2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.


5 Awesome Inventions That Came out of MIT This Year

December 20, 2015


We’re coming down the homestretch for 2015, and now is the time when most folks like to reflect on all of the things they’re thankful for. In the campus innovation space, that basically means MIT. Being one of the most technologically progressive universities in the world, MIT has the longstanding reputation of churning out life-changing innovations as if it were a cake walk.

This past year has been no different. Here are our picks of 5 inventions coming out of MIT that are sure to impact the world, making us very thankful to have the Cambridge-based university in our corner.

Personalized heart models

If everyone’s bodies were true to textbook anatomy, doctors’ jobs would be a breeze. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. So all patients going in for heart surgery will have slightly different nuances to their cardiac makeup. As you can imagine, these procedures present some high stakes, so it’s not great for surgeons to be surprised in the OR.

Taking part of the guesswork out of cardiac surgeries is a system developed by MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital. Doctors can now scan an individual patient’s heart and 3D print a personalized model within a matter of hours. As a result, surgeons can plan for specific surgeries, knowing exactly what they’ll be looking at. This project is still in the works, but once it’s further along, researchers maintain doctors will be able to do simulated surgeries before the fact, significantly reducing risks on the operating table.

A microbot that swims and self-destructs

What’s better than robots? Tiny robots. A team at MIT have developed an “origami” robot that measures only a centimeter in length. But just because this invention is small, don’t think the technology behind it won’t make a big impact.

MIT researchers’ miniature origami robot. Photo credit: Christine Daniloff/MIT.

This robot folds itself from a sheet of plastic when exposed to heat. It can then move about, almost like a super insect. It can swim, climb inclines and even carrying objects twice its weight (which, granted, is not that much). It’s all powered from innovative external controls that the MIT researchers created using a magnetic field.

If you don’t think any of that’s impressive, check this out: The origami robot can self-destruct by deteriorating all on its own.

Ingestible sensors to take your vitals

Every time you go to the doctor, the first thing they do is hook you up to a multitude of machines. If you’ve ever sat there thinking that there has to be a better way to take your vitals, you’re right. A group at MIT developed an ingestible device that accurately takes all of the essential readings – heart and breathing rates, for example – from the comfort of your GI tract.

While health care providers might not be handing out these devices like candy, they’ll probably soon be using them for certain people. For example, patients with chronic illnesses that need regular monitoring, soldiers and athletes could be benefiting from the technology in the future.

A robot with human-like reflexes

Robots aren’t known for their grace and poise. In fact, they’re generally considered to be clunky and clumsy. That’s until now.

While several teams at MIT are working on different ways to make robots more suitable to navigate our fragile, human world, HERMES is one of the most remarkable. It’s an upright and bipedal device, but that’s not what makes it most impressive. With the development of a balance feedback interface, the robot is able to make note of shifting weight and adjust accordingly. As a result, HERMES has human-like reflexes. It’s not autonomous, though, as it requires someone to operate it, acting as a marionette.

Microchip-delivered drugs

While this is technically a spinout of MIT – developed by two professors who founded the startup Microchips Biotech – it still counts. Rather than subjecting people with chronic illnesses to continuous rounds of medication, shots and treatments, this company has come up with a way to deliver crucial drugs via a microchip.

These devices are implanted in the body and are able to release medications over extended periods of time. For example, patients with cancer, MS and diabetes can have one of these microchips put in and receive automatic treatment for as long as 6 years. That means no more pills or in-hospital treatments.


Forward to the Future: Visions of 2045

December 20, 2015

DARPA Vector Logo.eps

DARPA asked the world and our own researchers what technologies they expect to see 30 years from now—and received insightful, sometimes funny predictions

Today—October 21, 2015—is famous in popular culture as the date 30 years in the future when Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrive in their time-traveling DeLorean in the movie “Back to the Future Part II.” The film got some things right about 2015, including in-home videoconferencing and devices that recognize people by their voices and fingerprints. But it also predicted trunk-sized fusion reactors, hoverboards and flying cars—game-changing technologies that, despite the advances we’ve seen in so many fields over the past three decades, still exist only in our imaginations.

