Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 35, 2015

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Issue 35, 2015

This week's headlines:

Scientists coax computers to think like people
December 11, 2015

Scientists at New York University have created an algorithm that captures the unique human ability to grasp new concepts from a single example in a study involving learning unfamiliar handwritten alphabet characters. This work as well as research like it has the twin goals of better understanding human learning and developing new, more human-like learning algorithms.

The algorithm was designed to make a computer able to learn quickly from a single example in the way people do. Standard algorithms in machine-learning require tens, hundreds or even thousands of training examples to yield similar results.

In the study, computers boasting the new algorithm and human subjects were presented with selected characters among a data set of about 1,600 handwritten characters from 50 alphabets from around the world. They even included a fictional alien alphabet from the animated TV show 'Futurama'.

Among other tasks, the human subjects and computers were directed to reproduce various characters after being given a lone example. Human judges were then asked to identify which characters were reproduced by a computer. The judges found the work produced by the computers to be virtually indistinguishable from that of human subjects.

The same approach used in the study might be applicable to machine learning for many other tasks like speech recognition and object recognition, according to the researchers.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

IBM to develop hardware to wipe out errors in quantum computing
December 08, 2015

The race to build a full-blown quantum computer is heating up. Tech giant IBM has been working on error-correcting techniques for quantum hardware, and has now won funding from the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) to take it to the next level.

Quantum computers promise to vastly outperform normal PCs on certain problems. But efforts to build them have been hampered by the fragility of quantum bits, or qubits, as the systems used to store them are easily affected by heat and electromagnetic radiation.

Traditional technologies already make wide use of error correction. For example, a DVD stores data in the patterns of etched markings on its surface, and these markings are grouped in certain ways to reduce errors. IBM is working on a similar technique for quantum computers, laying out qubits made from superconducting chips in a grid to allow a number of error-prone qubits act as a single, stable one, known as a logical qubit.

IBM and IARPA have not yet revealed how much funding is going into the five-year research programme.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Smart bandage signals infection by turning fluorescent
December 04, 2015

Bacterial infection is a fairly common and potentially dangerous complication of wound healing, but a new 'intelligent' dressing that turns fluorescent green to signal the onset of an infection could provide physicians a valuable early-detection system.

Researchers at the University of Bath, UK, have unveiled a prototype of the colour-changing bandage, which contains a gel-like material infused with tiny capsules that release nontoxic fluorescent dye in response to contact with populations of bacteria that commonly cause wound infections. The new bandage could be used to alert health-care professionals to an infection early enough to prevent the patient from getting sick. In some cases it may even be able help avoid the need for antibiotics, according to the researchers.

The group is collaborating with clinical researchers from a paediatric burn centre at the University of Bristol, and the team envisions that one of the first applications could be burn treatment. Clinicians tend to overprescribe antibiotics for burn wounds, particularly in children, because they are so concerned about infection. That can lead to antibiotic-resistant strains. An infection-detecting bandage could prevent this by reassuring parents and doctors when a wound is in fact not infected. They would also be useful for monitoring surgical wounds as well as those that result from traumatic injury.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

Sponge syringe could prevent shooting fatalities
December 10, 2015

The rate of fatalities from bullet wounds could drop significantly after the approval of a sponge-filled syringe for civilian use in America.

Called the XSTAT 30 and manufactured by RevMedX, the USD 100 syringe is filled with 92 tablet-sized sponges designed to expand in the wound and prevent blood-loss. Originally created for military purposes, the sponges are able to stop bleeding within 20 seconds of use.

For the US, a nation that experiences a mass shooting almost every day, this technology has the potential to greatly lower the death toll of gun violence.

The sponge dressing is effective for up to four hours. It is intended for temporary use, to give patients enough time to receive surgical care. Each syringe application can absorb about half a litre of blood and up to three applications can be used on a patient at any one time.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald Back to top

Scientists have figured out how to store electricity in 'paper'
December 04, 2015

Scientists at Linköping University in Sweden have developed what they call 'power paper' - a thin, paper-like material with a remarkable capacity to store energy. Just one sheet of the material measuring 15 centimetres in diameter and less than 0.5 mm thick can store 1 farad of electrical capacitance, which is about the same as many supercapacitors used in electric devices today.

The material, which is made from nanocellulose and a conductive polymer, can be used then recharged, lasting for hundreds of charge cycles. And best of all, it only takes a few seconds to power up again.

The team created the sheets by breaking down cellulose fibres using high-pressure water. These fibres measure just 20 nm in diameter, and are added to a water solution containing an electrically charged polymer. The polymer then forms a thin coating over the fibres.

The material could have a significant impact on how we store charge in small devices, and with further research might even be able to serve higher-capacity power needs. Unlike the batteries and capacitors we currently use - which use large amounts of metal and often contain toxic chemicals - the power paper is made from simple materials: renewable cellulose and readily available polymer.

According to the researchers, the paper is light, requires no dangerous chemicals or heavy metals, and is waterproof to boot. The one challenge is developing an industrial process to manufacture it on a large scale.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Wearable microbial power plants generate electricity from urine
December 11, 2015

Stranded without food and water, TV survival specialist Bear Grylls sometimes demonstrates drinking urine as a last resort to stay alive. But it could have other emergency uses - such as powering a distress beacon.

That's the idea behind a pair of socks developed by researchers at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. Walking in the socks forces a bladder's worth, roughly 648 millilitres, of urine to circulate through integrated tubes towards microbial fuels cells (MFCs), which contain bacteria that guzzle nutrients and create electricity.

In lab experiments, the system produced enough electricity to power a wireless transmitter to send out the message 'World's First Wearable MFC' every two minutes.

Aiming to make a self-sufficient, wearable device that works anywhere without additional power, the team created a manual foot pump inspired by how fish use involuntary muscles to circulate blood around their bodies. Instead of muscle, the pump uses flexible silicone tubes, which wrap under the heels and connect to bendy MFCs near the ankles. Each step taken squeezes and releases the tubes to pump the urine around.

Full story: New Scientist / Bioinspiration & Biomimetics Back to top