Dave Brain: What a planet needs to sustain life

September 24, 2016

“Venus is too hot, Mars is too cold, and Earth is just right,” says planetary scientist Dave Brain. But why? In this pleasantly humorous talk, Brain explores the fascinating science behind what it takes for a planet to host life — and why humanity may just be in the right place at the right time when it comes to the timeline of life-sustaining planets.

The ‘impossible’ EM Drive is about to be tested in space

September 24, 2016


An actual EM Drive is about to be launched into space for the first time, so scientists can finally figure out – once and for all – if it really is possible for a rocket engine to generate thrust without any kind of exhaust or propellant.

Built by American inventor and chemical engineer, Guido Fetta, the EM Drive is as controversial as it gets, because while certain experiments have suggested that such an engine could work, it also goes against one of the most fundamental laws of physics we have.

As Newton’s Third Law states, “To each action there’s an equal and opposite reaction,” and many physicists say the EM Drive categorically violates that law.

This is because in order for a thruster to gain momentum in a certain direction, it has to expel some kind of propellent or exhaust in the opposite direction.

But the EM Drive simply goes in one direction with no propellant, and thus violates the law of conservation of momentum, which Newton derived from his Third Law.

And not only that, but it could produce enough thrust to blast humans to Mars in just 70 days.

As Fiona MacDonald put it back in June, space enthusiasts love to get excited about the EM Drive, because if it works, it has the potential to remove major barriers in our need to explore the Solar System and beyond.

But just as many are sick of hearing about it, because, on paper at least, it doesn’t work within the laws of physics.

Invented by British scientist Roger Shawyer back in 1999, the EM Drive – short for electromagnetic propulsion drive – purportedly works like this.

It uses electromagnetic waves as ‘fuel’, creating thrust by bouncing microwave photons back and forth inside a cone-shaped closed metal cavity. This causes the ‘pointy end’ of the EM Drive to accelerate in the opposite direction that the drive is going.

“To put it simply, electricity converts into microwaves within the cavity that push against the inside of the device, causing the thruster to accelerate in the opposite direction,” Mary-Ann Russon explains over at The International Business Times.

Since its invention, the EM drive has shown no signs of quitting, in test after test. Last year, trials by NASA scientists at the Eagleworks lab revealed “anomalous thrust signals”, and an independent researcher in Germany conceded that the propulsion system, somehow, does indeed produce thrust.

Fast-forward to now, and there are rumours that the NASA Eagleworks paper we reported on in June has finally passed the peer-review process, and is expected to be published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Journal of Propulsion and Power.

If the rumours by José Rodal from MIT are true – and let’s be clear, they’re still just rumours at this point – it could be huge.

As Brendan Hesse explains for Digital Trends:

“This is an important step for the EM Drive as it adds legitimacy to the technology and the tests done thus far, opening the door for other groups to replicate the tests. This will also allow other groups to devote more resources to uncovering why and how it works, and how to iterate on the drive to make it a viable form of propulsion.

So, while a single peer-reviewed paper isn’t going to suddenly equip the human race with interplanetary travel, it’s the first step toward eventually realising that possible future.”

And on top of all of that, we’re about to see an actual EM Drive be blasted into space.

Guido Fetta is CEO of Cannae Inc, and the inventor of the Cannae Drive – a rocket engine that’s based on Roger Shawyer’s original EM Drive design. Last month, he announced that he would launch this thruster on a 6U CubeSat – a type of miniaturised satellite.

David Hambling reports for Popular Mechanics that roughly one-quarter of this shoebox-sized satellite will be taken up by the Cannae Drive, and they’ll stay in orbit for at least six months: “The longer it stays in orbit, the more the satellite will show that it must be producing thrust without propellant.”

No launch date has been set just yet, but it could happen in as soon as six months’ time.

As Hambling points out, Fetta better hurry, because a team of engineers in China, and Shawyer himself, are both also working on their own launchable EM Drives, so someone’s going to get there first, and we seriously cannot wait to see what will happen.

IBM is one step closer to mimicking the human brain

September 24, 2016


Scientists at IBM have claimed a computational breakthrough after imitating large populations of neurons for the first time.

Neurons are electrically excitable cells that process and transmit information in our brains through electrical and chemical signals. These signals are passed over synapses, specialised connections with other cells.

It’s this set-up that inspired scientists at IBM to try and mirror the way the biological brain functions using phase-change materials for memory applications.

