Posts Categorized: Technology

Google’s Self-Driving Car Ready for Public Testing

shutterstock_191586596Divers, beware. Google has announced that their self-driving car is now ready to take to public roadways for some real-world driving experience. The adorable prototype comes outfitted with NO STEERING WHEEL OR PEDALS and, according to its Internet giant maker, is now fully functional and ready to show what it can do.

This model is the most recent in several different prototypes that Google has created, and while there aren’t conventional modes of vehicle operation, the car will come with a number of controls that motorists can use in an emergency situation. The vehicle will first be tested on a closed track, and then, in terrifying fashion, set loose on the populous to wreak havoc.

Google has ambitious plans to make self-driving cars a ubiquitous presence on roadways in as little as 5 to 10 years, giving the rest of us approximately 5 to 10 years to prepare ourselves emotionally and physically for the amazing, yet terrifying, road ahead.

Rise of the worm-brained machine

What may be thought of as the first cyborg, is both very dumb—worm-brained—and rather clunky—a little, wheeled robot body. After digitally mapping the neurons of the simplistic C. elegans roundworm, a research team with the OpenWorm project has simulated the worm’s brain in a comparatively complicated wheeled robot. The result, as described by the folks at SingularityHUB: the robot behaved like a C. elegans roundworm, in so far as a robot can act like a roundworm, by moving and avoiding objects without being explicitly programmed to do so.

While robots can currently be programmed to perform similar operations, this research is intended to show how, given a digital map of an organism’s brain, a robotic body may be made to behave like its organic counterpart. Now, the C. elegans’ 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses don’t quite compare to a human’s roughly 86 billon neurons and 100 trillion synapses, but this research is considered to be a single, small step toward mapping the human brain nonetheless.

All of this on the heels of public figures like Stephen Hawking and Space X’s chief executive, Elon Musk, openly discussing their fear of full artificial intelligence. While these fears bear an uncanny resemblance to those at play in the Terminator franchise—was that a neural map of Arnie’s brain controlling the Terminator?—they do bring the discussion back to a key question: how and when should technological discovery be tempered by fear?

The Doctor Will See You Now

virtual doctorGoogle is currently in the process of trying to make life easier, or more terrifying, for those of us who currently spend too many hours in the middle of the night searching our symptoms on WebMD. In an effort to try and connect people quickly with reliable medical advice, Google is currently testing a new feature that connects those searching for illnesses or symptoms to an actual doctor who can video chat with them about their questions and concerns.

When Google detects that someone is searching for a particular condition, or is searching for a cause of certain symptoms, this new feature will alert the user that there is an opportunity to directly video chat with a physician. Google says that it’s testing out this new program in the hopes that it will connect users with the most helpful information available regarding their medical concerns.

This isn’t the first example of using teleconferencing to dole out medical care. In fact, and increasingly popular trend in some areas is the virtual doctor’s office. In these offices, an individual video chats with a doctor who is in a secondary location about his or her symptoms, while a nurse or physician’s assistant is in the office physically with the patient to take his or her vitals and to facilitate any direct care that is needed.

During this initial trial stage, only certain users are being offered the chance to chat with a doctor, and Google is covering all costs. However, if the program proves successful, Google will likely expand the feature to all users, and doctors will be able to charge users whatever they want for the service. A users insurance will not be billed initially for the conversation, but those who take advantage of this service should be able to file a reimbursement for this service with their insurance provider, provided it’s covered. All transaction costs will take place through Google Wallet, making it just a little too easy for the hypochondriacs among us, myself included, to spend incredible amounts of money investigating every little cough and sneeze.

Give me a high five, but not too hard

shutterstock_124484773First off, bionic hands are an actual thing. In fact, bionic hands have been around for a little while now; it wasn’t until recently, as reported by the BBC, that the benefactors of this technology could actually feel what they were doing. In the way of bionic hands, this is quite a step forward.

