This Sneaky Ingredient May Mess With Your Gut

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Skim the labels on nearly any packaged food in the supermarket and you’re bound to find a few ingredients that aren’t in your kitchen cabinets. But while you’re fretting about high-fructose this and artificial that, scientists have uncovered a potential new threat in your favorite energy bar: emulsifiers—ubiquitous food additives that are almost impossible to avoid.

Compared to the added sugars, salt and artificial colors or flavors pumped into many packaged foods, most people don’t give emulsifiers much thought. But emerging research is questioning whether we should be eating them so liberally.

Here’s what the latest science has to say about emulsifiers and if it’s time to say goodbye to spiking your morning coffee with oat milk.

What Exactly Are Emulsifiers?

There are plenty of good reasons why food and beverage manufacturers have a fondness for emulsifiers. These food additives can extend shelf-life, alter the taste of the final product, improve structure and, most importantly, produce a consistent blend of two or more ingredients such as oil and water to allow for a better texture. There’s a reason why your favorite almond milk doesn’t separate and instead stays creamy. Emulsifiers also reduce stickiness and help foods like ice cream maintain a smooth texture.

Examples of emulsifiers, of which there are many, include polysorbate, lecithin, carrageenan, and anything with the word “gum” in it — including gellan gum, locust bean gum and guar gum. Emulsifiers can be man-made or naturally occurring in plants, animals and aquatic sources.

Nowadays, they’re everywhere, showing up in most package foods. Salad dressings, baked goods, mayo, hot sauce, bread, protein powders, deli meats, candy, plant-based meat products, margarine, nut butters, chocolates, dairy-free milks, baked goods, ice cream and even green powders commonly contain them — who knew? This makes emulsifiers the most common food additive in the American food supply. Due to their ubiquity, these substances are consumed daily at various levels by almost everyone and by the mega-ton by the country as a whole.

Should You Worry About Eating Emulsifiers?

Though the Food and Drug Administration has deemed the various guises of emulsifiers in our foods as being Generally Recognized as Safe, concerns remain about their potential impact on our gut microbiome.

For a quick review, trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi make up the microbiome in your digestive tract, some of which are associated with disease while others are extremely important for your health, including improving digestive, immune system, heart and brain functioning. They may even have a role in helping regulate body weight. There are more bacterial cells in your body than human cells. And, concerningly, emulsifiers may deliver a gut punch.

In a randomized controlled-feeding study published in the journal Gastroenterology, healthy adults who were housed at a designated study site for 11 days consumed an additive-free diet or an identical diet supplemented with 15 grams of carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), an emulsifier also known as cellulose gum that is added to a wide range of packaged foods. CMC consumption changed the make-up of bacteria populating the colon of participants, reducing select beneficial species. Fecal samples from CMC-treated participants showed a large depletion of bacteria-produced metabolites that are thought to help maintain a healthy colon. Lastly, the researchers noticed that a small subset of subjects consuming CMC displayed bacteria encroaching into the normally sterile gut mucus layer, which they say has previously been observed to be a feature of inflammatory bowel diseases like colitis and colon cancer as well as type 2 diabetes.

This is far from the only research to link dietary emulsifiers with the potential development of gut issues. A study of 20 commonly used emulsifiers by food manufacturers published in the journal Microbiome found that many of them appeared to have a negative impact on intestinal microbiota composition and function in a way that could drive up inflammation. Worth noting is that lecithin, an emulsifier used in various foods including dark chocolate, was not found to be problematic for microbiome health. This study using a model of the human intestinal ecosystem found that the emulsifiers carboxymethylcellulose (say that three times fast) and polysorbate 80 may increase the inflammatory potential of the microbiome. This occurred via the emulsifier’s power to alter microbiota to increase levels of flagellin, a protein that can lead to intestinal inflammation.

Another emulsifier, sodium stearoyl lactylate, was shown to alter the microbiome population away from beneficial species and more towards potentially detrimental critters that result in what is known as gut dysbiosis and a resulting decrease in the production of short-chain fatty acids. Also known as postbiotics, short-chain fatty acids have a beneficial impact on human health. The common emulsifier carrageenan may favor a pro-inflammatory environment in our bodies by messing with the micro-critters in our guts.

This report in the journal Nature suggests acute exposure to the emulsifiers carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate 80 can harm the mucus layer of our digestive tract, changing the ways that our microbes can function and contributing to the development of intestinal inflammation. Sometimes this is known as a “leaky gut” where inflammatory molecules are allowed to enter the bloodstream because the ease with with molecules can enter and exit the intestines is compromised. By altering the barrier between the body and the food and pathogens that enter the gastrointestinal tract, it is possible that dietary emulsifiers might play a role in conditions such as coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis and Crohn’s disease.

What’s more, it’s been suggested that by harming the lining of your gut, emulsifiers interfere with the way neurons in the digestive tract trigger the release of appetite-regulating hormones. This could then make it harder to regulate your appetite and lead to overeating that could spiral into weight management problems and metabolic conditions. This might be one reason why people are prone to overeating ultra-processed foods, which almost universally contain emulsifiers. But this science is still in its infancy and we need more evidence before we can say the gum arabic and carrageenan in the food supply can make it harder to practice portion control.

