πŸ‘½ FiToSci May 2021 Edition: Magic Window, Curing Blindness, Predictive Policing, Artificial Sun, Jetpack Sprints, 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. Star this email to reference the highlights for May:

πŸ•ΆοΈ Augmented/virtual reality: Google unveiled a "magic window" video booth.

🧬 Biotech/bioscience: Gene therapy partially restored a man's eyesight.

πŸ€– AI/robots: A predictive policing program backfired.

πŸš€ Space: An "artificial sun" fusion reactor set a new temperature record.

πŸš— Transportation/logistics: A man used a jetpack to beat Usain Bolt.

I recommend skipping to the sections you like, opening what you find interesting, and bookmarking links for later reading.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Google demoed Project Starline, a video booth with a 65-inch display, depth sensors, and cameras galore, all working in tandem to create 3D representations of you and the person you're calling. Starline combines computer vision, machine learning, and spatial audio to turn video call subjects into holograms for incredibly realistic telepresence. During a call, it's meant to feel like you're looking through a "magic window" through which you see a hyper-realistic 3D image of the other person, but they're not actually there. Starline brings to life Isaac Asimov's "trimensional personification" from The Caves of Steel.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Snap unveiled its first AR glasses, featuring four microphones, two stereo speakers, and a touchpad. But the new Spectacles aren't ready for mainstream use; they're not for sale, will only be available to select AR creators, and the battery only lasts 30 minutes. Snap also acquired WaveOptics, the maker of the AR displays that power its new Spectacles glasses. At more than $500 million, it's Snap's largest acquisition ever and shows just how dedicated the company is to AR glasses.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Microsoft released a new HoloLens hand tracking and physics demo that uses reactive lights and sounds to make users feel as though they are physically touching AR content.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Researchers projected moving 3D images by trapping a small particle with a laser beam and then moving the particle around, leaving behind an illuminated path in the air. The illusion only works from a certain perspective, meaning these are not technically holograms. Still, the work is inspired explicitly by the holodeck from Star Trek and the Princess Leia projector from Star Wars.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Sony's next-generation VR headset for PlayStation 5 will reportedly have an improved resolution of 2000Γ—2040 per eye, inside-out tracking, a lens separation adjustment dial, and gaze tracking capable of foveated rendering.

πŸ•ΆοΈ HTC unveiled new VR headsets for the enterprise market: the Vive Pro 2 ($750) coming June 4 and the Vive Focus 3 ($1,300) coming June 27. Both have 5K resolution displays (2448Γ—2448 pixels per eye), a 120-degree field of view, and attempt to double down on professional-grade VR.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Axon announced a wireless VR simulator product that uses HTC's Vive Focus 3 headset to train police in weapon handling and encounters with the public. Hoping to build empathy, Axon will have trainees experience the officer side and the civilian side.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Scientists found that time appears to pass more quickly in virtual reality. Asked to estimate when they believed five minutes had passed, participants playing a maze game with a VR headset immersed themselves for 72.6 seconds longer than those playing the same game on a screen. The time compression effect could be due to the field of view or users being less aware of their physical body inside VR.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Researchers developed HairTouch, a VR controller that lets you feel different types of fur and other surfaces.

πŸ•ΆοΈπŸ§¬ Cognixion detailed an AR headset and brain-computer interface that turns thoughts into device commands geared toward assistive communication use for people with motor impairments.

🧬 Researchers partially restored a man's eyesight for the first time using experimental gene therapy, 40 years after he lost most of his vision. The man suffered from retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease in which the retina gradually deteriorates and the eye's photoreceptor cells die. This is the first clinical application of optogenetics, in which light is used to control gene expression and neuron firing. The researchers injected the retina's nerve cells with an algae gene, making them fire in response to amber light. The man can now make out high-contrast images, including objects on a table and the white stripes in a crosswalk while wearing specialized goggles. We're on our way to honoring Geordi La Forge from Star Trek.

🧬 Also via optogenetics, researchers programmed mice to become friends using wireless devices implanted in their brains. Because of the genetic engineering involved, the method is not yet approved in humans, but someday it could cure blindness or reverse paralysis.