A big part of DARPA’s mission is to envision the future and make the impossible possible. So ten days ago, as the “Back to the Future” day approached, we turned to social media and asked the world to predict: What technologies might actually surround us 30 years from now? We pointed people to presentations from DARPA’s Future Technologies Forum, held last month in St. Louis, for inspiration and a reality check before submitting their predictions.

Well, you rose to the challenge and the results are in. So in honor of Marty and Doc (little known fact: he is a DARPA alum) and all of the world’s innovators past and future, we present here some highlights from your responses, in roughly descending order by number of mentions for each class of futuristic capability:

  • Space: Interplanetary and interstellar travel, including faster-than-light travel; missions and permanent settlements on the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belt; space elevators
  • Transportation & Energy: Self-driving and electric vehicles; improved mass transit systems and intercontinental travel; flying cars and hoverboards; high-efficiency solar and other sustainable energy sources
  • Medicine & Health: Neurological devices for memory augmentation, storage and transfer, and perhaps to read people’s thoughts; life extension, including virtual immortality via uploading brains into computers; artificial cells and organs; “Star Trek”-style tricorder for home diagnostics and treatment; wearable technology, such as exoskeletons and augmented-reality glasses and contact lenses
  • Materials & Robotics: Ubiquitous nanotechnology, 3-D printing and robotics; invisibility and cloaking devices; energy shields; anti-gravity devices
  • Cyber & Big Data: Improved artificial intelligence; optical and quantum computing; faster, more secure Internet; better use of data analytics to improve use of resources

A few predictions inspired us to respond directly:

  • “Pizza delivery via teleportation”—DARPA took a close look at this a few years ago and decided there is plenty of incentive for the private sector to handle this challenge.
  • “Time travel technology will be close, but will be closely guarded by the military as a matter of national security”—We already did this tomorrow.
  • “Systems for controlling the weather”—Meteorologists told us it would be a job killer and we didn’t want to rain on their parade.
  • “Space colonies…and unlimited cellular data plans that won’t be slowed by your carrier when you go over a limit”—We appreciate the idea that these are equally difficult, but they are not. We think likable cell-phone data plans are beyond even DARPA and a total non-starter.

So seriously, as an adjunct to this crowd-sourced view of the future, we asked three DARPA researchers from various fields to share their visions of 2045, and why getting there will require a group effort with players not only from academia and industry but from forward-looking government laboratories and agencies:

  • Pam Melroy, an aerospace engineer, former astronaut and current deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technologies Office (TTO), foresees technologies that would enable machines to collaborate with humans as partners on tasks far more complex than those we can tackle today:

  • Justin Sanchez, a neuroscientist and program manager in DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO), imagines a world where neurotechnologies could enable users to interact with their environment and other people by thought alone:

  • Stefanie Tompkins, a geologist and director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), envisions building substances from the atomic or molecular level up to create “impossible” materials with previously unattainable capabilities:

Check back with us in 2045—or sooner, if that time machine stuff works out—for an assessment of how things really turned out in 30 years.


Longer Life in a Pill May Already Be Available at Your Local Drug Store

December 13, 2015


To most of the scientific community, “anti-aging” is a dirty word.

A medical field historically associated with charlatans and quacks, scientists have strictly restricted the quest for a “longevity pill” to basic research. The paradigm is simple and one-toned: working on model organisms by manipulating different genes and proteins, scientists slowly tease out the molecular mechanisms that lead to — and reverse — signs of aging, with no guarantee that they’ll work in humans.

But it’s been a fruitful search: multiple drug candidates, many already on the market for immune or psychiatric disorders, have consistently delayed age-associated diseases and stretched the lifespan of fruit flies, roundworms and mice. Yet human trials have been far beyond reach — without the FDA acknowledging “aging” as a legitimate target for drug development, researchers have had no way of pitching clinical trials to the regulatory agency.

Until now.

This year, the FDA green lighted an audacious proposal that seeks to test in 3,000 volunteers a drug that — based on animal studies — could extend human lifespan by up to 40 percent and decrease chances of getting age-related diseases. The double-blind, multi-centered trial, Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME), is the first that pushes aging as a bona fide disease — one that may eventually be tamed with drugs.

