perceive the robot in a more positive manner.

In all, 30% of the participants labeled the robot’s goal as “distraction,” but they excused the robot, blaming its behavior on how it was programmed.

Wrap Up
The researchers suggest their findings may be useful for robot designers. The robot’s ability to prompt responses could have implications for automated learning, mental health treatment and even the use of robots as companions.

Game developers can also use the results to develop more interactive opponents and increase the sense of engagement.

Placing importance on the humanoid aspect of the robot in their study, the researchers posit that nonverbal modes of expression in competitive settings should be investigated in future work.

Won’t it be swell when robots as well as people start giving us a hard time? Thanks for stopping by.

Study of effect of robot’s comments on human game opponents in Proc. of 28th IEEE Int’l. Conf. on Robot Human Interactive Communication: arxiv.org/pdf/1910.11459.pdf
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-11/cmu-tth111819.php

06 December 2019

End-of-Life Caring

Comfort care is an essential part of medical care at the end of life…The goals are to prevent or relieve suffering as much as possible and to improve quality of life while respecting the dying person's wishes. (National Institute on Aging)

End-of-life care for the terminally ill
(photo from www.nia.nih.gov/).
Welcome back. Although I’m not yet dying or attending to someone who is, I came across two recent end-of-life studies you might find of interest. One focuses on the dying patient and family, the other addresses the surrogate who makes life-sustaining decisions for the patient.

The 3 Wishes Project
The 3 Wishes Project is an end-of-life program that seeks to bring peace to terminally ill patients and ease the grieving process.

The program involves implementing wishes identified by the patient, family, clinicians or project team in an effort to dignify the death and celebrate the life; humanize the dying process and create positive memories; and foster patient and family-centered end-of-life care while inspiring a deeper sense of vocation for clinicians.

The 3 Wishes Project began at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, an academic and research hospital affiliated with McMaster University and Mohawk College, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Can Project Sites be Added?
Researchers led by those with McMaster University conducted a study to determine if the program could be implemented by intensive care units of other hospitals.

Three additional hospitals participated, one each in Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles. Together with the Hamilton hospital, the study fulfilled 3,407 wishes for 730 dying patients.

The wishes, usually more than three per patient, included bringing personal items, pictures and pets from home, providing favorite music or spiritual support, connecting long lost family, celebrating weddings, watching a sporting event together with a favorite beverage, and a "date night" with local restaurant food.

3 Wishes Project--family, friends and staff get together in patient's room (photo from brighterworld.mcmaster.ca/articles/project-to-answer-last-wishes-spreads-successfully/).
Judging Success
The researchers assessed results using a mixed-methods formative evaluation, which entailed collecting, analyzing and integrating quantitative and qualitative data from 75 family members, 72 clinicians and 20 managers or hospital administrators.

Program value encompassed comforting families while inspiring compassionate clinical care. Transferability was promoted by family appreciation and the intensive care unit culture committed to dignity-conserving, end-of-life care. As for affordability, there was a required minimal investment for reusable materials, but the average cost per wish was just over $5.00 since most wishes cost nothing. Sustainability was demonstrated by each site continuing the program after the study.

Clinician and family perspectives on the 3 Wishes Project
(photo from 11-minute video youtu.be/CkWjlcl4BA4).
There seems no question that the 3 Wishes Project can and should be implemented at other tertiary care centers.

Religion, Spirituality and Surrogate Decisions
A team of investigators, led by a researcher with the Regenstrief Institute, set out to determine the relationships between religion and spirituality and the treatment decisions made by health care surrogates.

Decision-makers consent for Do-Not Resuscitate status
(from Patricia Bomba’s slides on “Medical decision-making
capacity: Legal, Ethical and Clinical Considerations”
They enlisted 291 patients and their health care surrogates from three hospitals. The patients were age 65 or older and admitted to the intensive care services. The surrogates were predominately Protestant.

Baseline surveys completed between the second and tenth day assessed dimensions of religion and spirituality. Review of medical records and health information six months later identified life-sustaining treatments and hospice for patients who died.

Key Factors Influencing Surrogates
After adjusting for other religious dimensions, demographic and illness factors, the surrogates' belief in miracles was the only factor significantly associated with lower preference for do-not-resuscitate status--59% believed a miracle might save the patient.

Higher surrogate intrinsic religiosity (religion that is an end in itself) was associated with lower receipt of life-sustaining treatments during the patients’ final 30 days.

