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Month February 2014

Legal Heroin: Is Virtual Reality Our Next Hard Drug?

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Legal Heroin: Is Virtual Reality Our Next Hard Drug?

vr-helm

So video games are addictive—this we know.

It comes down to dopamine, one of the brain’s basic signaling molecules. Emotionally, we feel dopamine as pleasure, engagement, excitement, creativity, and a desire to investigate and make meaning out of the world. It’s released whenever we take risks, or encounter novelty. From an evolutionary standpoint, it reinforces exploratory behavior.

More importantly, dopamine is a motivator. It’s released when we have the expectation of reward. And once this neurotransmitter becomes hardwired into a psychological reward loop, the desire to get more of that reward becomes the brain’s overarching preoccupation. Cocaine, widely considered the most addictive drug on the planet, does little more than flood the brain with dopamine and block its reuptake (sort of like SSRI’s block the reuptake of serotonin).

Video games are full of novelty, risk-taking, reward-anticipation, and exploratory behavior. They’re dopamine-production machines dressed up with joysticks and better graphics. And this is why video games are so addictive.

But this is only where things are today. There are a host of additional pleasure chemicals floating around our brains. Consider endorphins, the brain’s own version of opium. Or anandamide, which is essentially the brain’s natural version of marijuana. Or serotonin, which is calming and peaceful in low doses (Prozac) and, in higher does, the fuel behind both ecstasy and LSD.

Right now, we don’t know enough about manipulating this neurochemistry to routinely trick the brain into releasing this cascade of chemicals via video game—but that will change.

In my last blog, I wrote about the peak state of consciousness known as “flow,” where we feel our best and perform our best. To understand what’s coming with video games, it’s actually helpful to know a bit more about flow.

While there’s more work to be done, we now believe that during flow, the brain gets high on an extremely potent neurochemical cocktail, blending norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide and serotonin. To put this in street drug terms, flow produces a rapid hit of speed, heroin, ecstasy, marijuana, and cocaine. This is also why researchers consider “flow” the source code of intrinsic motivation or, in plainer language, seriously addictive.

We also know that video games can put players into low-grade flow states—but they’re really not much more than dopamine loops. Now, certainly, these loops are fun and addictive, but they’re nothing compared to what happens when we can marshal flow’s full complement of neurochemicals.

Pretty soon, we’ll have video games that trigger endorphins and anandamide and serotonin and dopamine and all the rest. This will happen because our neuro-imaging and sensing technologies are experiencing their own version of Moore’s Law and this will continue to enhance our understanding of how to control the brain’s internal chemistry. It will happen because we are starting to understand a great deal more about flow itself, and what triggers the state. And it will happen because our games are becoming more immersive, more virtual, more like reality.

Today, “serious gaming” using VR is how we train astronauts, military pilots, and, more and more, surgeons. Why? Because, the science shows, our brains respond to second hand stimulus (a virtual world) in ways that mirror first person experiences and—more importantly—the brain can be tricked/trained into deepening those responses (treating phantom limb pain with a simple mirror technique is a great example).

Research has also shown that one of flow’s most powerful triggers is what’s called “deep embodiment”—which is a fancy way of saying all of your sensory systems are in a kind of synchrony and all of your attention is occupied by this inrush of information. Immersive video games are deeply embodied video games.

Here’s Scientific American writer Seth Fletcher’s progress report from a brand new, January 2014, field trial with the Oculus Rift VR headset: “I’ve grown to hate the term ‘immersive’ when used to describe any experience other than, say, scuba diving, but here it is justified. The great virtue of Oculus is that it allows you to fully step into an artificial world.”

Then there’s the Omni treadmill, a 360 degree treadmill designed to work with headsets like the Oculus, so no longer is the gamer stuck in a chair.

These flowy-developments have significant society-wide implications in a number of key areas.

The first is learning. A quick shorthand for learning and memory is the more neurochemicals that show up during an experience, the better chance that experience has of moving from short-term holding to long-term storage.

Since flow includes a huge neurochemical cocktail, learning in flow is significantly amplified, sometimes ridiculously so. In a study run by DARPA, military snipers in flow increased the speed at which they learned new target acquisition skills by 230 percent.  In a similar, but non-military study, the time it took to train novice snipers up to the expert level was cut in half.

