GLIMPSES OF THE FUTURE – MARCH 2020

AI Discovers New Antibiotic

 Artificial intelligence has been used to discover new antibiotics effective against untreatable diseases, marking the advent of a major new tool in the global fight against drug resistance.

In a paper published last month in the journal Cell, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported the discovery of a potent new antibiotic, halicin, which was able to kill 35 powerful bacteria.

Among the pathogens targeted were Clostridium difficile, tuberculosis and Acinetobacter baumannii, an effectively untreatable infection often seen among US veterans, which enters wounds and frequently causes death.

“We are facing a global crisis, due to increased emergence of resistant bacterial pathogens that are rendering our current antibiotic arsenal ineffective,” said James J Collins, the biological engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who led the work.

“If we don’t address the crisis by 2050, the annual deaths due to antibiotic-resistant infections will grow to 10m, which is higher than the death rate due to cancer,” he added.

The Solar Panels Which Generate Power On Cloudy Days

 There is a reason why wind farms are more common in Britain than solar farms. That reason is grey, fluffy and has a tendency to make rain.

Now, though, scientists have designed a material for solar panels that they claim allows panels to generate a fifth more electricity in cloudy conditions by drawing energy from a greater spectrum of the light.

“Essentially, we’ve developed solar technology that is British weather-proof,” Lianzhou Wang, from the University of Queensland in Australia, said.

Professor Wang led the research, which is published in the journal Nature Energy. He said he hoped that the work, which used engineered nanoparticles called quantum dots, would boost the global viability of solar energy by increasing the range of environments, and locations, where it could be used.

“It can produce energy indoors or even when it is cloudy and wet. It is also printable, flexible and transparent — meaning it could be used as a skin to power electric cars or applied as a film to windows on buildings,” he said.

Robots And Automation Bring Huge Benefits In France

 Robots are replacing human manufacturing workers in France, and making companies more productive in the process.

Daron Acemoglu at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues analysed more than 55,000 French manufacturing firms, noting which ones bought robots between 2010 and 2015 and what impacts the purchases had.

“There is obviously increasing concern about what automation means for productivity, for jobs, for inequality,” says Acemoglu.

The team found that a 20 per cent increase in robot use across the manufacturing industry was associated with a 3.2 per cent industry-wide decline in employment.

Compiling data from robot suppliers, records of robot imports and the French Directorate General for Enterprise, the researchers found that only around 1 per cent of firms purchased robots.

But these 589 companies were large, accounting for a fifth of total employment in the French manufacturing industry. “What’s striking, although not completely surprising, is that firms that adopt robotics actually expand quite a bit,” says Acemoglu.

The firms that used robots increased their value by an average of 20 per cent. As a result, these firms increased their overall employment, but employed fewer production workers, instead hiring people in other areas such as sales.

The Private Jets At Davos 2020 Flew On Cleaner Fuel

The fresh air of the snow-covered Swiss mountains reverberated to the howl of private jet engines earlier this year as the planet’s movers and shakers descended on Davos for the annual World Economic Forum.

But while those engines were thirstily burning up aviation fuel, the net environmental impact of their exhaust emissions wasn’t as bad as it might have been in previous years.

The reason: many of them were powered by something called SAF, or sustainable aviation fuel. SAF is derived not from fossil-based oil or gas, but by refining organic or waste substances — the use of which means less harm to the planet.

For the delegates, the SAF was supplied as part of an apparently successful experiment to prove the logistic possibilities of delivering the fuel at Zürich Airport.

Which is all great news, particularly given the climate crisis focus of the Davos meeting and the presence of young campaigner Greta Thunberg.

Salt-Tolerant Rice Can Grow In The Ocean

Growing rice in the ocean sounds a little whacky, but ocean agriculture is an emerging form of food production that could have some real potential. Less than 1% of fresh water is available for human use, and 70% of that is used for agriculture worldwide.

Increased demand for food and exploding population levels are pushing innovators to explore areas where agriculture has never gone before. One crop taking to the sea is rice. A company started by two 24-year-old scientists wants to produce salt-tolerant rice and floating ocean farms by 2021, with small pilot farms by the end of 2020.

With 7.7 billion people currently living on the planet, and an expected 2 billion more joining the ranks by 2050, having enough food available is important, and some companies are finding solutions to environmental problems, such as sea level rise, through scientific innovation.

Traditional agriculture requires many inputs; fertilizer, specific chemicals, manual labour and water. Most of the water used in agriculture is for irrigation, and some crops require more water to grow than others. Rice is one of the most water-intensive crops, and also one of the most widely consumed worldwide.

Face Recognition From One Kilometre Away

 The US military is developing a portable face-recognition device capable of identifying individuals from a kilometre away.