Using computers to try to mimic the human brain is something that’s been theorised for decades due to the challenges of recreating the density and power. Now, for the first time, scientists have created their own “randomly spiking” artificial neurons that can store and process data.

“The breakthrough marks a significant step forward in the development of energy-efficient, ultra-dense integrated neuromorphic technologies for applications in cognitive computing,” the scientists said.

The artificial neurons consist of phase-change materials, including germanium antimony telluride, which exhibit two stable states, an amorphous one (without a clearly defined structure) and a crystalline one (with structure). These materials are also the basis of re-writable Blue-ray but in this system the artificial neurons do not store digital information; they are analogue, just like the synapses and neurons in a biological brain.

The beauty of these powerful phase-change-based artificial neurons, which can perform various computational primitives such as data-correlation detection and unsupervised learning at high speeds, is that they use very little energy – just like human brain.

In a demonstration published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, the team applied a series of electrical pulses to the artificial neurons, which resulted in the progressive crystallisation of the phase-change material, ultimately causing the neuron to fire.

In neuroscience, this function is known as the integrate-and-fire property of biological neurons. This is the foundation for event-based computation and, in principle, is quite similar to how a biological brain triggers a response when an animal touches something hot, for instance.

Tomas Tuma, co-author of the paper, said the breakthrough could help create a new generation of extremely dense neuromorphic computing systems
Tomas Tuma, co-author of the paper, said the breakthrough could help create a new generation of extremely dense neuromorphic computing systems

As part of the study, the researchers organised hundreds of artificial neurons into populations and used them to represent fast and complex signals. When tested, the artificial neurons were able to sustain billions of switching cycles, which would correspond to multiple years of operation at an update frequency of 100Hz.

The energy required for each neuron update was less than five picojoule and the average power less than 120 microwatts — for comparison, 60 million microwatts power a 60 watt light bulb, IBM’s research paper said.

When exploiting this integrate-and-fire property, even a single neuron can be used to detect patterns and discover correlations in real-time streams of event-based data. “This will significantly reduce the area and power consumption as it will be using tiny nanoscale devices that act as neurons,” IBM scientist and author, Dr. Abu Sebastian told WIRED.

This, IBM believes, could be helpful in the further development of internet of things technologies, especially when developing tiny sensors.

“Populations of stochastic phase-change neurons, combined with other nanoscale computational elements such as artificial synapses, could be a key enabler for the creation of a new generation of extremely dense neuromorphic computing systems,” said Tomas Tuma, co-author of the paper.

This could be useful in sensors collecting and analysing volumes of weather data, for instance, said Sebastian, collected at the edge, in remote locations, for faster and more accurate weather forecasts.

The artificial neurons could also detect patterns in financial transactions to find discrepancies or use data from social media to discover new cultural trends in real time. While large populations of these high-speed, low-energy nano-scale neurons could also be used in neuromorphic co-processors with co-located memory and processing units.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $3 billion effort aims to rid world of major diseases by end of century

September 24, 2016


Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, on Wednesday announced a $3 billion effort to accelerate scientific research with the wildly ambitious goal of “curing all disease in our children’s lifetime.”

The many components of the initiative include creating universal technology “tools” based on both traditional science and engineering on which all researchers can build, including a map of all cell types, a way to continuously monitor blood for early signs of illness, and a chip that can diagnose all diseases (or at least many of them). The money will also help fund what they referred to as 10 to 15 “virtual institutes” that will bring together investigators from around the world to focus on individual diseases or other goals — an idea that has the potential to upend biomedical science.

Being a scientist in academia today can often be a solitary endeavor as the system is set up to encourage colleagues to keep data exclusive in the hopes that this strategy helps them be more competitive at getting publications and grants. But as more Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg are seeking to make their mark in the biological sciences, they are emphasizing the power of collaboration and openness.

A centerpiece of the new effort, called Chan Zuckerberg Science, involves creating a “Biohub” at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Mission Bay campus that will bring together scientists from Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley and UCSF.

Zuckerberg and Chan, among the world’s 10 wealthiest couples, with a net worth of $55.2 billion, emphasized that their timeline is long — by the end of the century.

“We have to be patient. This is hard stuff,” Zuckerberg said.

Chan said, “That doesn’t mean no one will ever get sick, but it means our children and their children should get sick a lot less.”

