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Sat, 29 Apr 2017
The World for People who Think

Science & Technology


Spotless mind: Experts warn of the threats to our 'mental integrity' from invasive neurotechnology

New human rights laws are required to protect sensitive information in a person's mind from 'unauthorised collection, storage, use or even deletion'

Biomedical ethicists say “malicious brain-hacking” and “hazardous uses of medical neurotechnology” could require a redefinition of the idea of mental integrity.
"Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind," wrote the playwright John Milton in 1634.

But, nearly 400 years later, technological advances in machines that can read our thoughts mean the privacy of our brain is under threat.

Now two biomedical ethicists are calling for the creation of new human rights laws to ensure people are protected, including "the right to cognitive liberty" and "the right to mental integrity".

Scientists have already developed devices capable of telling whether people are politically right-wing or left-wing. In one experiment, researchers were able to read people's minds to tell with 70 per cent accuracy whether they planned to add or subtract two numbers.

Facebook also recently revealed it had been secretly working on technology to read people's minds so they could type by just thinking.

Comment: See also: Hacking your brain: Experts warn of growing threat from monitoring and controlling neural signals


Scientists discover baby humpback whales 'whisper' to their mothers to avoid detection by predators

Humpback wales make an epic migration between their mating and eating zones
Humpback whales are renown for their loud, haunting songs, but new research has discovered the huge marine mammals are able to "whisper" as well.

Scientists found that baby humpbacks avoid the attention of predators while communicating with their mothers by using intimate grunts and squeaks.

The quiet noises enable the young to keep track of their parents during long and precarious migrations without being overheard by killer whales and sexually aggressive male humpbacks looking for an opportunity to mate.

Researchers collected their groundbreaking data by directly attaching microphones via suction caps to whales that were swimming near Australia.

Monkey Wrench

Just in case human gene editing goes horribly wrong scientists fall back on "CRISPR off switch"

The gene editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 has been a subject of controversy ever since it was developed. CRISPR -Cas9 gives scientists the ability to conduct genome editing with a quickness and ease never seen before. Regardless of the inherent concerns that come along with gene editing, this technology has undoubtedly changed the world of basic and applied biology indefinitely.

Perhaps one of the most concerning aspects about CRISPR-Cas9 was the inability for scientists to turn off the gene altering sequence. The potential for wrong genes to be snipped away and the consequential introduction of rogue genetic changes in human or animal DNA into the gene pool was (and still is) rather terrifying. Now, however, scientists claim that they have found a way to hopefully mitigate this tremendous risk. In a new study, researchers say that they have found a tiny protein that can actually turn off Cas9 and prevent it from creating unwanted gene alterations. They say that the protein works on human cells — at least if they are in a petri dish.


Welcome to the Matrix - Artificial wombs successfully pass 1st test, human trials could begin within 3yrs

© The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia/YouTube
Scientists have successfully developed and tested an artificial womb capable of supporting prematurely born lambs for periods of up to four weeks in a landmark development that could dramatically reduce the risks posed by premature births in humans.

Lambs born at the equivalent point of 23 weeks into the human gestation period have been kept alive in a transparent vessel, or 'biobag,' that serves as both a womb and incubator for periods of up to four weeks after their initial, premature birth.

The research was conducted by a team of doctors and scientists led by Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The team's findings were published in the journal Nature on Tuesday.

"If we can support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies," said Flake when speaking to the media.

Comment: How long before we see this?
© The Matrix


Nature's answer to plastic pollution: Scientists discover a caterpillar that eats plastic

© César Hernández/CSIC
Plastic biodegraded by 10 worms in 30 minutes.
Scientists have found that a caterpillar commercially bred for fishing bait has the ability to biodegrade polyethylene: one of the toughest and most used plastics, frequently found clogging up landfill sites in the form of plastic shopping bags.

The wax worm, the larvae of the common insect Galleria mellonella, or greater wax moth, is a scourge of beehives across Europe. In the wild, the worms live as parasites in bee colonies. Wax moths lay their eggs inside hives where the worms hatch and grow on beeswax - hence the name.

A chance discovery occurred when one of the scientific team, Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper, was removing the parasitic pests from the honeycombs in her hives. The worms were temporarily kept in a typical plastic shopping bag that became riddled with holes.

Bertocchini, from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (CSIC), Spain, collaborated with colleagues Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe at the University of Cambridge's Department of Biochemistry to conduct a timed experiment.


Where did your dog come from? New tree of breeds may hold the answer

© Arco Images GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo
The stories genes tell about dog breeds often match the breeder’s historical lore.
From the 80-kilogram Great Dane to the 1-kilogram tiny teacup poodle, there seems to be a dog for everyone. Now, the largest genetic analysis to date has figured out how those breeds came to be, which ones are really closely related, and what makes some dogs more susceptible to certain diseases.

"They show that by using genetics, you can really show what was going on as [breeders] were making these breeds," says Elinor Karlsson, a computational biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester who was not involved with the work.


Better Earth

New map shows the world hidden beneath your feet

© Sailor, Craig - Tacoma Department of Natural Resources
Mount Saint Helens can be seen in this screen grab from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ Lidar map. The 1980 eruption blew out the northern side, top, of the volcano, while the southern side shows volcanic flows from ancient eruptions.
Puget Sound is grooved like an old record. That's one of the Earth's secrets that can be found on a new interactive map produced by the state.

