The Future of Medicine: Elastic Superglue and DNA Clamps

nanomachineryIf there’s one thing medical science is looking to achieve, it’s ways of dealing with sickness and injuries that are less invasive. And now more than ever, researchers are looking to the natural world for solutions. Whether it is working with the bodies own components to promote healing, or using technologies that imitate living organism, the future of medicine is all about engineered-natural solutions.

Consider the elastic glue developed by associate professor Jeffrey Karp, a Canadian-born medical researcher working at Harvard University. Created for heart surgery, this medical adhesive is designed to replace sutures and staples as the principle means of sealing incisions and defects in heart tissue. But the real kicker? The glue was inspired by sticky natural secretions of slugs.

hlaa-4Officially known as hydrophobic light-activated adhesive (HLAA), the glue was developed in a collaboration between Boston Children’s Hospital, MIT, and Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. And in addition to being biocompatible and biodegradable (a major plus in surgery), it’s both water-resistant and elastic, allowing it to stretch as a beating heart expands and contracts.

All of this adds up to a medical invention that is far more user-friendly than stitches and staples, does not have to be removed, and will not cause complications. On top of all that, it won’t complicate healing by restricting the heart’s movements, and only becomes active when an ultraviolet light shines on it, so surgeons can more accurately bind the adhesive exactly where needed.

hlaa-3The technology could potentially be applied not just to congenital heart defects, but to a wide variety of organs and other body parts. In an recent interview with CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks, Karp explained the advantages of the glue:

Sutures and staples really are not mechanically similar to the tissues in the body, so they can induce stress on the tissue over time. This is a material that’s made from glycerol and sebacic acid, both of which exist in the body and can be readily metabolized. What happens over time is that this material will degrade. Cells will invade into it and on top of it, and ideally the hole will remain closed and the patient won’t require further operations.

In lab tests, biodegradable patches coated with HLAA were applied to holes in the hearts of live pigs. Despite the high pressure of the blood flowing through the organs, the patches maintained a leakproof seal for the 24-hour test period. HLAA is now being commercially developed by Paris-based start-up Gecko Biomedical, which hopes to have it on the market within two to three years.

dnaclampIn another recent development, scientists at the Université de Montréal have created a new DNA clamp capable of detecting the genetic mutations responsible for causing cancers, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia and other diseases. This clamp is not only able to detect mutations more efficiently than existing techniques, it could lead to more advanced screening tests and more efficient DNA-based nanomachines for targeted drug delivery.

To catch diseases at their earliest stages, researchers have begun looking into creating quick screening tests for specific genetic mutations that pose the greatest risk of developing into life-threatening illnesses. When the nucleotide sequence that makes up a DNA strand is altered, it is understood to be a mutation, which specific types of cancers can be caused by.

DNA-MicroarrayTo detect this type of mutation and others, researchers typically use molecular beacons or probes, which are DNA sequences that become fluorescent on detecting mutations in DNA strands. The team of international researchers that developed the DNA clamp state that their diagnostic nano machine allows them to more accurately differentiate between mutant and non-mutant DNA.

According to the research team, the DNA clamp is designed to recognize complementary DNA target sequences, binds with them, and form a stable triple helix structure, while fluorescing at the same time. Being able to identify single point mutations more easily this way is expected to help doctors identify different types of cancer risks and inform patients about the specific cancers they are likely to develop.

dna_cancerDiagnosing cancer at a genetic level could potentially help arrest the disease, before it even develops properly. Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, a Chemistry Professor at the Université de Montréal, explained the long-term benefits of this breakthrough in a recent interview:

Cancer is a very complex disease that is caused by many factors. However, most of these factors are written in DNA. We only envisage identifying the cancers or potential of cancer. As our understanding of the effect of mutations in various cancer will progress, early diagnosis of many forms of cancer will become more and more possible.

Currently the team has only tested the probe on artificial DNA, and plans are in the works to undertake testing on human samples. But the team also believes that the DNA clamp will have nanotechnological applications, specifically in the development of machines that can do targeted drug-delivery.

dna_nanomachineFor instance, in the future, DNA-based nanomachines could be assembled using many different small DNA sequences to create a 3D structure (like a box). When it encounters a disease marker, the box could then open up and deliver the anti-cancer drug, enabling smart drug delivery. What’s more, this new DNA clamp could prove intrinsic in that assembly process.

Professor Francesco Ricci of the University of Rome, who collaborated on the project, explained the potential in a recent interview:

The clamp switches that we have designed and optimized can recognize a DNA sequence with high precision and high affinity. This means that our clamp switches can be used, for example, as super-glue to assemble these nano machines and create a better and more precise 3D structure that can, for example, open in the presence of a disease marker and release a drug.

Hmm, glues inspired by mollusc secretions, machines made from DNA. Medical technology is looking less like technology and more like biology every day now!

Sources: cbc.ca, gizmag.com, (2)

Visions of the Future: Life in the 2030’s

future-city-1Gauging what life will be like down the road based on the emerging trends of today is something that scientists and speculative minds have been doing since the beginning of time. But given the rapid pace of change in the last century – and the way that it continues to accelerate – predicting future trends has become something of a virtual necessity today.

And the possibilities that are expected for the next generation are both awe-inspiring and cause for concern. On the one hand, several keen innovations are expected to become the norm in terms of transportation, education, health care and consumer trends. On the other, the growing problems of overpopulation, urbanization and Climate Change are likely to force some serious changes.

index-awards-horizontal-galleryHaving read through quite a bit of material lately that comes from design firms, laboratories, and grant funds that seek to award innovation, I decided to do a post that would take a look at how life is expected to change in the coming decades, based on what we are seeing at work today. So here we go, enjoy the ride, and remember to tip the driver!

