Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
‘The Sun and Moon Grow Dark . . .
And the stars no longer shine.” (Joel 3:15) Nations in the Horn of Africa and beyond are experiencing a biblical-type plague of locusts—the worst in 70 years. In one day, these swarms of insects can travel up to 95 miles in a 1-square-kilometer cloud, devouring the same amount of food as 35,000 people. They pose “an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods at the beginning of the upcoming cropping season,” according to the United Nations. Initially confined mainly to Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia, swarms had spread to 15 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia by early March, says the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization. At risk: crops such as maize, coffee, tea, and sorghum. As of mid-February, the voracious insects had destroyed 70,000 hectares of Ethiopian and Somali farmland and another 70,000 hectares in Kenya. The region, which encompasses Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia and is home to 115 million people, is heavily reliant on agriculture. One analyst told CNBC that the infestation could reduce GDP growth by one to two percentage points in the affected countries. The area was hit by unusually heavy rains last fall, which caused flooding in areas that are normally semi-arid. That provided favorable breeding grounds for the locusts, according to SciDev.net, which also quotes one expert as saying it’s possible that the rare drenching rains were caused by climate change. The FAO said aerial and ground spraying of “safe pesticides” was urgently needed to curb the invasion. But one biologist tells SciDev that using chemicals to control locusts also places beneficial insects at risk, including bees, green lacewings, and dragonflies. Nevertheless, the Kenyan government in February approved a large-scale spraying operation in several counties where the swarms had laid eggs that were starting to hatch, according to the Africa Report. – Thomas K. Grose
Bugs in the App?
A story in the February Prism detailed how electronic voting machines still in use in many states remain susceptible to hackers and glitches. That’s why most states have opted to heed warnings from computer scientists and rely on paper ballots or systems that produce paper trails that can be audited. But now the debate over high-tech voting has gone mobile. Two states, West Virginia and Oregon, are planning to use a mobile voting app manufactured by Massachusetts company Voatz to encourage absentee voting, and Utah is considering using it, too. Voatz uses biometrics and blockchain technologies it says make the app secure. However, a trio of MIT researchers recently reported that the Voatz app has bugs that could allow a hacker to reveal users’ votes, block them, and possibly manipulate them. The MIT researchers suggested “that any near-future plans to use this app for high-stakes elections be abandoned.” Voatz critics also say the company lacks transparency and refuses to publish the independent cybersecurity audits it claims to have conducted. Voatz, according to Wired, disputes the MIT findings and says the researchers tested a very outdated version of the app. The researchers counter that the version they used is from early December and subsequent updates did not include any security or architecture changes. Still, Voatz insists voters and election officials can verify votes after the fact, according to the Verge. “Every ballot submitted using Voatz produces a paper ballot,” says product chief Hilary Braseth. – T. G.
Today’s military helmets do a good job of protecting wearers from bullets, shrapnel, flying debris, and hard blows to the head. But they fall short when it comes to protecting soldiers from shock waves. Because of improved body armor, more soldiers are surviving explosions but suffer from brain trauma caused by shock waves from the blasts. The fix may be found in a design first used 105 years ago: the Adrian, the steel helmet worn by French soldiers in World War I, according to researchers at Duke University. The Duke investigators subjected the helmets worn by American, British, French, and German WWI troops, as well as the current Advanced Combat Helmet worn by U.S. troops, to shock-wave tests. All provided a five-to-tenfold reduction in risk for moderate brain bleeding, The Engineer reports. But the French Adrian helmet out-performed them all, including its modern counterpart. The most likely reason is that the French helmet has a crest atop its crown. Designed to repel shrapnel, the steel peak also seems to do a good job of deflecting shock waves. The Duke team says the finding should open an important new line of research in helmet design. – T. G.
