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Month December 2013

Progress in Efforts to Develop Lab-Grown Lungs: Functional Cells

Singularity Hub
Progress in Efforts to Develop Lab-Grown Lungs: Functional Cells

lung-cellsSince the development of induced pluripotent stem cells in 2006, scientists have managed to use the manufactured stem cells like seeds to grow a wide range of tissues and rudimentary organs. These advances have generated a lot of excitement about future applications — specifically, the potential to grow new organs for patients rather than requiring them to wait for a transplant.

It’s an exciting endpoint, but there are still major hurdles to clear before we get there. Different tissue types have not proven equal, and researchers are still struggling to coax stem cells to take on certain roles, including workhorses like lung cells. But Columbia University researchers recently managed to develop functional lung and airway cells from human iPSCs.

In work published in Nature Biotechnology, the researchers developed six types of lung and airway cells and documented evidence of basic functionality.

“Researchers have had relative success in turning human stem cells into heart cells, pancreatic beta cells, intestinal cells, liver cells, and nerve cells, raising all sorts of possibilities for regenerative medicine. Now, we are finally able to make lung and airway cells,” said study leader Hans-Willem Snoeck in a news release. “This is important because lung transplants have a particularly poor prognosis.”

h_E14.5-lung-and-trachea-by-Laertis-IkonomouBy removing chemicals that seem to stymie the development of lung cells, Snoeck and his colleagues were able to obtain more lung cells from the stem cells (see photo above). The resulting cells showed evidence of working as they would in the body, with Type 2 aveolar cells absorbing and releasing surfactant, which helps maintain the cells where gas exchange takes place.

Solid evidence, in other words, but not a home run.

Even successful lab-grown cells often perform at just a fraction of the levels of cells in a living human body, according to tissue engineering expert Jordan Miller, of Rice University.

“You can make iPSCs — take them back to the pluripotent stage and then go forward down a liver or a cardiac cell line — but the performance of those cells after they’ve been differentiated is a very small percentage of what they need to be,” Miller told Singularity Hub.

For instance, in a recent development covered by Singularity Hub, researchers crafted a heart that beat, but it didn’t beat with enough power or synchronization to sustain a life.

Efforts to create organs in a laboratory also often see cells die too soon. That’s the problem Miller has tackled by building, with 3D printers, rudimentary vascular structures to support the cells while they’re studied.

Miller and Snoeck are at the cutting edge of regenerative medicine, and yet both think it will be a long slog to get to custom-made organs.

Desmosome_-_epithelial_cell_from_mammalian_lung_tissue_-_TEM“When people ask me how long it will be before we have implantable organs, I think it will be at least several more decades,” Miller said.

“Any clinical application is still many years away,” Snoeck said.

Even so, the lung cells could soon be used in “lab on a chip” applications, in which researchers expose the specialized stem cells to medications to get an initial idea of how they might affect human subjects. Researchers can also learn more about some diseases by modeling them in the lab, using the stem cells of an affected person.

Snoeck had previously collaborated with Boston University researchers who were able to learn more about the path that embryonic tissue takes on its way to becoming lung tissue by inserting a gene that glowed green each time the stem cells expressed a gene called Nkx2-1, indicating they were taking a step toward becoming lungs.

Photos: Sarah Xuelian Huang, CUMC; Laertis Ikonomou, Boston University, Louisa Howard via Wikimedia Commons


Edible Batteries Could Power a Range of Smart Pills and Medical Devices

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Edible Batteries Could Power a Range of Smart Pills and Medical Devices

Bravo pH Capsule with Delivery System
Medicine is more an art than a science, doctors are the first to admit, not just because so much remains unknown about the human body, but also because patients often fail to provide relevant details or follow the doctor’s orders. Which explains the strong appeal of digitizing pills so that they register when the patient takes them and including Internet-enabled medical sensors in medical devices.

But how can we safely power electronic technology inside the body? A number of researchers are aggressively seeking answers to that question. For instance, Singularity Hub has covered an electronic pill that, when activated by stomach acid, generates enough power to signal an external device that then registers that the pill has been taken.

