August – Glimpses Of The Future

Are China’s Customer Service Robots Mere Gimmicks?

China is in the middle of a pronounced bout of robot fever. Robots—or jiqiren, “machine-people,” in Chinese—are cropping up at banks, where models with high-pitched feminine voices engage customers in basic dialogue and urge people to wait in line. Others have made appearances as wedding officiants. The Dragon Spring Temple in Beijing has installed a squat robot in custard-colored robes to converse with the faithful.

Restaurants are leading the craze. Numerous robot-themed restaurants have sprung up, with machine-people serving as chatty maître d’s, working as waiters or slicing noodles in the kitchen. Some robot staff are also programmed to dance and sing.

Reasons for China’s robot interest, while many, partly have to do with a changing population. Wages are rising as the working-age population shrinks. The government is pushing manufacturers to automate to compensate for the labor shortage and catch up with others in the use of industrial robotics.

Top leaders have championed a pro-robot agenda, with Premier Li Keqiang recently playing a game of badminton with a robot. (They tied.) President Xi Jinping, who called for “an industrial robot revolution” in 2014, recently interacted with robots at a research institute. Ran one state media headline: “Robot Greets Xi Jinping: Says It’s Happy to See Him.”

Amazon’s Drones May Use Lampposts As Refuelling Stations

Amazon has been awarded a patent for a drone docking system that would see its flying delivery robots come down to recharge on structures like street lamps and power poles before continuing onto their final destination.

Amazon filed the patent back in November 2014,

describing a multipurpose system of docking stations that can be networked with a central control point and a fleet of drones. This came almost a year after the e-commerce giant first revealed its plans to deliver items in 30 minutes by autonomous drone through a robotic courier service called Prime Air.

Drone technology has made some big strides in that time, but range is still severely limited, particularly when taking a package along for the ride. This is the problem Amazon is looking to address with its multi-use drone docking stations, which it says could be installed on tall structures like street lights, cell and radio towers, office buildings and even church steeples.

Electric Planes Take Off

The plane above may not look special, but it is. Its airframe is that of a 330L, an aerobatic craft built by Extra Flugzeugbau of Dinslaken, Germany. It is propelled, though, by an electric motor built by another German company, Siemens.

Electric aircraft are, as it were, in the air—with projects like the Solar Impulse, a sun-powered plane about to complete a round-the-world flight, and Antares, a motorised glider. But the 330LE, as it is dubbed, is the first to have an airframe already certified for sale and also the first (other than motorised gliders) to use an electric engine its makers plan to have certified as well. The 330LE’s initial public outing last month was thus a step forward for the field.

The motor itself weighs a mere 50kg. That compares with 201kg for the 9,550cc, six-cylinder device a 330L normally sports. Batteries are not included, however, and that makes a bit of a difference—for the batteries required weigh 150kg each, and two are needed. One sits conveniently in the liberated space in the engine compartment, but the second has to be strapped to the co-pilot’s seat. For this and other reasons, the plane’s pilot (and Extra Flugzeugbau’s founder), Walter Extra, did not attempt any of the fancy aerobatics for which the 330L is renowned on his ten-minute proving flight.

A Plan To Collect Orbiting Space Junk

According to the Surrey Space Centre, there are some 7,000 tonnes (7,716 tons) of space debris circling the Earth, consisting of dead satellites, booster rocket stages, paint chips, and shrapnel from collisions.

Whizzing in orbit at tens of thousands of miles per hour, even a small fragment could destroy a satellite. To help clean things up, the Centre has announced that it is leading a mission early next year to send the Remove Debris demonstrator into orbit to test low-cost technologies that could be used to collect and remove space debris.

With the backing of the European Commission, the Remove Debris mission is led by the Surrey Space Centre in partnership with Airbus, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) and others. It consists of a small cubical satellite based on the SSTL X-50 platform and is designed to carry four experimental payloads, cameras, and bays for two cubesats that will play the part of “debris.”

If everything goes according to schedule, RemoveDebris will travel to the International Space Station in early 2017, where it will be launched into space. It will then move into a lower orbit, to carry out four experiments before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up.

Los Angeles Will Soon Be Running On Batteries

By 2021, electricity use in the west Los Angeles area may be in for a climate change-fighting evolution.

For many years, the tradition has been that on midsummer afternoons, engineers will turn on what they call a “peaker,” a natural gas-burning power plant in Long Beach. It is needed to help the area’s other power plants meet the day’s peak electricity consumption. Thus, as air conditioners max out and people arriving home from work turn on their televisions and other appliances, the juice will be there.

Five years from now, if current plans work out, the “peaker” will be gone, replaced by the world’s largest storage battery, capable of holding and delivering over 100 megawatts of power an hour for four hours. The customary afternoon peak will still be there, but the battery will be able to handle it without the need for more fossil fuels. It will have spent the morning charging up with cheap solar power that might have otherwise been wasted.

Can Stem-Cells Repair Rotten Teeth?

Persuading stem-cells to heal rotten teeth is the inspiration behind a new project from Harvard and the University of Nottingham to create stem cell stimulating fillings.

Dentists treat hundreds of millions of cavities each year by drilling out the decay and putting in a filling.  But 10 to 15 percent of those fillings fail, says Adam Celiz, a therapeutic biomaterials researcher from University of Nottingham. And that leads to millions of root canals to remove the tooth’s pulp, the soft tissue in the center of the tooth that contains the blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue. A root canal can weaken the tooth, which may eventually need to be pulled.

Celiz and his fellow researchers have developed a new kind of filling made from synthetic biomaterial that can stimulate the growth of stem cells in the pulp of the tooth. Just like regular fillings, the biomaterial is injected into the tooth and hardened with UV light.

