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Pizza delivery by robot cars has arrived with big questions

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People in Ann Arbor, Mich., are experiencing home food-delivery without a driver

Domino’s Pizza and Ford have paired up in a pilot project that will look at how humans interact with driverless food-delivery cars. Ann Arbor is home to thousands of students, an age group not likely to view this new technology with suspicion. But it could turn into a fascinating social experiment for the food industry.

Customers ordering through Domino’s will be able to track their delivery in real time by using a downloadable app on their smartphones. They receive a text message that gives them a four-digit code to use once the car arrives.

But it’s the final portion of the drive that could prove unpredictable for Domino’s. The driverless delivery vehicle could end up in the driveway, or near the curb. Customers may not want to go out to the car if it’s raining or snowing. Domino’s USA president Russell Weiner says these challenges are a major part of the experiment.

“We’re interested to learn what people think about this type of delivery,” he said in a recent statement. “The majority of our questions are about the last 50 feet of the delivery experience.”

No tipping attractive to students

Human behaviour can be difficult to predict at the best of times, especially when dealing with food. This will be the first time a food service or retail company has used driverless cars to interact with actual consumers.

The experience will certainly offer convenience for customers in a variety of ways. With the app, expectations will be managed, and quality of service — Domino’s key strategic focus — will be more consistent.

People can track their driverless pizza delivery with a smartphone app. Handout

That’s because delivery times will be streamlined, fewer pizzas will be damaged in handling mishaps and the customer won’t have to deal with tips — at least not for now. No tipping will reduce price points, making delivered pizzas more affordable. For cash-strapped students, that’s key.

For Domino’s, the business case for a driverless fleet is unquestionably strong. Lower insurance costs, lower fuel consumption, consistent delivery times, no thefts, controllable temperatures to keep food safe for customers so therefore less waste — the list goes on.

Domino’s delivers more than a billion pizzas annually, and has more than 100,000 drivers. Running a driverless fleet could save the company millions.

Embracing the concept of home food deliveries without having to hire drivers cannot come soon enough for the food service industry, which is looking for ways to increase revenue beyond their regular foot traffic.

Restaurant operators won’t need to deal with the headache of hiring the right people for delivery, and delivery is an important means of expanding the brand outside their facilities.

Home delivery can be dicey

Most of us who have ordered home-delivered food have had mixed experiences.

Some drivers make convicted felons look like choir boys, causing customers to be hesitant about the food. But home delivery is no walk in the park for the drivers, either.

Drivers in the U.S. have told of finding themselves in unbelievably awkward situations, including being tipped with weed, being asked to eat with the customer to offer company, showing up during domestic disputes and being greeted by a naked customer as the front door opens.

Domino’s and Ford are testing whether people will go to the driveway or curb to get their pizza. Handout

There’s an endless list of unpleasant scenarios that would discourage anyone from contemplating home food delivery as a full-time job or even part-time job.

A humanless home food delivery experience, on the other hand, also offers a unique perspective on the market currency of convenience.

For years, price has been king. In study after study, price has trumped any other feature consumers were looking for in food service.

Consumers crave convenience and privacy

Younger generations, however, have a different take on convenience. Price remains a significant factor for higher revenues of course, but the constant quest for more convenience on both sides of the food continuum is now reaching the point of obsession.

Getting rid of delivery personnel is now a realistic approach. With driverless home food delivery, one could potentially get food delivered without seeing a single human being — a frightening thought for some, a reassuring one for others.

In the future, consumers could binge on their favourite junk food several times a week without the embarrassment of seeing the same delivery person.

No matter how you look at it, Domino’s and Ford are onto something. After all, driverless technologies are consistent with what Domino’s is all about.

The company has been successful over the years with its mastery of home delivery. Joining forces with Ford could make the company even more efficient.

Nonetheless not all of us needs Domino’s to get our food fix. Divorcing the human aspect from food is simply impossible for many food service companies — thousands of them, in fact. And thank goodness for that.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, Professor in Food Distribution and Policy, Dalhousie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Want to save millions of migratory birds? Turn off your outdoor lights in spring and fall




Billions of migratory birds pass through the night sky each spring and fall. Birds use stars to orient their journey between summer breeding grounds and winter feeding grounds. The artificial lights produced by humans disrupt the migration of birds, often with fatal consequences.

The dangerous impact of artificial lights from towers and skyscrapers have long been known to scientists. Birds are drawn to the artificial lights that occupy their airspace, and their navigational compasses are short-circuited by the unusual presence of light. A well-lit high-rise building can kill hundreds of migratory birds in a single night, and it’s common to find thousands of lifeless birds at the base of skyscrapers after a busy period of migration.

What about ground-level artificial lights that shine up from our backyards and buildings? Might these artificial lights also have negative consequences for passing migrants? And how could we benefit birds if we turned out the lights?