Patient Holding PillCam COLONCarnegie Mellon biomedical engineer Christopher Bettinger argues that flexible biodegradable batteries safe for human consumption would help implants achieve maximum benefits.

“While the sophistication of implants [such as biosensors, controlled release systems, and tissue stimulation devices] has increased over recent years, there are many persistent challenges that may limit the prospective impact of permanent implantable device-based therapies. These include risk of infection, chronic inflammation, and costly surgical procedures,” Bettinger told Singularity Hub in an email interview.

In a recent paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bettinger documents that an edible battery made from the pigment of cuttlefish — sea creatures related to squid — can discharge 10 microamperes of electricity for a period of five hours, with an ideal performance of 24 hours, as long as something ingested is likely to remain in the body.

Melanin from the cuttlefish served as the anode in the study’s aqueous sodium-ion battery, and manganese dioxide served as the cathode. Manganese dioxide is commonly eaten, though, like salt, it shouldn’t be overdone. It’s safe to eat up to a battery a day, according to Bettinger.

More such batteries could be produced cost-effectively partly because the melanin “ink” requires minimal processing, according to the paper.

So what exactly would the flexible, edible batteries power?

proteusIn addition to notifying doctors that pills have been taken, smart pills can make it possible for patients to take certain medications orally which must currently be injected because they’re destroyed by stomach acid. Common treatments for osteoporosis and arthritis, for instance, must be injected. A smart device can protect the medication until it has passed through the stomach and release it in the intestine.

Some implants are also meant for temporary use. A tissue stimulator may only need to work for a short time; a biodegradable product would free the patient from additional surgery to remove the device. Doctors have already implanted smart stents and and had patients swallow cameras that search their digestive tracks for cancer. With biodegradable versions, both patient and doctor could forget about the devices once the data was retrieved.

Semi-permanent devices including cardiac pacemakers and newer brain implants to combat the effects of epilepsy and Alzheimer’s also run on batteries, and battery life determines how often they must be surgically replaced.

Images: Given Imaging, Proteus

Drug Hopes to Delay Onset of Alzheimer’s Symptoms With a Monthly Shot in the Arm

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Drug Hopes to Delay Onset of Alzheimer’s Symptoms With a Monthly Shot in the Arm

PET_scan-normal_brain-alzheimers_disease_brain-bannerAlzheimer’s disease is on the rise, even as doctors continue to struggle to find potential treatments for it. Researchers expect the number of those suffering from dementia to grow from 44 million at present to three times that by 2050.

The growing number puts increased pressure on researchers to do something to ameliorate the disease. And one drug is attracting the spotlight as it enters clinical trials. Eric Karran, the director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said in a press conference in the lead-up to a G8 summit on dementia that he is “full of hope” that a drug now being tested in the United States on patients with mild dementia may be to Alzheimer’s disease what statins are to heart disease.

life-expectancy-elderlyThe drug, called solanezumab, appears to slow the buildup of amyloid beta in the brain and improves cognitive function in patients with mild dementia when given as a monthly shot.

But the excitement about the drug is as much a measure of other treatments’ failures as it is of its success. Researchers don’t even know for sure that amyloid beta causes Alzheimer’s-related dementia, although it is clearly linked. And solanezumab has already been shown not to help those whose dementia is more than mild.

In a clinical trial on patients with mild and moderate dementia, the results first showed no cognitive improvements. It was only after researchers re-crunched the data, which included standard mental tests used on patients with dementia, that they found improvements in patients with mild dementia hiding in the overall results.

Other drugs that have showed promise in the lab have sometimes affected amyloid beta levels but have not produced even these small cognitive improvements in Alzheimer’s patients.

“The marginal benefits of solanezumab are encouraging to support continued evaluation in future studies, and offer small support in favor of the ongoing viability of the ‘amyloid cascade hypothesis,’” Harvard researchers tepidly concluded in a recent review of the literature on the drug.

