Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 21, 2013

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Issue 21, 2013

This week's headlines:

Whole human brain mapped in 3D
June 20, 2013

An international group of neuroscientists has sliced, imaged and analysed the brain of a 65-year-old woman to create the most detailed map yet of a human brain in its entirety. The atlas, called 'BigBrain', shows the organisation of neurons with microscopic precision, which could help to clarify or even redefine the structure of brain regions obtained from decades-old anatomical studies.

The brain is comprised of a heterogeneous network of neurons of different sizes and with shapes that vary from triangular to round, packed more or less tightly in different areas. BigBrain reveals variations in neuronal distribution in the layers of the cerebral cortex and across brain regions - differences that are thought to relate to distinct functional units.

The atlas was compiled from 7,400 brain slices, each thinner than a human hair. Imaging the sections by microscope took a combined 1,000 hours and generated 10 trillion bytes of data. Supercomputers in Canada and Germany churned away for years reconstructing a three-dimensional volume from the images, and correcting for tears and wrinkles in individual sheets of tissue. The researchers will make the full data set publicly available online.1

BigBrain is part of the Human Brain Project, a 10-year European initiative to create a supercomputer simulation of the human brain. The atlas will serve as a reference with which other data sets can be aligned, and the BigBrain team plans to work with the Allen Brain Institute to link information from their two databases.

Full story: Nature / Science Back to top

Google's Project Loon to float the internet on balloons
June 18, 2013

Twenty kilometres up, slung under balloons, a payload of solar panels and wireless antennas is helping Google's Project Loon bring wireless internet access to the most remote parts of the world. The ultimate goal is to connect the two-thirds of the world's population that currently has no internet access.

Currently being trialled in New Zealand, each balloon delivers a coverage area of 1250 square kilometres as it floats overhead. New Zealanders who want to access the service must have a special antenna fitted to their house that connects to the closest balloon. The signal is then bounced from balloon to balloon, until it joins the internet back on the ground. Solar panels power the balloons' antennas and communications equipment, storing energy in batteries to keep them working through the night.

Google claims that its setup allows it to deliver 'speeds comparable to 3G', between balloons and the ground. It is unclear how well applications which rely on short communications times, or pings, like VOIP, will work given that the signal must relay through multiple balloons before even reaching to the wider internet.

Google will rely on weather prediction to keep its balloons in the right place, moving them up and down to take advantage of different air currents. The Raven Aerostar balloons Google is using typically have a maximum flight time of 55 days, meaning that the floating internet links will need to be either replaced on a regular basis, or replenished with helium while aloft. Google claims that its tweaked design can stay aloft for more than 100 days.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Silver 'boost to antibiotic success'
June 20, 2013

Bacteria are adapting and finding ways to survive the effects of antibiotics at an alarming and irreversibel rate. However, adding silver to antibiotics makes them 10 to 1,000 times more effective at fighting infections, research suggests.

Silver has been used as an antimicrobial for centuries, but little has been known about how it works. The new research suggests adding it to existing antibiotics could counteract the rise of drug-resistant microbes.

Experiments in mice showed the metal disrupts the biological processes of bacteria, making them more permeable to antibiotics, a team from Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Boston University reports.

Silver acts against Gram-negative bacteria - one of the two main types of bacteria - which are particularly difficult pathogens to treat. Future studies will focus on testing how silver can be added to antibiotic injections or tablets for use in patients.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Shape of a room 'heard' by acoustic echoes
June 18, 2013

The shape of a room can be modelled using echoes produced from sound, new research has found. Like bats who emit sounds in order to navigate, researchers can now plug sounds into a computer algorithm to map a room. The team from Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland (EPFL) were able to build a full 3D image of a room using four microphones to record echoes bouncing off walls.

The ability to use sounds to navigate the world, called echolocation, is already used by dolphins and bats. Though rare, some blind people have also been known to possess this skill. But now with the help of a computer algorithm, the echoes from a chirp like sound can reveal the shape of a room. Bat flying Bats also use echoes transmitting back to them in order to 'see' their environment

The algorithm could also distinguish between stronger and weaker echoes and whether they had bounced one or more times around the room. Walls made from different materials all reflect sound differently, but it was not the amplitude that the algorithm was looking at, rather the differing arrival times between the echoes. The same result could therefore be achieved from any sound, according to the researchers.

