Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Part the Waters
Renowned as the “Floating City,” Venice owes the foundation of its 118 canal-connected island neighborhoods to wooden stakes driven into sandy marshland by refugees fleeing barbarian invaders after the fall of Rome some 1,500 years ago. The Santa Maria della Salute church, for example, sits atop more than 1 million wooden piles, each measuring 4 meters. Unexposed to oxygen and scrubbed by the tides, the submerged timber developed a stone-like hardness over the centuries. But the city remains vulnerable to acqua alta (high water)—flooding from the combination of exceptional high tides, seasonal winds, and infrastructure subsidence. Long before tourists sloshed around St. Mark’s Square in November, engineers had advanced a number of proposals to protect Venice and its treasures from surging tides. The most ambitious is the Experimental Electromechanical Module project, known by its Italian acronym MOSE (Mosè is an Italian spelling of Moses), which involves building 79 mobile underwater floodgates that would separate the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic Sea when the tide exceeds 1 meter above normal. Decades after its conception following the last record flood, however, the $6.6 billion underwater barrier remains mired in delays and scandal. Construction, which began in 2003, now is forecast to be completed in 2022, and some steel parts already are rusting. Given the global rise in sea levels, some experts predict the system will be obsolete within a few decades—if it even gets finished. Meanwhile, Venetians deployed old-fashioned wooden boardwalks to convey tourists across inundated plazas and paths. – Mary Lord
Feats of Flight
Flies are buzzing annoyances. The sound they make comes from beating their wings 200 times per second as they loop through the air and around your head. Distracting as flies are, their airborne acrobatics and ability to land upside down on a ceiling can inspire amazement. Now a new study authored by Penn State mechanical engineers has figured out how they can do that. According to ScienceDaily, the team used high-speed videography to capture the insects flying and landing in a flight chamber. They found that flies typically execute four perfectly timed maneuvers to land upside down: they increase their speed, do a rapid body rotational maneuver (think cartwheel), perform a sweeping leg extension, and then land using a leg-assisted body swing once their feet are firmly planted on a ceiling. These motions, the team thinks, are set off by a series of complex visual and sensory cues as the insects approach their landing spot. The engineers want to understand the biomechanical and sensory processes the flies use to maneuver so adroitly in order to replicate them in robots. But Assistant Professor Bo Cheng, the principal investigator, says that may take some time to accomplish because robot technology cannot currently duplicate the speed and efficiency required to mimic a fly. Still, the study’s insights could prove useful to neuroscientists keen to understand how a fly’s tiny nervous system is capable of achieving such feats of dexterity. So the data might lead to new hypotheses about brain function. Cool. But flies are still annoying. – Thomas K. Grose
©Bo Cheng and Pan Liu, Pennsylvania State University
Glow with the Flow
Visitors to Pier 17, part of Manhattan’s South Street Seaport shopping and tourist mecca, now have a new attraction to enjoy—a floating light sculpture in the East River. This unique art installation is also a data-visualization beacon that uses colors to give the public real-time updates on the water quality near the pier, according to the Gothamist. Blue signals that the water is safe for recreational use, while pink means unhealthy levels of pollution. The objet d’art’s lights follow the water’s currents, and their brightness, frequency, and sharpness correlate to oxygen, turbidity, and pH levels. The sculpture, a giant plus sign called +POOL Light, was installed by Wade McGillis, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, with the help of a network of community groups. It uses a site-specific algorithm developed by Shawnee Traylor, a Ph.D. student in MIT’s joint program with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The algorithm is keyed to a rain gauge, since overflowing sewers release fecal bacteria into the city’s waterways. But would anyone really want to swim in the water at Pier 17? It’s generally cleaner than people would think, Traylor tells the Gothamist, because currents tend to flush pollutants out to sea. But thanks to +POOL Light, people can decide whether it’s safe to take the plunge. – T. G.
