πŸ‘½ FiToSci April 2021 Edition: Human monkeys, Spot force, Mars oxygen, (Blue)Cruise, VR walking, and more

Hey there, I'm Emil Protalinski. This is FiToSci, a monthly newsletter that tracks how humanity is taking the fiction out of science fiction. Star this email to reference the highlights for April:

🧬 Biotech/bioscience: Scientists create human-monkey embryos.

πŸ€– AI/robots: An army and a police force adopt Spot.

πŸš€ Space: Mars' carbon dioxide is converted into oxygen.

πŸš— Transportation/logistics: Ford's BlueCruise is not GM's Cruise.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Augmented/virtual reality: Sit down and walk.

I recommend skipping to the sections you like, opening what you find interesting, and bookmarking links for later reading.

🧬 Scientists created the first embryos containing both human and monkey cells, in part to find new ways to produce organs for transplants. The team injected 25 human stem cells into the embryos of macaque monkeys, detecting human cells in 132 embryos one day after the transplants were performed. By day 10, 103 embryos were still alive and developing inside their petri dishes. While only three survived to day 19, that's still a record for mixed-species embryos. Clearly, we've learned nothing from Planet of the Apes.

🧬 Researchers warned that the gene-editing tech CRISPR-Cas9 could make unintended genetic changes. An alarming 16% of previous CRISPR studies contained accidental mutations.

🧬 Scientists developed CRISPRoff, a tool that precisely controls gene expression while leaving the underlying DNA sequence unchanged. CRISPR-Cas9 can turn genes on and off, but the alterations are permanent. CRISPRoff can silence most genes and is ostensibly reversible.

🧬 Researchers found a new genetic switch in zebrafish, which share over 70% of human genes, that could help damaged human heart muscles repair after a cardiac arrest. "It kicks in when needed and turns off when the heart is fully healed," explained Dr. Kazu Kikuchi. "In humans, where damaged and scarred heart muscle cannot replace itself, this could be a game-changer."

πŸ§¬πŸ€– Neuralink released the above video showing a monkey using only its mind to play the classic video game Pong via computer chips implanted in its skull, as covered in FiToSci's first edition. CEO Elon Musk claimed that the brain-machine interface startup's first product would let someone with paralysis "use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs" and later versions will allow "paraplegics to walk again." NextMind countered that its brain-machine interface wearable, which doesn't require surgery, already lets humans play Pong with their minds.

πŸ§¬πŸ€– Neurable announced Enten, brain-computer interface headphones that it claims use electroencephalography readings and machine learning algorithms to help you concentrate. The company also promised that a head-nod or a wink would let you control music when Enten arrives in May 2022.

πŸ§¬πŸ€– Researchers developed MagicDNA, a software tool that reduces the time to design DNA-based robots from days to minutes. These DNA robots could hopefully one day deliver medicine inside our bodies, detect deadly pathogens, and manufacture smaller electronics. "Previously, we could build devices with up to about six individual components and connect them with joints and hinges and try to make them execute complex motions," said study co-author Hai-Jun Su. "With this software, it is not hard to make robots or other devices with upwards of 20 components that are much easier to control."

πŸ€– France's army tested Spot, Boston Dynamics' quadruped dog-like robot, in military exercises. The robots slowed down operations but kept troops safe, although Spot apparently ran out of battery during one exercise and had to be carried out. Meanwhile, the NYPD expanded its decades-long robotics collaboration to DigiDog, a modified version of Spot with a camera for a head. While the NYPD said it deployed DigiDog to a handful of crime scenes and hostage situations since October to assess its capabilities, after videos of the dystopian present went viral, the department quietly cancelled its contract. At a time when public trust is low and surveillance worries are high, Boston Dynamics should sit the customer acquisition team down to watch Black Mirror's Metalhead episode.

πŸ€– The first person in the U.S. to be wrongfully arrested based on facial recognition tech filed a lawsuit against the police.

πŸ€– Thousands of U.S. public agency employees were caught using Clearview AI's facial recognition app, which Canada recently declared illegal, without informing their departments or the public. American taxpayers are funding fundamentally flawed tech that is being used against them.

