👽 FiToSci February 2021 Edition: Human Genome Anniversary, Gig Robots, PSVR, Apple Car, Mars, and more
Hey there, I’m Emil Protalinski. Welcome to FiToSci, a monthly newsletter that tracks how humanity is taking the fiction out of science fiction across:
🕶️ Augmented/virtual reality
Everything below happened last month, unless otherwise indicated. February may be the shortest month (thanks Pompilius), but humanity still managed to squeeze in plenty of cutting-edge tech and science. I recommend skipping to the sections you like and bookmarking links to return to.
🧬 February 2021 marked 20 years since the first human genome sequences were published in draft form by the Human Genome Project and Celera. Many fields — especially cancer research — have benefited. The genomic data of people learning about their ancestry is being sold to third parties for drug development, insurance, and research. 30 million people have had their genomes sequenced to date — expect that number to grow exponentially over the next 20 years.
🧬 Genetics testing and genome research company 23andMe announced plans to go public via a SPAC. On slide #5 of its investors presentation, the company claims it will disrupt healthcare in the same way Amazon disrupted ecommerce and YouTube disrupted media. Regardless of which company pulls it off, mass scanning of human genomes could usher in an era of proactive and personalized healthcare.
🧬 DARPA selected GE Research to build a "portable device that literally can produce clean, safe water out of thin air" for deployed troops. While I can think of plenty of people in more need of such a device, it's reassuring to remember that DARPA-funded projects have given us many non-military wonders, including the basis for the modern internet through which you are reading this newsletter.
🧬 Sleep researchers achieved two-way communication with lucid dreamers. After researchers used electroencephalography analyses of brain activity to confirm that they were asleep, participants correctly answered yes/no questions, deciphered Morse code, and solved simple math problems using pre-arranged eye movements or facial muscle signals. The researchers even used a method of reality checking to induce lucid dreaming — a baby step toward the movie Inception.
🧬 Scientists demonstrated a technique to grow bile duct organoids — or "mini-organs" — in the lab and used them to repair damaged human livers. Bile ducts, which act as the liver's waste disposal system, are one of the main culprits for liver disease. This was the first time the technique has been used on human organs, suggesting that one day we could improve organ availability or skip liver transplants altogether.
🧬 Researchers used CRISPR to reintroduce a Neanderthal-associated variant of the NOVA1 gene — which helps regulate the formation of synapses between neurons — into cortical organoids. The swap altered growth, appearance, and electrical activity, suggesting that the gene variant found only in Homo sapiens is responsible for some differences in our brain development compared to that of our extinct relatives.
🧬 Scientists cloned a wild black-footed ferret that died more than 30 years ago. Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned endangered species native to North America, was born in December, but the United States Fish and Wildlife Service only announced the breakthrough two months later. Jurassic Park, anyone?
🧬🤖 Dogs helped teach a machine how to sniff out cancer.
🧬🤖 Neuralink CEO Elon Musk revealed that the brain-machine interface startup implanted a computer chip in a monkey so it can play video games with its mind. To be clear, the achievement didn't happen in February — the news comes from a January 31 interview. But the next day, Musk tweeted that Neuralink "is in close communication with the FDA" and "might be able to do initial human trials later this year." While Musk's timelines tend to be exaggerated, going from a pig in 2020, to a monkey (allegedly) in 2021, to a human (projected) before 2022 or even by 2023 is quite the pace.
🧬🤖 Geneticists and computer scientists used neural networks to construct novel segments of human genomes and avoid the privacy issues inherent to working with real people's genomic data.
🤖 Because replacing humans with robots is a common long-term goal for gig economy firms, DoorDash acquired robotics startup Chowbotics. In this case, DoorDash isn't trying to replace its human drivers but rather its clients' human cooks. The company wants investors to believe it's not a one-trick pony that only surged because of the pandemic. What isn't clear is whether these robots will be sold to restaurants directly or used in DoorDash ghost kitchens.