Facial recognition software, used increasingly in airport security and by law enforcement, has drawn fire for inaccuracies in recognizing people of color—particularly black women—and ethnic minorities. Now, research from the University of Colorado–Boulder says the software also has a hard time identifying the faces of transgender individuals. The researchers looked at 2,450 Instagram images and analyzed the software of the four largest providers: IBM, Amazon, Microsoft, and Clarifai. Trans men were incorrectly categorized as women 38 percent of the time, and the binary programming totally missed individuals who identify as neither male nor female. But when it came to cisgender women (persons born female who identify as women) and cisgender men, they were accurate 98.3 percent and 97.6 percent of the time, respectively. “These systems don’t know any other language but male or female,” explains Jed Brubaker, an assistant professor of information science and senior author of the study. Morgan Klaus Scheuerman, his Ph.D. student, who is male and has long hair, was labeled as a female half the time. At a minimum, when facial recognition software is used by advertisers to sell gender-appropriate merchandise, the fault may cause embarrassment. If, however, it leads to problems for some trans people getting through airport security, then that’s a bigger issue, because it could reaffirm notions that transgender people don’t fit in, the researchers say. – T. G.
©Morgan Klaus Scheuerman
Etched in Glass
The world is awash with data in need of storage, from medical records to movies, TV shows, viral videos, and e-mails. But, as Microsoft reports in an in-house article, the capacity of existing storage options is flattening. Cloud storage allows us immediate access to our data using a host of devices, but the cloud is actually a network of remote massive servers. The tech company’s Project Silica has been looking to find a better way to warehouse what’s called “cold data”—archival information that’s valuable but isn’t frequently accessed, like financial regulations and legal documents—in a medium that’s cheap, robust, long-lasting, and compact. And that medium is glass. Microsoft researchers have developed a way to store data in silica glass using femtosecond lasers, the same kind used for LASIK surgery. The lasers encode data in the glass by creating layers of 3-D nanoscale gratings and deformations at various depths and angles. Machine-learning algorithms can decode images and patterns formed as polarized light shines through the glass. In a recent successful test, Microsoft’s team was able to store and retrieve Superman, the classic 1978 Warner Bros. movie, on a piece of glass about the size of drink coaster. The film studio has the costly task of regularly having to transfer data onto new media to keep from losing its vast library, which includes treasured films (Casablanca, Wizard of Oz) and old radio and TV shows. Most storage media eventually degrade: hard disk drives wear out within five years; magnetic tape might last for seven. Glass storage is not only inexpensive, but it should also last centuries. Microsoft claims silica glass is hardy stuff that can withstand all sorts of threats, including boiling water, microwaving, and floods. Sounds good. But weren’t audio CDs originally described as nearly indestructible? Just asking. – T. G.
©Jonathan Banks for Microsoft
Bio-printing, or using 3-D printers filled with an “ink” that includes living cells to construct body organs and tissues, is making rapid progress. But one difficulty has been replicating vascular networks within tissue. That’s because they’re hard to create via the layer-by-layer method used by additive-manufacturing printers without constructing supporting scaffolding. Trouble is, the scaffolding can’t be removed. Researchers have tried to come up with a liquid solution—using a fluid matrix into which liquid designs could be injected before the ink sets and the matrix drains away, according to Science. But so far that technique has failed because the support structures collapse into blobs. However, the magazine reports, researchers in China may have come up with a solution using hydrophilic liquid polymers. A stable membrane is constructed where these water-loving plastics meet, because of the attraction of their hydrogen bonds. The Chinese team used a matrix made from polyethylene oxide and an ink made from dextran, a long carbohydrate molecule. Using an injection nozzle, the magazine says, the researchers then pumped the ink into the liquid matrix. The method enabled the team to print a variety of complicated shapes, including tornado-like whirls, single and double helices, and one that looked like a goldfish. After the printing is completed, the shapes are set by adding polyvinyl alcohol to the ink. Shapes of things to come. – T. G.
