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Month March 2014

U.S. Navy Explores Beaming Solar Power From Space

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U.S. Navy Explores Beaming Solar Power From Space

NRL-space-solar-panelA major complaint about renewable energy sources, including solar power, is that they don’t generate energy all the time. At night or during cloudy weather, solar arrays don’t produce electricity.

But it’s never nighttime or cloudy in space, and the U.S. military is taking steps toward creating a solar array larger than the International Space Station to orbit the Earth absorbing solar radiation and beaming down electricity through radio waves.

The Naval Research Laboratory has built a compact solar module capable of capturing and transmitting solar power from space. One side of the tile-shaped satellite features a photovoltaic panel. Inside the tile are the electronics that convert the resulting direct current to a radio frequency for transmission, and the other side supports an antenna to beam the power to Earth.

NRL_Space-solar-powerThe panels performed well when tested under space-like conditions.

But they are just the building blocks of a much larger plan. Enough panels to stretch 9 football fields would be launched into space and assembled and attached by robots. Supported by a module to collect and reflect sunlight, the array would convert direct current into a radio frequency and send it to massive receivers on the ground.

The massive scale of the project makes it a gamble.

“The scale of things is where it starts to get really difficult,” said Mark Bünger, research director at Lux Research, because “the biggest problem is the cost of getting to space.” That’s why NRL has honed in on modular tiles that could be assembled by robots once in orbit.

The Navy lab is also at work on space robots, and the technology to build the earth-bound receivers already exists. But the project would still face questions about safety.

“People might not associate radio waves with carrying energy because they think of them for communications, like radio, TV, or cell phones. They don’t think about them as carrying usable amounts of power,” said lead engineer Paul Jaffe in a news release.

But there would also be some big benefits. The U.S. could call its wars for oil a thing of the past. And instead of sending diesel generators on trucks all around the world, or even, sometimes, dropping fuel canisters with parachutes, the military could power its remaining operations with a solar receiver.

NRL_Paul_JaffeThe lower the frequency of the beam carrying the power, the more reliable it would be in extreme weather.

“At 2.45 gigahertz, you’ll get power in a monsoon,” Jaffe said.

With cleaner energy sources, climate change would be attenuated. For that reason, the Navy isn’t alone in taking concrete steps toward beaming power from space. The California utility company, PG&E, has committed to buying such power from space from the company Solaren by 2016. According to the International Academy of Astronautics, space solar power could be viable within 30 years.

Still, there could be a simpler solution to our energy woes: Build out the renewable infrastructure here on Earth. According to a recent Stanford report, it would be feasible and even cost-effective to do so.

Images courtesy Naval Research Laboratory


Singularity Surplus: Put on Your Electric Thinking Cap!

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Singularity Surplus: Put on Your Electric Thinking Cap!

digital art, Unnumbered Sparks, TED
Advances in exponential technology happen fast — too fast for Singularity Hub to cover them all. This weekly bulletin points readers to significant developments to keep you in the know.

thinking-cap-edElectricity Makes You Smarter
The medial-frontal cortex is the brain’s inner critic, spiking activity when we discover we’ve made a mistake. Because learning from mistakes is in a sense the most basic form of learning, Vanderbilt scientists were interested to see if stimulating the area with an electrical current would make people quicker studies. Subjects who received an anodal current from the crown of the head down to the cheek mastered a learning task more quickly than average. Those who received the reverse current were slower on the uptake. So if you grab an electric thinking cap, just be sure to put it on the right way.

renewable energy, wind power, wind turbineIt’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Flying Wind Turbine!

Solar power has taken off faster than wind power thanks to free-falling prices. Wind power companies are looking for ways to boost efficiency and lower fixed costs. Flying wind turbines could be one way to prune outlays for land, construction and underground supports. The wind is also higher and more consistent at 1,000 feet, the altitude at which the highest flying turbine to date will soon float above Fairbanks, Alaska, tethered to earth by cables that transmit electricity. The turbine will provide energy during an 18-month trial period to rural residents who currently use diesel generators.

digital art, TED, Aaron Koblin, Janet EchelmanAnd the Smartphones’ Red Glare …
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the TED conference at its recent meeting in Vancouver, Canada, public artist Janet Echelman and Aaron Koblin, Google’s head of data arts (yes, apparently the company has one of those), created a giant crowd-sourced piece of digital art. Conference attendees could use their mobile devices to paint beams of light that displayed on a “canvas” made of 745-feet of ropes fastened to two city buildings. The displayed content was actually a single full-screen Google Chrome window 10-million pixels wide in which  users could create content in real time.

