Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Its name notwithstanding, there’s nothing modest about The Shed, a $500 million, 200,000-square-foot performance and exhibition space that just opened in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards development near the Hudson River. Its four-story steel frame, clad in transparent ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) panels that are lighter, more energy efficient, and less costly than glass, “summon the image of a Gothic cathedral that has become abstracted,” writes critic Aaron Betsky. Working with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti put in place a telescoping outer shell, powered by six truck-size wheels, forged at an Italian factory, and a mechanism similar to that used in gantry cranes, according to Fast Company. Moving at a quarter of a mile per hour, the shell slides 114 feet along two rails over an open plaza, converting it into a closed temperature- and sound-controlled concert hall. The Shed, which can also house two levels of galleries, is flexible enough for a varied series of opening events, including a five-day celebration of African-American music, an exhibit by German visual artist Gerhard Richter, and an adaptation of Euripides’s Helen with soprano Renée Fleming. – Mark Matthews
Tucked into President Trump’s $4.75 trillion proposed budget is $600 million for NASA’s Lunar Gateway, a moon-orbiting outpost that will ferry astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2028—some 56 years after Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan left the final footprint. Canada became the first international partner to sign on to the venture in February, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the Canadian Space Agency would build a third iteration of its robotic arm, Canadarm3, to maintain, inspect, and repair the orbiter. These are critical tasks, since, unlike the International Space Station, Gateway will lack a permanent crew. The arm’s artificial-intelligence capabilities also must function in a more challenging communications environment, including a 2.5-second delay in radio signals between Earth and the moon, as well as blackouts while the orbiter is on the moon’s far side. Speaking at the agency’s headquarters in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil, Trudeau declared his nation’s engineers were up to the task: “Canadarm was essential to the space shuttle and Canadarm2 built the International Space Station, so it’s only fitting and right that the arm that will repair and maintain the Lunar Gateway will yet again be made in Canada by Canadians.” Canada will contribute $US 1.4 billion over 24 years to the program, which NASA considers part of preparing for human exploration of Mars. – Pierre Home-Douglas
©Canadian Space Agency, NASA
The U.S.-Mexican border connotes tension, misery, and all too frequently, death. “We really hope we could help change the conversation,” says Luciano Castillo, a Purdue University professor specializing in renewable energy and power systems. His vision: a 2,000-mile cross-border energy, water, industry, and education park (FEWIEP) that taps the region’s high solar- and wind-power capacity, as well as natural gas, to desalinate water from the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific, thereby stimulating agriculture, start-ups, new industries, and jobs. A $1.1 billion series of institutes along the border would research such topics as microgrids and precision irrigation while offering workforce training. Besides its potential as “the biggest technology corridor in the world,” Castillo says the FEWIEP offers a model to address the global mass-migration crisis. Security required by utilities would serve to protect the U.S. border, rendering President Trump’s wall redundant. A mirage? So far, the proposal has generated support from academics (including six members of the National Academy of Engineering) at more than a dozen universities. Purdue President Mitch Daniels calls it “an idea that even sworn enemies can love.” No response—as yet—from members of Congress who have been sent the plan. But Castillo’s just getting started. – M. M.
©Purdue University/Jorge Castillo Quiñones
For the past few years, researchers at the University of Warwick have asked third-year engineering students to figure out why even the slightest breeze can make aspen leaves quiver. They then wondered if the underlying mechanisms could be replicated to produce and harvest electricity efficiently. An aspen leaf trembles down to its flat stem, which can twist in two directions even in light winds. Using mathematical modeling, the team was able to design a mechanical equivalent. A cantilevered beam mimics the stem while a curved blade tip with circular-arc cross section acts like the leaf. The engineers tested the device in a low-speed wind tunnel and found their simple replica produced enough mechanical movement to generate power even in low winds if the blade was perpendicular to the direction of the breeze. Since their leaf-inspired generator has no bearings, it should work well in harsh conditions. Although the amount of electricity the device produces is small, it’s more than enough to power the wireless sensor networks used by automated weather-sensing devices in extreme environments, such as Mars, or to serve as a backup power supply for Martian landers and rovers. – Thomas K. Grose
©University of Warwick
Jaws of Dreck
Whale sharks are efficient eating machines, sucking in plankton and tiny fish as they cruise along with open mouths. They’re also the inspiration for an autonomous watercraft that can navigate coastal waters and essentially vacuum up plastics, oil, and other floating debris. Invented and manufactured by RanMarine, a Dutch environmental technology company, the WasteShark drone can gobble up to a kilogram of garbage per minute. If deployed five days a week, it could remove 15.6 tons of waste a year from a waterway, the company calculates. Nor does it pollute or harm sea life—a major plus. Plastic collected by the drone will be turned into pellets to manufacture new products, such as kayaks, according to Sky News. WasteShark, whose battery can operate for eight hours on one charge, has been successfully piloted in six countries, most recently in England, where it removed waste from Ilfracombe Harbor in North Devon. Despite its bioinspired source, WasteShark looks more like a small, upside-down dinghy than any kind of fish—including the robotic marauder in Jaws. – T. G.