Together, belief in miracles and higher intrinsic religiosity were associated with lower hospice utilization.

To reduce effects on end-of-life treatment, the investigators recommend that chaplains or appropriately trained clinicians identify and explore surrogates’ belief in miracles and intrinsic religiosity.

Wrap Up
If you’re seeking end-of-life information, you’ll find an excellent series of articles on the National Institute on Aging’s website--providing care and comfort, palliative and hospice care, caring for a dying relative or someone with dementia, healthcare decisions, what happens when someone dies, what to do after someone dies and mourning the death of a spouse.

Thanks for stopping by.

National Institute on Aging’s End of Life website: www.nia.nih.gov/health/end-of-life
3 Wishes Project website: 3wishesproject.com/
3 Wishes Project study in Annals of Internal Medicine: annals.org/aim/article-abstract/2755629/compassionate-end-life-care-mixed-methods-multisite-evaluation-3-wishes
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-11/mu-pta110619.php
Surrogate decision maker study in Journal of Pain and Symptom Management: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0885392419305263
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-11/ri-fso110419.php

29 November 2019

Duck! Flying Spiders

Vicki rushed in, calling, “Come with me. You’ve got to see this.” Vicki’s not in the habit of thinking I need to see anything, so l had to ask, “What is it?” “Floating spiders,” she answered.
Spider-spun fibers (white streak above clouds)
Vicki photographed before inviting me to join her.
Welcome back. A handful of Sundays ago, I dropped what I was doing to follow Vicki, though I couldn’t figure why I had to witness spiders swimming in a puddle. 

Spider fibers on trees
and pole (Vicki’s photo).
She drove us a very short distance to where there were long, thick strands of spider-spun fibers on the road, in fields, on bushes and trees. Spider fibers that Vicki had seen floating high in the air had come to ground. If any spiders made it that far, they were gone.

A passerby who had noticed Vicki walking and photographing the sky told her the webs were floating spiders. It didn’t take much of an internet search for me to learn the common labels were ballooning or kiting spiders and that the distances they covered, though usually short, can reach 1,000 miles or more at heights over two miles.

Ballooning spider fibers
on grass (Vicki’s photo).
It also didn’t take much searching for me to wonder why the topic was completely new to me. Ballooning spiders were first documented in the 1600s and described by researchers since at least the 1800s. But the real How did I miss it? was that technical papers and supporting videos appeared in leading journals just over a year ago.

Maybe the topic is new to you, too. I’ll fill in some blanks and hit the highlights of the more recent studies.

Ballooning on the Wind
It's thought that spiders balloon to avoid being eaten at their birth sites or to find food, mates or new areas to colonize. Most ballooning spiders are young or small adults, generally no more than 3 millimeters (mm).

Researchers affiliated with the Technical University of Berlin conducted field and wind tunnel experiments to examine ballooning behavior and associated web fibers of ground crab spiders (Xysticus sp.), 3 to 6 mm and 6 to 25 milligrams (mg).

They found the spiders evaluate the wind with a front leg and await suitable conditions. Before releasing themselves from an anchoring silk line, the larger spiders spun 50 to 60 extremely thin fibers (diameter less than 325 nanometers), averaging about 3.22 meters (10.5 feet) long, that formed a triangular-shaped sheet.

The crab spider spins out fine silk fibers for its aerial dispersal. A triangular sheet of fibers is observed at the moment of the takeoff (image by Moonsung Cho, Technical University of Berlin, from his video - www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/04/watch-ballooning-spider-take-flight).
The researchers hypothesized that spiders use the ascending air current for their aerial dispersal, which concurs with the fact that spiders usually balloon when wind speed is less than 3 meters/second (6.7 miles/hour).

Electrostatic Flight
Aspects of ballooning aren’t well explained by wind and convective turbulence. For example, how is it that spiders can launch at relatively high acceleration when air movement is imperceptible?

In 2013, a University of Hawaii at Manoa researcher made a case for the role of electrostatic forces, specifically, the global atmospheric potential gradient. Above a flat field or the sea on a clear day, the electric potential increases by approximately 120 volts/meter. (Borrowing from Richard Feynman: outdoors the electric potential at the height of your nose is about 200 volts more than the potential at your feet!)

The Hawaii researcher built his case by analyzing Charles Darwin’s observations of ballooning spiders aboard the H.M.S. Beagle.