Check out the video here:

Facebook’s Oculus Acquisition Disheartens Some, But Won’t End Virtual Reality Rebound

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Facebook’s Oculus Acquisition Disheartens Some, But Won’t End Virtual Reality Rebound


Palmer Luckey, inventor of the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, was literally hacking VR goggles in his garage 18 months ago. Now, he’s a billionaire. A little over a month after paying $19 billion for messaging firm, WhatsApp, Facebook said it would acquire Luckey’s Oculus for a cool $2 billion (making it the first Kickstarter campaign to accomplish the feat). 

The technology, the story, and its heroes (a group of gaming geeks resurrecting virtual reality) won the respect of developers and gamers alike—which is probably why the Facebook acquisition was greeted with a chorus of boos and hisses.

The Daily Dot did a lovely job of quantifying the dismay, counting 100 f-bombs in 600 comments over less than an hour after the announcement on the subreddit r/Oculus.

Meanwhile, developer Markus Persson pulled the plug on a recent agreement to make his game, Minecraft, Rift-compatible, saying, “[Facebook’s] motives are too unclear and shifting, and they haven’t historically been a stable platform. There’s nothing about their history that makes me trust them, and that makes them seem creepy to me.”

So, why would a social networking firm like Facebook buy a virtual reality company?

In a blog post, Oculus admits it might not be obvious, then cites cultural compatibility, a commitment to top quality talent, and desire for a more open, connected world. (I read this as, they’re not sure either.)

Will virtual reality and virtual worlds supplant traditional social networking?

Will virtual reality and virtual worlds supplant traditional social networking?

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, wrote in a Facebook post that gaming will come first. But beyond gaming, he thinks VR may be the next big computing platform and wants in on the ground floor.

“Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face—just by putting on goggles in your home.”

Although these are activities people do with other people (or avatars, as it may be), they aren’t social networking. We’re talking cinema, sports, telepresence, online ed. The question remains—why Oculus?

Facebook bought Oculus for the same reason Google bought eight robotics firms last year. Obsolescence happens fast—firms flush with cash and healthy share prices hope to cheat death with acquisitions. The acquired companies needn’t be connected to the central product, and in fact, as a hedge, it’s better if they’re different and forward looking.

Some of the oldest tech companies became conglomerates to stay alive. General Electric was originally a light and power company—now you’d be hard pressed to name all the widely varying products in its portfolio. It’s a concept any retiree will recognize. Social networking may not be all that in a decade. Diversify to minimize risk.

I’ll admit, I would have loved to see Oculus go it alone. And frankly, I’d rather have seen a different company make the acquisition (for all kinds of totally biased reasons). But it’s just business for Facebook. And really, it’s just business on the other side of the deal too.

The Rift’s potential fires the imagination, but the devil’s in the details. The Rift requires a powerful computer to run, limiting the market. It lacks a good selection of games. And the final design and manufacturing process are big unknowns. Nothing insoluble, but there was certainly no guarantee they’d deliver on the hype.

Leap Motion, a Kinect-like computer interface, is a recent example of how difficult it can be for a piece of hardware to live up to big expectations. The tech was promised as a potential replacement for the mouse and maybe even touchscreen.

Leap expected sales of 5 million devices last year. But after selling more like 500,000, they’ve since had to lay off employees. Now, they’re aiming further down the road—like ten years further—to fully realize their potential. Their technology is cool and could well prove useful in a number of applications. It just hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet.


Can virtual reality live up to the hype?

With the clock ticking, expectations and pressure building, and Sony unveiling its own VR prototype, Oculus accepted $2 billion in cash and shares, $300 million in incentives, and the promise of independence and resources.

Having never looked $2 billion in the face, it’s easy to call that a sell-out. But many a purist has a price—they just don’t know what it is until they see it.