Housing:
When it comes to designing the cities of the future – where roughly 5 of the worlds 8.25 billion people are going to live – meeting the basic needs of all these folks is complicated by the need to meet them in a sustainable way. Luckily, people all across the world are coming together to propose solutions to this problem, ranging from the small and crafty to the big and audacious.

wallsmart_paintConsider that buildings of the future could be coated with Smart Paint, a form of pigment that allows people to change the color of their domicile simply by pushing a button. Utilizing nano-particles that rearrange themselves to absorb a different part of the spectrum, the paint is able to reflect whatever wavelength of visible light the user desires, becoming that color and removing the need for new coats of paint.

And consider that apartments and houses in this day could be lighted by units that convert waste light energy from their light bulbs back into functional ambient light. This is the idea behind the Trap Light, a lamp that comes equipped with photoluminescent pigments embedded directly into the glass body. Through this process, 30 minutes of light from an incandescent or LED light bulb provides a few hours of ambient lighting.

trap_lightAnd in this kind of city, the use of space and resources has come to be very efficient, mainly because it has had to. In terms of low-rent housing, designs like the Warsaw-inspired Keret House are very popular, a narrow, 14-sqaure meter home that still manages to fit a bathroom, kitchen and bedroom. Being so narrow, city planners are able to squeeze these into the gaps between older buildings, its walls and floors snapping together like Lego.

When it comes to other, larger domiciles (like houses and apartment blocks), construction is likely to become a much more speedy and efficient process – relying on the tools of Computer-Assisted Design (CAD) and digital fabrication (aka. the D-process). Basically, the entire fabrication process is plotted in advance on computer, and then the pieces are tailor made in the factory and snapped together on site.


And lets not forget anti-gravity 3-D printing as a means of urban assembly, as proposed by architecture students from the Joris Laarman Lab in Amsterdam. Using quick-hardening materials and dispensed by robot-driven printers, entire apartment blocks – from electronic components to entire sections of wall – within a few days time. Speedier, safer and more efficient than traditional construction.

Within these buildings, water is recycled and treated, with grey water used to fertilize crops that are grown in house. Using all available spaces – dedicated green spaces, vertical agriculture, and “victory gardens” on balconies – residents are able to grow their own fruits and vegetables. And household 3-D food printers will dispense tailor-made treats, from protein-rich snacks and carb crackers to chocolate and cakes.

anti-grav3dAnd of course, with advances in smart home technology, you can expect that your appliances, thermostat, and display devices will all be predictive and able to anticipate your needs for the day. What’s more, they will all be networked and connected to you via a smartphone or some other such device, which by 2030, is likely to take the form of a smartwatch, smartring or smartbracelet.

Speaking of which…

Smart Devices and Appliances:
When it comes to living in the coming decades, the devices we use to manage our everyday lives and needs will have evolved somewhat. 3-D printing is likely to be an intrinsic part of this, manufacturing everything from food to consumer products. And when it comes to scanning things for the sake of printing them, generating goods on demand, handheld scanners are likely to become all the rage.

consumer_2030That’s where devices like the Mo.Mo. (pictured above) will come into play. According to Futurist Forum, this molecular scanning device scans objects around your house, tells you what materials they’re made from, and whether they can be re-created with a 3-D printer. Personal, household printers are also likely to be the norm, with subscriptions to open-source software sites leading to on-demand household manufacturing.

And, as already mentioned, everything in the home and workplace is likely to be connected to your person through a smart device or embedded chips. Consistent with the concept of the “Internet of Things”, all devices are likely to be able to communicate with you and let you know where they are in real time. To put that in perspective, imagine SIRI speaking to you in the form of your car keys, telling you they are under the couch.

future-officeTelepresence, teleconferencing and touchscreens made out of every surface are also likely to have a profound effect. When a person wakes in the morning, the mirror on the wall will have displays telling them the date, time, temperature, and any messages and emails they received during the night. When they are in the shower, the wall could comforting images while music plays. This video from Corning Glass illustrates quite well:


And the current range of tablets, phablets and smartphones are likely to be giving way to flexible, transparent, and ultralight/ultrathin handhelds and wearables that use projection and holographic technology. These will allow a person to type, watch video, or just interface with cyberspace using augmented reality instead of physical objects (like a mouse or keyboard).

And devices which can convert, changing from a smartphone to a tablet to a smartwatch (and maybe even glasses) are another predicted convenience. Relying on nanofabrication technology, Active-Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode (AMOLED) technology, and touch-sensitive surfaces, these devices are sure to corner the market of electronics. A good example is Nokia’s Morph concept, shown here:


Energy Needs:

In the cities of the near-future, how we generate electricity for all our household appliances, devices and possibly robots will be a going concern. And in keeping with the goal of sustainability, those needs are likely to be met by solar, wind, piezoelectric, geothermal and tidal power wherever possible. By 2030, buildings are even expected to have arrays built in to them to ensure that they can meet their own energy needs independently.

strawscaperThis could look a lot like the Strawscraper (picture above), where thousands of fronds utilize wind currents to generate electricity all day long; or fields filled with Windstalks – where standing carbon-fiber reinforced poles generate electricity by simply swaying with the wind. Wind farms, or wind tunnels and turbines (as envisioned with the Pertamina Energy Tower in Jakarta) could also be used by buildings to do the same job.

In addition, solar panels mounted on the exterior would convert daylight into energy. Assuming these buildings are situated in low-lying areas, superheated subterranean steam could easily be turned into sources of power through underground pipes connected to turbines. And for buildings located near the sea, turbines placed in the harbor could do the same job by capturing the energy of the tides.

asiancairns_pl14mFurthermore, piezoelectric devices could be used to turn everyday activity into electricity.  Take the Pavegen as an example, a material composed of recycled tires and piezoelectric motors that turns steps into energy. Equipping every hallway, stairwell and touch surface with tensile material and motors, just about everything residents do in a building could become a source of added power.

On top of that, piezoelectric systems could be embedded in roads and on and off ramps, turning automobile traffic into electrical power. In developed countries, this is likely to take the form of advanced materials that create electrical charges when compressed. But for developing nations, a simple system of air cushions and motors could also be effective, as demonstrated by Macías Hernández’ proposed system for Mexico City.

