Monthly Archives: October 2008

Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded for Transgenic, Glowing Animals

Today the Nobel Prize committee announced the Nobel in chemistry would go to a group of US and Japanese researchers who discovered the green fluorescent protein (GFP) in jellyfish and transformed it into one of the most powerful research tools in genomics. Although GFP can make glowing kitties (above), glowing bunnies, glowing monkeys and mice (below), it has far more important applications for medical research. The eye-catching protein is used as a visual tag, linked to other genes or cells that scientists are tinkering with. As a result, scientists can literally see the results of their experiments. Now you can too.

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Scientists create organic wires for use inside the human body

Research chemists at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) have developed a water-soluble, organic, self-assembling electronic wire suitable for use inside the human body. Derived from carbon materials, the lightweight, flexible wires can power pacemakers, reconnect damaged nerve tissues, while also interacting with real electronic device that could augment or stimulate organic function. But do not worry, for this is only step one of the long process of turning us all into Borg-like drones.

The self-assembly process produces wires which are notably thinner than a human hair. They can be manufactured so small, in fact, that they could interact with individual cells. And therein lies significant potential for paralytics.

Researchers believe a procedure could eventually be developed whereby the severed portions of nerve fibers are reconnected with these new organic wires. Such patients could theoretically regain at least some of their former mobility, if not all of it, once the science is perfected and applied.

In fact, John D. Tovar, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry at Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, spoke of this very possibility. He said, “Can we use these materials to guide electrical current at the nanoscale? Can we use them to regulate cell-to-cell communication as a prelude to re-engineering neural networks or damaged spinal cords? These are the kinds of questions we are looking forward to being able to address and answer in the coming years.”

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Black Silicon To Revolutionize Solar Cells

Ten years ago, graduate students at Harvard University found a way of making silicon more responsive, by blasting the surface with a wafer, using a brief pulse of laser energy, along with dopants. They called the result “black silicon”, which was a much improved silicon and was able to absorb protons and release electrons much better. Now a company went official and said that they have been working for three years on this technology and are going to commercialize this process.

The company that will develop the “black silicon” is called SiOnyx and is confident that their technology is able to help manufacturers build much more efficient photovoltaic cells and sensitive detectors, without using anything else than the silicon-based process they currently use.

Black silicon could revolutionize some of nowadays technologies, like solar energy generation, medical imaging and digital photography.

“You’ve never been able to detect light the way this stuff detects light. It means that you solve a clear and obvious pain point for a very large number of customers,” says Stephen Saylor, SiOnyx CeO.

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Fuel Cells Powered by Hydrogen from Sewage

Researchers at the Oregon State University College of Engineering have discovered an efficient way to produce hydrogen from different types of biowaste, including municipal sewage.

The process uses 75% less energy than the traditional water electrolysis method of producing hydrogen, and can be done at a much lower cost, making it a good candidate for hydrogen fuel production.  In the lab, researchers are already close to the Department of Energy’s goal of $2 to $3 per gasoline gallon equivalent for hydrogen fuel.

The university describes the process like this:

“In these systems, naturally occurring microorganisms from sewage attach to the surface of an anode and degrade the waste in the sewage, in a device that is something like a battery. The waste decomposes, eventually leaving protons that migrate to the cathode, combine with electrons and generate hydrogen.”

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Tech support software closes in on Turing Test pass

In addition to being one of the fathers of computer science, Alan Turing postulated a very simple test for when computers move beyond calculations and start engaging in what we might consider thought. For Turing, the ultimate test was whether a person, engaged in a text-based conversation with a machine, would believe that it was conversing with another human.

Each year, the University of Reading hosts a competition where software is put to this test, with the winner taking home the Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence. This year’s winner, called Elbot, came within one judge of passing the test, but its success may be less important than the underlying technology: Elbot is the product of a company that promises its software can help companies take the requirement for humans out of live chats and e-mail.

Over a dozen competitors took part in this year’s contest, including older favorites like ALICE and Jabberwacky, both of which wound up among the six finalists. Elbot took home the Loebner Prize by convincing three of a dozen judges that it was human; it and most of the rest of the bots received high scores for portions of their conversation.