Now that they’ve pulled the trigger, will either party live to regret it? Oculus will, of course, need to continue along its current trajectory. But there’s nothing hungrier than a fledgling firm trying to make its mark. They’ll need to fight to stay lean, mean, and focused, amid changes that might be, let’s say, a touch distracting.

And no matter how much lip service is paid to independence, ownership means control and control may mean politics and doing what’s best for the larger organization. At some point, Facebook may look at their balance sheet, and if Oculus isn’t in the black, they may change the product or simply break it down for parts.

After spending some $12.5 billion on Motorola, Google recently sold the firm at a loss—after stripping away its most valuable intellectual property and talent.

Ultimately, saying no to would-be buyers is the only surefire way to avoid compromising vision. Some of today’s biggest names in tech chose that path early on.

Inspired by Oculus, Sony is pushing ahead with its virtual reality headset for the Playstation.

Inspired by Oculus, Sony is pushing ahead with its virtual reality headset for the Playstation 4.

Facebook turned down a $1 billion offer from Yahoo in 2006, and Twitter turned down $500 million from Facebook a mere two years later. Both firms recently went public—within a year and a half of each other—and today they boast market caps of $165 billion (Facebook) and $28 billion (Twitter) apiece.

But it doesn’t always pay off, even if a company has the vision right. Execution is more than half the battle. Friendster, for example, believed they’d bring social networking to the masses and rejected a $30 million offer from Google in 2003.

They were right about social networking’s potential popularity, but dead wrong that they’d be the ones to make it happen and faded from the scene long ago.

Oculus may well be right about virtual reality (we think they are), but the question remains, would they have made it happen alone? Or would they have started a trend only to see it dominated by later, greater execution? In the end, it’s a moot point. And you don’t have to be a fan of Oculus’s decision to be a fan of what they’ve started.

Sony cites Oculus as a reason it decided to push forward with its Project Morpheus virtual reality goggles. Meanwhile, Valve recently unveiled a VR prototype that by some accounts is every bit as good as the Rift. The prototype was originally meant for research only—research to be shared with Oculus. That partnership may hold up, or the Facebook acquisition may convince Valve to make their own hardware.

And you can bet there will be other competitors soon too. The Facebook deal may or may not help Oculus achieve its aims—but whatever the outcome, it seems clear recently renewed interest in virtual reality is set to continue apace.

Image Credit: Banner image by Avelar Lucas/Falcao Lucas IllustrationUniversity of Salford Press Office/FlickrAlicePopkorn/Flickr, BagoGames/Flickr

Genetically Engineered T Cells Used as a Weapon Against HIV/AIDS

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Genetically Engineered T Cells Used as a Weapon Against HIV/AIDS

june-HIVCarl June and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have been making waves since they published some successes fighting leukemia with a revolutionary new method. They removed patients’ T cells and genetically modified them to target and kill the cancer. When the T cells were reintroduced into the patients’ bloodstreams, their cancer was often sent into complete remission.

Could similar modifications to the immune system’s fighter pilots provide revolutionary cures for other cancers and even other diseases?

The U. Penn researchers are applying a similar technique to that other hardest-to-treat disease, HIV/AIDS. They recently completed a Phase 1 clinical trial in which they removed HIV-positive patients’ T cells and genetically modified a portion of them to include a rare HIV-resistant genetic mutation of the CCR5 gene (called delta 32).

The trial purports to be the first genetic therapy for HIV/AIDS tested on patients.

hiv-infected-t-cellAs the HIV virus replicates in the body, it kills off T cells using the CCR5 protein on the cell as a foothold. In people who have a single copy of the mutated gene, the infection progresses more slowly; those who have the mutated gene on both chromosomes are seldom infected even when exposed.

Although the trial was designed only to prove the safety of the approach, the results hint that the treatment may work. The twelve patients in the trial, who had the mutation introduced in a portion of their T cells, saw their viral loads fall. One patient’s even became undetectable. Among the six patients who stopped taking their antiviral medications a month after the treatment, the modified T cells declined more slowly than the unaltered immune cells.

