Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 27, 2013

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Issue 27, 2013

This week's headlines:

Scientists grow 'mini human brains' from stem cells
August 29, 2013

Scientists have grown the first mini human brains in a laboratory and say their success could lead to new levels of understanding about the way brains develop and what goes wrong in certain mental disorders.

The researchers from Austria's Institute of Molecular Biotechnology and from Britain's Edinburgh University started with human stem cells and created a culture in the lab that allowed them to grow into so-called 'cerebral organoids' - or mini brains - that consisted of several distinct brain regions. Using the organoids, the team were then able to produce a biological model of how a rare brain condition called microcephaly develops - suggesting the same technique could in future be used to model disorders like autism or schizophrenia.

To create their brain tissue the team began with human stem cells and grew them with a special combination of nutrients designed to capitalise on the cells' innate ability to organize into complex organ structures. They grew tissue called neuroectoderm - the layer of cells in the embryo from which all components of the brain and nervous system develop. Fragments of this tissue were then embedded in a scaffold and put into a spinning bioreactor - a system that circulates oxygen and nutrients to allow them to grow into cerebral organoids.

After a month, the fragments had organized themselves into primitive structures that could be recognised as developing brain regions such as retina, choroid plexus and cerebral cortex. At two months, the organoids reached a maximum size of around 4 mm. Although they were very small and still a long way from resembling anything like the detailed structure of a fully developed human brain, they did contain firing neurons and distinct types of neural tissue.

Full story: Reuters / Nature Back to top

Study reveals secrets to successful product design
August 27, 2013

The secret to successful product design for developing countries is to tailor products for informal markets, a study has found.

Some of the best-selling products in emerging markets, such as solar lamps and a special Nokia mobile phone, were specifically designed to help the owners of low-income businesses, known as micro-enterprises, make money, the study says. These micro-enterprises are an untapped but potentially lucrative market and products tailor-made for them could make large profits for both local salesmen and multinational corporations.

The study authors, from MIT in the US, are now planning a large-scale study to evaluate and refine a set of guidelines for those designing products for developing countries. Design firms in more mature markets generally develop products for consumers or businesses, but not for the informal markets that are prevalent in developing countries, according to the researchers.

The paper offers some guidelines for future designers that focus on creating products that foster micro-enterprise. For example, it says that designers should think of their target users not only as consumers but also as micro-entrepreneurs, and be aware of their needs. It must be clear how the user can make money from the product, and the product should be upgradable so its performance capacity can grow with the business. Another guideline calls on designers to consider multi-functionality, for example, the solar lamp's ability to charge phones was key to its success.

Full story: SciDev Back to top

'Money reduces trust' in small groups, study shows
August 28, 2013

Exchanging goods for currency is an age old trusted system for trade. In large groups it fosters co-operation as each party has a measurable payoff. But within small groups a team from Chapman University, US, found that introducing an incentive makes people less likely to share than they did before. In essence, even an artificial currency reduced their natural generosity.

When money becomes involved, group dynamics have been known to change. Scientists have now found that even tokens with no monetary value completely changed the way in which people helped each other.

The Chapman team wanted to investigate co-operation in large societies of strangers, where it is less likely for individuals to help others than in tight-knit communities. The team devised an experiment where subjects in small and large groups had the option to give gifts in exchange for tokens.

They found that there was a social cost to introducing this incentive. When all tokens were 'spent', a potential gift-giver was less likely to help than they had been in a setting where tokens had not yet been introduced. The same effect was found in smaller groups, who were less generous when there was the option of receiving a token. But this negative result was not found in larger anonymous groups of 32. Instead co-operation increased with the use of tokens.

Full story: BBC News / PNAS Back to top

Biodiversity app logs insects by their telltale call
August 29, 2013

To the untrained ear, the chirping noises made by many small creatures or insects sound very similar. Now there is a new breed of app that will allow anyone with a smartphone to identify the unique calls of endangered animals, and keep an eye on biodiversity.

Assessing the numbers of a species in a certain area is painstaking, tiring work, particularly when the animal you are looking for is small – and extremely rare. The new app Cicada Hunt works much like Shazam, which samples short music clips to help identify a mystery song. This time, though, the software is listening out for the call of the endangered New Forest cicada, Cicadetta montana. The app could also be trained to detect many different animals, from birds and bats to grasshoppers and crickets.

