Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 3, 2013

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Issue 3, 2013

This week's headlines:

IBM tool kills deadly drug-resistant superbugs
January 23, 2013

Hospital-acquired infections have become a major killer mainly because the drug-resistant 'superbugs' that cause them have proven nearly impossible to stop. But now IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in the US say they have come up with what they are calling an antimicrobial hydrogel that can successfully fight the superbugs that are behind killers like MRSA.

IBM Research and its partner on the project said that their antimicrobial hydrogel was designed to cut through diseased biofilms and almost instantly kill off drug-resistant bacteria. The collaborators on the project said that the synthetic drug is meant for combating the growing infection problems plaguing hospitals, because it is non-toxic, biocompatible, and biodegradable.

Normally antimicrobials are used in standard household cleaners like alcohol and bleach. But those substances have not proved effective in fighting deadly skin infections like MRSA because antibiotics are becoming less effective and standard disinfectants are not meant for biological situations.

But the new hydrogel was created to be used in creams and other therapeutics that are meant for healing. The hydrogel can be applied to contaminated surfaces, and its positive charge instantly attracts the microbial membranes' negative charge. The bacteria is then meant to be killed by what IBM termed membrane disruption, a step that staves off any kind of resistance to the hydrogel.

Full story: CNET News Back to top

Billion-euro brain simulation and graphene projects win European funds
January 23, 2013

The European Commission has selected the two research proposals it will fund to the tune of half-a-billion euros each after a two-year, high-profile contest.

The Human Brain Project, led by neuroscientist Henry Markram at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, plans to simulate everything known about the human brain in a supercomputer.

The other project, called Graphene, is led by theoretical physicist Jari Kinaret at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. It will develop the potential of graphene - an ultrathin, flexible and conducting form of carbon - along with related materials for applications in computing, batteries and sensors.

The projects expect to receive EUR 1 bn over ten years, half to be provided by the European Commission and half by participants. The commission will make its formal announcement on Monday, 28 January.

The Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship competition was launched in 2009 as a challenge to apply information and communication technologies to social problems. The Human Brain Project claims that it will aid medical advancement in brain disorders. Graphene claims it will lead to development of new materials that will revolutionise diverse industries.

Full story: Nature Back to top

Powerful prose stored in error-free DNA
January 23, 2013

It is one of the most iconic speeches of all time, and now it has been immortalised in a very unusual way. A snippet of Martin Luther King's 1963 'I have a dream' speech has been stored in the alphabet of DNA.

Researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, UK, synthesised DNA to encode an eclectic mix of information in its adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine components. They used these 'letters' to record an audio file of 26 seconds of King's speech, all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets, a digital photo of their laboratory and the famous paper in which James Watson and Francis Crick first described the double-helical structure of DNA.

The team built on previous DNA-encoding techniques by adding error correction, allowing content to be retrieved with 100% accuracy.

DNA can last for thousands of years without special storage, other than being somewhere cold, dark and dry. In theory, DNA can encode roughly the capacity of 100 billion DVDs per gram of single-stranded DNA, making it potentially useful for storing the vast amounts of archived data produced by places such as CERN.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Back to top

Privacy visor blocks facial recognition software
January 22, 2013

Law enforcers, shops and social networks are increasingly using facial-recognition software. But now pair of glasses dubbed a 'privacy visor' has been developed by scientists at Tokyo's National Institute of Informatics to thwart hidden cameras using facial-recognition software.

The glasses are equipped with a near-infrared light source, which confuses the software without affecting vision. The near-infrared light appends noise to photographed images without affecting human visibility, according to the researchers.

The researchers said the glasses, which connect to a pocket power supply, would be reasonably priced, but there are some simpler alternatives. Heavy make-up or a mask will also work, as will tilting your head at a 15-degree angle, which fools the software into thinking you do not have a face, according to an online guide produced by hacktivist group Anonymous.

In September, following a review by Ireland's data protection commissioner, Facebook suspended its facial-recognition tool that suggested when users in Europe could be tagged in photographs. In November, it emerged some shop mannequins were collecting data on shoppers using facial-recognition software. The mannequin logs the age, gender and race of passers-by through a camera hidden behind one eye.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Body armour to scale up by mimicking flexible fish
January 25, 2013

In days of old, knights protected themselves in armour made up of tough, interlocking 'scales'. This idea might one day be revisited, with future soldiers decked out in scales inspired by the almost impenetrable skin of Polypterus senegalus, the 'dragon fish'.

This fish is a tough beast whose strong bite and sturdy exoskeleton has kept its species going for 96 million years. Each of the scales that cover its long body is made up of multiple layers; when the fish is bitten, each layer cracks in a different pattern so that the scale stays intact as a whole.

Now we know how the different types of scales work - as a series of joints between 'pegs' and 'sockets', allowing the fish to bend as it swims. This combination of flexibility and strength is perfect for human armour, say MIT researchers who performed X-ray scans of scales, reconstructed the shapes and then worked out how they slotted together.

Scales near the flexible parts of the fish, such as the tail, are small and allow the fish to bend. Those on the side, protecting the internal organs, are larger and more rigid. Their joints fit together tightly so that each peg reinforces the next scale rather than allowing it to flex.

The researchers created computer models of the different scale types and blew them up to 10 times their original size. Using a 3D printer, they printed a sheet of 144 interlocking scales out of a rigid material. The group hopes to eventually develop a full suit of fish-scale body armour that could replace the heavy Kevlar armour currently used.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Scientists mimic plants to make zero-carbon fuel
January 21, 2013

British scientists seeking to tap more efficient forms of solar power are exploring how to mimic the way plants transform sunlight into energy and produce hydrogen to fuel vehicles. They will join other researchers around the world studying artificial photosynthesis as governments seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

The 800,000 pound (EUR 949,000) project will be undertaken by scientists from the University of East Anglia, Cambridge and Leeds universities. The research will use synthetic biology to replicate the process by which plants concentrate solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which is then released into the atmosphere. Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel which can power vehicles or be transformed into electricity.

The scientists believe copying photosynthesis could be more efficient in harnessing the sun's energy than existing solar converters.

Full story: Back to top

Facebook envy can make you miserable
January 23, 2013

Witnessing friends' vacations, love lives and work successes on Facebook can cause envy and trigger feelings of misery and loneliness. A study by two German universities found rampant envy on Facebook, the world's largest social network that now has over one billion users and has produced an unprecedented platform for social comparison.

The researchers found that one in three people felt worse after visiting the site and more dissatisfied with their lives, while people who browsed without contributing were affected the most.

The researchers from Humboldt University and Darmstadt Technical University found vacation photos were the biggest cause of resentment, with more than half of envy incidents triggered by holiday snaps on Facebook. Social interaction was the second most common cause of envy as users could compare how many birthday greetings they received to those of their Facebook friends and how many 'likes' or comments were made on photos and postings.

They found people aged in their mid-30s were most likely to envy family happiness while women were more likely to envy physical attractiveness. These feelings of envy were found to prompt some users to boast more about their achievements on Facebook to portray themselves in a better light. Men were shown to post more self-promotional content on Facebook to let people know about their accomplishments while women stressed their good looks and social lives.

Full story: / Reuters Back to top