According to a new book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, influenced by a mix of humanism, colonialism, and racism, dismissed the ancient technologies of indigenous peoples as primitive. But author Julia Watson, who teaches urban design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, argues that while today’s designers understand the need to reduce negative environmental impacts, that old cultural chauvinism still prevails. Current architecture still relies on exploiting nature with its use of hard infrastructure and high-tech, homogenous designs: “We are ignoring millennia-old knowledge of how to live in symbiosis with nature.” In a recent review, the Washington Post explains how the book offers detailed descriptions of indigenous innovations that remain in use and could offer today’s designers possible solutions to daunting environmental problems. For example, it says, Lo-TEK puts a spotlight on the 6,000-year-old floating island technology of the Ma’dan, who reside in Iraq’s southern wetlands. The Ma’dan construct houses from flexible, bamboo-like reeds that can be dismantled and reconstructed in a day. Another example: the qanat, a series of well-like vertical shafts connected by sloping tunnels that allow subterranean water to be transported over long distances and brought to the surface without pumping—a boon to farmers in hot, dry parts of Iran. – T. G.
Each year, an estimated 15 percent of the world’s crops succumb to plant diseases, resulting in annual losses of approximately $150 billion. One-third of these diseases are caused by a common bacteria called Pseudomonas syringae (Ps), a species with more than 50 known variants to which a wide range of important crops— including tomatoes, kiwifruit, peppers, olives, and soybeans—are vulnerable. Bacterial diseases can spread rapidly because commercial crop varieties lack genetic diversity. To combat the bacteria, farmers mainly use chemicals and conventional antibiotics. But these defenses are only marginally successful and some can cause environmental harm. Moreover, reliance on traditional antibiotics runs the risk of increasing resistance to them. But now, bioengineers at Scotland’s University of Glasgow have devised a new genetic-modification technique that enables plants to express a targeted protein antibiotic, or bacteriocin, that can fend off bacterial infection without harming the plant, polluting the surrounding environment, or driving antibiotic resistance. The Glasgow technology uses putidacin L1, a harmless, soil-dwelling bacteriocin that’s related to the disease-causing Ps. The team found a way to express the protein in test plants, which were modified to produce putidacin L1 throughout their lives. And it worked. The bacteriocin protected the plants against Ps infections. The proof-of-concept pilot also determined that bacteriocins are highly targeted, unlike conventional antibiotics, and only act against Ps. Since all bacterial species produce bacteriocins, the technology may result in a blueprint for fighting other bacterial diseases that ravage crops such as potatoes and rice. The team is now looking to commercialize the technology. – T. G.
©University of Glasgow
Stop the Rot
For more than a century, the conventional method to make lumber impervious to rot-causing fungus was to place it inside a pressurized, airtight tank and force chemicals into its fibers. But now, researchers at Georgia Tech have devised a new treatment that not only makes wood mold-resistant but nearly water-resistant as well. Moreover, the treated wood is also more thermally insulating, so it could help make homes more energy efficient. The technique borrows a process used by microelectronics manufacturers called atomic layering deposition. It involves coating the entire cellular structure of the wood with a thin layer—just a few atoms thick—of a titanium oxide vapor. How do they get the gas molecules to permeate the wood’s interior? Wood pores are smaller in diameter than a human hair, and researchers use those pores as pathways for the gases to travel throughout the wood’s structure. In tests, a block of the treated wood placed under water for a lengthy period of time absorbed three times less water than untreated wood. – T. G.
