πŸ‘½ FiToSci August 2021 Edition: Mini Brains, Camouflage, Driverless Trucks, Project Aria, Mars Analog, 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. Make sure to star this email to easily reference August's highlights:

🧬 Biotech/bioscience: Scientists created brain organoids with eyes.

πŸ€– AI/robots: Researchers built a robot with color-changing skin.

πŸš— Transportation/logistics: Self-driving trucks conquered a highway.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Augmented/virtual reality: Facebook's Project Aria details leaked.

πŸš€ Space: NASA started recruiting for a simulated Mars mission.

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

🧬 Scientists grew human brain organoids with rudimentary eyes. The pairs of optic cups formed lens and corneal tissue and even responded to light by sending signals to the rest of the brain. Such organoids could eventually help with studying inherited causes of eye diseases and with growing artificial retinas for transplants. As brain organoids continue advancing, however, they could become self-aware or even conscious, raising ethical concerns.

🧬 Researchers found that fecal transplants from younger to older mice appear to reverse aging in senior rodents' brains. If the improvements endure and the findings translate to humans, we could develop a relatively simple way to turn back the clock.

🧬 Scientists created SEND, a system that harnesses human proteins to deliver molecular medicines to cells. Because SEND is composed of proteins produced naturally in the body, it may not trigger an immune response and could offer gene editing and gene replacement opportunities with minimal side effects.

🧬 Engineers developed a new way to efficiently edit bacterial genomes and record memories into bacterial cells by rewriting DNA. HiSCRIBE could make it possible to selectively edit, activate, or silence genes in certain species of bacteria living in the human microbiome.

🧬 Scientists produced the world's first 3D-printed Wagyu beef. The lab-grown meat involves stem cells being incubated and coaxed into becoming the different cell types that form the individual fibers of muscle, fat, and blood vessels.

🧬 Scientists 3D-printed flexible chain mail that can stiffen on demand. The new fabric could be used for more comfortable medical supports, bulletproof vests, military armor, exoskeletons, and one day maybe even bridges or buildings.

πŸ§¬πŸ€– Researchers built a robotic eel to study the neuroscience behind the animals' swimming ability. AgnathaX helped the team discover that both the central and peripheral nervous systems contribute to its locomotion, giving you backup control for your swimming robot if the first system breaks down.

πŸ§¬πŸ€– Scientists created a biocompatible artificial neural network that works in real-time to classify health patterns in biological signals such as heartbeats. Implantable AI systems could eventually monitor and report cardiac arrhythmias or post-surgery complications to doctors and patients via smartphone.

πŸ§¬πŸ€– Researchers designed a brain-machine interface that uses neural implants the size of a grain of salt to record and stimulate brain activity in rats. Thousands of "neurograins" could one day communicate via a thin patch attached to your scalp, restoring lost brain function or helping control machines with your mind.

πŸ€– Researchers developed a chameleon robot with color-changing skin. The active camouflage tech, which easily overshadows the rest of the robot, automatically uses heat to blend into its environment. The material contains layers of compact color-changing ink displays, stacked nanowire heaters, and nanotech sensors that detect and display surrounding colors. The camouflaging technology's first applications might include soldiers' uniforms and covert intelligence robots, but the researchers are also eyeing civilian clothing and homes.

πŸ€– Xiaomi unveiled CyberDog, a competitor to Boston Dynamics' Spot ($74,500), that tracks human posture and face recognition. The company will initially sell 1,000 robot dogs for 9,999 Yuan (about $1,500) to "propel the development and potential of quadruped robots" and not at all accelerate us into Black Mirror's Metalhead episode.

πŸ€– Boston Dynamics showed its humanoid robot doing parkour, including jumping, vaulting, and even backflipping. Unlike in past routines where every jump was preprogrammed, Atlas now adapts behaviors based on what it sees, as the behind-the-scenes video with bloopers explains.

πŸ€– Researchers demoed a flying humanoid robot that uses jet propulsion to (almost) achieve a controlled takeoff. Jet-HR2 could address emergencies quicker through flight or big jumps.

πŸ€– Hebi Robotics debuted Tready, a configurable explorer robot with four individually controlled treaded flippers. Designed for applications such as search and rescue or industrial inspection, Tready can scale obstacles, climb up and down stairs, and even swim.

