Roboticist Robert Riener at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich has developed a new robotic bed for sleep research and therapy. The Somnomat uses a system of cables attached to the posts of a suspended bed to move the bed in whatever sleep-inducing pattern the researcher/insomniac wishes to test/try to fall asleep with. He reported it during a recent conference in Lausanne on “Engineering Life” that I also gave a talk at. A short video of it is here.
There has been a something of a renaissance of interest in sleep. It is, after all, something we engage in daily for about a third of our lives without tiring of the activity. There are a lot of consequences of not doing it well. For one thing, we can become an emotional wreck when we don’t get enough sleep. In healthy people that are sleep deprived, the part of the brain that regulates emotion becomes hyperactive, in a fashion similar to what is seen in depressed individuals. For me it’s one of the most reliable side effects of not getting enough — suddenly events or things people say that would otherwise be neutral have a much higher chance of affecting me emotionally. Sleep appears to be essential for remembering things we learn over the long haul. Most recently, there’s evidence that lack of proper sleep before the age of five can significantly increase the chances of being obese later in life.
For all its importance to our well-being, you might think we would have a handle on everyday observations of what makes people more likely to fall asleep. For example, rocking a baby has been known to help put babies asleep probably even before we had the language to express this. There is a similar effect of rhythmic movement on adults. Yet, why it is we find rhythmic movement soporific is not currently known. Surely knowing more would be very helpful: how much movement is best for falling asleep? Should it just be for falling asleep, or continue after that? What is the best pattern of movement? How does this mechanical approach compare to other approaches, such as drugs? These and other questions can be addressed with the somnomat. If it turns out to be as beneficial as generations of experience of rocking our children asleep would suggest, then getting these details right could be immensely useful for designing a new kind of automatically moving bed that helps people fall asleep. Some updates to our favorite lullabies may be needed…
Rock-a-bye baby, on the robotic treetop,
When the servomotors turn, the cradle will rock,
When the robot breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
As part of DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary celebration, the magazine invited 11 eminent scientists to look forward and share their predictions and hopes for the next three decades. But we also want to turn this over to Science Not Fiction’s readers: How do you think science will improve the world by 2040?
Below are short excerpts of the guest scientists’ responses, with links to the full versions:
That’s right, e-skin. A group of scientists at UC-Berkeley devised a flexible mesh using nanowires to create a substance that reacts to pressure, and, as their paper in Nature Materials said, “effectively functions as an artificial electronic skin.” In the same issue, a team from Stanford University announced it had devised a kind of skin so sensitive, it can detect the weight of a bluebottle fly. All of which means for one shining issue, a scientific journal was a skin mag.
Anyway, Stanford offered a fine video of its invention:
Devised by a team lead by Zhenan Bao, puts highly specialized rubber between two electrodes. The rubber holds the electric charge until something alights on it (or has its dessicated corpse plunked on it). The rubber distorts, changing the amount of charge its holding, which is picked up by the electrodes and transmitted as a signal.
If the oceans eventually become too acidified to sustain most marine life and the jellyfish take over, we can at least take solace in the fact that we’ll have an abundant source of renewable energy. GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein), the same protein isolated in Aequorea victoria that earned three researchers the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2008, has found a new lease of life in solar and fuel cells being developed by Zackary Chiragwandi at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. Much like the dye found in cutting-edge dye-sensitized solar cells, GFP absorbs a specific wavelength of sunlight—in this case, ultraviolet light—to excite electrons that are shuttled off to an aluminum electrode to generate a current. After giving up their energy, the electrons are then returned to the GFP molecules, where they are ready for another round of stimulation (so to speak).
The cell’s design is simple: two aluminum electrodes are placed onto a thin layer of silicon dioxide, which helps to optimize light capture and energy conversion efficiency, and a single drop of GFP is deposited between them. Without prodding, the protein then self-assembles into strands to connect the electrodes and form a tiny circuit. While cheaper than conventional solar cells, dye-sensitized cells still require some costly materials and are hard to build, making these bio-inspired cells potentially a much more alluring proposition down the line. And because slightly different versions of GFP are found in a number of other marine species, there is the potential for an entire array of more finely tuned GFP cells. Read More
Yes, we’re all going to die.
But let’s make a guessing game out of it!
30 years ago this October, a handful of dedicated science enthusiasts got together and started a crazy little experiment called DISCOVER. Taking stock on the occasion of our three-decade anniversary, we’re happy to find that we’re still going strong–yet we’re also filled with existential dread.
The special 30th anniversary issue of DISCOVER includes a chilling piece from editor-in-chief Corey Powell, “30 Ways the World Could End.” His gloom-and-doom assessment of our future include such scenarios as superbombs, space colony uprisings, and genetically superior “transhumans” who out-compete us lame, pre-enhancement humans.
But we suspect we’ll get a richer response to this big question by crowd-sourcing responses from our favorite future predictors here at SNF. So tell us: Which of Corey’s suggested calamities is the most likely, and when will we be Armageddoned? Which obvious apocalypse did he miss?