It wasn’t until 2018 that researchers with the UK’s University of Bristol reported testing the hypothesis that electric fields commensurate with the atmospheric potential gradient are detected by spiders and are sufficient to stimulate ballooning.

The researchers exposed spiders (Linyphiidae) to laboratory-controlled electric fields quantitatively equivalent to those found in the atmosphere. Switching the field on and off caused the spiders to move upward (switched on) or downward (switched off). They also observed that spider leg hairs (trichobothria) were activated by weak electric fields.

In all, the findings showed that spiders can become airborne without wind when subjected to electric fields.

Wrap Up
Whether carried by wind, the global atmospheric potential gradient or both, watching ballooning spiders (which I didn’t), seeing the scattered fibers and wondering where they came from is not a bad way to spend time on Sunday afternoon. Thanks for stopping by. 

Ballooning spiders on trees after escaping floods in Tasmania, 2016 (photo by Ken Puccetti, from www.smh.com.au/environment/conservation/trees-cocooned-in-webs-as-ballooning-spiders-take-refuge-in-floodhit-tasmania-20160608-gpe8er.html).
Wikipedia article on ballooning spiders: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballooning_(spider)
Technical University of Berlin study in PLOS Biology journal: journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2004405
Technical University of Berlin video on ballooning spiders in Science: www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/04/watch-ballooning-spider-take-flight
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-06/p-fss060518.php
University of Hawaii study of electrostatics and ballooning spiders: arxiv.org/pdf/1309.4731.pdf
University of Bristol study in Current Biology journal: www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(18)30693-6.pdf
University of Bristol video on electric fields and ballooning spiders: www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/174402.php
Article on study on Science Daily website: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180705114027.htm
Richard Feynman lecture on atmospheric electricity: www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/II_09.html

22 November 2019

Meds and Suicide Risk

Welcome back. Searching for appropriate blog topics, I review the highlights of about 500 new research papers every week. If I’m lucky, I’ll find one or two you might find of interest that aren’t too specialized, complex or already well covered by the media, and for which the full paper or adequate supporting information is available without paying a fee. 

There are also topics I choose not to report, like health breakthroughs that may not turn out to be breakthroughs or suicide other than as an outcome of gun research.
Suicide rate by state, 1999-2016 (from www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide/infographic.html#graphic1).
I hesitated before going with today’s topic, but suicide is now one of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S., its rate having increased by 25% between 1999 and 2016. Although most suicides are related to psychiatric disorders, the effect of medications is intensely debated.

Some prescription drugs
might increase or decrease
suicidal behavior
from www.krcu.org/).
In a recently published study, research collaborators from the University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, St. John Fisher College, Carnegie Mellon University and Columbia University developed a statistical methodology for identifying drugs associated with increased and decreased risk of suicidal events. 

Linking Prescription Drugs with Suicide
The researchers applied generalized mixed-effects regression modeling in analyzing medical claims and records of over 150 million people from 2003 to 2014.

They examined the relationship between 922 drugs, with more than 3,000 prescriptions, and nearly 44,000 suicidal events (suicide attempts and intentional self-harm, including fatalities) using medical claims from more than 100 health insurers (from IBM’s MarketScan database).

Their statistical modeling is built around a comparison of the number of each patient’s suicide attempts during the three months before and three months after filling the prescription of each drug.

For example, alprazolam is used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. Of the 4,719,202 patients who were prescribed the drug between 2003 and 2014, 1,035 had a suicidal event in the three months before filling the prescription and 1,861 had a suicidal event in the three months after filling the prescription.

A Change in Suicidal Behavior
The researchers highlight the medications associated with increased and decreased suicidal events, and break down those results by gender and age, younger than 18 versus 18 and older. They also provide the results for all 922 medications in a supplement to their paper.

Of the 922 medications, ten were associated with higher risk of suicide events: two anti-anxiety drugs, alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium); two opioid and analgesic/opioid narcotic mixtures, acetaminophen/hydrocodone bitartrate (Vicodin) and codeine phosphate/promethazine hydrochloride; the barbiturate-stimulant mixture acetaminophen/butalbital/caffeine; two muscle relaxants, cyclobenzaprine hydrochloride and carisoprodal; the steroid prednisone; the phenothiazine promethazine hydrochloride (for nausea and vomiting caused by anesthesia or surgery); and the antibiotic azithromycin.

