GLIMPSES OF THE FUTURE – DECEMBER 2017

Department Stores Becoming Theatres To Pull In Customers

 In an attempt to combat the threat of on-line retailing, more than 300 staff at Westgate’s John Lewis in the UK have been put through their paces by the Oxford Playhouse theatre. The acting lessons, which included voice coaching and body language skills, are part of new John Lewis boss Paula Nickolds’ bold plan to “reinvent the department store for the 21st century”.

Simon Tavener, secretary of the Oxford Theatre Guild, says it’s useful for retail staff to find their “character”, adding: “You need to put on a face and adjust your performance to suit [the customers’] needs and wants.

‘‘Selling requires you to have a sort of script in your head,” Tavener says. “Not one you recite, but one you tailor to your own voice … a form of improv, if you like.”

What luvvies!

Mastercard Embraces The Blockchain

 Credit card companies are a long-standing pillar in the financial services sector. Credit cards were the first cashless payment option made available to the public and now, one of the leading financial services firms in the world has decided that it’s time for credit cards to get involved in blockchain technologies.

Last month, MasterCard announced that it’s opening up access to a blockchain-based business-to-business (B2B) payment service under a new option called the “MasterCard Blockchain API.”

Launched during the Money 20/20 Hackathon in Las Vegas this past weekend after testing and validation had been completed, this service is slated to become available to customers this week. “MasterCard’s blockchain solution provides a new way for consumers, businesses and banks to transact and is key to the company’s strategy to provide payment solutions that meet every need of financial institutions and their end-customers,” the company said in a press statement.

This move comes as a bit of a surprise, as MasterCard previously issued a blanket rejection of Bitcoin. Still, MasterCard’s blockchain service heralds what Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin described to be blockchain’s potential to replace credit cards. Instead of being taken over by blockchain technologies, however, MasterCard decided to embrace the movement.

Waymo Designs Driverless Cars Will Reassure Passengers

 Google-owned Waymo this week showed off its first attempt at a “user interface” for autonomous cars, technology designed to reassure passengers who have surrendered control to the whim of a robot.

With driverless cars moving ever closer to reality, the companies building them are turning their thoughts to a new problem: how to overcome the fear and anxiety that humans feel when riding in them.

Surveys reveal a “spectrum” of attitudes, with some people “sceptical and very scared” of the technology, said Dmitri Dolgov, vice-president of engineering at Waymo.

A ride in an autonomous car is normally enough to “flip the switch” and convince most people they are safe, he said. But that still has left open the question of how to get them into the vehicle in the first place, or to provide a running explanation of why the cars behave the way they do.

“A sense of control is critical,” said Juliet Rothenberg head of user experience at Waymo.

Other companies experimenting with the technology also have tried to give riders some insight into why the cars respond in certain ways. Ride-hailing company Uber, which began trials of its cars (along with test drivers) in Pittsburgh last year, has a tablet facing the back seats displaying a visualisation of what the car “sees” with its sensors.

The Connected Cow Shows The Future of Agriculture

The concept of the “smart cow” might sound like an oxymoron, but the rapid development of internet of things (IoT) technology has ushered in an era when even the world’s largest companies are talking about the “connected cow” with a straight face.

Bovine technology typically has come in the form of “glorified pedometers”, according to Yasir Khokhar, the founder and chief executive of Dutch software start-up Connecterra. These gadgets are attached to one of the cow’s ankles and can tell the farmer whether the animal is walking too little or too much — a key sign of its health and whether it is in oestrus (in a peak fertility phase).

The devices are a common sight on farms, and the market for them has become crowded. Farmers are placing sensors on various parts of cows’ bodies — including the tail, neck, hooves and stomach — to help increase the productivity of their herds.

Moocall, an Irish company that is working with the IoT team at Vodafone, the telecoms group, says it aims to reduce mortality rates in cows by up to 80 per cent by placing a palm-sized sensor on the animal’s tail. In the UK, more than 110,000 calves and some 50,000 cows die every year because of birth-related complications. Moocall’s system can alert farmers how long a cow has been calving by monitoring tail movements, alerting the owner to potential problems.

CRISPr Gene Editing Becomes Even More Precise

Over just a few short years the CRISPR gene-editing technique has revolutionized science, affecting everything from medicine to agriculture. Now, two new breakthrough studies have just been published describing dual methods that make the process more precise and efficient paving the way for scientists to safely alter DNA mutations that cause thousands of different human diseases.