In the fifth season of Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons gave the Galactica a kind of spray-on bacteria that could make the walls self-healing. Any race of beings that cold make that work out would surely have commercialized something like the work of MIT researcher Michael Strano who have devised tiny solar-electric generators that can break apart and reassemble. The team published their efforts in Nature Chemistry.
The research solves a significant problem in the shift toward solar power, that of degradation. Even silicon solar panels lose efficiency over time as solar radiation breaks down its components. Yet plants don’t have this problem: they use sugar and minerals to constantly refresh their photosynthetic cells, e.g. leaves. Strano and his colleagues looked at how leaves work to develop their tiny solar generators. Using seven different chemicals the generators will self assemble, even after they’ve broken down, and with no loss of efficiency.
The basic unit requires a synthetic phospholipids, which itself is just a plate to hold the chemicals that react to light. These chemicals release electrons when photons hit them. The phospholipid plates are themselves attracted to carbon nanotoubes. The tubes, which are highly conductive, are lined up in long rows forming a wire to carry the electrons to their destination.
But even through the reaction is 40 percent efficient —- more efficient than standard thin film photovoltaic cells, which capture about 28 percent of sunlight —— that’s not even the impressive part. When the system is damaged, as sunlight is wont to do to solar panels, it will reassemble itself. Strano and his team broke down the system again and again over a 14-hour period and the system consistently put itself back together again with no loss of efficiency.
Take that Cylon Model 6. The humans will have self-assembly without your help.
(picture courtesy of PR Web)
One of the most energetic phenomena observed (to date anyway) are gamma ray bursts or GRBs. As the name implies, GRBs are brief, but super intense, pulses of gamma ray energy that have been observed in distant galaxies. Two types of gamma ray bursts have been observed (to date anyway): long-period gamma ray bursts last for seconds to minutes and seem to be associated with supernova events; short period bursts last for milliseconds and may represent a cataclysmic outpouring of energy from colliding neutron stars.
Similar to the polar emissions from a neutron star, seen as a pulsar if the observer is within the cone traced out by the polar streams, gamma ray emissions from a GRB are very directional as well as intense. If a GRB went off anywhere within our galaxy, yes the entire galaxy, and Earth was in line with one of the two polar beams, all life on Earth would be extinct within hours. In his book “Death from the Skies,” fellow Discover blogger Phil Plait has a great description of what life on Earth would be like in its last minutes, and my co-author Ges Seger and I examined this phenomena in this short story. Now before you lie awake at night worrying, here’s a podcast describing why we should be safe from GRBs.
I recently joined Meitar “maymay” Moscovitz and Emma Gross of Kink on Tap to discuss sex, cyborgs, and politics. In the podcast episode, entitled “Hymen on a Budget,” we have ourselves quite a little chat. Body modification and plastic surgery, the nature of personhood, sexuality and gender selection, and criminally dangerous sex all get their moments in the sun. And while I may not precisely agree with maymay’s statement “eugenics isn’t sexy,” I can’t thank Emma and him enough for having me on the show. Gender and sexuality studies are where my interest in transhumanism started, so it’s always good to get back to basics.
Just a heads up: The content is explicit, so if frank discussion of sexuality, bodies, and politics is upsetting to you or anyone who may overhear, I’d recommend not listening–or at least wearing headphones.
For those of you comfortable with whatever we may say, you’ll be happy you listened and even happier to discover Kink on Tap.
Image via J (mtonic.com) on Flickr
When William McDonough and other pioneers of the sustainable architecture movement first envisioned the concept of living, breathing buildings, it’s safe to say that they probably didn’t have structures teeming with actual living, breathing bacteria in mind. But don’t tell that to Henk Jonkers of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. What he and his colleagues have developed—a self-fixing bacteria-concrete hybrid—may do more to propel sustainable architecture into the mainstream than McDonough could have ever hoped for.
While it may sound unheard of, scientists have been pressing bacteria into service in construction for years. The use of mineral-producing bacteria has already been explored in a variety of applications, including the hardening of sand and in repairing cracks in concrete. But there are two problems inherent to this approach. First, the reaction that these bacteria undergo to synthesize calcium carbonate results in the production of ammonium, which is toxic at even moderate concentrations. The other problem is a more prosaic one. Since the bacteria have to be applied manually, a worker or team of workers would have to go out every few weeks to patch up every little crack on every slab of concrete—nearly defeating the purpose of making the repair process simpler and more cost-effective.
Jonkers’ solution was to track down a different bacterial strain that could live happily buried in the concrete for prolonged periods of time. Because the bacteria would be mixed into the concrete from the start, they could immediately nip small cracks in the bud before they had a chance to expand and become exposed to water, rendering them vulnerable to further wear and tear. (Concrete structures are typically reinforced with steel bars, but these can easily become corroded when water seeps into the cracks.) Such a strain would have to endure the high pH environment of concrete and churn out copious amounts of calcium carbonate without also producing large quantities of ammonium. Read More