This also explains why companies that make learning based video games are so keen to crack the flow nut. And once you add immersive VR capabilities to those efforts, we should see real progress within the next few years. This isn’t going to bring us to a world of Matrix-style downloadable learning (yet), but it will certainly and radically accelerate the path to mastery.

The second is more peculiar. Flow states are deeply meaningful experiences. Research going back to the late 1800s, shows them to be fundamentally life-altering. Psychologists have found that the people with the most flow in their lives rate the highest on overall life satisfaction.

Thus, when video games start producing full-scale flow states is arguably the point that VR becomes more fun and perhaps more meaningful than actual reality. This could produce a serious real world emigration, where large swatches of society begin to live more in the virtual than the actual.

This could also mean that all those jobs that robots and AI are destined to take from us in the next few decades could be replaced, not with physical jobs, rather with virtual jobs. Sound ridiculous? Consider that several thousand people currently make a living inside of Second Life, and the platform has already produced its first millionaire.

It could also mean that those with addictive tendencies could find a new drug to sate their needs. But if those needs are being sated in a deeply meaningful, radically fun way is that such a bad thing?

* Co-written with Laura Anne Edwards, Global Content Partner, Unreasonable Group. To learn more about flow, be sure and check out The Rise of Superman, Steven’s forthcoming book on the subject.

[image credits: Wikipedia]

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Stem Cells Repair, Strengthen Muscles in Aged Mice

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Stem Cells Repair, Strengthen Muscles in Aged Mice

elderly man aging longevityAs people age, they become less able to bounce back from injuries — a problem that adds risk to many of the common medical procedures the elderly face. At the same time, stem cells’ greatest promise is to allow people to produce new, healthy tissue to recover from illness or injury. But because stem cell therapies remain cutting edge, they have largely been used to target life-threatening problems such as heart failure.

Stanford’s Helen Blau, director of the Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology, studies a more banal, but also more ubiquitous, use of stem cells in the body: helping muscles repair themselves. The lab’s most recent findings suggest that stem cell therapy could be used to help older patients recover from muscular injuries, for example from falls, or perhaps even weakness following surgery.

Brian Cosgrove and Helen Blau

Benjamin Cosgrove and Helen Blau

At a biological level, the stem cells that repair muscle damage lose their ability with age to generate new muscle fibers. But the older stem cells can be spurred to function like younger cells.

Studying stem cells from elderly mice, Blau’s team found that the environment inside the muscle becomes less conducive for stem cells and the cells themselves become less productive as the mice age.

A biological process called the p38 MAP kinase pathway, which cues stem cells to become muscle progenitor cells, seemed to account for the older stem cells’ diminished productivity. So the researchers administered a drug to safeguard the cells against that process and then allowed them to proliferate in a gooey hydrogel base.

When these stem cells were re-introduced into the elderly mice, the animals became stronger.

Lab_mouse_mg_3263“We were able to show that transplantation of the old treated muscle stem cell population repaired the damage and restored strength to injured muscles of old mice. Two months after transplantation, these muscles exhibited forces equivalent to young, uninjured muscles. This was the most encouraging finding of all,” said Benjamin Cosgrove, a post-doc in Blau’s lab who is a co-author of the recent study published in Nature Medicine.

The same basic process could lay the groundwork for helping human patients heal after surgery or an injury.

“This really opens a whole new avenue to enhance the repair of specific muscles in the elderly, especially after an injury. Our data pave the way for such a stem cell therapy,” Blau said.

Other recent work in stem cell therapy has similarly looked for ways the cells could improve functioning of existing organs, rather than building replacements through regenerative medicine. For instance, one recent study suggested that the cells may be able to kick-start insulin-making in pancreas in Type-1 diabetics by replacing Beta cells. These approaches may lack the heroics of organs grown in the lab, but they’re likely to reach the clinic long before replacement organs are available.

Images: Ahmet Demirel and Rama via Wikimedia Commons, Stanford University

Foxconn’s Pivot to America: Reverse Outsourcing With Robots

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Foxconn’s Pivot to America: Reverse Outsourcing With Robots

robot_assembly_line (1)

A little over a year ago, Foxconn, the notorious Taiwanese manufacturer of Apple’s iPhone, said they would replace a million Chinese workers with robots. Now, the firm says they plan to transfer capital-intensive and high-tech manufacturing to the US.