The current trial, set to study more then 2,000 patients for three years, will include only patients with mild dementia. It hopes to show that over time, even modest improvements can mean several years with better quality of life.

Amyloid-betaScientists believe that the physical changes wrought by Alzheimer’s disease begin as many as 10 years before symptoms appear.

If the trial lives up to researchers’ hopes, solanezumab would almost certainly be embraced by patients and their families. It would also make a bundle for its maker, Eli Lilly. The drug would function more or less like a preventative, meaning that those at elevated risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease would take it monthly for years.

“It is likely that, although statistically significant, the [improvement] will be of limited clinical relevance. It is likely that in a situation in which no new drugs have been approved for AD in several years, this limited benefit … will translate into a significant commercial success,” Bruno Imbimbo of Chiesi Farmaceutici told Singularity Hub.

There are more than 100 clinical trials under way for drugs that target Alzheimer’s disease. Just a few are testing drugs that would treat the disease directly, rather than treating its symptoms. With such a dearth of solutions, it’s understandable that a modest record of success like Lilly’s would generate enthusiasm.

But the real question is how much it will help patients, and we won’t know that until 2016 when the clinical trial ends.

Images: PET scans of healthy patient and one with Alzheimer’s disease, NIH via Wikimedia Commons; elderly men, Forster Forest via; amyloid beta diagram Boku wa Kage via Wikimedia Commons

Delicate Eye Cells Are Latest to Be 3D-Printed

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Delicate Eye Cells Are Latest to Be 3D-Printed

Blindness might just be the first major disability to disappear, at least if our high-tech future takes more a utopian than dystopian bent. A bionic eye is already on the market in the United States, and stem cell therapy has been shown to restore sight in mice. Now British scientists have successfully printed retinal cells.

Retinal ganglion at left, towards the front of the eye

Retinal ganglion at left, towards the front of the eye

Researchers have used 3D printing — an essential part of the effort to produce viable tissue and organs to replace what is damaged — with body cells before, but the process is more successful with some types of cells than others.

In the study, adult retinal ganglion and glial cells of rats were printed using a piezoelectric printer. Most cells emerged undamaged, and the researchers were able to culture the printed cells as successfully as they did cells that had not gone through the printer. Of the cells that first appeared lost in the process, most turned out to be clinging to the printer head.

The Cambridge researchers, Barbara Lorber and Keith Martin, took on a kind of worst-case scenario, using fragile adult cells rather than hardier embryonic cells and a harsher piezoelectric printer rather than its more commonly used cousin, the thermal inkjet.

Glial cells, properly part of the nervous system, are important to study as part of regenerative approaches to blindness because, when activated following injury, they release growth factors that help rewire the connection between the ganglia and the optic nerve, according to the study.

Piezo_printerOne key test for a printing approach to eye repair is whether cones and rods can also be printed, and the Cambridge researchers will turn their attention to that next.

If they succeed, “printing of a functional retina for the cure of some forms of blindness could be within reach,” they conclude. Even if it proves out of reach, printing the ganglion and glial cells in their normal anatomical structure would allow researchers to further study how cells proliferate and how drug treatments affect the retina.

Images: Sergey Nivens via; Pancrat via Wikimedia Commons; RepRap; cover photo Dzenanz via Wikimedia Commons

Meta Launches Its AR Eyeglass Hologram Computer To Compete With Glass

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Meta Launches Its AR Eyeglass Hologram Computer To Compete With Glass

The wearable computing industry is a fascinating one. The spotlight found it before it was quite ready for its star turn, since the functionality users have come to expect still comes in a package a bit too big to wear on one’s face. But when Google began marketing the lightweight but minimally functional Glass, the computing giant forced others to come to market sooner than they otherwise might. Users get to watch as the industry chaotically defines itself.

Meta, a Silicon Valley startup with an Israeli Defense Forces veteran at the helm, has opted to try to out-perform Glass in functionality, even if it means a significantly less lightweight product. The company recently opened pre-ordering for its first consumer product, Meta Pro glasses.

meta-displayWhile the Pro is markedly more wearable than Meta’s boxy developer version, it consists of aviator-style glasses that look relatively cool but weigh nearly 4 times what Glass does; they connect through a wire worn down the user’s back to a pocket computer slightly bigger than an iPhone.