For these reasons, some scientists believe these additives are correlated to the rise in inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and metabolic syndrome since the mid-twentieth century when emulsifier consumption via package food shot upwards.

Studies have shown that populations around the world that eat fewer packaged foods in favor of lesser processed whole foods tend to have a lower risk for several chronic diseases and overall live longer in good health. Maybe limiting the intake of emulsifiers in processed foods could be playing a role?

But before we should deem emulsifiers a health pariah, there are a few things you should keep in mind. To date, most of the research has been conducted on animals or isolated human intestinal cells and tissue — not many studies have been conducted on the gut flora of living, breathing humans. Some research uses levels far in excess that what we typically would consume day to day. The FDA still maintains that they have not uncovered any safety concerns with common emulsifiers at current consumption levels.

Also, it is not well known whether these effects are generalizable across all emulsifiers — perhaps some are more harmless than others. Since there’s a dizzying array of approved emulsifiers in the food supply, sussing this out will take a lot of research dollars. We need to better understand what threshold emulsifier exposure is problematic. If the only emulsifiers you consume each day is from a glass of oat milk and protein bar, is this problematic?

There could be an additive effect at play here, and pre-existing conditions may make a person more susceptible to the ill effects of emulsifiers. So if a person already has irritable bowel syndrome, high intakes of these additives may compound the problem, whereas a healthy person may get away with more exposure. Responses could be highly personalized, with people responding differently to different food additives.

Finally, it should be stressed that, though these additives may contribute to health problems, they likely aren’t the main culprit in processed foods — that spot is likely still reserved for added sugars, saturated fat and sodium.

Action Point

Still, it would be wise not to brush off this preliminary research. Instead, use it as a good motivator to trim some of the emulsifiers from your diet until we have a better grasp on their role in our long-term health. Your number one way to do so is to limit your intake of processed packaged foods, especially those that can be considered ultra-processed. And read food labels looking for options that are made without these food additives. Some products may contain three or more emulsifiers in their ingredient list, which should be a red flag.

You can also take a DIY approach to reduce your intake of emulsifiers. This means getting in the kitchen and preparing homemade energy bars, salad dressings, baked goods and dairy-free milks. It is not likely that a lot of home cooks are reaching for the gellan gum when making a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

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Wigan Warriors’ Harry Smith earns praise for cool under pressure | Hull FC ‘good enough to win’ | Rugby League News

Wigan head coach Matt Peet sang the praises of Harry Smith after his game-winning drop goal against Hull FC; Brett Hodgson felt the visitors showed they were good enough to beat the home side

Last Updated: 31/03/22 11:42pm

Harry Smith is mobbed by Zak Hardaker, Cade Cust and Jai Field after kicking Wigan's game-winning drop goal

Harry Smith is mobbed by Zak Hardaker, Cade Cust and Jai Field after kicking Wigan’s game-winning drop goal

Matt Peet praised the composure of Harry Smith after his drop goal two minutes from the end secured Wigan Warriors a 19-18 victory over Hull FC.

It was the second last-gasp winner in a month by Smith, who was deputising for suspended scrum-half Thomas Leuluai, after his late drop goal enabled his side to snatch a 29-28 victory over Toulouse Olympique.

This time, his one-pointer secured a win which lifted his side to the top of the Betfred Super League for at least until St Helens have played Leeds Rhinos on Friday and Warriors head coach Peet was proud of both the young half-back and his team-mates.

Highlights of the Betfred Super League match between Wigan Warriors and Hull FC.

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Highlights of the Betfred Super League match between Wigan Warriors and Hull FC.

Highlights of the Betfred Super League match between Wigan Warriors and Hull FC.

“It was outstanding from Harry,” said Peet. “It was not the prettiest, but he practises hard and he’s very good in those pressure moments.

“Credit must also go to Liam Farrell, who made a carry which got us into position for Harry to slot the drop goal

“I can’t stress how proud I am of the lads in the closing minutes. We’ve got players who have the fitness and drive to come through in big moments.”

Wigan had crowd favourite Bevan French back from a 10-month lay-off, but he was restricted to a second-half role on the wing as his full-back rival Jai Field again grabbed the limelight with the first and last tries of a thrilling encounter.

Matt Peet was pleased with his Wigan side defensively and believes Harry Smith's pressured drop-goal proves he belongs on the field.

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Matt Peet was pleased with his Wigan side defensively and believes Harry Smith’s pressured drop-goal proves he belongs on the field.

Matt Peet was pleased with his Wigan side defensively and believes Harry Smith’s pressured drop-goal proves he belongs on the field.

Peet revealed he has a plan to accommodate both French and Field in his starting line-up but was forced to use the former as a winger after losing Liam Marshall and Willie Isa to hamstring and shoulder injuries respectively at half-time.