Tracking birds through sound

In my research laboratory at the University of Windsor, we study the ecology and conservation of birds using bioacoustic tools such as sound recording and sound playback. Birds produce an extraordinary diversity of sounds that allow us to locate them and study their behaviour. By eavesdropping on bird vocalizations, we can learn about bird movements and social activities, even under cover of darkness.

Many species of nocturnal migrants produce vocalizations when they are in active flight. These short and simple calls are known as flight calls, and they are thought to play a role in communication between birds within migratory flocks. Many flight calls are species-specific and therefore we can identify which type of birds are passing overhead at night. By recording these calls, we can measure the biodiversity of migrants simply by pointing microphones at the night sky. Examples of flight calls from six species of migratory birds. Dan Mennill, Author provided389 KB (download)

Recently, we used bioacoustic recordings of flight calls to study the effects of artificial light on migratory birds. We focused on ground-level artificial lights, the kind of lights that many of us use to illuminate our porches or driveways, or to provide landscape lighting in our backyards.

Lights change bird behaviour

During fall migration, my student Matt Watson and I collected recordings of the sky at 16 pairs of sites near Lake Erie. Each pair of sites included a dark location with no artificial lights and a nearby location with a back porch light or street lamp. We recorded from sunset to sunrise and then tallied all of the flight calls in every recording. We used these data to ask the question: Does the presence of ground-level lighting change the behaviour of birds moving overhead?

Prof. Dan Mennill with a flight call microphone and a digital recorder for recording migratory birds. Dan Mennill, Author provided

We detected far more flight calls from migratory birds above sites with artificial lights than nearby dark sites. On average there were three times as many calls recorded over sites with ground-level artificial lights. Therefore, artificial light increases the number of flight calls produced by birds migrating overhead.

Furthermore, we detected more species of birds calling above sites with artificial lights. We found that the acoustic biodiversity was almost 50 per cent higher above sites with ground-level artificial lights.

We are still exploring the mechanism behind these patterns. One possibility is that more birds pass over sites with artificial lights. A second possibility is that birds fly at lower altitudes over sites with artificial lights. A third possibility is that ground-level lights disorient passing birds, leading them to call more often.

Observations of birds at the 9-11 memorial in New York City, Tribute In Light, reveals that ground-level lights can distract migratory birds. Our recordings suggest that a similar phenomenon occurs even with backyard lights. Whatever the mechanism, our results are surprising and alarming, because they teach us that even low-powered outdoor lights change the behaviour of migratory birds overhead.

Birds flying at night at the Tribute in Light at in New York City.

Lights and sounds create a deadly trap

A new study was recently published on the effects of ground-level artificial lights on nocturnal migrants. For 40 years, researchers at the Field Museum have collected dead birds from the base of well-lit buildings on Chicago’s waterfront. Over this time, they found more than 35,000 dead birds next to the windows of a single ground-level building.

Motivated in part by our bioacoustic studies of the effects of artificial light on migratory birds, the authors of the Chicago study asked an intriguing question: Are fatal window collisions related to the calling behaviour of birds?

The authors found a striking pattern. The bird species that were killed most often were the species well-known for their behaviour of producing calls during migration. The species that appeared rarely at the base of lit windows were species that are not known to produce flight calls.

For example, the most common birds collected after a fatal window collision were white-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and song sparrows. All of these species produce flight calls. In contrast, warbling vireos, blue-grey gnatcatchers and eastern phoebes were rarely found dead next to lit windows, even though these animals are common nocturnal migrants in the Chicago area. None of these species produce flight calls.

This suggests that the propensity of bird species to produce flight calls is connected to the risk of birds making fatal collisions with artificially lit windows.

This new finding raises the possibility that some bird species are especially susceptible to these deadly traps. A passing migrant that is distracted by artificial light may produce a flight call. That flight call may attract other passing migrants, bringing them closer to danger. In this way, the negative impacts of ground-level lights appear to be especially severe for birds that routinely produce flight calls.

Turning out the lights

A clear and growing scientific consensus teaches us that artificial lights have a negative impact on migratory birds. Amid the many other threats facing birds during the current biodiversity crisis, the impact of artificial lights can be mitigated by an easy change to our own behaviour: the flip of a light switch.

In spring and fall we should turn off our outdoor lights at night. With the lights out, we can take the opportunity to stand outside and listen to the night sky. We’ll hear the sounds of a billion animals moving across the continent with less distraction from our light pollution.

Dan Mennill, Professor and Associate Dean of Science, University of Windsor

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Forget smart cities (for a minute), we need to talk about smart farms




There’s a lot of talk about digital technology and smart cities, but what about smart farms? Many of us still have a romantic view of farmers surveying rolling hills and farm kids cuddling calves, but our food in Canada increasingly comes from industrial-scale factory farms and vast glass and steel forests of greenhouses.