The two announcements are closely related. Just as cheap labor and competitive firms like Foxconn lured US electronics companies to outsource manufacturing to Asia—new generations of advanced robots may be set to bring it back. (Note: Though there are fewer manufacturing jobs due to automation, the US still “makes” plenty of stuff.)

Signs point the way to Foxconn and Huawei, a telecom firm, in China.

Signs point the way to Foxconn and Huawei, a telecom firm, in China.

China, where Foxconn operates its iPhone plant, has been vilified in recent years for “stealing” US manufacturing jobs, as have the multinationals assembling products there. Most folks (often politicians) cite the fact Chinese factories can pay lower wages than their American counterparts.

But lower wages are only part of the story. A 2012 New York Times article related an encounter between the late Steve Jobs and President Obama. Obama wanted to know what it would take to bring iPhone assembly to the US. Apple’s CEO was blunt, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

He went on to explain that when Apple redesigned the screen in the original iPhone just weeks before launch, 8,000 Chinese workers who lived on the factory grounds were immediately awoken, given tea and a biscuit, and set to work refitting screens. A mere 96 hours later, they were pumping out 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” Jobs said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

Behind those words was an unspoken, controversial fact. No American plant could compete, in part, because the working conditions Jobs described would be considered unacceptable. China on the other hand has fewer such regulations, and therefore, it’s faster, cheaper, and more convenient to assemble electronics there.

foxconn_electronicsBut if it’s been so financially sensible for Apple (and other firms) to make their products in China and ship them thousands of miles back to the US—then, Foxconn’s new plan signals something powerful is changing the cost equation.

What is that something? Robots, of course. Increasingly affordable robot labor is taking the cost advantage (and PR risk) of operating in less regulated countries and throwing it out the window.

You can work robots as hard as you want—and wake them in the middle of the night without tea and biscuits—and you can do it anywhere in the world.

The cost of human labor varies with local laws and regulations, but robot labor is apolitical and therefore more consistently and predictably priced. Because of that fact, it makes more sense to locate your factories in your biggest markets whenever possible.

Now, to be clear, robots have long been a part of manufacturing. What’s changed, and continues to change at a rapid pace, is the cost and competency of those robots.

Thanks to computer vision and machine learning algorithms, robots, once consigned to carefully controlled tasks, can now function more like human workers. And due to cheap sensors and chips, they’re more powerful per dollar. Not all manufacturing has been automated, but it’s headed in that direction.

“Automation, software and technology innovation will be our key focus in the US in the coming few years,” Foxconn chairman, Terry Gou, told reporters at a recent press event.

That may mean more electronics manufacturing in the US, but Jobs was still right. Most of the manufacturing jobs of the halcyon days of yore are gone for good. Future manufacturing will require but a skeleton crew of humans to attend the robots.

But it’s better than the alternative. Manufacturing is exactly the kind of work machines ought to do, the kind of work that frees humans from dangerous, monotonous tasks. Without automation, most of us would be consigned to plowing the field. There would be no time to develop cancer cures or form garage bands.

Some foresee a time in the not too distant future when robots doing everything will cause mass unemployment and inequality. Right or wrong—and a heavy burden of proof is on the hypothesizers—the resurgence of that line of thinking, at the least, signals huge technological advancement and upheaval is afoot. Similar arguments have been made at every great leap forward in the last few hundred years.

But optimism is also warranted. Today, as in the past, technological change has the power to deliver greater abundance, freedom, health, and creativity—and whatever we do for work, fewer humans will be Foxconn cogs in the industrial machine.

Image Credit: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr; Matt Wakeman/Flickr; mattsches/Flickr

IBM Markets Watson as Potential Solution to Africa’s Health and Education Woes

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IBM Markets Watson as Potential Solution to Africa’s Health and Education Woes

IBM-Research-AfricaIBM’s Watson is one of the most impressive demonstrations of artificial intelligence to date. Yet the company continues to struggle to find an area, other than quiz shows, where the tool can shine.