“Jai Field scored an excellent try, he broke the game wide open,” Peet said. “He’s got that pace to do that.

“On top of that, I thought his defence was outstanding. He fielded some tough kicks and played really brave. You can see that teams are looking to be physical with him and I think he’s enjoying it.”

“It ended up not being a headache because of the injuries; I didn’t have a decision to make.

Harry Smith described his game-winner as the ugliest drop goal he’ll ever get.

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Harry Smith described his game-winner as the ugliest drop goal he’ll ever get.

Harry Smith described his game-winner as the ugliest drop goal he’ll ever get.

“Bevan’s worked so hard since he came back, it was just great to see him out there. He is one of those players you love to watch, like Jai.”

Peet will now have a full week to prepare for Wigan’s Challenge Cup quarter-final at Wakefield Trinity, which is followed by a Good Friday derby clash with St Helens.

Hull, who had skipper Luke Gale back from a five-match ban, scored two tries in seven minutes just before half-time to take the lead and were also in front when impressive half-back Joe Lovodua created a try for Chris Satae as they pushed the Warriors all the way.

“It was a tough contest,” Black and Whites head coach Brett Hodgson said. “We’re disappointed because we were in a position to win that game.

Hull FC head coach Brett Hodgson says his side weren’t quite good enough to get the win against Wigan in a 'high quality' game.

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Hull FC head coach Brett Hodgson says his side weren’t quite good enough to get the win against Wigan in a ‘high quality’ game.

Hull FC head coach Brett Hodgson says his side weren’t quite good enough to get the win against Wigan in a ‘high quality’ game.

“I’m unbelievably proud of the effort after a short turnaround. We only had the captain’s run to prepare for that game. It was a lot about getting up mentally and I thought we did that.

“We had more than enough chances to wrap it up when 18-12 up, but we probably weren’t clinical enough to shut it out. But I’m not too disheartened because we were good enough to win.

“A classy player on the opposition hurt us twice, which was the difference. We spoke about stopping him, but it’s harder to do it than talk about it.”

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Super League: Wigan Warriors 19-18 Hull FC – Late Harry Smith drop-goal gives hosts win

Harry Smith has scored two match-winning drop-goals for Wigan Warriors this season
Harry Smith has scored two match-winning drop-goals for Wigan Warriors this season
Wigan (6) 19
Tries: Field 2, Havard Goals: Hardaker 3 Drop-goal: Smith
Hull FC (12) 18
Tries: Swift, Houghton, Satae Goals: Gale 3

Harry Smith’s 78th-minute drop-goal gifted Wigan Warriors a narrow victory against Hull FC to send them top of the Super League table.

Jai Field sent the hosts ahead but Adam Swift and Danny Houghton went over to put the visitors in front at the break.

Ethan Havard hit back for Wigan early in the second half before Chris Satae sent Hull back in front soon after.

Field once again went over to level it at 18-18 but Smith successfully kicked from long range to seal it for Wigan.

The result moves Wigan above Catalans and St Helens to the top of the Super League table and ends Hull’s three-game winning run, with the visitors remaining in fifth.

After Field had put Wigan in front, two quickfire tries from Swift and Houghton put Hull in a commanding position just before the half-time hooter.

Houghton’s score came following a succession of excellent passes on the wing before he was played clean through to touch down and complete an impressive first-half turnaround.

Satae’s try came courtesy of some great work from Joe Lovodua who found him in space and put in a last-ditch offload for him to score Hull’s third.

But Field, who is Super League’s top try-scorer this season, scored his ninth try of the campaign after a clever dummy to run in almost from halfway.

Hull FC had been just minutes away from taking the game to golden point before Smith scored his second match-winning drop-goal of the season, repeating his heroics from their game against Toulouse.

Thursday’s fixture was also the first for Bevan French since May 2021 as the Wigan playmaker made his return from injury.

Wigan Warriors boss Matt Peet told BBC Radio Manchester:

“We were very committed. I think it showed a lot about the fitness and togetherness of the group. It showed more about our spirit and tenacity rather than anything else.

“We feel us and Hull are two pretty evenly-matched teams and that’s how it panned out.

“Jai Field is a class act. We’ve got a few players like that who can turn the game and I thought he was good on both sides of the balls. He took some dangerous kicks and aggressive contacts but he seems to be enjoying the tough side at the moment.”

Hull FC coach Brett Hodgson told BBC Radio Humberside:

“It was a tight contest. We’ll learn a lot out of today. We did a lot of defending early in the game, which then probably made us lack energy in the back end.

“The effort was outstanding with a short turnaround. They had 10 sets to our five and we just weren’t clinical enough.

“I’m disappointed, I think we all are, but the effort was outstanding and that’s the one thing we ask of the players and we will learn from this.”

Wigan: Field, Hardaker, Bateman, Bibby, Marshall, Cust, Smith, Singleton, Powell, Byrne, Isa, Farrell, Smithies.

Interchanges: French, Mago, Partington, Havard.

Hull FC: Connor, Swift, Vulikijapani, Griffin, McIntosh, Lovadua, Gale, Sao, Houghton, Satae, Savelio, Ma’u, Lane.

