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Hi, Robot: Japan’s android pets ease virus isolation

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Nami Hamaura says she feels less lonely working from home thanks to her singing companion Charlie, one of a new generation of cute and clever Japanese robots whose sales are booming in the pandemic.

Smart home assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa have found success worldwide, but tech firms in Japan are reporting huge demand for more humanlike alternatives, as people seek solace during coronavirus isolation.

“I felt my circle became very small,” said 23-year-old Hamaura, a recent graduate who has worked almost entirely remotely since April 2020.

With socialising limited, life in her first job at a Tokyo trading company was nothing like she had imagined.

So she adopted Charlie, a mug-sized robot with a round head, red nose and flashing bow-tie, who converses with its owner in song.

In this picture taken on February 4, 2021 shows communication robot Charlie being pictured in Nami Hamaura's apartment in Tokyo. Photo: AFP

In this picture taken on February 4, 2021 shows communication robot Charlie being pictured in Nami Hamaura’s apartment in Tokyo. Photo: AFP

Yamaha, which makes Charlie, describes it as “more chatty than a pet, but less work than a lover”.

“He is there for me to chat with as someone other than family, or friends on social networks, or a boss I needed to produce a report for,” Hamaura told AFP.

She is a pre-launch test customer for Charlie, which Yamaha plans to release later this year.

“Charlie, tell me something interesting,” she asks while typing at her dining table.

“Well, well… balloons burst when you spray lemon juice!” he replies, cheerfully tilting his head to each side.

In this picture taken on February 4, 2021 shows Nami Hamaura talking with communication robot Charlie in her apartment in Tokyo. Photo: AFP

In this picture taken on February 4, 2021 shows Nami Hamaura talking with communication robot Charlie in her apartment in Tokyo. Photo: AFP

‘Every object has a soul’

Sharp said sales of its small humanoid Robohon were up 30 percent in the three months to September 2020 compared with a year earlier.

“Not only families with children, but also seniors in their 60s and 70s” are snapping up Robohon, which talks, dances and is also a working phone, a Sharp spokesman told AFP.

But the adorable android — first released in 2016 and only available in Japan — does not come cheap, with regular models priced between $820 and $2,250.

Charlie and Robohon are part of a new wave of robot companions pioneered by firms such as Sony with its robot dog Aibo, on sale since 1999, and SoftBank’s friendly Pepper, which hit shelves in 2015.

“Many Japanese people accept the idea that every object has a soul,” said Shunsuke Aoki, CEO of robot firm Yukai Engineering.

“They want a robot to have a character, like a friend, family or a pet — not a mechanical function like a dishwasher.”

In this picture taken on December 20, 2020 shows diners interacting with robots Lovot in a cafe in Kawasaki. Photo: AFP

In this picture taken on December 20, 2020 shows diners interacting with robots Lovot in a cafe in Kawasaki. Photo: AFP

Yukai’s robots include Qoobo, a fluffy pillow with a mechanical tail that wiggles like a real pet.

They will soon release their latest home assistant “Bocco emo”, which looks like a miniature snowman and allows families to leave and send voice messages through their phones.

Kaori Takahashi, 32, bought a Yukai robot-building kit for her six-year-old son to keep him occupied during the pandemic.

Robots feel normal in everyday life because they are in so many Japanese children’s films and cartoons, she said.

“I grew up watching anime shows ‘The Astro Boy Essays’ and ‘Doraemon’, which both feature robots, and my children love them too.”

This picture taken on December 9, 2020 shows Akito Takahashi playing with a handmade robot kit at his apartment in Tokyo. Photo: AFP

This picture taken on December 9, 2020 shows Akito Takahashi playing with a handmade robot kit at his apartment in Tokyo. Photo: AFP

‘Heartwarming feeling’

Studies have shown that therapeutic robot pets designed in Japan, such as fluffy mechanical seals, can bring comfort to dementia patients.

But the makers of Lovot — a robot the size of a small toddler, with big round eyes and penguin-like wings that flutter up and down — think everyone can benefit from a bot that just wants to be loved.

It has more than 50 sensors and an internal heating system, making it warm to touch, which it reacts to with squeaks of joy.