And this would seem like a good segue into the issue of…

Mass Transit:
future-city3According to UN surveys, roughly 60% of the world’s population will live in cities by the year 2030. Hopefully, the 5.1 billion of us negotiating tight urban spaces by then will have figured out a better way to get around. With so many people packed into dense urban environments, it is simply not practical for all these individuals to rely on smog-emitting automobiles.

For the most part, this can be tackled by the use of mass transit that is particularly fast and efficient, which are the very hallmarks of maglev trains. And while most current designs are already speedy and produce a smaller carbon footprint than armies of cars, next-generation designs like the Hyperloop, The Northeast Maglev (TNEM), and the Nagoya-Tokyo connector are even more impressive.

scmaglev-rendering-washington-stationDubbed by Elon Musk as the “fifth form” of transportation, these systems would rely on linear electric motors, solar panels, and air cushions to achieve speeds of up to 1290 kilometers per hour (800 mph). In short, they would be able to transport people from Los Angeles and San Francisco in 30 minutes, from New York to Washington D.C. in 60 minutes, and from Nagoya to Tokyo in just 41.

When it comes to highways, future designs are likely to take into account keeping electric cars charged over long distances. Consider the example that comes to us from Sweden, where Volvo is also working to create an electric highway that has embedded electrical lines that keep cars charged over long distances. And on top of that, highways in the future are likely to be “smart”.

electric-highwayFor example, the Netherlands-based Studio Roosegaarde has created a concept which relies on motion sensors to detect oncoming vehicles and light the way for them, then shuts down to reduce energy consumption. Lane markings will use glow-in-the-dark paint to minimize the need for lighting, and another temperature-sensitive paint will be used to show ice warnings when the surface is unusually cold.

In addition, the road markings are expected to have longer-term applications, such as being integrated into a robot vehicle’s intelligent monitoring systems. As automated systems and internal computers become more common, smart highways and smart cars are likely to become integrated through their shared systems, taking people from A to B with only minimal assistance from the driver.

smart-highwaysAnd then there’s the concept being used for the future of the Pearl River Delta. This 39,380 square-km (15,200 square-mile) area in southeastern China encompasses a network of rapidly booming cities like Shenzhen, which is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. It’s also one of the most polluted, thanks to the urban growth bringing with it tons of commuters, cars, and vehicle exhaust.

That’s why NODE Architecture & Urbanism – a Chinese design firm – has come up with a city plan for 2030 that plans put transportation below ground, freeing up a whole city above for more housing and public space. Yes, in addition to mass transit – like subways – even major highways will be relegated to the earth, with noxious fumes piped and tunneled elsewhere, leaving the cityscape far less polluted and safer to breathe.

Personal cars will not be gone, however. Which brings us to…

Personal Transit:
electric_carIn the future, the majority of transport is likely to still consist of automobiles, albeit ones that overwhelmingly rely on electric, hydrogen, biofuel or hybrid engines to get around. And keeping these vehicles fueled is going to be one of the more interesting aspects of future cities. For instance, electric cars will need to stay charged when in use in the city, and charge stations are not always available.

That’s where companies like HEVO Power come into play, with its concept of parking chargers that can offer top-ups for electric cars. Having teamed up with NYU Polytechnic Institute to study the possibility of charging parked vehicles on the street, they have devised a manhole c0ver-like device that can be installed in a parking space, hooked up to the city grid, and recharge batteries while commuters do their shopping.

chevy_envAnd when looking at individual vehicles, one cannot underestimate the role by played by robot cars. Already, many proposals are being made by companies like Google and Chevrolet for autonomous vehicles that people will be able to summon using their smartphone. In addition, the vehicles will use GPS navigation to automatically make their way to a destination and store locations in its memory for future use.

And then there’s the role that will be played by robotaxis and podcars, a concept which is already being put to work in Masdar Eco City in the United Arab Emirates, San Diego and (coming soon) the UK town of Milton Keynes. In the case of Masdar, the 2GetThere company has built a series of rails that can accommodate 25,000 people a month and are consistent with the city’s plans to create clean, self-sustaining options for transit.

Robotaxi_2getthereIn the case of San Diego, this consists of a network known as the Personal Rapid Transit System – a series of on-call, point to point transit cars which move about on main lines and intermediate stations to find the quickest route to a destination. In Britian, similar plans are being considered for the town of Milton Keynes – a system of 21 on-call podcars similar to what is currently being employed by Heathrow Airport.

But of course, not all future transportation needs will be solved by MagLev trains or armies of podcars. Some existing technologies – such as the bicycle – work pretty well, and just need to be augmented. Lightlane is a perfect example of this, a set of lasers and LED lights that bikers use to project their own personal bike lane from under the seat as they ride.

lightlaneAnd let’s not forget the Copenhagen Wheel, a device invented by MIT SENSEable City Lab back in 2009 to electrify the bicycle. Much like other powered-bicycle devices being unveiled today, this electric wheel has a power assist feature to aid the rider, a regenerative braking system that stores energy, and is controlled by sensors in the peddles and comes with smart features can be controlled via a smartphone app.

On top of all that, some research actually suggests that separating modes of transportation – bike lanes, car lanes, bus lanes, etc. – actually does more harm than good to the people using them. In Europe, the traffic concept known as “shared spaces” actually strips paths of traffic markings and lights, and allow walkers and drivers to negotiate their routes on their own.

transportation_tripanelShared spaces create more consideration and consciousness for other people using them, which is why the Boston architecture firm Höweler + Yoon designed the “Tripanel” as part of their larger vision for the Boston-Washington corridor (aka. “Boswash”). The Tripanel features a surface that switches among grass, asphalt, and photovoltaic cells, offering a route for pedestrians, bikers, and electric cars.

Education:
When it comes to schooling ourselves and our children, the near future is likely to see some serious changes, leading to a virtual reinventing of educational models. For some time now, educators have been predicting how the plurality of perspectives and the rise of a globalized mentality would cause the traditional mode of learning (i.e. centralized schools, transmission learning) to break down.