Interchanges: Brown, Fash, Johnstone, Wynne.

Referee: Robert Hicks.

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Yorkshire: Structural reforms approved at EGM allowing club to host England matches

Lord Patel
Lord Patel was appointed Yorkshire chair in November after Roger Hutton resigned

Yorkshire chair Lord Patel hailed an “overwhelming vote for positive change” as structural reforms at the club were approved on Thursday.

The club’s right to stage England games was suspended over its handling of the Azeem Rafiq racism scandal last year.

“We thank the members for their full and proper consideration,” said Patel.

“This support will help Yorkshire County Cricket Club to be an inclusive and welcoming place and gives us the clarity and certainty we need to keep building this great club.”

Patel, who was appointed in November, said in January that Yorkshire faced a “huge financial crisis” if the ban was not lifted and that regaining its internationals status was key to the club’s planned reforms.

Yorkshire’s right to host England matches was reinstated subject to key requirements being met by the end of March.

The club held an extraordinary general meeting at Headingley on the day of the deadline and members overwhelmingly passed three special resolutions.

Former chairman Robin Smith had said that Patel’s appointment was “invalid” but one of the three resolutions at Thursday’s EGM saw Patel confirmed as the club’s chair.

Members also voted in favour of changes to the composition of the board and the removal of legal liability from decisions made by board members since November.

An ECB spokesperson said that the vote “is an important step forward in bringing about real change and setting the club on course for a more inclusive future”.

However, they added that “it is important that the plans set out so far are now delivered. We will continue to monitor progress closely.

“Our regulatory investigation into the complaints brought by Azeem Rafiq, which is separate to this process, remains ongoing and we will update on this in due course.”

Headingley is now set to host England’s Test against New Zealand from 23 June and the final match of their one-day international against South Africa on 24 July.

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Facebook in 'bare-knuckle' fight with TikTok

The Washington Post alleges a consultancy was paid by Meta to promote stories of dangerous TikTok trends.

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The 11 Commandments of Hugging Robots

If we’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s how important it is not to take physical contact for granted. Unfortunately, physical contact with humans is something that robots find especially difficult and occasionally dangerous, such that we cannot (yet) safely use them as a proxy for nuanced physical contact with another person. It’s not just that robots are strong and humans are squishy (although both of those things are true), it’s that there are a lot of complex facets to human-on-human interaction that robots simply don’t understand.

In 2018, we wrote about research by Alexis E. Block and Katherine J. Kuchenbecker from the Haptic Intelligence Department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany, on teaching robots to give good hugs. Over the last several years, they’ve continued this research (along with co-authors Sammy Christen, Hasti Seifi, Otmar Hilliges, and Roger Gassert), and have just published a paper outlining introducing a new hugging robot along with 11 commandments that robots can follow to give hugs that humans will be able to appreciate and enjoy—without getting squished.

To grasp why the apparently simple act of hugging demands so much research effort, next time you hug another person pay careful attention to what you’re doing and what they’re doing, and you’ll begin to understand. Hugs are interactive, emotional, and complex, and giving a good hug (especially to someone who you don’t know well or have never hugged before) is challenging. It takes a lot of social experience and intuition, which is another way of saying that it’s a hard robotics problem, because social experience and intuition are things that robots tend not to be great at. Obviously, robotic embraces are never going to supplant human hugs, but the idea here is that sometimes getting physical human comfort is difficult or impossible, and in these cases, maybe robots could have something useful to offer.

In his paper—just accepted in the ACM Transactions on Human-Robot Interaction (THRI)—Block used a data-driven approach to develop the commandments for hugging robots, building off of research also presented at the 2021 Human-Robot Interaction Conference. Through a series of hardware iterations and user studies, the original PR2-based robotic hugging platform (HuggieBot) was been completely rebuilt and upgraded to HuggieBot 3.0, which is “the first fully autonomous human-sized hugging robot that recognizes and responds to the user’s intra-hug gestures.”

On left, a humanoid robot in a purple skirt and grey sweatshirt and grey mittens stands in an office. On right, the human robot hugging a woman.

HuggieBot 3.0 is built around two six-degree-of-freedom Kinova JACO arms mounted horizontally on a custom metal frame, on top of a v-shaped horizontal base that makes it easier for humans to get in nice and close. The arms are padded, and the end effectors have mittens on them. Placed over the frame are chest and back panels made of air-filled chambers that provide softness as well as pressure sensing, and there’s a heating pad on top of each air chamber to make sure that the robot is nice and warm.

A humanoid robot torso with exposed robotic arms, a monitor for a head with a smiling face on it, with inflated chambers and heating pads on the torso.

When HuggieBot detects a user in its personal space, it opens its arms and invites the user in for a hug. Based on the height and size of the user, the robot does its best to appropriately place its arms, even making sure that its wrist joints are oriented to keep the end effector contact as flat as possible. The robot, being a robot, will hug you until you’re all hugged out, but releasing your embrace or starting to back away will signal HuggieBot that you’re done and it’ll let you go, presumably with some reluctance. But if you want another hug, go for it, because no two hugs from the robot will ever be identical.

