👽 FiToSci July 2021 Edition: Forced Rain, Space Race, Anthony Bourdain, Borgs, Oculus Mixed Reality, 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 July's highlights:
🚗 Transportation/logistics: Drones forced rain to fall from the sky.
🚀 Space: The billionaire space race brought notable firsts.
🤖 AI/robots: A documentary deepfaked Anthony Bourdain's voice.
🧬 Biotech/bioscience: Borgs assimilated genes.
🕶️ Augmented/virtual reality: Oculus Quest 2 became an AR dev kit.
I recommend skipping to the sections you like, opening what you find interesting, and bookmarking links for later reading. Let's get started.
🚗 The UAE used cloud-zapping drones to force rain in Dubai. While the city has increased rainfall in various ways, this time, drones used an electric charge to make water droplets big enough they hit the ground as rain. Arguably, this is a preferred technique since it doesn't involve chemicals. The definition for "killer drones" can now be broadened to include everything depicted in The Day After Tomorrow.
🚗 Dubai police announced plans to use a citywide network of crime-responding drones. Starting in October, Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said the drones would reduce police response time from 4.4 minutes to 1 minute.
🚗 Researchers created self-correcting drones inspired by insects that flip themselves over with wings. The drones use a similar technique via actuators that reorient the vehicle if it flips over or lands upside down.
🚗 An algorithm outperformed human pilots in a drone race for the first time by generating time-optimal trajectories for a given course. Racing aside, calculating the fastest, most efficient route expands the range, flight times, and usefulness of autonomous drones.
🚗 JetPack Aviation completed flight testing Speeder, a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft the company calls the world's first flying motorcycle. Both recreational and military/commercial versions of Speeder use lidar to turn, climb, and hold a stable hover.
🚗 Joby Aviation's electric VTOL completed a single-charge 154-mile flight. The company wants to have a full-scale air taxi service in operation by 2024.
🚗 XPeng unveiled its fifth-generation flying car, X2, with a range of 35 minutes and a maximum speed of 130 km/h. X2 appears to have remote operation, but if and when human pilots test the vehicle, it offers a redundant power supply and an ejection parachute.
🚗 HyperloopTT unveiled its HyperPort concept to let port operators transport cargo containers hundreds of kilometers in minutes. The goal is to sustainably move 2,800 containers per day at speeds of up to 600 km/h, or as the company touts, "airplane speeds at freight costs."
🚗 Tesla ditched input from radar sensors to rely solely on the car's cameras in its Full Self Driving (FSD) beta 9 software update, which resulted in questionable edge-case performances, such as one vehicle decelerating because it interpreted the moon as a yellow traffic light. The company also launched its FSD subscription for $199 per month (compared to a single $10,000 payment), potentially endangering more people who did not consent to be around beta Level 2 autonomous cars.
🚗 Argo said it plans to deploy up to 1,000 Ford Level 4 autonomous cars on Lyft's network in U.S. cities over the next five years. Lyft sold its self-driving unit to Toyota in April, but now it's promising Miami will get self-driving cars later this year, with Austin to follow in early 2022.
🚗 Magment, Purdue University, and the Indiana government partnered to test roads that charge electric vehicles as they drive. The eventual goal is to build the world's first contactless, wireless-charging, concrete pavement highway segment.
🚗🚀 China conducted the first test flight with a reusable suborbital vehicle, allegedly with vertical take-off and horizontal landing profiles. The spacecraft is part of developing a reusable space transportation system, which will come in handy for getting to Mars by 2033.
🚀 Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson became the first person to fly a self-funded spacecraft. The SpaceShipTwo spaceplane took Branson and five others on a 90-minute suborbital flight to the edge of space. The crew contributed six people to the record for humans beyond Earth (including the seven astronauts on the ISS and three on China's new space station). The spaceplane hit a peak altitude of 53.5 miles, leading to a contentious debate: The FAA claims space starts at 50 miles, but the internationally recognized boundary begins at 62 miles (the Kármán line). Regardless, the launch ushers in a new era of space tourism, the significance of which is still up in the air.