The company recently announced that it will invest in an artificial intelligence-based research program in Africa to improve water and sanitation, agriculture, healthcare and education on the continent using Watson. Universities and non-governmental organizations will provide the data sets for Watson to parse, and will in turn develop programs to respond to any new insights the system offers.

Kamal-Bhattacharya“With the ability to learn from emerging patterns and discover new correlations, Watson’s cognitive capabilities hold enormous potential in Africa – helping it to achieve in the next two decades what today’s developed markets have achieved over two centuries,” Kamal Bhattacharya, the director of IBM’s Research – Africa, said in a news release.

Watson might be able to identify a link between a contaminated waterhole, a cholera epidemic, and low school attendance in a particular region, the company suggested.

Still IBM has already tried to stake out healthcare as a key vertical for Watson in the United States, and the AI system has struggled to tackle huge medical data sets. It may yet provide treatment improvements, but the challenges underscore how much artificial intelligence still has to learn, according to expert Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield.

“What you get in AI is this kind of exponential increase, then we go for a very long plateau and nobody knows how long that plateau will be,” Sharkey told Singularity Hub.

IBM-Research-Africa-2IBM will spend $100 million to establish the pan-African Center of Excellence for Data-Driven Development based in its Nairobi, Kenya offices. Organizations and companies that participate in the initiative will gain access to Watson’s cloud-hosted smarts.

IBM stands to embed its products and services in a slate of companies in emerging economies. And it will also be continuing to invest in Watson, which, like a curious toddler, grows smarter with each dataset it masters.

IBM recently created a New York artificial intelligence hub similar to the CEDD, though it will primarily serve advanced medicine and business rather than the NGO community.

The move is surely good for Watson’s artificial intelligence, and it will be interesting to watch if AI devises any innovative solutions for the intractable problems Africa has faced.

Photos: IBM Research

Pioneering Cell Therapy Achieves Complete Remission In Patients With End-Stage Leukemia

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Pioneering Cell Therapy Achieves Complete Remission In Patients With End-Stage Leukemia

patient-hospital-ivThere are certain words that you would never want to hear coming from a healthcare provider. “Salvage chemotherapy” and “Hail Mary transplant” would rank high on that list for most of us.

And yet it was patients who weren’t even eligible for these treatments or for whom they’d already failed who participated in a recent clinical trial for a cell therapy treatment for adult B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or B-ALL, led by Michel Sadelain at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Nearly 90 percent achieved complete remission of the disease, the researchers reported today in Science Translational Medicine.

Cell therapy refers to a new, very promising way of treating cancer. Also sometimes called immunotherapy, it involves genetically modifying patients’ T cells so that they use a particular biological marker to identify and destroy cancer cells, which the immune system doesn’t generally recognize as a threat.

“If you take a pill or chemical, once you’ve given the pill, that’s what you’ve got and then it’s eliminated, and you can’t go too high because it sometimes gets toxic. In this case, the T cells are stimulated by the cancer. It’s a treatment that we only give once and then they proliferate. It’s what we call a ‘living drug,’” Sadelain told Singularity Hub.

Michel Sadelain

Michel Sadelain

Sadelain and his colleagues pioneered cell therapy in 2003 with a report that they had successfully genetically engineered mouse T cells to target the protein CD19, which is found on leukemia and lymphoma and on healthy immune B cells. Last year, the researchers reported on a five-person clinical trial; the current trial, with 16, is the largest study published of a cell therapy to treat advanced leukemia.

Other labs have also developed related approaches to leukemia and lymphoma. Singularity Hub previously covered a successful University of Pennsylvania trial of a cell therapy method used to treat other forms of leukemia by targeting CD19. The patients in the current study were sicker, according to Sadelain.

The study documents 16 patients with relapsed B-ALL who were given an infusion of their own T cells, which had been harvested from the blood and subsequently genetically modified to target CD19 and multiplied in the lab.

The overall complete response rate was 88 percent, and just three patients failed to achieve complete remission. Seven patients — 44 percent, as compared to a rate of 5 percent with conventional treatments — recovered enough to successfully undergo a bone marrow transplant. Transplants are the standard of care for B-ALL since they offer the only proven way to prevent recurrence. If further research indicates that cell therapy offers a permanent cure that’s at least as reliable as bone marrow transplants, it may make them unnecessary.