But Meta’s features go beyond what Glass delivers, even with a growing number of apps. The device’s field of view, with a 40-degree display area, is 15 times bigger than Glass’s and offers 3D and higher resolution (1280 x 720 pixels). The display lays atop the real world without obscuring it, like Oculus Rift does.

The user gestures in the air to control the device, whereas Glass users touch the eyeglass earpiece or speak. The accompanying computer offers 4 gigabytes of RAM and a 1.5GHz Intel i5 CPU. The battery lasts 4 – 8 hours.

The glasses also feature on a 9-axis motion-tracking unit, integrating accelerometer, gyroscope and compass, that sits in the brow piece of the glasses.

CEO Meron Gribetz models Meta developer version

CEO Meron Gribetz models Meta developer version

So what can the user do with an always-on hologram interface? Much of that will depend on the roughly 1,500 third-party developers who are set to receive the chunky prototype headset in early 2014.

But in one app the company demoed to press, the user can pinch a sun icon to turn a connected lamp on and off. In another, the user can create a 3D digital object and physically plop it in a 3D printer to print. The headset also displays the user’s smartphone interface, allowing him or her to use its apps through the Meta display.

CEO Meron Gribetz imagines that the glasses will ultimately display a menu of certain basic apps, but that other apps will become available based on other contextual clues. Walk into a kitchen, for example, and the icon for your cooking app will pop up.

One area where Meta isn’t competing with Google is price. Glass sells for $1,500, while Meta Pro costs just shy of twice that. It will ship in June.

It’s Settled: Electric Cars Are Cleaner Than Their Gas-Powered Cousins

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It’s Settled: Electric Cars Are Cleaner Than Their Gas-Powered Cousins

Sometimes a technological advance takes off all on its own: the iPhone, for example. And sometimes government and consumer groups have to beg companies to sell the innovative products they’ve shown they can make. The best example of that second case is the electric vehicle.

Sure, most companies now offer or will soon offer all or primarily electric vehicles: Nissan, Ford, Chevrolet, Honda, Toyota, Audi, BMW and, of course, Tesla. But EVs still make up a tiny fraction of cars on the road in the United States more than 15 years after GM first sold its infamous electric cars in California in 1996.

One major issue that has dogged the electric vehicle is the complexity of any answer to the simple question, Are EVs better for the environment than gasoline-powered cars? Many instinctively believe the answer is no, because the cars get their power from the electrical grid — which is, in turn, driven chiefly by coal and natural gas.

While that instinct may have been valid in decades past, it no longer is. American utilities have replaced much of the coal they once used with natural gas. The difference, while modest, is enough to tip the balance in favor of electric cars. And of course there’s growing use of renewable energy sources.

bmw-i3Electric vehicles are already the environmentally superior choice, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit that supports scientifically sound cleaner energy policies.

“We looked at this question around emissions generated to charge electric vehicles versus emissions from gas vehicles, and what we found is that today no matter where you are in the country an EV produces less greenhouse gas emissions than the average compact gasoline car,” Don Anair, research and deputy director of UCS’s clean vehicles program, told Singularity Hub.

The issue of particulate pollution is even more complicated, but overall, the electric vehicles had a cleaner track record there, too, Anair said.

UCS claims that full adoption of the cars could reduce U.S. global warming pollution by four-fifths by 2050.

Because solar and wind power continue to become cheaper and better represented in the electrical supply chain, EVs continue to extend their advantage over gasoline-powered cars, experts told Singularity Hub.

“Now, with the cost competitiveness of solar and wind, geothermal and biomass, you’ve got a real mix of sources on the power side, and that’s a good thing,” said Todd Foley, the senior vice president of policy and government relations at the American Council on Renewable Energy, or ACORE.

A mix of energy sources also helps keep fuel prices down and avoid price spikes like those that plague drivers of conventional cars, Foley said.