CRISPR is conventionally a cut-and-paste tool allowing scientists to chop out unwanted strands of DNA and insert new genes, but a large volume of human diseases are caused by a single point mutation somewhere in a person’s DNA. Up until now scientists have not been able to simply and directly erase or rewrite these single mutations in living human cells.

Our human genome consists of 3 billion base pairs made up of chemical units referred to by the letters A, C, G and T. There are 50,000 known genetic mutations that are linked to disease in humans and 32,000 of these are single point mutations. Half of those single point mutations have been identified as a G-C pair that has mutated into an A-T pair.

China Testing Digital Currency

China’s central bank is testing a prototype digital currency with mock transactions between it and some of the country’s commercial banks.

Speeches and research papers from officials at the People’s Bank of China show that the bank’s strategy is to introduce the digital currency alongside China’s renminbi. But there is currently no timetable for this, and the bank seems to be proceeding cautiously.

Nonetheless the test is a significant step. It shows that China is seriously exploring the technical, logistical, and economic challenges involved in deploying digital money, something that could ultimately have broad implications for its economy and for the global financial system.

A digital fiat currency—one backed by the central bank and with the same legal status as a banknote—would lower the cost of financial transactions, thereby helping to make financial services more widely available. This could be especially significant in China, where millions of people still lack access to conventional banks. A digital currency should also be cheaper to operate, and ought to reduce fraud and counterfeiting.

Apple Patents New Way To Take Blood Pressure

An Apple patent published last month describes a clever method for calculating blood pressure using nothing more than an Apple Watch with a sensor-equipped band.

The basic idea is that if you can detect a heartbeat, and then detect the pulse created by it at your wrist, you can time how long it takes to get from your heart to your wrist. This is known as the pulse transit time (PTT), and can be used to calculate blood pressure.

The accelerometer would, when held against your chest, detect the heartbeat, and the existing heart-rate sensor would detect your pulse.

The patent notes that high blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and that the earlier it is detected, the more likely it is that measures can be taken to prevent damage. Routine monitoring would increase the chances of early detection.

Back in 2015, Apple CEO Tim Cook indicated that Apple was wary of including too many health-related sensors in the Watch itself, as the slow process of achieving FDA approval could hamper the pace of development. For example, the company even appears to have decided not to use the heart-rate monitor to measure oxygen saturation even though it contains the necessary hardware.

 

Uber Orders 24,000 Driverless Volvos

 Uber has announced it will be buying as estimated 24,000 premium SUVs from Volvo between 2019 and 2021. In a plan set to dramatically disrupt the world’s automotive market, Uber will fit the SUVs with its own autonomous driving technology and then set them out onto the road.

Uber engineers have been working with a team at Volvo to design a base model SUV that will be appropriate to refit with Uber’s own self-driving technology. These initial vehicles will be modelled on Volvo’s XC90 premium SUVs.

Volvo is cleverly positioning itself for the oncoming disruption in the automotive market with president and chief executive Håkan Samuelsson saying, “Our aim is to be the supplier of choice for AD ride-sharing service providers globally. Today’s agreement with Uber is a primary example of that strategic direction.”

FDA About To Approve Gene Therapy For Rare Blindness

 Back in August, the FDA approved the first gene therapy for general use in the United States. That particular treatment, for cancer, was beset by controversy due to its exorbitant price tag and potential side effects.

Now another gene therapy is on the cusp of approval, this time to treat a form of hereditary blindness. If given the tick by the FDA, this therapy could pave the way for a whole host of treatments for genetically-based vision problems.

The gene therapy focuses on a rare inherited retinal disease called Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), which is caused by a mutation in one of 19 particular genes. The therapy focuses in one specific gene called RPE65. A healthy version of that gene is attached to a genetically modified harmless virus and injected into a patient’s eyes.

The treatment is currently undergoing final phase 3 clinical trials after nearly a decade of research and the early results have been excitingly positive. Data from the first phase 3 trial showed 93 percent of subjects (27 out of 29) displayed “meaningful improvements in their vision.”

“These are kids who could not walk through a room in normal light, and who were absolutely paralyzed in dim light,” says study leader Stephen Russell. “Now they’re walking around markedly better.”

