👽 FiToSci June 2021 Edition: Flying Cars, Mars by 2033, CRISPR in Vivo, Programmable Fiber, AR Hats, 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 June's highlights:
🚗 Transportation/logistics: A flying car completed an inter-city test flight.
🚀 Space: China announced plans for a crewed mission to Mars by 2033.
🧬 Biotech/bioscience: CRISPR treated disease in vivo for the first time.
🤖 AI/robots: Engineers created the first programmable fiber.
🕶️ Augmented/virtual reality: Facebook patented AR tech in hats.
I recommend skipping to the sections you like, opening what you find interesting, and bookmarking links for later reading. Let's get started.
🚗 Klein Vision's fuel-powered AirCar completed its inaugural inter-city flight between the Nitra and Bratislava airports, a 35-minute journey that hit a cruising speed of 170 km/h. The vehicle's inventor, professor Stefan Klein, then clicked a button to tuck in the car's wings and drove it straight off the runway into town. Unlike other flying cars, AirCar requires a runway since it cannot take off and land vertically. The flying car takes only 2 minutes and 15 seconds to transform between car and aircraft.
🚗 Researchers designed lithium-ion batteries for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles that survive more than 2,000 charge cycles and can be charged for a 50-mile trip in under 10 minutes. They concluded that eVTOLs are commercially viable.
🚗 Airspeeder's Mk3, the eVTOL vehicle unveiled in February and meant to emulate the pod races in Star Wars: A Phantom Menace, completed its first test flight. The first three remotely piloted races are slated for later in 2021, followed by a crewed showcase as early as 2022.
🚗 Archer Aviation unveiled Maker, its 12-rotor eVTOL that can supposedly travel up to 60 miles with a top speed of 150 mph. The company hopes to conduct test flights for the two-passenger aircraft at the end of 2021, a necessary step if the startup hopes to keep its promise of launching an air taxi network by 2024.
🚗 A drone conducted the first autonomous aerial refueling of a human-crewed aircraft in midair. Drones have air-to-air refueled many times before but have never provided fuel to an aircraft with a human onboard.
🚗 Researchers designed scream-finding drones to help first responders locate natural disaster survivors. It's like a high-tech version of A Quiet Place, but for saving lives.
🚗 DARPA demonstrated its anti-drone defense system that "shoots strong, stringy streamers." Leave it to the military to find a practical use for confetti.
🚗 An engineer built a self-driving bicycle that balances with or without a rider. Accelerometer and gyroscope sensors detect subtle movements while a metal wheel changes spin direction to create angular momentum that keeps the bike from falling over.
🚗 Baidu unveiled a Level 4 autonomous electric vehicle that it claims costs just $75,000 to make. The company plans to build 1,000 units over the next three years for deployment as robotaxis.
🚗🚀 Space Perspective successfully completed its first uncrewed stratospheric balloon test flight and opened up seat reservations for 2024. Priced at $125,000, a six-hour trip to Earth's upper atmosphere aboard the space balloon promises a 360-degree panoramic view, non-glare windows for photography, reclining seats, onboard bathrooms, a fully stocked bar, and even Wi-Fi.
🚗🚀 Rammaxx tested launching small-scale rockets using its rapid ascent drones, which are optimized for short duration vertical flight at very high power rather than long duration and low power. The company envisions using a swarm of its drones to get a full-sized rocket off the ground before launch, thus cutting costs, improving safety, and reducing emissions.
🚀 China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced a three-step plan to put the first human on Mars by 2033. CNSA wants to use robots to explore Mars, sample its surface, and select a base location, with mission launches every two years until a permanent crewed base is established by 2043. A potential fourth stage would involve a "sky ladder" made of carbon nanotubes that would help space capsules reach the Moon from which they could be relaunched for Mars, reducing transportation costs. NASA plans to send humans to Mars in the 2030s but has not specified further, while SpaceX has set what many consider an unrealistic target of 2026 for its first crewed flight.
🚀 The U.S. government released its long-awaited report summarizing decades of previously classified research into unidentified flying objects (UFOs). The nine-page report examines 144 incidents, 143 of which investigators were unable to explain, and none of which were linked to aliens — that's exactly what the aliens want us to think.
🚀 Scientists concluded that technologically advanced aliens could settle the entire inner portion of a galaxy in about a billion years, or only about 7% to 9% of the Milky Way's age. They wouldn't even require warp drives — just spaceships that leverage technology we can design today.