©Allison Carter/Georgia Tech
Nine years ago, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit Japan’s northeast coast, unleashing a tsunami that flooded the region around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, cutting its power. The resulting meltdown in three of its reactors coated the surrounding area with a spray of dangerous radioactive particles. More than 100,000 people in a 12-mile radius around the now-decommissioned plant were evacuated. Since then, Wired reports, Japan has spent $27 billion to decontaminate the prefecture’s exclusion zone. Roads, walls, roofs, gutters, and drainpipes have been scrubbed, and 600 million cubic feet of grass, trees, and topsoil were gouged from the landscape. In residential areas, Japan says, air dose radiation rates are down 71 percent and are well within a naturally occurring background range. The Wired article focuses on a new book by British photographer Giles Price, Restricted Residence, that documents the slow rehabilitation and repopulation of the zone, which nevertheless remains largely deserted. Two towns, Namie and Iitate, once had a joint population of 28,000; today, only 1,200 people call them home. Price says he found “a mixed state of reconstruction and decay,” and that while radiation is low in town centers, readings from the Geiger counter he carried “started jumping all over the place” when he ventured farther afield. Price used an infrared camera that “reduces scenes to detail-less blocks of garish color” for the book, Wired notes, allowing him to focus “on an invisible world that shapes Fukushima’s reality as much as the visible one does.” – T. G.
©Giles Price 2020 Courtesy Loose Joints
Too Good to Waste
Carbon capture and sequestration technologies, which grab carbon dioxide emissions from power plants or industrial facilities for burial underground, can reduce the amount of greenhouse gas spewing into the atmosphere. But they tend to be very expensive, so researchers are looking for ways to turn captured CO₂ into something worthwhile. (See “Carbon Creativity,” Prism, March 2014.) Called carbon utilization or carbon conversion, this new field is gaining momentum, the Los Angeles Times reports. NRG Energy Inc. and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance has launched the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon Xprize, a global competition to find ways to convert carbon and methane emissions into needed, marketable products. One of the 10 teams in the competition, from the University of California–Los Angeles, is testing a system it says can take a half ton of CO₂ from a coal-fired plant and produce 10 tons of concrete, according to IEEE Spectrum. This could help solve two problems at once as production of cement, the main ingredient in concrete, generates approximately 8 percent of global CO₂ emissions. Meanwhile, engineers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have devised a catalyst that can recycle greenhouse gases into hydrogen, ingredients for fuels, and other chemicals used in plastics and pharmaceuticals, according to the Engineer. Current conversion catalysts need rare and expensive metals such as platinum and rhodium to produce short, inefficient reactions. The Korean technology uses relatively inexpensive metals—nickel, magnesium, and molybdenum—for longer-lasting reactions that can convert CO₂ and methane into useful products. One study says international sales of waste-carbon products could reach $5.9 trillion annually. – T. G.
French researchers have used human skin cells to grow yarn. Basically, it is a human textile that surgeons could use to close wounds or to knit skin grafts “that have high mechanical strength and are implantable,” the researchers write in a recent paper published in the journal Acta Biomaterialia. The team from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Bordeaux tells New Scientist that the main advantage of human-derived yarn over synthetic surgical materials is it won’t trigger an immune response, which can interrupt the healing process. To fashion it, the researchers made sheets of human skin cells, cut them into long strips and then wove them into a yarn. “By combining this truly ‘bio’ material with a textile-based assembly, this original tissue-engineering approach is highly versatile and can produce a variety of strong human textiles that can be readily integrated in the body,” the paper states. Lead researcher Nicholas L’Heureux tells New Scientist: “With the yarn, any textile approach is feasible: knitting, braiding, weaving—even crocheting.” And the textiles can be used to make a variety of grafts, including pouches, tubes, valves, and membranes. So, this is a yarn about a yarn that could literally leave you in stitches—but it’s no joke. – T. G.
A Fair Shake
Artificial intelligence technologies that sort through massive amounts of data—hundreds or thousands of job applications, for instance, or closed-circuit TV images linked to a crime—organize the information into clusters of groups of people with common characteristics. This makes it easier for humans to pinpoint candidates with particular profesional skills or to nab suspects. But, as IEEE Spectrum notes, these kinds of groupings can unintentionally introduce bias on the basis of race, gender, age, religion, and birth country. Some research indicates that job applicants with white-sounding names get more responses than those with black-sounding names. Algorithms can also discriminate against people over 40 or working mothers, who may be underrepresented in the samples used to develop the screens. To fix the problem, more algorithms now use so-called “fair clustering,” a technique that guards against bias. Until now, fair clustering could only prevent skewing results against only one attribute at a time, such as age. But Deepak Padmanabhan, a lecturer in electronics and electrical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, working with colleagues at the Indian Institute of Technology–Madras, has developed an algorithm called FairKM that can apply fair clustering across many attributes at once. Compared with an algorithm that applied fair clustering to a single attribute, FairKM reduced unfairness by 50 percent to 80 percent, IEEE Spectrum says. “FairKM takes a significant step toward algorithms assuming the role of ensuring fairness in shortlisting,” Padmanabhan says, “especially in terms of human resources.” – T. G.