While the social and environmental consequences of agri-food industrialization are fairly well understood, issues around digital technology are now just emerging. Yet, technology is radically transforming farms and farming. And while different in scale and scope, technology is playing a growing role in small and organic farming systems as well.

In reality then, your friendly local farmer will soon spend as much time managing their digital data as they will their dairy herd. The milking apron is being replaced by the milking app.

The Canadian government is investing heavily in climate-smart and precision agricultural technologies (ag-tech). These combine digital tools such as GPS and sensors with automated machines like smart tractors, drones and robots in an attempt to increase farm profits while reducing pesticide and fertilizer use. GPS mapping of crop yields and soil characteristics help to cut costs and increase profits, so while seeds still grow in soil, satellites are increasingly part of the story. There’s no doubt that ag-tech may be promising for governments, investors and corporations, but the benefits are far less clear for farm owners and workers.

There is little research on the potential social impacts of ag-tech specifically, so a group of researchers at the University of Guelph conducted a study to figure out some of the likely impacts of the technological revolution in agriculture.

While changes in agriculture show promise for increasing productivity and profits and reducing pesticides and pollution, the future of farming is not all rosy.

Corporate control of many agricultural inputs — seeds, feed, fertilizers, machinery — is well documented. Agricultural land is also increasing in cost and farms are getting bigger and bigger. It is likely that digital agriculture will exacerbate these trends. We’re especially interested in what farm work will look like as the digital revolution unfolds.

Factory farms are the norm in Canada. Shutterstock

Marginalized workers are set up to lose

While rising costs are always a concern for producers and consumers, we have two main concerns about how the digital revolution is changing farm work in particular.

First, who owns all of the data being produced in precision agriculture? Farm owners and workers produce data that has massive potential for commercial exploitation. However, just who gets to harvest the fruits of this digital data labour is unclear.

Should it flow to those who produce it? Should it be something that we own collectively? Unfortunately, if smart farms are anything like smart cities, then it looks like corporate control of data could tighten.

Second, it’s very likely that ag-tech will lead to an even more sharply divided labour force. So-called “high-skilled” managers trained in data management and analysis will oversee operations, while many ostensibly “lower-skilled” jobs are replaced. Remaining on-the-ground labourers will find themselves in working conditions that are increasingly automated, surveilled and constrained. For instance, in fruit and vegetable greenhouses inputs are increasingly being controlled remotely, but migrant workers still do much of the planting and harvesting by hand. And, they do so under conditions of severe physical and social immobility.

There is a wealth of research documenting the vulnerable position of migrant agricultural workers from coast to coast in Canada and elsewhere.

If we don’t direct it in a humane way, the digital revolution in agriculture is likely to heighten these vulnerabilities.

The agricultural system was built that way

Our food system is built on centuries of Indigenous land theft, dislocation and the suppression of Indigenous foodways while relying heavily on exploitable (Indigenous, migrant and racialized) labour. Across North America, farm workers have long been excluded from basic labour laws, legal status and the right to unionize.

And now, increased productivity often relies on increased exploitation – just ask anyone working in a FoxConn factory. As a result, our current food system is rife with exploitative practices, from production through to distribution, with racialized immigrants bearing the brunt.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that automation tends to negatively impact already marginalized workers.

The digital revolution in agriculture has a double edge. Smart farms bring promise, but automation in agricultural production and distribution will eliminate many jobs.

Our concern is that the suite of jobs that remain will only deepen economic inequities — with more privileged university graduates receiving the bulk of the well-paid work, while further stripping physical labourers of their power and dignity.

There is no magic pill, but our governments do have options. Policy and legislation can shift the path of ag-tech to better support vulnerable farm workers and populations. In doing so, the looming issue of land ownership and repatriation must be addressed in Canada, with Indigenous nations at the head of the table alongside marginalized workers and farmers. Supporting pathways to farming and permanent residency for migrant workers, as well as training for digital skill-building can help to close more immediate gaps.

We need to ready ourselves for how radical transformations in food production and distribution will impact land prices, property rights and working conditions. Our folksy view of farming is due for an update.

Sarah Rotz, Postdoctoral Fellow , Queen’s University, Ontario and Mervyn Horgan, Visiting Fellow, Department of Sociology, Yale University and Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Guelph

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Scientists are beefing over which one of our senses is most important




HIf there is one thing Twitter has taught us, it’s that the world loves a question that sounds stupid, but actually has a profound and interesting answer. For instance, what would happen if the world suddenly turned into blueberries, as answered by physics recently. Or what colour is that dress?