🧬 Scientists applied an experimental form of gene therapy that uses HIV as a delivery system to treat children who are born effectively without an immune system. Doctors removed some blood cells, used a disabled version of the virus to insert healthier versions of the relevant genes, and returned the cells through an IV. The result is a potential cure for severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome or "bubble boy disease."

🧬 Researchers created a gene-editing tool called Retron Library Recombineering (RLR) that aims to outdo CRISPR. RLR introduces a new sequence of DNA as the cell is dividing and copying its genome, just before cell division. RLR is quickly applicably to huge populations of cells and doesn't make any cuts to the DNA strand, avoiding unintended genetic changes that CRISPR can bring.

🧬 Scientists deployed the gene editing tool CRISPR to lower LDL cholesterol in monkeys by 60% in one week.

🧬 Researchers found that people who reach the ages of 105 and 110 have five key genetic variants that help prevent DNA mutations and repair those that do occur. They also discovered that the older cohort was less likely to accumulate the somatic gene mutations often associated with aging.

🧬 Researchers discovered a potential anti-aging immunotherapy in mice by activating invariant Natural Killer T cells, which can sense and eliminate damaged senescent cells partly responsible for many diseases.

🧬 The International Society for Stem Cell Research updated its recommendations that urge, and in some countries legally require, terminating experimental human embryos after 14 days. Now, the guidelines forbid genetic editing that would pass on changes to future generations.

🧬 Scientists wirelessly recorded people's brain activity as they went about their day. The achievement could help with research on the brain's inner workings, but it raises serious privacy concerns.

πŸ§¬πŸ€– Researchers gave 36 participants a robotic thumb they could control with their toes.

πŸ§¬πŸ€– Scientists implanted a paralyzed man with sensors to record brain signals and used a neural network to convert them into text in real time. By imagining himself writing each letter, the man set a new record for typing with a brain-computer interface: 90 characters a minute.

πŸ§¬πŸ€– Researchers built a prototype microrobot that could one day perform minimally invasive brain surgery on children. The prototype is controlled by external magnetic fields and comprises 1-5mm parts, including tiny grippers mounted on the end of a flexible wire. In tests performed on a rubber model of the brain with a simulated tumor, the prototype successfully entered and removed the cancer cells.

πŸ§¬πŸ€– Bioengineers added the sensation of touch to a man's robotic hand when it contacts a surface or object. It's the first time a brain-computer interface for a robotic prosthetic has integrated real-time motion and touch. Compared to tests without sensory signals, the tactile feedback allowed him to grip and move items in half the time.

πŸ€– Chicago's predictive policing program told a man he would be involved in a shooting, but couldn't determine which side of the gun he would be on. The police surveilled him relentlessly and "in a deranged feat of self-fulfilling prophecy," got him shot β€” twice. Minority Report was supposed to be a cautionary tale, not a how-to manual.

πŸ€– A United Nations report revealed that an autonomous weaponized drone "hunted down" and "remotely engaged" human targets last year without instructions to do so. The report did not confirm whether there were casualties β€” if so, it would be the first known instance of a military drone fully autonomously attacking humans. Apparently, humanity was inspired by Terminator's depiction of SkyNet.

πŸ€– Amazon indefinitely extended its ban on selling facial recognition tech to the police. The ban does not impact the company's Ring surveillance network, to which it gives police departments access. With facial recognition legislation moving at a glacial pace, companies are making their own judgment calls on what is best for business β€” and society.

πŸ€– Agility Robotics taught its "blind" bipedal robot Cassie how to climb stairs. While Cassie has no prior knowledge about the stairs it ascends or descends, it receives proprioceptive feedback, meaning it knows what kind of contact its limbs are making. The researchers pulled off the feat by using reinforcement learning to train a simulated Cassie on permutations of stairs based on typical city building codes.

πŸ€– Researchers created a hair-brushing robot that can untangle any hair type on the fly.

πŸ€– Engineers developed soft robotic grippers that can safely and securely pick up objects of various sizes, weights, shapes, and levels of fragility.

πŸ€– Researchers taught a robot to mimic human facial expressions using deep learning.

πŸ€– Dr. Fill, a puzzle-solving automaton, won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, marking the first time AI managed to outscore human solvers at the event.

πŸ€– Google announced LaMDA, a language model for dialogue applications that facilitates natural conversations with objects like Pluto or a paper airplane. A few more layers of personality and we'll have Iron Man's Jarvis or the movie Her.

