A Weekly Snapshot of Life-Changing Technology
Written by MaCall Manor, on behalf of SF AppWorks
We've turned the corner of the decade, ladies & gentlemen. Read on as we chronicle the weird and wonderful start!
1. 👁-conic Startup
Startup "Mojo" has everyone on the edge of their seats as it teases an eye-catching product: contact lenses embedded with augmented reality.
Photo courtesy of Mojo
Now that's visionary.
A select few techie journalists had the opportunity to give the still somewhat undercooked prototype a whirl, albeit the demo involved substitution with a VR headset. The final in-eye product is not quite ready for testing, but they had a lot to say about the company's exciting progress with the interface. Mojo's focus rests on useful functionality rather than stunning visuals; temperature, weather, and traffic are some of the pieces to their superhuman awareness puzzle. The company's aim is to "enhance" the natural viewing experience with understated, but helpful hologram-esque information.
The product is primarily intended for people with poor vision, purporting benefits to accommodate those with retina degeneration, as well as various other conditions. But it also imagines superpowers for firefighters: the startup has already collaborated with Motorola to outline features that could save lives by delivering crucial information to first responders. There are also possible use cases for those in the service industry.
The display is placed at the front and center of the pupil, positioned to direct light in a specific path through the retina. What's more, it's smaller than a grain of sand, squeezing 70,000 pixels into a space less than a millimeter wide. (Meanwhile I'm just out here trying to squeeze into an old pair of jeans...)
2. Alive and Gel
Imagine a brick capable of extracting carbon dioxide from the air and regenerating itself after a natural disaster. An interdisciplinary team of scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder have created a new-age, "living" building material made of microbes and gel.
CU Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science
Back-teria to the Future
Professor Wil Srubar's interest in sustainable building was the catalyst for the project, in which he and the team created moldable forms by combining bacteria with a gelatin and sand mix. The team also reports on the material's durability, citing that it maintained its strength under a range of trying humidity and temperature conditions.
The building material effects an otherworldly quality in an almost symbiotic response mechanism to the environment—changing color in reaction to toxins, and potentially even extracting them from the air. The craziest part: chop one of the bricks down the middle, and each half can re-grow into a whole new brick.
Time to Grow
In an evermore waste-conscious world, the prospect of building materials that improve (rather than harm) the environment is quite uplifting. While the developments at Boulder are promising, Srubar indicates that the research is still in its beginning stages, and that a final product will not be ready for the next 5-10 years.
3. Doctor AI
Medical researchers from Google have developed AI tools capable of identifying patterns in X-rays, possibly giving them the necessary edge to surpass humans in cancer detection.
Photo courtesy of Northwestern University
Reading this gives me chills. Technology certainly has a terrifyingly unbridled quality. Despite its unruly and at times downright lawless edges, it always seems to arch back in a fascinating display of altruism, revealing a core that feels, against all odds, strangely human.
Google's venture into the medical field involves a system that can read mammograms with computational accuracy, an innovation that moves toward perfection in detecting even the earliest signs of disease. In the study reported here, the AI was tested on images wherein the diagnosis was already known, and it outperformed the radiologists. Says Doctor Etemadi of the results: "unlike humans, computers do not get tired, bored, or distracted at the end of a long day of reading mammograms."
Tech Arm, Human Hand
Despite auspicious implications, there have been instances in the testing where the AI did miss a cancer that was detected by multiple radiologists, indicating there are still some major kinks to be worked out. The technology is intended as tool or enhancement, rather than to replace doctors. The study's leads purport that an efficient use of the system might be in flagging the mammograms which require immediate attention. At that point, they would be analyzed by their human counterparts. The ability demonstrated by AI to detect issues missed by doctors is nothing short of revolutionary in this field.
4. Addiction Terminator
In another development being hailed as "cyborg tech," researchers at the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institution are embedding microchips in the brains of opioid addicts. The scientists hope deep neurostimulation will help renew victims' reward centers and cure them of their addictions.
Image courtesy of West Virginia University
DOES. THIS. WORK. FOR. CHOCOLATE. ADDICTIONS?!!