Classroom-of-the-Future01And according to other speculative thinkers, such as Salim Ismail – the director of Singularity University – education will cease being centralized at all and become an “on-demand service”. In this model, people will simply “pull down a module of learning”, and schooldays and classrooms will be replaced by self-directed lessons and “microlearning moments”.

In this new learning environment, teleconferencing, telepresence, and internet resources are likely to be the main driving force. And while the size and shape of future classrooms is difficult to predict, it is likely that classroom sizes will be smaller by 2030, with just a handful of students using portable devices and display glasses to access information while under the guidance of a teacher.

envisioning-the-future-of-educationAt the same time, classrooms are likely to be springing up everywhere, in the forms of learning annexes in apartment buildings, or home-school environments. Already, this is an option for distance education, where students and teachers are connected through the internet. With the addition of more sophisticated technology, and VR environments, students will be able to enter “virtual classrooms” and connect across vast distances.

According to Eze Vidra, the head of Google Entrepreneurs Europe: “School kids will learn from short bite-sized modules, and gamification practices will be incorporated in schools to incentivize children to progress on their own.” In short, education will become a self-directed, or (in the case of virtual environments) disembodied experienced that are less standardized, more fun, and more suited to individual needs.

Health:
medtechMany experts believe that medicine in the future is likely to shift away from addressing illness to prevention. Using thin, flexible, skin-mounted, embedded, and handheld sensors, people will be able to monitor their health on a daily basis, receiving up-to-date information on their blood pressure, cholesterol, kidney and liver values, and the likelihood that they might contract diseases in their lifetime.

All of these devices are likely to be bundled in one way or another, connected via smartphone or other such device to a person’s home computer or account. Or, as Ariel Schwatz of CoExist anticipates, they could come in the form of a “Bathroom GP”, where a series of devices like a Dr.Loo and Dr. Sink measure everything from kidney function to glucose levels during a routine trip.

doctor_bathroomBasically, these smart toilets and sinks screen for illnesses by examining your spittle, feces, urine and other bodily fluids, and then send that data to a microchip embedded inside you or on a wristband. This info is analyzed and compared to your DNA patterns and medical records to make sure everything is within the normal range. The chip also measures vital signs, and Dr Mirror displays all the results.

However, hospitals will still exist to deal with serious cases, such as injuries or the sudden onset of illnesses. But we can also expect them to be augmented thanks to the incorporation of new biotech, nanotech and bionic advances. With the development of bionic replacement limbs and mind-controlled prosthetics proceeding apace, every hospital in the future is likely to have a cybernetics or bioenhancement ward.

Prosthetic armWhat’s more, the invention of bioprinting, where 3-D printers are able to turn out replacement organic parts on demand, is also likely to seriously alter the field of medical science. If people are suffering from a failing heart, liver, kidney, or have ruined their knees or other joints, they can simply put in at the bioprinting lab and get some printed replacement parts prepared.

And as a final, encouraging point, diseases like cancer and HIV are likely to be entirely curable. With many vaccines that show the ability to not only block, but even kill, the HIV virus in production, this one-time epidemic is likely to be a thing of the past by 2030. And with a cure for cancer expected in coming years, people in 2030 are likely to view it the same way people view polio or tetanus today. In short, dangerous, but curable!

Buying/Selling:
future_money2When it comes to living in 2030, several trends are expected to contribute to people’s economic behavior. These include slow economic growth, collaborative consumption, 3-D printing, rising costs, resource scarcity, an aging population, and powerful emerging economies. Some of these trends are specific, but all of them will effect the behavior of future generations, mainly because the world of the future will be even more integrated.

As already noted, 3-D printers and scanners in the home are likely to have a profound effect on the consumer economy, mainly by giving rise to an on-demand manufacturing ethos. This, combined with online shopping, is likely to spell doom for the department store, a process that is already well underway in most developed nations (thanks to one-stop shopping).

sharing economy brandHowever, the emergence of the digital economy is also creating far more in the way of opportunities for micro-entrepreneurship and what is often referred to as the “sharing economy”. This represents a convergence between online reviews, online advertising of goods and services, and direct peer-to-peer buying and selling that circumvents major distributors.

This trend, which is not only reaching back in time to reestablish a bartering economy, but is also creating a “trust metric”, whereby companies, brand names, and even individuals are being measured by to their reputation, which in turn is based on their digital presence and what it says about them. Between a “sharing economy” and a “trust economy”, the economy of the future appears highly decentralized.

bitcoinFurther to this is the development of cryptocurrencies, a digital medium of exchange that relies solely on consumer demand to establish its value – not gold standards, speculators or centralized banks. The first such currency was Bitcoin, which emerged in 2009, but which has since been joined by numerous others like Litecoin, Namecoin, Peercoin, Ripple, Worldcoin, Dogecoin, and Primecoin.

In this especially, the world of 2030 is appearing to be a very fluid place, where wealth depends on spending habits and user faith alone, rather than the power of governments, financial organizations, or centralized bureaucracies. And with this movement into “democratic anarchy” underway, one can expect the social dynamics of nations and the world to change dramatically.

Space Travel!:
space_cameraThis last section is of such significance that it simply must end with an exclamation mark. And this is simply because by 2030, many missions and projects that will pave the way towards a renewed space age will be happening… or not. It all comes down to whether or not the funding is made available, public interest remains high, and the design and engineering concepts involved hold true.

However, other things are likely to become the norm, such as space tourism. Thanks to visionaries like World View and Richard Branson (the pioneer of space tourism with Virgin Galactic), trips to the lower atmosphere are likely to become a semi-regular occurrence, paving the way not only for off-world space tourism, but aerospace transit across the globe as well.

asteroid_neo_studyPrivate space exploration will also be in full-swing, thanks to companies like Google’s Space X and people like Elon Musk. This year, Space X is preparing for the first launch of it’s Falcon Heavy rocket, a move which will bring affordable space flight that much closer. And by 2030, affordability will be the hallmarks of private ventures into space, which will likely include asteroid mining and maybe the construction of space habitats.