🤖 Instacart reportedly began exploring the use of robot-driven warehouses. The company currently uses more than 500,000 gig workers to fulfil online orders at chains like Safeway and Walmart. Conversely, Walmart recently ended its multi-year effort to have robots scan shelves to track inventory, and reverted back to human workers.
🤖 BioLiberty created a robotic glove prototype that uses electromyography and algorithms to convert the intention to perform a task into force, helping the wearer with daily tasks such as opening jars, driving, and even making tea.
🤖 Roomba maker iRobot admitted that a software update caused i7 and s9 robotic vacuums to act "drunk," according to user reports. A sobering update is forthcoming.
🤖 Panasonic built a $360 farting cat robot.
🤖 Hyundai showcased its new TIGER (Transforming Intelligent Ground Excursion Robot) X-1, designed to operate autonomously. The "car with legs" can carry cargo, equipment, and supplies by walking, crawling, or hopping.
🤖 Spot, Boston Dynamics' quadruped robot that climbs stairs and traverses rough terrain, learned to charge itself. In September, the company said Spot would get the functionality along with a robot arm in 2021, so this isn't strictly new news. It does, however, give me an excuse to share Spot’s latest video. Separately, the company condemned an art installation that let people control a Spot armed with a paintball gun.
🤖 MIT's CSAIL department teased a new project called LaserFactory that integrates 3D printers and lasers to automate the fabrication of custom devices and robots.
🤖 DARPA contracted Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics to design a novel air-launched unmanned air vehicle that can deploy air-to-air weapons. Today, drones drop bombs on humans and humans shoot drones out of the sky. Tomorrow, drones will shoot drones, no humans required.
🤖 AnyVision filed a patent that lets drones position themselves to use facial recognition — useful for everything from identity verification for package deliveries to enhancing mass surveillance. CEO Avi Golan claimed he won't use it anytime soon.
🤖 Facial recognition software bans continued in February. Minneapolis voted against the use of facial recognition by its police department and Canada declared Clearview AI's facial recognition app illegal.
🤖 U.S. Customs and Border Protection revealed it processed more than 23 million travelers in 2020 using biometric facial comparison tech with a match rate of over 97%. Zero impostors were caught traveling through airports and fewer than 100 were caught crossing by land. Is that worth the loss of privacy and the consequences of racial and gender biases?
🤖 Speaking of bias, Retorio's AI-based video interview tech came to drastically different conclusions about job applicants' personality traits when the brightness, clothing, or background was changed. Who knew that adding a bookshelf makes you a more open and less neurotic job candidate?
🤖🕶️ Facebook is reportedly weighing “the pros and cons” of implementing facial recognition for its upcoming smart glasses.
🕶️ Facebook's Oculus largely dominates the AR/VR space, with Valve's Index and Microsoft's HoloLens as notable mentions, and Apple looming large. Sony is sometimes forgotten, despite the PSVR passing 5 million units sold over a year ago. The company was quiet on the VR front in 2020, but February assuaged fans' worries. The Japanese giant said it's developing a next-gen VR system for the PlayStation 5 that will enhance "everything from resolution and field of view to tracking and input." It will connect to PS5 "with a single cord to simplify setup and improve ease-of-use, while enabling a high-fidelity visual experience" (the current setup requires wires between a PS4, a TV, and a PSVR). A new VR controller will build on DualSense features and focus on "great ergonomics." Sony didn't provide a release date, confirming only that it won't launch this year and that development kits are coming soon.
🕶️ Another company investing in the space long term is Snap. "AR is the next major shift in computing and we are committed to leading the way," CEO Evan Spiegel said at the company's first investor day. Spiegel added, however, that AR is more than a decade away from hitting its stride (most people that interact with AR today still do so on their phones).
🕶️ That doesn't mean there aren't AR headsets to look forward to. Nreal announced its Light augmented reality smart glasses are coming to Europe and the U.S. in Q2 2021, with an Enterprise Edition slated for later this year. Qualcomm released an AR Smart Viewer reference design with hand tracking and spatial awareness that you can tether to a phone or PC. The first AR glasses based on the XR1 Smart Viewer, Lenovo's ThinkReality A3 glasses, are set for release in mid-2021.