“Hugging HuggieBot 3.0 is (in my humble and unbiased opinion) really enjoyable,” author Alexis E. Block tells IEEE Spectrum. “We are not trying to fool anyone by saying that it feels like hugging a person, because it does not. You’re hugging a robot, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be enjoyable.”

Part of making hugs enjoyable for humans involves the use of intra-hug gestures, the development and test of which is one of the major contributions of the new paper. Intra-hug gestures are the things you do with your arms and hands mid-hug, and while you may not always be consciously aware that you’re doing them, they could include things like gentle rubbing, pats, or squeezes.

A graphic showing hold (staying still), rub (moving vertically), pat (tapping on back), and squeeze (tightening hold) motions that are analogous to these motions performed by a human

The hug “background” gesture is a hold, but (and you should absolutely try this at home), just doing an extended static hold-type hug will definitely make a hug feel kinda robotic. Human hugs involve extra gestures, and HuggieBot is now equipped for this. It’s able to classify the gestures that the human makes and respond with gestures of its own, although (to avoid being too robotic) those gestures aren’t always directly reciprocal, and sometimes the robot will initiate them independently. While the current version of HuggieBot can only rub, pat, or squeeze, future versions may also be able to perform other intra-hug gestures, like leaning, or even tickling, if you’re into that.

Here are all 11 the commandments that HuggieBot 3.0 follows:

  1. A hugging robot shall be soft.
  2. A hugging robot shall be warm.
  3. A hugging robot shall be sized similar to an adult human.
  4. When a hugging robot is the one initiating the interaction, it shall autonomously invite the user for a hug when it detects someone in its personal space. A hugging robot should wait for the user to begin walking toward it before closing its arms to ensure a consensual and synchronous hugging experience.
  5. A hugging robot shall autonomously adapt its embrace to the size and position of the user’s body, rather than hug in a constant manner
  6. A hugging robot shall reliably detect and react to a user’s desire to be released from a hug regardless of his or her arm positions.
  7. A good hugging robot shall perceive the user’s height and adapt its arm positions accordingly to comfortably fit around the user at appropriate body locations.
  8. It is advantageous for a hugging robot to accurately detect and classify gestures applied to its torso in real time, regardless of the user’s hand placement.
  9. Users like a robot that responds quickly to their intra-hug gestures.
  10. To avoid appearing too robotic and to help conceal inevitable errors in gesture perception, a hugging robot shall not attempt perfect reciprocation of intra-hug gestures. Rather, the robot should adopt a gesture response paradigm that blends user preferences with slight variety and spontaneity.
  11. To evoke user feelings that the robot is alive and caring, a hugging robot shall occasionally provide unprompted, proactive affective social touch to the user through intra-hug gestures.

The researchers tested out HuggieBot 3.0 with actual human volunteers who seemed perfectly okay being partially crushed by an experimental hugging robot. Some of them couldn’t seem to get enough, in fact:

The study participants were generally able to successfully detect and classify the majority of HuggieBot’s intra-hug gestures. People appreciated the gestures, too, commenting that they helped the robot feel more alive, more social, and more realistic. Squeezes were particularly popular, with participants commenting that it felt “closest to a real human hug” and gave them “a sense of security and comfort.” Interestingly, some people characterized the hugs that they received from the robot in very specific, anthropomorphic ways, often attributing emotions, mood swings, and attitudes to the robot depending on their perception of the hug. Hugs were described as “a comforting hug from a mother,” “a distant relative at a funeral,” “receiving a pity hug from someone who doesn’t want to,” and even “hugging a lover.” Overall, the majority of the study participants felt that the experience was pretty great, and 40 percent of them said that came to think of HuggieBot as their friend.

It’s important to note that this is not an ‘in-the-wild’ study of HuggieBot. It took place in a laboratory environment, and all of the participants specifically signed up to be part of a robot hugging study, for which they were compensated. “We look forward to conducting a thorough in-the-wild study to see how many everyday people would and would not be interested in hugging a robot,” say the researchers. Ideally, such a study would take place over weeks and months, to help determine how much of HuggieBot’s appeal is simply due to novelty—always a potential problem for new robots.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, as the researchers point out, HuggieBot does not in any way understand what hugs mean:

We acknowledge that the current version of our robot does not deliver on the full aspirational goal of a hugging robot. Rather, HuggieBot simulates a hug in a reasonably compelling way, and our data suggest that users enjoy the hug and can engage with the robot and relate to it as an autonomous being. However, in its current state, HuggieBot does not have an internal emotional model similar to humans, and thus it is not capable of engaging in the embodied emotional experience of a hug.

Fortunately, hugs are both an emotional thing and a physical thing, and even an emotionless robot can use physical contact to potentially have a tangible, measurable impact on the emotional states of humans—something that the researchers do in fact hope to measure in a quantitative way.