2030 is also the year that NASA plans to send people to Mars, using the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and a redesigned Saturn V rocket. Once there, the crew will conduct surface studies and build upon the vast legacy of the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity Rovers to determine what Mars once looked like. This will surely be a media event, the likes of which has not been seen since the Moon Landing.

Mars_OneSpeaking of media events, by 2030, NASA may not even be the first space agency or organization to set foot on Mars. Not if Mars One, a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands, get’s its way and manages to land a group of colonists there by 2023. And they are hardly alone, as Elon Musk has already expressed an interest in establishing a colony of 80,000 people on the Red Planet sometime in the future.

And Inspiration Mars, another non-profit organization hosted by space adventurist Dennis Tito, will have already sent an astronaut couple on a round-trip to Mars and back (again, if all goes as planned). The mission, which is currently slated for 2018 when the planets are in alignment, will therefore be a distant memory, but will serve as an example to all the private space ventures that will have followed.


In addition to Mars, one-way trips are likely to be taking place to other celestial bodies as well. For instance, Objective Europa – a non-profit made up of  scientists, conceptual artists, and social-media experts – plans to send a group of volunteers to the Jovian moon of Europa as well. And while 2030 seems a bit soon for a mission, it is likely that (if it hasn’t been scrapped) the program will be in the advanced stages by then.

NASA and other space agencies are also likely to be eying Europa at this time and perhaps even sending ships there to investigate the possibility of life beneath it’s icy surface. Relying on recent revelations about the planet’s ice sheet being thinnest at the equator, a lander or space penetrator is sure to find its way through the ice and determine once and for all if the warm waters below are home to native life forms.

europa-lander-2By 2030, NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM satellites will also have studied the Martian atmosphere, no doubt providing a much fuller picture of its disappearance. At the same time, NASA will have already towed an asteroid to within the Moon’s orbit to study it, and begun constructing an outpost at the L2 Lagrange Point on the far side of the Moon, should all go as planned.

And last, but certainly not least, by 2030, astronauts from NASA, the ESA, and possibly China are likely to be well on their way towards the creation of a permanent outpost on the Moon. Using a combination of 3-D printing, robots, and sintering technology, future waves of astronauts and settlers will have permanent domes made directly out of regolith with which to conduct research on the Lunar surface.

ESA_moonbaseAll of these adventures will help pave the way to a future where space tourism to other planets, habitation on the Moon and Mars, and ventures to the asteroid belt (which will solve humanity’s resource problem indefinitely), will all be the order of the day.

Summary:
To break it all down succinctly, the world of 2030 is likely to be rather different than the one we are living in right now. At the same time though, virtually all the developments that characterize it – growing populations, bigger cities, Climate Change, alternative fuels and energy, 3-D printing, cryptocurrencies, and digital devices and communications – are already apparent now.

Still, as these trends and technologies continue to expand and are distributed to more areas of the world – not to mention more people, as they come down in price – humanity is likely to start taking them for granted. The opportunities they open, and the dependency they create, will have a very deterministic effect on how people live and how the next generation will be shaped.

All in all, 2030 will be a  very interesting time because it will be here that so many developments – the greatest of which will be Climate Change and the accelerating pace of technological change – will be on the verge of reaching the tipping point. By 2050, both of these factors are likely to come to a head, taking humanity in entirely different directions and vying for control of our future.

Basically, as the natural environment reels from the effects of rising temperatures and an estimated CO2 concentration of 600 ppm in the upper atmosphere, the world will come to be characterized by famine, scarcity, shortages, and high mortality. At the same time, the accelerating pace of technology promises to lead to a new age where abundance, post-scarcity and post-mortality are the norm.

So in the end, 2030 will be a sort of curtain raiser for the halfway point of the 21st century, during which time, humanity’s fate will have become largely evident. I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping things turn out okay, because our children are surely expecting to have children of their own, and I know they would like to leave behind a world the latter could also live in!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2), (3), cnn.com, designtoimprovelife.dk, un.org

The Future of Computing: Brain-Like Computers

neuronsIt’s no secret that computer scientists and engineers are looking to the human brain as means of achieving the next great leap in computer evolution. Already, machines are being developed that rely on machine blood, can continue working despite being damaged, and recognize images and speech. And soon, a computer chip that is capable of learning from its mistakes will also be available.

The new computing approach, already in use by some large technology companies, is based on the biological nervous system – specifically on how neurons react to stimuli and connect with other neurons to interpret information. It allows computers to absorb new information while carrying out a task, and adjust what they do based on the changing signals.

brain_chip2The first commercial version of the new kind of computer chip is scheduled to be released in 2014, and was the result of a collaborative effort between I.B.M. and Qualcomm, as well as a Stanford research team. This “neuromorphic processor” can not only automate tasks that once required painstaking programming, but can also sidestep and even tolerate errors, potentially making the term “computer crash” obsolete.

In coming years, the approach will make possible a new generation of artificial intelligence systems that will perform some functions that humans do with ease: see, speak, listen, navigate, manipulate and control. That can hold enormous consequences for tasks like facial and speech recognition, navigation and planning, which are still in elementary stages and rely heavily on human programming.

googleneuralnetworkFor example, computer vision systems only “recognize” objects that can be identified by the statistics-oriented algorithms programmed into them. An algorithm is like a recipe, a set of step-by-step instructions to perform a calculation. But last year, Google researchers were able to get a machine-learning algorithm, known as a “Google Neural Network”, to perform an identification task (involving cats) without supervision.

And this past June, the company said it had used those neural network techniques to develop a new search service to help customers find specific photos more accurately. And this past November, researchers at Standford University came up with a new algorithm that could give computers the power to more reliably interpret language. It’s known as the Neural Analysis of Sentiment (NaSent).

deep_learning_laptopA similar concept known as Deep Leaning is also looking to endow software with a measure of common sense. Google is using this technique with their voice recognition technology to aid in performing searches. In addition, the social media giant Facebook is looking to use deep learning to help them improve Graph Search, an engine that allows users to search activity on their network.

