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Archive for the ‘Inventions’ Category

To some people the future will always be out of our reach; impossible to predict despite the best efforts of today’s leading futurists and science fiction authors.  To others, we’re already living in it.  There are plenty of examples that could be used to help support either argument but one idea happens to work as an example for both: synthetic biology.  On the one hand, we’re starting to scratch the surface of what is possible so you could argue that the technology has already arrived.  On the other hand, the science is so new to use that we probably can’t even imagine how it will play out.

One person who may have a good idea of what is possible though is maverick pioneer Craig Venter.  Already one of the world’s leading synthetic biologists, Venter has now, for the first time, invented a machine capable of turning his own wild science fiction fantasies into a reality.

The machine is known as a DBC, a Digital to Biological Converter, and it sounds like something straight out of Star Trek.  The machine, once further refined, and shrunken down to a more manageable size so as to be commercially viable, would be capable of completing some pretty mind blowing tasks.  A homeowner could have one to print out the medications that they need to take or to create a sudden vaccine during a disease outbreak.  An astronaut could use one to print out life on another planet, thereby eliminating the need to transport already existing people across the vastness of space.  The machine could even be used to terraform a planet or to send unique alien lifeforms back to Earth from another world.  The possibilities are truly endless.

The Singularity Hub explains how it works:

“While automated DNA printers have already hit the market, the DBC takes it one step further. The machine is capable of building proteins from the genetic code (printing biological hardware, so to speak), bringing it one step closer to building living cells from scratch.

At the heart of the system is Archetype, proprietary software that optimally breaks down the input DNA sequence into more manageable short sequences to synthesize in parallel. This massively increases efficiency and reduces sequencing errors that increase with longer DNA strands.

Once assembled, the machine scans the strands for any errors before ‘pasting’ the bits back into complete DNA assembles. From there, a series of robotic arms transfer the DNA from module to module, automatically adding reagents that turn the synthetic genes into functional proteins.”

Obviously there is still a lot more work that needs to be done before we start seeing DBC’s on every street corner.  And if the struggles of the 3-D printing industry have taught us anything it’s that printing on demand isn’t as widely a sought after convenience as one might have imagined.  But then again, having the ability to print out your own medicine and vaccines could change that.  As could its ability to help us colonize space.

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Is the DBC the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

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Thanks to scientists we may soon have a “swiss army knife of energy production” available to homeowners for commercial use.  Known as the Redox System this incredible breakthrough would be able to meet all of your home energy needs in a myriad of ways.

As New Atlas puts it, “Imagine having a fridge-sized box in your home that not only generates and stores electricity on-site, but heats and cools the house, provides hot water and even churns out oxygen and hydrogen to use or sell. That’s the vision a team from the University of Newcastle and Australian company Infratech Industries is working towards…”

So, how does it work?!?

“In short, the CLES [Chemical Looping Energy-on-Demand System] acts like a combination of a generator and a battery: it can use natural gas to generate electricity to power a building, or take electrical energy from the grid or renewable sources and store it for later use. The system is based around a reduction-oxidation (redox) reaction, with a canister of a specially-blended particle mixture that cyclically gains and loses electrons. When those particles oxidize, they heat up, creating steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. Then, when they reduce again, they release oxygen that can then be collected.”

To start out the system is likely to cost around $4,500, which is expensive but ultimately cheaper than the Tesla Powerwall which is priced at $6,000.  Plus since the excess oxygen can be sold off it’s believed that on average the cost of purchasing one of these systems will be paid off in about eighteen months.  Beyond that, homeowners may actually be able to start turning a profit.

A single home energy system that takes cares of all my energy needs and makes me money?!?!  Where do I sign up?!?!

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Is the home Redox System the Greatest Idea Ever?

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On last night’s episode of Silicon Valley, a paranoid Gilfoyle take action when he realizes that Dinesh’s hacker girlfriend has infiltrated the apartment’s Wi-Fi network and is using it to effectively spy on them.  In a panicked state the duo ripped wires out of the wall, covered up their webcams with duct tape, and took various other actions to try and safeguard their apartment from their virtual intruder.