There’s still a lot to be learned about cell therapy, and the patients who didn’t respond may be as instructive as those who did. How can a cure that is so miraculous for some fail to help others?

In one instance, researchers were unable to get the patient’s T cells to multiply in the lab. “We think some people may just have so much damage in their T cells from their disease or other treatments or perhaps from their genetics,” Sadelain said.

Another patient who didn’t respond completely had cancer only in the lymph nodes, not in the bone marrow, at the time of treatment. That case could mean that weaponized T cells won’t work on cancers in all parts of the body.

hospital-medicineOf course, the main challenge for cell therapy will be to expand the range of molecules that T cells can be programmed to target so that the same basic method can fight more types of cancer. The molecule must be reliably found on cancer cells, but, because all other cells in the body with the same marker will likewise be destroyed, it must be otherwise limited to parts of the body that the patient can do without.

“We know we can make powerful T cells, so we have to be judicious in the targets we identify. That’s one of the big questions for the future is to find targets that meet that criteria,” Sadelain said.

Sadelain and his colleagues are gearing up to try cell therapy against lymphoma later this year. They’re also looking to adapt their approach to fight lung and ovarian cancers, both of which are among the deadliest types of the disease.

Photos: TheTun and VILevy via Shutterstock.com, Michel Sadelain courtesy Memorial Sloan Kettering

Humans Appear Programmed to Obey Robots, Studies Suggest

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Humans Appear Programmed to Obey Robots, Studies Suggest

robot_traffic_cop_congo (1)

Two 8-foot robots recently began directing traffic in the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa. The automatons are little more than traffic lights dressed up as campy 1960s robots—and yet, drivers obey them more readily than the humans previously directing traffic there.

Maybe it’s because the robots are bigger than the average traffic cop. Maybe it’s their fearsome metallic glint. Or maybe it’s because, in addition to their LED signals and stilted hand waving, they have multiple cameras recording ne’er-do-wells.

“If a driver says that it is not going to respect the robot because it’s just a machine the robot is going to take that, and there will be a ticket for him,” Isaie Therese, the engineer behind the bots, told CCTV Africa.

The Congolese bots provide a fascinating glimpse into human-robot interaction. It’s a rather surprising observation that humans so readily obey robots, even very simple ones, in certain situations. But the observation isn’t merely anecdotal—there’s research on the subject. (Hat tip to Motherboard for pointing out a fascinating study for us robot geeks.)

Nao robot sitting beside a human researcher.

Nao robot sitting beside a human researcher.

Last year, scientists at the University of Manitoba observed a group of 27 volunteers pressured to work on a docket of mundane tasks by either a 27-year-old human actor in a lab coat or an Aldeberan Nao robot—both called “Jim.”

Ever since the controversial 1971 Stanford prison experiment—wherein participants assigned roles of guards and prisoners demonstrated just how situational human morality can be—similar behavioral work has been rare and fraught.

Even so, if carefully conducted with the participants’ well-being in mind, such studies can provide valuable behavioral insights. The results of the Stanford study are still taught over 40 years later.

In this case, the researchers gave participants a moderately uncomfortable situation, told them they were free to quit at any time, and briefed them immediately following the test.

Each participant was paid C$10 to change file extensions from .jpg to .png as part of a “machine learning” experiment. To heighten their discomfort and the sense the task was endless, the workload began with a small batch of 10 files but grew each time the participant completed the assigned files (ultimately reaching a batch of 5,000).

Each time a participant protested, he was urged on by either the human or robot. The human proved the more convincing authority figure, but the robot was far from feckless.

10 of 13 participants said they viewed the robot as a legitimate authority, though they couldn’t explain why. Several people tried to strike up a conversation, and one showed remorse when the robot said it was ending the experiment and notifying the lead researcher, exclaiming, “No! Don’t tell him that! Jim, I didn’t mean that….I’m sorry.”

Participant obedience may have been directed more at the human pulling the strings than the robot itself.

Participant obedience may have been directed more at the human pulling the strings than the robot itself.

The researchers write that the novelty of the robot’s design may have detracted from its perceived authority. And involving humans in the robot part of the experiment may have led participants to defer their feeling of responsibility from robot to human.

