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Brainiac

How to win rock, paper, scissors every time: be inhuman

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Machines have taken over chess, “Jeopardy!”—and now even “rock, paper, scissors”? Scientists at the University of Tokyo (where else?) have apparently invented a rock, paper, scissors robot that always wins. As Evan Ackerman explains, writing for the IEEE Spectrum’s Automaton blog, the robot works with a high-speed camera:

“It only takes a single millisecond for the robot to recognize what shape your hand is in, and just a few more for it to make the shape that beats you, but it all happens so fast that it’s more or less impossible to tell that the robot is waiting until you commit yourself before it makes its move....”

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At least the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is safe from robots...for now.

Now we’re cooking in space

It’s a staple of science-fiction movies and TV shows: the astronaut meal, a bleakly futuristic assemblage of preprepared food units. Now, though, it’s looking like that might have been an inaccurate vision of the future: As Paul Adams explains in a great article at PopSci, NASA is spending serious money teaching astronauts to cook for themselves.

Adams travels to Cornell, where he meets with a group of nine NASA trainees making pizza from ingredients that are freeze-dried, dehydrated, powdered, and, in general, “shelf-stable.” Next year, they’ll live and cook for 120 days in a simulated Martian settlement built on a Hawaiian lava field, whipping up tasty meals of “freeze-dried beef and chicken chunks, freeze-dried shredded cheeses of various kinds, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, powdered spices, seaweeds and agar, and a concentrated butter with all the moisture centrifuged out of it.”

Why? NASA hopes to boost morale by giving astronauts a creative outlet that could also increase group cohesion. And tastier meals might help combat a strange, newly discovered effect of living in space: Micro-gravity, it turns out, causes your nasal passages to contract, inhibiting your sense of smell and making everything taste worse. Today, Adams writes, “Crewmembers on the ISS and other missions get in the habit of drenching every meal in hot sauce to compensate.” In the future, they might heft a weightless cookbook.

Leisure, engine of progress

Today the policy brain trust is asking one big question: How do we get growth started again? It’s a sensible question to ask as we recover from the Great Recession—but, as Edward and Robert Skidelsky argue in “In Praise of Leisure,” an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, it can’t be the only one. We also need to think about the purpose of all that economic growth. Without an idea about “the wise use of leisure,” the Skidelskys argue, we’ll be stuck forever in a frenetic and purposeless cycle of boom and bust.

Great economists like Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, they write, didn’t just worry about growth—they also cared about what people ought to do with their free time after their material needs had been satisfied. Keynes assumed, the Skidelskys write, “that the unending pursuit of wealth is madness,” and believed that the real purpose of economic growth was to earn freedom from work.

Unfortunately, the Skidelskys write, “the habits bred into us by capitalism have left us incapable of enjoying it properly.” And this has real consequences for the way our economy functions. Without a good idea of what we’re working for, all that’s left to us is the irrational, and often damaging, pursuit of wealth for its own sake.

On a personal and political level, the Skidelskys’ argument suggests that we’re underestimating the potential value of our free time. In the ancient world, they point out, “Athens and Rome had citizens who, though economically unproductive, were active to the highest degree—in politics, war, philosophy, and literature.” And, on an economic level, it suggests something equally intriguing: that a society that takes its leisure time more seriously will have fewer frivolous material wants—and, therefore, a more stable and useful economy.

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at joshua.rothman@gmail.com.
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