Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 10, 2016

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Issue 10, 2016

This week's headlines:

Stripped-down synthetic organism sheds light on nature of life
March 24, 2016

Scientists on Thursday announced the creation of a synthetic organism stripped down to the bare essentials with the fewest genes needed to survive and multiply, a feat at the microscopic level that may provide big insights on the very nature of life. Genome research pioneer J. Craig Venter called the bacterial cell his research team designed and constructed the 'most simple of all organisms'.

While the human genome possesses more than 20,000 genes, the new organism gets by with only 473. The researchers noted that even though their organism has so few genes, they were still uncertain about the function of nearly a third of them, even after more than five years of work. The team predicted their work would yield practical applications in developing new medicines, biochemicals, biofuels and in agriculture.

Venter created the first synthetic cell in 2010 with the same team that conducted the new research. That 2010 achievement, creating a bacterial organism with a manmade genome, demonstrated that genomes can be designed on a computer, made in a laboratory and transplanted into a cell to form a new, self-replicating organism. Having created that synthetic cell, the researchers set out to engineer a bacterium by removing unessential genes. The goal was to use the fewest genes necessary for the organism to live and reproduce.

Full story: Reuters / Science Back to top

Scientists develop 'transparent wood'
March 31, 2016

Despite all our technological advances, wood remains one of our most reliable and frequently used building materials. And for good reason: It's strong, cheap, and, if properly managed, renewable. Now, scientists from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden have successfully made transparent wood using a technique they say would be easy to scale up. That means we could soon have tougher, wood-based windows and cheap, wood-covered solar cells.

The transparent wood was created by first stripping all the lignin - a natural wood fibre found in cell walls - from the material. That makes the wood white but doesn't help to make it see-through. But by embedding the white wood with a transparent polymer known as prepolymerized methyl methacrylate (PMMA), the team was able to alter its refractive index in order to achieve light transmittance of up to 85% - while still retaining the familiar wood structure.

While wood-based materials have been made transparent before, it's always been on the very-small scale, for example, to be used in wood-based computer chips. But this new light-weight material could have bigger applications. Not only would windows created out of this transparent wood be a lot less breakable than glass panes, they could also have cool properties such as semitransparency, where light would be let in but privacy would be maintained.

And for solar cells, it could bring the cost of manufacture down and improve their footprint by replacing silica-based glass with wood, while still letting in plenty of light.

Full story: Science Alert / Biomacromolecules Back to top

Sound makes virtual reality a more powerful painkiller
March 29, 2016

Researchers have believed for a while that virtual reality can be used to help control the pain you might feel while having a wound cared for or visiting the dentist, and a new study indicates that hearing sound while you're seeing immersive images is a key part of making this work.

Researchers at York St. John University in the UK say that they came to this conclusion after having a group of adults hold one hand in ice water as long as possible while playing a virtual reality game on an Oculus developer headset with and without sound.

The researchers found that people who played a racing game while hearing the sounds that went with it could tolerate the discomfort the longest, about 79 seconds. When they held a hand in ice water with virtual reality visuals but no sound, they lasted about 56 seconds. Both times the participants held a hand under water for much more time than when they tried to do so without using any VR at all-then, they lasted just an average of 30 seconds.

Until recently, the idea of using virtual reality to help with pain management would have been limited to hospitals and research labs that could afford to get pricey equipment. But with the release of much cheaper mass-market virtual-reality devices researchers are hopeful that the technology will soon start to be used more widely.

Full story: Technology Review / Royal Society Open Science journal Back to top

Novel written by AI passes the first round in literary competition
March 24, 2016

It may be time to add 'novelist' to the list of professions under threat from super-smart computer software, because a short story authored by artificial intelligence has made it through to the latter stages of a literary competition in Japan. It didn't scoop the top prize, but it's not a bad effort for a beginner.

The AI software isn't self-aware enough to think up and submit its own work though - the short-form novel was written with the help of a team of researchers from the Future University Hakodate in Japan. Human beings selected certain words and phrases to be used, and set up an overall framework for the story, before letting the software come up with the text itself.