Before we go any further consider this: without feeling how hard your grip is, how do you know how hard to grip someone’s hand in a handshake, or, alternatively, how tightly to grip a soft black plum? So, in order to do something like shake another person’s hand without making them cry, it turns out that it’s pretty important to be able to sense pressure.

To achieve this, the research team at Case Western Reserve University implanted sensors directly into the patients’ arms and then wrapped those sensors around their remaining nerve endings, which, still being capable of sending and receiving electronic stimulation, will then receive sensory information from sensors embedded in the prosthetic hand.

While the two benefactors of this research have both been utilizing their sensing hands for over a year now, the performance of more delicate tasks have been quite limited until now. As demonstration of their new prowess, both patients can now quite delicately pluck the stalks from a cherry.

Another research team, this one operating out of Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, has successfully implanted the first bone-anchored bionic arm with a technique known as osseointegration. This process allows the bionic limb to be directly connected to bone, nerve, and muscle tissues offering users greater control over their hand.

Together, the research being pursued by these two research groups envisions a bright future—one in which individuals may replace lost limbs with fully integrated, bionic systems that will restore what might have otherwise been lost.

Never Do Laundry Again

stained shirtCan you imagine never (well, almost never) having to have your clothes washed because they never get dirty? Imagine how much money, time, and effort you could save, as well as how good that would be for the environment. Unfortunately, though, this latest consumer miracle product is not exactly dirt-proof, so “self-cleaning” shirt may be a bit misleading.

The maker of the silic shirt that was supposed to released by May 2014, but isn’t yet, claims that the superhydrophobic nanotechnology applied to the fabric makes it self-cleaning. A more accurate, though less elegant, descriptor would have been “water-rolls-off-so-Gatorade-won’t-stain-your-favorite-shirt”. The silicone-based technology increases the surface tension of the fabric, creating a layer of air between the surface and the outside world, something like a force field but effective against water-based substances instead of laser death rays and such. If you’re smeared with cake icing or victimized by the attack of the condiments, your shirt will get dirty and you will have to wash it.

Still, it’s a pretty neat development, a distinct improvement over those superhydrophobic spray products that not only makes fabric sticky and washes out but will probably make you sick. The product’s creator, college student Aamir Patel, stated in his Kickstarter campaign that the shirt is comfortable to wear, guaranteed to retain its water-repelling properties for 80 washes, and that the bonding process used will not cause cancer or birth defects.

So really, the $64,000 question is, does it work? As soon as the shirt is available for purchase, we’ll gladly fork over $48 and see for ourselves.

Now Showing: The Invisible Mouse

x-rayNope, it’s not yet another weird adaptation of the H.G. Wells 1897 novella “The Invisible Man.” Scientists have actually managed to make an entire mouse invisible by making the soft tissue and internal organs colorless, leaving only the bones intact. Is it only a matter of time before they can make a man just as invisible? Sure, if the subject is willing to die first and then be skinned, because that’s what happened to the mouse.

Scientist weren’t aiming to set a lively, frisky mouse-shaped pile of bones scampering through the maze; at least, not yet. Their main purpose was to more clearly see how disease develops in mice, which are easy to breed and sufficiently similar to humans biologically to make them the ideal “guinea pigs.” So are guinea pigs, for that matter. Making them transparent revealed a lot more than a typical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or other X-ray scan would.

They accomplished this feat by using the blood vessels to pump in a cocktail of chemicals, some of which created a framework to hold the soft tissue together while others dissolve and wash out the fat that prevents light from passing through. The latter sounds like a great idea, a surefire multi-billion dollar hit in the weight-loss industry, but it would probably kill you, which is probably why the concoction is only being used on dead mice with advanced cancer.

Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee, Listen Like a…Fly?

the flyNature has once again proven that whatever humans can conceive, it has already been achieved. We humans can more or less tell where a sound is coming from because our ears are placed relatively far apart, so sound will be weaker in one ear than the other. This gives us a clue where the sound is coming from, which is why we tend to turn towards the ear where the sound is louder. But what if sound hits a receptor such as a head on all sides at the same time?

