Posts Categorized: Technology

Man-Made Meteor Showers May Happen by 2020

shutterstock_253324477With Tokyo, Japan set to host the 2020 Olympic Games, the race to outdo previous hosting cities has already begun. The opening ceremony is set to make history not just for its caliber of athletes, but also through a project called Sky Canvas. The project is sponsored by the start-up company Star-ALE.

By recreating the makeup of a shooting star, the Japanese research company is creating pellets that are designed to be released from an orbiting satellite. The man made meteor shower should burn while entering the earth’s atmosphere, about 40 miles above the site of the Olympic games. The company has constructed these pyrotechnics to burn slower and longer than the typical shooting star, and have used materials in the pellets that create a plethora of colors.

While this may have you thinking fireworks will become a thing of the past, the hefty price tag may prove otherwise. To create the desired effect, the satellite will release hundreds of pellets, each of which cost about $8,100 in US dollars. The satellite itself along with launch equipment will also add to the expenses. So, if you were planning on purchasing a meteor shower for your 4th of July party, you may want to stick to sparklers.

Though the company claims the display is safe, others in the astronomical community fear for their own equipment, hoping the fake shower will not collide with other satellites in orbit. If the project does prove to be safe, there is potential for academic growth. The company hopes that along with entertaining spectators, they will also walk away with a vast amount of research covering topics like environmental changes, further space exploration, and meteor composition.

Microbots Inspired by Ants and Geckos

shutterstock_380496043A group of scientists at Stanford University just developed microbots, which they named μ Tugs, that are capable of moving incredibly heavy objects. For instance, 6 of the tiny bots were able to move an entire car. In order to pack strength and function into such a small robot, researchers looked to nature for inspiration. For strength, they studied ants, and for grip, they studied geckos.

Ants have the ability to move things, such as food, that significantly outweigh the ant’s body weight. Mechanical engineers working on the project produced a body that was similar to an ants, which allowed the μ Tugs to not be crushed by heavy objects. Then, the engineers encountered another problem, which was how to give the bots enough traction to do their jobs. Ants release a sticky substance from their foot pads, allowing them to find traction on the slipperiest surfaces. While this works for ants, creating a sticky substance for the bots would be messy, expensive, and impractical.

After ruling out the secretion of sticky gel, the team switched their focus to another animal with great grip: the gecko. Geckos have foot pads covered in microscopic hairs, and the pads of their feet spread apart with each step. The spreading creates a suction effect, and a small electrical force keeps the gecko connected to the wall its climbing. Physicists recreated a gecko like foot on the bots, by making small hairs out of silicone and using grooved rubber to create the foot pad. The resulting feet allow the bots to get a good grip on a surface, while also being able to release the suction with the help of their spring like legs.

The μ Tugs have truly incredible strength. At just over an inch long, half a dozen can tow wheeled vehicles, or carry up to 298 lbs. These specific bots outperformed many others that are also being developed. Their creators hope that the bots can aid rescuers in times of disaster by searching rubble and removing it, possibly saving lives. They also have the ability to open doors and open or close safety valves, which is an extremely useful trait in rescue situations.

Robot Baby Fever

Babies are some of the fastest learners on Earth. This is in large part due to the low development of their prefrontal shutterstock_275149358cortexes. Unlike adults with fully-developed prefrontal cortexes, children are able to perceive things through sound, smell, touch, taste, and sight that are not hindered by preconceived notions. For example: if an adult were given a stick, they would see a stick because that is what prior knowledge and experience tells them. A child could see a sword, a javelin, or flag pole to mark their new fort. What if we could teach robots to see and think as children do, learning new skills and having abstract ideas just as easily as a human baby?

There is a problem within robot and artificial intelligence programs that seek to teach robots what to do rather than tell robots what to do. Currently, programmers have to specifically code sequences that robots can use to work through problems and perform tasks. By creating a robot that can learn like a human does, the robot is no longer inhibited by its programming and can problem solve on its own. Computer scientists at the University of Washington saw an opportunity here and partnered with university developmental psychologists to help teach baby robots just like we teach baby humans.