Until now, the design of computers was dictated by ideas originated by the mathematician John von Neumann about 65 years ago. Microprocessors perform operations at lightning speed, following instructions programmed using long strings of binary code (0s and 1s). The information is stored separately in what is known as memory, either in the processor itself, in adjacent storage chips or in higher capacity magnetic disk drives.

neural-networksBy contrast, the new processors consist of electronic components that can be connected by wires that mimic biological synapses. Because they are based on large groups of neuron-like elements, they are known as neuromorphic processors, a term credited to the California Institute of Technology physicist Carver Mead, who pioneered the concept in the late 1980s.

These processors are not “programmed”, in the conventional sense. Instead, the connections between the circuits are “weighted” according to correlations in data that the processor has already “learned.” Those weights are then altered as data flows in to the chip, causing them to change their values and to “spike.” This, in turn, strengthens some connections and weakens others, reacting much the same way the human brain does.

Neuromorphic-chip-640x353In the words of Dharmendra Modha, an I.B.M. computer scientist who leads the company’s cognitive computing research effort:

Instead of bringing data to computation as we do today, we can now bring computation to data. Sensors become the computer, and it opens up a new way to use computer chips that can be everywhere.

One great advantage of the new approach is its ability to tolerate glitches, whereas traditional computers are cannot work around the failure of even a single transistor. With the biological designs, the algorithms are ever changing, allowing the system to continuously adapt and work around failures to complete tasks. Another benefit is energy efficiency, another inspiration drawn from the human brain.

IBM_stacked3dchipsThe new computers, which are still based on silicon chips, will not replace today’s computers, but augment them; at least for the foreseeable future. Many computer designers see them as coprocessors, meaning they can work in tandem with other circuits that can be embedded in smartphones and the centralized computers that run computing clouds.

However, the new approach is still limited, thanks to the fact that scientists still do not fully understand how the human brain functions. As Kwabena Boahen, a computer scientist who leads Stanford’s Brains in Silicon research program, put it:

We have no clue. I’m an engineer, and I build things. There are these highfalutin theories, but give me one that will let me build something.

calit2PhotoLuckily, there are efforts underway that are designed to remedy this, with the specific intention of directing that knowledge towards the creation of better computers and AIs. One such effort comes from the National Science Foundation financed the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines, a new research center based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with Harvard and Cornell.

Another is the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (aka. Calit2) – a center dedicated to innovation in nanotechnology, life sciences, information technology, and telecommunications. As
Larry Smarr, an astrophysicist and director of Institute, put it:

We’re moving from engineering computing systems to something that has many of the characteristics of biological computing.

Human-Brain-project-Alp-ICTAnd last, but certainly not least, is the Human Brain Project, an international group of 200 scientists from 80 different research institutions and based in Lausanne, Switzerland. Having secured the $1.6 billion they need to fund their efforts, these researchers will spend the next ten years conducting research that cuts across multiple disciplines.

This initiative, which has been compared to the Large Hadron Collider, will attempt to reconstruct the human brain piece-by-piece and gradually bring these cognitive components into an overarching supercomputer. The expected result of this research will be new platforms for “neuromorphic computing” and “neurorobotics,” allowing for the creation of computing and robotic architectures that mimic the functions of the human brain.

neuromorphic_revolutionWhen future generations look back on this decade, no doubt they will refer to it as the birth of the neuromophic computing revolution. Or maybe just Neuromorphic Revolution for short, but that sort of depends on the outcome. With so many technological revolutions well underway, it is difficult to imagine how the future will look back and characterize this time.

Perhaps, as Charles Stross suggest, it will simply be known as “the teens”, that time in pre-Singularity history where it was all starting to come together, but was yet to explode and violently change everything we know. I for one am looking forward to being around to witness it all!

Sources: nytimes.com, technologyreview.com, calit2.net, humanbrainproject.eu

The Future is Weird: Cyborg Sperm!

cyborg_sperm1Finding ways to merge the biological and the technological, thus creating the best of both worlds, is one of the hallmarks of our new age. Already, we have seen how bionic appendages that connect and calibrate to people’s nerve signals can restore mobility and sensation to injured patients. And EEG devices that can read and interpret brainwaves are allowing man-machine interface like never before.

But cyborg sperm? That is something that might require an explanation. You see, sperm cells have an awesome swimming ability. And wanting to take advantage of this, Oliver Schmidt and a team researchers at the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences in Dresden, Germany, combined individual sperm cells with tiny magnetic metal tubes to create the first sperm-based biobots.

Cyborg_Sperm3This means we now have a way to control a cell’s direction inside the body, a breakthrough that could lead to efficient microscopic robots – one which are not entirely mechanical. To make the “biohybrid micro-robot,” Schmidt and his colleagues captured and trapped bull sperm inside magnetic microtubes, leaving the tail outside.

To create the spermbots, the team made microtubes 50 microns long, by 5 to 8 microns in diameter from iron and titanium nanoparticles. They added the tubes to a fluid containing thawed bull sperm. Because one end of each tube was slightly narrower than the other, sperm that swam into the wider end become trapped, headfirst, with their flagella still free.

cyborg_sperm2With mobility taken care of, the team moved on to the matter of how to control and direct the microtubes. For this, they chose to rely on a system of external magnetic fields which work the same way as a compass needle does, by aligning with the Earth’s magnetic field. This enabled the team to control the direction in which the sperm swam, adjusting their speed through the application of heat.

According to the researchers, the option of using sperm as the basis for a biohybrid micro-robot is attractive because they are harmless to the human body, they provide their own power, and they can swim through viscous liquids – such as blood and other bodily fluids. As the researchers said in their paper:

The combination of a biological power source and a microdevice is a compelling approach to the development of new microrobotic devices with fascinating future application.

cyborg_spermGranted, the idea of cybernetic sperm swimming through our systems might not seem too appealing. But think of the benefits for fertility treatments and inter-uteran health. In the future, tiny biohybrid robots like these could be used to shepherd individual sperm to eggs, making for more effective artificial insemination. They could also  deliver targeted doses of drugs to uteran tissue that is either infected or cancerous.

