👽 FiToSci February 2022: Obsolete Eyes, Fake Faces, XR Neckband, Fusion Record, Autonomous Helicopter, and More
Hey there, I'm Emil Protalinski. This is FiToSci's anniversary edition; we've been going strong for over a year! This month, you'll notice a new format that emphasizes a balance between rounding up the biggest ways humans brought sci-fi to life while maintaining an easy-to-skim read. There's still a top story for each category, but only two smaller ones, and then a quick rundown of what else happened in the month. The category transition stories remain because they can sometimes be the most fascinating.
Without further ado, star this email to easily reference February's highlights:
🧬 Biotech/bioscience: Second Sight stopped supporting bionic eyes.
🤖 AI/robots: Fake faces were rated more trustworthy than real ones.
👓 Augmented/virtual reality: Motorola unveiled an XR neckband.
🚀 Space: Scientists more than doubled the fusion energy record.
🚗 Transportation/logistics: DARPA flew an uninhabited helicopter.
I recommend skipping to the sections you like, opening what you find interesting in a separate tab, and bookmarking links for later reading. Here we go!
🧬 Second Sight rendered the vision of over 350 people with its Argus retinal implants obsolete by quietly ending support for its visual prosthetic devices. As a result, some people are going blind again due to unavailable repairs, spare parts, and assistance when their eyes malfunction. Second Sight came close to bankruptcy, laid off most of its employees, and is now merging with another biotechnology company, Nano Precision Medical, that focuses on drug delivery, not bionic eyes. Second Sight customers were promised upgrades that would further improve their sight, but now they're simply looking for access to the software and hardware so they can fix their own eyes.
🧬 Scientists restored the ability to stand, walk with support, pedal, and swim using spinal implants in three men who were completely paralyzed from the waist down for over a year. To move, users choose a desired activity in a mobile app, which links wirelessly to a neurostimulator in their abdomen connected to electrodes on their spine to stimulate nerves in their trunk and leg muscles.
🧬 Researchers safely converted the blood type of donors' lungs intended for transplantation by treating them with two enzymes, an important step towards creating universal type O organs that would eliminate the blood-matching barrier and prioritize patients by medical urgency. Universally transplantable organs would mean fewer donations wasted and more lives saved, so the team plans to perform a clinical trial next.
🧬 More February 2022 news: Engineers developed surgical "duct tape" that can be applied to biological tissues to seal tears and wounds for over a month while an organ heals. Two babies received the first gene therapy for Tay-Sachs disease after over 14 years of development. Researchers controlled genetically-engineered mammalian cells with ultrasound. Scientists gene-edited ticks for the first time, a significant breakthrough in the battle against parasitic diseases. Researchers created artificial organic neurons and synapses that can make a Venus flytrap close on demand.
🧬🤖 As part of their broader goal to build an artificial heart, researchers created artificial fish that swim for over 100 days using cardiac muscle derived from human stem-cells that recreate a pumping heart's muscle contractions. As the cardiomyocyte cells matured over the first month, the autonomous biohybrid fish improved muscle contraction amplitude, muscle coordination, and maximum swimming speed, eventually moving as quickly and effectively as wild zebrafish.
🤖 Researchers used a generative adversarial network to create images of synthesized faces that people, including trained observers, can't distinguish from real faces. Survey participants found the synthetically generated faces more trustworthy than real human faces; the four faces rated most untrustworthy were real, whereas the three most trustworthy faces were fake. That might be because the synthetic faces look more like "average" human faces, and people are more likely to trust typical-looking faces. These AI-generated faces can thus be very effective in other places that deepfakes are already used, including internet scams, fake social media profiles, fraud, propaganda, and revenge porn.
🤖 Alphabet's DeepMind introduced AlphaCode, an AI coding engine that writes problem-solving computer programs, ranking in the top 54.3% of competitive human coders across 10 contests with over 5,000 participants each. While this is the first time that AI has achieved such a competitive level, AlphaCode's skills aren't representative of the programming tasks faced by the average coder, so don't expect it to start coding better versions of itself anytime soon.
🤖 Researchers created SpeeChin, a smart necklace that uses silent-speech recognition tech to identify unspoken commands using images of skin deformation in the neck and face captured by a neck-mounted infrared camera. If a person can't speak or if audible speech isn't appropriate in a particular setting, SpeeChin can use machine learning algorithms to understand commands in English and Mandarin.
🤖 More February 2022 news: Researchers created a chip that can reprogram itself on demand, which would let an AI continuously learn as the human brain does. Researchers built Nikola, an android child that successfully conveys six basic emotions (video). The U.S. Copyright Office rejected a request to grant copyright to an AI for creating a work of art. Sony detailed GT Sophy, an AI built to outrace human drivers in Gran Turismo (video). Scientists and Alphabet's DeepMind used AI to control plasma for nuclear fusion.
🤖👓 In a prerecorded demo, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg showcased Builder Bot, a proof of concept voice-controlled assistant that uses AI to let you generate parts of virtual worlds and interactive 3D objects within, simply by describing them. In other research projects meant to improve communication and interactivity in the metaverse, Zuckerberg teased plans to develop an AI-based universal language translator à la Star Trek.
👓 Lenovo's Motorola and Verizon announced a 100-gram 5G XR neckband, designed to let companies build lighter and more comfortable AR glasses and VR headsets by offloading components like connectivity, processing, and battery to the collar. While it can work with other devices, Motorola promotes the lanyard-style neckband for pairing with Lenovo's ThinkReality A3 smart glasses, which normally need to be tethered to a PC or a Motorola smartphone. The companies didn't share pricing or availability but teased they are talking to partners in the retail, sports league, and education spaces. Until we can scale down the tech into a single light device, the neckband sounds like a stopgap to make AR/VR experiences more portable by putting smartphone components around your neck: a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, 5,000mAh battery, touchpad, SIM card slot, speakers, charging light indicator, gyroscope, accelerometer, barometer, GPS, and antennae for 5G.
👓 Meta added a personal boundary system to avatars in its Horizon Worlds creation platform and its Horizon Venues live event service, aiming to curb harassment in VR. For the same reasons, Microsoft eliminated AltspaceVR's public social hubs, made existing safety bubbles and mute options the default, and required the use of a Microsoft account (to let parents use the company's Family Safety system to approve or limit access for their teenage kids).
👓 Sony finally revealed the PlayStation VR2's design: lighter than its predecessor and featuring a lens adjustment dial, new vent layout, and similar white-and-black color scheme. The company has slowly released information on the headset (most recently detailing its specs) but is still keeping tight-lipped on the release date and price, which will be particularly difficult to get right given the aggressive pricing of VR industry leader Meta.
👓 More February 2022 news: A developer spotted references to a "realityOS" in some of Apple's open-source code. SimulaVR listed its Linux-powered productivity-focused VR headset for preorder at $2,700. HTC partnered with Holoride, which demoed its VR gaming motion system for car passengers in August 2021, to offer VR experiences like a cinema mode and a virtual amusement park in moving vehicles.
👓🚀 The U.S. Space Force proposed creating a metaverse to tap into the investment and hype surrounding the space (no pun intended). A virtual environment is not a huge leap, given that most guardians, the term for Space Force service members, are not astronauts and already rely on digital representations of the space domain to do their jobs.
🚀 Scientists at the Joint European Torus (JET) smashed the world record for energy released in a sustained fusion reaction (not to be confused with recent "artificial sun" plasma temperature records). The fusion experiment generated 59 megajoules of heat — equivalent to about 14kg of TNT — in five seconds, more than doubling the previous record of 21.7 megajoules set in 1997 by the same Oxfordshire facility. The doughnut-shaped JET is built to contain plasma heated to 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the center of the sun, using a fuel based on deuterium and tritium. Despite the milestone, fusion experiments still have a long way to go before we can harness the power of the stars as a viable and sustainable low-carbon and low-radiation energy source.
🚀 SpaceX and Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who conceived and financed the world's first all-civilian space mission, announced the Polaris Program, comprising three additional missions "to rapidly advance capabilities for human exploration." The first mission, Polaris Dawn, is slated for up to five days in Q4 2022, endeavoring to reach the highest Earth orbit ever flown for a crewed mission and to include the world's first commercial spacewalk.
🚀 In response to a solicitation from NASA to design a method of sending a 1,000 kilogram payload to Mars in no more than 45 days, scientists proposed a mission powered by a 10-meter-wide laser array on Earth. The laser-thermal propulsion method would heat hydrogen plasma in a chamber behind the spacecraft, producing thrust from hydrogen gas and sending it to Mars in just over six weeks — cutting the estimated six-month travel time for chemical-based rockets.
🚀 More February 2022 news: Northrop Grumman sent the latest NASA science experiments to the International Space Station, including to study skin aging, tumor drugs, oxygen generation, safer batteries, crops grown without soil, and fire in space. After ushering in a new era of space tourism with its July 2021 launch, Virgin Galactic started selling $450,000 tickets to the edge of space. NASA contracted Lockheed Martin to build the Mars Ascent Vehicle that will embark on the first robotic round-trip to bring samples to Earth. Researchers used light to lift a Mylar disk against gravity.
🚀🚗 NASA selected futuristic space technology concepts for further study, including a custom-made spacesuit for breathing oxygen directly from Mars' atmosphere and an inflatable bird-like drone to explore Venus. Speaking of Venus, a separate proposal describes a probe that would parachute into the planet's atmosphere to capture a sample of gas and clouds and return it to Earth, where scientists could examine the sample for signs of life.
🚗 DARPA flew a modified Black Hawk helicopter without a single human crew member on board for the first time. The test flight, which lasted roughly 30 minutes, used the agency's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), designed primarily to reduce pilot workloads and improve safety. ALIAS opens the door for the U.S. Army to operate aircraft at any time of the day or night, piloted or unpiloted, and in difficult conditions such as contested, congested, and degraded visual environments. The uninhabited UH-60 Black Hawk navigated at a typical speed and altitude through a simulated cityscape, autonomously executed pedal turns, maneuvers, and straightaways before landing, when two pilots entered the helicopter and switched back to piloted mode.
🚗 Toyota Research Institute developed an autonomous drifting tech for a customized Supra on a closed course in hopes of building a mass-market safety feature to help everyday drivers control their vehicles when they skid. The test car mimicked professional driver-level maneuvering to drift around corners and obstacles using algorithms that control the computer-operated steering, throttle, clutch displacement, sequential transmission, and individual wheel braking.
🚗 A consortium of seven organizations from five EU countries built the Hybrid UAV-UGV for Efficient Relocation of Vessels (HUUVER) drone, a combination of an aircraft and all-terrain vehicle that performs search and rescue, patrols, monitors, and conducts industrial intralogistics under challenging conditions. HUUVER offers vertical take-off and landing, flying, perching, driving, and climbing, while its software comprises mission planning, navigation, guidance, control, and even a mobile app.
🚗 More February 2022 news: Epirus announced Leonidas Pod, a microwave weapon that a drone carries to shoot down other drones. Baidu launched self-driving taxis in downtown Shenzhen, the company's first deployment into a densely populated area as part of its driverless taxi service expansion to 100 cities by 2030. Motional and Via launched a free 9-to-5 robotaxi shuttle in Las Vegas. DolaGon created the world's first self-driving ski lift vehicle. Tesla removed an FSD feature that let vehicles roll through stop signs without coming to a halt. ElectraMeccanica partnered with Faction to test autonomous food deliveries via its three-wheeled Solo electric vehicles. Volocopter announced electric air taxis coming to Singapore by 2024 that would also be able to fly to nearby destinations in Indonesia and Malaysia.
And that's February. This month I have two treats for those who read right to the very end. Check out DMC's plans to resurrect the DeLorean, popularized by Back to the Future, as an electric sports car that sadly can't time travel … yet. Also, Hacksmith brought Superman's "heat vision" to life, sort of.
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 or colleague who would enjoy it. See you next month!