Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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In the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average. Research has shown that, most of the time, people do see themselves as above average. But there’s a notable exception: when they’re conversing with a new acquaintance. In a study published in Psychological Science, psychology professor Margaret S. Clark and her colleagues uncovered a “liking gap”: people who met each other for the first time consistently thought they’d made a worse impression than they actually had. The reason, Clark suggests, is a self-protective wariness that keeps us from being disappointed—but can also be self-defeating, “prevent[ing] us from pursuing relationships with others who truly like us as much as we like them.” There is another factor, Clark adds: “We also think they are self-critical and are monitoring their own performance during these initial conversations, which means they miss signs that the other really does like them.”


One hallmark of children on the autism spectrum is difficulty making eye contact. But computer science professor Brian Scassellati and his research team have found a surprisingly helpful teaching tool: a social robot. The researchers worked with a dozen children, ages 6 to 12, and their families. They paired each child with a desktop-sized robot, and for 30 minutes every day, for one month, the robots provided interactive and educational games geared to the child’s abilities. In Science Robotics, the team reported “significant improvements in the social skills of children.”


Several years ago, Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, began developing a “robotic skin” for NASA’s use. She and her colleagues produced a soft elastic sheet, with sensors and actuators inside; wrapped around the legs of a toy stuffed horse, it can make the horse walk on command. But that’s the least of it. As described in Science Robotics, the reusable, reconfigurable skin can be used over and over again for any number of much more important applications in space—such as robots that could explore new terrain or manipulate tools.

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