Many of themes articulated by Zuckerberg and Chan on Wednesday in San Francisco echo ideas furthered by other technology philanthropists who have donated substantial amounts of money to medical science. Sean Parker, a Napster co-founder, earlier this year set up a multi-center, $250 million effort to bring together top researchers from around the country to focus on immunotherapy for cancer. Microsoft’s Paul Allen has already invested $100 million in a cell-biology institute to try to create models of the fundamental building blocks of life.

Self-powered ‘materials that compute’ and recognize simple patterns

September 24, 2016


University of Pittsburgh researchers have modeled the design of a “material that computes” — a hybrid material, powered only by its own chemical reactions, that can recognize simple patterns.

The material could one day be integrated into clothing and used to monitor the human body, or developed as a skin for “squishy” robots, for example, according to the researchers, writing in the open-access AAAS journal Science Advances.

A computer that combines gels and piezeoelectric materials

The computations (needed to design the hypothetical material) were modeled utilizing Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) gels, a substance that oscillates in the absence of external stimuli, combined with an overlaying piezoelectric (PZ) cantilever, forming “BZ-PZ” (as in “easy peasy”). The BZ gels oscillate periodically, triggered by chemical stimulation, without the need for external driving stimuli. Piezoelectric (PZ) materials generate a voltage when deformed and, conversely, undergo deformation in the presence of an applied voltage.

Two BZ-PZ oscillator units connected with electrical wires. Triggered by the chemical oscillations, the BZ gels (green) expand in volume, generating a force (F1 and F2) and thereby cause the deflections ξ1 and ξ2 of the PZ cantilevers (orange and blue layers) , which generate an electric voltage U. That voltage then deflects the cantilevers (the inverse PZ effect), which then compress the underlying BZ gels and thereby modify the chemomechanical oscillations in these gels. The end result is the components’ response to self-generated signals (sensing), volumetric changes in the gel (actuation), and the passage of signals between the units (communication). For computation, the communication also leads to synchronization of the BZ gel oscillators. (credit: Yan Fang et al./Science Advances)

“By combining these attributes into a ‘BZ-PZ’ unit and then connecting the units by electrical wires, we designed a device that senses, actuates, and communicates without an external electrical power source,” the researchers explain in the paper.*

The result is that the device can also be used to perform computation. To use that for pattern recognition, the researchers first stored a pattern of numbers as a set of polarities in the BZ-PZ units, and the input patterns were coded with the initial phase of the oscillations imposed on these units.

Multiple BZ-PS units wired in serial and parallel configurations to form a network (credit: Yan Fang et al./Science Advances)

With multiple BZ-PZ units, the oscillators can be wired into a network  formed, for example, from units that are connected in parallel or in series. The resulting transduction between chemomechanical and electrical energy creates signals that quickly propagate and thus permits remote coupled oscillators to communicate and synchronize. This synchronization behavior in BZ-PZ network can be used for oscillator-based computing.

The computational modeling revealed that the input pattern closest to the stored pattern exhibits the fastest convergence time to the stable synchronization behavior, and is the most effective at recognizing patterns. In this study, the materials were programmed to recognize black-and-white pixels in the shape of numbers that had been distorted.

The researchers’ next goal is to expand from analyzing black-and-white pixels to grayscale and more complicated images and shapes, as well as to enhance the devices storage capability.

Perfect for monitoring human and robot bodies

Compared to a traditional computer, these computations are slow and take minutes. “Individual events are slow because the period of the BZ oscillations is slow,” said Victor V. Yashin, Research Assistant Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “However, there are some tasks that need a longer analysis, and are more natural in function. That’s why this type of system is perfect to monitor environments like the human body.”

For example, Dr. Yashin said that patients recovering from a hand injury could wear a glove that monitors movement, and can inform doctors whether the hand is healing properly or if the patient has improved mobility. Another use would be to monitor individuals at risk for early onset Alzheimer’s, by wearing footwear that would analyze gait and compare results against normal movements, or a garment that monitors cardiovascular activity for people at risk of heart disease or stroke.

Since the devices convert chemical reactions to electrical energy, there would be no need for external electrical power. This would also be ideal for a robot or other device that could utilize the material as a sensory skin.

The research is funded by a five-year National Science Foundation Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE) grant, which focuses on complex and pressing scientific problems that lie at the intersection of traditional disciplines.

“This work at the University of Pittsburgh … is an example of this groundbreaking shift away from traditional silicon CMOS-based digital computing to a non-von Neumann machine in a polymer substrate, with remarkable low power consumption,” said Sankar Basu, NSF program director.