Very Smart City Planned For India

 India’s government planners who are now dreaming up India’s first “smart city” realize they have a problem.

To solve it they are planning to dispatch a fleet of drones, bury the power grid and link a biometric database to every square foot of land here in India’s newest state capital.

The problem is that none of India’s modern-day planned cities have lived up to their hype. Instead, they have succumbed to slums, crowding and chaos.

Amaravati was named the new capital of Andhra Pradesh after the Telangana region broke away as a new state in 2014. Since then, $1 billion in loan pledges from the World Bank and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, alongside another $2.3 billion from state and federal government agencies, have breathed life into the project.

Planners envision a city of 3.5 million people on land currently home to 100,000 farmers and rural labourers living in 29 villages.

Shell Installing Electric Charge Points On Forecourts

Royal Dutch Shell has opened its first charging points for electric vehicles at UK filling stations in a further sign of the Anglo-Dutch group’s diversification beyond fossil fuels. Drivers will be able to recharge EVs at 10 locations, mostly in London and south-east England, by the end of the year. The launch  follows Shell’s acquisition of NewMotion, one of Europe’s largest EV charging companies with 30,000 private home charging points and 50,000 public sites.

While smaller in scale than the NewMotion business, this new service provides the first Shell-branded charging points alongside petrol and diesel pumps at its own filling stations. Istvan Kapitany, head of retail for Shell, said EV charging would join an increasingly varied “mosaic of options” for drivers at its filling stations around the world, alongside biofuels, LNG, hydrogen and traditional fuels.

EVs still account for only about 1 per cent of global car sales and an even smaller fraction of cars on the road but the market is growing rapidly. This is forcing oil companies to confront an increasing likelihood that global oil demand will slow and eventually decline over the next few decades as cars and some other forms of transportation switch to cleaner forms of energy.

Smart Wristband Knows When You Get Pregnant

The traditional home pregnancy test could soon be obsolete, scientists have said as they announced a new smartwatch system that alerts women when they conceive.

Trials in Switzerland have allowed researchers to identify for the first time a package of minute physiological changes, detectable by existing hardware, that take place when pregnancy starts.

They are now building an algorithm which learns the individual wearer’s personal characteristics so it can not only signal the start of a pregnancy but also highlight the best windows in which to try for a baby.

The technology promises to allow women hoping to conceive to do away with the morning ritual of a home pregnancy test, which assesses levels of human Chorionic Gonadotropin in urine.

Could Depression Actually Be An Autoimmune Disease?

A growing body of research is suggesting that brain inflammation could be responsible for some major depressive episodes. A new study from a team at the University of Manchester has now made an even more specific contention – linking brain inflammation to suicidal thoughts.

A major study published in 2015 found a strong correlation between a person undergoing a major depressive episode and enhanced neuroinflammation, as measured by increased microglial activity in parts of the brain. Microglia are a specific type of immune cell active in the brain and spinal cord that serve as the main form of active immune defence in the central nervous system.

Following on from that earlier study, Dr Peter Talbot from the University of Manchester set out to explore whether this increased microglial activity could be more specifically linked to suicidal thoughts.

UK Adds First Battery Storage To National Grid

Britain’s switch to greener energy has taken another significant step forward with the opening of an industrial-scale battery site in Sheffield.

E.ON said the facility, which is next to an existing power plant and has the equivalent capacity of half a million phone batteries, marked a milestone in its efforts to develop storage for electricity from windfarms, nuclear reactors and gas power stations.

The plant, housed in four shipping containers, is the type of project hailed by the business secretary, Greg Clark, as crucial to transforming the UK’s energy system and making it greener.

At 10MW, the Blackburn Meadows battery is one of the biggest in Britain so far, but will soon be eclipsed by much larger plants.  Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, is building a 49MW facility on the site of a former power station in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, while EDF Energy is working on one of the same size at its West Burton gas power station in Nottinghamshire.

David Topping, the director of business, heat and power solutions at E.ON, said: “This is a milestone for E.ON in the new energy world and an important recognition of the enormous potential for battery solutions in the UK.”

The utility-scale batteries are being built in response to a request from National Grid, the owner of Britain’s power transmission network, for contracts to help it keep electricity supply and demand in balance, which is posing an increasing challenge for the grid as more intermittent wind and solar comes online.

 

 

 

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