Wet, Wild, and Wired
Only 5 percent to 10 percent of the ocean has been explored, in part because sending out ships to take measurements is expensive. But researchers at Caltech and Stanford University envision a day when large networks of electronically-enhanced jellyfish will track things like temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels, and relay that data to scientists. The researchers have developed a tiny prosthetic that can make a jellyfish swim faster and more efficiently than normal. The implant uses electrical impulses to speed up the pulsing motion jellyfish use to propel themselves. Usually jellyfish swim at a speed of approximately 2 centimeters per second; the device got them moving at 4 centimeters to 6 centimeters per second. The faster speed also makes them more efficient, so they use less energy than normal. The device doesn’t harm the creatures, nor is there evidence it causes them stress. Lead researcher John Dabiri, a professor of aeronautics and mechanical engineering at Caltech, and his team want to next find a way to direct the jellyfish to specific locations and see if they can be outfitted with sensors. Employing an army of sensor-laden jellyfish would be inexpensive, costing only a few dollars per organism. Dabiri’s team has also created jellyfish-inspired, fully mechanical swimming robots, but they require a lot of energy. Jellyfish, in contrast, draw energy from the prey that they eat, making them a truly sustainable research tool. – T. G.
Weighing up to 1,500 pounds and standing up to 10 feet tall on its hind legs, a grizzly bear is more than a match for most creatures in the natural world. But it doesn’t stand much of a chance against a train—the leading cause of death at Canada’s national parks among grizzlies, a threatened species under Alberta provincial law. While bears have acute hearing, sounds can be obscured by vegetation, snow, or topography, especially around track curves. A solution may be at hand in a warning system designed by Jonathan Backs, a researcher and Ph.D. student in materials engineering and ecology at the University of Alberta. Working with wildlife biologists from Parks Canada, U of A biology professor Colleen Cassady St. Clair, and representatives from Canadian Pacific Railway, Backs developed a network of weatherproof boxes that are attached to a rail line at key places where animals are struck most frequently. A piezoelectric sensor detects the vibration of an approaching train and sends a wireless signal down the track to a warning device with an alarm and a light, much like a train signal at a road crossing, giving bears about 30 seconds to vacate the track. Instead of a red light, Backs has chosen amber since the photoreceptor cells in a bear’s eyes are less sensitive to red. And because all the parts are available off the shelf, the device is relatively inexpensive, Backs says. A small price to pay to help preserve a species. – Pierre Home-Douglas
Since 1962, the U.S. General Services Administration has used a code called the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture in choosing designs for federal buildings in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Authored by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then at the U.S. Department of Labor, the principles state that “an official style must be avoided” and that “design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa.” Now the Trump administration is considering a rewrite of these principles. The new version would say that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style,” and it would specifically ban brutalist and deconstructivist styles. The putative order claims that some recent federal buildings are “just plain ugly.” The preliminary draft, entitled Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again, was leaked in February to Architectural Record, a trade publication. The proposed order notes that America’s founding fathers preferred the classical models of “democratic Athens” and “republican Rome,” though, as the magazine points out, that’s mainly because those were the popular styles at the time. Many professional groups, including the American Institute of Architects and the Society of Architectural Historians, quickly issued statements condemning the order. Writing in the Conversation, Kai Gutschow, an associate professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, notes that the classical style has long been favored by dictators and autocrats. – T. G.