* This continues the research of Anna C. Balazs, Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Steven P. Levitan, the John A. Jurenko Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

Abstract of Pattern recognition with “materials that compute”

Driven by advances in materials and computer science, researchers are attempting to design systems where the computer and material are one and the same entity. Using theoretical and computational modeling, we design a hybrid material system that can autonomously transduce chemical, mechanical, and electrical energy to perform a computational task in a self-organized manner, without the need for external electrical power sources. Each unit in this system integrates a self-oscillating gel, which undergoes the Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) reaction, with an overlaying piezoelectric (PZ) cantilever. The chemomechanical oscillations of the BZ gels deflect the PZ layer, which consequently generates a voltage across the material. When these BZ-PZ units are connected in series by electrical wires, the oscillations of these units become synchronized across the network, where the mode of synchronization depends on the polarity of the PZ. We show that the network of coupled, synchronizing BZ-PZ oscillators can perform pattern recognition. The “stored” patterns are set of polarities of the individual BZ-PZ units, and the “input” patterns are coded through the initial phase of the oscillations imposed on these units. The results of the modeling show that the input pattern closest to the stored pattern exhibits the fastest convergence time to stable synchronization behavior. In this way, networks of coupled BZ-PZ oscillators achieve pattern recognition. Further, we show that the convergence time to stable synchronization provides a robust measure of the degree of match between the input and stored patterns. Through these studies, we establish experimentally realizable design rules for creating “materials that compute.”

Bill Gates talks about why artificial intelligence is nearly here and how to solve two big problems it creates

July 10, 2016


Bill Gates is excited about the rise of artificial intelligence but acknowledged the arrival of machines with greater-than-human capabilities will create some unique challenges.

After years of working on the building blocks of speech recognition and computer vision, Gates said enough progress has been made to ensure that in the next 10 years there will be robots to do tasks like driving and warehouse work as well as machines that can outpace humans in certain areas of knowledge.

“The dream is finally arriving,” Gates said, speaking with wife Melinda Gates on Wednesday at the Code Conference. “This is what it was all leading up to.”

However, as he said in an interview with Recode last year, such machine capabilities will pose two big problems.

The first is, it will eliminate a lot of existing types of jobs. Gates said that creates a need for a lot of retraining but notes that until schools have class sizes under 10 and people can retire at a reasonable age and take ample vacation, he isn’t worried about a lack of need for human labor.

The second issue is, of course, making sure humans remain in control of the machines. Gates has talked about that in the past, saying that he plans to spend time with people who have ideas on how to address that issue, noting work being done at Stanford, among other places.

And, in Gatesian fashion, he suggested a pair of books that people should read, including Nick Bostrom’s book on superintelligence and Pedro Domingos’ “The Master Algorithm.”

Melinda Gates noted that you can tell a lot about where her husband’s interest is by the books he has been reading. “There have been a lot of AI books,” she said.

Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome

July 10, 2016


George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and an organizer of the proposed project, said there had been a misunderstanding. The project was not aimed at creating people, just cells, and would not be restricted to human genomes, he said. Rather it would aim to improve the ability to synthesize DNA in general, which could be applied to various animals, plants and microbes.

“They’re painting a picture which I don’t think represents the project,” Dr. Church said in an interview.

He said the meeting was closed to the news media, and people were asked not to tweet because the project organizers, in an attempt to be transparent, had submitted a paper to a scientific journal. They were therefore not supposed to discuss the idea publicly before publication. He and other organizers said ethical aspects have been amply discussed since the beginning.

The project was initially called HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project, with HGP referring to the Human Genome Project. An invitation to the meeting at Harvard said that the primary goal “would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”

George Church, one of the organizers of the proposed project, at his lab at Harvard Medical School in 2013. Credit Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

But by the time the meeting was held, the name had been changed to “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells.”

The project does not yet have funding, Dr. Church said, though various companies and foundations would be invited to contribute, and some have indicated interest. The federal government will also be asked. A spokeswoman for the National Institutes of Health declined to comment, saying the project was in too early a stage.

Besides Dr. Church, the organizers include Jef Boeke, director of the institute for systems genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center, and Andrew Hessel, a self-described futurist who works at the Bay Area software company Autodesk and who first proposed such a project in 2012.

Scientists and companies can now change the DNA in cells, for example, by adding foreign genes or changing the letters in the existing genes. This technique is routinely used to make drugs, such as insulin for diabetes, inside genetically modified cells, as well as to make genetically modified crops. And scientists are now debating the ethics of new technology that might allow genetic changes to be made in embryos.