We certainly are not trying to replace human hugs but to provide a supplement when it might be difficult or impossible to receive a hug from another person. -Alexis Block

We’ll talk about their future work in just a minute, but first, IEEE Spectrum spoke with first author Alexis Block (who just received the The Max Planck Society’s Otto Hahn Medal for her work on HuggieBot) for more details on this new generation robot hugs:

We asked you in 2018 why teaching robots to hug is important. Three years on, what do you now think the importance of this research is?

A woman with long hair smiles while resting an arm on a sweatshirt-clad robot.
Alexis Block with her hugging robot

Alexis Block: I think the COVID-19 pandemic has made the importance of this research more salient than ever. While we could never have foreseen a situation like we are currently experiencing, in 2018 we were researching robot hugs so we could one day provide the emotional support and health benefits of human hugs to people wherever or whenever they needed it. At the time, my advisor Katherine Kuchenbecker and I were primarily thinking of friends and family separated by a physical distance, like how we were separated from our families (living in Germany and our families living in the United States). Before the pandemic, we hugged, high-fived, and otherwise socially contacted our friends and family without a second thought. Now, many of us have realized that social distancing and the resulting lack of physical contact can harm our overall well-being. Even after we return to “normal,” some members of our society may be medically more vulnerable and will not be able to join us. We believe HuggieBot could be used as a tool to supplement, not replace, human hugs for situations when it is difficult or uncomfortable to get the support you need or want from another person.

Can you share some qualitative feedback from study participants?

Block: In our validation study with HuggieBot 3.0, the average user hug duration was about 25 seconds long. For comparison, the average hug between humans is 2-3 seconds. To receive the positive benefits of deep pressure touch, researchers have found 20 seconds of constant hugging between romantic partners is necessary, and our users, on average, hugged our robot for even longer. We made it clear to our users that they were free to hug the robot for as long or as short a duration as they liked. Compare hugging a stranger or acquaintance (2-3 seconds) to hugging a partner, a friend, or a family member (20 seconds).

On average, based on the duration of how long our users felt comfortable hugging our robot, we think users treated HuggieBot 3.0 more like a partner, friend, or family member than a stranger or acquaintance. That was impressive because they had never met HuggieBot before! In their free-response questionnaires, several of our users mentioned that they thought the robot was their “friend” by the end of the experiment. We believe these results speak to the quality of the embrace users felt during the embrace; they truly felt like they were hugging a friend, which was especially meaningful because we conducted this study during the pandemic.

Many participants seemed very happy while hugging the robot! But did you have anyone react negatively?

Block: While most users had positive things to say about the robot and their experience during the study, two users still mentioned that while they enjoyed the interaction, they didn’t understand the purpose of a hugging robot because they felt that human hugs are “irreplaceable.” We certainly are not trying to replace human hugs but to provide a supplement when it might be difficult or impossible to receive a hug from another person.

Are there any ways in which robot hugs are potentially superior to human hugs?

Block: The main way robot hugs are potentially superior to human hugs is due to the lack of social pressure. When you’re hugging HuggieBot, you know you’re hugging a robot and not another person, and that’s part of its beauty. You don’t have to worry about being judged for needing to be held “too long” to “too tight.” Instead, the robot is there to support you and your needs. Many users commented that they feel more comfortable hugging the robot than other people because they don’t have to worry about the timing or judgment aspect involved with hugging another person.

You are likely the world’s foremost expert on robot hugs—what have you learned over the past several years that was most surprising to you?

Block: One surprising result was that when investigating how the robot should respond to users’ intra-hug gestures, we initially thought the robot should mimic the gestures it felt. But, interestingly, users expressed that they wanted a variety of gestures in response to theirs instead of one-to-one reciprocation. Furthermore, they explained that it felt superficial and mechanical when the robot parroted back their gestures. However, when the robot responded with a different gesture of a similar “emotional investment level,” they mentioned feeling like the robot “understands [them] and makes his own decision.”

We also were unsure how users would respond to proactive robotic intra-hug gestures, which is when the robot squeezes, pats, or rubs a user who is holding still within the hug. We worried, particularly with the squeeze, that the users would be alarmed by the unprompted motion and think that the robot was malfunctioning. In this instance, we were pleasantly surprised to find that users really enjoyed pro-active robotic intra-hug gestures, mentioning that they felt the robot was comforting them rather than responding to their inputs. Furthermore, they attributed emotions and feelings to the robot, saying they felt the robot cared about them when it chose to perform its own gesture.

Ultimately, if we can help even just a few people be a little happier by giving them a way to hug friends and family they thought they wouldn’t be able to, I think that would be an incredible outcome. -Alexis Block

How do you hope that your research will be applied in useful ways in the future?

Block: Back in 2016, when Katherine and I started this work as my master’s thesis at the University of Pennsylvania, we were inspired because our families lived far away, and we missed them. Especially given the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting isolation, I think many people now understand first-hand the significant effect social touch with friends and loved ones has on our mental health. I hope that in the future, this research can be used to help strengthen personal relationships separated by a physical distance. Ultimately, if we can help even just a few people be a little happier by giving them a way to hug friends and family they thought they wouldn’t be able to, I think that would be an incredible outcome.