None of the participants, for example, listed pressure from the robot as a reason for their obedience. Instead, they cited factors like interest in future tasks, trusting the robot had been programmed by a qualified human researcher, and a feeling of obligation to the lead human scientist. 

Despite these caveats, the researchers write, the fact remains that, “A small, child-like humanoid robot had enough authority to pressure 46% of participants to rename files for 80 minutes, even after indicating they wanted to quit.”

And in what may be the most disturbing result, a number of the participants expressed concern the robot might be broken or malfunctioning—yet they didn’t stop working. “They followed a possibly “broken” robot to do something they would rather not do.”

Few studies exist outside the University of Manitoba paper, however, the scientists do note there is past research that appears to corroborate their findings.

“In the single previous case that uses a deterrent (embarrassment), the results are striking: a robot can push people to do embarrassing acts such as removing their clothing or putting a thermometer in their rectum.”

Of course, two studies, one with just 27 people, and an anecdotal example (the Congolese bots) don’t prove humans will dutifully yield the planet when the robots revolt.

How much of the behavior is due to fear or respect of the humans behind the scenes? If the Congelese bots were simply traffic lights and cameras, would folks still readily obey them? Maybe the drivers know human cops can be argued with, ignored, or corrupted, but a machine (humanoid or not) won’t be similarly manipulated.

More study would be worthwhile, the University of Manitoba researchers argue. Human-robot interaction will grow in coming years, particularly in healthcare and the military. A greater body of behavioral research can inform future designs and potentially prevent harmful obedience. (Or, we might add, promote healthy disobedience.)

Image Credit: Mike Kabamba/YouTube; University of ManitobaBen Husmann/Flickr

Tiny Injected Sponges Stop Bleeding From Gunshot Wounds in 15 Seconds

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Tiny Injected Sponges Stop Bleeding From Gunshot Wounds in 15 Seconds

xstat-bannerSometimes the simplest technologies make the biggest difference, particularly when it comes to saving lives.

With a former Army medic as one of its founders, RevMedX’s mission is to stop bleeding faster so that those who suffer traumatic injuries like gunshot wounds have a better chance of survival. (Gun trauma takes hundreds of thousands of lives every year worldwide.) The company’s high-tech solution to this brutal problem is the sponge.

“Simplicity is its gift,” retired master sergeant John Steinbaugh acknowledged in an interview with Singularity Hub.

Perhaps a little explanation is in order. If a soldier is wounded in battle, medics patch up the wound to transport the victim to a medical facility for surgery. Common practice is to tamp gauze deep down into the wound to staunch the bleeding. The method is excruciatingly painful for the patient, has mediocre success rates and relies on the medic to maintain pressure on the wound for several minutes afterward.

xstat-s-lBut what if a tiny dressing could be inserted into the wound and then expand to create the pressure that slows bleeding? That’s what RevMedX’s major product, XStat, does. (The product won an award at Singularity University’s FutureMed conference last year.)

Using a pre-packed syringe, the first responder injects a bunch of pill-shaped sponges into the wound, where they expand and fit more tightly together than wadded gauze. The sponges are also coated in chitosan, a compound made from shrimp shells used to encourage clotting. All told, XStat usually stops bleeding within 15 seconds, the company says.

The sponges are removed when the patient gets to the hospital and the wound is cleaned out and operated on. After they’ve expanded, the sponges are 50 millimeters long — hard to miss.

Standard issue field dressing

Standard issue field dressing

“In all the training applications we’ve done with medics and surgeons, we’ve never missed a sponge,” Steinbaugh said. But just in case — we’ve all heard the horror stories of scissors left inside a surgical patient — each sponge is marked with an X that shows up on an X-ray.

The syringe is easy enough to use that it could become standard equipment on ambulances as well as on the battlefield. A smaller sized applicator would treat stab and other narrow wounds as well. Each kit would cost under $100 each, according to Steinbaugh.

The Food and Drug Administration is considering XStat’s application for approval and the company expects an answer within a few months. If all goes well, they could begin selling their products by the summer.

Images: RevMedX, William Pittman/U.S. Navy

Termite-Inspired Robots Erect Buildings Based on a Picture

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Termite-Inspired Robots Erect Buildings Based on a Picture

termes-banner
Robots are no longer a futuristic vision: Industrial robots are already performing controlled, repetitive tasks. But before robots can tackle diverse real-world situations that would expand their impact, they will need major improvements in both intelligence and mobility.