In this picture taken on December 8, 2020 shows Shunsuke Aoki, CEO of Yukai Engineering hugging robotic cushion Qoobo n a studio in Tokyo. Photo: AFP

In this picture taken on December 8, 2020 shows Shunsuke Aoki, CEO of Yukai Engineering hugging robotic cushion Qoobo n a studio in Tokyo. Photo: AFP

Manufacturer Groove X said monthly sales shot up more than tenfold after the coronavirus hit Japan.

A single Lovot costs around $2,800, plus fees for maintenance and software — but those without deep pockets can visit the “Lovot Cafe” near Tokyo instead.

One customer there, 64-year-old Yoshiko Nakagawa, called out to one of the robots fondly by name, as if to a grandson.

During Japan’s virus state of emergency, the capital became “stark and empty”, she said.

“We need time to heal ourselves after this bleak period. If I had one of these babies at home, the heartwarming feeling would probably do the trick.”

This photo taken on October 3, 2016 shows robot-shaped smartphones called 'RoBoHoN', developed by Sharp, on display at a press preview of the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC) Japan in Chiba, in suburban Tokyo. Photo: AFP

This photo taken on October 3, 2016 shows robot-shaped smartphones called ‘RoBoHoN’, developed by Sharp, on display at a press preview of the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC) Japan in Chiba, in suburban Tokyo. Photo: AFP

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20210226/hi-robot-japan-s-android-pets-ease-virus-isolation/59490.html

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COVID-19 patients with sedentary habits more likely to die: study

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Among COVID-19 patients, a lack of exercise is linked to more severe symptoms and a higher risk of death, according to a study covering nearly 50,000 people who were infected with the virus.

People physically inactive for at least two years before the pandemic were more likely to be hospitalised, to require intensive care, and to die, researchers reported Tuesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

As a risk factor for serious COVID-19 disease, physical inactivity was surpassed only by advanced age and a history of organ transplant, the study found.

Indeed, compared to other modifiable risk factors such as smoking, obesity or hypertension, “physical inactivity was the strongest risk factor across all outcomes,” the authors concluded.

The pre-existing conditions most associated with severe COVID-19 infection are advanced age, being male, and having diabetes, obesity or cardiovascular disease.

But up to now, a sedentary lifestyle has not been included.

To see whether a lack of exercise increases the odds of severe infection, hospitalisation, admission into an intensive care unit (ICU), and death, the researchers compared these outcomes in 48,440 adults in the United States infected with COVID-19 between January and October 2020.

The average age of patients was 47, and three out of five were women. On average, their mass-body index was 31, just above the threshold for obesity.

Intensive care

Around half had no underlying illnesses, such as diabetes, chronic lung conditions, heart or kidney disease, or cancer. Nearly 20 percent had one, and more than 30 percent had two or more.

All of the patients had reported their level of regular physical activity at least three times between March 2018 and March 2020 at outpatient clinics.

Some 15 percent described themselves as inactive (0–10 minutes of physical activity per week), nearly 80 percent reported “some activity” (11–149 minutes/week), and seven percent were consistently active in keeping with national health guidelines (150+ minutes/week).

After allowing for differences due to race, age and underlying medical conditions, sedentary COVID-19 patients were more than twice as likely to be admitted to hospital as those who were most active.

They were also 73 percent more likely to require intensive care, and 2.5 times more likely to die due to the infection.

Compared to patients in the habit of doing occasional physical activity, couch potatoes were 20 percent more likely to be admitted to hospital, 10 percent more likely to require intensive care, and 32 percent more likely to die.

While the link is statistically strong, the study — which is observational, as opposed to a clinical trial — cannot be construed as direct evidence that a lack of exercise directly caused the difference in outcomes.

The findings also depend on self-reporting by patients, with a potential for bias.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20210414/covid19-patients-with-sedentary-habits-more-likely-to-die-study/60355.html

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U.S. FDA to scrutinize vaccine design behind COVID-19 shots linked to blood clots

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With two COVID-19 vaccines now under scrutiny for possible links to very rare cases of blood clots in the brain, U.S. government scientists are focusing on whether the specific technology behind the shots may be contributing to the risk.

In Europe, health regulators said last week there was a possible link between the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine and 169 cases of a rare brain blood clot known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), accompanied by a low blood platelet count, out of 34 million shots administered in the European Economic Area.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday recommended temporarily halting use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after reports of six cases of CVST in women under age 50 among some 7 million people who received the shot in the United States.