“We think this is a groundbreaking, perhaps paradigm-shifting trial,” said Dr. Steven Austad, scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR).

A Sea Change

Without a doubt, TAME is an odd one in the realm of clinical trials. Spearheaded by Dr. Nil Barzilai, an ebullient scientist based at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, TAME receives no support from the pharmaceutical industry. The brainchild of a team made up solely of academics, TAME is sponsored by the nonprofit organization AFAR.

Even more of a head scratcher is this: if the drug were to work in humans — making it the first scientifically proven longevity pill, an elixir worth billions — none of the team members stand to make any money. This is because metformin, the star of the trial, is a generic diabetes drug that costs only a few cents a dose.

It’s not about the money; it’s something far bigger.

What we’re talking about here is an idea that fundamentally changes how we look at aging and disease, said Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a biodemographer at the University of Illinois and TAME team member.

The idea is this: rather than tackling the top medical killers — cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia — individually, we should instead focus on slowing or reversing the single most prominent risk factor associated with all those diseases — age.

It may be as close to a silver bullet as we’ll get.

The Drivers of Aging

TAME is built on decades of basic research on aging, mostly conducted in short-lived model organisms such as fruit flies, nematode worms and mice. By individually tweaking genes and measuring the resulting effects on healthspan and lifespan, scientists gradually teased out individual molecular pathways that drive aging forward.

Within the last few years, the field has built a solid theoretical framework of the aging process. Endearingly known as the “major pillars of aging,” the framework includes pathways related to metabolism, stress response, inflammation, stem cell quality and proteomic homeostasis — that is, the body’s ability to keep groups of proteins functioning in harmony.

Yet scientists have not yet teased out the so-called “master regulators,” or central cross points that bridge the different pathways and drive aging forward.

Some of us think that the brain is the central regulator, that inflammatory processes in the hypothalamus are sufficient to drive aging of the body, said Dr. Dongsheng Cai, a neuroscientist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Our current anti-aging apothecary contains antidepressants, said Dr. Michael Petrascheck, a researcher at the Scripps Institute, to Singularity Hub. And we think those drugs act on the brain, which in turn regulates gene expression in the body to increase stress resistance and increase lifespan.

Others, in contrast, think pro-aging factors in the blood drive brain aging. Last year, a series of groundbreaking studies laid bare the rejuvenating effects of young blood. When researchers diluted the blood of an old mouse by infusing it with blood from a young mouse, the old mouse’s brain, blood vessels and muscles all reverted back to a younger state.

Although master regulators remain elusive, research has uncovered an impressive list of drug candidates. Metformin, TAME’s test drug, sits solidly at the top of that list.

It’s a truly ancient drug. Widely used in humans since the Middle Ages, metformin reduces blood sugar and works on multiple pathways involved in cell growth, inflammation and metabolism — all of which constitute the major pillars of aging.

Epidemiological studies suggest that metformin reduces the risk of cancer and dementia. What’s more, a large 2014 study of 78,000 people showed that on average, people with Type 2 diabetes who take the drug live longer than those of the same age who don’t.

Metformin seems to fit the bill of a longevity drug. But it was the chemical’s two other perks that made it a winner to the TAME team.

First, it’s very safe. When taken as prescribed, the drug has few side effects, and those that do occur are well documented.

Second, and perhaps the kicker, is that in addition to extending lifespan, it also extends healthspan — the number of years that an organism remains healthy, even in old age.

Our goal is not to extend life per se, explained Olshansky. In fact, that was the basis of our proposal to the FDA, he laughed.

Healthspan, Not Lifespan

TAME is based on a promising — if surprising — result repeatedly found in multiple organisms: increases in lifespan have often been associated with increased healthspan. That is, with some manipulations such as caloric restriction, not only have the animals lived longer, they also stayed mentally sharp and able-bodied in those extended years.

If this holds in humans, it could fundamentally change our health care system, said Olshansky.

In many people’s minds aging is not a disease, it’s simply humanity, said Barzilai. So instead of pitching a drug trial that targets aging to the FDA, we proposed to look at comorbidities — that is, chronic diseases that sharply rise in incidence as people age.