Take disaster areas and war zones, for example. Robots could deliver help to those who are trapped, sick or in need of shelter. But such settings are, by their very nature, unpredictable, making them challenging for robots. Many have proposed swarms of robots to handle these situations in a timely fashion, yet as the number of robots increases, so too does the complexity of controlling them.

A system of robots built by researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering demonstrates that robots can build human-scale buildings working independently with a set of simple rules.

“You can give the robots, in effect, a picture of what you want them to build. It doesn’t matter how many of them there are, together they’ll wind up building what you ask for,” said Justin Werfel, a roboticist at the Wyss Institute, and the lead author of a paper recently published in Science.

All the robots require is a picture of the structure they are tasked with building. A compiler annotates the blueprint and translates it into rules that prevent the robots from building themselves into a corner, for example. Then the individual robots start working and keep at it until the pictured structure is finished. Because the robots, about as big as Soapbox Derby entrants, can climb structures as they build them, they eventually produce human-scale buildings.

The setup, called TERMES, is inspired by termites, which can build tunneled mounds up to 40 feet tall even though their work is not coordinated by a foreman or queen. The system builds on robot swarms modeled after ants and bees.

The TERMES robots have ninja-disk shaped wheels to help them clamber over the building blocks used in the experiment. They rely on three motors, one for each side of the wheels and one to operate the “claw.” Their sensing is limited to their immediate surroundings, since they don’t need to know what their counterparts are doing. Each robot uses an infrared sensor, an ultrasound sensor, and an accelerometer.

termes-featIn the building projects documented in the recent paper, the bots used special 3D-printed foam blocks with a circular indentation that makes it easier for them to turn around while perched atop the block. The specialized equipment means teams of TERMES couldn’t simply be sent to the Philippines or to Haiti tomorrow to assist with reconstruction.

“By making the building materials more sophisticated, we can make the robot simpler. The simpler we make the building materials, the more complicated we may need to make the robots,” explained Werfel.

Still with modifications, the same basic ecosystem could control robots that would lay sandbags ahead of a flood, or even set up a human habitat on Mars in advance of human arrival.

A swarm of independent actors isn’t better in every situation, however. The TERMES robots are slow and make mistakes; the rules simply keep their mistakes from cascading. A central controller, the most common way to control groups of robots, would result in more efficient work. But as the number of robots and/or the size of the area where they’re working increases, central control becomes less advantageous. What’s more, if a central controller failed, the whole system would grind to a halt.

Sometimes, even with robots, it takes a village to get something done.

Images Werfel et al courtesy Science

Connecticut Car Crash Highlights Challenges in Regulating Civilian Drones

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Connecticut Car Crash Highlights Challenges in Regulating Civilian Drones

drones-cityMore than 80 Americans die in automobile collisions every day, and two weeks ago one of those deaths occurred in an accident in Hartford, Connecticut. The story would have been little more than a blip on local news programs but for one thing: The police spotted a drone flying around the accident.

With the FAA actively trying to determine how to regulate the civilian use of drones, everything about the accident then became news. But, as an indication of how little the public understands the issues related to drones, news reports got most of it wrong.

The FAA has opened an investigation into the use of the drone, local news reported and the agency confirmed for Singularity Hub. Several outlets reported that the inquiry was focused on whether the drone operator, Pedro Rivera, was filming for a local news agency (The station where he sometimes works, WFSB, says he was not). In other words, was Rivera a hobby operator or a commercial operator? And did the drone, which was circling a vehicle involved in the accident before the body was removed, violate the privacy of those involved by videoing the scene?

But an agency spokesman told Singularity Hub that the focus of the probe was not privacy, but safety. The FAA is investigating whether the drone might have caused the accident or potentially risked causing another by flying in a “careless and reckless manner,” the spokesman said.

The FAA currently imposes very strict rules on the civilian use of drones: The vehicles themselves must be approved; the operators must have pilot licenses, and the flights must get specific FAA approval, the agency said.

amazon-prime-air_featSo strict are the rules, in fact, that the video Amazon released demonstrating the plausibility of delivery-by-drone was shot outside the United States, according to the FAA.

