Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Call it the slime of the ancient mariners. Four years ago, Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit whale conservancy, received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a pioneering use of drones: to capture the exhaled breath condensate of whales—essentially, the mucus expelled from their blowholes. Why? Because the spray is full of useful biological data that can be used to monitor the mammals’ health, including DNA, sex, pregnancy status, and details of their genetics and microbiomes. Since then, the so-called SnotBots, such as one shown on the left below, have been used in dozens of missions worldwide in waters where the leviathans of the deep tend to congregate. But, as IEEE Spectrum reports, in 2017, the alliance began working with another environmental group, Parley for the Oceans, to outfit the SnotBots with high-definition video cameras that can livestream video during a snot-collection mission and also store those images, providing yet another way to determine whale health. The project uses software that analyzes the shapes of whales, the magazine says, because thinner whales are often sick or not getting enough to eat. That shape-analysis tool has since evolved into a deep-learning system called Morphometer that uses the live-feed data to build statistical models of different whale populations. Once the models are working reliably, IEEE Spectrum says, the system will be able to compare an individual whale’s size to its peers and investigate historical trends. The end result will not only reveal more about the health of the sea’s biggest creatures but also the health of the seas, as whale health can be an early-warning system to ocean environmental threats. – Thomas K. Grose
©Christian Miller/Ocean Alliance
Fewer Guilt Trips
The Swedes call the movement flygskam—flight shame. It describes an effort to fight climate change by discouraging air travel and it seems to be taking off. A recent survey of 6,000 people in the U.S., U.K., France, and Germany, for example, found that 21 percent of respondents had reduced the number of flights they took out of concern for the environment, the BBC reports. Their concerns are not unfounded: The U.S. aviation industry accounts for 12 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions while in Britain, aviation is on course to become the country’s biggest source of emissions by 2050. So the airline industry is scrambling to make electric aircraft a reality. Last month, Harbour Air, a small seaplane operator in Vancouver, British Columbia, took the first step toward the goal of electrifying its entire fleet by 2022 by testing out the world’s first all-electric commercial seaplane. The six-passenger DHC-2 De Havilland Beaver was outfitted with a 750-horsepower (560 kW) electric motor provided by Harbour’s partner, magniX, a manufacturer of electric aircraft motors based in Redmond, Wash. The test craft has a limited flight range of about 100 miles, owing to the energy density of its lithium batteries, which provide far less power than gasoline. But the gap is quickly closing. “The range now is not where we’d love it to be,” magniX’s CEO, Roei Ganzarski, told Agence France-Presse, “but it’s enough to start a revolution.” – T. G.
Trip the Light Fantastic
The creature in the video looks like a thin sheet of plastic, inching along at 1 millimeter per second by arching then relaxing its back. In fact, it is a thin sheet of plastic, and the video was recorded by researchers at Finland’s Tampere University of Applied Sciences who have “trained” pieces of a soft, synthetic actuator to move in response to light without using a computer program. Usually, this type of actuator is only responsive to heat. But the investigators “taught” it to associate light with heat and to respond to both stimuli—much like physiologist Ivan Pavlov teaching a dog to associate food with the sound of a bell. According to ScienceDaily, the researchers coated pieces of a thermo-responsive liquid crystal polymer network with a blue dye. The surface dye diffuses throughout the actuator, which increases its overall light absorption, the article says. That has a photothermal effect that heats the plastic, which then bends when irradiated. They should call it Pavlovian plastic. – T. G.
©Hao Zeng, Hang Zhang, Olli Ikkala, and Arri Priimägi
Even subtle fluctuations in the seafloor can signal an imminent natural disaster such as an earthquake, volcanic eruption, or tsunami. Scientists use several methods to monitor these movements, but the technology that works best is only used in deep waters to avoid noise interference. Monitoring the seabed in shallower waters would do a better job of helping researchers understand megathrust earthquakes and tsunamis, but the environment is far more challenging for the devices. However, geoscientists at the University of South Florida have developed and successfully tested a novel, highly sensitive system for coastal waters that can detect small changes in the seabed. Resting on the sea bottom 23 meters deep off Egmont Key in the Gulf of Mexico, a region known for strong tidal currents, the experimental buoy has been producing data on the three-dimensional motion of the seafloor. The anchored spar buoy is outfitted with a high-precision global positioning system and a digital compass that measures its orientation by providing heading, pitch, and roll information. Those side-to-side Earth motions are often precursors of major earthquakes that can produce tsunamis. The buoy, which has withstood several storms and one hurricane, is designed to eventually be used in subduction zones in the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” an area prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that currently is poorly monitored. – T. G.
