Hey there, I'm Emil Protalinski. This is FiToSci, a monthly newsletter that tracks how humanity is taking the fiction out of science fiction. Here are the highlights for March:
🕶️ Augmented/virtual reality: Microsoft and Facebook talk VR teleportation.
🚗 Transportation/logistics: Honda one-ups Tesla.
🤖 AI/robots: Deepfakes are going mainstream.
🧬 Biotech/bioscience: Humans create artificial mouse uteruses.
🚀 Space: Warp drives are physically possible.
While today is April Fools' Day, I promise the only jokes you’ll find below are sarcasm and snark. I recommend skipping to the sections you like, opening what you find interesting, and bookmarking links for later reading.
🕶️ Microsoft announced Mesh, a new platform for social and collaborative AR and VR experiences that will eventually allow "holoportation," where users appear as themselves within a shared virtual space. Mesh supports Microsoft HoloLens, Windows Virtual Reality headsets, Facebook's Oculus Quest 2, as well as a 2D view on Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows devices. CEO Satya Nadella likened Microsoft's continued AR/VR investments to the company's decision 10 years ago to go "all in" on cloud computing and suggested that what Xbox Live did for gaming, Mesh will do for mixed reality.
🕶️ Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg agreed that "holoportation" is coming, although he didn't use that term: "For me, the reason why we're in augmented and virtual reality is because one day I want people to be able to teleport around. In the future, I think this conversation … shouldn't be over the phone or over Zoom. It should be you guys teleport and are sitting on my couch or I teleport to you and I'm sitting there." Holoportation isn't quite ready yet, so both Microsoft and Facebook are using avatars for now. Still, with the pandemic forcing millions of white-collar workers into new remote work realities, it makes sense that this is the use case both companies are pitching.
🕶️ The two companies have diverging strategies. While Mesh is reaching widely, Microsoft is sticking to enterprise customers for HoloLens. "The technology is not ready — in terms of comfort, in terms of immersion, in terms of value — for consumers," said HoloLens lead architect Alex Kipman. The U.S. Army bought 120,000 custom HoloLens headsets, with the contract totaling up to $21.88 billion over 10 years. Facebook meanwhile has nearly 10,000 employees, or about 20% of its workforce, building AR/VR tech for consumers. Facebook described how its AR glasses would work with an assistant, haptic gloves, and a neural wristband that translates electrical pulses from the body into data the glasses can use.
🕶️ Researchers developed TapID, a wristband that tracks finger taps via vibrating wrist bones to bring typing into VR. One day, all the world's surfaces will be your keyboard.
🕶️ Scientists generated photorealistic color 3D holograms requiring less than 1MB of memory. How much longer before we can send holographic video messages à la Princess Leia?
🕶️ Sony unveiled PS5 VR controllers with haptic feedback, adaptive triggers, and finger touch detection. While Facebook's Oculus has a head start and Apple is looming, PlayStation is the dark horse in the VR race.
🕶️ Apple reportedly plans to launch a mixed reality headset in mid-2022 for around $1,000, AR glasses in 2025, and "contact lens type" devices by 2030-2040. The headset is expected to feature eye tracking, possibly iris recognition, and weigh under 150 grams. (An Oculus Quest 2 weighs 503 grams.)
🕶️ Snap reportedly plans to unveil new AR Spectacles that would superimpose Snapchat lenses onto the real world, but only for developers and creators. That's one way of admitting that consumers snubbed the previous version of its camera-glasses.
🕶️ Niantic teased AR glasses that the Pokémon Go maker is developing with Qualcomm.
🕶️ HTC released the Vive Facial Tracker, which can capture up to 38 facial shapes of your lips, jaw, teeth, tongue, cheeks, and chin movements and render them on a VR avatar in real-time.
🕶️ AR isn't only visual. Alphabet is reportedly working on a "superhuman hearing" wearable that would let users "focus on one particular speaker in a group setting with overlapping conversations." It's codenamed Wolverine.
🕶️🚗 Audi teased an optional AR display with overlaid directions and warnings. AR in your car's windshield could be an interim step between AR currently available on your phone and AR coming to your glasses, contact lenses, and other wearables.
🚗 Honda started selling the world's first car certified with level 3 autonomous driving tech, which means it automatically accelerates, brakes, and steers under certain conditions but requires the driver to assume control within seconds when alerted. Specifically, drivers can watch TV or a DVD on the navigation screen when the car is traveling slower than 50 km/h in congested highway traffic. Honda only plans to lease 100 models.
🚗 In emails to the California DMV, Tesla admitted its "Full Self-Driving" set of features would remain a Level 2 system. Separately, a U.S. federal agency warned that Tesla is beta-testing Level 2 self-driving cars on public roads, a process for which there are no safety regulations.
🚗 Waymo simulated dozens of fatal real-world crashes that took place in Arizona over nearly a decade to prove its self-driving cars can prevent deaths.