And if nothing else, it helps to demonstrate the leaps and bounds that are being made in the field of  biotechnology and nanotechnology of late. At its current rate of development, we could be seeing advanced medimachines and DNA-based nanobots becoming a part of regular medical procedures in just a few years time.

And while we’re waiting, check out this video of the “cyborg sperm” in action, courtesy of New Scientist:


Sources:
IO9, newscientist.com

The Future is Here: Smarty Rings

smarty-ringsOkay, its not exactly here yet, but the implications of this idea could be a game changer. It’s known as the Smarty Ring, a crowdfunded idea being advertised on Indiegogo by a group of inventors in Chennai, India. And at its core is a waterproof, stainless steel band that will feature an LED screen and connect to your phone via Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology.

For some time now, the Chennai-based group has been the source of some controversy, due mainly to the fact that they have no working prototypes of the ring, but also because they have not identified themselves beyond giving their location. They also freely admit that the photos of the Smarty Ring on Indiegogo and on their website are photoshopped.

smarty-rings1Surprisingly, this has not prevented them from being able to mount their campaign to raise money for its development. While the crowdfunding site Kickstarter has rules requiring creators to be clear about the state of a project’s development and show a prototype “demonstrating the product’s current functionality,” Indiegogo has no such rules.

However, this has not stopped their campaign – which officially closed at 11:00 am ET on Dec.11th, 2013 – from raising a total of $299,349 from their original goal of $40,000. Numerous blueprints of what the watch would look like, including detailed images of its electronics, are also available on their campaign page. What’s more, the group is still taking advanced orders and offering discount pricing to anyone who orders one before Dec.30th.

smarty-rings3Also, the group has become much less clandestine since the campaign closed. In response to questions, group spokesperson Karthik said the project was founded by Chennai-based mechatronics engineer Ashok Kumar, and that their team of inventors includes electronic and computer engineers with experience in robotics and nanotechnology.

Ultimately, the goal of the project was to create a high-tech gadget that would also double as “high-end fashion jewelry,” according to an email to CBC News from the team’s marketing director, Karthik, who did not give his last name. The group also claims on their website that the average smartphone user checks their phone every six minutes, and promises to make that unnecessary, saving time and the battery life of the smartphone.

smarty-rings4According to the The Smarty Ring’s site, the features are to include:

  • A clock with stop watch, timer and alarm
  • Notifications of calls, text and email messages, and social networking updates from services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Skype
  • Phone controls that let users accept or reject incoming calls, make outgoing calls to preset numbers, and control music or the phone’s camera
  • A phone tracking feature that beeps when your phone gets more than nine meters away from you
  • The ring charges wirelessly and its creators guarantee 24 hours of battery life

The Smarty Ring team says the retail price for the device will be $275, but backers and people who preorder before Dec.30th will be able to get one at the reduced price of $175. They estimate that delivery will begin sometime in April of 2014. They are also offering cheaper versions that include only the tracking feature or the clock and tracking features.

smarty-rings5Needless to say, if this is a scam, it is clearly a well-thought out and elaborate one. Not only is the idea of a smart ring that can connect wirelessly to other devices and do the job of a smartphone entirely within the bounds of current and developing technology, its a very cool idea. But if it is in fact real, its realization could mean a new wave of innovation and design for the smart devices market.

Currently, designers and developers are working towards the creation of smartwatches, smartphones, tablets and phablets that are not only smaller and much thinner, but also flexible and transparent. An even smaller device, such as a ring or bracelet, that can do the same job but be far more ergonomic, may be just what the market ordered!

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this promotional video from the Smarty Ring website. And be sure to check out their website and determine for yourself if they are liars, inventors, or just plain dreamers:


Sources:
cbc.ca, indiegogo.com

Birth of an Idea: Seedlings

alien-worldHey all! Hope this holidays season finds you warm, cozy, and surrounded by loved ones. And I thought I might take this opportunity to talk about an idea I’ve been working on. While I’m still searching for a proper title, the one I’ve got right now is Seedlings. This represents an idea which has been germinated in my mind for some time, ever since I saw a comprehensive map of the Solar System and learned just how many potentially habitable worlds there are out there.

Whenever we talk of colonization, planting the seed (you see where the title comes from now, yes?) of humanity on distant worlds, we tend to think of exoplanets. In other words, we generally predict that humanity will live on worlds beyond our Solar System, if and when such things ever become reality. Sure, allowances are made for Mars, and maybe Ganymede, in these scenarios, but we don’t seem to think of all the other moons we have in our Solar System.

solar_systemFor instance, did you know that in addition to our system’s 11 planets and planetoids, there are 166 moons in our Solar System, the majority of which (66) orbit Jupiter? And granted, while many are tiny little balls of rock that few people would ever want to live on, by my count, that still leaves 12 candidates for living. Especially when you consider that most have their own sources of water, even if it is in solid form.

And that’s where I began with the premise for Seedlings. The way I see it, in the distant future, humanity would expand to fill every corner of the Solar System before moving on to other stars. And in true human fashion, we would become divided along various geographic and ideological lines. In my story, its people’s attitudes towards technology that are central to this divide, with people falling into either the Seedling or Chartrist category.

nanomachineryThe Seedlings inhabit the Inner Solar System and are dedicated to embracing the accelerating nature of technology. As experts in nanotech and biotech, they establish new colonies by planting Seeds, tiny cultures of microscopic, programmed bacteria that convert the landscape into whatever they wish. Having converted Venus, Mars, and the Jovian satellites into livable worlds, they now enjoy an extremely advanced and high standard of living.