But synthesizing a gene, or an entire genome, would provide the opportunity to make even more extensive changes in DNA.

For instance, companies are now using organisms like yeast to make complex chemicals, like flavorings and fragrances. That requires adding not just one gene to the yeast, like to make insulin, but numerous genes in order to create an entire chemical production process within the cell. With that much tinkering needed, it can be easier to synthesize the DNA from scratch.

Right now, synthesizing DNA is difficult and error-prone. Existing techniques can reliably make strands that are only about 200 base pairs long, with the base pairs being the chemical units in DNA. A single gene can be hundreds or thousands of base pairs long. To synthesize one of those, multiple 200-unit segments have to be spliced together.

But the cost and capabilities are rapidly improving. Dr. Endy of Stanford, who is a co-founder of a DNA synthesis company called Gen9, said the cost of synthesizing genes has plummeted from $4 per base pair in 2003 to 3 cents now. But even at that rate, the cost for three billion letters would be $90 million. He said if costs continued to decline at the same pace, that figure could reach $100,000 in 20 years.

J. Craig Venter, the genetic scientist, synthesized a bacterial genome consisting of about a million base pairs. The synthetic genome was inserted into a cell and took control of that cell. While his first synthetic genome was mainly a copy of an existing genome, Dr. Venter and colleagues this year synthesized a more original bacterial genome, about 500,000 base pairs long.

Dr. Boeke is leading an international consortium that is synthesizing the genome of yeast, which consists of about 12 million base pairs. The scientists are making changes, such as deleting stretches of DNA that do not have any function, in an attempt to make a more streamlined and stable genome.

But the human genome is more than 200 times as large as that of yeast and it is not clear if such a synthesis would be feasible.

Jeremy Minshull, chief executive of DNA2.0, a DNA synthesis company, questioned if the effort would be worth it.

“Our ability to understand what to build is so far behind what we can build,” said Dr. Minshull, who was invited to the meeting at Harvard but did not attend. “I just don’t think that being able to make more and more and more and cheaper and cheaper and cheaper is going to get us the understanding we need.”

Japanese scientists have used skin cells to restore a patient’s vision for the first time

July 10, 2016


Japanese scientists have reported the first successful skin-to-eye stem cell transplant in humans, where stem cells derived from a patient’s skin were transplanted into her eye to partially restore lost vision.

The patient, a 70-year-old woman diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – the leading cause of vision impairment in older people – received the experimental treatment back in 2014 as part of a pilot study. Now, closing in on two years after the transplant took place, the scientists are sharing the results.

The researchers took a small piece of skin from her arm (4 mm in diameter) and modified its cells, effectively reprogramming them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC).

Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to differentiate into almost any type of tissue within the body, which is why skin cells taken from an arm can be repurposed into retinal tissue.

Once the cells were coaxed to develop into retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), they were cultured in the lab to grow into an ultra-thin sheet, which was then transplanted behind the retina of the patient.

“I am very pleased that there were no complications with the transplant surgery,” said project leader Masayo Takahashi from the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in 2014. “However, this is only the first step for use of iPSC in regenerative medicine. I have renewed my resolve to continue forging ahead until this treatment becomes available to many patients.”

While it’s definitely still early days for this experimental procedure, the signs so far are promising.

The team held off on reporting their results until now to monitor the patient’s progress and gauge how successfully the modified cells lasted, but they’ve just reported that the transplanted cells survived without any adverse events for over a year, resulting in slightly improved vision for the patient.

“The transplanted RPE sheet survived well without any findings [or] indication of immune rejections nor adverse unexpected proliferation for one and a half years, achieving our primary purpose of this pilot study,” the team said in a statement this week.

“I am glad I received the treatment,” the patient told The Japan Times last year. “I feel my eyesight has brightened and widened.”

While it’s not a complete restoration of the patient’s vision, the study shows a significant step forward in the use of induced pluripotent stem cells – which scientists think might be used to treat a range of illnesses, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, not just vision problems.

A number of other studies are also showing positive results in restoring sight with stem cell treatments. Earlier in the year, researchers in China and the US were able to improve the vision of babies with cataracts by manipulating protein levels in stem cells.

Even more remarkably, a woman in Baltimore who was blind for more than five years had some of her vision restored after stem cells were extracted from her bone marrow and injected into her eyes. While many questions remain about that particular treatment, there’s no denying that stem cell research is a hugely exciting field of study.

The findings were presented at the 2016 annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) in Seattle.