The goal is to see whether metformin delays the onset of age-related comorbidities. This strategy, part of a concept called the “longevity dividend,” was first proposed by Olshanky and colleagues back in 2006. The concept argues that slowing the process of aging has significant benefits in terms of health and wealth for individuals and the health care economy as a whole.

In a 2013 paper published in Health Affairs, Olshansky broke down the numbers. Based on animal models, even a small delay in aging could raise life expectancy by an additional 2.2 years, most of which is spent in good health. Over fifty years, the economic value of delaying aging is estimated to be $7.1 trillion. In contrast, targeting comorbidities separately — for example, heart disease and cancer —would end in diminishing improvements in health by 2060, mainly due to competing risks, argues Olshansky. It’s basically changing one disease for another.

“We’re not arguing — and we’ve never argued — that we’re trying to achieve life extension,” said Olshansky in an interview with Science News. “We’ll probably live a little longer if we succeed, but that’s not the goal. The goal is the extension of the period of healthy life.”

Opened Doors

If TAME goes well, it’s only the first step towards battling aging in humans.

In addition to testing the effects of metformin, the TAME team also plans to take muscle and fat biopsies of volunteers before and after taking the drug. By using a big-data technique called RNA deep sequencing, which looks at what genes are expressed at what levels, the team hopes to identify biological “fingerprints” for aging.

Gene expression is like an orchestra — some groups of genes always turn on together, others always shut off. With age, however, gene expression patterns slowly drift out of whack, a phenomenon that researchers call “transcriptional drift.”

Reversing transcriptional drift is a great readout when trying to test the effects of new longevity drug candidates, said Petrascheck. In a study published this week, Petrascheck identified miaserin, an antidepressant already on the market, as a new type of “longevity pill” that extends young adulthood in worms without affecting later years.

Without a doubt, data from TAME will be incredibly valuable for judging other anti-aging drug candidates.

Regardless of how the trial turns out, the TAME team is optimistic.

The main reason we set out on this is to convince the FDA to approve aging as an indication, so that it can be a target for future trials with even better medications said Barzilai.

We got it, he said.



This Waterproof Quadcopter Is Also a Submarine

December 06, 2015


Behold the Naviator, a new drone built by researchers and students at Rutgers University. As the portmanteau moniker would suggest, the bot is at home both in the water and in the air. This remotely controlled quadcopter can transition from flight to underwater mode and back seemingly with ease.

The Office of Naval Research commissioned this project in the hope of creating a new vehicle capable of rapid deployment for a multitude of missions. For example, a combination quadcopter-sub could inspect bridge foundations, investigate undersea pollution, or perform search-and-rescue operations.

While these would make great commercial applications, the military is most likely interested in the technology to rapidly detect and map underwater mines. As Javier Diez, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, says, “Mines are probably the biggest problem for the Navy.”

This first prototype is merely a proof of concept that has a few development hurdles to overcome. Those include scaling up to a size that can support relevant payloads like cameras and sensors. Underwater dynamics must also be improved to allow increased maneuverability and depth. Because radio transmission through water is difficult, the craft must be tethered at this time to provide continuous communications. Even so, it’s easy to watch this demo and imagine an unmanned autonomous drone that can be programmed to accomplish a mission that requires it to swim and fly.


Beyond ‘Back to the Future’: Experts Serve Up Tech Predictions for 2045

December 06, 2015


Just How Much Did ‘Back to the Future’ Get Right about October 2015?2:19

In “Back to the Future Part II,” Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel from 1985 to October 21, 2015, to find a world filled with flying cars, hoverboards and self-drying jackets.

Those predictions didn’t exactly pan out, although people are working on each of those concepts. (Screenwriter Bob Gale did get a lot of things — from drones to fingerprint scanners — right, as he told TODAY earlier this year.)

The future is now, and it’s pretty cool. But what will the world be like in another 30 years? Three futurists shared their predictions with NBC News.