The scenario that played out last night is the one that we often associate with our Wi-Fi routers.  That some hacker in Estonia is trying to enter our home networks to steal our social security numbers or bank account numbers.  Or less nefariously that our neighbors are trying to steal our signal.

But now we can add one more privacy fear to Wi-Fi routers: the fact that one day they may be used to spy on us by using holograms to recreate what the inside of an apartment looks like.

As Science Mag puts it, “Your wireless router may be giving you away in manner you never dreamed of. For the first time, physicists have used radio waves from a Wi-Fi transmitter to encode a 3D image of a real object in a hologram similar to the image of Princess Leia projected by R2D2 in the movie Star Wars. In principle, the technique could enable outsiders to ‘see’ the inside of a room using only the Wi-Fi signals leaking out of it…”

This technology comes to us from scientists at the Technical University of Munich and obviously won’t just be used for spying.  There are plenty of practical applications that could benefit society as well, such as using the technology during disaster recovery efforts to locate victims that may be trapped inside a burning building.

But for those of you who may still have spying concerns you can rest easy knowing that your humble abode will likely never get mapped.

According to CNET, “The development of this technology is still in an early state. But for those concerned about privacy, [paper co-author Friedemann] Reinhard said the movable antenna required to scan an entire room or a building would be very large and couldn’t be installed clandestinely.”

So for now all you really have to worry about are your neighbors.  Or if you’re anything like Dinesh, your crazy hacker girlfriend.

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Are Wi-Fi holograms the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The Echo speaker, powered by Alexa, helped Amazon jump out to the surprise early lead in the race against Apple and Google for control of our living rooms.  At CES earlier this year, Alexa’s influence was everywhere with the technology showing up in everything from internet connected refrigerators to smart home control hubs.  It was Amazon’s subtle way of announcing to the world: Like it or not, Alexa is here to stay.

Now, just five months later, Amazon has announced two new products, the Echo Look and Echo Show, that take that line of thinking a step further: Since Alexa is here to stay we’re going to double down and dress her up with fancy new features to make her even more appealing.

First up is the Echo Look.  For an additional $20 you can get an Echo with a camera on it that will enable you to say things like, “Alexa, take a picture” or “Alexa, shoot a video”.  The basic premise here is that you’ll be able to take a picture of yourself wearing various outfits in order to receive advice on your style and look.  Sure beats the always impossible to answer inquiry: “honey, do these jeans make me look fat?”

The Echo Look is likely to solicit eye rolling from people who were already weary of the Echo’s always-on ability to listen to and record our every word.  By adding a camera, the thinking goes, now Amazon can see everything we do too Big Brother style.  Thankfully, that’s not going to be the case as the Echo Look comes with an off switch so that you can switch off the camera when you’re not ready to use it.

The Echo Show on the other hand isn’t as gimmicky as the Echo Look.  Rather, it’s basically the Echo 2.0, a more advanced version of the original that lets you see, not just hear, the information that Alexa has curated for you.

As Wired puts it, “That’s what makes Amazon’s newest Echo, the $229 Echo Show, a smart move. It’s an Echo … with a screen. The Chumby lookalike exists mostly to talk and listen, but glance at the screen and you’ll notice that as it reads your calendar events, it displays them, too. When it announces that the Warriors won, it shows you the box score. It lets you interact with almost everything by touch or by voice, using whichever one you find most convenient.”

Having the ability to see the information that Alexa has selected for you is a real game changer.  Not just in an aesthetically pleasing way but rather in a practical sense.  For instance, now when you ask, “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing?” instead of a monotonous response about the latest world news you’ll instead be shown the latest video clips.  This is a much more efficient way of communicating the information in question.

Better yet, the screen can easily be used as a teleconference monitor in lieu of Skype.  So now if you want to have a video chat with your mom or children you won’t have to whip out your iPad, open up the Skype app, search your contacts, and then place the call.  All you’d have to do is say, “Alexa, call mom.”