One of two submissions from the university made it through the first round of the Nikkei Shinichi Hoshi Literary Award ceremony. Of 1,450 or so novels accepted this year, 11 were written with the involvement of AI programs. The four-stage screening process is kept secret but judges aren't told in advance which submissions are written by actual people and which have robot authors behind them.

Creativity is hard to emulate inside a computer, but it's probably only a matter of time before AI programs have the intelligence and the data to be able to do a passable job: automated software is already responsible for writing certain financial and sports reports where the key facts can be arranged in a straightforward template. Political speeches are another target for up-and-coming robot writers, as they tend to follow a familiar pattern, with repeated phrases and topics.

Full story: Science Alert / Japan News Back to top

Pilot plant to turn CO2 into house parts and paving stones
March 23, 2016

Taking carbon out of the atmosphere will be crucial if we are to slow the progress of climate change. As technologies to capture carbon improve, some are already thinking about what we will do with all that CO2. Storage in geological formations underground is one option. Better yet, what if we could make useful materials out of it, such as biofuels, plastics or building materials?

Several initiatives to explore such ideas are under way. Canadian company Carbon Engineering is combining captured CO2 with hydrogen gas to generate synthetic gasoline at its pilot plant north of Vancouver. And Newlight Technologies, based near Los Angeles, California, is using the greenhouse gas methane to manufacture plastic products such as mobile-phone cases and chairs.

A new project, which started this week, will research ways to turn CO2 into common building materials. A pilot plant at the University of Newcastle near Sydney, Australia, will test the commercial potential of mineral carbonation. This is a process that chemically binds CO2 with calcium- or magnesium-containing minerals to form stable materials. The plant will bind CO2 with crushed serpentinite rocks to create magnesium carbonate, which can be used to produce building and construction materials such as cement, paving stones and plasterboard.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Mood lighting for stress-free chickens
March 24, 2016

A new energy efficient lighting system for poultry farms uses bulbs with a light spectrum specially adjusted for chicken retinas. The makers at Edinburgh-based Greengage Lighting say it reduces animal pecking and crowding; making for more relaxed and happy chickens.

Many livestock farmers still use incandescent lamps in their barns, but these are designed for human eyes. Optimal light conditions are especially hard to achieve in poultry farming; too much light will cause stress to the birds, whereas if it's too dark in certain areas they are more likely to lay eggs on the floor instead of nest boxes, making them harder to collect.

According to Greengage Lighting, the chicken's superior eyesight isn't taken into account by traditional lighting that is better suited for human sight. The company spent several years developing its AgriLamp Induction System - known by the acronym ALIS - which uses up to 60% less energy than other common forms of agricultural lighting. The induction technology in each LED fixture means it is simply clipped onto the power cable in order to turn on. The system is shatterproof and water resistant, with the bulbs lasting at least 60,000 hours. Crucially, ALIS delivers an even spread of light to minimize 'hotspots' and shadows.

The ALIS lamp has a light spectrum that is much closer to that of sunlight which makes it ideal for mimicking the natural influence that daylight has on a hen's ability to produce an egg.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Electro Fork zaps flavour into your mouth
March 31, 2016

Salt can be dangerous, with too much of it causing blood pressure spikes. But now Japan has the solution. The Electro Fork, developed at Tokyo University as part of the No Salt Restaurant project, harmlessly zaps salted flavour into unsalted foods, essentially using electricity as seasoning.

As well as stimulating the tongue to taste saltiness, the electronic signals can also be used to enhance sourness and food texture. Sweetness, however, has proven difficult to reproduce.

Large salt intake can lead to high blood pressure, which in turn can cause heart problems and strokes. The No Salt Restaurant wants to give those with high blood pressure the chance to once again taste salty food without the adverse effects on their health.

The project was recently put through a successful trial run at the restaurant in Tokyo. The venue offered a saltless five course meal, consisting of a salad, pork cutlets, fried rice, meatloaf and cake.

Full story: CNET Back to top