GLIMPSES OF THE FUTURE – OCTOBER 2021

Pandemic-Driven Online Sales Boosts Robot Deployment

 Workers have long feared robots would take their jobs. But today, the tables have turned as logistics and delivery companies automate their businesses to tackle labour shortages.

The monotony of some jobs makes recruiting and retaining workers harder, a growing problem across a range of sectors. Banks, for example, are automating boring “grunt work” to stop a talent drain. In US and European warehouses, the boom in online shopping during the pandemic has accelerated the switch to automated systems and robots, which can cope more quickly and efficiently with increasingly complex orders as demand for next-day delivery rises and bottlenecks in the supply chain cause disruptions.

Globally, warehouses are expected to invest $36bn in automation this year, up 20 per cent on 2020. Combined investment this year and last has jumped $1.6bn against pre-pandemic forecasts, according to research group Interact Analysis.

“In the 1980s, the main reason for investing in automation was to reduce labour costs. Now for almost half the clients, their primary reason is labour availability. I talk to people every day and this is their biggest concern,” said Dwight Klappich, vice-president of research at Gartner, the advisory group. In a sign of the pressures, he said one logistics provider made 26,000 hires to get the 13,000 warehouse staff they needed because so many new recruits drop out after the first few days.

Sandeep Sakharkar, chief information officer at GXO Logistics, said: “Automation is on the rise as a key aspect of the supply chain universe.” His company, which is responsible for running warehouses for customers including Nike, Nestlé and Apple, plans to boost its number of robots and automated systems to 3,100 at its near 870 sites by the end of the year.

An Airbag In A Backpack To Protect Cyclists

 While most bicycle commuting backpacks simply allow cyclists to carry their necessities, EVOC Sports’ newest model offers a little something extra. In the event of an accident, an airbag pops out of it to protect the rider’s upper body

Known as the Commute Air Pro 18, the recycled-polyester pack looks pretty normal in its “non-deployed” state. Along with a main cargo compartment, it also features a side-accessible laptop compartment, an elastic side pocket, and compartments for odds and ends like smartphones and glasses.

Its chest strap additionally incorporates an electrified magnetic buckle, which activates onboard motion sensors when it gets snapped shut. Those sensors proceed to measure the position and orientation of the backpack 1,000 times per second.

If a distinctive sudden change in those parameters indicates that a fall is taking place, the pack’s top-located airbag gets fully inflated and deployed within 200 milliseconds. While it reportedly cushions the cyclist’s neck, shoulders, collarbone and chest, their spine is additionally shielded by one of EVOC’s replaceable Liteshield-Plus back protector plates, which is also built into the pack.

Swimmers Get An Electronic Coach In Their Ear

 Earlier this year that we heard about the Sonr radio system, which lets coaches talk to swimmers via a waterproof speaker worn by the latter. It’s a neat idea, but what happens when the coach isn’t around? Well, that’s where Athlos Live is designed to come in.

Presently on Indiegogo, Athlos Live takes the form of a connected set of waterproof earbuds, each one of which incorporates a relatively small electronic module. They’re linked via Bluetooth to an iOS/Android app on the athlete’s smartphone.

Utilizing that app, the swimmer (or their coach) starts by creating a training session plan, then uploads it into the earbuds. That plan includes data such as how many laps of which strokes they have to complete, in what amount of time. They can also store up to 5,000 songs on the system.

Once they start swimming, an IMU (inertial measurement unit) detects what sort of stroke they’re currently performing, plus it counts laps, keeps track of elapsed time, and monitors the orientation of their head. A synthetic voice provides them with real-time feedback, letting them know how many laps they’ve completed, whether or not they have to speed up, what stroke they should perform next, and if their technique needs adjusting.

Yet More Smart Glasses Announced

Hot on the heels of Facebook’s Ray-Ban Stories comes a pair of concept smart glasses from Chinese tech firm Xiaomi that don’t just push notifications from a smartphone, but also sport some nifty independent functionality.

Like the Ray-Ban Stories wearables, the Xiaomi Smart Glasses have been designed to look pretty much like an ordinary pair of eye-glasses, but unlike Facebook’s effort they feature an imaging system that augments the wearer’s view with such things as incoming call alerts, turn-by-turn navigation prompts and real-time text/photo translations.

This info is sent to the wearer’s field of view thanks to a MicroLED display chip measuring 2.4 x 2.02 mm – or roughly the same size as a grain of rice – with individual pixels of 4µm. To maintain image integrity even in direct sunlight, Xiaomi opted for a high-brightness monochrome display rather than full colour, with the light routed to the eye via optical waveguides etched onto the inside of the right lens.

“The refraction process involves bouncing light beams countless times, allowing the human eye to see a complete image, and greatly increasing usability while wearing,” explained the company. “All this is done inside a single lens, instead of using complicated multiples lens systems, mirrors, or half mirrors as some other products do. Optical waveguide technology significantly reduces device size and weight, and therefore allows smart glasses to approach the form factor of traditional glasses.”