Using Lidar technology, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources has mapped a good third of the state revealing the smallest of details hidden beneath trees, buildings and other obstructions.

The grooves, carved by ancient glaciers, can be seen from Whidbey Island to south of Olympia. Tacoma is etched with a series of subtle pattern of north-south lines. The grooves become most prominent around Lake Tapps.

Toggling between "Bare Earth" and "Top Surface" is the best way to view the map.


Groundbreaking examples of learning from nature to advance technology

There's no doubt humans are resourceful — just look at the world we've created. However, as much as there may be to celebrate regarding just how far we've come, it's also incredibly important to hone in on the massive sustainability problems that have resulted from our innovations. Biomimicry seeks to change that, however.

An alternative approach to innovation, biomimicry's goal is to create sustainable solutions to human challenges by echoing nature's patterns and strategies. The approach involves creating products, processes, and polices that are well-adapted to life on earth for generations to come.

Hard to envision what this would look like? Check out these four incredible tech innovations that have been inspired by biomimicry:

Comment: It makes so much sense to work with and learn from nature rather than seeking to exploit our natural resources because of the greed of psychopaths in power. We can see in these examples, human creativity and innovation at work and how technology, instead of being used to oppress people and advance warfare, can be used for the betterment of humanity.

For more on some of the designs, in particular the Dewpoint water collector, see this video.

And this is what Wanda Lewis, the designer of the leaf-inspired bridge, had to say about her ambitious project:
A new generation of indestructible bridges could be possible, thanks to research from the University of Warwick.

Emeritus Professor Wanda Lewis in the School of Engineering has taken a design process called 'form-finding', inspired by the natural world, to another level.

Form-finding enables the design of rigid structures that follow a strong natural form - structures that are sustained by a force of pure compression or tension, with no bending stresses, which are the main points of weakness in other structures.

This could, for the first time, lead to the design of bridges and buildings that can take any combination of permanent loading without generating complex stresses.

Such structures will have enhanced safety, and long durability, without the need for repair or restructuring.

For 25 years Professor Lewis has been studying forms and shapes in nature: the outlines of a tree or a leaf, the curve of a shell, the way a film of soap can suspend itself between chosen boundaries. In all of these natural objects, Professor Lewis observed that they develop simple stress patterns, which help them to withstand forces applied to them (such as wind hitting a tree) with ease.

Professor Lewis has been developing mathematical models that implement nature's design principles and produce simple stress patterns in structures. The principles behind her mathematical models are illustrated using physical form-finding experiments involving pieces of fabric or chains, for example.

A piece of fabric is suspended, and allowed to relax into its natural, gravitational, minimum energy shape; then that shape is frozen into a rigid object and inverted. She finds the coordinates of this shape through computation by simulating the gravitational forces applied to the structure. This produces a shape (a natural form) that can withstand the load with ease.

Professor Lewis argues that "nature's design principles cannot be matched by conventional engineering design."

While classical architectural designs are appealing to the eye, they aren't necessarily structurally sound: "aesthetics is an important aspect of any design, and we have been programmed to view some shapes, such as circular arches or spherical domes as aesthetic. We often build them regardless of the fact that they generate complex stresses, and are, therefore, structurally inefficient," says Professor Lewis.


Brain protein may unlock key to multiple sclerosis treatment - study

© Neil Hall / Reuters
Scientists have made significant progress in finding the cause of multiple sclerosis (MS), discovering the presence of a protein in brain tissue that may help lead to a treatment for the disease that affects 2.5 million people worldwide.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK and the University of Alberta in Canada found large quantities of the protein Rab32 in brain tissue samples taken from people who had MS but was almost entirely absent in those without the condition.


How Little Ice Age displaced the tropical rain belt

© Wikipedia / Mats Halldin
The annual see-saw of the tropical rain belt.
The tropical rain belt, also known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), is in a state of constant migration. It continuously changes position in response to the seasons and follows the sun's zenith, with a slight delay. This in turn determines the wet and dry periods in the tropics and subtropics over the course of the year. The tropical rain belt therefore effectively controls the climate in most of the tropical and subtropical regions, such as the monsoon season in Southeast Asia and Central America.

An international team of researchers led by Franziska Lechleitner from the Geological Institute at ETH Zurich has proven for the first time that the migration of the tropical rain belt is quite sensitive to even small changes in global temperatures. The team's findings have been published in the journal Scientific Reports, where they present the most comprehensive reconstruction of rainfall patterns within the Intertropical Convergence Zone for the past 2000 years.

Lower temperatures worldwide

In the past, scientists have only studied the migration of the tropical rain belt over very long timespans, such as glacial and interglacial cycles over tens of thousands of years, with correspondingly sizeable temperature differences of several degrees. "So far, however, scientists have not investigated the past two millennia on a global scale, when temperature changes have been far less pronounced," explains the climate geologist.

The ETH researcher and her colleagues have now managed to demonstrate how the tropical weather system shifted a good way south between 1450 and 1850, a period known as the Little Ice Age. "This migration is linked to the lower global temperatures during this time," explains Lechleitner.

The latest climate reconstructions show that the average temperatures during this period were around 0.4 degrees Celsius lower than before and after the Little Ice Age. The migration of the tropical rain belt also caused substantial changes in the tropical and subtropical climate during this time, affecting the areas of drought and heavy rainfall.