Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 32, 2015

This is the online version of UNU-MERIT’s I&T Weekly which is sent out by email every Friday. If you wish to subscribe to this free service, please submit your email address in the box to the right.

Issue 32, 2015

This week's headlines:

Pigeons taught to diagnose breast cancer on X-rays
November 18, 2015

Job opportunities for pigeons have been few and far between since electronic communication made their skills as messengers obsolete. But now it seems they could be put to work analysing medical images. So says the team who trained pigeons to distinguish between healthy and cancerous breast tissue.

Researchers from the University of California, Davis, showed pigeons microscope images of breast tissue. Then they rewarded them when they correctly pecked a coloured button that corresponded to either cancerous or healthy tissue. After 15 daily sessions, each lasting an hour, the pigeons got the right answer 85% of the time.

Pooling responses from a panel of four pigeons, or 'flock-sourcing' as the researchers call it, increased accuracy to 99%. The pigeons were just as good at spotting small calcium deposits associated with cancer, which appear as white specks on mammograms.

While doctors won't be turning to pigeons for a cancer diagnosis any time soon, the birds could play a useful role in the development of image analysis technology. Researchers develop software that manipulates medical images so doctors can interpret them more easily, but it takes several hours to work out if the software helps or hinders a diagnosis.

Here's where the pigeons come in. The bird's sensitivity to features in medical images that are important for diagnoses make them ideal for providing feedback on several aspects of their software development, according to the researchers.

Full story: New Scientist / PLoS One Back to top

Could implantable LEDs relieve your pain?
November 16, 2015

Chronic pain is often tough to understand, much less treat. But a new flexible, implantable electronic device could illuminate why certain parts of your body hurt. And down the road, the system, which features a wirelessly activated light-emitting diode (LED), might even be able to provide pain relief with the flip of a switch.

In a recent demonstration, the device's inventors from Washington University in St. Louis showed that it could be implanted in mice and used to manipulate neural circuits known to be involved in creating the perception of pain by using an emerging technology called optogenetics. The technique entails adjusting the DNA of neurons so they can be made to fire, or can be blocked from firing, by shining light on them. The implants can be left in for long periods of time without significantly damaging the tissue or impairing motor function.

A growing number of researchers are using optogenetics, a technology invented a decade ago, to more precisely understand how groups of interconnected neurons work together to carry out discrete functions. But the technique has generally relied on external light sources, limiting the targetable circuits to those near a part of the skeleton, such as the skull, where a rigid fibre-optic cable can be held in place and prevented from damaging delicate neural tissue when the animal moves.

The new implantable system, which is based on very thin, soft materials with mechanical properties similar to those of biological tissues, doesn't need to be stuck to a bone. That's important for scientists hoping to better understand chronic pain that emerges from the activity of neurons in the peripheral nervous system and spinal cord.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

Ear and tongue sensors combine to understand 'silent speech'
November 18, 2015

An invention can recognise 'silent speech' by keeping tabs on your tongue and ears. By training it to recognise useful phrases, it could allow people who are disabled or work in loud environments to quietly control devices.

The device was created by a team at Georgia Institute of Technology and it combines a magnetic tongue-control system - already used to help people who are paralysed drive a wheelchair - with earpieces that look like headphones. Each earpiece has a sensor that uses infrared light to map the changing shape of the ear canal. Different words require different jaw movements, deforming the canal in slightly varying ways.

As a test, the team listed 12 phrases that might be required, such as 'I need to use the bathroom' or 'Give me my medicine, please'. People were then recorded repeating these while wearing the device.

With both the tongue and ear trackers in, the software recognised what the wearer was saying 90% of the time. Using ear trackers alone, the accuracy was slightly lower. The team plans to create a phrase book of sentences that are recognisable from the ear data.

Full story: New Scientist / Computer Back to top

Powdered glue goes on dry and sticks when squished
November 13, 2015

Most glues are either liquids that dry to form a bond, or solids that are heated to make them viscous and sticky, and then bond when cooled. Now researchers from the Osaka Institute of Technology in Japan have come up with a dry powder that becomes a sticky glue when squished.