Typically, fooling 30 percent of people is considered a pass on the Turing Test, so this suggests that the combination of fast processors and sophisticated software is on the verge of passing the test.

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Looks to me like Kurzweil will be cashing in on his Turing bet with Mitch Kapor soon.

Stealth Semantic Startup Raises $8.5 Million, Won’t Tell Us Anything

I had a phone call late last week with a semantic startup called Siri that was spun out of SRI International (the birthplace of the computer mouse and the LCD screen, among many other important technologies). Most startups are willing to talk about their products “off the record” but this one wouldn’t divulge much beyond the fact that they’ve raised $8.5 million in Series A funding from Menlo Ventures and Morgenthaler.

What we do know is that the company was incorporated in December 2007 with the goal of commercializing aspects of the CALO cognitive learning system, which receives heavy funding ($200 million plus) from the PAL arm of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a supporter of research in a broad range of technologies that could potentially benefit the Department of Defense.

From the sound of things, Siri’s 19 developers – mostly engineers who count Yahoo, Google, Apple, Xerox, Nasa, and Netscape as their former employers – have been working on a system that will use artificial intelligence to automate many of the tasks that people currently conduct manually online. The founders describe themselves as out to change the fundamental ways that people use the internet, apparently by leveraging artificial intelligence that will learn from you and then give you the luxury of thinking less on your own.

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Alaris 30 Desktop 3D Printer Unveiled

Objet Geometries have kindly offered us (in advance of even their own official press release going live) a tantalising insight concerning their new Alaris 30 Desktop 3D Printer which, despite its decidedly compact design, offers high resolution 600 x 600 dpi resolution 3D printing using PolyJet Photopolymer Jetting Technology to render not only full, and exceptionally detailed 3D objects but which, as is evidenced by the impressive car model sent to us (which is presently sitting on my desk), can even produce models complete with intricate, interacting moving parts.

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An End to Paralysis with Artificial Brain-to-Muscle Connectors

Using a computerized connector between the brain and muscles in the body, scientists have been able to restore movement to paralyzed limbs. A group of neuroscientists report in Nature today that they used a brain-computer interface to join the motor cortex of an ape to the muscles in its wrist. After scientists paralyzed the ape’s arm temporarily, it was still able to make its wrist move my sending electrical impulses directly from its brain to the muscles, bypassing the damaged nerves in between. The study has profound implications for people whose nerves have been severed or damaged, leaving them paralyzed.

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Making Skin for Robots

Like it or not, the day is coming when we’ll live side by side with humanoids. But although most modern robots can grip objects and avoid walls, they lack a vital quality in any companion: feeling. They don’t need to get your jokes or sense that you had a bad day, but without all-over sensors that can detect things like motion and body heat, there’s nothing to tell them that, for instance, they’re stepping on the baby.

That’s about to change. In August, University of Tokyo researcher Takao Someya made elastic conductors that could someday give robots humanlike skin. Until now, no one had succeeded in combining the conductivity of metals with the flexibility of rubber—most elastic materials have near-zero conductivity. The new skin combines a salty liquid with malleable single-walled carbon nanotubes that can stretch to 134 percent their original size and improve conductivity by 570 percent. Equipped with sensors, the material could detect pressure and heat to recognize a tap on the shoulder or gauge the strength of someone’s grip.

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Mysterious DNA survives eons of evolution

Scientists have discovered mystery snippets of mammal DNA that have survived eons of evolution and yet have no apparent purpose. The finding reveals just how much we don’t know about the secrets hidden in our genome and that of other animals.

Most genes change throughout evolution via mutations; useless ones eventually get weeded out of the population while the helpful modifications take hold. However, about 500 regions of our DNA — the body’s instruction code made up of base pairs of molecules — have apparently remained intact throughout the history of mammalian evolution, or the past 80 million to 100 million years, basically free of mutations.

“Mutations are introduced into these regions just as they are everywhere else, but they’re swept out of the genome much more quickly,” said researcher Gill Bejerano, professor of developmental biology and computer science at Stanford University. “These regions seem to be under intense purifying selection — almost no mutations take hold permanently.”

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