🚀 NASA approved the production of an infrared space telescope that, within a decade of being launched, could detect 90% of asteroids 140 meters in size or larger. As Hollywood and asteroid impact simulations have taught us, Earth's best defense against potentially life-threatening asteroids is early detection.
🚀 NATO members agreed to expand their mutual defense clause to include attacks "to, from, or within space." An attack on any of the 30 allies is considered an attack on them all across land, sea, air, cyberspace — and now space.
🚀🧬 Scientists produced healthy mice from sperm that had been kept on the International Space Station for nearly six years. This could mean space radiation has no impact on mammalian reproduction, letting us one day reproduce during long space missions to colonize other planets.
🚀🧬 Two teams of scientists completed NASA's Vascular Tissue Challenge, which tasked participants to "create thick, metabolically-functional human vascularized organ tissue" that can survive for at least 30 days in the lab. Both teams 3D-printed centimeter-sized cubes of liver tissue, but only the first-place team will get to work with the International Space Station on adapting its technique for space.
🚀🧬 For the first time, scientists used CRISPR-Cas9 in space. They showed that DNA could be cut with the gene-editing tool in a space-based technique meant to help future astronauts prepare for long-duration missions.
🧬 Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron used CRISPR-Cas9 in vivo, meaning inside the human body, to treat disease. This is the first time CRISPR has been successfully injected into the blood, finding its way to the right gene in the right cells. The clinical trial aimed to deactivate a mutated gene that causes liver cells to churn out misfolded forms of a protein called transthyretin, which build up and lead to pain, numbness, and heart disease. Researchers reported the first data indicating that six patients treated with the approach had the DNA inside their liver cells safely edited, causing levels of the destructive protein to plummet in their bodies.
🧬 Researchers treated diabetes in mice using a device the width of a few strands of hair to implant insulin-secreting cells, bypassing the need for drugs to suppress the immune system's response. Next, they want to do the same for humans by converting skin or fat cells into stem cells, growing those into insulin-secreting cells, and protecting them with a similar device.
🧬 Researchers developed a molecular gene switch that can be flipped on with the green LED light in commercial smartwatches. The switch is linked to a gene network that would be introduced into human cells to produce insulin or other substances as soon as the cells are exposed to the green light.
🧬 Researchers genetically engineered cells outside the body that can find and destroy malignant tumors while leaving healthy cells intact. Unlike other similar treatments, these cancer-killing cells can differentiate between healthy and unhealthy cells.
🧬 Scientists created a new organism that grows like E. coli with the capacity to construct artificial polymers from amino acids not found in nature, based on instructions encoded into its genes. The synthetic cells, which are virtually invincible to viral infection, could lead to the production of new materials, ranging from antibiotics to biodegradable plastics.
🧬 Scientists engineered E. coli to convert plastic into vanillin, the compound that gives vanilla its characteristic taste and smell. Now that's proper recycling.
🧬 Researchers developed a device that can harvest drinking water from the air, all day long, with no energy input required. Is this how we avoid a Mad Max scenario?
🧬 Future Meat opened the world's first lab-grown-meat factory. The facility can produce 500 kilograms of lab-grown meat products a day, including cell-based chicken, pork, and lamb products, with beef products "coming soon."
🧬 Biomilq created the world's first cell-cultured human milk from mammary cells outside of the breast. The milk lacks antibodies but still contains most nutritional complexities of breastmilk, with the practicality of formula.
🧬 Researchers built an inflatable device that can be injected into the spinal column to treat chronic pain. It works by emitting electrical charges that signal the brain to stop perceiving pain.
🧬 Researchers designed a computerized brain implant that reduces short-term and chronic pain in rats, the first time a device has been shown to provide real-time pain relief. The "blueprint" could lead to the development of implants to treat brain-based disorders such as anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.
🧬 Sleep researchers signed an open letter calling for regulation of targeted dream incubation (TDI) to stop companies from pushing ads into your subconscious, even though dream engineering requires active participation in a lab setting and there is no evidence that altering your dreams can influence buying behavior. Ads certainly would have ruined the movie Inception.
🧬 Scientists found that a handheld device delivering vagus nerve stimulation can zap away fatigue and improve cognitive performance in sleep-deprived soldiers. So, instead of developing an addiction to coffee and energy drinks, one day you may just shock yourself in the neck.