The team of scientists and researchers published their theory in PLOS One. The overarching goal of the project is to have robots learn through their own experiences. By using infant research studies, they were able to build algorithms that mimic learning models. In the first experiment, they used gaze-based simulations to have a robot learn from a human purely based on sight. First, the baby bot watched a human move his head back and forth until the baby bot was imitating the human and looking at the same object as the human. The second part of the experiment involved the baby bot learning about blindfolds and that they stop humans from seeing. The robot learned not to look at where the blindfolded human was looking because it understood that the researcher could not see.

A mission of the project is for baby bots to learn more complicated functions or ideas from humans through experience. There will be other experiments based on other senses, such as touch and hearing that may be able to teach these robots faster and more effectively than traditional programming. Who knows, this could lead to the friendly and capable robots like R2D2, C-3PO, or the new BB-8.

Watch out Ken, Barbie is Talking Back

shutterstock_243417928Mattel, the creator of the Barbie dolls, just announced that Barbie may not be the “dumb blonde” stereotype consumers always believed. In recent years, the toy company has come under fire for portraying Barbie as an inferior intellect; in 1992 the company even programmed Barbie to say “math class is tough!” Fortunately, for all of the young girls and boys out there that are ready for a Barbie to challenge their imagination and minds, Mattel just announced the creation of an artificial intelligence Barbie.

Since as early as the 1800s, toy makers have tried to make dolls speak in hope that one day they will one day sing and talk with a child. Barbie first found her voice in 1968 when a pull string activated 8 programmed phrases, a huge advancement from when dolls could simply say “papa.” This move to make Barbie more lifelike through artificial technology will help create a dialogue between the doll and the children playing with her with over 8,000 programmed lines of dialogue.

The technology is similar to voice recognition devices such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. By partnering with ToyTalk, an artificial intelligence company located in San Francisco, Mattel hopes to release Hello Barbie before the $6 billion holiday toy season begins.

In one demonstration of Hello Barbie, a young girl sat down with the doll and played a number of games. Some of these included helping Barbie cook pizza and s’mores while other conversations worked through complex social problems. During one session, Barbie asked the young girl for advice on how to apologize to a friend after a fight. She is also developed to remember details about her child companion, including favorite colors, if a child has same-sex parents, or if a loved one had passed away. Perhaps the days of Geppetto’s Pinocchio and Toy Story are not a far off reality for children all over the world.


Robot Skin, Because You’re Worth It

tattooCyborgs and other theories of humans hybridizing with robot parts have been a common theme for decades, dealing with how technology and humans will ultimately mix. However, it is looking more and more as if, instead of body parts being replaced by robots, we will simply tattoo the mechanics onto our bodies. Tattoos may not be the most ideal method for wearable technology for everyone, however the stick-on and temporary wearable devices that are currently in development may change some people’s minds.

Scientists are working on wearable technology that is as simple as placing a sticker or temporary tattoo onto the desired skin area. The tattoo bends and stretches with the skin, transmitting information back to the wearer. MC10, a company that specializes in wearable technology, announced progress in the BioStamp system. The BioStamp device is the size of a quarter and as thin as the skin it is placed on. The purpose of the device is to monitor and report heart rate, body movement, and other biometric data for health.

In another sector of tattoo technology, L’Oréal is working with scientists to create a patch that will work with their health and beauty products to better understand and treat skin conditions. The stickers can track blood flow and temperature via the sensors and report back to the researcher. The same research team is also working with the patches to control video games.

In a few years, the possibilities for wearable technology like the BioStamp and L’Oréal’s patch are endless. As mechanical devices shrink and storage capacity grows, the science community is looking forward to the medical and entertainment doors that can be opened. Perhaps our children will put a quarter into a vending machine and instead of the temporary tattoos we grew up with, a technology infused tattoo will come out with the latest video game already downloaded on it. Who knows?