Developed by researchers at the University of Southampton, UK, Cicada Hunt was designed so that the millions of people who annually visit the New Forest, ancient woodland that lies west of Southampton, can help monitor how the cicada is faring. The idea is that tourists wander in the woods with the app running in the background on their smartphones. Once the app has recognised the insect's call, it sounds an alert to tell the user to record a brief sound clip that can be emailed later to researchers, who then create a heat map of the insect's spread.

Cicada Hunt is similar to a voice recognition system. It recognises C. montana by seeking out a ratio of two telltale wavelengths in its song. In tests on a known population in Slovenia, the app was easily able to detect cicada The team is now updating it to identify 20 species of grasshopper and cricket, as well as birdsong.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Researchers design glass implant that grows new bone
August 26, 2013

Engineers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology have designed a super-strong bioactive glass implant with a scaffolding-like structure that is able to grow new bone. Bioactive means the material reacts with body fluids and converts into living bone, so it does not need to be removed.

In previous work, the engineers proved the glass implant they developed using robocasting - a computer-controlled technique to ensure a uniform structure - could withstand the weight and pressure experienced by long bones in the body like those in the arms and legs.

Their latest research using the skulls of rats, showed that the porous scaffolding design quickly bonded to the bone and promoted a significant amount of new bone growth within six weeks.

The material could someday be used to repair large bone defects that are the result of cancer, war or car crashes. Current treatments to structural bone repair involve either porous metal, which can heal poorly and become infected; or a bone transplant from a cadaver, which carries risk of disease. Bone also can be taken from one part of the body to another, but the amount is limited, and the result can be pain and poor healing at the donor site.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald / Acta Biomaterialia Back to top

Artificial eye contact for internet callers
August 27, 2013

Using Skype or any program with a webcam, to talk to friends, family or conduct business has one inherent flaw, the lack of eye contact that comes from staring at the computer screen and not the camera. New software is looking to correct that problem, letting users make direct eye contact and solving years of awkward conversations.

The software solution, developed by researchers from ETH Zurich, is rather simple and can go a long way to creating a conversation that feels 'real'. Artificial eye contact can be created by rotating the face in the video and can be adjusted by the user.

Using Kinect, a camera developed by Microsoft, the developers have created software that can create a depth map that is combined with a facial recognition program. The recognition occurs in real-time and the software uses an algorithm that only rotates the face. According to the developers, the rotated image is blended on to the original image by finding a border with similar colors.

The software can adjust the image based on changing light conditions and will not alter the image, leaving the original image in place as a user turns away from the camera or if their face is hidden by a cup or other object. The gaze-correcting software can process two faces at the same time, allowing for multiple users in a video conference call, but the program cannot recognise a face when users wear glasses.

For now, the software is limited to the Kinect but there plans to create a Skype plug-in that users can download. The developers are also creating software that can be used on a smartphone using a standard camera system.

Full story: International Business Times Back to top

Wasting time on Facebook? You're in for a shock
August 28, 2013

Feel bad about how much time you spend on social media sites like Facebook? The Pavlov Poke could help – by making you feel even worse. Designed as a joke, but with a serious message at its core about the many hours we fritter away on internet services, the system gives you a small electric shock via the keyboard after you have clocked up a certain amount of time on specified websites or applications. The shock is not harmful, but should be unpleasant enough to act as a deterrent.

Some researchers claim that social media sites can be more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. But while the rest of us have to rely on strength of will, PhD students Robert Morris and Dan McDuff at the MIT Media Lab fashioned a gadget out of spare equipment lying around their office. They hope it will help them spend less time cruising social media sites and encourage them to finish off their dissertations instead.

The set-up uses software that monitors what applications are being run. When it detects that a given time threshold has been exceeded by an application, it triggers a short circuit in an electronic device connected to the computer, sending a current to metal pads in front of the keyboard. If a person's hands are resting on those pads they get a jolt.

If that's not enough to wean you off excess internet use, the system can up the ante: if a person keeps up the undesired behaviour, it will also automatically place a job request on Amazon's Mechanical Turk with your phone number and instructions for a crowd-worker to phone up and yell at you whenever your willpower wobbles.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top