πŸ€– Microsoft tapped OpenAI's GPT-3 model for its low-code Power Apps to translate natural language text into code and formulas automatically. One day anyone may be able to build software just by talking.

πŸ€– Researchers designed an exoskeleton prototype that helps people walk farther while using less energy. The prototype also converts the excess energy into electricity that can power its control system and other mobile devices.

πŸ€–πŸš€ Scientists proposed using massive robot-flown kites to harness strong winds on Mars for powering future human colonies.

πŸ€–πŸš€ JAXA announced plans to send a 250-gram baseball-sized transforming robot to the moon in 2022.

πŸš€ Scientists set a new world record by sustaining a plasma temperature of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds, beating the previous high of 100 million degrees Celsius for 20 seconds. The "artificial sun" fusion reactor also maintained a temperature of 160 million degrees Celsius for 20 seconds, or more than 10 times hotter than our Sun. The team aims to create nuclear fusion using deuterium in seawater to provide a steady stream of clean energy, but the tech is still at least 30 years away from mainstream use. Still, another group of scientists solved the exhaust problem, bringing us one step closer to harnessing the power of nuclear fusion.

πŸš€ Physicists found that a laser pulse travelling through hydrogen-helium plasma appears to move at speeds both slower and faster than the speed of light: 299,792,458m/s. The revelation doesn't violate the laws of physics because none of the photons in the laser beams move faster than the speed of light β€” the detected pulses of brightness cannot transmit information.

πŸš€ NASA's Ingenuity helicopter performed its first one-way flight on Mars, climbing to a new altitude record of 33 feet, marking the first "aerial scout" operation on another planet. During a new operations demonstration phase, the helicopter experienced an "in-flight anomaly" during its sixth flight but managed to land safely.

πŸš€ The European Space Agency detailed Moonlight, its plan for a constellation of lunar satellites. The project to provide telecommunications and navigation services on the moon is part of a broader push for a permanent lunar presence that would serve as a launchpad for deeper space exploration.

πŸš€πŸš—Lockheed Martin and General Motors partnered to build an autonomous electric rover for the moon.

πŸš— Jetpack pilot Richard Browning set a new record for "fastest 100m in a body controlled jet engine powered suit." The 1,000-horsepower powered jetpack covered a 100-meter track in just 7.69 seconds, meaning the Iron Man-like suit shaved almost two seconds off Usain Bolt's 9.58-second record. The sizable jetpack also made history in the 400-meter hurdles and the pole vault competitions, practically begging Guinness World Records to put on an emerging tech Olympics.

πŸš— Baidu launched its paid driverless taxi service in Beijing, becoming the first company to commercialize autonomous driving operations in China. Each ride costs 30 yuan, is open to passengers ages 18 to 60, and is limited to an area of about 3 square kilometers. Instead of a safety driver sitting behind the wheel, a safety member in the front passenger seat handles any emergencies.

πŸš— A driverless Waymo taxi got stuck in traffic and fled the roadside assistance team sent to save it.

πŸš— Volkswagen said it could profitably sell a Level 4 autonomous driving system for €7 an hour.

πŸš— The European Union Aviation Safety Agency projected Europe could see the first flying taxis enter service as early as 2024.

πŸš— Volocopter unveiled VoloConnect, its latest concept for a new electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle. VoloConnect is intended to transport up to four passengers over distances of up to 100 km between the suburbs and the city with a cruising speed of 180 km/h and a top speed of around 250 km/h. The company expects to achieve certification by 2026.

πŸš— Virgin Hyperloop CEO Josh Giegel said commercial operations of its passenger pods that hurtle at speeds of up to 750 mph through tunnels using magnetic levitation could begin as early as 2027.

πŸš— SberAutoTech unveiled Flip, a six-seater self-driving vehicle the company described as a "taxi of the future." Flip has so far only been tested on closed tracks, and the company did not share a price tag, supplier details, nor a production timeline. The electric vehicle's replaceable batteries can be swapped in about five minutes, with SberAutoTech also claiming it could support alternative fuels like natural gas and hydrogen. With no obvious front or rear, the curved design resembles the flying vehicles from the Soviet TV series Guest from the Future, also called Flip.

And that's May. 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!