The Russ Prize is possibly the biggest cash award you never heard of. Jointly established by the National Academy of Engineering and Ohio University to honor achievements in bioengineering, the $500,000 purse is named for Ohio University engineering alumnus Fritz Russ and his wife, Dolores. This year’s prize celebrates the five inventors behind percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), which allows minimally invasive treatment of coronary artery disease with angioplasty—a thin, expandable balloon that unclogs blood vessels—and stents: Julio C. Palmaz, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio; Leonard Pinchuk, distinguished research professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Miami; Richard Schatz, research director of cardiovascular interventions at the Scripps Heart, Lung, and Vascular Center; John Simpson, a cardiovascular disease specialist who founded Avinger Inc.; and Paul Yock, a professor of medicine and founding cochair of Stanford University’s bioengineering department. While the award may be little known, PCI has helped millions. – M. M.
The powerful claws of some types of shrimp may provide a new way to rid water of dangerous microorganisms. According to ScienceNews, engineers at Texas A&M University used high-speed imaging tools to analyze what happened whenever the ferocious snapping shrimp, Alpheus formosus, slammed its pincers shut. The action, they discovered, causes a superfast jet of water to spew from the claw. That creates a bubble that then collapses, producing extreme pressures and sizzling temperatures that reach thousands of degrees Celsius. It also generates an electrical plasma. The shrimp’s shock wave can immobilize its prey; the plasma is merely a byproduct. But the researchers note that plasma also can zap pathogens and are trying to determine if a similar technique can be used to disinfect water. Toward that goal, they constructed a 3-D printed model based on scans of the claws in action that is five times as large but can snap shut at the same speed as the real-life version. The researchers are now using high-speed video cameras to see if the bubbles generated by their artificial claw also produce plasma. So far, they’ve picked up dim flashes of light—indicating plasma exists. Besides sterilizing water, potential applications include reducing drag on boat hulls and improving drill bits for piercing hard rock. – T. G.
Diagnosing gastrointestinal (GI) diseases can be tricky. Endoscopic biopsies—performed by inserting a camera down a patient’s throat—can result in sampling errors. The costly procedure also requires anesthesia. So a team led by Guillermo Tearney, a pathologist and engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital, has developed a quick, simple, and cheap alternative called tethered capsule endomicroscopy (TCE). Patients swallow a tiny, pill-like device that contains miniature microscopes attached to a tether that provides power and transmits images back to a monitor. Within minutes, they can see 3-D images of their entire GI tract. The device is then withdrawn and sanitized for reuse. (The team even developed a technique for swallowing the capsule that doesn’t cause discomfort.) TCE is now being tested as a potential screen for Barrett’s Esophagus, a precursor of esophageal cancer. The Tearney Lab also is hopeful that the device can be used for early detection of a disease rampant in poorer countries: environmental enteric dysfunction, or EED. The affliction, which has no known cause, prevention, or treatment, inflames the intestines, hindering their ability to absorb nutrients and leaving victims malnourished. EED also can cause developmental delays. So Tearney’s team also has developed a smaller TCE for infants that will be tested this year in Pakistan. Beyond helping to detect EED cases, the probe could also help researchers figure out the cause of the disease and devise treatments. – T. G.
Microscopes are crucial to biomedical research, able to reveal increasingly detailed workings of cells and tissues. But high-performance imaging tools often are prohibitively expensive. Scientists from University College London, Britain’s Francis Crick Institute, and France’s Aix-Marseille University have devised a remedy: a state-of-the-art microscope built from Lego blocks. Their NanoJ-Fluidics microscope costs a fraction of more traditional optical instruments, yet loses nothing in performance. The researchers were able, for the first time, to observe samples of cells at precise moments—for instance, when they’re dividing or ailing. This is accomplished by manipulating the liquid environment of the cells, which enables subsequent imaging of the same cells at a much higher nanoscale resolution. Want to build one? The Lego hardware and software are fully open-source (on GitHub), so researchers anywhere in the world can construct their own versions. The team hopes that making the new, inexpensive tool widely available will lead to “unprecedented biological findings” and also inspire youngsters to use Lego “to do science.” Obviously, these guys aren’t just toying around. – T. G.