🚀 Blue Origin launched founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, 82-year-old pilot veteran Wally Funk (of the Mercury 13 women in space program), and 18-year-old Oliver Daemon (Blue Origin's first paying customer) to an altitude of 66 miles. Unlike Branson's piloted rocket plane, the 10-minute ride was entirely automated and accomplished different milestones: Blue Origin became the first company to take a paying passenger, a pair of siblings, and the oldest and youngest persons yet into space.
🚀 NASA selected three teams of companies to perform concept studies of nuclear thermal propulsion reactors. Each one-year, $5 million contract tasks the companies to generate thrust at far higher efficiencies than conventional propulsion systems, reducing interplanetary travel times.
🚀 ESA launched the world's first commercial fully reprogrammable satellite. Unlike conventional models that are hard-wired on Earth and cannot be repurposed once in orbit, the Eutelsat Quantum can be tailored "in almost real time" to changing demands for data transmission and secure communications during its 15-year lifetime.
🚀🤖 JAXA partnered with Avatarin to deploy mobile robot space avatars controllable from Earth. The project would offer remote work assistance to astronauts performing duties on the International Space Station and remote space travel for those who can't afford Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin tourism offerings.
🚀🤖 Researchers developed a machine learning algorithm that identifies promising landing and exploration sites on the moon. The landing site AI automatically classifies important lunar features from telescope images looking for potential construction locations and mineral or energy resources.
🤖 Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville recreated the late Anthony Bourdain's voice using AI. A software company created an AI model of Bourdain's voice to read three quotes without audio recordings. At one point, the AI model reads an email Bourdain wrote but never recorded saying aloud. The film does not warn the viewer of the Bourdain audio deepfake, not to mention that Bourdain did not permit such a representation before he passed. "You probably don't know what the other lines are that were spoken by the AI, and you're not going to know," Neville said.
🤖 A writer brought back his dead fiancé as an AI chatbot. He reincarnated her personality using old text messages through OpenAI's GPT-3 model, meaning we're not too far away from personalized recreations of the movie Her.
🤖 South Africa became the first country to award a patent naming AI as the inventor. The creative neural system DABUS has produced many innovations, including an emergency warning light and a now-patented food container based on fractal geometry.
🤖 Researchers developed AI-controlled walking robots trained entirely in simulation that adapt in real-time to changing terrain. In fractions of a second, the robots accommodate challenging conditions like rocks, stairs, and even oil spilled on plastic.
🤖 Agility Robotics' Cassie, which learned to climb stairs in May, became the first bipedal robot to complete a 5K race outdoors. Cassie's time was 53 minutes and 3 seconds — slow for a 5K, but a significant step for robots running on a single charge.
🤖 Scientists created an algorithm to help a robot slide one sleeve of a vest onto a human arm without causing inadvertent injuries. Robots dressing humans is a complex problem to solve but vital in caring for seniors and people with disabilities.
🤖 Researchers developed AiFoam, a smart foam material that lets robots sense nearby objects and repairs itself when damaged, just like human skin. The self-healing and sensing properties help robots detect the amount and direction of applied force to better judge human intention and quickly react to environmental changes.
🤖 Engineers 3D-printed a soft robotic hand controlled by pressurized water to play Super Mario Bros on the NES. The robotic gaming hand completed the first level in less than 90 seconds — the world record is 11.75 seconds, so there's still some way to go before video game streamers need to worry about their jobs.
🤖 Three robots collided at an Ocado warehouse, starting a fire that forced it to close over the weekend and delayed thousands of grocery orders. The fire gave thousands of robots a break, and humans didn't get their food — are we sure the robot crash was an accident?
🤖🧬 Researchers warned that one day companies will mine your emotions for marketing purposes, assign you a new identity, and foster addiction by piping entertainment into your mind. Mixing the worst parts of capitalism with a cyberpunk future makes our current social media world look quaint.
🤖🧬 Researchers built iAge, an inflammatory-aging clock they believe is more accurate than the number of times you've traveled around the sun. The device uses AI to represent biomarkers that show the strength of your immune system, how soon you'll become frail, and the likelihood you'll incur various aging-related diseases.