Examples like that highlight just how convenient the Echo Show can be.  And that’s just scratching the surface.  Once developers get their hands on the Echo Show all bets are off.  So, if you’ve ever thought about getting an Echo the addition of a screen, and a touch screen at that, essentially makes it a no brainer.  Just be sure to leave room in your budget for whatever else Amazon has in store for Alexa.

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Is the Echo Show the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Information is everywhere.  It’s all around us.  Within our DNA.  Encoded within the approximate 30 million items worldwide that have barcodes on them.  In the 1s and 0s of every phone, tablet, and computer around the world.  And that’s just the beginning.  Soon information will be everywhere from our clothes to any object or surface that we can think of.  That’s because a team of researchers from Duke University have created spray-on memory that can be used to add information to pretty much anything from paper to plastic.  Even if we’re talking about curved or bendable materials.

According to Idea Connection:

“Duke University researchers have created the first spray-on memory, which could lead to programmable electronics printed on paper or fabric.  The spray-on digital memory relies on an aerosol jet printer able to print nanoparticle inks at low temperatures. The nanowires and polymer are dissolved in methanol and then ejected through the printer nozzle, resulting in a small, printable memory device with a ‘writespeed’ of three microseconds [that is] able to retain the information for up to ten years without degradation.”

The key, according to Wired, is to store the date using resistance instead of varying states of electrical charge:

“Published in the Journal of Electronic Materials, the researchers describe how the material, made of silica-coated copper nanowires encased in a polymer matrix, stores data in states of resistance.  Using resistance to store data, instead of states of electrical charge, means that a voltage can be applied to help store and access the data quickly and easily.  ‘By applying a small voltage, it can be switched between a state of high resistance, which stops electric current, and a state of low resistance, which allows current to flow,’ a statement from the University explains. The nanowires and polymer can then be dissolved into liquid form and sprayed using a printer.”

What excites me the most about this invention, aside from the obvious limitless commercial applications, is that this approach is really just scratching the surface of what data storage in the future is going to look like.

As Wired explains:

“The attempt to create a new way to store data is one of a number of different approaches being created by academics. In March, academics from Columbia University and the New York Genome Center demonstrated how they were able to store a movie, operating system, and an Amazon gift card in DNA. In the work, the data from – totaling 2,146,816 bytes – was converted to DNA using an algorithm before being retrieved ‘perfectly’ from its state of storage.

Elsewhere, a tiny engraved piece of glass has been able to store 360TB of five dimensional data. A team at the University of Southampton stored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Magna Carta and the Bible on the glass by storing it on five dimensions: height, width, depth, and two other dimensions produced by nanostructures in the glass.”

What other ways will we invent to store and read data in the future?  That remains to be seen.  The only thing that’s certain at this point is that information is all around us and soon we’ll mean that literally.

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Is Spray On Memory (pictured at left) the Greatest Idea Ever?

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This past weekend I drove up to Sedona and Flagstaff where I hiked by day and star gazed by night.  A light sleeper I decided to bring my pillows and a blanket with me so as to not risk a restless night at the hands of the hotel’s accommodations.  Friday night I was able to park right by my room so no one noticed me coming in.  But Saturday night I had to walk through the hotel lobby in order to get to my room.  Here I am, a grown man, walking through a hotel lobby carrying my blankie.  I dreaded the stares and comments that I would get and sure enough the hot girl at the front desk made fun of me.  Fine.  I probably deserved it.  But there are plenty of people who could soon benefit from carrying around a 25 pound blankie.  And that’s no laughing matter.

According to Futurism:

“In the United States alone, roughly 10% of the population is affected by a sleep disorder, and a staggering 18% of the population lives with an anxiety disorder. More than 11 million people suffer from ADHD. And this is just the beginning of the problem.”

So what can we do about it?  Drape ourselves in a comfortable blankie!!! The blanket, known as Gravity, works by applying pressure to key parts of our body and in so doing helping us to relax.