Not long after breaking his collarbone in a cycling accident, Max Shtein, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan, grew alarmed when his physical therapist used a basic protractor to assess the range of motion in his healing shoulder. The method is highly inexact and makes it difficult for patients to do their own measurements at home. So in a joint effort with Erin Evke, his Ph.D. student, Shtein turned to the ancient Japanese art of kirigami—a form of origami that cuts as well as folds paper to create shapes—to devise a better motion sensor. The result is a device that folds flat but opens up like a Slinky into a lacework pattern that can hug bendable body parts. To make the patch, Evke used a laser to cut a labyrinth of concentric circles into a thin sheet of plastic. She next attached two strain gauges to the kirigami patch—one to capture the raising and lowering of the arm, the other to measure cross-body movements. The data from the sensors were then cross-referenced to arm movements captured by motion-tracking cameras. The sensor patch could be manufactured and sold cheaply—for around $10, Shtein reckons. It would allow physical therapy patients to monitor their movements at home and feed the data into a smartphone app, making it easier for them and their therapists to track their progress. – T. G.
©Levi Hutmacher, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing
Less Green to Go Green
Technologies to capture carbon dioxide from gas streams or the air tend to have two problems. Methods to grab CO₂ from the flue emissions of coal- or gas-fired power plants need a lot of power to work, making them costly. Those designed to suck it out of the air struggle with lower concentration levels. But a new technology devised by chemical engineers at MIT may solve both problems. Their device is basically a large, specialized battery outfitted with two stacks of electrodes coated with a carbon nanotube-infused compound that easily reacts with even low concentrations of CO₂. When the battery charges, the compound absorbs carbon from the air or a gas stream; when it discharges, it releases pure, concentrated CO₂. If the carbon were captured from a power plant, the pure CO₂ stream could be compressed and either sequestered in underground chambers or used to make fuel. Some soft-drink bottling plants burn fossil fuels to generate CO₂ to make their drinks fizzy, and some farmers burn natural gas because they need carbon dioxide to feed greenhouse-grown plants. Using the MIT device, both types of operations could stop burning fossil fuels and instead grab all the carbon they need from the air. The researchers say their system needs about 1 gigajoule of energy for each ton of CO₂ it captures, while current methods have energy consumption levels of 1 to 10 gigajoules per ton. Manufacturing costs should be low, too, say the researchers, who have set up a spinoff company called Verdox to commercialize the device. – T. G.
Malaria ‘Game Changer’
Fast diagnosis is key to treating malaria, which kills more than 400,000 people annually, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. Small, rural clinics often don’t have trained medical technicians on staff who can administer the tests. The gold-standard blood test used today to diagnose malaria is also time-consuming. So six years ago, Brian Gitta, now 27, a software engineer in Uganda, began working with colleagues, doctors, and scientists to find an easier, faster, and cheaper way to detect the disease, Time magazine reports. The team’s first prototype failed completely. But after four more attempts their invention, a matiscope, from the Swahili word for “treatment,” not only meets all their goals but doesn’t require a blood sample. Patients exhibiting the high fever, chills, headaches, and other symptoms of malaria need only place a finger in the device’s cradle, which uses magnets and a beam of red light to pick up changes in red blood cells caused by the malaria parasite. The readings are sent to a smartphone app, which analyzes them within two minutes. In clinical trials in Uganda and Angola, the matiscope is delivering results on par with the blood-sample method, Time says. One health official tells the magazine: “This is a game changer.” Moreover, the device can feed results to a national databank, giving officials the ability to monitor outbreaks in real time. Says Gitta: “It’s OK to fail, as long as you keep pushing through to your idea.” – T. G.
Images That Pop
Previous iterations of holographic printers were hampered by expensive lasers, slow printing speeds, unsaturated colors, and a limited field of view. But a team of researchers at French company Ultimate Holography has, after 15 years of effort, come up with a printer that produces digital 3-D holograms that are highly detailed and boast realistic colors, ScienceDaily reports. Ultimate’s CHIMERA printer combines low-cost commercial lasers and high-speed printing to create highly colorful holograms with a large dynamic range, it says. Basically, the images it creates are 2-D but appear to the naked eye to be 3-D. The researchers invented a special photographic material on which to print the holograms, which have wide fields of view and full parallax, which means an object they reconstruct is viewable from all directions. It can print holograms from 3-D computer-generated models or from scans using a dedicated scanner. Ultimate says it studied two previously developed holographic printers to see what worked and what didn’t. It determined that it was essential to come up with a highly sensitive photomaterial with an ultrafine grain instead of using a commercially available rigid material. The printer could be used to make 3-D holograms for museum displays, architectural models, fine art, or advertisements. In time, as the technology improves, Ultimate hopes it will also have medical or other advanced applications. – T. G.
