Daily Archives: July 18, 2009

Robots Could Replace Teachers

LiveScience | Jul 16, 2009

By Robin Lloyd

In the future, more and more of us will learn from social robots, especially kids learning pre-school skills and students of all ages studying a new language.

This is just one of the scenarios sketched in a review essay that looks at a “new science of learning,” which brings together recent findings from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, machine learning and education.

The essay, published in the July 17 issue of the journal Science, outlines new insights into how humans learn now and could learn in the future, based on various studies including some that document the amazing amount of brain development that happens in infants and later on in childhood.

The premise for the new thinking: We humans are born immature and naturally curious, and become creatures capable of highly complex cultural achievements — such as the ability to build schools and school systems that can teach us how to create computers that mimic our brains.

With a stronger understanding of how this learning happens, scientists are coming up with new principles for human learning, new educational theories and designs for learning environments that better match how we learn best, says one of the essay’s authors, psychologist Andrew Meltzoff of the University of Washington’s Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center.

And social robots have a potentially growing role in these future learning environments, he says. The mechanisms behind these sophisticated machines apparently complement some of the mechanisms behind human learning.

One such robot, which looks like the head of Albert Einstein, was revealed this week to show facial expressions and react to real human expressions. The researchers who built the strikingly real-looking yet body-less ‘bot plan to test it in schools.

Machine learning

In the first 5 years of life, our learning is “exhuberant” and “effortless,” Meltzoff says. We are born learning, he says, and adults are driven to teach infants and children. During those years and up to puberty, our brains exhibit “neural plasticity” — it’s easier to learn languages, including foreign languages. It’s almost magical how we learn a foreign language, what becomes our native tongue, in the first two or three years we’re alive, Meltzoff said.

Magic aside, our early learning is computational, Meltzoff and his colleagues write.

Children under three and even infants have been found to use statistical thinking, such as frequency distributions and probabilities and covariation, to learn the phonetics of their native tongue and to infer cause-effect relationships in the physical world.

Some of these findings have helped engineers build machines that can learn and develop social skills, such as BabyBot, a baby doll trained to detect human faces.

Meanwhile, our learning is also highly social, so social, in fact, that newborns as young as 42 minutes old have been found to match gestures shown to them, such as someone sticking out her tongue or opening his mouth, Meltzoff and a colleague reported more than a decade ago.

Imitation is a key component to our learning — it’s a faster and safer way to learn than just trying to figure something out on our own, the authors write.

Even as adults, we use imitation when we go to a new setting such as a dinner party or a foreign country, to try and fit in. Of course, for kids, the learning packed into every day can amount to traveling to a foreign country. In this case, they are “visiting” adult culture and learning how to act like the people in our culture,  becoming more like us.

If you roll all these human learning features into the field of robotics, there is a somewhat natural overlap — robots are well-suited to imitate us, learn from us, socialize with us and eventually teach us, the researchers say.

Robot teachers

Social robots are being used on an experimental basis already to teach various skills to preschool children, including the names of colors, new vocabulary words and simple songs.

In the future, robots will only be used to teach certain skills, such as acquiring a foreign or new language, possibly in playgroups with children or to individual adults. But robot teachers can be cost-effective compared to the expense of paying a human teacher, Meltzoff told LiveScience.

“If we can capture the magic of social interaction and pedagogy, what makes social interaction so effective as a vehicle for learning, we may be able to embody some of those tricks in machines, including computer agents, automatic tutors, and robots,” he said.

Still, children clearly learn best from other people and playgroups of peers, Meltzoff said, and he doesn’t see children in the future being taught entirely by robots.

Terrance Sejnowski of the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC) at the University of California at San Diego, a co-author of the new essay with Meltzoff, is working on using technology to merge the social with the instructional, and bringing it to bear on classrooms to create personalized, individualized teaching tailored to students and tracking their progress.

“By developing a very sophisticated computational model of a child’s mind, we can help improve that child’s performance,” Sejnowski said.

Overall, the hope, Meltzoff said, is to “figure out how to combine the passion and curiosity for learning that children display with formal schooling. There is no reason why curiosity and passion can’t be fanned at school where there are dedicated professionals, teachers, trying to help children learn.”

The essay is the first published article as part of a collaboration between the TDLC and the LIFE Center, both of which are funded under multimillion-dollar grants from the National Science Foundation. Meltzoff’s other co-authors on the essay are Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington and Javier Movellan of the TDLC.