As Futurism describes, the process is called, “proprioceptive input (also known as “deep touch pressure stimulation”). It works by activating pressure points across your body. This relaxes the nervous system by increasing serotonin and melatonin levels while decreasing cortisol levels. In this respect, research into proprioceptive input shows that deep pressure stimulation produces a calming influence—one that decreases stress, improves sleep, and boosts mental health.”

The Gravity Kickstarter page adds that the blanket is, “engineered to be around 10% of your body weight, [and] helps relax the nervous system by simulating the feeling of being held or hugged.”

So the next time you see someone carrying around a blanket try not to make fun of them.  Even if they are a 34 year old man walking through the lobby of a hotel.  For all you know they could be an anxiety sufferer rocking the Gravity blanket.

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Is the Gravity Blanket the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Science fiction does a great job of capturing our collective imaginations.  Sometimes even a little bit too good of a job.  We see hover boards and self-lacing sneakers in Back to the Future, talking holograms in Star Wars, and flying cars in The Jetsons and we instantly lust for those items.  Holding out hope, even well into adulthood, that someday they will be real.

Our desire for these fictional items is so strong that it even overshadows the actual pace of innovation.  For instance, when a fictional item finally does come to fruition as Dick Tracey’s famous wrist watch did with the Apple Watch we complain that the real thing didn’t meet our fake expectations.  Seeing something in a fictional world that we think should easily exist, such as the way that Tom Cruise in Minority Report manipulates information on giant computer screens with a wave of his hand, is even worse, liable to send us into a tizzy.  How come we don’t have that?!  That seems like something that would be easy to make nowadays!!!  When the pace of innovation slows some people even try to take matters into their own hands inventing real life Iron Man suits and the like to try and emulate their on screen heroes.

Suffice it to say, if there’s a cool fictional technology there’s someone out there trying to recreate it IRL (in real life).  From Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak to Captain America’s shield to the lightsabers from Star Wars there are dozens of examples of scientists and regular folk working around the clock to turn science fiction into science fact.  So much so that one of the most highly talked about and desired fictional items of all-time: Star Treks’ hand-held disease detecting device, the Tricorder, is now a real invention.

As the Washington Post reports, “Final Frontier Medical Devices, led by Basil Harris, a suburban Philadelphia emergency room doctor, won the $2.6 million top prize. The open competition, launched in 2012 [by X-Prize], challenged applicants to produce a lightweight, affordable health kit that diagnoses and interprets 13 health conditions and continuously monitors five health vitals. The team’s kit, equipped with noninvasive sensors, collects information that is synthesized on a diagnostic device — an iPad was used in the competition, but it could ultimately work on a smartphone.”

What’s great about the team’s prototype, dubbed DxtER (or Dexter), is that it doesn’t just diagnose those 13 health conditions that the competition asked for.  After all the tinkering throughout the competition it can now detect up to 34 medical conditions.  Furthermore, the device appears to be a step above the fictional device on Star Trek as it will provide an actual diagnosis of the health issue not just detect it.

I imagine that using one is going to be a comparable experience to filing one’s own taxes using a program such as TurboTax as the accompanying iPad software walks patients through a series of questions while interpreting the data that’s been fed into it.  It’s designed in such a way to be fully intuitive so that people can use it on their own without having to necessarily visit an actual doctor every time they are feeling under the weather.

The invention of an actual Tricorder speaks volumes on two fronts.  First of all, it shows just how pivotal the X-Prize and other global competitions offering monetary prizes are to driving the pace of innovation.  If it wasn’t for the $2.6 million dollar grand prize the Tricorder might have never been made.  The same holds true for contests designed to further our space travel efforts or cure diseases.  A sad but true commentary on our society although one that we can live with if it continues to deliver the results that we desire.

Secondly, it points to how vitally important it is for science fiction writers to continue pushing the envelope, to continue to spark our imaginations, to continue to dream up things that aren’t just likely to be around a few years from now, but rather, a few decades from now.

Just like with the old adage from Field of Dreams: “if you build it, they will come”, modern ingenuity building off of science fiction gives us a new adage for the modern age: “if you dream it, we will make it.”

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Is the Tricorder the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

 

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