“This study shows that we can safely and effectively engineer an HIV patient’s own T cells to mimic a naturally occurring resistance to the virus, infuse those engineered cells, have them persist in the body, and potentially keep viral loads at bay without the use of drugs,” June said in a news release.

Researchers introduced the delta 32 mutation using a genetic editing tool developed by Silicon Valley genetics company Sangamo. The company sponsored the research.

It was the failure of another initially promising treatment in two patients known as “the Boston patients” that lead June and his colleagues to CCR5. After Timothy Ray Brown, also widely referred to as “the Berlin patient” cleared his HIV infection after a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukemia in which the donor who was among the 1 percent of the population with the HIV-resistant CCR5 mutation.

Two HIV-positive patients in Boston were also later given bone marrow transplants to treat blood cancers. Their donors, unlike Brown’s, did not have the genetic mutation. The patients initially seemed to clear the virus, but it returned. Researchers concluded that the virus had lurked in a reservoir where conventional testing doesn’t look, raising concerns about whether the only other cases of “functional cures” — in which infant patients were given prompt and powerful doses of anti-retroviral drugs — will be long lasting.

“The Boston cases show us that for the Berlin patient, it was not the chemotherapy or infusion of a donor’s stem cells that staved off the HIV; it was the protection of the T cells by the lack of CCR5. Those procedures couldn’t completely eliminate the reservoir of the HIV virus, and when the virus came back the T cells were susceptible to infection. The [genetic] approach protects T cells from HIV and may be able to almost completely deplete the virus, as those cells are still functional,” said Pablo Tebas, director of the AIDS Clinical Trials Unit at the Penn Center for AIDS Research and a co-author of the study.

June and another co-author, Bruce Levine, had previously introduced a different genetic mutation into T cells in an effort to combat HIV/AIDS. That method also proved safe, fueling subsequent work on T cells, but the cells modified this way were not persuasively effective against the virus.

Certainly there are still a lot of mysteries when it comes to HIV/AIDS, but it’s encouraging to see a number of potential treatments emerge to replace daily drug regiments, which are expensive, grueling and hard to implement in developing countries. And it will be fascinating to see how many other diseases souped-up T cells may combat.

Photos: University of Pennsylvania, NIAID via Flickr

Lego Robot Smashes Its Own Rubik’s Cube Record, 40% Faster in 3 Years

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Lego Robot Smashes Its Own Rubik’s Cube Record, 40% Faster in 3 Years

CubeStormer-robot (1)

A Lego robot just crushed the Rubik’s cube speed world record. David Gilday and Mike Dobson’s Cubestormer 3, posted a mark of 3.253 seconds at the UK’s Big Bang Fair—over two seconds faster than the previous mark of 5.27 seconds.

Speedcuber Mats Valk still owns the human record at a mindblowing 5.55 seconds. But he was bested by Gilday and Dobson’s Cubestormer 2 robot’s 5.35 seconds (later improved to 5.27) in 2011. Since then, it’s been all Cubestormer.

Perched atop a stationary set of Lego motors, arms, and actuators, a Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone gazes into a hollow space wherein sits a Rubik’s cube. The robot uses the smartphone’s camera to view the cube’s color configuration and a special app computes the optimal solution and instructs the arms how to move.

In case you aren’t versed in cube-lore, the puzzle hasn’t changed, but cube quality has improved to accommodate competitions. Cubestormer 3 uses a speed cube that’s ultrafast but a touch finicky. It allows twists when the sides aren’t fully aligned, and that requires a high degree of precision to avoid jamming the cube.

Gilday explains, “The robot is effectively mirroring the same kind of judgment and dexterity that a human speed cuber has to apply.” And the pair add, whereas human competitors get to study the cube before the clock starts, the robot isn’t allowed the luxury—its time includes studying, computing, and solving the cube.

We’ve written about the Cubestormer robots since 2010, when grandpa Cubestormer first started posting fast times. The next in line, Cubestormer II, was the bot that officially beat the human record. Cubestormer II was fast, no doubt, but you can see in the video, it never hits the top gear achieved by Cubestormer 3.

Isn’t this all a touch frivolous? Sure. It’s just a game. But so are chess and Jeopardy. It’s not the game that matters, but the skills required to play at a human level.

Beyond executing a series of algorithms—which is what computers do best—Cubestormer’s visual abilities, seeing, and making sense of the real world, and physical abilities, dexterously arranging sides at top speed, are impressive.

And Cubestormer isn’t a multi-million dollar machine. When Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov at chess, it was one of the world’s most powerful computers, and it couldn’t see the board or move the chess pieces. Cubestormer 3 sees, analyzes, solves, and executes better than a human—using a pocket-sized smartphone and Lego parts.

Image Credit: ARMflix/YouTube

Singularity Surplus: Other News in Exponential Sci/Tech From the Week

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Singularity Surplus: Other News in Exponential Sci/Tech From the Week

in-the-abstract-teletypeAdvances in exponential technology happen fast—too fast for SingularityHub to cover them all. We’re trying out this bulletin format to point readers to significant developments that may not have warranted a full story. Let us know in the comments or in the membership forum if you find it useful.

Mind-blowing results in cancer study
glioblastomaMany new cancer protocols are being explored for glioblastoma, a brain cancer that currently has no effective treatment and kills patients within two years. Swedish researchers studying the cancer have come across a chemical compound that causes glioblastoma cells to explode and die. When mice with the brain cancer were dosed with the compound, called Vacquinol-1, they lived nearly three times as long. The researchers hope to move to human trials.

Plan for bad weather
agriculture-crops-foodClimate change continues, and continues to pose a major challenge to humans’ continued survival on the planet. The AAAS, the largest science society in the world, launched an effort this week to try to build consensus around climate science. It’s called What We Know. A recent British meta-analysis of agricultural studies from around the world suggests that relatively modest temperature increases of 2 degrees Celsius could shrink crop yields by as much as 25 percent by 2050. Of course, as those findings are consolidated, other researchers are already exploring how to use improved natural resource management and genetic engineering to maintain agricultural productivity.

Just a dab’ll do ya
stem cells, blood, lab tests, healthStem cells are getting easier to produce. Although a recent paper suggesting that any cell, subjected to an acid bath, could be turned into a malleable cell has since been withdrawn by the author pending further research, another project shows that stem cells can be produced from a single drop of a patient’s blood, meaning that more people will be able to bank their own cells in case they need advanced medical treatment. Cheaper and more abundant stem cell supplies would also speed research that depends on the cells.

Images: Karolinska Institutet, Peter Zvonar /, withGod /

Driverless Cars, Meet Captainless Ships: Autonomous Vehicles To Take To The Sea

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Driverless Cars, Meet Captainless Ships: Autonomous Vehicles To Take To The Sea

If artificial intelligence is sophisticated enough to guide a car through Bay Area traffic, surely it can pilot a ship safely from port to port on the open sea. That’s the premise of a European Union-funded project called MUNIN tasked with designing largely automated cargo ships by the beginning of 2015.

The project got a push from Rolls-Royce plc, the major British military contractor that splintered from the car company with the same name in 1973, when an executive hinted that Rolls-Royce may design such systems and that they would bring down the industry’s costs.

“Sometimes what was unthinkable yesterday is tomorrow’s reality. So now it is time to consider a roadmap to unmanned vessels of various types,” Oskar Levander, the company’s vice present of innovation, engineering and technology said in a recent company publication.

rolls-royce-ships-featNoting that many ships already have equipment to “see” through dark and fog and to transmit data to shore, Levander indicated that Rolls-Royce would begin supporting vessels that can be sailed from an onshore office.

“When ‘fleet optimization’ is considered, the advantages compound. The same person can monitor and steer many ships. As conditions ashore are often preferred, it will also help retain qualified and competent crew, and is safer,” he said.

The EU backed MUNIN’s efforts in part to address a shortage of seafaring personnel, largely due to the amount of time workers have to be separated from their families. The labor shortage has been exacerbated by the push for slower shipping speeds to lighten environmental impact.

As with self-driving cars, safety could also benefit from self-captaining ships. Human error, fueled by long working hours at sea, plays a role in some 75 percent of all accidents at sea, according to MUNIN.

MUNIN isn’t building entirely autonomous ships, though. Unmanned ships are banned by international shipping law.

DruckInstead, the consortium, led by Hamburg-based Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services, will use the anti-collision, electronic positioning and satellite communication systems already standard on cargo ships along with infrared sensors and speed and course data to create an autopilot mode that will be supplemented by an on-land control room and a small onboard crew. The communication architecture to link the vessel and the shore-side operation center has not yet been devised.

“On the one hand, it could reduce the expected pressure on the labor market for seafarer as it would enable, at least partly, to reduce the labor intensity of ship operation. On the other hand, routine tasks on board would be automated and only the demanding but interesting navigational and technical jobs transferred from ship to a shore side operation center,” consortium materials say.

MUNIN has conducted at least one successful test voyage of a remotely piloted ship.

Images: C. Thomas Porathe / MUNIN, Rolls-Royce, MUNIN

Can a Prosthetic Arm Turn a Drummer’s Disability Into a Superability?

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Can a Prosthetic Arm Turn a Drummer’s Disability Into a Superability?

cyborg-drummer-jason-barnes (2)

It was the summer of 1987. I, in my hypercolor t-shirt, nibbled astronaut ice cream to an endless parade of MTV hair bands dispensing bar-closing mainstays like “Livin’ On a Prayer,” “Here I Go Again,” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”

Those were the days of Bonjovi, Poison, and Whitesnake. But among the mushrooming pantheon of glam gods, Def Leppard had something no one else could touch. The band’s drummer, Rick Allen, played with one arm.

Allen had lost his left arm in a 1984 car crash, and though little could be done to replace the limb, by tweaking his drum kit, he was able to continue on with just one arm—touring (to this day) and laying down the drums for 1987’s hit album Hysteria.

Though Allen’s comeback was inspiring, it also exemplified how prosthetics were more for looks than utility. A quarter of a century on, we still don’t have fully functional replacement limbs. But we do have an amputee-cyborg drummer who’s not only playing again—he’s playing with two arms and even has a few superhuman tricks to boot.

Jason Barnes lost the lower part of his arm after being electrocuted two years ago. The amputation wasn’t as severe as Allen’s—no existing prosthetic we know of could fully restore an upper arm amputee’s abilities—but it still presented a serious challenge, even after Barnes built his own prosthesis following the accident.

The problem with that early replacement? Control, power, dexterity, all these things were gone. Barnes couldn’t bounce the stick or control its speed. So, while he was back in front of his kit, he wasn’t back to playing the drums. Not fully at at least.

That’s where Georgia Tech’s Gil Weinberg comes in. Weinberg builds musical robots. His robots not only know how to play, they know how to jam. Listening to what another musician is playing, they can improvise around it. (For more on robots making music, check out our recent article on Squarepusher’s new robot band.)

Using what he’d learned building robot musicians, Weinberg engineered Barnes a new prosthesis—a two-stick wielding mechanical arm of spinning wheels, belts, and motors.

As Barnes plays, he positions the prosthesis with his upper arm and controls the first of the two drum sticks by selectively flexing muscles where the prothesis connects to the end of his upper arm. Using an approach called electromyography, the surrogate arm senses these muscular twitches and drives the stick’s cadence and rebound.

robotic-drum-prosthesisThe other stick has a mind of its own. Using Weinberg’s machine learning algorithms, perfected for his other musical robots, the second stick listens to what Barnes is playing and lays down a complementary beat. While the stick itself is autonomous, Barnes gets to choose when to use it. He can pull the stick up when he doesn’t want the extra rhythm.

Like any new device, it will no doubt take time and practice for Barnes to master. But as he learns to play with the system—and the system learns to play with him—he’ll be able to do some things no other drummer can. And that’s the point really.

Beyond restoring lost skills, robotic prostheses may turn disabilities into superabilities.

Weinberg thinks such cyborg tech may be just as attractive for able bodied users. Folks might use an “embedded, mechanical third arm” and machine learning algorithms to perform intricate tasks from the operating room to outer space.

And maybe he’s right. The bio-mechanical techniques for controlling such devices are steadily improving. We’ve often written about other futuristic prostheses as they creep toward full functionality and commercial markets.

The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s prosthetic legs and arms, for example, are essentially thought-controlled, using a technique called targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR) to read electrical signals from healthy nerve endings and translate them into actions in the prostheses.

More recently, Case Western’s prosthetic hands established a two-way link—taking direction from the brain and sending sensory information back to it via healthy nerves in the amputee’s residual limb. In one recent case, a research participant showed how powerful the technique is by dexterously plucking stems from cherries.

Improved dexterity and control combined with machine-like abilities may make for a new generation of multi-tasking musicians—disabled or able bodied, it’ll make no difference.

Image Credit: Georgia Tech

Can Buffett’s $1B Bracket Gamble or Nate Silver’s Statistical Tricks Tame March Madness?

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Can Buffett’s $1B Bracket Gamble or Nate Silver’s Statistical Tricks Tame March Madness?

march-madness (1)

It’s late March, and the NCAA college basketball tournament is underway. Each year, millions print brackets of the 64 teams and pencil in their picks. And each year, many a bracket is fit for the trash (with the mini hoop over it) after the first round.

But theoretically, you think, if only you had enough information and the right system—you could call every game, right? Fast computers, clever software, and advanced statistics are able to make sense of data in a way humans alone never could.

All true. But even with quality data and analysis, you still only get the most accurate probability a particular outcome will happen—and that means you’ll never get perfection.

Which is why this year Quicken Loans and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway teamed up to put a billion dollar bounty on a perfect Big Dance bracket, a feat never before accomplished. (At least, not on record.)

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett

The offer ought to tell you just how hard this particular chestnut is to crack. Even with some college hoops IQ, you have about a 1 in 128 billion chance at perfection. Buffett, a smart guy, is no doubt resting comfortably at night.

In fact, even if someone comes close (say, perfect to the Final Four) they still wouldn’t walk away with the billion.

Buffett says he would probably offer to buy the bracket for some smaller sum, say $100 million. You’d be hard pressed to turn down that much money (or even less) with the outcome of three games undecided.

Of course, all this is also a wily advertising tactic.

Quicken makes out like a bandit, getting a barrage of press and bevy of personal information on home buyers (a requirement of the registration process) for a paltry $2 million—half the cost of a 30-second advertising spot during the Superbowl.

So, if perfection is out of reach, what about the next best thing?

Nate Silver—who correctly predicted the electoral results of all 50 states in the 2012 presidential election and the results of all but one state in 2008—is also pretty good at bracketology. (As you might expect.)

Last year, his system gave Louisville the best chance of winning at the beginning of the tournament, and Louisville did indeed cut down the nets in the end. Silver’s bracket was better than average overall, but he missed three of the Final Four teams—most notably the low-probability Wichita State.

NCAA basketball tournament bracket

NCAA basketball tournament bracket

And this year? Silver is full of cautionary caveats. On his newly launched site, FiveThirtyEight, he says, “In political prognostication, you can be regarded as a savant just by pointing out that the favorite is probably going to win.”

Sports are more exacting, and in this year’s tournament there are no heavy favorites. At 15%, Louisville has the highest probability of winning it all again. That’s some seven points lower than last year’s prospects, and said another way, it’s an 85% chance Silver is wrong.

But no one ever said this was easy. Silver’s description of his March Madness system is a sobering look into the Rube-Goldberg machine that is complex statistical analysis.

It includes a composite of five power rankings measuring wins and losses, strength of schedule, and margin of victory; adds a dash of subjective data from the NCAA’s tournament rankings and the AP’s preseason rankings; and adjusts all this with key roster events like suspensions, injuries, and travel schedules.

And the system doesn’t include everything it could. Silver notes, for example, that he doesn’t account for a coach’s post-season record. Teams coached by Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, according to Silver, do exceptionally well in the post-season, sometimes outperforming their tournament ranking.

All this is a good reminder that even in the most skilled hands, such analysis depends not only on hard data but also on assumptions and subjectively assigned weights. At the same time, it isn’t perfection, but playing probabilities is better than not playing at all.

And one more thing, if you’re filling out a last-minute bracket—and you tend to throw darts to pick teams—go here for Silver’s picks. Just…for your reference.

Image Credit:, The White House/YouTube, Jason Dean/Flickr

Beyond the SmartWatch — Startups Push Body Monitoring Wearables

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Beyond the SmartWatch — Startups Push Body Monitoring Wearables

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It’s easy to be a skeptic in Silicon Valley. The probability a hot startup will be passé within a year or two is much higher than the probability it’ll be the next Apple, Facebook, or Google. An obvious fact that, confronted by PR-fueled propaganda and passionate founders, can be hard to remember.

On the other hand, it’s also easy to get carried away by skepticism. A thousand startups trying to nail a particular idea may fail. That doesn’t necessarily mean the idea is misguided; it just hasn’t been fully articulated yet. Even when the technology is ready, articulation takes experimentation, and experimentation takes time and failure.

This, it seems, is the way of smartwatches—they have potential and even some momentum, but no one’s marshaled all the disparate capabilities into one gorgeous, irresistible product or service.

Most people, for example, don’t need a $200+ second smartphone display and notification center on their wrist. This doesn’t invalidate wearables in general, or even wrist-borne wearables specifically. Smartwatches just don’t fully exploit their main attraction—namely, that they’re in continuous contact with the body.

Withings smartphone-connected blood pressure cuff.

Withings smartphone-connected blood pressure cuff.

But that’s changing as new “quantified health” devices are adding unique data that only miniature sensors and chips in contact with the body can gather—information like blood pressure, blood glucose, blood oxygen, and respiration.

Often, these readings are taken by smartphone-connected external devices, like this Withings blood pressure cuff or the Zensorium Tinké. But MIT startup, Quanttus, aims to consolidate three key vital signs—heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure—on a wristband.

Technically, a wristband is also a smartphone-connected external device, but as opposed to sporadic readings requiring action from the user, wrist-borne devices can offer continuous, in-depth health data, whether the user is paying attention or not.

The Quanttus device, still in early development, is a faceless watch-like contraption on a black, rubber band. It shines a light through the wrist’s skin and, by measuring changes in light absorption and the subtle pulse-related movements detected by its accelerometer, deduces heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.

The startup is testing the technology at two Boston hospitals, where they are comparing the device’s measurements to traditional clinical tools. Quanttus co-founder and CEO, Shahid Azim, recently characterized the results as “very promising.” (Accuracy will be key—fitness trackers, for example, are not particularly consistent.)

The company hopes to have a beta version to developers later this year. Applications will, at the least, need to organize and present the data, provide key health insights, suggest health improvements, and even challenge folks to take action.

Lacking a name, price, and release date, it’s too early to to jump on the Quanttus bandwagon, but we think their ambitions highlight a more general point—wearable tech that consolidates a range of health data into a single device is an attractive proposition.

And the more consolidation, the better.

The Scanadu Scout, for example, isn’t wearable but, when pressed against the forehead for 10 seconds, it takes a broader range of measurements—temperature, respiration, blood oxygen, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Scanadu also plans to make a smartphone-compatible device for urine analysis. Called Scanaflo, the device would provide an wide array of health data including levels of glucose, protein, leukocytes, nitrates, blood, bilirubin, urobilinogen, specific gravity, and pH—it will even test for pregnancy.

Instead of being in your face, wearable tech should dissolve into the background.

Instead of being in your face, wearable tech should dissolve into the background.

The dream is to consolidate as many measurements as possible in a wearable like the Quanttus band—or something even subtler, like a few ultra-thin, transparent patches on the skin and clothes. As Jason Silva said in a recent conversation, “The best technology is the technology that gets out of the way and lets you do what you want to do.”

We don’t want to attach our blood pressure cuffs to our smartphones. We want forgettable, invisible devices working in the background. We don’t want an unending array of separate tests. We just want one. We don’t want to interpret charts and graphs. We want to have a conversation with a professional.

That’s the endgame.

Digital physicians proactively monitoring data from body sensors, contacting you when there’s a problem (maybe even before physical symptoms), advising a course of action, answering questions, noting the results—doing all this continuously, tirelessly, and in perpetuity.

Image Credit: Christopher Michel/FlickrDani Nofal/Flickr, Joachim Rotteveel/Flickr