Legal immunity set for swine flu vaccine makers

AP | Jul 18, 2009

By MIKE STOBBE

ATLANTA — The last time the government embarked on a major vaccine campaign against a new swine flu, thousands filed claims contending they suffered side effects from the shots. This time, the government has already taken steps to head that off.

Vaccine makers and federal officials will be immune from lawsuits that result from any new swine flu vaccine, under a document signed by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, government health officials said Friday.

Since the 1980s, the government has protected vaccine makers against lawsuits over the use of childhood vaccines. Instead, a federal court handles claims and decides who will be paid from a special fund.

The document signed by Sebelius last month grants immunity to those making a swine flu vaccine, under the provisions of a 2006 law for public health emergencies. It allows for a compensation fund, if needed.

The government takes such steps to encourage drug companies to make vaccines, and it’s worked. Federal officials have contracted with five manufacturers to make a swine flu vaccine. First identified in April, swine flu has so far caused about 263 deaths, according to numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.

The CDC said more than 40,000 Americans have had confirmed or probable cases, but those are people who sought health care. It’s likely that more than 1 million Americans have been sickened by the flu, many with mild cases.

The virus hits younger people harder that seasonal flu, but so far hasn’t been much more deadly than the strains seen every fall and winter. But health officials believe the virus could mutate to a more dangerous form, or at least contribute to a potentially heavier flu season than usual.

“We do expect there to be an increase in influenza this fall,” with a bump in cases perhaps beginning earlier than normal, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration approved the regular winter flu vaccine, a final step before shipments to clinics and other vaccination sites could begin.

The last time the government faced a new swine flu virus was in 1976. Cases of swine flu in soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., including one death, made health officials worried they might be facing a deadly pandemic like the one that killed millions around the world in 1918 and 1919.

Federal officials vaccinated 40 million Americans during a national campaign. A pandemic never materialized, but thousands who got the shots filed injury claims, saying they suffered a paralyzing condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome or other side effects.

“The government paid out quite a bit of money,” said Stephen Sugarman, a law professor who specializes in product liability at the University of California at Berkeley.

Vaccines aren’t as profitable as other drugs for manufacturers, and without protection against lawsuits “they’re saying, ‘Do we need this?'” Sugarman said.

The move to protect makers of a swine flu didn’t go over well with Paul Pennock, a prominent New York plaintiffs attorney on medical liability cases. The government will likely call on millions of Americans to get the vaccinations to prevent the disease from spreading, he noted.

“If you’re going to ask people to do this for the common good, then let’s make sure for the common good that these people will be taken care of if something goes wrong,” Pennock said.

Swine Flu Vaccine Makers Granted Legal Immunity

Emax Health | Jul 18, 2009

by Kathleen Blanchard RN

Swine flu manufacturers have now been granted legal immunity in case something goes wrong that causes side effects associated with the vaccine. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services signed a document making federal officials and vaccine makers immune from lawsuits related to any ill effects from the swine flu vaccine.

Fears about the effects of a novel swine flu vaccine have sparked much discussion. A swine flu outbreak among soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J in 1974 resulted in vaccinations that caused side effects including Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a condition that causes paralysis. The result was thousands of lawsuits.

Stephen Sugarman, a law professor who specializes in product liability at the University of California at Berkeley says, “The government paid out quite a bit of money”, following past swine flu vaccination side effects.

Most cases of swine flu have been mild. The WHO has stopped tracking cases. No one knows how many infections have really occurred, because not everyone seeks treatment.

Five pharmaceutical companies are manufacturing swine flu vaccine. The drugs are not as profitable as some, like cancer drugs, but immunity from legal action provides incentive to vaccine makers.

Paul Pennock, a New York plaintiffs attorney on medical liability cases spoke out about the immunity granted to swine flu vaccine makers, saying “If you’re going to ask people to do this for the common good, then let’s make sure for the common good that these people will be taken care of if something goes wrong.” The document granting protection from lawsuits to swine flu vaccine makers was signed by Sebelius last month.

Safety questions over swine flu vaccine persist

Vaccine will be rushed out before results of health checks are known

Independent | Jul 18, 2009

By Jeremy Laurance

The first doses of swine flu vaccine will be given to the public before full data on its safety and effectiveness become available, doctors confirmed yesterday.