🧬🤖 Scientists fitted a cockroach with a "backpack" computer and infrared camera guided by a machine learning model to help locate human bodies in earthquake rubble. They controlled the cyborg insect by electrically stimulating its sensory organs to induce turning and acceleration.
🧬🤖 Researchers discovered that self-propelled particles can escape from mazes as much as 20 times faster than passive particles. These tiny synthetic nanorobots could one day be used to remediate contaminated soil, improve water filtration, or deliver drugs to targeted areas of the body.
🤖 Engineers created the first programmable fiber that can sense, store, analyze, and infer activity after being sewn into clothing. The fiber contains temperature sensors and enough memory to store a short movie for two months without power. It also contains a neural network of 1,650 connections, allowing the fiber to determine which activity the wearer was performing with 96% accuracy. Such fabric could one day uncover hidden patterns in the human body for physical performance monitoring, health alerts, and early disease detection.
🤖 Google detailed a machine learning system that outperforms humans in the quality and speed of designing floorplans for its next-generation AI processors. The system brings us closer to AI building AI without humans in the loop, which, in turn, could usher in the Singularity.
🤖 Researchers used deep reinforcement learning to teach a quadruped robot called SpaceBok to reorient itself in simulated low gravity environments. They then transferred the skills and imitated a real SpaceBok in space using an experimental testbed designed for two-dimensional micro-gravity experiments.
🤖 Researchers created a soft robot that burrows through sand, competing with the snake-like robot that learned to swim in April. Robots have already conquered the land, sea, air, and even other planets — now they're headed underground.
🤖 Unitree released the Go1, a 12kg robotic dog capable of following humans and avoiding obstacles. Starting at $2,700, Go1's battery lasts about an hour, which means the length of your trip will dictate whether Go1 carries your groceries, or you carry them (plus an extra 12kg).
🤖 Tencent built Ollie, a two-wheeled robot that can drive around and use its "tail" to back flip over a gap. Ollie can right itself, drive down a set of stairs, stay upright even when its creators throw objects at it, and deliver a cup of coffee using an attachable robotic arm.
🤖 Toyota trained a home robot to recognize transparent and reflective objects and surfaces, a useful skill for helping humans in the home. The robot doesn't get confused like its predecessors because it perceives the 3D geometry of the scene, which also allows the researchers to use synthetic data for more efficient training.
🤖 The Beijing Academy of Artificial Intelligence unveiled WuDao 2.0, the world's most sophisticated NLP model, besting OpenAI's GPT-3 and Google's Switch Transformer. Unlike its counterparts, WuDao 2.0 is multilingual (it can generate text in English and Chinese, with more languages to come) and multimodal (it can understand and generate other formats like images, not just text).
🤖 Facebook and Michigan State University developed a method for reverse-engineering deepfakes. The AI system detects whether an image or video is a deepfake and figures out the generative model used to create it.
🤖🕶️ Facebook unveiled TextStyleBrush, an AI tool that can copy text style depicted in a photo using just a single word as input. Editing and replacing text in images like this could be a boon for handwriting forgery and AR translation.
🕶️ Facebook patented augmented reality hats. Since existing AR wearables are bulky and not particularly appealing to place on your face, the company attempted to incorporate its display tech into existing headgear (baseball caps, visors, cowboy hats, and even fedoras). Such a design allows for more room to install AR components and position potentially hot electronics farther away from your face. It also allows the display to be folded up and out of sight when you don't need it.
🕶️ Microsoft announced that the U.S. Army plans to start augmenting soldiers with custom versions of its HoloLens headsets in September, as part of the $21.88 billion contract signed in March. In addition to HoloLens' mixed-reality tech, the devices include thermal imagery, GPS, and night vision capabilities to let soldiers see through smoke and around corners, use holographic imagery for training, and project 3D terrain maps onto their field of vision.
🕶️ Facebook announced plans to test ads in VR. The company said it would use your Facebook profile for ad targeting and promised not to touch data stored on Oculus devices, until of course it becomes irresistibly lucrative to do so.
🕶️ Varjo announced a VR meeting platform that can scan and share physical spaces in real-time using the company's XR-3 headset's depth sensors. The platform continuously updates the field of view while the meeting is happening, turning the headset into a virtual teleportation scanner that shows your environment in real time to attendees using other devices.
And that's June. If you have any comments, 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!