Unconscious biases can warp job interviews if managers and recruiters make subconscious assumptions about a candidate’s competence based on gender, ethnicity, education, appearance, or even hobbies. To help fix that problem, the BBC reports, Furhat Robotics, an artificial intelligence and robotics spin-off founded by researchers at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, has developed a robot job interviewer called Tengai. The life-size bust has a humanlike computer interface that mimics human vocal patterns and subtle facial expressions. Tengai can tilt its face, blink, and smile, so it can “seem human” yet conduct an unbiased job interview. Since last October, the BBC says, Tengai has been undergoing a trial run by TNG, one of Sweden’s largest recruitment firms. Recruiters or managers read transcripts of the interviews to help them decide which candidates should make the cut, based on their answers alone. To reduce the risk of bias being introduced through human programmers and human-compiled data sets, Furhat is using multiple test interviews from a diverse pool of volunteer recruiters so the robot doesn’t mimic the behavior of a solo interviewer. Tengai will start doing real job interviews in May with a goal of becoming sophisticated enough to determine which candidates should move on to the next level without human input. Spoiler alert: Once robots take over the entire workplace, even Tengai will be obsolete. – T. G.
One of the country’s leading developers of humanoid robots, the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), recently took on a three-year, $10 million project for the Office of Naval Research to develop a robot that can operate indoors and work alongside people, ideally as a shipboard firefighter, according to IEEE Spectrum. It’s hard to beat two legs for navigating stairs, ladders, and cluttered decks, but a humanoid that nimble has yet to be created. So IHMC is going to design a new type of bipedal robot from scratch, using a gymnast as an inspiration. The goal is to build a machine that can squat, crawl, curl into a ball, and make other gymnastic moves. Named Nadia, after Romanian Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci, the first gymnast to score a perfect 10, IHMC’s mock-up shows a multicolored, motorcycle helmet-wearing robot in a variety of yogalike poses. But Robert Griffin, an IHMC research scientist, tells Spectrum that the final version will look nothing like the prototype. The robot will likely stand around 6 feet tall, weigh just under 200 pounds, and be fully autonomous—though humans also will be able to take control, if necessary. The helmet, says Griffin, was just a placeholder, “as the head doesn’t have much of an influence on the rest of the body”—especially the legs and torso that his team initially is focused on. How human is that? – T. G.
Electrons are essential to life, fueling a complex chain of chemical reactions that provide energy from food before being exhaled. But some bacteria that thrive in extreme environments, like geothermal hot springs, dump their electrons into metals or minerals via protruding hairlike wires, producing electricity that potentially could be harvested for low-power applications. The conditions needed to sustain these rare microbes are hard to replicate in the lab, however. So Washington State University researchers tramped deep into Yellowstone National Park until they found four pristine alkaline hot springs. There, along the shore, they submerged carbon electrodes controlled by a cheap, portable potentiostat that one team member had invented, hoping to attract the elusive bacteria. Returning to the site 32 days later, the researchers found their traps had worked. Beyond their ability to “breathe” electricity, the bacteria can “eat” pollutants, converting them to less harmful substances while emitting electrons in the process—the ultimate power lunch. – T. G.
©Abdelrhman Mohamed, WSU
Qubits are the quantum cousins of classic computing’s binary units of information. But they need to be kept in cryogenic encasements to prevent them from inadvertently flipping into a different quantum state. That poses a wiring problem if control and readout circuits must remain at room temperature, as is the case with Google’s 72 quantum-bit computer, which has specially insulated coaxial cables wired in and out of the refrigerated compartment. There’s simply no room for the wires a minimum 1 million qubits would need. Working with academics at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and the University of California–Santa Barbara, Google researchers say they’ve developed a key control circuit—the pulse modulator that encodes quantum states on a qubit so that it executes a program—that can withstand the subfreezing cold, IEEE Spectrum reports. The controller runs at between room temperature and 3º Kelvin (-454.27º F) and uses less than 2 milliwatts of power (Google’s current processors require 1,000 times more power), so it produces minimal heat. Google says more work needs to be done to optimize this new processor, as well as figuring out how to make two other controllers work in superfreezing conditions. Nevertheless, it’s a (very) cool advance. – T. G.
©Erik Lucero, Google