πŸ€– Takara Tomy developed Ami-chan, a $250 battery-powered robot grandchild with a 1,600-word vocabulary to help tackle loneliness among older people. Ami-chan recognizes who it speaks to, sings nursery rhymes, recites tongue twisters, asks unique questions depending on the time and season, and even talks in its sleep.

πŸ€– Researchers demonstrated a method to fool facial recognition systems using "master key" faces. Just nine computer-generated faces could impersonate over 40% of the population in three leading facial recognition systems.

πŸ€– A judge dismissed a case against a man accused of murder by an AI gunshot detection system. Michael Williams was in jail for nearly a year before prosecutors deemed ShotSpotter as insufficient evidence, likely because it can miss live gunfire right under its microphones and misclassify fireworks or cars backfiring.

πŸ€– Researchers created a soft, inflatable robotic hand comparable to rigid prosthetics at a fraction of the weight and cost. Just a few more pieces, and soon we'll have Big Hero 6's adorable robot Baymax.

πŸ€– Sonantic recreated Val Kilmer's voice using AI after throat cancer took his ability to speak clearly. Unlike the late Anthony Bourdain, Kilmer gave permission to create an audio deepfake that would let him communicate again.

πŸ€–πŸš— Nordic Unmanned unveiled the Staaker BG-300 Railway Drone that can drive on, inspect, and maintain railway tracks, plus autonomously fly above them when a train approaches. Commercial deliveries of the flexible maintenance robot, which can work for about seven hours at an average speed of 20 km/h, are slated for the first half of 2022.

πŸ€–πŸš— Ford built a pair of robot drivers to spare the health of human drivers during endurance tests in simulated extreme weather conditions. Unlike crash test dummies, Shelby and Miles aren't humanoids, but they can be programmed to operate the controls in different driving styles, at alpine altitudes, and in temperatures ranging from -40Β°C to 80Β°C.

πŸš— Plus completed a highway demonstration of its Level 4 autonomous semi-truck. They ran the test completely autonomously, which means without a safety driver, teleoperator, or any other form of human intervention. The company expects to start mass production of the FAW J7 L3 truck in Q3 2021 and roll out the technology commercially in 2022. Self-driving trucks could beat self-driving cars to widespread adoption since they are mainly used on highways and predetermined routes.

πŸš— AutoX published a 360-degree video of its driverless vehicles navigating an urban village. While the video most likely highlights only the best footage, it's impressive seeing AutoX's Gen5 system navigate obstacles common in ultra-high-density residential areas, including pedestrians, animals, bikers, scooters, barriers, and roadside food stalls.

πŸš— Baidu unveiled a prototype "robocar," an autonomous vehicle with two passenger seats, voice control, and facial recognition but no steering wheel, gas pedal, or brake pedal. Robocar could be the first vehicle to meet the Level 5 autonomous car standard, but the company didn't say whether it would be mass-produced (in June, Baidu said it would produce 1,000 Level 4 autonomous cars).

πŸš— Virgin Hyperloop detailed its vision for transportation with pods gliding at 670 mph inside city-connecting tubes. The company claims its battery-powered system would be more efficient than today's maglev trains, have a lower environmental impact than other modes of travel, and is more than just a pipe dream from the film Genesis II.

πŸš— GE demonstrated its autonomous ground robot ATVer for the U.S. Army. ATVer can navigate safely in previously unseen, complex, off-road test conditions and step back to assess uncertain situations.

πŸš— The U.S. Army described plans to develop a communications jammer that would operate at 60,000 feet or above. The high-altitude spy device would likely consist of a sensor mounted on a solar glide vehicle or a balloon.

πŸš— Wing surpassed 100,000 drone deliveries two years after taking flight in Logan, Australia. The Alphabet company plans to launch new services in Australia, Finland, and the U.S. in the next six months.

πŸš— Engineers created web-shooters that let you continuously swing like Spider-Man. There's no webbing nor radioactive spiders involved, but backpack air compressors, wrist-worn launchers, spools of high-strength cable, and complex touch-sensitive gloves enable swinging from the rafters.