A close investigation of how a tiny, yellow parasitic fly (Ormia ochracea) can so exactly pinpoint the source of the mating call of a male cricket (which the flies use as a living buffet for their young) revealed the ingenious mechanism of its ear structure. Its design is the basis for a hypersensitive hearing aid made of silicone which mimics what engineers refer to as a “teeter-totter.”

This teeter-totter in the fly’s ear is about 1.5 millimeters long and tilts towards the source of sound vibrations. The silicone replica is only a little larger at 2 millimeters, and the tips are made of piezoelectrical material which transmits mechanical energy, i.e. sound waves, into electrical signals. The invention can enhance and isolate specific sounds as well as filter them out. The practical applications of such a finely-tuned sound locator are many, ranging from military tactics to smart phone improvements. And while they won’t turn you in to a Jeff Goldblum-esque monster, they do stand to dramatically improve the quality of life for many who experience hearing impairment.

Lightsaber Technology a Reality

Light SaberCome on! Who among us wouldn’t kill for a real-life lightsaber of Star Wars fame that makes that cool sound? Thanks to the prequels, even kids today know what a lightsaber looks like, and if the MIT and Harvard geeks get it right, they might actually get to see one. Maybe even (gasp!) get one!

Did we get you all excited? Well, maybe we exaggerated a little. Okay, a lot. The brains from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University that make up the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms really have collaboratively stumbled upon a way to make photons interact with instead of simply passing through each other.

Photons, in case you didn’t know, are light particles that have no mass. This is the reason they don’t interact; they don’t actually have anything to work with. But researchers found that with the use of laser beams, the photons cooled down enough to harden and bounce of each other, much like lightsabers, in fact.

The applications of a hardened and interactive photon molecule are yet to be determined, and the lightsaber is certainly one of those being considered. However, the main focus of researchers was using this new development to finally crack the concept of quantum computing.

Not as exciting as a lightsaber, but it is still in the cards, never fear. Researchers call this a “new state of matter.” Well, it is light made solid, after all. That’s pretty cool in itself.

Biotech Here Now; Robocops and $6 Million Dollar Men Coming Soon

A remarkable new technological breakthrough at Ohio State University shows how close we are to actually being able to, you know, rebuild people, make them better, stronger, etc. According to a CBS News report, researchers and surgeons at the University have successfully allowed a quadriplegic man to use his hands again through the implantation of a computer chip in his brain.

The technology, which relies on the chip to sends signals from the brain through a cable attached to a port in the skull to a computer, which decodes the messages and sends the information to a sleeve covered in electrodes, allows users to regain more or less full functioning of the hand, though its applications could theoretically extend to almost any part of the body. While still in the early stages, it is widely seen as a hopeful sign of our future ability to repair what have until now been permanent, life-altering disabilities.

One interesting thing to consider is the types of impact that these developments could have for future insurance and lawsuit costs. Because the costs of these treatments is likely to be quite high, he suggested, injury victims may become entitled to increasingly significant financial damages to pay for their treatment.

Robot Trucks Are Now a Thing in Nevada

Robot trucksIn another development indicating how close we really are to Skynet becoming operational, a fleet of robotic trucks has successfully been tested in Nevada. Though the vehicles are not yet fully automated, proponents are excited about the potential these vehicles offer in terms of enhanced safety and reduced fuel costs.

According to an article published in Popular Science, the way the system works is that a lead truck, fully operated by a human driver, is followed by a computer-assisted truck which is also operated by a human driver but which only requires the operator to steer. The computer in the following truck keeps the vehicle exactly 33 feet behind the other truck, braking or accelerating as needed.

There are a number of important benefits for this. For one, it can substantially reduce fuel costs. According to those involved, a total of 7% fuel cost reduction can be achieved through this system, 4.5% for the lead truck and 10% for the one in back. Additionally, it may also help save lives. According to the website of Williams Kherkher, Houston truck accident attorneys, more than 3,400 truck accident fatalities occurred in 2010 alone. By reducing the role of human drivers, the errors that lead to these accidents occurring are much less likely to be a problem.