🧬 Researchers discovered a strange new genetic entity in methane-eating microbes. Borgs (named after Star Trek aliens that assimilate the biology of other creatures) assimilate and scavenge genes from other microorganisms to incorporate them into the genome of their host. Borg DNA is linear (genetic elements in microorganisms tend to be circular), long, and contains novel genes. At least 19 Borgs isolated so far boost their hosts' ability to consume methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
🧬 Two research groups independently showed that air contains DNA from many kinds of animals. The approach could help monitor wildlife in terrestrial environments and study airflow (sadly, there was no mention of detecting specific human DNA to confirm or clear people's crimes).
🧬 Scientists published a how-to chimera guide detailing the creation of mouse-human embryos to study disease progression and test new treatments in living organisms without human experimentation. In April, researchers created embryos containing both human and monkey cells, but we really don't need a manual that will accelerate us toward the Planet of the Apes.
🧬 Scientists developed nanoscale sensors injected straight into the bloodstream that travel to your brain to monitor neural activity. The hope is they could one day assess patients' brain functioning, offer high precision brain-machine interfacing, control exoskeletons, and detect neural diseases early, all without the need for surgery or implanted devices.
🧬 Scientists showed that gene-edited cellular therapeutics that evade the immune system could treat cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases in mice. These "universal stem cells" may lead to cost-effective human therapies that don't require cell therapeutics based on each patient's blood sample.
🧬 Researchers found that small biofuel cells can harvest energy from sweat on your fingertips to power wearable medical sensors detecting a range of metrics, including heart rate, vitamin deficiencies, and glucose levels. Because our fingertips are one of the sweatiest parts of the body, the sensors could run all day.
🧬 Researchers stopped SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, from replicating in human cells using the CRISPR gene-editing tool. While animal studies and clinical trials are still required, current and emerging viruses could one day be thwarted with an oral antiviral medication designed with CRISPR.
🧬 Scientists created gene-edited opossums using CRISPR, marking the first genetically engineered marsupials. Because this opossum species develops similarly to humans, manipulating its genome could boost human biology research from the immune system to tissue regeneration.
🧬 Researchers developed lab-grown chocolate for the first time. While it matches the texture of traditional chocolate, they still have to adjust the taste and lower the cost.
🧬 Engineers designed artificial spider silk that is stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar. The material dubbed "polymeric amyloid" fiber was not technically produced by the researchers but by genetically engineered bacteria.
🧬 Researchers showed that castration of male sheep delays DNA aging. While farmers and scientists have long known that castrated male sheep live longer than their intact counterparts, it won't be easy to find human participants to confirm the same principles.
🧬 Researchers restored a person's ability to communicate via a neural interface that decodes brain signals from the motor cortex to the vocal tract. The patient went from communicating at about 5 words per minute (using a pointer attached to a baseball cap to poke letters on a computer screen) to about 15 words per minute.
🧬🕶️ Despite highlighting the above breakthrough, Facebook ended its project to build a head-mounted brain-computer interface that would let you type by imagining words. The larger goal was to create a new input method for AR and VR, which the company now wants to achieve with a neural wristband that translates electrical pulses from the body into data its future glasses can use.
🕶️ CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared Facebook would transition from a social media company to a metaverse company, à la Ready Player One. The next day, Facebook released the Passthrough API, allowing developers to use black and white images and videos collected by Oculus Quest 2's sensors to create mixed reality apps. With a mere software update, Facebook turned the Quest 2 into an AR developer kit. The company hopes that making the Passthrough API available on affordable devices today (the Quest 2 starts at $299) will help developers build out a library of mixed reality apps that help make tomorrow's Oculus AR glasses more useful at launch.
🕶️ Google added Meet videoconferencing to Glass Enterprise Edition 2. When you join a video call with Glass, other participants see a first-person view from the AR headset.
🕶️ Looking Glass launched its second-generation holographic displays, available in 15.6-inch (4K) and 32-inch (8K) versions. This lighter and more affordable generation increases holographic display accessibility today whether or not AR glasses make sense tomorrow.
🕶️ Luxexcel debuted a 3D printing manufacturing process to create AR prescription lenses. The method directly embeds the display hardware needed for AR functionality, such as waveguides, holographic optical elements, and liquid crystal foils.
And that's July. 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!