πŸš—πŸ•ΆοΈ The U.S. Air Force contracted Red 6 to integrate the company's AR training system into a fighter jet. The system will simulate Russian and Chinese fighters projected inside pilots' helmets, eventually offering a "multiplayer" version where several aircraft see the same virtual adversaries and can work together to defeat them.

πŸš—πŸ•ΆοΈ Holoride demoed its VR gaming motion system for car passengers in the real world. Whether it's a human or computer driving you around, Holoride lets you escape into a video game informed by the vehicle's movement.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Regulatory docs revealed that Facebook's Project Aria AR glasses are called Gemini. The glasses feature a Qualcomm chipset, a companion app called Ariane, prescription lens support, four cameras, and Oculus OS (a customized version of Android). While the glasses use the same camera sensor as the Oculus Quest 2, they don't have a visual AR component since their raison d'Γͺtre is data collection rather than display. The experimental AR hardware is otherwise basic: a shutter button, power button, mute switch, and multiple LEDs to inform the wearer and bystanders when the glasses are recording.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Facebook detailed a prototype reverse passthrough VR headset (passthrough VR lets you see your surroundings, while reverse passthrough VR lets other people see your eyes). The concept could help make VR users feel more present in the real world by facilitating eye contact, assuming bystanders don't run away screaming.

πŸ•ΆοΈ TikTok parent company ByteDance acquired Pico, the world's third-largest VR headset maker after Facebook's Oculus and DPVR. The move could help ByteDance diversify its business and further fuel its rivalry with Facebook.

πŸ•ΆοΈ At a summit for VR developers, Sony reportedly said its next-generation VR system uses an HDR OLED display and has a field of view of 110 degrees (10 more degrees than the original PSVR). Sony is also working to secure "triple-A" PlayStation 5 games with hybrid VR support to entice PlayStation owners who already enjoyed a game on their TVs to buy a headset and play in VR.

πŸ•ΆοΈπŸš€ Felix & Paul Studios and Time Studios used a custom 360-degree 3D camera to film the first VR experiences in space. The "outer space camera" requires an onboard thermal regulator because of the extreme heat of direct sunlight in space and the extreme cold when the sun is behind the Earth.

πŸš€ NASA started recruiting for a yearlong simulated Mars mission in Fall 2022, with two more missions scheduled for 2024 and 2025. These simulations will help NASA preemptively address the physical and mental challenges astronauts might face while living on Mars. Four crew members would live in Mars Dune Alpha, a 1,700-square-foot module 3D-printed by Icon, and face resource limitations, equipment failure, communication delays, and other environmental stressors. If crew tasks involving simulated spacewalks, virtual reality equipment, robotic controls, and performing scientific experiments sound appealing, you can apply here.

πŸš€ China proposed a five-year project to study building an "ultra-large spacecraft spanning kilometers." Researchers must minimize the weight and construction costs of the massive structure, which would have to be launched in separate modules and assembled in orbit.

πŸš€ SpaceX stacked Starship atop a Super Heavy booster, resulting in the tallest rocket ever built (launch date to be determined). CEO Elon Musk made typically improbable promises, including that Starship could be reused roughly a dozen times for Mars trips while the first Starship could head to the moon "probably sooner" than 2024.

πŸš€ GEC commissioned SpaceX to launch an advertising satellite in Q1 2022. While the "billboard" is too small to see from the ground (it's just one face of the four-inch satellite), people and companies would bid to have a selfie-style ad streamed with Earth in the background.

πŸš€ Astroscale completed the first test of its satellite capture technology by releasing and recapturing a client spacecraft using a magnetic system. The entire test lasted dozens of seconds, allowing the company to attempt three more ambitious capture-and-release milestones before calling its mission a complete success.

πŸš€ PsiQuantum cofounder proposed that starlight could be a vast alien quantum internet. Aliens could be harnessing interstellar light for encrypted communications that exclude other lifeforms like humans. 

And that's August. As a treat for reading right to the very end, watch Disney's Imagineering video and look out for the expanding lightsaber. Most of these creations don't fit into one of the categories above, but they're definitely about bringing sci-fi to life.

Feel free to reply to this email with comments or questions; I respond to every reply. Follow FiToSci on Twitter and forward this issue to a friend who would enjoy it. See you next month!