🚗 Volvo's self-driving software subsidiary Zenseact partnered with Luminar to offer drivers hands-free and eyes-free autonomous driving, for which the carmaker will take "full liability." Separately, Volvo partnered with Aurora to bring fully autonomous trucks to North America.
🚗 Volocopter delayed the launch of its flying taxi service by a year to 2023.
🚗 Lilium announced a seven-seater electric aircraft that will launch as part of its flying taxi service in 2025. The Lilium Jet is projected to have a cruising speed of 175 miles per hour and a range of over 155 miles.
🚗 EHang proposed 30-meter "vertiports" for its driverless air taxis in Italy, with more projects planned elsewhere in Europe and Southeast Asia. The aerial hubs for tourists will supposedly include an elevator, a waiting room, a café, a panoramic restaurant, and photovoltaic panels that generate over 300KW of power per day to recharge the air taxis. Sounds like a precursor to building cities in the sky.
🚗🤖 Small delivery robots gained access to city sidewalks in various states, with Pennsylvania classifying up to 550-pound machines moving at 12mph as "pedestrians." In the early 1900s, auto companies pushed pedestrians off the street to make room for fast cars. Now robot companies are invading sidewalks and eyeing bike lanes for even quicker delivery.
🤖 Our previous edition mentioned that impressive deepfakes of Tom Cruise had invaded TikTok. Chris Ume, the man behind the videos, has since posted more 30-second clips, called for better regulation of deepfakes, and explained his process. He fed his computer more than 20,000 images of the actor's face from different angles and under different lighting conditions, transposed the result to Cruise impersonator Miles Fisher, and applied 24 hours of post-production effects and filters. Being a professional visual effects expert is key, but nation-states with more considerable resources could do even better.
🤖 Feeling left out? Creating basic deepfakes now requires only a smartphone. In fact, a Pennsylvania mom anonymously sent her daughter's cheerleading coaches deepfake photos and videos of rival teammates drinking, smoking, or naked to get them kicked off the team.
🤖 Computer scientists developed an AI tool that detects a deepfake photo by analyzing light reflections in the eyes.
🤖 Stanford's annual AI Index report found that China overtook the U.S. in the number of AI research citations while the National Security Commission on AI concluded that the U.S. is not prepared for competition with China, adding to a growing sense that the West will be eclipsed if it doesn't devote more public resources to AI and other emerging technologies. The second report calls for democratic values, greater oversight, and transparency around how the government uses AI. Conversely, it also said the U.S. and its allies "should reject calls for a global ban on AI-powered autonomous weapons."
🤖 AI-controlled F-16 fighter jets participated in simulated dogfight tests against an opponent in DARPA's Air Combat Evolution program.
🤖 Researchers from MIT built an insect-sized drone that can withstand collisions. It weighs 0.6 grams, or about one large bumble bee.
🤖 Engineers showcased ExoNet, a research project that combines AI with exoskeleton legs capable of making control decisions on their own. Let's just not give them too much control, yeah?
🤖 Straight out of a Black Mirror storyline, researchers created a painting robot that, rather than basing its work on existing art and historical data, draws from its own set of values and abstract concepts.
🤖 Boston Dynamics unveiled a new warehouse robot that can move up to 800 boxes an hour. The company is currently looking for customers to pilot Stretch, with commercial deployment slated for 2022.
🤖 Researchers created a self-folding origami bird to demonstrate the potential for nanosized robots that fold into 3D configurations with a quick jolt of voltage. Once the atomically thin 2D material is bent, it holds its shape even after the voltage is removed.
🤖 Mars Wrigley deployed a robot that tempts you with candy while collecting data on store shoppers.
🤖 Amazon reportedly has over 800 employees working on a project codenamed Vesta, a voice command-enabled home robot the size of "two small cats." Unless it's as cheap as an Echo or Kindle, Vesta will need to be incredibly cute to replace people's cats.
🤖🧬 Researchers used ordinary smart speakers to detect abnormal heart rhythms by emitting audio signals into the room at a volume that humans can't hear. As the pulses bounce back to the speaker, algorithms can identify beating patterns generated from a human's chest wall and the time between heartbeats. All it would take is a software update, and one day your smart speaker could call 911 if it detects something is amiss.
🤖🧬 Researchers designed a microscopic robot that can cross the blood-brain barrier of a mouse to treat illnesses like brain tumors. Add the Portashrinker and you have an episode of The Magic School Bus.
🧬 Scientists created an artificial mouse uterus and grew embryos to the halfway point of gestation, no mouse mothers required. A spinning disc in an incubator prevented the embryos from adhering to the glass jars while maintaining the correct temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and atmospheric pressure. The resulting embryos were virtually indistinguishable from what you would find inside a living mother mouse. Watching animals grow in real time from cells to babies could help us prevent congenital disabilities, miscarriages, and generally better understand biology. These artificial mouse wombs currently can't sustain embryos past the halfway point because they need blood for nourishment. When technology removes that obstacle, what will the ethical, regulatory, and legal implications be of growing a small animal outside of a body? What about a human?