The powder is made up of 'liquid marbles' - beads of liquid coated in solid particles that trap the fluid inside. In this case, the team rolled spheres of a latex liquid in a layer of calcium-carbonate nanoparticles. The resulting drops are a few millimetres across and pour easily, but when put under pressure for a few seconds the nanoparticles are pushed inside, exposing the sticky liquid within to the surface.

The team's tests show that the glue forms stronger bonds than other pressure-sensitive adhesives (PSAs) such as those found on Post-it notes or sticky tape. Because the material can be poured before its stickiness is activated, the researchers think it would be particularly useful for getting glue into odd shapes or tight spots.

Full story: New Scientist / Materials Horizons Back to top

Tablets 'eroding' children's digital skills
November 19, 2015

Children's growing use of mobile devices may hamper their learning of key technology skills, says a report by Australia's National Assessment Programme. The educational body noted a 'significant decline' in IT literacy among some students since 2011.

The report looked at technology literacy among two groups of children - one just leaving primary school and another in its fourth year of secondary school. More than 10,500 students took part. It compared digital literacy scores from 2011 with those from a survey carried out in late 2014.

Both age groups saw a decline in IT proficiencies. Statistics revealed that the average performance of 16-year-olds in the 2014 group was lower than the average in any other year. In addition it found that the number of children meeting basic ICT literacy standards in these age groups had dropped.

Pupils now made increased and extensive use of mobile technology and it was possible that this meant they were practising fewer of the skills that have been associated with ICT literacy, the report said. Tablets and smartphones were making children competent at using many forms of online communication, at the expense of those other skills emphasised by the curriculum. It warned against assuming that children who use tablets and other portable devices were more widely competent with technology.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

A classic formula for pi has been discovered hidden in hydrogen atoms
November 13, 2015

For the first time, scientists from the University of Rochester in the US have discovered a classic formula for pi in the world of quantum physics. Pi is the ratio between a circle's circumference and its diameter, and plays a big role in pure mathematics, but now scientists have also found it 'lurking' in the world of physics, when using quantum mechanics to compare the energy levels of a hydrogen atom.

The discovery was made when particle physicist Carl Hagen was teaching a class on quantum mechanics and explaining to his students how to use a quantum mechanical technique known as the 'variation principle' to approximate the energy states of a hydrogen atom.

While comparing these values to conventional calculations, he noticed an unusual trend in the ratios. He asked mathematician Tamar Friedmann to help him work out this trend, and they quickly realised that it was actually a manifestation of the Wallis formula for pi - the first time it had even been derived from physics.

Since 1655 there have been plenty of proofs of John Wallis's formula, but all have come from the world of mathematics. The discovery reveals a very special and previously unknown connection between quantum physics and maths.

Full story: Journal of Mathematical Physics Back to top

Scientists faking data use puzzling jargon to cover their tracks
November 18, 2015

There's an awful lot of institutional pressure on scientific researchers to keep making new, important discoveries and report their 'breakthrough' findings in academic journals. This phenomenon unfortunately leads some authors to take fraudulent shortcuts in their research - falsifying data so they can pump out their latest paper.

But short of peer-reviewing new studies, how can the scientific world weed out the fakers from the legit papers? Researchers from Stanford University have developed one way to spot the frauds, developing an 'obfuscation index' that rates the degree to which dishonest scientists attempt to mask false results in their work.

The underlying idea behind obfuscation is to muddle the truth. Scientists faking data know that they are committing a misconduct. One strategy to evade being caught may be to obscure parts of the paper. The Stanford team suggests that language can be one of many variables to differentiate between fraudulent and genuine science.

To test this theory, the researchers examined 253 scientific papers that were retracted from journals for reasons of documented fraud between 1973 and 2013 and compared them with unretracted articles from the same journals during that period. With their customised obfuscation index, they rated the false papers based on how they used causal terms, abstract language, jargon, positive emotion terms, and also assessed how easy they were to read.

They found that the fraudulent papers were written with significantly higher levels of linguistic obfuscation, offered lower readability, and contained higher rates of jargon than unretracted and non-fraudulent studies.

Full story: Science Alert / Journal of Language and Social Psychology Back to top