The Chartrists, on the other hand, are people committed to limiting the invasive and prescriptive nature technology has over our lives. They were formed at some point in the 21st century, when the Technological Singularity loomed, and signed a Charter whereby they swore not to embrace augmentation and nanotechnology beyond a certain point. While still technically advanced, they are limited compared to their Seedling cousins.

terraforming-mars2With life on Earth, Mars and Venus (colonized at this time) becoming increasingly complicated, the Chartrists began colonizing in the outer Solar System. Though they colonized around Jupiter, the Jovians eventualy became Seedling territory, leaving just the Saturnalian and Uranian moons for the Chartrists to colonize, with a small string of neutral planets lying in between.

While no open conflicts have ever taken place between the two sides, a sort of detente has settled in after many generations. The Solar System is now glutted by humans, and new frontiers are needed for expansion. Whereas the Seedlings have been sending missions to all suns within 20 light-years from Sol, many are looking to the Outer Solar System as a possible venue for expansion.

exoplanets1At the same time, the Chartrists see the Seedling expansion as a terrible threat to their ongoing way of life, and some are planning for an eventual conflict. How will this all play out? Well, I can tell you it will involve a lot of action and some serious social commentary! Anyway, here is the breakdown of the Solar Colonies, who owns them, and what they are dedicated to:

Inner Solar Colonies:
The home of the Seedlings, the most advanced and heavily populated worlds in the Solar System. Life here is characterized by rapid progress and augmentation through nanotechnology and biotechnology. Socially, they are ruled by a system of distributed power, or democratic anarchy, where all citizens are merged into the decision making process through neural networking.

Mercury: source of energy for the entire inner solar system
Venus: major agricultural center, leader in biomaterial construction
Earth: birthplace of humanity, administrative center
Mars: major population center, transit hub between inner colonies and Middle worlds

Middle Worlds:
A loose organization of worlds beyond Mars, including the Jovian and Saturnalian satellites. Those closest to the Sun are affiliated with the Seedlings, the outer ones the Chartrists, and with some undeclared in the middle. Life on these worlds is mixed, with the Jovian satellites boasting advanced technology, augmentation, and major industries supplying the Inner Colonies. The Saturnalian worlds are divided, with the neutral planets boasting a high level of technical advancement and servicing people on all sides. The two Chartrist moons are characterized by more traditional settlements, with thriving industry and a commitment to simpler living.

Ceres: commercial nexus of the Asteroid Belt, source of materials for solar system (S)
Europa: oceanic planet, major resort and luxury living locale (S)
Ganymede: terraforming operation, agricultural world (S)
Io: major source of energy for the Middle World (N)
Calisto: mining operations, ice, water, minerals (N)
Titan: major population center, transit point to inner colonies (N)
Tethys: oceanic world, shallow seas, major tourist destination (N)
Dione: major mining colony to outer colonies (C)
Rhea: agricultural center for outer colonies (C)

Outer Solar Colonies:
The Neptunian moons of the outer Solar System are exclusively populated by Chartrist populations, people committed to a simpler way of life and dedicated to ensuring that augmentation and rapid progress are limited. Settlements on these worlds boast a fair degree of technical advancement, but are significantly outmatched by the Seedlings. They also boast a fair degree of industry and remain tied to the Inner and Middle Worlds through the export of raw materials and the import of technical devices.

Miranda: small ice planet, source of water (C)
Ariel: agricultural world, small biomaterial industry and carbon manufacturing (C)
Umbriel: agricultural world, small biomaterial industry and carbon manufacturing (C)
Titania: agricultural world, small biomaterial industry and carbon manufacturing (C)
Oberon: agricultural world, small biomaterial industry and carbon manufacturing (C)
Triton: source of elemental nitrogen, water, chaotic landscape (C)

The Future is Here: Weight-Controlling Implants

genetic_circuitObesity is one of the greatest epidemics effecting children in the developed world, resulting in billions spent annually on fad diets, miracle foods, and exercise programs. But researchers ETH-Zurich have come up with a potential high-tech solution to the problem. It consists of an implant that monitors fat in the blood and, in response to elevated levels, it produces a substance that tells the body that it’s not hungry.

The method relies on a “genetic circuit”, a component that perform logical operations in living cells. Originally developed by Boston University biomedical engineers Ahmad S. Khalil and James J. Collins, the regulatory circuit is put together using mostly biological components. These consisted of several genes that generate particular proteins and reactions. This compound was inserted into tiny capsules.

weight_control_implantThe circuit essentially performs two functions: monitoring the circulating fat levels in the blood, and then, in the event of detecting excess levels, produces a messenger substance that conveys a cognitive response that tells the user they are full and sated. For the sake of the experiment, the mice were continually given high-fat foods. As ETH-Zurich professor Martin Fussenegger explained in a statement:

Instead of placing the mice on a diet to achieve weight loss, we kept giving the animals as much high-calorie food as they could eat.

The implants responded as expected, causing the obese mice to stop their excessive eating, and their bodyweight dropped noticeably as a result. Once their blood-fat levels returned to normal, the implant stopped producing the fullness signal. As for the control group, mice that received normal animal feed with a 5% fat content did not lose any weight or reduce their intake of food.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Interestingly, the sensor can also detect different types of fat, including saturated and unsaturated animal and vegetable fats — even when they’re all ingested at the same time. This allows people to continue to take in the kinds of fats their bodies depend upon – such as Omega fatty acids and unsaturated fats – while limiting their intake of saturated fat, something we as a society get far too much of.

But of course, there are challenges in adapting this technology for human used. The researchers caution that it will take several more years to develop an implant that do the same job for the human body. But given the exponential rate of development with medical and health-monitoring implants, we can expect to be seeing a full range of weight-control or even diet-specific and allergen-detecting implants before long.

genetic_circuit_MITIn addition to weight loss, this and other breakthroughs like it could facilitate the development of artificial cells designed to solve problems in medicine, energy, and the environment. It’s also a major step towards an age where people are able to manipulate their own biochemistry, and the building blocks of nature, at a microscopic level. Another step forward towards the nanotechnological revolution!

Sources: IO9.com, (2)