The aim is to provide maximum protection against the pandemic in the shortest possible time.

But, unlike seasonal flu vaccine, the pandemic version will be spread over two doses in a higher quantity, and one brand is expected to contain a chemical additive to make it go further, potentially increasing the risk of side-effects.

Children, who are most vulnerable to swine flu and are likely to be among those first in line for the jab, may get the vaccine more than a month before trial results are received.

Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol and an expert on vaccination who will be testing the pandemic vaccine, said: “There will be a period where a risk judgement will have to be made. It will depend if there is an increase in the number of cases and deaths. Children are potent spreaders [of the virus] – they are now seen as the engine of the epidemic. We are dealing with information as it comes in – we could be dealing with a far worse epidemic, and we need to act sooner rather than later.”

Yesterday it emerged that a baby aged under six months died at the Royal Free Hospital, London, last week and a 39-year-old mother who was reported to have given birth died at Whipps Cross Hospital, east London, on Monday. The Department for Children, Schools and Families said 1,000 schools had been affected by swine flu and some could be forced to stay shut after the summer holiday if the number of cases escalates.

The pressure to protect the population from the growing pandemic, and the short time available for production and testing of the vaccine since the H1N1 virus was identified in May, mean the licensing process is to be accelerated.

A previous vaccine against swine flu turned out to be worse than the disease. An outbreak in the US in 1976 infected 200 soldiers at a military camp in New Jersey, of whom 12 were hospitalised and one died. But before it was over 40 million people had been vaccinated, 25 of whom died and 500 of whom developed Guillain-Barre syndrome, an inflammation of the nervous system which can cause paralysis and be fatal.

Doctors said yesterday that today’s vaccines are purer and cause fewer side-effects. Though the virus is mostly mild in its effects, it has claimed 29 lives in the UK and hospitalised 652 people in England. The NHS was ordered this week to plan for a worst-case scenario in which swine flu might cause 65,000 deaths over the coming winter, including several thousand deaths among children.

Discussions are still going on between the manufacturers, the European Medicines Evaluation Agency (EMEA), and the Department of Health over how much data will be required.

The Government has placed advance orders for up to 132 million doses of vaccine with two manufacturers, GlaxoSmithKline and Baxter. The manufacturers have tested and licensed in advance three “core” vaccines in preparation for a pandemic. These are vehicles into which the H1N1 pandemic strain of the virus is inserted.

A spokesman for the EMEA said the first samples of the fully functional pandemic vaccine were expected by the end of July and a decision on whether to approve them would be taken within five days. Trials involving 200 to 400 patients would be conducted, but the vaccine would be made available for use by the NHS before the results came in.

“What the manufacturers will be submitting will not have any clinical trial data. We expect the interim adult data from September and the first paediatric data from October onwards,” he said.

Last night a spokesperson from the Department of Health defended the EMEA, saying : “The UK has one of the most successful immunisation programmes in the world.

“Appropriate trials to assess safety and the immune responses have been carried out on vaccines very similar to the swine flu vaccine. The vaccines have been shown to have a good safety profile. More than 40,000 doses of the vaccines which the swine flu vaccines are based on have been given without any safety concerns.”

Who Will Investigate the U.N. – Vatican Connection?

pope_un_podium

Pope Benedict XVI gets ready to address the staff of the United Nations in the General Assembly Hall.  United Nations, New York  Date: 18 April 2008  UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

RightSide | Jul 14, 2009

by Cliff Kincaid

The Boston Globe won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for covering the Catholic Church’s decades-long cover-up of priests who sexually abused children. There is a Pulitzer Prize waiting for the reporter who can figure out why the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, considered by Catholics the personal representative of Jesus Christ, has emerged as an advocate of one of the most corrupt and non-Christian organizations on the face of the earth-the United Nations.

The U.N. has been rocked by scandals involving U.N. “peacekeepers” who sexually abuse women and children, the failure to protect populations in danger of genocide, and financial corruption. It is an anti-American institution founded by a Soviet spy that is currently headed by a Communist Catholic Priest, U.N. General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto, who recently gave a speech at a U.N. financial conference on the need to protect “Mother Earth.”