Block is already testing an upgraded version of HuggieBot: HuggieBot 4.0 is the best hugging robot yet, featuring improved hug positioning and better pre-hug technique, among other upgrades. “With these improvements to HuggieBot, we finally felt we had a version of a hugging robot that was of high enough quality to compare to hugging another person,” says Block. This comparison will be physiological, measuring whether and to what extent hugging a robot may elicit physical responses that are similar to hugging a real human. The researchers plan to “induce stress upon voluntary participants” (!) and then provide either an active human hug, a passive human hug, an active robot hug, or a passive robot hug and use periodic saliva measurements to measure cortisol and oxytocin levels. Hopefully, the results will show that humans can derive real benefits from robot hugs, and that when human hugs are not an option, we can look for a soft, warm robotics embrace instead.

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Wolfsburg 2-0 Arsenal (agg: 3-1): London side knocked out at quarter-final stage

Jill Roord
Jill Roord (centre) played for Arsenal between 2019 and 2021

Arsenal were knocked out of the Women’s Champions League at the quarter-final stage after being beaten 3-1 on aggregate by Wolfsburg to end British interest in the competition.

The Londoners had salvaged a 1-1 draw late in the first leg at the Emirates last week, but were undone by goals in each half from the Frauen-Bundesliga leaders.

Former Gunner Jill Roord scored the opener after just eight minutes, hooking in from close range after the visitors failed to clear a corner.

The home side – playing at the men’s team’s Volkswagen Arena – thought they had netted again when Tabea Wassmuth stroked in but after a long check by VAR, it was ruled out for offside.

They did get a fortuitous second on 72 minutes when defender Leah Williamson inadvertently converted into her own net from Sveindis Jane Jonsdottir’s low cross.

Arsenal pushed to find a way back into the tie but Vivianne Miedema’s towering header struck the crossbar, before Williamson’s follow-up was brilliantly tipped onto the post by goalkeeper Almuth Schult.

Victory for two-time champions Wolfsburg sets up a tantalising semi-final against current holders Barcelona.

The Spanish champions progressed on Wednesday following an 8-3 aggregate win over rivals Real Madrid, a match played at the Nou Camp in front of a world record crowd of 91,553.

Arsenal outclassed

Back-to-back winners of the competition in 2012-12 and 2013-14, Wolfsburg highlighted why they are top of the table in Germany by ousting the last remaining English side.

Tommy Stroot’s team are locked in a tense title tussle, one point clear of Bayern Munich, while Arsenal themselves are fighting for the WSL crown, a point adrift of leaders Chelsea.

Though they still have an FA Cup semi-final to come next month against the Blues, their exploits in Europe came to an end for another campaign.

Arsenal won the trophy for the only time in 2007 and last reached the semi-finals nine years ago.

Kick-off in Germany was delayed by five minutes to clear confetti which had fallen on the pitch and ultimately it was Wolfsburg that were left celebrating in style.

They made the best possible start when Roord spun and converted inside the first 10 minutes and were much the better side in the opening period.

Jonsdottir fired over from the edge of the area and another cross from the left almost sailed in but was tipped over by Manuela Zinsberger.

The Arsenal goalkeeper was being kept busy and also made a sharp save to deny Svenja Huth’s low drive.

They did eventually double their advantage in the second period with a helping hand from Williamson, poking in an own goal in between the legs of her team-mate.

At the other end, Miedema was on the periphery of the contest, hooking a shot over from an acute angle, while the Netherlands international was unable to turn home after Schult spilled a cross.

She came close to pulling a goal back when she struck the crossbar and, had that gone in, the tie would have seen a grandstand finish, but Wolfsburg comfortably saw the game out.


VfL Wolfsburg Ladies

Formation 4-4-2

  • 1Schult
  • 2Wilms
  • 4Hendrich
  • 6Janssen
  • 13Rauch
  • 10Huth
  • 5OberdorfSubstituted forBlomqvistat 86′minutes
  • 8LattweinSubstituted forPoppat 45+3′minutes
  • 32JónsdóttirSubstituted forPajorat 79′minutes
  • 28Waßmuth
  • 14Roord


  • 9Blässe
  • 11Popp
  • 16Starke
  • 17Pajor
  • 18Smits
  • 21Blomqvist
  • 22van de Sanden
  • 30Weiß
  • 31Cordes
  • 33Knaak
  • 77Kiedrzynek

Arsenal Women

Formation 4-4-2

  • 1Zinsberger
  • 16MaritzSubstituted forWienroitherat 79′minutes
  • 6Williamson
  • 3Wubben-Moy
  • 7Catley
  • 15McCabeSubstituted forParrisat 71′minutes
  • 12MaanumSubstituted forNobbsat 71′minutes
  • 10Little
  • 77HeathSubstituted forFoordat 45′minutes
  • 25Blackstenius
  • 11Miedema


  • 5Beattie
  • 8Nobbs
  • 14Parris
  • 18Williams
  • 19Foord
  • 20Boye
  • 26Wienroither
  • 28Cull

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NFL changes playoff overtime rule after Kansas City Chiefs vs Buffalo Bills thriller

It comes after the dramatic ending to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills game in the playoffs last season, with the Chiefs winning 42-36 after winning the coin toss and scoring a touchdown with the first possession, therefore ending the game with the Bills never getting an opportunity to reply.
The ending of the game in the AFC Divisional Round shone a light on the rule, with some fans calling it the “worst rule in sports.”