Katie Aquino, a.k.a. ‘Miss Metaverse’: Super-fast travel, nanomedicine and virtual immortality

“No longer will expensive and lengthy flights be the norm for world travel,” said the futurist and filmmaker known as Miss Metaverse. Instead, frictionless maglev trains will allow “us to travel at speeds in excess of 6,000 miles per hour while only feeling a G1 gravitational force, the same we feel when riding in a car.”

At those speeds, going from New York to Beijing will only take two hours. And if you get sick on your trip?

“Nanotechnology, although not a hot topic today, will likely unlock the keys to destroying cancer cells and ‘programming’ stem cells for a myriad of health benefits in the future,” she said.

Customized drugs will solve a lot of ailments. Death isn’t one of them, but we could still find a way to become immortal … kind of.

Related: 10 Ways to Celebrate ‘Back to the Future’ Day

“Our future lives may truly be limitless thanks to an organization known as the 2045 Initiative that’s working towards a goal of uploading human consciousness into synthetic avatars,” she said. “Much like in the movie ‘Avatar,’ humans may evolve into what are theoretically known as post-humans, human consciousness in upgraded or synthetic bodies.”

Jamais Cascio: Jurassic pets and augmented reality clothing

Love the movie “Jurassic Park” but don’t like being eaten by terrifying symbols of man’s hubris?

Synthetic biology could let people create “miniature versions of various dinosaurs or other prehistorical creatures,” said writer and futurist Jamais Cascio. That might include a “mini-Velociraptor on a leash, with the right behavior modification to make sure it’s safe to be around,” or a “micro-Brontosaurus that’s perfect for a kid to ride.”

Related: How ‘Jurassic World’ Created a Terrifying New Dinosaur

Of course, you want to look when riding around on your designer dinosaur. Hence the augmented reality clothing, which, Cascio said, will be visible to people wearing the “ubiquitous smart glasses, digital contact lenses, and eye upgrades.”

“Imagine a dress that looks like (and acts like) it’s made of water,” he said. “Or a Halloween costume that appears to be entirely made of living spiders.”

That would look great with a pair of sneakers with power laces.

Inventor sets new record for hover board flight0:22

James Canton: Digital memories and robot soldiers

Sharing a Facebook photo won’t seem very impressive in 2045, according to James Canton, a futurist, writer and business consultant.

That’s because people will share “entertainment memories,” which are “like real-time videos,” he said, “except others can experience the emotion, physical sensation and actual experience as if they were there.”

Intense and kind of creepy! Gene-editing will eliminate genetic diseases, he predicted, and replica organs will be printable on demand.

Genetic testing shows likelihood for some diseases1:40

And yes, “Terminator” fans, there will be machine combat as “robots fight our wars, no more human soldiers.”

There is no guarantee that any of these technologies will arrive, of course. Hopefully by 2045, we will see at least some of the predictions from “Back to the Future Part II” come true, although there is a decent chance we still won’t have flying cars and the Chicago Cubs (currently losing in the playoffs to the Mets) will still be waiting for their first World Series win since 1908.


These Technologies Will Shift the Global Balance of Power in the Next 20 Years

December 06, 2012

Technology in the hands of businessmen

Governments, businesses, and economists have all been caught off guard by the geopolitical shifts that happened with the crash of oil prices and the slowdown of China’s economy. Most believe that the price of oil will recover and that China will continue its rise. They are mistaken. Instead of worrying about the rise of China, we need to fear its fall; and while oil prices may oscillate over the next four or five years, the fossil-fuel industry is headed the way of the dinosaur. The global balance of power will shift as a result.

LED light bulbs, improved heating and cooling systems, and software systems in automobiles have gradually been increasing fuel efficiency over the past decades. But the big shock to the energy industry came with fracking, a new set of techniques and technologies for extracting more hydrocarbons from the ground. Though there are concerns about environmental damage, these increased the outputs of oil and gas, caused the usurpation of old-line coal-fired power plants, and dramatically reduced America’s dependence on foreign oil.

The next shock will come from clean energy. Solar and wind are now advancing on exponential curves. Every two years, for example, solar installation rates are doubling, and photovoltaic-module costs are falling by about 20 percent. Even without the subsidies that governments are phasing out, present costs of solar installations will, by 2022, halve, reducing returns on investments in homes, nationwide, to less than four years. By 2030, solar power will be able to provide 100 percent of today’s energy needs; by 2035, it will seem almost free — just as cell-phone calls are today.