πŸ€– Researchers programmed SoftBank Robotics' humanoid robot Pepper to voice its decision-making process while completing a task. Pepper had a higher task-completion rate when engaging in self-dialogue, although it wasn't thrilled when instructed to go against its programming, as you can see in the video above. The inner speech capability could help the public understand a robot's abilities, limitations, and how it prioritizes competing requests. The transparency could be particularly useful in caregiver and medical robots.

πŸ€– Researchers developed a robot with an artificial nervous system capable of translating a light signal into a decision to catch a ball. The system, which aims to imitate a human's conscious biological response, learned to improve its reaction time from 2.56 seconds to 0.23 seconds. Think of this as the incredibly early precursor to Roy catching Deckard in Blade Runner.

πŸ€– Researchers demoed RF Grasp, a camera system that uses radio waves to help robots see through walls.

πŸ€– Printstones debuted Baubot, a €150,000 preproduction prototype of a construction robot that can carry, cut, drill, mill, paint, sand, and even weld.

πŸ€– Carbon Robotics unveiled the Autonomous Weeder, a 9,500-pound four-wheeled robot that uses computer vision and lasers to zap 100,000 weeds an hour, or 20 times faster than the equivalent human labor.

πŸ€– Carnegie Mellon University's snake-like robot learned to swim. The modular robotics platform could provide an alternative to human divers inspecting ships, submarines, and underwater infrastructure.

πŸ€– Aflorithmic created a deepfake of Albert Einstein's voice to show that historical figures could soon serve commercial and educational purposes.

πŸ€– Russia used deepfakes on video calls with European MPs to imitate allies of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

πŸ€– Disney demoed Project Kiwi, a robot that brings Groot and other characters to life. Kiwi can dance, stand on one leg, and even playfully shadow box.

πŸ€–πŸš€ Physicists posited that the entire universe is a machine learning algorithm, meaning that it observes its own laws β€” and changes them as a result. That's one way to get out of doing your job to unify physics β€” argue that it can't be done.

πŸ€–πŸš€ An unmanned spacecraft docked with an active satellite to extend its life, a first for the industry. Northrop Grumman's robot added itself as a spare engine equipped with a full fuel tank to a 17-year-old Intelsat satellite. The successful mission could revamp satellite business models and reduce space debris.

πŸš€ NASA's Perseverance rover converted the carbon dioxide in Mars' atmosphere into oxygen. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) managed to produce five grams, or about 10 minutes' worth of breathable oxygen. Scaling up MOXIE could also help with missions that return to Earth, as oxygen is a rocket propellant. Generating the gas on Mars seems more efficient than bringing it from home.

πŸš€ Scientists adapted a laser technique that helps telescopes see more clearly to track space debris and even push it off course if a possible collision is detected. They're trying to avoid the events depicted in Gravity.

πŸš€ Researchers investigated whether neutron energies released from a nuclear detonation could deflect an Earth-threatening asteroid. Sounds like more work than just re-watching Armageddon and Deep Impact.

πŸš€ DARPA contracted Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics to design a nuclear-powered rocket set to go into orbit as soon as 2025. A nuclear propulsion system is unlikely to be powerful enough to escape Earth's orbit, but it could improve spacecraft maneuverability and speed up travel time to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

πŸš€ The Elon Musk vs. Jeff Bezos space battle extended to satellite internet. The FCC allowed SpaceX to operate 2,814 Starlink satellites at lower orbits, a request that Amazon had objected to. Amazon, meanwhile, signed a deal with United Launch Alliance for nine space launches that would put 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit for its Project Kuiper satellite internet business.

πŸš€ NASA selected seven advanced concept studies for further funding, including a radio telescope built into a crater on the far side of Earth's moon, a kite-like drifting platform full of sensors for observing Venus' atmosphere, a special lander for Pluto, an ultra-lightweight solar sail for exploring interstellar space, and future space habitats that use fungi to turn asteroid material into soil.