From Patch Adams to Patch Vaccines

shutterstock_116705086When a person makes the switch from their pediatric physician to an adult doctor, they lose an all too important part of the medical process: the lollipop at the end of their visit. While the promise of a sucker at the end of a doctor’s torture session doesn’t entirely make up for the insertion of a seemingly giant needle into a child’s arm, it does distract from the initial pain. Fortunately for children and adults everywhere, progress in biomedical engineering may soon yield a needless vaccine option.

Katarzyna Sawicka, a recent Stony Brook University PhD graduate, designed a needle-free patch capable of delivering vaccines through the skin in a non-invasive process. Much like a Band-Aid, the product Immuno-Matrix sticks to the skin and uses nanofibers to deliver vaccine molecules. The skin is the largest organ of the body, used primarily as a protective layer for the other vital organs. Previously, the large molecules and other particles of the vaccines were incapable of permeating the skin. However, Sawicka found that by removing and returning moisture to the skin, it would absorb larger molecules, up to 250 times the previously absorbable molecule size.

It gets better. Going back to the skin serving a protective function, Sawicka also found that the skin holds a high amount of antigen, a necessary solution that aids in the vaccination process. Therefore, the delivery of vaccine through the skin requires a smaller dosage than traditional vaccine methods. So far, the team of biomedical engineers has successfully tested Immuno-Matrix with whooping cough, influenza, and anthrax. Studies show that this new vaccination solution is as effective as intramuscular injections.

The large implication of this technology lies in the use of vaccines in less developed and poor countries. Immuno-Matrix does not require sterile needles or refrigeration like traditional vaccine solutions. Further development of this vaccine may result in a panacea for developing countries suffering from curable diseases all over the world.

Love is in the Air, or Being Sent through the Air

shutterstock_191161271A new study conducted at the University of Sussex puts texting emojis to shame when it comes to sending emotions through cyberspace. While a little winking smiley face or picture of a fried shrimp may convey some idea of how one preteen girl is feeling to her (as of two days and three hours) preteen boyfriend, researchers are looking to take the guessing game out of the equation.
Ultrahaptics is the new science that links touch sensation with emotions. For example, by stroking the index finger towards the thumb, the feeling of happiness is perceived. Sussex scientists are simulating touch sensation through ultrasound technology to trigger desired emotions. Participants in the study have identified all seven emotions through touch: surprise, fear, disgust, pensiveness, anger, joy and sadness.

Originally the study involved shaking hands with a robotic joystick that would interact with the human hand in different ways to stimulate different emotions. The result was study participants accurately perceiving the emotion twice as often as if guessing the emotion randomly. The Ultrahaptics was then created to send the same touch sensations through mid-air.

The goal for this developing technology is to create a wearable device that will transmit these sensations from user to user. Much like how the Apple Watch is capable of sending sensory notifications to the wearer when they receive a text message or email, a haptic device could send sensory stimulated emotions. The one-to-many concept is another possibility for this science. In application, a horror movie could intentionally trigger fear to movie-goers or a comedian trigger joy in their audience.

This kind of technology is not unheard of or far-fetched since wearable technology is an affluent trend as smart phones, smart watches, and Bluetooth devices gain prevalence in the market. In five or ten years, long-distance relationships and preteen texting scandals may get a helping virtual hand in dealing with emotional communication.

It’s a bird…it’s a plane…or, no…it’s a solar powered plane?

shutterstock_133340789If one day, you walk outside, see an unusual gigantic mass in the sky, and are overcome with a feeling that the world is about to end, it’s okay. Don’t be alarmed. Swiss engineers Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard have created the first solar powered plane. It seems as though we have a 21st century version of the Wright brothers on our hands, although without a sibling relationship this time. Embarking on a trip around the world in their solar powered plane, the two are furthering the boundaries of transportation technology.

The plane, named Solar Impulse 2, is covered by solar panels and equipped with batteries. Solar panels are comprised of photovoltaic cells. These cells combined together create the large solar panels, and enable the conversion of sunlight to electricity. When the sunlight hits the panels, the photons separate electrons from atoms, thus creating a flow of electricity. The plane will operate according to this phenomenon during the day, while batteries will sustain it through the night.