Rivera’s flight was thus almost certainly not sanctioned — and raises questions about how many other desperate freelance journalists may be operating drones to get a leg-up on local news gathering. But the FAA generally enforces its ban on commercial drone flights with warnings, and saves investigations for safety issues, according to the agency spokesman.

“We have to prioritize our safety resources. That said, UAVs are on our radar, so to speak,” the spokesman told Singularity Hub.

The FAA receives complaints about commercial drone use and also follows up on any online advertising that promises video or camera footage from unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, which is what the FAA calls drones.

But the spokesman said, “Our prime objective in that case is to make sure they understand what the rule is and to get them to stop.”

parrot ar drone at ces 2010Some drone advocates, meanwhile, maintain that despite its regular assertions that commercial use of drones is banned, the FAA cannot point to any written policy to support its stance.

“The so-called ‘ban’ on commercial drone use is based on an unenforceable FAA policy statement, not an actual regulation,” Brendan Schulman, a New York attorney who focuses on technology, told one Hartford news program.

In other words, there’s little agreement on what’s legal when it comes to drones. One can only hope that regulations the FAA will propose by the end of the year will clear things up.

Images: University of Granada, Amazon, Singularity Hub

There Are 7 Billion Mobile Devices On Earth, Almost One For Each Person

Singularity Hub
There Are 7 Billion Mobile Devices On Earth, Almost One For Each Person

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The adoption of new technologies is accelerating, and nowhere is the trend more obvious than in mobile computing. It took telephones some 45 years to enter mainstream use in the US. Mobile phones took seven years. Smartphones just four.

Today, according to Cisco’s 2013 global mobile data forecast, there are almost as many mobile devices (7 billion) as there are humans on the planet, and the mobile data network in 2013 was 18 times greater than the entire Internet in 2000. In North America, monthly data usage doubled to 1.38 gigabytes.

Humans are not just more connected to information and each other, but comparisons to periods even a few decades ago are increasingly meaningless.

seven_billion_mobile_devicesFaster connection speeds are the prime driver of accelerating data. Smartphones made up 77% of the 526 million mobile devices and connections added last year. Of these, many use speedy fourth generation (4G) connections. Though 4G connections are still just 3% of the whole, they’re responsible for 30% of traffic.

As much as it’s about connecting people to information, it’s increasingly about connecting devices to computing power. Data-heavy video and music applications, for example, transcend smartphone limitations (processing and storage) by connecting to more powerful servers and software in the cloud.

Apps and services like Netflix and Spotify rent cloud storage, software, and processing speed for a low monthly fee. Thanks to a fast, glitch-free mobile connection, users no longer need to store big multimedia files on their devices.

With cloud computing and fast connections, the smartphone is less a standalone device and more a display that wirelessly plugs into vastly more powerful computers to do things that would be impractical for the device to accomplish alone.

For now applications are multimedia—video hogged half of all mobile data in 2013—but quantified self and health apps are growing more useful and more used. Future applications will measure health data, send it to cloud AIs (like IBM’s Watson) for analysis, and return results and potential diagnoses to smartphones and tablets.

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More wearable devices, like these Sensoria smart socks, are set to come online.

Beyond smart devices, wearable devices (like Google Glass or smart clothing), and an expanding population of chips embedded in everyday items (the so-called Internet of Things) will contribute to mobile traffic.

Cisco says today’s 341 million Internet-of-Things (or machine-to-machine) connections are poised to grow to two billion in the coming years as wearables and smart infrastructure come online.

By 2018, connected mobile devices will monthly flood the network with 15 times more data  than all Internet traffic in 2000. Meanwhile, global devices and connections, including the Internet of Things, will reach 10 billion, or 1.3 devices per person, in 2018.

These are huge numbers, but due to the sheer variety of potential connections the Internet of Things represents, we might call the guess conservative. Looking back, however, Cisco’s forecasts in years prior have, in fact, tended toward the aggressive.

Not all Internet of Things connections will be mobile, and wearables like Google Glass or smartwatches are, so far, more akin to the Blackberry than the iPhone (if that). But never mind the details, the trend is clear. Faster connections, better devices, and cloud applications are driving exponential growth of wireless networks.

Image Credit: Instagram/TodayShow; Shutterstock.comHeapsylon