🕶️ Leaks and rumors of upcoming headsets left plenty to the imagination. A pair of leaked Samsung AR glasses concept videos depicted AR glasses that would let you watch movies, play games, video chat, work, and even switch to a "sunglasses mode" when you just want a dimmed reality. Samsung could be further along than these videos suggest of course, but remember these are concepts, not prototypes. Apple's mixed reality headset will meanwhile reportedly feature 8K displays, more than a dozen cameras, eye-tracking, swappable headbands, and a $3,000 price tag. Apple reportedly partnered with TSMC to build advanced micro OLED displays directly onto wafers, making them thin, light, and potentially ideal for AR devices.
🕶️🚗 Apple is reportedly in talks with suppliers to buy next-gen lidar sensors. Some iPhones use lidar to augment the AR experience, among other things, but these sensors have more to do with the company's self-driving car plans. Don't be surprised if Apple starts producing its own lidar sensors down the road.
🚗 The Apple Car will reportedly be electric, "fully autonomous," and "focused on the last mile." We have heard all that before — except for the last mile part, which may suggest you won’t be able to buy an Apple Car. Maybe an Apple subscription would give access to unlimited Apple Car rides to and from public transit? Regardless, February reminded us again that we are still incredibly early in the Apple Car journey, even though the mobility project dates back as far as 2014. The latest potential Apple Car specs, for example, assume that Hyundai is the manufacturer. But after a whirlwind of reports about Apple discussions with Kia and parent company Hyundai, both car manufacturers said talks aren't happening. Apple is likely chatting up all the car makers, including Nissan, with which talks also reportedly started and stopped. The only thing February told us for certain came from a California DMV filing: Apple's self-driving cars drove 18,800 test miles in 2020 (up from 7,544 test miles in 2019) and had disengagements every 145 miles on average (up from every 118 miles). The soonest Apple Car production might shift into gear is reportedly 2024 — plenty can change before then, and you should expect that date to be pushed back anyway.
🚗 Self-driving initiatives inched forward across the globe. Great Wall Motor invested in auto chip startup Horizon Robotics to jointly develop autonomous driving tech. Waymo began testing its autonomous robotaxi service with employee volunteers in San Francisco, its first expansion beyond Phoenix. Argo expanded its autonomous testing to highways. Microsoft and Volkswagen teamed up to build an Azure-based automated driving platform. Aurora partnered with Toyota and auto-parts supplier Denso to design and build autonomous Sienna minivans with the aim to start testing a fleet by the end of 2021. Motional, the autonomous driving partnership between Aptiv and Hyundai, committed to launching a fully driverless service in 2023. Ford doubled its electric vehicle investment to $22 billion through 2025, and, more importantly, earmarked $5 billion more for self-driving over the same period.
🚗 Portland ended its smart city partnership with Sidewalk Labs to track mobility patterns after the company declined to provide detailed data the city requested. This is the second smart city project Sidewalk has lost — the Alphabet company exited Toronto in May 2020.
🚗 DARPA contracted Northrop Grumman and Martin Defense to develop demonstrations of its Manta Ray unmanned underwater vehicle, a project it kicked off for the U.S. Navy last year. The agency also hired Metron to work on the novel energy-harvesting subsystem that will let it operate for "extended durations without the need for human-present logistic support or maintenance."
🚗 A decade after giving up on its dream to build the first mass-produced solar-powered car, Aptera's second attempt received over 7,000 preorders. The company claimed its $25,900 three-wheel, aerodynamic electric vehicle with 34 square feet of solar cells gets up to 250 miles of range and can be extended with additional battery packs to 400 miles ($29,800), 600 miles ($34,600), and 1,000 miles ($44,900). While it's exciting Aptera is trying again, maybe the company should have given itself more runway — it's aiming to start deliveries this year.
