GLIMPSES OF THE FUTURE – SEPTEMBER 2017

Now, $8,000 Now Buys the Chance of Rejuvenation

 Ambrosia, a San Francisco-based start-up founded in 2016, is now embarking on a controversial trial intended to demonstrate the rejuvenation capabilities and medical benefits of transfusions of youthful blood. Anyone can enrol, providing they are over the age of 35 and can afford the US$8,000 per transfusion charge.

The modern focus on youthful blood transfusions as a fountain of youth comes mostly from a Stanford study published in 2014. While other researchers were focusing on specific genes or proteins that could possibly combat aging, a team decided to keep things simple –get some blood from young mice, remove the blood cells, and then inject the remaining plasma into old mice.

Although the study was obviously incredibly limited, the results were impressive. Across several different tests the old mice that received the young blood behaved like young mice. The study, initially rejected by the journal Nature before ultimately being published in Nature Medicine, was titled “Young blood reverses age-related impairments in cognitive function and synaptic plasticity in mice”.

Inspired by that study, and others, a young entrepreneur named Jesse Karmazin founded Ambrosia, kicking off its services in the form of a patient-funded open trial. The company is initially operating what is technically a formal clinical trial, recorded on ClinicalTrials.gov, and scheduled to run for two years from 2016 to 2018. The trial, (which essentially allows the company to circumvent FDA regulations), will involve measuring a large set of age-associated biomarkers from each patient before, and one month after, a blood treatment.

Caution advised.

 The Multi-User Table-Top Hologram Display Arrives

 Australian company Euclideon has built a working prototype of what it calls the world’s first true multi-user hologram table. Up to four people can walk around a holographic image and interact with it wearing only a small set of glasses – a far cry from bulky AR headgear. It’s set to go on sale in 2018.

The idea of the hologram table has been a staple of sci-fi for decades. Indeed, hologram tables themselves have popped up here and there, but never really caught on. That’s mainly because in the past, they just haven’t worked as people have hoped.

The problem is that a hologram is a computer-generated stereo image, much like the kind of image you see when you watch a 3-D movie. But if you’ve got a group of people standing around a table, looking at the same image, they’ll all see the same perspective on it, and the image won’t change as they move around. It breaks the illusion.

Euclideon, based just outside Brisbane, Australia, is better known for its Unlimited Detail (UD) 3D graphics processing engine, which caused quite a kerfuffle in the gaming community when it was first showcased in 2011. The UD engine could render absolutely gigantic virtual spaces in minute detail, allowing a viewer to move through a colossal 3D environment using low-end computers and no special graphics cards. It wasn’t so hot when it came to physics, procedural lighting or objects that changed when they moved, so UD never took off as a large scale gaming engine.

World’s Largest Data Centre Being Built In Arctic Circle

 Plans to build the world’s “largest” data centre are being made public. The facility is set to be created at the Norwegian town of Ballangen, which is located inside the Arctic Circle.

The firm behind the project, Kolos, says the chilled air and abundant hydropower available locally would help it keep its energy costs down. The area, however, suffers the country’s highest rate of sick leave from work, which may be related to its past as a mining community.

The US-Norwegian company says it has already raised “several million dollars” for the project from Norwegian private investors. However, it is still working with a US investment bank to secure the remaining necessary funds. It is basing its record-setting claims on the amount of power it intends to draw on to run its computer servers.

Initially, Kolos’ base would draw on about 70 megawatts of power.  However, within a decade, the firm intends to have added enough computer server modules to draw on more than 1,000 MW.

Using Your iPhone As A Hearing Aid

A Swiss start-up has turned the iPhone into a hearing aid with an app called Fennex that works with Apple’s $159 AirPods wireless earbuds.

Alex Mari, CEO of the startup of the same name, says that he chose Apple’s devices and mobile platform for the app in part because of their popularity, but also because he thinks an Android phone would result in more latency (delay) when processing sound.

The Fennex app, currently free though it may eventually charge for certain features, is still in its earliest days. Mari says today’s version functions like a “cheap hearing aid”: it simply tests your hearing in each ear and uses those results to act as a personalized, adjustable amplifier. If you’re having trouble hearing in a class, for instance, you could place your phone near the lectern while you’re sitting a few rows back and listening in on a pair of AirPods.

But upgrades are coming, Mari says: the app is slated to gain features that will help reduce unwanted noise and feedback. And beyond helping people who just want to hear better in some situations, the software could eventually work with with Apple’s hardware to serve as a viable alternative to a regular hearing aid for people who have moderate hearing loss, he believes.