In a similar way, perception scientists have recently been fighting it out on Twitter to answer the seemingly trivial question of: “which is the best sense, and why?”. The debate has opened up some surprisingly deep questions – like what actually makes a sense more or less valuable? And, are some senses fundamentally more important in making us human?

The question was also put to a poll. While most people would probably assume the obvious winner is vision, “somatosensation” – which we normally refer to as touch but technically incorporates all sensations from our body – took the day. But does this vote hold up when you take a closer look at the scientific evidence?

Losing your body

We need somatosensation to move successfully – seemingly more so than vision. While a big claim, it is arguably backed up by the rare handful of cases where this sense is lost. “Deafferented” patients are individuals who have lost most (or all) touch sensation, as well as the ability to sense the position (proprioception) and movement (kinesthesia) of their limbs. This may occur because the body attacks its own somatosensory nerves in post-infection autoimmune reaction, though in most cases the cause is unclear.

While there is no direct dysfunction in the patient’s motor systems, most sufferers cannot complete even the most basic of movements. That’s because the brain must feel the body’s starting position to create the right motor plan, and needs sensory feedback to know if the plan was executed successfully.

Despite these barriers, one patient, dubbed “IW”, shocked medical experts by regaining the ability to walk. He achieved this feat by meticulously planning what muscles to contract, in what order before moving – then staring at his limbs to track his success. This strategy is highly cognitively demanding, and not at all the norm, with most patients bound to wheelchairs.

Many foodies might think that taste gets their vote for top sense. However, those who have tried eating after dental anaesthetic can attest to the risks and difficulties of eating without somatosensation – a challenge described by the deafferented patient “GL” in the scientific literature.

Another subcomponent of somasensation is the vestibular system, which is critical in keeping us upright. If you have ever been motion sick, you have a tiny insight into what happens when this critical system goes awry. In short, your eyes tell the brain you are moving, but your vestibular system says you are still – causing a conflict that can lead to vertigo, nausea and loss of balance.

Pain and temperature perception also get lumped in with somatosensation, failing to fit into any other category. Being born without sensitivity to pain is rare (around 45 documented cases) and highly dangerous. Some experts speculate the incidence may actually be largely underestimated, as sufferers don’t survive long enough to be documented. This is because pain tells you something is directly impinging on your body in a bad way, and you better react fast. Patients must self-check multiple times daily, to prevent infection from cuts they haven’t noticed.

Sebastian Kaulitzki/shutterstock

Touch forms a core part of our humanity. It is the first sense to develop in a fetus in utero, and some suggest the integration of sensations related to the body may form the basis of our fundamental self consciousness.

The touch of another can also reduce anxiety, influence our behaviour, shape brain development and reduce brain responses to pain in babies. We even have a dedicated set of nerves that preferentially process “social” and “emotional” touch.

Vision versus touch

On the other hand, looking from a neuroscience perspective, it is easy to see (no pun intended) why vision almost won the poll. The brain seems to have a vision focus. The primary brain area for processing visual stimuli, the visual cortex, takes up the largest area of any individual sense. Partly because of this vast processing resource, vision is the most acute sense we have for various kinds of discrimination.


The high reliability of vision means that if there is a conflict between what two senses say, vision will typically warp our final perception to be in line with the visual information. In the famous rubber hand illusion, stroking a realistic dummy hand in front of a person (and hiding their own hand) can make the person feel as if it is their own hand that is being stroked – with vision hijacking their sense of touch. Similar things happen when you conflict hearing with vision.

Vision also allows reading, writing and art. You can see the faces of your loved ones, or danger coming from far away. But maybe we only think vision is so crucial because it is at the very forefront of our daily experience. As Kevin Wright, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Oregon Health and Science University, who posted the best sense poll, states – people may simply perceive the loss of vision as being more life affecting because “we are more aware of our vision as opposed to our somatosensory function”.

And the rest…

So are the other senses really less important? Our sense of smell is incredibly ancient and complex. If order indicates anything, smell is a form of chemoreception which is thought to have been the first “sense” to evolve in our early multicellular ancestors. Smell is the only sense that bypasses our brain’s sensory relay system –- going straight to the cortex for processing.

Ancient but crucial. welcomia/Shutterstock

Smell works together with taste to stop you eating spoiled or poisonous foods. Smell is also strongly linked to autobiographical memory, therefore forming a core part of the processes that maintain our identity. And hearing is better than both touch and vision for detecting danger coming up behind you. And it is certainly better than vision in the dark. And no hearing, no music. Enough said.

At the end of the day, somatosensation gets my vote because it keeps me upright, moving and alive – more so than the others. Looking to the future, however, I am excited to see how sensory substitution technology might upend our assessments of what sense is more or less important. As science reveals, for instance, that with the right device you can learn to see with touch or sound.

Harriet Dempsey-Jones, Postdoctoral Researcher in Cognitive Neurosciences, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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