©University of South Florida
Even parked cars can be lethal. Since 1998, some 849 children in the United States—and untold thousands of animals—have died of heatstroke while left in vehicles. Researchers at Canada’s University of Waterloo have come up with a solution that combines radar and artificial intelligence to detect unattended children or pets. The coin-size wireless device, which could be mounted on a vehicle’s ceiling or attached to a rear-view mirror, emits radar signals that are then analyzed to differentiate between living beings and inanimate objects, triggering an alarm and preventing the doors from locking. The sensor’s inventor, George Shaker, a professor of electrical and computer engineering as well as mechanical and mechatronic engineering, says his creation is better than a camera, which has blind spots and could miss people, especially if the vehicle has more than two rows of seats. Radar, on the other hand, can penetrate upholstery. The device is also superior to infrared devices. “That can work if a kid or pet is awake in the back and is moving, but if it is a newborn, for example, or someone sleeping, it may not detect it, whereas our system can detect tiny movement in a chest or stomach on the order of millimeters,” says Shaker. The device, which he hopes to bring to market by the end of 2020, could also be used to determine the number of passengers in a car to qualify vehicles for carpool lanes and to monitor driver behavior. “Using AI, we can also train the system to detect whether someone is on a phone, for example,” he says. – Pierre Home-Douglas
©University of Waterloo
If someone says you have a screw loose, you’ll either shrug off the jibe or seek a psychiatrist. PR2, a robot created by University of Tokyo roboticists, can tighten its loose screws—as it demonstrated at the recent Humanoids 2019 show in Toronto, according to IEEE Spectrum. Beyond self-repairs, PR2 also can accessorize itself. For instance, it can screw hooks into its body so it can carry more stuff. The robot is fed CAD data that provide the exact location of all of its screws. For now, PR2 must be told which one is loose; it can’t yet detect a loose screw on its own. Some are easy to reach and tighten, and PR2 has a wrist that can rotate to handily perform those chores. But other screws are harder to reach and require an Allen key to turn. In those instances, the robot has to grasp the tool over and over again until the screw is tightened, the article says. – T. G.
©Charlie Kemp and Zackory Erickson
For some time now, researchers have been exploring the use of DNA as a robust, long-lasting medium for storing data. The binary code used to store digital information can be converted to a base-4 numeral system, with each integer assigned to one of four letters—A, T, G, and C—that represent the quartet of chemical building blocks for almost all living organisms. According to IEEE Spectrum, a team of researchers at ETH Zurich, a Swiss technology university, 3-D printed a bunny-shaped trinket containing DNA-encoded fabrication instructions. Ostensibly, someone in the future could, with just a tiny piece, decipher the blueprint to learn what the trinket looked like or to 3-D-print an exact replica—a process the researchers dubbed “the DNA of things.” To make the rabbit, the team first converted the 3-D printing instructions from a 45-kB binary stereolithography (.stl) file into a four-digit code, then synthesized the DNA into short strands of code and encapsulated them in silica nanoparticles, the magazine says. These nanoparticles were then mixed into the polyester-based feedstock for the printer. Once the trinket was printed, a tiny chunk was snipped from one of its ears to extract and sequence its DNA. That DNA was then converted back into a binary .stl. file, unlocking the recipe for reprinting. Eventually, five generations of bunny trinkets were made, each created with information gleaned from a morsel of its “parent.” Researchers say the method could be used to embed replication codes in hard-to-replace objects, such as medical implants, automobile parts, and electronic components. Cloned car bumpers, anyone? – T. G.
Researchers are working to find a way to replace electricity with light in silicon chips as a swifter way to process data that also generates no heat—a big hurdle in improving computer performance. Now researchers led by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have created an optical switch than can reroute light from one chip to another in just 20 billionths of a second, faster than any other device and with very little signal loss. Moreover, it works at voltages low enough for use in inexpensive silicon chips. The NIST switch consists of nanometer-scale gold and silicon optical, electrical, and mechanical components that guide light through tiny channels called waveguides. A gold disk that is hundreds of times thinner than aluminum foil is suspended atop a layer of silicon, and both are fitted with contacts that allow them to be controlled by applying voltage. The amount of voltage applied can bend the gold disk either up or down. In the up position, light flows through the waveguide unimpeded. In the down position, however, light leaks into the silicon, interrupting transmission. If a second waveguide is placed near the gold disk, the leaked light can be redirected to the new sluice within a split second, merely by turning the voltage on or off. By combining these optical switches into an array, the researchers think they may be able to create programmable circuits. Possible applications include replacing bulky LiDAR devices in autonomous vehicles with tiny, low-cost sensors that scan roadways for obstacles and advancing quantum computing. – T. G.
The health risks of too much screen time are fairly well established. The blue light from diodes, for instance, can damage retinas, while radiation from screens can age the skin. But new research from China’s Nanjing University of Science and Technology indicates that computer and phone screens can leak chemicals that may also affect human health. Of the more than 360 types of chemicals typically found in liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, preliminary results from the study found that 87 could be hazardous if they leech out. In one test on embryonic chicken cells exposed to some LCD chemicals, the team found mutations similar to an effect often caused by persistent organic pollutants. Can these chemicals leak out? Apparently so. The researchers conducted a survey that included hotels, school buildings, canteens, homes, and laboratories, and found that LCD chemicals were present in the air at every site. They conjecture that chemicals escape from screens that crack or break, and that heat and radiation may cause liquid crystal chemicals to evaporate. It’s too early to say if long-term exposure to these leeched substances is hazardous, and investigators hope their study will lead to more research. It’s unlikely, they say, that governments will act to set safe thresholds on LCD chemicals until there’s more evidence of health risks. – T. G.