The Advanced Tactical Facial Recognition at a Distance Technology project is being carried out for US Special Operations Command (SOCOM). It commenced in 2016, and a working prototype was demonstrated in December 2019, paving the way for a production version. SOCOM says the research is ongoing, but declined to comment further.

Initially designed for hand-held use, the technology could also be used from dronesSOCOM documents say it could be shared with law-enforcement agencies. This technology would enable people to be identified without knowing they were even on camera. Human rights advocates have expressed concern over its use.

The device is being developed by Secure Planet, a firm in Arlington, Virginia, that produces long-range face-recognition devices based on digital SLR cameras with commercial face-recognition software running on a standard laptop.

These devices have a range of about 300 metres, and extending that distance isn’t as simple as adding a longer lens to the camera, because this increases noise from vibration. Atmospheric turbulence also becomes a problem because the air acts as an ever-changing distorting lens, an effect visible as heat shimmer on warm days.

Potential New Treatment For Gut Inflammation

 New Stanford University research has homed in on two specific gut bacteria-produced metabolites that may protect against the intestinal inflammation associated with diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s.

The research began by examining two cohorts of patients who underwent surgical removal of the colon and rectum for very different reasons. One cohort were ulcerative colitis patients, and the other cohort were at a high risk of colon cancer from a rare genetic condition.

Comparing metabolite levels in fecal samples between the two groups the researchers discovered ulcerative colitis patients still suffered from intestinal inflammation despite the surgical procedure, and they displayed notable bacterial and metabolic abnormalities. The ulcerative colitis patients were found to have significantly lower levels of metabolites known as secondary bile acids.

Bile acids are important compounds, primarily synthesized in the liver, and fundamental for effective digestion. Primary bile acids are initially secreted into the intestine where they are then converted into secondary bile acids by a variety of bacteria. Prior research has suggested secondary bile acids are found in unusually low levels in ulcerative colitis patients.

Blood Test Predicts Bladder Cancer

 A compelling new study from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is suggesting a simple biomarker in urine may be an effective predictive test for bladder cancer, signalling the disease’s presence up to 10 years before clinical signs appear.

Bladder cancer is a challenging type of cancer to catch in its early stages. The best diagnostic technique currently available is an invasive imaging procedure called cystoscopy. Several urine-based biomarkers are currently under investigation, but none have been clinically verified to the point they are widely recommended. And even then, these urine-based tools may only be effective in surveilling active cases and not detecting early instances of the disease.

For several years researchers have known mutations in the telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) gene are incredibly common in many cases of bladder cancer. These TERT mutations can be detected in urine samples but until now it hasn’t been clear whether this biomarker is an effective early detection tool.

From the study cohort, 38 individuals ultimately went on to develop bladder cancer and TERT mutations could be detected in 46.7 percent of these subjects. And perhaps even more importantly, no TERT mutations were detected in a control group of 152 matched cancer-free subjects.

New Chip Uses 5,000 Times Less Power

Everything needs to be online nowadays, from vending machines to smart speakers, but that connectivity costs in terms of bulk and energy use. Now researchers have come up with a chip that gets devices connected with 5,000 times less power draw than normal.

For manufacturers developing small, low-powered Internet of Things devices, that’s a significant step forward. It means that hardware can be made smaller, and use less energy, while still pinging the web for updates and information.

The chip itself is smaller than a grain of rice and consumes just 28 microwatts of power, a tiny fraction of a standard Wi-Fi radio. It can transmit data at a rate of 2 megabits a second (enough for decent quality video) at a range of up to 21 meters (69 ft).

This feat of engineering is achieved through a technique called backscattering, which encodes new data on to incoming Wi-Fi signals before transmitting them on somewhere else. This sort of piggybacking uses up far less energy, and that means a lot more flexibility for device makers.

New Bracelet Signal Jammer Prevents Alexa Listening In

If the growing proliferation of always on, always listening smart speakers in our homes is making you a little uneasy, researchers from the University of Chicago might have the answer: a wearable bracelet that jams the microphones in speakers, smartwatches, and smartphones alike.

The wearable is crammed with 24 separate transducers that emit ultrasonic waves that interfere with microphones in all directions, even if they’re hidden. By transmitting white noise randomly in the 24 to 26 kHz frequency range, mics in the immediate vicinity are only able to pick up static rather than spoken words.

“Despite the initial excitement around voice-based smart devices, consumers are becoming increasingly nervous with the fact that these interactive devices are, by default, always listening, recording, and possibly saving sensitive personal information,” explains the research team. “Therefore, it is critical to build tools that protect users against the potential compromise or misuse of microphones in the age of voice-based smart devices.”

 

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