“Charging your car, you’re taking advantage of that fuel mix. You have the portfolio approach which is important to put as much downward pressure on pricing as possible,” he said.

Automakers see lower fueling prices as an opportunity, particularly since EVs remain more expensive than conventional cars. (Their prices have fallen significantly, but none sells for less than $33,000.) Lower fuel costs allow companies like Tesla to present potential buyers with a better lifetime cost comparison.

Nissan LEAFIn a study done last year, UCS found that EV owners who charge their cars by plugging them in at home pay the equivalent of $1 per gallon of gasoline, saving between $750 and $1,200 a year in fuel costs.

It can cost $2,500 to configure home wiring to support the 220-volt charges most electric vehicles require. Tesla tacks that on to the cost of their vehicles, but BMW factors it in to the sticker price.

But the biggest barrier to widespread adoption is the distance the vehicles can travel without recharging. It’s an objection, however, that Anair batted aside.

“The average driving distance per day is 30 miles, and the vast majority of driving that people do is closest to their home. The functionality of these vehicles with current charging infrastructure can support a significant market. Charging will only expand that market,” he said.

ACORE’s Foley also indicated that there are enough consumers to make electric cars a go, even absent the on-the-go charging infrastructure that’s been slow to develop.

“There is the issue about mobility and needing to charge the cars up, but for a big part of the market these aren’t concerns. And that’s a sizable scale the industry can rise to for people who don’t have those issues,” he said.

Mike Brace, the technical editor of EVWorld, concurred.

“You’re going to see EVs fill the niche market of being the second [household] vehicle,” he told Singularity Hub. The first car will be the one that can handle “trips to see Grandma,” and the EV will be the commuting workhorse.

But Tesla, which, unlike most EV makers, doesn’t sell gas-powered cars, isn’t satisfied to play second fiddle. It is pushing to create a recharging network to allow even the most hardened road warriors use its sedans as their primary car. The company’s map of 20-minute supercharging stations open by 2014 may look a bit anemic, but by 2015 the company promises extensive coverage.

Other groups are building charging stations that take longer to operate, with more than 6,000 already up and running.

Technological advances have the potential to make charging stations unnecessary. Toll roads that offer inductive charging, cost-effective hydrogen fuel cells or battery-capacitor pairs could all accomplish that, according to Brace.

Of course EVs aren’t entirely without negative environmental impacts. Their manufacturing process, far less fine-tuned than that of conventional automobiles, involves toxic materials. But even a critical study confirmed that EVs were better overall and saw further improvements within reach. Companies are already developing ways to build vehicle batteries without using rare earth metals, for instance. And because the batteries make up a substantial part of the value and heft of the cars, they are diligently recycled.

Whether electric vehicles push out half of the gas-powered cars in the U.S. market or replace the entire conventional automotive infrastructure, it looks like neither GM nor anyone else could stop them now.

Prosthetic Hand With Sense of Touch Picks Stems From Cherries

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Prosthetic Hand With Sense of Touch Picks Stems From Cherries

Prosthetic_Hand_Sense_of_Touch (1)

Igor Spetic lost his hand on the job three years ago to an industrial hammer. But like Luke Skywalker, Spetic’s testing a new bionic hand. And though the hand hasn’t caught up to the tech of faraway galaxies, long ago, it’s closer than you might think.

The hand is capable of taking direction from Spetic’s brain and giving his brain sensation in return. This back and forth communication allows him to perform delicate actions impossible with a traditional prosthetic.

In a recent video (below), Spetic pulls the stems from cherries using touch alone. It’s a delicate procedure—too little pressure and stem and cherry remain intact; too much pressure and the cherry’s crushed.

The researchers fitted Spetic with a blindfold and a pair of headphones to isolate his sense of touch. With the sensations turned off, Spetic damaged or destroyed nine of fifteen cherries. But when the team turned the hand on, Spetic crushed only one.

The prosthetic reads Spetic’s mind by way of nerve bundles attached to muscles in his arm. When he thinks of performing a particular movement, the device detects the nerves firing and takes action, pinching thumb and fingers, for example.