🚗 Terrafugia received a green light from the FAA for its two-person Transition flying car, only to reportedly undergo mass layoffs and face a potential shutdown by the end of the year. Terrafugia's intellectual property and further Transition development are being moved to China by owner Zhejiang Geely.
🚗 Volkswagen announced it is conducting a feasibility study for flying cars in China.
🚗 Archer Aviation committed to launching a network of its electric air taxis in Los Angeles by 2024.
🚗🚀 Airspeeder unveiled the Mk3, a remotely operated electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle that can race at speeds in excess of 120 km/h and is meant to pave the way for a manned series in 2022. Airspeeder founder Matt Pearson has previously stated his desire to create a new racing series with hopes of emulating the Star Wars: A Phantom Menace pod races.
🚀 February was Mars month. The United Arab Emirates' Hope entered Mars' orbit on February 9 and China's Tianwen-1 entered orbit on February 10, joining the European Space Agency's (ESA) and Indian Space Research Organization's (ISRO) orbiters already around the red planet. Hope, the UAE's first interplanetary mission, is tasked with building humanity's most complete picture yet of the Martian atmosphere. Tianwen-1, China's attempt to take on Mars alone (following its contributions to Russia's failed Fobos-Grunt spacecraft), will launch a rover in May to gather data about the planet's weather, magnetic field, and surface composition. On February 18, after a nearly seven-month commute, NASA's Perseverance became the largest vehicle to ever land on Mars. Shortly after, it transmitted a steady stream of images and the first ever audio recording on the planet. If you haven't yet seen NASA's video of the landing, watch it below. If you have seen it, watch it again.
🚀 NASA chose the landing site Jezero Crater because orbital images show that it was once a lake that may have accumulated sediments from rivers some 3.5 billion years ago (about the time life was starting to form on Earth). If life did form, Jezero Crater could have preserved chemical signatures of ancient Martian microbes from the area. Instruments on board Perseverance are designed to analyze the surrounding organic chemistry and prepare Mars rocks for shipment back to Earth. MOXIE, also onboard Perseverance, will attempt to convert the carbon dioxide in Mars' atmosphere into oxygen (convenient for future Martian colonies). The rover's autonomous helicopter, Ingenuity, could become the first-ever powered flight on another planet.
🚀 Researchers levitated a small tray using nothing but light as part of their quest to explore the out-of-reach mesosphere.
🚀 In the next chapter of the billionaire space race, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin teased a full-scale prototype of its cargo lunar lander and delayed the launch of its New Glenn rocket by a year to Q4 2022. Bezos, who also announced he will step down as CEO of Amazon and transition to Executive Chair in Q3 2021, has been selling a billion dollars of Amazon shares a year to finance Blue Origin, which is now over two decades old. And yet, Blue Origin is seen to be lagging Elon Musk's SpaceX. Is Bezos not spending enough time and money on it? Both could be about to change.
🚀 SpaceX announced it will put four private individuals into space, calling the plans "the world's first all-civilian mission." The Q4 2021 launch will raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
🚀 NASA decided that its own Space Launch System (SLS) is out of the running for the Europa Clipper mission. A probe tasked with mapping Jupiter's moon Europa will instead launch on a commercial rocket — news that is becoming less surprising as the space market grows. SpaceX is the likely frontrunner. In fact, the company just beat the SLS with a contract to launch the first two modules of the lunar Gateway no earlier than May 2024, as part of the Artemis program aiming to land the first woman and next man on Earth's moon.
🚀 For the first time in over 50 years, the ISRO opened its satellite testing facilities to private firms. Meanwhile, a physicist proposed using space-borne lasers to melt space junk, Earth's rapidly-growing problem, into plasma.
🚀 For the first time in over a decade, the ESA started looking for astronaut applicants.
And that's February. Feel free to reply to this email with feedback, follow FiToSci on Twitter, and forward this issue to someone who would enjoy it. See you next month!