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Watch this inflatable robot slither around Harvard using artificial snakeskin

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We’ve covered some cool crawling snake robots before here at Digital Trends, but most of these differ from real-life serpents in one crucial way: They don’t have scaly skin. While that might sound like a matter of aesthetics more than practicality, in fact, a snake’s skin plays a crucial role in helping them crawl about; enabling them to grip onto surfaces to gain the necessary friction to move forward. That is something that researchers at Harvard University are aiming to set straight and they are turning to the ancient Japanese paper cutting art of kirigami to help them.

The resulting laser-cut material is a low-cost textured skin, designed to help robots better maneuver on rough surfaces. “Although bio-inspired soft machines made of highly deformable materials are enabling a variety of innovative applications, their locomotion typically requires several actuators that are independently activated,” Katia Bertoldi, professor of Applied Mechanics at Harvard, told Digital Trends. “In this work, we harness kirigami principles to significantly enhance their ability to crawl. We [designed] highly stretchable kirigami surfaces comprising periodic arrays of cuts and exploit mechanical instabilities to induce a transformation from flat sheets to 3D-textured surfaces akin to the scaled snakeskin.”

By wrapping their artificial scaly skin around simple tube-like robots containing air-powered actuators, the researchers found that there was a dramatic change in their frictional properties, giving the robot-enhanced crawling capabilities. Inflating the actuator caused the snake robot to move forward by popping up the scales so that they gripped the ground. Deflating the actuator flattened the scales, which anchored the robot so that it didn’t slide backward.

By carrying out a continuous inflation and deflation, the snake robot was able to slither forward like … well, a snake. Interestingly, the team discovered that switching between different shapes of the scales — such as triangular, circular, trapezoidal or linear — changed the speed and the efficiency of the crawling action. “We believe that our kirigami-based strategy opens avenues for the design of a new class of soft crawlers that can travel across complex environments for search and rescue, exploration and inspection operations, environmental monitoring and medical procedures,” Bertoldi continued.

She said that there are no current plans for commercialization of the technology, although the team does plan to continue developing it.

Future steps will involve applying the principles to different types of soft actuators, such as those based on dielectric elastomers and shape memory alloys, as well as using kirigami skins to explore and enhance other types of motions.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Science Robotics.

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Yes, you're allowed to not love 'Black Panther'

By now you’ve almost certainly heard the hype around “Black Panther.” I’ll add to it: It’s worth seeing. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s an important one. The Afrofuturism is cool, and the fictional African state of Wakanda is adeptly realised.

But it’s also got a glacial first act and few standout characters (Letitia Wright as Black Panther’s sister Shuri is most definitely the MVP). But hey, whatever. Subjectivity and all that. It’s good, go see it, but keep this in mind: “Black Panther” is the least interesting thing about “Black Panther.” It’s a social phenomenon first and a film second.

Growing up a person of colour, I’d be lying if I said I cared or even noticed the colour of people on my TV as a young ‘un. But representation has proven to mean the world to many. Did you know the Jennifer Lawrence-led “Hunger Games” franchise led to an uptick in young women taking up archery?

Sick!

One of my friends almost fell asleep in the first act — a fact he relayed in shamed, hushed tones.

So “Black Panther” being the first film in Marvel’s storied Cinematic Universe to be fronted by a black character is a big deal. Then factor in an almost entirely black cast led by a black director and the deal gets even bigger. What about an African state for once being portrayed as a beacon of technology and wonder?

This deal is basically as good as it gets for Africans around the world who may feel underrepresented or misrepresented in film and TV. There’s a reason this video of black school kids in Atlanta losing their mind after being told they’re seeing the movie made many a netizen’s day.

Plus, with a worldwide first-weekend box office of over £350 million, “Black Panther” has shown Hollywood that, duh, movies led by black actors and actresses can draw huge audiences and make money. So yes, “Black Panther,” the world is rooting for you.

What really interests me, though, are the reactions of people who have actually seen the movie. Specifically, the palpable awkwardness that comes from not being all that impressed by it. Clearly, many loved “Black Panther,” including CNET critic Rich Trenholm, who called it “a triumphantly fresh vision for Marvel superheroics.” My co-worker Eric Franklin has seen the film four times already.

I wasn’t unimpressed, just less impressed. I thought Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger was a thoughtfully created villain, but not the Joker-level instant icon some have claimed him to be.

The dialogue, especially toward the end, sometimes felt clumsy. And again, man, that first act. It relies too much on audiences being wowed by the movie’s aesthetic, but doesn’t do enough to make you care about its characters.

Click for more Boom With a View.

I watched the movie in a group of 10, and at least half were super into it.

But three of us (including me) found it to just be a good superhero movie, nothing more. Somehow, this is controversial. One of my friends almost fell asleep in the first act — a fact he relayed in shamed, hushed tones.