We’re Closer Than Ever to Bringing the Dead Back to Life

July 10, 2016

The 2,500 year-old mummified body an Egyptian female known as 'Tahemaa' is scanned at the Saad Centre of Radiography at City Univeristy in central London, on July 30, 2009. Tahemaa is believed to have been 28 years-old when she died and is thought to have lived in Luxor in Egypt. Specialists at City University hope to learn more about how she died. The mummy was donated to the Bournemouth Natural Sciences Society in 1922. Nothing is known of how she arrived in England. AFP PHOTO/LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2,500 year-old mummified body an Egyptian female known as ‘Tahemaa’ is scanned at the Saad Centre of Radiography at City Univeristy in central London, on July 30, 2009. AFP PHOTO/LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)


Across religions and cultures, humans have attempted to bridge the gap between life and death. The human death rate is 100%. Everybody dies. Yet, that hasn’t stopped us from trying to postpone death or to find ways to reverse it.

In countless works spanning every genre of literature and film, death and exploration of the afterlife has been a recurring theme. Orpheus, a Greek mythological figure, ventures to the underworld to retrieve his recently departed wife, Eurydice. One of the hallmark works of the Renaissance is Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, a poem detailing the journey through hell, purgatory and heaven. While the humanities have served to muse on the magnitude of our ignorance when it comes to death, science has steadily progressed in finding ways to beat it.

The biotech firm BioQuark was recently granted permission by the National Institutes of Health to begin clinical trials on 20 brain-dead patients on life support. In an attempt to bring them back from the dead, scientists will test a variety of therapies over the course of a month—from injecting stem cells to deploying nerve-stimulating techniques often used on coma patients.

“Even if you could get cells to grow—even if you could replicate some semblance of the architecture which existed previously—replicating all of those neurons and all of those connections in a way that makes it possible even for basic brain function to continue, that is a huge challenge,” cautioned Dr. David Casarett, Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, in an interview with the Observer. In 2014, Dr. Casarett wrote Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back The Recently Dead. The clinical trials, he noted, also raise ethical concerns.

“You don’t really know what is going to happen when they start trying to regrow neurons,” he explained. “One possibility is absolutely nothing happens. Another possibility is function increases to varying degrees in varying people, leaving people in a strange in-between state.” These are decisions to be made by consenting family members, as one potential outcome could leave participants in a state somewhere in between brain-dead and comatose. “You wouldn’t necessarily be doing the patient or their family any favors by creating that condition.”

Less ambitious—but just as controversial—are other research projects testing death as a means to buy valuable time to mend life-threatening injuries.

clinical trial is currently underway at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, in which emergency room patients have their blood drawn and replaced with a cold saline solution to induce hypothermia, thereby slowing metabolism—ideally for transport and resuscitation efforts to be more effective. Similar procedures have found have high success rates on dogs and pigs without functional complications. Hydrogen sulfide has also been used to induce the same effect in mice, which doesn’t demand the equipment and cooling process needed to induce hypothermia. The jury is still out as to whether this method could be applied to humans.

The use of cryogenics, for now, borders on science fiction—but that hasn’t stopped scientists and wealthy enthusiasts from trying to make it a reality.

Humai, an L.A.-based robotics company, hopes to freeze human brains after death with the expectation that technology will soon catch up—allowing the brain to be resurrected in an artificial body. Neuroscientists have excessively cautioned about lending cryogenics credence, but scientific research has blurred the definition of death and the consensus on when it occurs.

For centuries, death was called at the moment the heart stopped beating. However, medicine has evolved to the point that cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is now a common life-saving technique incorporated in basic first aid training, along with more advanced forms of resuscitation—like defibrillators—that can restart the heart. Several cases have been cited where a person under cardiac arrest has been brought back to life hours after they’ve technically died, when cooling processes and correct resuscitation procedures are implemented. According to a 2012 study published in Nature, skeletal muscle stem cells can retain their ability to regenerate for up to 17 days after death, redefining death as occurring in steps rather than at one single moment.

Despite groundbreaking progress in the medical field to extend life expectancy and cure illnesses and ailments which were once considered to be fatal, the human imagination will always far outpace the realms of what is logically applicable. Efforts to bring back the dead and prolong life are embedded in our biology, as exhibited by humanity’s obsession with mortality. There will always be limitations to how far science can push back against death, but the ways we figure out how to do so—in theory, fantasy and practical application—are certainly thought provoking.

We’re Closer Than Ever to Bringing the Dead Back to Life