🧬 In another win for team test-tube baby, researchers grew human blastocysts in the lab that resemble human embryos at the stage when they usually implant in the womb. The feat gives us a window into a crucial time in human development — without using human embryos and the associated laws that limit embryo development in the lab.
🧬 Biologists found that as mouse eggs form into blastocysts, they rejuvenate. Upon implanting into the uterus wall, the blastocyst reaches its lowest epigenetic age, and then starts aging again. Humans appear to have a similar rejuvenation mechanism: An embryo made from epigenetically old egg and sperm manages to make itself biologically younger than its parents. All we need to do now is harness that mechanism to roll back aging.
🧬 Scientists retrained mouse cells to help repair damaged brain tissue. The process could someday help patients regain speech, cognition, and motor function.
🧬 Scientists grew "mini thyroids" in a lab for the first time, using the patients' own tissue.
🧬 Scientists grew organoid cultures of human and mouse lacrimal glands in a dish and made them "cry." While promising for dry eye sufferers, there's something chilling about creating cells only to make them puff up with tears.
🧬 Engineers got one step closer to 3D-printed organs. The above sped up video shows a 3D printer constructing an artificial hand in just 19 minutes. "The technology we've developed is 10-50 times faster than the industry standard, and it works with large sample sizes that have been very difficult to achieve previously," said the study's co-lead author Ruogang Zhao.
🧬 Orbillion Bio promised to produce lab-grown elk, lamb, and Wagyu beef. Evidently, the trillionaires of the future will have tastes too refined for fake meat burgers.
🧬 Nanoengineers developed a "wearable microgrid" that uses the human body to power small gadgets. It consists of three flexible and washable parts that can be screen printed onto clothing: a sweat-powered biofuel cell, a motion-powered triboelectric generator, and an energy-storing supercapacitor. Its successor could be the stillsuit from Dune.
🧬 Researchers demonstrated a brain-machine interface using ultrasound technology on monkeys that can predict their subsequent motor movements.
🧬🚀 Biologists found that a key sign of aging slows down during hibernation in yellow-bellied marmots. Researchers think this might be true for all animals that hibernate, and maybe even those that don't — such as humans looking to avoid a pandemic or embark on interplanetary space travel. The latter group will have to counter the tendency for astronaut hearts to shrink.
🚀 Astrophysicist Erik Lentz created a theoretical design of a warp drive using conventional physics. The colloquial term "warp drive" literally comes from science fiction works — most famously Star Trek — describing spacecraft propulsion systems that can travel faster than the speed of light. "This work has moved the problem of faster-than-light travel one step away from theoretical research in fundamental physics and closer to engineering," said Lentz. "The next step is to figure out how to bring down the astronomical amount of energy needed to within the range of today's technologies, such as a large modern nuclear fission power plant. Then we can talk about building the first prototypes."
🚀 Researchers suggested that wormholes, the other faster-than-light sci-fi trick, are not only possible, but safe for humans.
🚀 Rocket Lab unveiled plans for Neutron, a much larger rocket compared to its tiny Electron. Scheduled to be operational in 2024, the reusable launch vehicle will be capable of "mega-constellation deployment, interplanetary missions, and human spaceflight." CEO Peter Beck once said that he would "eat his hat" if Rocket Lab ever made its boosters reusable — watch him do so in the video above.
🚀 Scientists proposed building a modern Noah's Ark on Earth's moon. The lunar egg and sperm bank would contain the cryogenically frozen reproductive cells of 6.7 million Earth species, including humans, as an insurance policy in case of catastrophe.
🚀 NASA unveiled plans to support the development of private space stations that would succeed the International Space Station.
🚀 NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite found 2,200 potential planets outside our solar system, beating expectations.
🚀 China and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly build and run a lunar research station available to other nations.
🚀 China is especially serious about establishing long-term human bases on the moon. A group of people spent a record-setting 200 days in a nearly completely sealed environment without needing any supplies aside from electricity. They grew vegetables, raised mealworms for a protein-rich "bread," condensed drinking water from the air, and reused their urine for irrigation. Matt Damon in the Martian comes to mind.
🚀 China announced its first commercial spaceport and ramped up plans to enter the space internet arena, possibly using a state-backed company to undercut competitors as it did with Huawei and 5G.
🚀 Lockheed Martin partnered with Omnispace "to explore jointly developing 5G capability from space."
🚀 SpaceX announced plans to beam internet from its Starlink satellites to moving vehicles on Earth. CEO Elon Musk clarified that the company means aircraft, ships, large trucks, and RVs, but not cars as the terminal is "much too big."
🚀 Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa declared he is seeking eight people to join him on SpaceX's first civilian mission to the moon, scheduled for 2023. Previously he was only interested in artists, but now he is open to a "more diverse audience," so you should apply.
And that's March. If you have a comment, feel free to reply to this email. Follow FiToSci on Twitter, tell your colleagues to subscribe, and forward this issue to a friend who would enjoy it. See you next month!