How Gut Bacteria Can Be Used To Treat Non-Gut Diseases

Scientists have discovered a gut microbe that could be used to treat diseases outside the stomach, presenting new therapeutic territory for these bowel-dwelling bacteria.

Live bacteria have been used for a long time to help with things like digestion, treating diarrhoea and fending off harmful bacteria that can cause infections. But these probiotics have not been known to have an effect on diseases that strike beyond the stomach. So, when a team of researchers from the Mayo Clinic tested three bacterial strains on a mouse model of multiple sclerosis (MS) and found one that seemed to suppress the immune disease, they were suitably excited.

“This is an early discovery but an avenue that bears further study,” says Joseph Murray, a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist and senior author of the paper. “If we can use the microbes already in the human body to treat human disease beyond the gut itself, we may be onto a new era of medicine. We are talking about bugs as drugs.”

The bug-drug in question, or “brug” as Murray has now termed them, is called Prevotella histicola, and was cultured from the human intestine. When administered to the mice with MS, it brought about a decrease in two cells that normally cause inflammation, while also boosting families of cells, such as T-cells and dendritic cells, that fight off the disease.

Will You Buy Spotify Shares?

Spotify has cleared what ought to be the last major hurdle before it goes public: It has renewed a licensing deal with Warner Music Group.

That means that Spotify now has deals in place with all three of the major music labels, and that means it will be able to tell investors that it has a grip on music costs for the next few years.

The streaming music service has for some time been planning on a non-traditional public offering, where it will just sell its shares directly to the public instead of going through Wall Street banks, and has been targeting a late 2017/early 2018 date.

Now it should be ready to go, but with Apple, Amazon and others ramping up their music streaming efforts will the market have fragmented before Spotify can get to market?

Can An Algae Molecule Treat Arthritis?

Arthritis is a degenerative disease that eats away at the joints and is rather difficult to treat, with a cure so far remaining out of reach. But research has now uncovered a new glimmer of hope, in the form of a molecule taken from algae that, when modified, might just stop the degenerative effects in their tracks.

According to Swiss research institute Empa, to varying extents, arthritis affects around 90 percent of people over the age of 65, making it the most widespread of joint diseases.

While anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers can certainly make life easier by treating the symptoms of arthritis (as can a joint replacement if things reach that point), there remains no actual cure for the disease. But scientists at Empa, together with colleagues from ETH Zurich and Norwegian research institute SINTEF, have discovered a promising new candidate.

It is based on a polysaccharide, which is a long-chain sugar molecule found in brown algae and is similar to some of the extracellular biomolecules found in cartilage. The team chemically modified the molecule by adding sulfate groups, before adding it to cell cultures to observe the reactions of different types of cells.

The scientists found that in both human cartilage cells and macrophages, “the scavenger cells” of our immune system, the modified molecule suppressed inflammatory reaction and down-regulated the expression of genes that trigger inflammation. It also reduced oxidative stress, which is a big cause of cell damage and death. The more sulfate groups added to the molecule, the stronger this reaction.

Microsoft Builds Autonomous Gliders That Just Stay Aloft

 Last month, in the desert valley surrounding Hawthorne, Nevada, 130 miles south of Reno, Microsoft researchers tested two gliders designed to can navigate the skies on their own.

Guided by computer algorithms that learned from onboard sensors, predicted air patterns and planned a route forward, these gliders could seek out thermals — columns of rising hot air — and use them to stay aloft.

The hope is that the autonomous aircraft can eventually ride the air for hours or even days at a time while consuming very little power, helping to, say, track weather patterns, monitor farm crops or even deliver the internet to places where it’s otherwise unavailable.

Led by Ashish Kapoor, who is an artificial intelligence researcher and a licensed pilot, the project was part of a growing effort to build aircraft, automobiles and other machines that can make decisions on their own when faced with uncertainty — an essential skill for any machine trying to navigate the world on its own.

Using similar methods, Google has built high-altitude internet balloons that can stay aloft for months on end.

 Drones Can Now Carry and Fire Machine Guns

 Florida-based start-up Duke Robotics has unveiled the TIKAD, a custom-built multirotor drone that can carry and fire various military weapons, including semi-automatic rifles and grenade launchers.

Duke Robotics is co-founded by Raziel Atuar, a former Special Mission Unit commander in the Israel Defense Force who was inspired to develop this drone system after experiencing the difficulty of battling terrorist agents that operate within civilian populations. As has been seen in recent years, shooting missiles into populated areas frequently results in horrific collateral damage.

“The primary solution you are left with is sending in ground troops – but this shifts the risk to your troops, which often leads to injuries and casualties,” says Atuar. “But, we thought, ‘what if there was a better way’.”