In in vitro testing, the fillings stimulated the proliferation and differentiation of stem cells into dentin, the bony tissue that forms the bulk of the tooth under the white enamel. The researchers believe that if used in a damaged tooth, those stem cells can repair the kind of damage that often comes from the installation of a filling. In essence, the biomaterial filling would allow the tooth to heal itself.

Using A Smartphone To Check The Quality Of Your Sperm

Low sperm counts or poor sperm quality are to blame in around a third of cases of couples who can’t conceive. A visit to a clinic for a test can be awkward, but a new smartphone-based system lets men determine whether that’s necessary by checking their fertility in the comfort of their own home.

Men often find it embarrassing to provide a semen sample at a clinic, says Yoshitomo Kobori of the Dokkyo Medical University Koshigaya Hospital in Japan. So Kobori devised an alternative. “Everyone has a smartphone now, and they have good cameras,” he says. “I thought a smartphone microscope could be an easy way to look at problems with male fertility.”

Kobori and his colleagues at the University of Illinois in Chicago came up with a microscope containing a lens less than a millimetre thick, slotted into a plastic “jacket”. Clipped on to the camera of a smartphone, it magnifies an image by 555 times – perfect for looking at sperm cells.

To do a home test, a man would have to wait for around five minutes after ejaculation for the semen to liquefy, then apply a small amount to a plastic sheet and press it against the microscope for inspection. This can be done without getting semen on to the phone, says Kobori.

A Robot Arm That Can Feed The Disabled

 The first product out of consumer robotics company Desin, Obi looks like a clean, modern kitchen appliance that could improve the quality of life for sufferers of conditions such as ALS, cerebral palsy, MS, Parkinson’s and brain or spinal injuries.

After a caregiver divides the meal into Obi’s four separate bowls, users are able to feed themselves through a simple interface: one button moves the arm between the bowls, and another selects that food, dips the spoon in and brings it up to the diner’s mouth.

Those inputs can be customized, depending on the specific needs and abilities of the user. Big bright “Buddy Buttons” on the table can be useful for those who still have some function in their hands but lack the fine motor skills required to steady a spoon. They could also be placed on the floor to use as foot pedals. Pillows that respond to the slightest squeeze allow for head and cheek activation, while a small mouth piece switch can be triggered through sip or puff actions.

Google Intends To Help Young U.S. Citizens Register To Vote (And To Help Democrats)

 Google is trying to demystify the voter registration process in time for this year’s U.S. presidential election.

When users enter search queries such as “how to register to vote” or “how do I vote” on Google.com, the Alphabet Inc. subsidiary will display a voter registration guide specific to your state.

These state-by-state guides will explain how users can register to vote, as well as the local state’s voting requirements and registration deadlines. The registration guides will show up above other search results, right beneath the search box on Google.com and in Google’s search app.

If users have agreed to share their locations with Google in the app or browser are using, users will automatically get the guide for the state they are in. Otherwise, users will see a drop-down menu of all 50 states and Washington, D.C., but not territories such as Puerto Rico.

By definition, app users tend to fall in the younger demographic and younger voters ae far more like to vote Democrat.

IBM Tracking Diamond Sales With Blockchain

 IBM has launched a blockchain cloud platform for supply chain applications that pushes the distributed online ledger technology beyond the financial services industry, where the technology is used by banks and exchanges to track financial transactions.

The new service, built on IBM’s LinuxOne server technology, targets companies that handle high-value goods that are often highly regulated.  Startup company Everledger, which helps companies track the provenance of diamonds worldwide, is testing the cloud-based IBM Blockchain service for a global rollout possibly by the end of the year.

IBM is working to establish itself as a force in the blockchain business, contributing code it has developed to the open-source Hyperledger project and creating “IBM Garages,” or labs, in London, New York and Tokyo where customers can experiment with its blockchain software. Large technology vendors are scrambling for a piece of the blockchain market that has attracted hundreds of startups. Microsoft Corp. announced last month it is building software to translate between the many blockchain tools available.

Can This Implant Reverse Rheumatoid Arthritis?

A simple electronic implant into the so-called ‘Spock’ nerve could reverse the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, clinical trials in the Netherlands have shown.

The vagus nerve has been called the ‘captain’ of all nerves because it is linked to so many crucial parts of the body

including the heart and the lungs and it would be impossible to breathe if it stopped functioning.

It is also inspired Spock’s Vulcan Nerve Pinch in Star Trek, as compressing the nerve in the neck can cause fainting or even death.

But it also plays an important role in controlling inflammation which is at the heart of rheumatoid arthritis. Around 400,000 people in Britain suffer from the degenerative condition, which occurs when the immune system mistakenly attack the joints causing pain, swelling and stiffness.

Smart Glasses That Can Correct Colour Blindness

They might look like ordinary sunglasses, but EnChroma’s new smart glasses actually boost the saturation of red and green light. That helps to improve color vision in people with red-green color-blindness, the most common color vision deficiency, affecting up to one in 12 men and one in 200 women (a complete lack of color vision is very rare).

Most people have three types of color-sensing cones in their eyes: red, green, and blue. The wavelengths of light that these three cones absorb have overlapping regions. Color-blindness is often a result of a malfunctioning cone that causes wavelengths to overlap even more, resulting in poor color discrimination. The EnChroma glasses use a filter to cut out these overlapping wavelengths, allowing for a clearer distinction between colors, especially red and green.

The invention was derived from the work of Don McPherson, who earned his PhD in glass science at Alfred University. McPherson was trying to design protective eye wear for doctors performing laser surgeries. It wasn’t until he let a friend try on the glasses during a game of ultimate Frisbee that he realized the technology’s true potential. McPherson’s friend just happened to be color-blind, and the glasses gave both of them a shock.