πŸš€ NASA's four-pound Ingenuity helicopter climbed 10 vertical feet and hovered for 30 seconds on Mars, marking the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. The 40-second flight, which paves the way for aerial exploration of worlds with differing atmospheres and gravitational pulls, was followed in the ensuing weeks with three more β€” each flight faster, longer, and more complex than the last. At least two more flights have been scheduled. Ingenuity carries a small piece of one of Orville and Wilbur Wright's original aircrafts tucked under its blades, and the site of the first flight was christened Wright Brothers Field.

πŸš€πŸš— NFT (nothing to do with crypto) unveiled Aska, an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle for $789,000 (pilot training included). The company is aiming for 70mph highway certification, 150mph flying speed (faster than the flying race car from February's edition), and a flight range of 250 miles for the four-passenger car. Available for preorder with a supposedly refundable $5,000 deposit, Aska aims to be the first eVTOL vehicle designed for consumers, assuming it arrives as scheduled in 2026.

πŸš€πŸš— UPS ordered eVTOL vehicles from Beta Technologies for delivery in 2024, pending FAA certification. Equipped with landing pads and rechargeable batteries, the eVTOLs fly up to 250 miles at 170mph on a single charge.

πŸš— Ford unveiled BlueCruise, its hand-free advanced driver assist system available only on 100,000 miles of highways and for select vehicles. The Level 2 driver-assist tech costs $600 and will arrive later this year on the F-150 and the Mustang Mach-E. Ford CEO Jim Farley used the news to take a pot shot at Tesla, possibly to deflect from the confusing brand name.

πŸš— Walmart invested in GM's self-driving unit Cruise, which separately said its driverless robotaxis will come to Dubai in 2023.

πŸš— Intel's Mobileye announced plans to launch a fully driverless delivery service run by Udelv in 2023.

πŸš— Lyft sold its self-driving unit to Toyota, nearly five years after saying, "Autonomous vehicle fleets will quickly become widespread and will account for the majority of Lyft rides within five years." The announcement comes just months after Uber sold its self-driving unit to Aurora, which is backed by Hyundai and Amazon. Consolidation will continue, but the driverless taxi dream isn't dead.

πŸš— Didi Chuxing tapped Volvo to supply hundreds of XC90 SUVs with driverless tech for its test fleet of robotaxis. The cars will be the first to integrate DiDi Gemini, the company's self-driving hardware platform intended for its ride-hailing network.

πŸš— Exyn achieved Level 4 automation for its lidar drone, a first for the industry. The ExynAero does not require any human interaction during flight in open-ended exploration.

πŸš—πŸ•ΆοΈ Researchers developed the first lidar-based augmented reality HUD for cars. The prototype aims to improve road safety by "seeing through" objects without distracting the driver.

πŸš—πŸ•ΆοΈ The EU approved VRM Switzerland's VR flight simulation training device for helicopters, the first such approval by an aviation authority. With costs coming down and VR training already in use for spaceflight, commercial flights should follow.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Researchers created a VR system that replicates the feeling of walking while the wearer is sitting. When shown a third-person view, test subjects didn't associate the foot vibrations with moving, but a first-person view caused strolling sensations. A full-body avatar worked the best, compared to showing just hands and feet or no avatar at all.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Oculus updated the Quest 2 with an Air Link mode, a 120Hz refresh rate, and improvements to Infinite Office. The first lets you play PC VR games wirelessly, the second offers a smoother visual experience, and the third lets you place a virtual desk where your actual desk sits to reduce collisions while you work in VR. Facebook also confirmed the Quest 2 will not get a successor this year.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Creal revealed through-the-lens footage of its foveated light-field VR headset, which mimics the way light behaves in the real world. The tech could improve immersion and alleviate eye strain by letting you focus on objects at varying distances.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Magic Leap CEO Peggy Johnson promised that the Magic Leap 2 AR headset will be 50% smaller, 20% lighter, and have double the field of view compared to the original. The enterprise-focused device is slated to arrive via an early adopter program "at the end of this year" with public availability in Q1 2022. Given Magic Leap's history, I'll believe it when I see it.

And that's April. If you have a comment, feel free to reply to this email. Follow FiToSci on Twitter and forward this issue to a friend who would enjoy it. See you next month!