This seems hard to believe, given that solar production provides less than one percent of the Earth’s energy needs today. But this is how exponential technologies advance. They double in performance every year or two and their prices fall. Given that California already generates more than 5 percent of its electricity from utility-scale solar, it is not hard to fathom what the impact of another few doublings would be: the imminent extinction of the fossil-fuel industry. Exponential technologies are deceptive because they move very slowly at first, but one percent becomes two percent, which becomes four, eight, and sixteen; you get the idea. As futurist Ray Kurzweil says, when an exponential technology is at one percent, you are halfway to 100 percent, and that is where solar and wind energies are now.

Anyone tracking the exponential growth of fracking and the gradual advances that were being made in conservation and fuel efficiency should have been able to predict, years ago, that by 2015, the price of oil would drop dramatically. It wasn’t surprising that relatively small changes in supply and demand caused massive disruptions to global oil prices; that is how markets work. They cause commodities futures and stock prices to fall dramatically when slowdowns occur. This is what is happening to China’s markets also. The growth of China’s largest industry, manufacturing, has stalled, causing ripple effects throughout China’s economy.

For decades, manufacturing was flooding into China from the U.S. and Europe and fueling its growth. And then a combination of rising labor and shipping costs and automation began to change the economics of China manufacturing. Now, robots are about to tip the balance further.

Foxconn had announced in August 2011 that it would replace one million workers with robots. This didn’t occur, because the robots then couldn’t work alongside human workers to do sophisticated circuit board assembly. But a newer generation of robots such as ABB’s Yumi and Rethink Robotics’ Sawyer can do that. They are dextrous enough to thread a needle and cost as much as a car does.

China is aware of the advances in robotics and plans to take the lead in replacing humans with robots. Guangdong province is constructing the world’s first “zero-labor factor,” with 1,000 robots which do the jobs of 2,000 humans. It sees this as a solution to increasing labor costs.

The problem for China is that its robots are no more productive than their counterparts in the West are. They all work 24×7 without complaining or joining labor unions. They cost the same and consume the same amount of energy. Given the long shipping times and high transportation costs it no longer makes sense to send raw materials across the oceans to China to have them assembled into finished goods and shipped to the West. Manufacturing can once again become a local industry.

It will take many years for Western companies to learn the intricacies of robotic manufacturing, build automated factories, train workers, and deal with the logistical challenges of supply chains being in China. But these are surmountable problems. What is now a trickle of manufacturing returning to the West will, within five to seven years, become a flood.

After this, another technology revolution will begin: digital manufacturing.

In conventional manufacturing, parts are produced by humans using power-driven machine tools, such as saws, lathes, milling machines, and drill presses, to physically remove material to obtain the shape desired. In digital manufacturing, parts are produced by melting successive layers of materials based on 3D models — adding materials rather than subtracting them. The “3D printers” that produce these use powered metal, droplets of plastic, and other materials — much like the toner cartridges that go into laser printers. 3D printers can already create physical mechanical devices, medical implants, jewelry, and even clothing. But these are slow, messy, and cumbersome — much like the first generations of inkjet printers were. This will change.

In the early 2020s we will have elegant low-priced printers for our homes that can print toys and household goods. Businesses will use 3D printers to do small-scale production of previously labor-intensive crafts and goods. Late in the next decade, we will be 3D-printing buildings and electronics. These will eventually be as fast as today’s laser printers are. And don’t be surprised if by 2030, the industrial robots go on strike, waving placards saying “stop the 3D printers: they are taking our jobs away.”

The geopolitical implications of these changes are exciting and worrisome. America will reinvent itself just as does every 30-40 years; it is, after all, leading the technology boom. And as we are already witnessing, Russia and China will stir up regional unrest to distract their restive populations; oil producers such as Venezuela will go bankrupt; the Middle East will become a cauldron of instability. Countries that have invested in educating their populations, built strong consumer economies, and have democratic institutions that can deal with social change will benefit — because their people will have had their basic needs met and can figure out how to take advantage of the advances in technology.