Globetrotting: news from around the world — August 2016

A Berkeley scientist has built a robot that can decide whether to inflict pain. Plus, a new US regulation will require companies to disclose a CEO-to-median-employee pay ratio.


Robots run amok?

In a quest to further the debate about artificial intelligence (AI), roboticist and artist Alexander Reben at the University of Berkeley in California has built a robot that can decide whether or not to inflict pain, reports the BBC. “The robot makes a decision that I, as a creator, cannot predict,” says Reben.

Reben’s invention goes against sci-fi author Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics, which forbids robots from harming humans. “The real concern about AI is that it gets out of control,” says Reben. “I am proving that [harmful robots] can exist now.”

Researchers at Google’s AI division, DeepMind, and Oxford University have already devised an AI “kill switch” that is meant to prevent any robot from learning how to override human input. But, asks Reben, “why would a robot not be able to undo its kill switch if it had got so smart?”


Curbing CEO pay

Small dollar signs equal a large dollar sign

A long-awaited US regulation meant to rein in galloping CEO pay could very well succeed, according to a study published in the Journal of Management Accounting Research.

The research, led by Khim Kelly of the University of Waterloo in Ontario and Jean Lin Seow of Singapore Management University, finds that current rules requiring companies to simply disclose CEO pay are insufficient.

The new Dodd-Frank rule, scheduled to be implemented next January, will require companies to disclose a CEO-to-median-employee pay ratio. And that could do the trick. “Whereas CEO-to-employee pay ratios in the largest US companies were about 20-to-one 50 years ago and about 80-to-one 25 years ago, estimates nowadays range from about 200-to-one to 300-to-one,” says Kelly.

“It stands to reason that confronting investors with ratios approaching these will make an impression.”


A calming influence

Companies with more women on the board are less likely to acquire other companies and, when they do, the deals are smaller, reports Quartz, referring to a study in the Strategic Management Journal.

In the study, the researchers analyzed thousands of deals from 1998 to 2010. They found that when the number of women increased from low to high, there was an 18% drop in acquisitiveness, a 12% reduction in deal size and a $97.2-million decrease in annual M&A spending.

According to the authors, it could be that having women on boards results in more thorough discussions about potential deals.


Morphine pain

Morphine, Oxycontin and other substances in the opium family kill pain — but they might also prolong it, according to findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in Science News. The paper showed that morphine treatment in rats that had suffered nerve injury actually doubled the duration of pain.

Of course, humans can exhibit more varied responses to opioids than rats do. But if they show similar reactions, “it suggests that the treatment is actually contributing to the problem,” notes Peter Grace, a co-author of the study.