Over the weekend, I talked to a friend who had been harbouring a secret indifference to the movie, but felt that publicly criticising it would somehow be inappropriate. On Monday, I talked to another journalist about it. “I’ve deleted so many tweets about that movie,” he said. No one wants to be the guy who’s critical of “Black Panther.”

The point is not that some people were underwhelmed by “Black Panther.” It’s that to some, it’s morally questionable to be underwhelmed by “Black Panther.” There are a lot of ridiculous, out-there stories surrounding the public reaction to “Black Panther.” There were tweets in which white people asked when it was appropriate for them to see the movie. And, sadly, there was the expected trolling, with fake reports of white people being assaulted in cinemas by black moviegoers.

Somehow, it seems people feel criticising the CGI or acting in “Black Panther” makes them no better than internet trolls faking assault stories just to spoil the party. But (and it feels crazy to have to say this) it’s OK to point out faults in a movie. “Black Panther” may be about more than just “Black Panther,” but criticizing the movie doesn’t mean you’re criticizing the movement. Just don’t be a jerk about it.

Tech Culture: From film and television to social media and games, here’s your place for the lighter side of tech.

Crowd Control: A crowdsourced science fiction novel written by CNET readers.

Star Wars robots like R2-D2, C3PO could help you in real life

BB-8 poses with its best side front.

Lucasfilm

If you find yourself in dicey situations like those faced by Poe Dameron and Han Solo with your trusty robot companion at your side, you might find a series of high-pitched beeps and tones like R2-D2‘s helpful. That’s the conclusion of Robin Murphy, Texas A&M University professor of computer science and engineering. Murphy considered whether the beloved robots R2-D2 and BB-8 from the Star Wars universe would be feasible in real life and found the Hollywood mechs actually have some practical features beyond just advancing an often convoluted narrative, especially when it comes to communication.

She published her findings Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics. “The beeps and whistles project mental state, e.g., disagreement with whatever C3PO is nattering about, disapproval of a main character’s dubious decision, and frustration at being thwarted in its job of helping the protagonist save the world,” Murphy explains. “In real life, (roboticist) Robin Read has found that the types of beeps and whistles that facilitate the rebel-droid interaction can be effectively used by real robots in engaging children and adults.”

But when it comes to getting around, the design of BB-8 turns out to be less realistic, especially for navigating the sands of Jakku as seen in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” “Anyone who has driven a car on a beach knows how quickly wheels can become buried in the sand and spin in place,” Murphy writes, going on to cite the work of other scientists like Georgia Tech’s Dan Goldman, who performed experiments with the Sphero BB-8 SB© toy on sand to see how it did.

You can see one such experiment in the video below. While Murphy acknowledges a SB© toy is different from an actual robot, it still demonstrates how BB-8 was clearly conceived more for a particular storyline than an actual setting. Still, Murphy says Star Wars droids have had a very real influence on real-world robotics, pointing out that NASA’s personal satellite assistant was inspired in part by Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber training droid and Robonaut 2 aboard the International Space Station bears a certain resemblance to C3PO.

Murphy fails to chime in on the potential influence of some of the more effective battle droids, like the freaky Droidekas from “The Phantom Menace.” No worries, though. I think Elon Musk may have some thoughts on the risks of combining those type of droids with artificial intelligence that we can all heed instead.

Crowd Control: A crowdsourced science fiction novel written by CNET readers.

Solving for XX: The tech industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about “women in tech.”

Everything you need to know about Call the Midwife season 7

Contains spoilers for Call the Midwife series six and seven. Fans of Call The Midwife will be pleased that the ladies of Nonnatus House are back for a seventh season.

Call the Midwife series 7: What’s going to happen?

Series six ended with some real cliff-hangers, so expect to see storylines carrying on where they left on in season seven.

After some turbulent times, Nurse Trixie Franklin (Helen George) found love with dentist Christopher, much to the delight of viewers. Can their relationship weather the challenges it faces in series seven?

Nurse Barbara Gilbert (Charlotte Ritchie) and her reverend fiance Tom Hereward tied the knot, ending series six on a sweet note. Series seven will follow their journey as newlyweds – will they get their happily ever after?

Elsewhere in the new series, New midwife Nurse Lucille Anderston is finding her feet at Nonnatus House, and Sister Monica Joan has concerns about her health. The series features hard-hitting storylines including women giving birth with very ill-health, difficult family circumstances and lack of support and income. Call the Midwife series 7: Who’s going to be in it?

Key cast like Helen George, Linda Bassett, Jennifer Kirby, Jenny Agutter and Charlotte Ritchie all return for series seven – although there are some comings and goings.

Nurse Barbara (Ritchie) doesn’t make an appearance until half way through and Nurse Trixie (George) has to leave due to unfortunate circumstances. New to the show for series seven is Nurse Lucille Anderson, played by Leonie Elliott.