Sometimes pictures truly are worth 1,000 words. A photography project involving Scotland’s University of Dundee, the University of Iceland, and the Icelandic Meteorological Office shows with devastating clarity the effects of global warming on Iceland’s glaciers. Kieran Baxter, a lecturer in communication design at Dundee who led the study, tells the BBC the results show “a staggering difference in a very short amount of time.” Indeed, Iceland’s Met Office estimates that its glaciers have lost a total of 750 square kilometers since the turn of the century. The researchers used thousands of aerial photographs of the country’s glaciers taken in the 1980s to create composite images, then matched them to new pictures taken by drones. Software then transformed the 30-to-40-year-old images into high-resolution 3-D images of the terrain (photo, left). Baxter says that allowed the team to use photographs that looked directly down on the landscape and reframe them to show the terrain at different angles. The researchers then aligned the images with recently snapped drone photos. The snapshots all came from the south side of Iceland’s Vatnajokull ice cap, an area of 7,700 square kilometers. Iceland has more than 400 glaciers. They cover a tenth of the island country and are an important part of its ecosystem. Last summer, a large contingent of Icelanders placed a plaque at the site of the Okjokull glacier, the first to be fully lost to climate change. The plaque notes that while Okjokull is the first glacier claimed by global warming, all the others face the same fate in the coming 200 years. It then acknowledges that “we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” – T. G.
©‘3D composite of aerial photography from the National Land Survey of Iceland; UAV photography by Dr Kieran Baxter, University of Dundee’
Leaky Solar System
Chalk up another major feat for Voyager 2, the deep space probe that NASA launched in 1977. A year ago, the craft finally made it into interstellar space, the second probe to accomplish that goal. (It’s following in the wake of Voyager 1, which crossed the boundary in 2012.) Voyager 2 became the first probe to directly sample the electrically charged plasmas that interstellar space mainly consists of, National Geographic says. Data from both spacecraft are quite similar, it adds. Both, for instance, noted the density of the particles they’ve sampled beyond our solar system. As Astronomy magazine explains, Earth and its fellow planets in the solar system are orbiting within a bubble called the heliosphere, created by the charged particles the sun blasts into space. The interstellar space outside the heliosphere is called the heliopause. Voyager 1 surprised scientists when it discovered that the magnetic fields in both regions moved in the same direction. The working theory was the two fields would differ because the heliosphere’s field is created by the sun, while the heliopause’s is created by exploding stars. Voyager 2, Astronomy says, confirmed its predecessor’s finding. But Voyager 2 also found that there are a number of particles “leaking” into interstellar space from the heliosphere. Says the magazine: “It’s still an open question why this leaking is happening.” – T. G.
It’s well known that rats are clever critters. They can be trained to recognize objects, press bars, and negotiate complex mazes, which are all tests researchers regularly run them through to study the effects of brain ailments on cognitive function. And now we know they also can learn to drive cars. In a study conducted by Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Virginia’s University of Richmond, 17 rats learned to master the controls of a tiny car and how to navigate an increasingly difficult driving course. According to New Scientist, the cars were fashioned from clear plastic containers outfitted with an aluminum floor and three copper bars for steering. When a rat stood on the metal floor and touched one of the bars, it completed an electric circuit that propelled the car forward. Touching the left bar steered the car left, the right bar steered it right, and the center bar sent it straight ahead. To train the rats to correctly touch the bars, the researchers used bits of Froot Loops cereal as rewards, the magazine says. They also used the cereal rewards to get the rats to negotiate ever distant points of the 4-square-meter course by placing the treats farther and farther away. By measuring levels of the rats’ stress hormones—corticosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone — the researchers discovered that learning to drive relaxed the rats. That finding supports previous research showing that rats, like humans, gain a sense of satisfaction when they master a new skill. Lambert hopes that other researchers will replace maze tests with even more complex driving tests to study neurological and psychiatric conditions. – T. G.
©University of Richmond.