Biohybrid Robots – Artificial Intelligence with Human Features

The human body works in remarkable ways. Our skeleton creates a base for muscles, ligaments and joints which make it easier for us to perform intricate tasks. Although robots can do many of the same things humans can, their ability to maneuver is limited in several ways. Biohybrid robotics is a field that is rapidly expanding and consists of equipping robots with biological tissue. This will enhance their maneuvering abilities and the tasks that they can accomplish, increasing their functions exponentially. Researchers from The University of Tokyo Institute of Industrial Science have recently created a biohybrid robotic finger with the ability to bend itself up and down. They published the results in Science Robotics recording that the finger remained functional for more than a week.

Their creation began with the construction of the finger’s skeleton using 3D-printed resin, with a joint and anchors for the tissue’s attachment. Electrodes that would stimulate the living muscle, causing it to contract, were the skeleton’s final addition. The muscle was made using myoblasts, stem cells with the ability to mature into several types of muscle cells. These were housed in hydrogel sheets that had holes from which they could be attached to the skeleton. To encourage muscle fibre to grow between the anchors, some striped structures were added. The muscles in the biohybrid functioned similarly to those in our body, as a pair, with one contracting while the other expands. This prevented them from shrinking or breaking down.

Once biorobotic construction and its range of motion has been mastered, the possible uses are endless. