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Month June 2014

Robotic Hand Uses AI to Specialize Its Grip for Any Object

Singularity Hub
Robotic Hand Uses AI to Specialize Its Grip for Any Object

robots, robotics, technology
Your cat may think she’s your boss, but she would actually be your boss if it weren’t for a feat of engineering called the human hand, complete with opposable thumbs.

It’s not easy to build a robot that can compete with that astounding piece of machinery. But the UK company Shadow has a solid contender. And while its robotic hands imitate nature, why keep nature’s limitations? Shadow’s Dexterous Hand “sees” the shape of the object approaching it to help it determine how to hold it.

The hand makes clever use of Microsoft’s Kinect off-the-shelf depth sensor to size up the object it needs to grasp using a 3D point cloud. If the hand has seen the object before, it calls up instructions for the most practical shape to adopt to grasp it. If it hasn’t seen the object before, it runs artificial intelligence algorithms to guess at the best shape. (If its guess is lousy, it will feed that information back into the system to make a better effort next time.)

technology, robots, roboticsCapable of 24 distinct movements, the hand can come up with an almost human array of positions to hold a Rubik’s cube, business card or light bulb. The finger lengths vary like a person’s too, giving the hand a more organic feel than many of its competitors.

But it’s not just shape that robotic hands have to worry about; they also have a grip-of-death problem that means you can’t trust them with a wine glass or a raw egg. Dexterous Hand tackles that problem with the combination of a position sensor in each joint and a force sensor for each motion activator. It also includes tactile sensing on the fingertips.

Users who need to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the touch-sensitivity problem can also add optional BioTac Tactile sensors that give more detailed information on force and also note micro-vibrations and temperature gradients. (When Singularity Hub last covered Dexterous Hand, it didn’t yet feature integration with BioTac sensors.)

With all that, Dexterous Hand could just give the human hand a run for its money. Then again, pricing hasn’t been made public.

Of course, like our hands, Shadow’s hand is only as good as the arm behind it. The hand itself sits Thing-like in a stand, but Shadow has designed it to integrate into other robots. Kuka, Denso, Willow Garage, Mitsubishi and Universal Robots have all mounted a Dexterous Hand, which runs on the open-source Robot Operating System, on one of their droids.

Since hands are so specialized, even makers of robotic arms seem happy to outsource them. Different robots will likely employ different hands, but with various makers making robotic hands with different specialties — this one emphasizes precision, another emphasizes durability — that promises to work out just fine.

Photos: Shadow

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Bionic Pancreas Promises Big Boost in Health, Quality of Life for Type 1 Diabetics

Singularity Hub
Bionic Pancreas Promises Big Boost in Health, Quality of Life for Type 1 Diabetics

med tech, medical research, cyborg, transhumanism, technology, diabetes
Diabetes, despite affecting nearly 350 million people worldwide, is not really a controlled illness. Those who have the type 1 form of the illness, in which the pancreas fails to produce the insulin that processes glucose in the bloodstream, often face serious eye, kidney and cardiovascular problems. Perhaps the worst outcome is one rarely mentioned in public discourse about the disease: the possibility of dying in the middle of the night due to a miscalculated dose of insulin that can’t be caught when the patient is asleep.

The thing is, it’s not easy to dose insulin. Controlling glucose with injected insulin is like controlling household temperature by turning on the heat when it gets cold and turning it off again when it gets hot: The temperature is almost certain not to remain ideal.

When the American Diabetes Association assures patients on its website that, “With the help of insulin therapy and other treatments, even young children can learn to manage their condition and live long, healthy lives,” the claim is more optimistic than realistic.

A bionic pancreas whose first results in human patients were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, could make the statement purely factual: If you have type 1 diabetes, you will have to prick yourself once every four days or so to change out the needles in the closed-loop blood sugar monitor and pumps that supply insulin and glucagon, a hormone that raises glucose levels in the blood. The system does the rest, testing blood sugar every five minutes and providing the needed hormones based algorithms for adolescent and adult patients.

“A cure is always the end goal,” said Boston University biomedical engineer Ed Damiano, the senior author of the new paper and father of a son with type 1 diabetes. “As that goal remains elusive, a truly automated technology, which can consistently and relentlessly keep people healthy and safe from harm of hypoglycemia, would lift an enormous emotional and practical burden from the shoulders of people with type 1 diabetes, including my child and so many others.”

med tech, cyborg, transhumanism, diabetes, technologyFor the study, 20 adults wore the device for five days as they went about their daily lives in the company of a study nurse. More than 30 adolescents (two pictured here) wore the device combination for five days at a camp for young people with type 1 diabetes.

The bionic pancreas resulted in a drop of more than a third in interventions for low blood glucose and more than half in the amount of time the adults spent with hypoglycemia. In adolescents using the bionic pancreas, interventions for low glucose were cut in half. Patients in both groups also spent less time, particularly at night, at dangerously high sugar levels.

Patients often give themselves lower doses for fear of overdosing on insulin, so the pairing of the two results indicates that by eliminating the worry, the pancreas minimizes risk.

“The bionic pancreas system reduced the average blood glucose to levels that have been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of diabetic complications. This is tremendously difficult with currently available technology,” said co-author Steven Russell, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Damiano and Russell are not the first to try to crack this nut. In late 2013, Singularity Hub described another major innovation: an integrated pump and blood sugar monitor that relied patients to tell the pump how much insulin to deliver. It did not deliver glucagon. The bionic pancreas does not require the patient to do anything except install the needles once every several days. And while the cutting-edge artificial pancreas of 2013 relied on a dedicated pager-like device to operate the pump, the 2014 model connects the pumps through Bluetooth to the patient’s smartphone.

med tech, diabetes, transhumanism, cyborg, technologyThe patient does have to log meals in the app, but rather than manually calculating how much sugar is in the meal, she can simply name the meal and whether the portions are small, average or large.

The software algorithm calculates the patient’s needs based not just on current blood sugar levels, but also age, activity and any viral infections.

The National Institutes of Health, which partially funded the trial, has said it plans to support larger trials of the artificial pancreas soon. And all it would take to adapt the system to patients to type 2 diabetes — the far more common form of the disease in which patients become partially immune to the effects of insulin — is more software options.

Photos: Boston University, DiaTribe

Unfair Advantages of Emotional Computing

Singularity Hub
Unfair Advantages of Emotional Computing

emotions woman

Earlier this week, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son announced an amazing new robot called Pepper. The most amazing feature isn’t that it will only cost $2,000, or that Pepper is intended to babysit your kids and work the registers at retail stores. What’s really remarkable is that Pepper is designed to understand and respond to human emotion.

Heck, understanding human emotion is tough enough for most HUMANS.

There is a new field of “affect computing” coming your way that will give entrepreneurs and marketers a real unfair advantage. That’s what this note to you is about… It’s really very powerful, and something I’m thinking a lot about.

What are the unfair advantages?
Recent advances in the field of emotion tracking are about to give businesses an enormous unfair advantage.

Take Beyond Verbal, a start-up in Tel Aviv, for example. They’ve developed software that can detect 400 different variations of human “moods.” They are now integrating this software into call centers that can help a sales assistant understand and react to customer’s emotions in real time.

Better than that, the software itself can also pinpoint and influence how consumers make decisions.

For example, if this person is an innovator, you want to offer the latest and greatest product. On the other hand, if the customer is conservative, you offer him something tried and true.

Talk about targeted advertising! (You can check it out and test it out here: www.beyondverbal.com). But it goes beyond advertising, more importantly, to improving quality of life.

How can this improve quality of life?
Mary Czerwinski is a cognitive psychologist at Microsoft Research doing pioneering work in Affect Computing.

She tells a story about how she and her boyfriend were in a nasty fight. While they were bantering back and forth, a small wireless device on her wrist was monitoring her emotional ups and downs (through heart rate monitoring and electrical changes in her skin).

At the peak of the argument, when she was most upset, her boyfriend received a text message saying: “Your friend Mary isn’t feeling well. You might want to give her a call.”

Can you imagine?

The constant monitoring of our emotional landscape and personal interactions is a bizarre concept. But it is one that could help many people. Some of her early projects were aimed at helping autistic children who can’t easily communicate their mood.

Other technologies monitor how hard you’re pounding on your keyboards (another possible indicator of mood). Imagine if your computer flashed you a message: “Don’t send that e-mail!”

What does it all mean? The user interface
The point here is that something as subtle and powerful as human emotion is coming “digitally online.” It’s being digitized and understood and monitored and commercialized. And you should know about it.

If you’d like to learn more about this, and other potentially disruptive technologies, join us in the Abundance 360 community. At Abundance 360, entrepreneurs and CEOs are constantly engaging about cutting edge technologies like this, and learning how to make them applicable and actionable today.

[Images: woman’s emotion courtesy of Shutterstock]

Can We Cure Violence?

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Can We Cure Violence?

gamers

Violence is contagious, this we know. Time and again, researchers have found that exposure to aggression links directly to increases in violent behavior. This is why, for example, 30% of abused children grow up to be abusers themselves. It’s also why, as Gary Slutkin, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Illinois, Chicago and the executive director of CURE Violence, recently told New Scientist: “[P]eople who have observed violence are 30 times more likely to commit it. Under certain conditions it can be up to 100 to 1,000 times more likely.”

On its own, considering what we now know about mirror neurons, this idea isn’t too startling. But what makes it more interesting is the fact that exposure to violence—especially among young men (the slice of society that is by far the most violence prone)—is now ridiculously high. Media today, in all its forms, is far more graphic, gory and outrageously violent than ever before in history.

Yet, as Harvard’s Steven Pinker has so eloquently pointed out in his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence is at an all time low. Your chances of dying a violent death have decreased a 100 fold since the Middle Ages. War, torture, genocide, slavery, rape, pogroms and the like—all are at historic lows. In total we are far less cruel and far more peaceful than ever before in history.

But what gives? If our media is more violent than ever before and violence is contagious—with exposure to aggression being the transmission mechanism—where is this decline coming from?

Or, as Jessica Grose recently explained in Slate:

[W]hile Hollywood movies have undeniably become more violent in the past few decades, and many of them are sexist; rape and violence statistics among young people are down across the board. Reliable rape statistics are difficult to come by, because many women won’t report sexual assaults. But the Department of Justice reports that the total rate of sexual violence against females older than 12 dropped 64% between 1995 and 2005, and then remained unchanged. Overall juvenile violence has also dropped precipitously, reaching a historic low in 2011. As Vox put it recently, “Today’s teenagers are the best-behaved generation on record.” If young men were so conditioned by Hollywood to commit violence, sexual and otherwise, wouldn’t it be reflected in the stats?

How to resolve this paradox is a mystery. And a big one. Considering the impact of violence on society and the trillions in dollars of profits that violent TV shows, movies and video games command, resolving this issue has profound ramifications going forward.

As it turns out, without noticing, we may have already resolved this issue without noticing. What’s more, a truly wild idea is hidden in the resolution of this issue—one, that done correctly, might allow us to use the video games as a vaccination against violence.

To understand how this might be possible, it helps to know a little more about Gary Slutkin (the University of Illinois epidemiologist quoted above). A few years back, Slutkin noticed that the greatest predictor of gun violence is a prior instance of gun violence which, as it turns out, is exactly how infectious diseases work.

“That’s what distinguishes infectious disease,” he explains, “it causes more of itself. That’s the case with flu, a cold, or TB. On a map, violence looks like circles with high concentrations in their middles. It’s the same with cholera or malaria.”

These facts led Slutkin to wonder if an epidemiological approach to violence might solve the problem. He figured, if you want to stop a disease outbreak you need to block its ability to reproduce—which is why quarantines exist—so why not try the same approach with violence.

And retaliatory shootings—which account for one-third of all shootings—gave him a perfect opportunity to test this idea. But, instead of instituting a physical quarantine around the site of a shooting, he instead created a social quarantine—though this may take some explaining.

Gary Slutkin – PopTech 2010 – Camden, Maine

Gary Slutkin – PopTech 2010 – Camden, Maine

A bunch of new research shows that humans process the pain of social rejection in the same places they process physical pain. This makes evolutionary sense. Until about 250 years ago, banishment was another form of capital punishment. If you got kicked out of the tribe, your chances of long-term survival dropped essentially to zero.

This is why the brain can’t actually tell the difference between social fear and physical fear and why fear of public speaking—and not, say, being dismembered by a bear—continues to rank as our number one terror.

Or consider the children’s rhyme: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Now think about the reason we need such a rhyme. We have to consciously remind our children that insults from others are NOT a big deal (and a cause for violence), because their brain—hardwired by evolution to fear social rejection as much as physical violence—does not do so naturally.

Now back to Slutkin. In February of 2000, after a shooting in West Garfield Park, the most violent neighborhood in Chicago, Slutkin organized public responses from the community so the shooter would know that his peers disapproved of his actions (i.e. social rejection).

Over the first summer, just with this intervention alone, there were no shootings in three months. Over the first year, gun violence dropped from 43 shootings in 1999 to 14 in 2000. Within three years, it had dropped to 7.

He then added interventions for certain high-risk individuals before an inciting incident ever occurred and then repeated this same process in the Middle East, Central America and Africa and got the same result.

Why does this work so well? It works because not only do we process peer rejection as physical pain, but we process the opposite—social acceptance—as intense pleasure.

The feelings that come from being liked by others and being connected to others are underpinned by some of the most potent feel-good reward drugs the brain can produce: dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin.

Let’s drill down into these neurochemicals for a second.

Slutkin’s interventions essentially taught would-be-aggressors that their violent acts would isolate them from their peers, while not retaliating for a killing (or responding to an insult with fisticuffs) would break the cycle and lead to greater acceptance. Since dopamine is released whenever we anticipate a future reward, all a shooter has to do is anticipate that future social acceptance and the feel-good drug starts to flow.

But dopamine does more than just produce pleasure, it’s also a potent social bonding chemical (alongside norepinephrine, it underpins romantic love). Oxytocin and vasopressin are also social bonding chemicals (oxytocin underpins trust, vasopressin monogamy). And once these chemical are released into the brain, the pleasure of social acceptance builds on itself, tightening bonds, making peace and love more fun that guns and war.

Even better, all of these chemicals are extremely addictive. Take dopamine. Cocaine, widely considered the most addictive drug on Earth, does nothing more than flood the brain with dopamine. What this means is that the rush that comes from greater peer-acceptance builds on itself—it becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

As a final point, there’s a bevy of new research showing that oxytocin—besides boosting mood and increasing feelings of trust—also acts as a dopamine agonist, blocking the brain’s reabsorption of the chemical and heightening the high.

In short, what Slutkin discovered is an extremely powerful technique for using addictive neurochemistry to break down aggression. And this brings us back to our original question—why aren’t violent video games making us violent?

Well, two overlapping possibilities come to mind. First, all video games produce dopamine. On it’s own this is what makes video games addictive. But today, a huge number of these games are multi-player and social games, so this dopamine is being produced in the company of others. In other words, it’s reinforcing social bonding and this may be acting as an antidote to the contagiousness of violence.

Moreover, another additional possibility is that after this happens the games themselves might be acting as a killed virus vaccine. In other words, playing more Grand Theft Auto might actually lead to less grand theft auto.

[Credits: Gamers courtesy of Shutterstock; Slutkin/Kris Krug]

Dr. Franken-Tree, I Presume: Using Biotechnology to Battle Extinction

Singularity Hub
Dr. Franken-Tree, I Presume: Using Biotechnology to Battle Extinction

shutterstock_128456363In thirty years of covering (as an author/journalist) and working on (as an entrepreneur/activist) both ecological issues and technological breakthroughs, I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatest environmental threat we now face is the sad fact that, for the most part, environmentalists and technologists refuse to speak to one another.

This has long made me crazy. One example comes to mind. When I was researching Abundance, I was on the phone with one of the world’s leading experts in water. He told me that no matter what happened, no matter what technology was utilized, Sub-Saharan Africa was still totally screwed. “Totally screwed?” I replied, “What about vertical farming, which can grow crops with 80 percent less water, or in-vitro meat, I mean, half the water in the US goes to grow grain that feeds cattle.”

There was a long pause and finally the water expert looked at me and said: “What are vertical farms and in-vitro meat?”

My point exactly.

But for the very first time, there’s a bit of hope on the horizon—hope comes in the form of a new species of chestnut trees.

Chestnut blight. Experimental trials of resistant Castanea dentata by the American Chestnut Foundation at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Boylston, Massachusetts, USA.

Chestnut blight. Experimental trials of resistant Castanea dentata by the American Chestnut Foundation at Tower Hill Botanic Garden

The old species—the classic American chestnut—is nearly extinct. In the early 1900s, the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica was imported to the U.S. via Asian chestnut trees. The results were devastating. By the 1950s, most of the four billion chestnuts trees that once blanketed the US—providing, among other things, a great, rot-resistant hardwood for use in things like fence posts, railroad car and log cabins—were completely gone.

All this, though, is starting to change. A 20-year project in cutting-edge biotechnology is bringing these trees back from the brink—marking the very first time biotechnology has been used to combat extinction.

Researchers at the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project, led by William Powell and Charles Maynard of New York University in Syracuse, have created a genetically modified version of the American chestnut that is completely fungus-resistant. Known as “Darling4,” these homebrewed trees contain the wheat gene OxO, which produces an enzyme that blocks the acid the fungus uses to attack the trees. Even better, after long years of work, the trait appears heritable.

This is a huge step forward. It will hopefully move ecology beyond its too often far-Luddite position and put it in line with current thinking about agriculture—thinking UC Davis plant pathologist Pamela Ronald well-summarized in the Economist:

A premise basic to almost every agricultural system (conventional, organic, and everything in between) is that seed can only take us so far. The farming practices used to cultivate the seed are equally important. GE crops alone will not provide all the changes needed in agriculture. Ecologically based farming systems and other technological changes, as well as modified government policies, undoubtedly are also required. Yet. . . there is now a clear scientific consensus that GE crops and ecological farming practices can coexist, and if we are serious about building a future sustainable agriculture, they must.

This co-existence is critical to the future of the environment as well. And the chestnut is bringing this issue to the fore. Since 2006, scientists have been growing over 1000 of these GE-trees in contained plots, but now they are applying to the US government for permission to move them into the wild. No question about it, the approval process could be sticky. Not only does the EPA and the Department of Agriculture have to approve this wild-release tree, but because the chestnuts are edible—and because there’s no way for wild chestnut trees to come with the kind of ‘Contains GMO’ labeling that states like Vermont now demand—the FDA will also get to weigh in as well.

But if these trees prove safe (meaning they won’t destroy wild environments etc.), then not introducing them into the wild for unfounded fears about GMO (too long to go into all this here, but let’s just say over a billion GMO meals have been served and no cases of illness has ever turned up and, probably more germane here, despite widespread panic about the dangers of GMO crops to the natural world, turns out, after over 50 years of research, these crops are seriously environmentally-beneficial).

Put differently, current global extinction rates are 1000 times higher than normal. Two of the largest drivers of those horrifying numbers are deforestation and threats from invasive species (like the Chinese chestnut that brought fungus to America). Not using biotechnology to combat these threats is going to take away the largest advantage we have in fighting these threats. It’s like cutting off our nose to spite, not just our face, but the whole rest of our body.

*Dig this story? Then check out Steven’s latest book—The Rise of Superman—an exploration of the far frontiers of ultimate human performance.

[Credit: Wikipedia, biotech and forest images courtesy of Shutterstock]

Scientists Trigger Stem Cells to Produce New Brain Cells

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Scientists Trigger Stem Cells to Produce New Brain Cells

AI, neuroscience, technology,
It turns out that an apple a day — or at least an apple spinach salad — does keep the doctor away. But it’s not true that when brain cells die we can’t make more. When and how remain active questions, however, so there’s no free pass to collectively disregard our mothers’ safety tips just yet.

Researchers at Duke University have shed some light on the subject with findings that suggest that down the line doctors may be able spur the brain to repair itself.

The subventricular zone, a structure within the fluid-filled lateral ventricles, was one area scientists knew could generate new neurons from neural stem cells. They had also conjectured that the brain can somehow place orders for more cells.

The Duke researchers, led by Chay Kuo, found neurons in the subventricular zone of mice that had not previously been identified. These neurons are one mechanism for creating new cells, the researchers lay out in a recent paper in Nature Neuroscience. Amplifying and dampening the neurons’ activities using laser-based optogenetic tools first discovered in 2010, Kuo and his colleagues saw corresponding changes in how many neural stem cells were on hand in the brain.

neuroscience, AI, brain, artificial intelligence, stem cellsThe new neurons express an enzyme called ChAT (or choline acetyltransferase), which is required to make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. They’re calling them ChAT+ neurons.

“Kuo’s team was able to control CHaT’s action pretty much like a dimmer switch, and the stem cell production of neurons rose and fell in concert with what they were doing. This is the first piece of a new circuit that’s never been seen,” Karl Lief Bates, Duke’s director of research communications, said in an email.

The findings boost hopes that the brain may be able to repair itself from within.

Kuo hopes to eventually find the way to “engage certain circuits of the brain to lead to a hardware upgrade. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could upgrade the brain hardware to keep up with the new software?”

It’s hard to argue with the promise of a new computer, but a lot of the details still need to be worked out. Beyond lending credence to the theory that acetylcholine is involved in neurogenesis, the researchers don’t yet know how the ChAT+ neurons would normally place their order for new nerve cells.

“We have not found the command codes used normally in the brain. Using laser lights we programmed up some artificial commands to these neurons and they worked,” Kuo explained in an email interview.

In the mouse study, the new neurons went to the olfactory bulb. But because smell is a much more important brain function for rodents than for humans, it may well be that in humans the new brain cells get delivered somewhere else. Wherever that final destination is would point to the functions maintained or repaired through the process.

There’s one promising coincidence. The subventricular zone is deep inside the brain by the striatum, and just last month Swedish scientists identified newly made neurons in the striatum. The striatum plays a role in movement and self-control.

One thing is for sure: The brain doesn’t do as much self-maintenance as one might like. It’s sophisticated hardware that can sometimes be fixed, sometimes not. It’s certainly not software that updates on its own in the background.

We asked Kuo if his findings point to any medical approaches that would force the brain to repair itself after injuries such as stroke or traumatic injury. Would drugs that affect acetylcholine work for brain damage like SSRIs do for depression?

Kuo said the seeming parallels probably don’t hold true. Rather, he thought that stem cell therapy — to add new hardware to replace what was damaged — combined with behavior therapy — to load it the new hardware with data — holds more promise.

If stem cells can help repair intellectual hardware once deemed kaput, other studies suggest they may be able to perform other health major upgrades as well. Stem cell therapy could help keep cancer at bay, maintain muscle mass as we age and put the anti-aging skin care industry out of business.

The future looks bright — but wear sunscreen and don’t kill too many brain cells, just in case.

Images: VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com, Johan Swanepoel / Shutterstock.com

Delivering Capsules of Stem Cells Helps Repair Injured Bones

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Delivering Capsules of Stem Cells Helps Repair Injured Bones

stem cells, technology, medical research, For the recorder of potentially breakthrough medical technology, sometimes it seems that the list is just so many applications of three new technologies: smaller electronics, new materials and stem cells. Any electronic device set up to function inside the body relies on smaller, flexible parts and new biocompatible casings, for example. Stem cells, properly manipulated, seem capable of mending nearly everything that ails us.

But the details of how best to cultivate certain kinds of cells and spur them to function in the body are still being worked out. According to University of Rochester researchers, materials science may be a big help.

One trouble with stem cells is that they don’t stay put. When doctors put cardiovascular progenitor cells in the heart to heal damage from a heart attack, the cells are whisked away in the bloodstream in a matter of hours.

Researchers, and a couple of renegade doctors in Colorado, have shown that stem cells do help bones heal. While bones, even the intricately shaped jawbone, have been grown in the lab, researchers have been somewhat stymied in their efforts at the seemingly more banal task of using stem cells and grafts to help heal major fractures, bones removed in surgery and other hard-to-fix injuries inside the body.

stem cells, technology, medical research, bonesThat’s where materials science comes in.

University of Rochester biomedical engineer Danielle Benoit encapsulated bone progenitor cells in a hydrogel wrapper and placed it on the bone she aimed to heal. Benoit hoped the wrapper would result in fewer stem cells being washed away and more sticking around to do the work of healing the bone. Others have used similar approaches to try to repair cartilage. (Nanomaterials have also been used to create new cartilage.)

Hydrogels are polymers that absorb water, and their texture is similar to that of bodily tissue. They are sometimes used to grow stem cells in the lab. But Benoit wanted to use them to grow cells in the body.

The pores in the gels Benoit used are smaller than cells, so the stem cells couldn’t escape. The wrappers were designed to dissolve in a couple of weeks — after the cells had begun their work but before the body identified them as interlopers and launched an immune attack.

It worked, Benoit recently reported in a biomaterials journal. As many new cells (tagged with fluorescence) remained at the site in a mouse as did in a petri dish, meaning that blood flow didn’t wash them away. And they managed to attach to the bone after the hydrogel wrapper dissolved.

If the wrappers work on human patients, they will mean that doctors can place stem cells very, very precisely in order to repair even the trickiest structures.

stem cells, medical research, technology, bones, Mesenchymal stem cells

Mesenchymal stem cell

Because some tissues heal faster than others, Benoit demonstrated that different hydrogels that dissolve at different rates all worked.

“What we needed was a way to control how long the hydrogels remained at the site. Benoit said in a press release. “Our success opens the door for many — and more complicated — types of bone repair.”

Theoretically, the hydrogel wrapper could allow doctors to place stem cell seed bombs, if you will, anywhere in the body. Scientists at Emory University recently used a similar approach, but with a natural gel, to repair mouse hearts.

The first round of simply testing whether stem cells can help this or that problem (mostly they do), researchers may now turn to investigating how to make them work better.

Photos: Grzegorz Placzek / Shutterstock.com, Praisaeng / Shutterstock.com, Andrea via Wikimedia Commons

Why Google’s “Ridiculous” Looking Car Is Brilliant

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Why Google’s “Ridiculous” Looking Car Is Brilliant

google car

It’s not too surprising that the release of images of Google’s prototype robocar have gotten comments like this:

Revolutionary Tech in a Remarkably Lame Package from Wired

A Joy Ride in Google’s Clown Car says Re/Code

I’ve also seen comparisons to the Segway, and declarations that limited to 25 mph, this vehicle won’t get much adoption or affect the world much.

Google’s own video starts with a senior expressing that it’s “cute.”

I was not involved in the specifics of design of this vehicle, though I pushed hard as I could for something in this direction. Here’s why I think it’s the right decision.

First of all, this is a prototype. Only 100 of this design will be made, and there will be more iterations. Google is all about studying, learning and doing it again, and they can afford to. They want to know what people think of this, but are not scared if they underestimate it at first.

Secondly, this is what is known as a “Disruptive Technology.” Disruptive technologies, as described in the Silicon Valley bible “The Innovators Dilemma” are technologies that seem crazy and inferior at first. They meet a new need, not well understood by the incumbent big companies. Those big companies don’t see it as a threat — until years later, they are closing their doors. Every time a disruptive technology takes over, very few of the established players make it through to the other side. This does not guarantee that Google will dominate or crush those companies, or that everything that looks silly eventually wins. But it is a well established pattern.

This vehicle does not look threatening — not to people on the street, and not to existing car companies and pundits who don’t get it. Oh, there are many people inside those car companies who do get it, but the companies are incapable of getting it in their bones. Even when their CEOs get it, they can’t steer the company 90 degrees — there are too many entrenched forces in any large company.The rare exception are founder-led companies (like Google and Facebook and formerly Apple and Microsoft) where if the founder gets it, he or she can force the company to get it.

Even large companies who read this blog post and understand it still won’t get it, not most of the time. I’ve talked to executives from big car companies. They have a century of being car companies, and knowing what the means. Google, Tesla and the coming upstarts don’t.

One reason I will eventually move away from my chosen name for the technology — robocar — along with the other popular names like “self-driving car” is that this future vehicle is not a car, not as we know it today. It is no more a “driverless car” than a modern automobile is a horseless carriage. 100 years ago, the only way they could think of the car was to notice that there was no horse.Today, all many people notice about robocars is that no human is driving. This is the thing that comes after the car.

Some people expected the car to look more radical. Something like the Zoox or ATMBL by Mike and Maaike (who now work in a different part of Google.) Cars like those will come some day, but are not the way you learn. You start simple, and non threatening, and safe. And you start expensive — the Google prototype still has the very expensive Velodyne LIDAR on it, but trust me, very soon LIDAR is going to get a lot less expensive.

The low speed is an artifact of many things. You want to start safe, so you limit where you go and how fast. In addition, US law has a special exception from most regulations for electric vehicles that can’t go more than 25mph and stick to back roads. Some may think that’s not very useful (turns out they are wrong, it has a lot of useful applications) but it’s also a great way to start. Electric vehicles have another big advantage in this area. Because you can reverse electric motors, they can work as secondary brakes in the event of failure of the main brake system, and can even be secondary steering in case of failure of the steering system at certain speeds. (Google has also said that they have two steering motors in order to handle the risk of failure of one steering motor.) Electric vehicles are not long-range enough to work as taxis in a large area, but they can handle smaller areas just fine.

If you work in the auto industry, and you looked at this car and saw a clown car, that’s a sign you should be afraid.

[Media: Google]

Fasting Helps Cancer Patients Survive Chemotherapy — And It Could Help Us All Live Longer

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Fasting Helps Cancer Patients Survive Chemotherapy — And It Could Help Us All Live Longer

medical research, stem cells, fasting, technology
You’ve probably never heard of Valter Longo, but if you’ve heard about the purported health benefits of intermittent fasting, you’ve likely been exposed to his work. A University of Southern California gerontologist, Longo has published a series of studies on how two- to four-day fasts effect healthy cells and cancer cells in mice and humans.

In a previous study, Longo found that patients who fast before chemotherapy have a more bearable experience of its grueling side effects. His recently published work offers an account of why that might be that hints at wider benefits of periodic fasting.

The study indicates that during a fast, the immune system jettisons its cells that aren’t fully functioning. Those who fasted longer had almost 30 percent lower white blood cell counts; they later had higher preservation rates of hematopoietic stem cells, or stem cells that go on to become blood or immune cells. In mice, the fasts also jump-started the manufacture of new hematopoietic stem cells.

“When you starve, the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged,” Longo said in a press release. “What we started noticing in both our human work and animal work is that the white blood cell count goes down with prolonged fasting. Then when you re-feed, the blood cells come back. So we started thinking, well, where does it come from?”

During a fast, the basic body chemistry switches from burning carbohydrates to burning stored fat and ketone bodies produced by the liver. Different types of cells survive this change at different rates.

Longo has found that fasting lowered levels of IGF-1, a growth-factor hormone linked to aging, tumor progression and cancer risk. It also reduced the enzyme PKA, which has been linked in other research to the regulation of adult stem cell caches. The shutdown of PKA sends the signal for stem cells to proliferate, according to Longo.

“The body got rid of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old, the inefficient parts, during the fasting. Now, if you start with a system heavily damaged by chemotherapy or aging, fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system,” he said.

chemotherapy, cancer, cancer research, medical research, stem cells, technologyJust don’t forget to add “in mice” to the end of Longo’s claim. The immune system reboot wasn’t documented in the human patients in the Phase I trial focused on establishing basic safety. In mice, the researchers were able to monitor irradiated stem cells in unfed and fed mice; that was not part of the human protocol.

But researchers did find that people who fasted for 72 hours before their treatments experienced lower toxicity and a lighter effect on bone marrow from chemotherapy.

“While chemotherapy saves lives, it causes significant collateral damage to the immune system. The results of this study suggest that fasting may mitigate some of the harmful effects of chemotherapy,” said Longo’s co-author Tanya Dorff, assistant professor of clinical medicine at USC.

In previous mouse studies, Longo found that healthy cells fare better than cancer cells in fasting conditions. He hypothesizes that in evolving to divide so rapidly, cancer cells gave up other evolutionary adaptations, such as surviving in the absence of nutrition. In other words, fasting might make chemotherapy more effective and more manageable.

If fasting kickstarts the immune system and stifles cancer, perhaps the whole fountain of youth is an empty bowl? Many health risks that grow with age result from the immune system’s diminishing ability to fight. And renewed spurts of stem-cell repairs could improve other damaged systems as well.

“We are investigating the possibility that these effects are applicable to many different systems and organs, not just the immune system,” said Longo, whose lab is in the process of conducting further research on controlled dietary interventions and stem cell regeneration in both animal and clinical studies.

The bad news is that neither restricted-calorie diets nor 24-hour fasts had the same results that 72-hour hunger games did. But Longo will be looking for ways to stimulate these renewal pathways by tinkering with nutrition without actually fasting or potentially by taking drugs that simulate the body chemistry fasting produces. Maybe, just maybe, it will be possible to have one’s cake and not eat it, too.

Photos: Maglara / Shutterstock.com, Image Point Fr / Shutterstock.com

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