Both vaccines are based on a new technology using adenoviruses, which cause the common cold, that have been modified to essentially render them harmless. The viruses are employed as vectors to ferry instructions for human cells to make proteins found on the surface of the coronavirus, priming the immune system to make antibodies that fight off the actual virus.

Scientists are working to find the potential mechanism that would explain the blood clots. A leading hypothesis appears to be that the vaccines are triggering a rare immune response that could be related to these viral vectors, FDA officials said at a briefing on Tuesday.

The U.S. agency will analyze data from clinical trials of several vaccines using these viral vectors, including J&J’s Ebola vaccine, to look for clues.

None of the previous vaccines using viral vectors have been administered at close to the scale of the AstraZeneca and J&J COVID-19 shots, which may explain why a potential link to blood clots only materialized during these massive vaccination programs.

The technology has also been used in coronavirus vaccines developed in China and Russia.

Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, was reluctant to declare the blood clot issues a “class effect” shared by all adenovirus vector vaccines, but he sees marked similarity in the cases.

“It’s plainly obvious to us already that what we’re seeing with the Janssen (J&J) vaccine looks very similar to what was being seen with the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Marks said. “We can’t make some broad statement yet, but obviously, they are from the same general class of viral vectors.”

At the beginning

In Europe, scientists are exploring a number of hypotheses, including looking more broadly at the way the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself affects blood coagulation.

One team in the Netherlands plans to conduct lab studies that expose specific types of cells and tissues to the vaccines and monitor how they react. They will also explore whether any risks could be limited further by reducing the vaccine dose.

“There are many hypotheses, and some of them may play a role,” said Eric van Gorp, a virologist at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam. “We are at the beginning, and – as it goes in research – it may be that we can find the clue at once, or it may be that it goes step by step.”

Other scientists were struck by the parallel between the J&J and AstraZeneca shots.

Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said the similar blood clotting incidents associated with both “is clearly noteworthy for defining mechanism.” There has been no sign of such problems with the vaccines made by BioNTech SE with Pfizer Inc or Moderna Inc using a different technology.

“It would be interesting to know more about Sputnik V – also a similar adenovirus vaccine,” Altmann said. The Russian vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow uses two different human cold viruses – including the Ad26 virus in the J&J shot.

The issue might also affect the adenovirus vector vaccine from China’s CanSino Biological, experts said.

Examining whether there is some common link to adenoviruses is “a reasonable speculation, and it’s a line of research and investigation. But that doesn’t mean it’s proven,” said John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

Moore, who took part in an informal White House briefing with other scientists on Tuesday, said the FDA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working closely with health officials in Europe to determine whether the syndromes linked to the AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines are the same.

An important clue may lie in the fact that the reported events typically appear around 13 days after the shot, which is the period in which antibodies might be expected to appear.

“This is speculation, but the timing of something happening after about 13 days on average is suggestive of an immune response to a component to the vaccine,” Moore said.

Investigations of this sort could take years. But like the vaccines themselves that were produced in record time, Moore believes there will be so much effort put into the research that it will more likely be resolved within weeks.

“It’s so clearly important,” he said.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20210414/us-fda-to-scrutinize-vaccine-design-behind-covid19-shots-linked-to-blood-clots/60353.html

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Seven European countries to halt export finance for fossil fuels

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Seven European countries, including Germany, France and Britain, will commit on Wednesday to stop public export guarantees for fossil fuel projects, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Tuesday.

Coal, oil and gas infrastructure have traditionally made up a large share of the portfolios of many countries’ public export finance agencies, which support exports through state-backed financing guarantees and insurance against losses abroad.

Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden are the other four countries to back the initiative.

Britain, France and Sweden have already laid out plans to halt export guarantees for the fossil fuel sector while the other countries in the group have yet to decide how fast they will phase out their support.

“We are totally determined to stop all export guarantees financing fossil fuels while taking into account each country’s industrial specifics and the impact on jobs,” Le Maire said.

Speaking before a meeting on Wednesday where the pledge is to be formalised, Le Maire added that he hoped U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration would join the group, which together accounts for 40% of export finance among OECD countries, following an upcoming review of U.S. export finance.

Le Maire also said the seven countries would commit to supporting climate-friendly projects and transparency in their export finance policies.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20210414/seven-european-countries-to-halt-export-finance-for-fossil-fuels/60351.html

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