The brain becomes chemically imbalanced over time due to overuse of addictive substances, which can lead to a decrease in self control and an increase in anxiety. In this clinical trial, doctors and scientists aim to regulate and restore the part of the brain responsible for users' addictive behavior. A small incision is made in the front of the head, followed by a tiny hole in the actual skull, through which wires are inserted toward the targeted area. The microchip that helps restore dopamine is actually connected to the brain through the collar bone—eek!
A Last Reboot
Whether or not technology embedded in humans can be equated to that of "cyborgs" is still under a bit of scrutiny. While some argue the traditional concept of a cyborg involves more complete human augmentation, others feel this isn't a far cry since it does combine living matter with 'intelligent materials.' It seems that any ethical issues raised by this approach are quickly dissolved in the assertion that this is a last ditch effort to save a human life. When the patient reaches this stage of treatment, it may be the only option left.
5. Yeast Inception
Researchers re-engineer standard brewer's yeast, producing building blocks for an alternative energy solution: molecules usable for biofuel in internal combustion engines.
Can they re-engineer bread to be less fattening while they're at it?
In case you need a refresher course (I did), biofuel is produced from biomass that is converted into liquid fuels. Today the two most common forms of biofuel are ethanol and biodiesel—collectively comprising the first generation of biofuel tech. Although yeast can effectively be converted to ethanol, ethanol itself doesn't make for a very efficient alternative to fossil fuels because our existing machines would need to be structurally re-engineered to accommodate its chemical makeup. However, yeast actually does produce other chemicals that are proving more equatable to hydrocarbon fuels.
Liquid fuels have a specific chemical composition that isn't easy to recreate—a short string of carbon atoms each individually linked to hydrogen. However, their structure is similar to the building blocks of fats, differing only slightly and produced copiously in nature. Essentially, scientists tackled the painstakingly thorough task of completely re-engineering yeast to achieve the desired molecule capable of being used for biofuel.
The researchers' method was nothing short of exhaustive, all to achieve what was described as a "small, incremental increase in production." Their inspiring work is a reminder of the creativity and commitment it will take to build a more sustainable and earth-friendly infrastructure.
6. Predator Patterns
Microsoft has developed a tool capable of analyzing chats in search of online predators who are sexually exploiting children.
It's difficult to be a crook in 2020, folks.
Devil in the Details
The software is called "Project Artemis," and it essentially works by using algorithms to detect patterns indicative of behavior that looks like a threat. It uses historical chat data to give conversations a probability marker, ultimately suggesting that a concerning interaction should be further evaluated by a moderator.
A Hero Rises
Microsoft has actually been using the technology for years on X-box's chat platform. It was developed in conjunction with a few other tech giants, and is now garnering high hopes for the future as it's made available to third party online services with chat functionality. Microsoft's digital safety chief asserts that though this is an important development, there's still a long way to go in understanding, detecting, and preventing the intricacies of child sexual exploitation.
7. Shrimp Cocktail
A startup in Singapore sets its sights on becoming the first in the world to grow shrimp in a laboratory.
Image courtesy of Shiok Meats
It's no surprise that we're seeing a boom in food tech with growing concerns about health, animals, and the environment. But this is not your typical plant-based meat alternative. It's actually in a category of its own—deemed "clean meat," which entails true meat grown from cells outside of its parent species. What's more is that the new-age market space is relatively untouched. Cue investors.
Race to the Plate
Multiple firms are scrambling to succeed with lab-grown fish and other proteins, hoping to cash in on a cut of the projected $140 billion revenue this industry is predicted to generate within the next ten years. Shiok is extracting cells from shrimp, feeding them a dense a nutrient solution in a careful incubation process to help them multiply. But right now, two pounds of lab-grown shrimp costs about $5k to produce...a number Shiok is pressing to improve.
As is, people can be finicky when it comes to eating seafood, but marketing departments for lab-grown fish companies like this one will face a whole new challenge with consumer perception of the product. Shiok hopes the allure of environmentally conscious eating will outweigh concerns about the sheer "weirdness" of manmade protein.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoy the Wonder, please consider sharing it with a friend. We'll see you next month!
-MaCall Manor, on behalf of SF AppWorks