Drugs associated with significantly increased suicide events, showing the number of suicide attempts pre- and post-exposure to the drug and the number of people taking the drug (table modified from table in hdsr.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/18lm7jrp).
On the plus side, 44 medications were associated with a decreased risk of suicidal behavior. That list includes a large group of FDA-approved antidepressants, antipsychotics, medications for alcohol/drug abuse treatment, mood stabilizers (including antiepileptics) used for bipolar illness and chronic pain, as well as ADHD, Parkinson’s and anti-hypertensive medications, and a beta blocker, proton-pump inhibitor, antihistamine and vitamin.

Among the potentially most protective of the 44 medications were folic acid (vitamin), mirtazapine (antidepressant), hydroxyzine (antihistamine), disulfiram (alcoholism) and naltrexone (alcohol or drug abuse).

Wrap Up
If you or someone you know has attempted suicide or self harm or experienced suicidal feelings, it would seem wise to review or share the tables provided in the paper, especially the table I’ve included.

The results might lead to a consultation with the medical provider or at least a pharmacist, and that’s a good thing. Thanks for stopping by.

Suicide rate statistics:
Study of medications and suicide in Harvard Data Science Review: hdsr.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/18lm7jrp
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-11/uoc-scl110519.php

15 November 2019

Speaking Rate and Information Revisited

Welcome back. Some people speak faster than others, right? But as the study I blogged about a couple of years ago found, regardless of how fast people speak, they convey about the same amount of information in a given period of time (Speaking Rate and Information).

Revisiting time spent pawing
through the lexical information.
To reach that conclusion, the Brown University researcher analyzed some 2,400 two-sided telephone conversations among 543 speakers and interviews with 40 speakers. He estimated information rate from two linguistic criteria, lexical (dictionary definition) and structural (syntax). The speakers were from across the U.S., and all conversations were in English.

Being worldly wise and intrigued by languages and linguistics, you of course wonder: Do speakers of other languages also convey the same amount of information in a given period of time? 

Take Spanish. Even if you don't speak Spanish, you’ve probably heard it spoken. Do Spanish speakers convey information at the same rate as English speakers?

Language Information Rates

Well, even if you don’t wonder, a team of researchers affiliated with France’s University of Lyon, the University of Hong Kong, New Zealand’s University of Canterbury and South Korea’s Ajou University set out to learn the answer.

They gave 170 native speakers of 17 different languages (10 speakers per language) 15 semantically similar texts to read in their native language (Basque, Cantonese, Catalan, English, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Serbian, Spanish, Thai, Turkish and Vietnamese). The speakers were instructed to familiarize themselves with the texts, then read them aloud at a comfortable pace with good pronunciation while they were recorded.

Through quantitative analysis, the researchers found that the speech rate (syllables per second) and the average information density of the syllables uttered for each language were quite different. Yet when the speaker combined the two properties, the information rate balanced. Similar amounts of information were conveyed in a given period of time (about 39 bits/second plus or minus 5 bits/second).

Languages such as Spanish had higher speech rates and lower information densities; Asian languages such as Vietnamese had slower speech rates and high information densities. 

The graphed data are the average information density (ID) and corresponding speech rates (SR) for languages noted at top. (There is one value of ID per language and as many values of SR as texts read by individual speakers.) The relationship between SR and ID is represented by the yellow straight line (linear regression) and the black curved line (locally estimated scatterplot smoothing regression). Both show SR decreases with increasing ID (from advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/9/eaaw2594).
Wrap Up
The researchers’ goal was to characterize the baseline by analyzing controlled speech instead of speech in more casual, unpredictable settings. They expect, however, that the strength of their findings would decrease along a continuum from very carefully pronounced content to very informal interactions. For the latter, understanding is heavily reliant on contextual and pragmatic factors rather than the linguistic information itself.

I’m way out of my league, but a significant change of information rate with casual conversation doesn’t seem to jive with the earlier study of English speakers, which did not control speech. People were found to converse within relatively narrow bounds of communication. The speakers either spoke quickly or provided high information content, but not both, possibly to avoid providing too much or too little information in a given period of time.

That seems reasonable for other languages, at least for most speakers. Anyway, thanks for stopping by.

Multi-language information rate study in Science Advances journal: advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/9/eaaw2594
Articles on study on EurekAlert! and Discover websites: