👽 FiToSci November 2021: DART Launch, Xenobots, Mesh for Teams, Everyday Robots, Baidu Robotaxis, 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 November's highlights:
🚀 Space: NASA launched a planetary defense spacecraft.
🧬 Biotech/bioscience: Scientists created organisms that reproduce.
🕶️ Augmented/virtual reality: Microsoft teased AR/VR meetings.
🤖 AI/robots: Alphabet's X deployed robots in Google offices.
🚗 Transportation/logistics: Baidu promised robotaxis in 100 cities.
I recommend skipping to the sections you like, opening what you find interesting in a separate tab, and bookmarking links for later reading. Let's get started.
🚀 NASA launched its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft to smash head-on into the asteroid Dimorphos at 15,000mph, hoping to change its orbit around the larger asteroid Didymos. While neither asteroid threatens Earth, both are large enough to cause devastation and help determine if the kinetic impactor technique can safely change the orbit of an asteroid on a collision course with our planet. About 10 days before impact, DART will deploy a small satellite called LiciaCube to send back images of the crash expected in September 2022. If the 19-meter spacecraft cannot deflect the 163-meter Dimorphos, there's always Hollywood's just-nuke-it approach, which a computer simulation in October found could work, depending on the asteroid's size.
🚀 Russia destroyed defunct Soviet satellite Cosmos 1408, sending more than 1,500 pieces of debris hurtling around Earth and forcing the seven International Space Station (ISS) astronauts to shelter in escape pods. The only difference from the plotline of Gravity is that these astronauts were thankfully inside, rather than outside, the ISS.
🚀 NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy requested design ideas for a lunar nuclear fission power system ready to launch within the next 10 years that would provide power to operate rovers, conduct experiments, and produce water, propellant, and other life-support supplies on the Moon. The space agency wants a compact, lightweight uranium-fueled nuclear reactor that can autonomously deliver at least 40 kilowatts of power (enough to power 30 households continuously for a decade) from the deck of a lunar lander or on a lunar surface rover, and eventually enough to establish an outpost on Mars.
🚀 Scientists proposed giving Mars an artificial magnetic field by using its moon Phobos to create a ring of charged particles around the planet, potentially allowing for a long-term human presence without airtight compounds. One of the goals of terraforming Mars is to increase the atmospheric pressure above the Armstrong Limit, the threshold that allows human survival without a full-body pressure suit.
🚀🧬 Heinz unveiled Tomato Ketchup Marz Edition made from tomatoes grown in simulated Mars regolith and other conditions mimicking a greenhouse on the Red Planet, including LED lighting, regular irrigation, and temperature control. If humans are to live on Mars, we need to live off the local resources, which means expanding our repertoire beyond the potatoes grown in The Martian.
🧬 Scientists created a new form of reproduction in xenobots, tiny "programmable" organisms conceived earlier from the skin cells of African clawed frogs. Using a supercomputer, the team ran evolutionary algorithms simulating billions of body shapes to see which one would replicate many generations and settled on a semi-torus, or a Pac-Man with an open mouth. The xenobots can swim through liquid, navigate through tubes, work together to collect particles into piles, heal themselves, store information from their experiences, and now self-replicate by ingesting single-cell organisms to release "babies" that look and move like their parents. As a result, the xenobots don't have to be painstakingly made by hand and can ultimately be used for human applications, from producing insulin to repairing spinal cord injuries.
🧬 Researchers developed an injectable self-assembling gel that reverses paralysis in mice after just four weeks by mimicking the extracellular matrix of the spinal cord and providing a scaffold that helps cell growth. The therapy looks promising based on in vitro tests with human cells, meaning the next step is getting approval for use in human patients to prevent paralysis after major trauma such as falls, sporting injuries, traffic accidents, and various diseases.
🧬 Scientists gene-edited the bacteria in the gut microbiome of mice using CRISPR. The first stable gene edit within the gut microbiome of a mammal could help manipulate the ratio of different bacterial species in humans to treat a range of health problems, including autoimmune diseases, asthma, cancer, diabetes, and inflammatory bowel diseases.
🧬 Researchers advanced a non-invasive silicone nanochip device, which can reprogram biological tissue to change the function of living body parts, from prototype to standardized fabrication. With an electric spark, the nanochip introduces specific genes in a fraction of a second, altering skin cells to blood vessels and nerve cells to heal a badly wounded leg, repairing brain damage caused by stroke, or reversing nerve damage caused by diabetes.
🧬 Researchers used ultrashort pulses of laser light to kill more than 99.9% of life-threatening bacteria and viruses without harming human cells, making them a safer disinfectant alternative to harsh chemicals, heat, or radiation. As bacteria increasingly develop antibiotic resistance, lasers could one day zap away the rise of multidrug-resistant superbugs, sterilize a surgical wound before close, and even treat bloodstream infections.
🧬 Researchers created a two-layer camouflage fabric that doesn't require external sensors or power. Inspired by octopuses and squid, the new material uses thermal expansion rate changes to control any reflected light and match the colors of its surroundings.
🧬 Engineers developed a battery-free smart fabric that extends near-field communications (NFC) from inches to over four feet so wearers can brush their body against other textiles or NFC readers for power and information transfer. Applications include clothing that starts a car when the owner is near, work uniforms that open facility gates, athletic pants that track movements and relay data to tops that track heart rate, hospital gowns that measure and transmit patient vital signs, a shirt that makes payments with a wave or handshake, and information exchange through high-fiving others wearing clothing with the same capabilities.
🧬🕶️ The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized AppliedVR's EaseVRx as a prescription VR treatment for chronic lower back pain in adults based on data from a clinical trial that showed a reduction in discomfort. EaseVRx is an eight-week treatment program that uses a VR headset, controller, breathing amplifier, and cognitive behavioral therapy principles to recognize and understand various thought patterns and emotions.
🧬🕶️ A neuroscientist released a brain-computer interface VR mod for the video game Skyrim that boosts spell effectiveness when the player is focused, according to their Muse 2 electroencephalography meditation device. The mod relies on data from the Muse 2 to transform the Magicka energy bar into a focus meter that shifts depending on activity and mental state.
🕶️ Microsoft announced plans to bring its mixed reality platform Mesh to Teams in the first half of 2022, with 3D avatars and VR support to boot. Putting aside Microsoft's metaverse mumbo jumbo, the company promised Mesh for Teams would "evolve over time as sensor technology improves across devices from phones to virtual reality headsets, from laptops with a single microphone to a HoloLens with six microphones and 16 cameras." Microsoft showed plenty of 3D avatar and VR examples, but it didn't demonstrate HoloLens working with Teams. AR is exactly the technology that could break video calls' physical limitations, but unfortunately HoloLens for Teams meetings in your home office or from the factory floor isn't ready yet.
🕶️ HP announced XRServices in beta, a troubleshooting AR service that offers a virtual coach to guide users through fixing an industrial printer using Microsoft's HoloLens 2 headset. The support service can also onboard new employees with a real-world demonstration of how the hardware works, which could be useful in any industry that relies on service calls, face-to-face meetings, and long travel times.
🕶️ Meta detailed a haptic glove prototype, allegedly in development for seven years, that uses air pockets to simulate touching objects in VR. The glove's larger purpose is to unlock "an even greater sense of presence" in the metaverse using advances in soft robotics, microfluidics, hand tracking, haptic rendering, and perceptual science.
🕶️ Apple reportedly plans to launch an AR headset in late 2022 rather than in mid-2022. The company's next major product, allegedly meant to replace the iPhone in 10 years, is supposedly powered by an M1-like chip and does not require tethering to another Apple device.
🕶️ Seoul announced a 3.9 billion won investment to become the first major city government offering public services and cultural events on a "metaverse platform," to be developed by the end of 2022 and fully operational in 2026. The tentatively named "Metaverse Seoul" would let residents use VR headsets to attend a virtual city hall, visit a virtual mayor's office, file a civil complaint, tour a historic site, and frequent businesses.
🕶️🤖 Nvidia released its real-time collaborative design tool Omniverse, which can generate interactive AI-driven avatars that see, speak, and converse on a wide range of topics with human users to book appointments, order food, and conduct banking. The AI assistants can be customized for almost any industry, and Nvidia also announced that Omniverse experiences can be streamed to AR and VR devices.
🤖 Alphabet's X deployed a fleet of over 100 robot prototypes to perform everyday tasks autonomously in Google's offices. Jobs include sorting trash, wiping tables after lunch in the cafes, pushing in chairs, checking if meeting rooms need tidying or if chairs are missing, and more to come as the robots learn new tricks. In 2016, it took the equivalent of four months for one robot to learn how to perform a simple grasp with a 75% success rate, whereas now a single robot learns in less than a day how to perform a complex maneuver such as opening a door, with a 90% success rate. Furthermore, the Everyday Robots team has figured out how to build on the algorithms and learnings from one task and apply them to another, such as from door opening to pushing in chairs, inching ever closer to its goal of creating a general-purpose learning robot.
🤖 Meta unveiled ReSkin, a replaceable tactile sensing skin that can increase the sense of touch in robotics, wearables, and smart clothing using high-resolution sensors to detect slipping, throwing, catching, and clapping. ReSkin taps machine learning, soft robotics, and magnetic sensing that enable robot grippers to pick up delicate fruit without squishing it, shoes to track a dog's movements, a robot to turn a key to unlock a door, gloves to indicate what another person is touching, health care settings, and other use cases where dexterity to maneuver small, soft, or sensitive objects is critical.
🤖 Miso Robotics upgraded its burger-flipping robot with the Flippy 2, which can operate a fry station on its own, handle multiple bins to fry different foods simultaneously without mixing their flavors, and automatically manage basket filling, emptying, and returning. Developed in part with feedback from partner White Castle, Flippy 2 requires less human assistance than its predecessor while increasing throughput and taking up less aisle space.
🤖 Cobionix performed the first robotic intramuscular injection with its new robot Cobi. After pre-registering for a vaccination online, human patients show up at a clinic where Cobi detects their presence using 3D depth sensors, checks their ID, retrieves a vial of vaccine, creates a 3D digital map of their body, determines the optimal injection site, and performs a vaccination with a high-pressure jet of fluid rather than a hypodermic needle.
🤖 Researchers invented a holographic camera that can see around corners and through skin, giving it potential for early-warning navigation systems in self-driving cars or for non-invasive medical imaging that lets doctors observe organs inside the human body. The camera works by indirectly scattering light onto hidden objects, then scattering it back to the camera that captures it, allowing AI to reconstruct the signals and create a holographic representation of the hidden or obscured targets.
🤖 Nvidia unveiled Riva Custom Voice, a synthetic voice generator that the company claims creates custom, "human-like" voices using only 30 minutes of audio speech. Anyone who has ever been recorded speaking for at least half an hour can have their voice put to work in ads, call centers, virtual assistants, apps, or deepfakes.
🤖 Researchers trained a deep neural network on a database of known psychoactive substances to generate 8.9 million potential designer drugs, which law enforcement agencies now use to predict what could hit the streets next before the chemists invent them. A senior author of the paper acknowledged the designer drug predictor's parallels with Minority Report but did not grasp it was a cautionary tale.
🤖🚗 Ultra Electronics demoed a mind-controlled drone prototype that moves based on a human pilot's visual cortex signals detected by a brain computer interface. The person wearing the device focuses on circles shown on a laptop screen, which are converted to commands for the drone to take off, rotate in the air, and land, making the setup potentially useful for police and military applications.
🚗 Baidu announced plans to expand its driverless taxi service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 cities by 2030, turning the fleet into the company's second-biggest profit generator after online ad revenue. Currently in five Chinese cities, the company's Apollo Go robotaxi service lets users hail an autonomous car, albeit with a safety staff member to accompany passengers. A week later, Beijing granted Baidu and competitor Pony AI a permit to collect robotaxi fares in the city's Yizhuang district (the first such approval in a large Chinese city), with other major cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen expected to follow suit by early next year. In June, Baidu unveiled a Level 4 autonomous electric vehicle for its robotaxi service that it claims costs just $75,000 to make.
🚗 AutoX became the first company to operate a fully driverless robotaxi fleet, without safety drivers, in an entire district in a major Chinese city: the Pingshan district in Shenzhen. The service zone gradually expanded over 10 months of operation day and night, in rain and fog, to cover 168 square kilometers of open roads.
🚗 Hyundai announced plans to test a Level 4 self-driving system in downtown Seoul under the pilot program RoboRide in the first half of 2022. RoboRide could include the ability to remotely connect to a control center for road emergency support with plans to eventually commercialize it as a robo-delivery service.
🚗 Apple is reportedly accelerating the development of a fully autonomous electric car with a debut by 2025. Don't bet on that timeline, which keeps changing along with the car's details: The latest proposal involves no steering wheel, no pedals, and a seating plan where passengers face each other like in a limo.
🚗 Hyundai announced plans to get its first five-seat electric take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle certified by 2024, make its inaugural passenger flight in 2028, and hit large-scale production in the early 2030s. The company created an advanced air mobility subsidiary, Supernal, to develop a family of eVTOL vehicles as part of a larger suite of mobility options for a multi-leg trip, all accessible from a single app.
🚗 eMagic Aircraft unveiled the eMagic One, its tandem wing eVTOL prototype that can allegedly transition from vertical to horizontal flight, cruise for an hour at 144 km/h, and reach a top speed of 170 km/h. Founder Thomas Senkel, who happens to be the first to take flight on a manned electric multicopter, claims the aircraft-multicopter hybrid is "impossible to stall."
🚗 Alauda held the world's first remotely piloted eVTOL drag race, ahead of the first crewed race slated for later this year. The Airspeeder Mk3 vehicles, which were unveiled in February and meant to emulate the pod races in Star Wars: A Phantom Menace, flew 15m above the ground with team Bravo's craft reaching a top speed of 155 km/h to beat team Alpha by 3.2 seconds in the 300-meter race.
🚗 Cleo Robotics announced that its palm-fitting $9,800 indoor drone is now available for purchase. Dronut X1's ducted fan design, thrust vectoring, autonomous navigation, LiDAR-powered obstacle detection, and completely enclosed propellers allows for flight near people, in tight spaces, and around sensitive equipment, making it useful for autonomous industrial inspections, construction monitoring, surveillance, scouting, and reconnaissance.
🚗 Elbit Systems and Roboteam launched Rook, a multi-payload military 6X6 autonomous unmanned ground vehicle capable of navigating rough terrain day and night for up to 8 hours at 30 km/h to deliver supplies, evacuate casualties, perform intelligence gathering missions, and operate as a remote weapon system. Rook is modular and can track and follow soldiers, form convoys with other Rooks, be remotely controlled in real-time, and comes with a deployable multicopter drone.
And that's November. As a treat for reading right to the very end, check out how researchers were inspired by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War to study the physics of a finger snap.
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