Trucks Are Driving Themselves In Texas

The US package delivery firm FedEx is partnering with a self-driving vehicle start-up for a fleet of autonomous trucks to ferry shipments between Dallas and Houston.

The pilot scheme will use a small number of trucks with back-up drivers for safety, according to a spokeswoman for Aurora Innovation, based in San Francisco. “At the end of 2023 we will launch our trucking business and haul loads autonomously between terminals without a safety driver,” she added.

According to FedEx, the self-driving trucks will make the near 500-mile round-trip along the I-45 corridor multiple times a week.

“This is an exciting, industry-first collaboration that will work toward enhancing the logistics industry through safer, more efficient transportation of goods,” Rebecca Yeung, vice-president of advanced technology and innovation at FedEx, said.

In January Aurora announced a partnership with Paccar, the American truck manufacturers, to develop self-driving trucks, which it now plans to use to deliver FedEx parcels.

“The speed and quality of progress we’re making with Aurora to develop self-driving trucks is impressive. This industry collaboration is an important step toward delivering these trucks at scale,” John Rich, the chief technology officer of Paccar, said.

Aurora, which is led by the former heads of self-driving programmes at Google, is also partnered with Toyota Motor North America and Denso, a parts supplier, on a project to make self-driving vehicles available to the average consumer as well as ride-hailing services.

 Have We Found The “Fat Gene”?

 In the ongoing search for new treatments for obesity and its related conditions, scientists are turning considerable attention to the role our genes might play. The hope is that drugs could one day be developed to switch key genes on or off in at-risk subjects, and a new study has offered up some new potential targets by identifying groups of genes that appear to cause weight gain and others that prevent it.

While conventional wisdom would have it that appetite and exercise are the overarching factors driving weight gain in humans, researchers are beginning to paint a picture that is far more complex than that. Recent studies have linked obesity to structural differences in the brains of children and to bacteria in our guts, while irregular sleeping patterns may also have a part to play, through resulting metabolic dysfunction.

The interplay between genes and obesity involves many unknowns, but scientists are starting to tease out some useful insights. One 2017 study pinpointed a genetic mutation in mice that caused them to put on weight, while a 2018 study showed how altering an obesity-related gene could prevent mice on high-fat diets from becoming overweight. We’ve also seen interesting studies identifying the most effective forms of exercise for those with a genetic predisposition for obesity.

Another noteworthy example came in 2018, when a massive study involving more than 700,000 subjects revealed a set of 14 genetic variations linked to obesity and body mass index (BMI). While key advances like this continue to shed more light on the role genes may play in regulating fat storage and the way our bodies use food as fuel, distinguishing the genes associated with obesity from the ones that directly cause it remains a key objective for scientists in the field.

 Strong Suggestion Alzheimer’s Disease May Start In The Liver

 An impressive new study is presenting robust evidence showing the toxic proteins thought to be the cause of Alzheimer’s disease may be produced in the liver and travel through the blood before landing in the brain causing neuron damage.

For several decades it has been generally accepted that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the accumulation of amyloid proteins in the brain. These proteins form toxic aggregations known as plaques and it is these plaques that damage the brain.

Although doubts are growing regarding the veracity of the “amyloid hypothesis,” the build up of these plaques is still the most prominent physiological sign of Alzheimer’s. And one of the more interesting hypotheses going around suggests these damaging amyloid proteins originate in the liver.

The big challenge in investigating this liver-amyloid hypothesis is that amyloid is also produced in the brain. Most mouse models used in Alzheimer’s research involve engineering the animals to overexpress amyloid production in the central nervous system, which only really resembles the minority of humans suffering from hereditary early-onset Alzheimer’s. The vast majority of people developing the disease instead experience what is known as sporadic Alzheimer’s, where the disease develops in older age, with no familial or genetic history.

Would You Order Coffee That Was Grown In A Lab?

 As the world’s population continues to grow, so does the strain we place on the environment in our efforts to feed all those hungry mouths, and part of the solution may lie in the lab. We’ve seen how lab-grown meats like rib-eye steaksburgers or chicken tenders could help address the massive environmental costs associated with livestock production, and we’re now seeing some interesting possibilities emerge around one of the world’s most popular drinks – coffee.

Almost 10 billion kg (22 billion lb) of coffee is produced globally each year, and demand is only expected to increase in the coming decades. And keeping up with that demand will involve creating more space to raise coffee plants, which involves deforesting vast areas so they can thrive in the direct sunlight. Making matters worse, studies have shown coffee to be highly susceptible to climate change, with much of the land suitable for its production expected to be significantly reduced in a warmer world. Rising temperatures also make disease and pests more common.

As a result there are serious sustainability issues facing the global coffee industry, but an alternative means of production may be in the works. The technology mirrors other forms of “cellular agriculture,” where products are created using cell cultures rather than actual animals or plants, and therefore involve just a fraction of the energy, water and carbon emissions.