Nurse Anderson is fresh out of midwifery school in Taunton, and before that travelled from the West Indies to pursue a career in delivering babies. Season seven has welcomed guest stars to Poplar – including Sophie Austin, who played the role of Marjory Chivvers, a young mother who suffered a stroke shortly after giving birth in episode two.

Absent from the series are Bryony Hannah, Emerald Fennell and Kate Lamb from the cast – all three actors decided to quit the midwifery drama.

MORE: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT GLOW SEASON 2

Fennell and Lamb played nurses Patsy Mount and Delia Busby – whose relationship has been a key storyline for the show – while Hannah has starred as nun Cynthia Miller since series one in 2012. According to Radio Times, a spokesperson for the show said:

‘As a large ensemble family, comings and goings are part of life in Call the Midwife and we wish Emerald, Kate and Bryony all the luck for their next projects.’

The reason Helen George is missing from a few episodes of the series is that she was pregnant during filming and had to bow out when her bump got too big to conceal.

Trixie’s temporary exit storyline is related to her alcohol addiction and she leaves Nonnatus House to recieve help for her problem. MORE: THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF ON CHANNEL 4: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW Call the Midwife series 7: When did it start?

Series seven started at 8pm on Sunday 21st January on BBC One.

(Images: BBC)

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Uber Express Pool is coming to town, move over buses

Express Pool, Uber’s new low-cost carpool service, has passengers walk to meet their drivers in order to make the route most efficient.

Uber

Uber says its wants to be a ride-hailing service that works for everybody. And, as of Wednesday, it’s officially adding a new service to its roster that’ll cater to people who don’t want to spend a lot of money: a low-cost carpool service called Express Pool. Typically, when you take an Uber, the driver comes to you.

With Express Pool, which is launching in six new cities, you walk to meet the driver at a more convenient location. In places like San Francisco and Washington DC, where one-way streets can often send cars off course, Uber says a walk down the block could save riders and drivers time and hassle. While this may sound a lot like a bus, there are differences.

Only three people can ride, for now. You’ll actually be in a car, driven by an Uber driver. And routes for Express Pool aren’t completely set, they’re dependent on what riders are requesting in specific areas.

“When you request, we say hang tight… while we figure out who your co-riders are,” said Ethan Stock, director of shared rides at Uber.

Then, “we’re asking you to walk about a block and a half from your house to a street corner.” Uber initially launched as a high-end black car service in San Francisco in 2009, but over the years it’s adapted to the on-demand world. The company now has an array of services, including UberSUV for big groups and the popular UberX, which pairs riders with drivers using their own cars.

Uber is now in 75 countries and has given more than 5 billion rides. The company hopes Express Pool will help it gain even more customers. The idea is to win over new customers with a cheaper fare and keep existing customers with a more efficient system.

“The mission is to make it possible for everyone to experience the magic of Uber everyday,” Stock said. “And make it affordable to new riders.” Uber already has a low-cost service called Pool, which it launched in August 2014. Pool is now in 36 cities worldwide and has given 1 billion rides.

It’s basically a carpool service that lets strangers catch a ride together along a similar route. Express Pool is pretty much the same, Uber says, but is more efficient because riders walk to a common route, rather than having a driver circle around. Lyft also has a similar service called Shuttle, which it rolled out in San Francisco and Chicago last year.

It differs a little bit in that, like a bus, drivers go along a fixed route every day during commute hours with the same pick-up and drop-off locations. Rides cost between £3 and £4, which can be up to 75 percent cheaper than a regular Lyft. Uber says Express Pool will be a lot cheaper too.

The company says Express Pool will be up to 50 percent cheaper than Pool and up to 75 percent cheaper than UberX. I did a test ride and found that a trip that would cost about £10 with UberX would cost about £6 with regular Pool, and about £4 with Express Pool. As far as timing, the 1.5-mile trip through downtown San Francisco would take about 17 minutes with UberX, 26 minutes with Pool and between 26 minutes and 36 minutes with Express Pool.

A bus would’ve cost £2.25, involved some walking, and took about 20 minutes. Or, I could’ve walked the whole way for free in about 30 minutes. Part of the reason why Express Pool takes a little longer is because after a rider hails a car, there’s a two- to three- minute wait period while the app locates other nearby riders going in the same direction.

Uber says this wait time ensures the app figures out the most efficient route. “We add a small amount of time, one to two minutes at the beginning of the ride,” Stock said. That’s to make it “far more compatible with you.”

The company isn’t getting rid of Pool for now, so if people are unable to walk or don’t want to walk, they can still hail something more affordable than UberX. Uber started piloting Express Pool in San Francisco in November and then quietly launched it there and in Boston in December. It’ll roll the service out to Washington DC, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Diego and Denver this week, and more cities in coming weeks.

CNET Magazine: Check out a sample of the stories in CNET’s newsstand edition.

Life, disrupted: In Europe, millions of refugees are still searching for a safe place to settle.

Tech should be part of the solution.

But is it?

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