So when the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI, endorsed a “World Political Authority” in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, it was big news that could only be understood in the context of the growing power and influence of the U.N. The timing was also significant. The Papal statement was issued just before a meeting of the G-8 nations, including the U.S., Russia and China, and before the Pope’s meeting with President Barack Obama.

Self-deception

Conservatives who should know better have tried to play down the nature of the Pope’s dangerous proposal. In a July 10 Wall Street Journal article, American Roman Catholic Priest Robert A. Sirico of the conservative Acton Institute ignored the controversial “World Political Authority” passage and wrote that “People seeking a blueprint for the political restructuring of the world economy won’t find it here.”

In fact, the Pope stated that the goals of this World Political Authority should be “To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration…” This is a fairly detailed blueprint that sounds precisely like some of the functions of the U.N.

The Pope went on, “In the face of the unrelenting growth of global interdependence, there is a strongly felt need, even in the midst of a global recession, for a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.”

So the “reform” of the U.N. is designed to strengthen it. Hence, the U.N. is clearly destined, from the Vatican point of view, to become the World Political Authority.

pope_blessing_UN flag
Pope Benedict XVI blesses the UN flag

On the July 10 edition of “The World Over” program on global Catholic television network EWTN, Sirico said that he was confident that the Pope was “not calling for a central government bureaucracy.” But the host, Raymond Arroyo, was unclear how a World Political Authority was compatible with the Pope’s commitment in the same encyclical to “subsidiarity,” a form of local control. “They seem to be in conflict,” Arroyo said. In fact, as the Pope himself warned, the World Political Authority could become “tyrannical” in nature.

The Precedent

The exact quote from the Papal statement, a major teaching document of the Roman Catholic Church, was that “there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago.” Pope John XXIII declared in his April 11, 1963, encyclical, Pacem in Terris, “Today the universal common good presents us with problems which are world-wide in their dimensions; problems, therefore, which cannot be solved except by a public authority with power, organization and means co-extensive with these problems, and with a world-wide sphere of activity. Consequently the moral order itself demands the establishment of some such general form of public authority. But this general authority equipped with world-wide power and adequate means for achieving the universal common good cannot be imposed by force. It must be set up with the consent of all nations. If its work is to be effective, it must operate with fairness, absolute impartiality, and with dedication to the common good of all peoples.”

He added that “It is therefore our earnest wish that the United Nations Organization may be able progressively to adapt its structure and methods of operation to the magnitude and nobility of its tasks.”

If the Pope had endorsed just a “World Authority,” some Christians might have considered it a reference to the return of Christ to earth. But the use of the term “political” puts the Pope squarely on the side of those promoting a world government of some kind. And his references to the U.N. clear up any possible doubt as to his intention.

John Zmirak, the writer-in-residence at Thomas More College, a Catholic Institution in New Hampshire, recognizes the obvious danger. He writes that the World Political Authority could become a global “super-state” and persecute the Catholic Church. He explains, “I know that the pope suffered deeply, and personally, from the sick excesses of nationalism. Perhaps if I’d been drafted into the Hitler Youth, and seen my nation ruined and dishonored by a cancerous tribal cult like National Socialism, I might also daydream about a universal benevolent State. But there’s only one thing worse than a national bureaucratic tyranny-and that’s an international one. A reading of Orwell’s 1984 might have reminded Benedict that centralization rarely leads to liberty. And a world-state administered by the kind of people who currently get involved in supranational organizations like the EU and the UN would make its first order of business the liquidation of the Church-which wouldn’t even have a Liechtenstein where it could hide.”

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, is alarmed as well but blames the World Political Authority reference on the Vatican agency known as the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace. He writes that “It is one of the enduring mysteries of the Catholic Church why the Roman Curia places such faith in this fantasy of a ‘world public authority,’ given the Holy See’s experience in battling for life, religious freedom, and elementary decency at the United Nations. But that is how they think at Justice and Peace, where evidence, experience, and the canons of Christian realism sometimes seem of little account.”

But what is behind this “mystery,” as Weigel calls it?

Full Story

Europe prepares for swine flu pandemic

guardian.co.uk | Jul 17, 2009

Ian Traynor in Brussels

Germany today followed moves by France and Britain to order vaccine stockpiles worth billions of euros to treat swine flu when the full-scale pandemic hits hard in the autumn, as is widely expected.