Sensations work in reverse. The hand is equipped with 20 discrete sensory regions. When the sensors in a particular region are stimulated by pressure, the device sends a signal up to the nerve bundles in Spetic’s arm and, from there, to his brain.

Dustin Tyler, a Case Western professor and the project’s leader, says the device can be “tuned” to deliver different sensations—an improvement on previous iterations. According to Spetic, these range from ball bearings to cotton balls, sandpaper, and hair.

One imagines future improvements could include more sensory regions tuned to deliver different sensations depending on what’s being touched.

We’ve covered a few similar devices in recent years.

Zac Vawter climbed Chicago’s Willis Tower on a Rehabilitation of Institute of Chicago prosthetic leg controlled by his thoughts alone. The same group builds similarly advanced prosthetic arms and hands. And Case Western released another video of its prosthetic hand earlier this year.

Much of the research is funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with veterans in mind. But of course, amputees and victims of industrial accidents, like Spetic, also stand to benefit greatly.

The tech will take time to study, perfect, and eventually mass produce. But hopefully, in coming years, advanced prosthetics will be affordable and widely available. No doubt, for those who’ve lost a hand, arm, or leg—such technology can’t get here fast enough.

New Study: Daily Multivitamins, Supplements ‘A Waste Of Money’

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New Study: Daily Multivitamins, Supplements ‘A Waste Of Money’

The keys to a long, healthy life are exercising and eating well. But exactly what constitutes eating well is something that remains surprisingly undecided given the sophistication of modern science and the central role nutrition plays in good health.

In fact, one recommendation that most doctors seemed to agree with — take a daily multivitamin to plug any gaps in your diet — is facing a serious challenge in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The journal’s current issue features two studies and a meta-analysis which all conclude that multivitamins don’t deliver any significant health benefits.

“Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided,” the journal’s editors wrote in a note called, “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.”

Vitamins and dietary supplements are a $12 billion industry in the United States.

One study followed nearly 6,000 men over age 65 for more than a decade and tracked cognitive function among those who took multivitamins and a control group. It found no benefit to the vitamins.

Another study tracked patients recovering from heart attacks who were given multivitamins or a placebo for four years. Although many patients in both groups stopped taking the pills, the vitamin group appeared to be no better off than the control group.

Perhaps most damningly, the meta-analysis sought out the best long-term studies on the effects multivitamins and common single-nutrient supplements had on cardiovascular disease and cancer. It found that taking multivitamins had no effect on the subjects’ chance of dying during the studies. Multivitamins showed a small anti-cancer benefit for men, but none for women. And smokers who took beta-carotene supplements had a greater chance of developing lung cancer than those who took nothing.

B_vitamin_supplementThe journal editors cite other studies that show that vitamin E and high-dose vitamin A supplements likewise increase the risk of death. Vitamin D remains an open area of investigation, they say.

The findings were not without critics. Participants in the study were all basically well-nourished, meaning that the findings may not apply to those who do not get enough of the nutrients in their regular diets. The men in the cognitive function study were physicians, who have the financial resources and education to eat a balanced diet.

The Natural Products Association, a trade group, pointed to flaws in the research.

“The authors’ hypothesis is flawed in that multivitamins are not intended to cure chronic disease or prevent death solely on their own. They are designed to address nutrient deficiencies, and to aid in the general health and well-being of consumers. Multivitamins are not meant to serve as the answer to all of life’s ailments; they are, however, an important piece of the puzzle in leading a healthy lifestyle,” Cara Welch, the group’s senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, said in the statement.

Emeritus U.C. Berkeley nutritionist Gladys Block put it more colorfully in an interview with CNN.

“Two-thirds of us are overweight, a quarter over 50 have two or more chronic conditions, so there’s a substantial population that one would hesitate to call healthy,” she said. “You’re not getting any of these micronutrients from Coke and Twinkies.”