The plane’s light-weight structure is designed to increase the plane’s efficiency. Improved since the first Solar Impulse, the wingspan of Solar Impulse 2 is 236 feet, and weighs about the same as a car. Backing up, yes; there was a first Solar Impulse. However, this one only took flight from California to New York. Now, Borschberg and Piccard have implemented corrections and economical upgrades for Solar Impulse 2.

Ready or not, it’s already coming. The Solar Impulse 2 took flight out of Abu Dhabi, the capital of United Arab Emirates, on March 8th. Future stops will be India, Myanmar, China, United States, and either Europe or Africa as it returns. The co-founders and co-pilots say they are prepared and eager to take on this challenge, however, watching the journey on solid ground will satisfy most of us just fine.

We Don’t Need to Sugar Coat it — Stick on Tattoos can Measure Blood Sugar for Diabetics

tattoosSweet news for diabetics out there; the never ending days of pin pricks to your fingers may soon be over. Remember how this past summer, you couldn’t leave the house without seeing those shimmering temporary flash tattoos on every 20-something and under girl you passed? What if those gaudy tats were the answer to reading your glucose levels needle-free?

Researchers at the University of California San Diego are working on technology that puts sensors in temporary tattoos in order to read blood sugar levels. The printed electrodes attached to the temporary tattoo paper generate a current through the skin, drawing glucose in the blood close enough for the sensors to read.
So far, the technology has been tested on seven non-diabetic people aged 20-40 years old. They were monitored eating and drinking a carb-heavy meal while stick on tattoos measured their glucose levels. The result was consistent with measurements taken by the traditional finger prick method.

These sensors were built on the same technology that brought us the GlucoWatch back in 2002. Unfortunately, that invention was found to be too irritating to the skin and quickly became irrelevant. The temporary tattoo revises the technology to use lower, non-irritating electrical currents.

Currently, each tattoo is only a couple of cents to replace. The affordability makes the new technology a wonderful option for those on a budget. And the ease of a daily temporary tattoo is greatly preferred to the glucose level reading contact lenses that Google announced last year.

Eventually the tattoos will have Bluetooth technology capabilities to send real time data to the wearer and their physician. We can only hope the manufacturers see the opportunity in making fashion tattoo options, too.

Hearing Impaired can now “Hear” with their Tongues

shutterstock_145251097Instead of taking the words right about of your mouth, scientists have figured out a way to put words right into your mouth. Well, kind of. Scientists have developed a retainer-type device that could allow people to “hear” by using their tongues.

The two part system pairs a Bluetooth-enabled microphone earpiece with the tongue device in order to strengthen the wearer’s ability to recognize words. No, there’s not some new nerve link found between the tongue and ear. Instead, the earpiece works to rewire the brain to interpret certain tongue sensations as words. The research team likens the sensation to what pop rocks or even champagne bubbles feel like.

How it works is sounds enter through the earpiece’s microphone that is then encoded into separate words by the earpiece converter. Those codes are sent via Bluetooth to the retainer placed on the tongue, which conveys the wavelengths through distinct patters of somatic nerves. The tongue was chosen because of its hypersensitivity to touch, so it’s capable of distinguishing between the slight differences in the different sensations being sent to it.

Braille works in a somewhat similar way for the visually impaired. With enough practice, the nerves in their fingers are rewired in the brain to recognize certain touch sensations as words. With further research, the same idea of the tongue receptors could be used in cases of people who have lost their sense of touch. If the receptors were put in prosthetic limbs, a person could feel through their tongue when they’ve made contact with an object.

The contraption looks a little silly now, with wires and such falling out of your mouth. And everyone remembers how even though the orthodontist made you promise to wear your retainer every night, none of us ever did. So we’ll see if they can downsize the device to something more practical. If they can, the estimated $2,000 dollar cost will be a welcome alternative to the surgery and $40,000 price tag of a cochlear implant.