But with the number of confirmed cases varying widely across Europe and no other country in the EU known to be even close to the rate of infection in Britain, vaccine plans are also vastly different and growing in controversy.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm said today that there were 15,774 confirmed cases of swine flu in the EU plus Norway, Switzerland, and Iceland, with two-thirds of those cases in Britain alone.

The UK is the only country in Europe with confirmed cases running to five figures. But why? “That’s the million-dollar question,” said a European Commission health official engaged in monitoring the crisis and European responses.

Experts and public health officials say it is too early to conclude whether there are ethnic or genetic factors at play, and point to travel habits as a possible cause of the British leadership of the European swine flu league table.

Apart from Spain, whose close links with Mexico and Latin America may explain its four fatal cases of swine flu, there have been no more confirmed deaths from the disease in continental Europe. But 29 have died in Britain.

The confirmed cases in Europe range from 10,649 in Britain to five in Lithuania, according to the ECDC. Britain’s nearest rival, Spain, has 1,222 confirmed cases.

But in Brussels and across the EU, authorities are braced for much bigger infection rates as the school year ends and the height of the mass tourist season looms. Germans are Europe’s biggest tourists, and Frankfurt is one of the busiest air hubs in Europe, while France, Italy and Greece are some of the main magnets for mass tourism.

“No one can tell how the virus will develop in the weeks ahead,” Klaus Vater, the German health ministry spokesman, told journalists today.

As of this week, 11 of the 27 countries in the EU have given up trying to prevent swine flu in favour of “mitigation”. “You can’t preempt the outcome. It can’t be contained. That’s a fact,” said the commission official. “They are not trying to contain the virus any more, just deal with it.”

Amid fears that the pandemic will overwhelm public health, education, and economic infrastructures, a race between nations has started to secure the vaccines. It has the potential to turn nasty.

Up to 70% of the world’s stocks of swine flu vaccine will be manufactured in Europe. The German order is for 50m doses, enough to treat around a quarter of the population. That is in line with the World Health Organisation’s calls for moderation in stockpiling vaccines since there are not enough doses to go around.

Margaret Chan, the WHO director general, warned this week that poor countries would suffer as wealthier nations bought up the available treatments. But Britain has ordered 132m vaccine doses, enough for the entire population to be treated twice. This week France and Portugal announced similar procurement plans in the face of the WHO recommendations.

The European commission and other EU states are also keen to try to pool resources to help EU countries whose preparations have been inadequate. Britain, which sees itself as very well prepared, is resisting such efforts.

FDA investigating link between asthma drug and heart attack, stroke risk

The FDA said that “interim data” provided by Genentech from that trial “suggests a disproportionate increase in ischemic heart disease, arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy, cardiac failure, pulmonary hypertension, cerebrovascular disorders, and embolic, thrombotic and thrombophlebitic events” among users of Xolair.

Booster Shots blog | Jul 16, 2009

by Melissa Healy

An ongoing clinical trial of the asthma drug Xolair suggests that patients taking the medication may have an increased risk of blood clots, heart failure, stroke, cardiac arrhythmias and heart enlargement when compared to patients not treated with the asthma drug, the Food and Drug Administration said Thursday. The agency announced it was assessing the significance of the preliminary findings to determine if further regulatory actions are necessary to protect patients.

Omalizumab, marketed as Xolair, is approved as a treatment for adults and children older than 12 who suffer from moderate to severe asthma complicated by seasonal allergies. The concern over possible side effects has arisen out of a trial comparing 5,000 Xolair users and 2,500 asthmatics not taking Xolair over a five-year period. Xolair was approved by the FDA in 2003, and last year, brought its maker, Genentech, $517 million in revenues.

The FDA said that “interim data” provided by Genentech from that trial “suggests a disproportionate increase in ischemic heart disease, arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy, cardiac failure, pulmonary hypertension, cerebrovascular disorders, and embolic, thrombotic and thrombophlebitic events” among users of Xolair. The agency’s announcement emphasized that no causal link between the drug and the adverse events has been established, and advised patients prescribed the drug not to discontinue its use at this time.

The FDA’s announcement is termed an “early communication.”

Unless the FDA calls a halt to the safety trial, it is expected to continue, with final results expected in 2012. The FDA in 2007 required Xolair’s maker to include a “black box warning” — the agency’s highest level of consumer alert — warning patients that Xolair may cause potentially fatal anaphylactic reactions.