Even so, longevity hounds who follow Ray Kurzweil’s lead in taking numerous nutritional supplements as they wait for big medical breakthroughs are not — Singularity Hub can only assume — subsisting on Coke and Twinkies.

For those looking to make the best use of healthcare dollars, it may be time to scratch multivitamins off the grocery list.

Photos: MarkBuckawicki and Ragesoss via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t Take A Holiday From The Future — Sign Up For Our Newsletter To Stay In The Loop

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Don’t Take A Holiday From The Future — Sign Up For Our Newsletter To Stay In The Loop

icicle woman

For many, this time of year is chock full of friends, family, and holiday celebrations, but while you can take a vacation from your 9-to-5, there’s one thing you can’t escape this holiday season: the future! Waves of technology and ensuing disruptions will continue to happen right into 2014.

The good news? Singularity Hub has got you covered.

Our newsletter keep Hub stories flowing into your inbox so you don’t miss a single mind-blowing, earth-shattering, paradigm-challenging development in the realm of sci/tech. We’ve got our eyes on a diverse range of domains and deliver perspective and insight from an exponential mindset. Stories like Google acquiring Boston Dynamics, the development of 3D-printed modular mobile phones, and a handheld device that detects nutrients and allergens in foods will keep you abreast of the significant developments that are delivering the future today.

Don’t miss out – sign up for our newsletter now!

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[images: icicle woman courtesy of Shutterstock]

NASA Unveils Valkyrie, a Humanoid Robot Destined for Space Exploration

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NASA Unveils Valkyrie, a Humanoid Robot Destined for Space Exploration

NASA_Valkyrie_Space_Robot (1)

What comes to mind when you hear valkyrie? Fierce female deities escorting Viking warriors to Valhalla? Bold World War II assassination plots? Friendly human-like robots diligently at work on Martian habs? NASA’s hoping the latter will swamp the former.

Descendants of their humanoid robot, Valkyrie, may go to Mars to prepare for and work beside the first human explorers. IEEE Spectrum got a sneak peak at NASA’s new bot.

Valkyrie is a customized Boston Dynamics Atlas robot and NASA’s entry in the 2014 Darpa Robotics Challenge (DRC). Robots in the DRC will need to navigate obstacle courses, drive vehicles, use tools, and perform various other tasks and challenges.

NASA_Valkyrie_Robot_Battery_BackpackValkyrie uses a full suite of cameras and sensors to walk upright and handle tools.

But unlike its precursor, Atlas, which is tethered for power, Valkyrie carries a battery backpack. Also unlike Atlas, Valkyrie appears female. Sort of.

NASA says the robot isn’t supposed to be either sex, and its chest is necessarily curved to house the actuators allowing it to bend at the waist. Even so, the engineers affectionately call their creation “Val.”

Valkyrie’s most striking feature, however, is the robot’s sleek white protective shell. It’s a break from Atlas’s steam punk roll cage. Kind of how it might look if Apple made a robot.

Valkyrie project leader, Nicolaus Radford, told IEEE Spectrum“If you brush against it while you’re working, you don’t want to feel this cold, hard metal. You want it to feel natural, like you’re working next to another human being.”

NASA’s Mars rovers and Saturnian satellites are world famous. NASA’s also experimented with anthropomorphic robots over the years. Their humanoid robot, Robonaut, for example, was recently launched to the International Space Station.

NASA_Vakyrie_Robot_DrivingNASA may not be the only one designing space robots in the coming years.

Boston Dynamics, the maker of the Atlas robot, was recently acquired by Google—the sponsor of the Lunar X Prize.

Might Google one day make a spacebot or two? Sure, why not?

But whether it’s Google or NASA (or as one cheeky commenter suggested, “Google should buy NASA”), space exploration is an ideal profession for robots. We’ll need helpers like Valkyrie to prepare habitats and landing areas for human visitors to Mars.

When humans arrive, such robots may handle base operations, allowing astronauts to focus on other valuable work, like analyzing geological formations and looking for life.

Radford says, ”These robots will start preparing the way for the humans, and when the humans arrive, the robots and the humans will work together.”