And commissioner Roger Goodell said the NFL “always listen to the fans — that’s an important thing.”

“We’re always looking to improve and I think what really drove the decision was the database, ultimately, and looking at the facts and what’s happened,” Goodell said after the rule change on Tuesday.

“Where we saw that most having an influence, I think, was 12 games in the postseason that have been in overtime, seven of which were won on the first possession. When you see that, that’s the type of thing that I think our coaches and everyone looked at — this is an issue in the postseason we should deal with.”

29 of the 32 teams in the league voted in favor of the rule change, according to NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport.

The traditional sudden-death rules will still apply for all regular season games.

The NFL's overtime rule explained and why fans want to see it changed

Previously, the team that received the opening kickoff in overtime would win the game if they scored a touchdown on their first possession. With the approved rule change on Tuesday, both teams are guaranteed an opportunity to possess the ball at least once during the extra period, unless the team kicking off forces a safety on the receiving team’s initial possession.

According to the NFL Research, since 2010, there have been 12 overtime playoff games, with the team that won the coin toss winning in 10 of those 12 meetings. Seven of those 10 wins came on a sudden-death opening-drive touchdown.

The NFL’s overtime rules now are much more similar to college football’s, which many argued were fairer than the NFL’s previous rules.

In college football, each team — regardless of who wins the overtime coin toss — gets a chance to go on offense from the other’s 25 yard-line in the first overtime.

CNN’s Harry Enten found that whereas, previously in the NFL, teams hoped to win the coin toss and win the game at the first time of asking, in the collegiate game, the team that wins the toss usually decides to go on defense first because they will know if the other team scored a touchdown, a field goal or failed to score. Based on that, the team that goes second can choose to be more or less aggressive when they get on offense.
Chiefs and Bills players meet at midfield for the coin toss to determine who will get the ball to start the overtime period in their NFL Divisional Playoff game.

According to data from Oklahoma State’s Rick Wilson, a professor at the Spears School of Business, and through research of box scores from Sports Reference, there have been nearly 300 overtime games involving Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams from 2013-2021.

The team that received the ball second won 49.7% of the time since 2013, or right about 50% of the time.

Now, it seems, much like college football, the NFL’s overtime games will be more fair affairs.

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Ted Hankey: Former world BDO darts champion charged with sexual assault

Ted Hankey with the BDO World Championship trophy
Ted Hankey won the BDO World Championship in 2000 and 2009

Former world darts champion Ted Hankey has been charged with sexual assault.

The 54-year-old has been charged in relation to an incident in Cheshire last September.

“The Crown Prosecution Service has authorised Cheshire Constabulary to charge Edward Hankey with the sexual assault of a woman,” said a spokesman for Cheshire Police.

He has been released on bail and will appear at Warrington Magistrates’ Court next Wednesday.

Hankey, who is based in Stoke-on-Trent, won the BDO World Championship in 2000 and 2009 but has played in the tournament just once since 2012.

He earned an invitation to play on the PDC circuit in 2012 and 2013, but had a mild stroke in November 2012 and returned to the BDO in 2014.

Last December it was announced he was withdrawing from the inaugural World Seniors Darts Championship in February, which was won by Robert Thornton.

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Ted Hankey: Former BDO world darts champion charged with sexual assault | Darts News

“The CPS made the decision to charge the 54-year-old after reviewing a file of evidence from Cheshire Constabulary,” said a police spokesman.

Last Updated: 31/03/22 6:13pm

Hankey was BDO world champion in 2000 and 2009. Pic: James Marsh/BPI/Shutterstock

Hankey was BDO world champion in 2000 and 2009. Pic: James Marsh/BPI/Shutterstock

Former double world darts champion Ted Hankey has been charged with sexual assault.

Cheshire Police said the charge related to an alleged assault of a woman in the county in September 2021.

A police spokesman said: “The Crown Prosecution Service has authorised Cheshire Constabulary to charge Edward Hankey with the sexual assault of a woman.

“The CPS made the decision to charge the 54-year-old after reviewing a file of evidence from Cheshire Constabulary.”

Hankey, of Berry Hill, Stoke-on-Trent, has been released on bail and will appear at Warrington Magistrates’ Court on April 6.

The darts player, whose nickname is “The Count”, won the BDO championship in 2000 and 2009 but his career faded away in recent years.

His last appearance in the now-defunct tournament was 2016, and in December 2021 he announced he was withdrawing from the World Seniors Darts Championship, held in February.

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