Glimpses of the Future January 2015

Did An Amazon Robot Pick and Pack Your Package This Christmas?

After many grumbles about the way it treats its human labour, Amazon has revealed that at 10 of its fulfilment centres based across the United Sates, the Kiva robot mobile fulfilment system has been doing the picking and packing this festive season.

Kiva – the maker of the robots which Amazon bought last year says its bots increase productivity by 2-4 times over other picking methods.

The traditional approach to warehouse picking sees individual employees moving around the warehouse to collect the required items from shelves. This can be a time-consuming process, especially if order items are scattered around the warehouse and if the warehouse itself is at all large.

Flexible Touch-Sensitive Skin Developed For Robots

Korean researchers have developed a stretchable “electronic skin” closely modelled on human skin. The technology could have applications in prosthetic limbs, robotics, wearable electronics, remote surgery, and biomedical devices.

Current electronic skins are flexible, film-like devices designed to detect stress (pressure), read brain activity, monitor heart rate, or perform other functions. The new technology can also sense the direction and amount of stress, providing cues for the shape and texture of an object and how to hold it.

The new artificial skin is constructed of piezoresistive microdome arrays made from carbon nanotubes and PDMS silicone inspired by the interlocked epidermal layers in human skin.

When attached to human skin in the arm and wrist areas, it is claimed the arrays can distinguish various mechanical stimuli applied in different directions and can selectively monitor different intensities and directions of air flows and vibrations.

Electromagnetic Radiation Can Control Flow Of Insulin

A new study conducted by researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, suggests that more comfortable treatment methods for Type I diabetics may not be all that far away. Scientists are now remotely manipulating insulin production in mice using electromagnetic waves rather than insulin injections.

The researchers are calling their newly developed system radiogenetics. Integral to its success are iron storage particles called ferritins, which are tethered to an ion channel and are capable of interacting with radio waves or magnetic fields. As the waves are transmitted, which could be done by a phone or a wearable device, for example, the ferritin particles force open the ion channel (called TRPV1), which is located in the membrane of the cell.

Smart Luggage With Built-In GPS

Trunkster is a new range of luggage for which the designers have swapped zippers for a rolltop door, and added some high-tech solutions to the problems faced by many modern travellers.

A removable 15,000 mAh battery plus USB port means you can charge your phone several times on any journey, while a built-in digital scale lets you weigh your luggage simply by lifting it. And for US$40 extra, you can also add a GPS tracking device to ensure your luggage never gets lost in transit.

Can We Decode The Language Of The Human Nervous System?

Researchers, at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, NY, have noted that neurons of the peripheral nervous system are known to send information about local infections or inflammation to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), enabling the CNS to coordinate a whole-body response.

Benjamin Steinberg, M.D at St. Michael’s, hypothesized that the neurons may be sending the CNS not just a general “danger warning” but specific information about whether the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria, the type of bacteria present, or the nature of the auto-immune reaction. Researchers are now trying to decipher that “neural code.”

Since those messages are being sent from neurons to the CNS in real time, knowing what they’re “saying” could speed diagnoses or prognostication, which would be especially important in pandemics or outbreaks of particularly contagious or deadly diseases, such as flu, Ebola, or SARS.

The current method for confirming infections is to test body fluids or tissues, sometimes using invasive techniques, a process that can take hours, days or even longer. Steinberg also said researchers might even be able to tell how severe an infection is and how the illness is expected to progress without treatment.

Wave-Powered Desalinator Shows Way To Future Of Water

With world population set to exceed nine billion by mid-century, the most frequent question asked is: “How will we find the food and water necessary for another two billion people?”

Fresh water has long appeared to be the most difficult problem, but a new wave-powered desalination unit is providing a clue to a possible answer.

A Canadian design for the Odyssée wave-powered desalinator involves a hydraulic cylinder pump attached to buoy that floats on the surface of the water. As ocean swells move the buoy up and down, it kicks the pump into action. This builds up pressure and drives oil through a hydraulic motor, which in turns converts the linear motion into rotary motion.

Connected to the motor is a water pump that combines with a reverse osmosis system, a water purification method that uses membranes to separate water molecules from salt ions, bacteria and other unwanted particles. Using torque from the hydraulic motor, the desalinated water is then pumped back to shore though a small tube.

Low-powered, micro-desalination will provide an answer.

Blood Grown From Stem Cells Could End Need For Human Donors

Researchers from the UK and Irish Blood services have developed a technology to create a limitless supply of clean, laboratory-grown blood for use in clinics around the world. Using blood made from stem cells that could unshackle blood services from the limits of human supply, and any risk of infection would be removed.

The researchers have been working with embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cells, which, given the right culture conditions, can differentiate into any type of cells. Still at least a year from human testing, the team have tweaked their protocol to select only red blood cells.

Another advantage is that the researchers are making type-O blood, which can be given to practically all patients – including those with rare AB-negative blood. A limitless supply of this type of blood would remove the logistical headache of juggling different types of blood, simplifying global distribution logistics, and allowing the blood to flow more freely to where it is needed.

Holographic Images From Ultrasound Scanner You Can ‘Touch and Feel”

A new imaging technique being developed by researchers at the University of Bristol uses projected ultrasound to directly create floating, 3D shapes that can be seen and felt in mid-air.

Building on previous work at the university, the researchers have used an array of ultrasonic transducers to create and focus compound patterns of ultrasound to shape the air at which it was directed. To make these shapes visible, the manipulated air was directed through a thin curtain of oil and a lamp was then used to illuminate it. According to the researchers, this results in a system that produces such accurate and identifiable shapes that users can readily match an image of a 3D object to the shape rendered by the prototype ultrasound system.

Magnet-Powered Elevator Will Transform Architecture

Just as the arrival of electric, cable-pulled elevators allowed skyscrapers to be developed, so a new cable-less elevator powered by magnetic force will free architects to create entirely new types of buildings.

The Multisystem from ThyssenKrupp is a magnet-powered lift which can move both vertically and horizontally and the system allows several cars to uses the same shaft simultaneously.

Buildings will never be the same.

Microsoft Quietly Starts To Accept bitcoin For Some Services

A recent blog post from Microsoft quietly announced that its customers can now use bitcoin to purchase certain products through third party payment processor BitPay, which also supports tech sales site TigerDirect and Virgin’s space flight offshoot Virgin Galactic.

Microsoft made its announcement with little fanfare on its blog and slotted into the FAQ list of billing and payment queries.

However a company as large as Microsoft adopting bitcoin (for reference the currency itself is lower case but the blockchain coding is a proper noun) has been seen as further legitimation and may, some speculate, even lead to greater long term currency stability.

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