Molecular microbiology researchers don’t often get involved in space projects, but a team at Johns Hopkins University recently sent a payload of a fungus-grown biomaterial based on melanin to the International Space Station. There, the substance will undergo a test to see how well it can mitigate the effects of space radiation, which is harmful to humans and equipment. The material is a composite of fungal melanin and polymers. Melanin is a dark brown or black pigment that occurs in humans, animals, and other species and helps protect skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. The researchers have shown that this type of fungal melanin also can absorb the harmful ionizing radiation frequencies that damage cells. Melanin has not been tested in space before because, at $400 per gram, it’s expensive to produce. The type that the Hopkins researchers are using comes from the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans, which they think could be used as a cost-effective melanin factory. They isolated a powdered form of the melanin and mixed it into plastic polymers. The ISS test will determine the biomaterial’s structural stability and ability to withstand the harsh environment of space. Healthcare providers and patients also are at risk during procedures that rely on radiation, such as imaging, so if it works, the lab-grown melanin may benefit more people than just astronauts. – T. G.
Electroceuticals are revolutionary medical therapies that use electricity to treat diseases, and the field continues to advance. For instance, researchers at the University of Bath recently constructed artificial nerve cells, basically tiny “brain chips,” that duplicate the processes of real neurons, the BBC reports. One investigator likened neurons to “black boxes” whose inner workings were a mystery. “But we have managed to open the black box and peer inside,” he tells the broadcaster. That insight has enabled the team to transfer the electrical properties of brain cells onto synthetic silicon circuits—a big step toward the goal of designing artificial neurons that can respond to signals from the nervous system. The breakthrough could lead to miniature bioelectric implants that replace neurons lost to degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile, biomedical engineers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have come up with a liquid electrode that can be injected around a nerve and then hardens. After it cures, the “injectrode,” as they’ve dubbed it, is nearly as elastic as tissue; it can be stretched up to 200 percent in size without losing conductivity. The technology could greatly reduce the cost of and improve neuromodulation therapies that stimulate nerve cells with electricity. Today’s expensive treatments rely on stiff implants that eventually can break from wear caused by body movements. The liquid electrode, the researchers say, could one day be used to treat heart failure, hypertension, and other illnesses. – T. G.
©University of Bath
Molière is France’s Shakespeare. The 17th-century playwright and poet is best known for his farces, including Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, and The Miser. But like Shakespeare, there has long been some doubt as to whether he was the true author. Molière was also a famous actor, often on the road, who only began writing in his 40’s. Because scholars have yet to find an original manuscript signed by Molière, some suspect that the real author was his contemporary, Pierre Corneille, and that the two conspired to affix Molière’s name as a famous actor to promote the plays—a win-win for both men. That theory gained currency early this century when linguists noticed frequent similarities in the two writers’ word choices. But a new study, using computational methods to dig into the subtle, unconscious styles of both playwrights, has exonerated Molière, Science magazine reports. The study, conducted by investigators at CNRS, the French national research agency, and PSL Research University, used powerful search software to home in on the frequency of use of “function words,” such as “the,” “that,” and “of.” It also looked at the typical grammatical structures each writer favored as well as other linguistic patterns on which authors unconsciously rely, the article explains. The computer program grouped together the works that shared similar traits—and found no overlap. “We are really, really convinced,” one researcher says, that Molière penned his masterpieces. A happy ending, n’est-ce pas? – T. G.
Researchers use micro-endoscopes to watch cells firing in the brains of animal test subjects. To be of use, however, the devices must be minuscule but powerful enough to produce clear images. Standard micro-endoscopes tend to be around half a millimeter to a few millimeters in diameter to accommodate lenses large enough to produce high-quality images. There are smaller, lensless micro-endoscopes that use an optical fiber to scan an area of brain pixel by pixel, but they often bend when moved and stop working. Now a team at Johns Hopkins University has invented an ultra-miniaturized endoscope the width of a few human hairs that can yield high-resolution images. Compared with conventional, lens-based devices, this one not only increases the amount of tissue researchers can see but also yields better results. The Johns Hopkins endoscope uses a cracked aperture—a flat grid that randomly blocks light to create a projection in a known pattern—that is similar to poking holes at random in a piece of aluminum foil and then shining a light through them. The resulting image is messy, but it provides so much information about the origins of the light that that data can be computationally reconstructed to create a clearer picture. “Now, thanks to computational reconstruction, we can purposefully capture something that looks awful and counterintuitively end up with a clearer final image,” says lead author Mark Foster, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Next, Foster’s team plans to test the device with fluorescent labeling procedures—when neurons are tagged and illuminated—to determine how accurately it can image brain cell activity. – T. G.