There are numerous potential applications for the research. Architects building a concert hall for example, might know the specific acoustics they want a new building to have. Using this new algorithm they could now 'plug' certain echoes into a computer and 'get the kind of space needed to produce those echoes'. Other potential implications are in the field of audio forensics, where audio is used as evidence in crime. For example, a simple sound recording taken in an unknown place could give clues to the space it was recorded in.

Full story: BBC News / PNAS Back to top

Slime mould could make memristors for biocomputers
June 18, 2013

A garish yellow slime that grows on rotten leaves and logs could one day form the brains behind living computers.

The feeding fronds of the slime mould Physarum polycephalum turn out to have memory resistance - or memristance. This electronic property can be used to create the data-processing circuits at the heart of all computers. Crucially, a memristor's electrical resistance is not constant but can be set by applying different voltages so that when the current stops, it 'remembers' its resistance until current flows again.

Predicted in 1971 by Leon Chua at the University of California in Berkeley, memristance was only discovered in practice in 2008 in titanium dioxide nanoparticles. Since then, the effect has been found in leaves, human sweat glands and blood - but not in biological material that could be used in computers. Now researchers at the University of the West of England in Bristol have found memristor behaviour in P. polycephalum's food-seeking tendrils.

The team says that mould might one day be used to build exotic computer and is also exploring whether, in addition to number-crunching, slime mould's knack for finding the shortest path to nutrients can be used to design the most efficient circuit patterns for biocomputers.

Full story: New Scientist / Back to top

A battery made of wood?
June 19, 2013

A sliver of wood coated with tin could make a tiny, long-lasting, efficient and environmentally friendly battery. The components in the battery tested by scientists at the University of Maryland are a thousand times thinner than a piece of paper.

Using sodium instead of lithium, as many rechargeable batteries do, makes the battery environmentally benign. Sodium doesn't store energy as efficiently as lithium, so you won't see this battery in your cell phone - instead, its low cost and common materials would make it ideal to store huge amounts of energy at once, such as solar energy at a power plant.

Existing batteries are often created on stiff bases, which are too brittle to withstand the swelling and shrinking that happens as electrons are stored in and used up from the battery. The team found that wood fibres are supple enough to let their sodium-ion battery last more than 400 charging cycles, which puts it among the longest lasting nanobatteries.

The researchers noticed that after charging and discharging the battery hundreds of times, the wood ended up wrinkled but intact. Computer models showed that that the wrinkles effectively relax the stress in the battery during charging and recharging, so that the battery can survive many cycles.

Full story: Science Daily Back to top

Eye chip sends signals to blind rats' brains
June 18, 2013

The partial blindness that accompanies macular degeneration and other retina-damaging diseases may soon be treatable with a new prosthetic. Rats with faulty vision that received the prosthetic implants responded to light with activity in their brains' visual cortexes, a team from Stanford and the University of Strathclyde in Scotland reports.

The results pave the way for people to use such chips, which are part of a bionic eye that doesn't require surgically implanted wires, as existing retinal prosthetics do.

The system involves a pair of specialised goggles outfitted with a camera on the nosepiece. The camera sends data to a pocket-sized computer, which processes the visual information and sends it to near-infrared lasers inside the goggles, facing the eyes. These lasers stimulate slender chips implanted beneath the retinas, which convert the data to an electrical signal to the brain.

The brain activity that the researchers recorded establishes that the electrical signal does reach the brain's visual centre.

Full story: Science News / Nature Communications Back to top

Anti-social media app helps you avoid other people
June 19, 2013

If you've ever feigned ill to skip a social event, duck down hallways at the sight of a chatty co-worker, or take the long way home in an effort to find some peace and quiet, 'Hell is other people' might be of some interest to you.

The cheeky new app, billed 'an experiment in ant-social media', leverages a user's own social network to decrease the likeliness of actually crossing paths with someone in it. Operating based on Foursquare check-ins, the site tracks your contacts, plots their locations on a map, and automatically calculates 'optimally distanced' routes for avoiding them.

'I actually really hate social media,' said the app's developer, Scott Garner, in a video showcasing the project. 'I had to sign up for a social media site and had to talk to people to get them to be my friends on that site, just so I could avoid them.'

But while he admits on his website that he does struggle with social anxiety, Garner explains that the app is more of a commentary on his disdain for social media than anything else - more satire than actual solution. After all, the app may work well for an introvert whose friends are heavy into mobile check-ins, but for everybody else? It still looks like taking the long way home.

Full story: CBC News Back to top