TIKAD has been in development for several years and an early prototype, based on a consumer drone, was successfully deployed by the Israeli military to take out a target in 2015. Since then, the device has been refined and a proprietary stabilization system has been developed to absorb any recoil from the firing of a weapon.

In an interview with Defense One, Atuar states the current device can carry and fire a variety of different weapons up to a weight of 22 lb (10 kg), and the accompanying promotional video shows how the drone is remotely operated. A human still needs to be on the other end to control the drone and weapon – at least for now.

Trying To Build “A Modem For The Brain” – $18m Funding

 Paradromics, a San Francisco start-up, has big ambitions: It wants to squeeze a device the size of a mobile phone into a chip small enough to insert into a human brain, where it would “read” nerve signals and replace senses and abilities lost due to injury or diseases.

For now, the start-up’s recently minted Ph.D.s are working in a small warren of scruffy offices and labs to perfect a stuffed-mouse mockup. Impressively, the company won an $18 million Pentagon contract last month, vaulting it into the top ranks of Silicon Valley companies surging into the field of brain-machine interfaces.

The company said a model of the device intended for animal research should be available next year, but it might be a decade before it’s ready to be sold to people. Other firms have yet to lay out a timeframe for commercialization.

Whether implanted into a person’s skull or peering inside, these two-way devices would read neuronal signals, and convey sights, sounds, and other sensations back to the brain. Facebook envisions using external brain-machine communicators to give people a form of telepathy — you could send a text message to your social network with thoughts alone — no need to pull a phone from your pocket.

How long before animal-rights activists start to protest the testing of neural interfaces in animals?  (And I would have sympathy with their views.)

Breakthrough: Simple Eye Test Can Detect Alzheimer’s In Early Stages

Presently, for a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, doctors have to perform a PET scan of patients’ brains. Not only is it expensive, but it also requires the patient to be injected with radioactive tracers. Soon, however, a simple eye scan may be all that’s required – and it could catch the disease sooner than ever before.

Considered to be one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s, plaques made up of a protein known as beta-amyloid form in victims’ brains, where they damage and destroy brain cells. These plaques are what the PET scans are looking for.

However, building on a previous study, a team from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center has discovered that these same protein deposits also occur on the retina (in the back of the eye) – the amount of plaque found there correlates with the amount of plaque in specific areas of the brain. That said, the eye scans should be able to detect the condition years before patients experience any actual symptoms.

In a clinical trial, 16 Alzheimer’s disease patients underwent a non-invasive eye exam, after first drinking a solution containing curcumin, which is found in turmeric. The curcumin caused the amyloid plaque in their retinas to light up, so it could be detected. When their scans were compared to those of a healthy control group, the connection between plaques in the retina and the brain was established.

Finally – Entirely Fire-proof Plastic

It’s a technicolour dreamcoat for your crisp packet – a strong, flame-retardant and airtight new plastic material that mimics mother of pearl.

The natural version, also called nacre, is found on the inner shell of some molluscs, where it is built up of layers of the mineral aragonite separated by organic polymers such as chitin. It is remarkably strong, without being brittle or dense.

It would be great to use nacre and similar materials as a protective coating in many situations. However, making it is a slow and delicate process that is difficult to recreate at any useful scale. Artificial nacre-like materials are usually painstakingly built up layer by layer, but Luyi Sun at the University of Connecticut in Storrs and his colleagues found a way to achieve it in a single operation.

With their rapid method, they were able to make their thin film coating 60 per cent stronger than stainless steel. A plastic sheet covered in the material was over 13,000 times less permeable to air and other gases than it was on its own. When the team tried to set it on fire, it became scorched where the flame directly touched the coated sheet, but would not ignite.

Much needed.

How Will You Respond To Companion Robots?

Interacting with Kuri, a robot set to hit the market in December, is reportedly at once fascinating, delightful, and puzzling. Kuri’s creators call it a “companion robot,” but this is no Furby. Kuri belongs to a new class of machines that have some intelligence, and actually make useful assistants at home.

You can see companion robots out in the wild, helping disabled people with routine daily tasks. Soon they’ll remind the elderly to take their medication. Kuri’s more of an all-purpose companion, a member of your family that also happens to play music and take video.

But the vanguard of increasingly intelligent machines invites questions about how people should interact with them.

How do we build relationships with what is essentially a new kind of being? How do roboticists make it clear to people that the bond they form with a machine will never be as robust as a bond with a human?

And how does the system keep bad actors from exploiting these bonds to, say, use these robot companions to squeeze money out of the elderly?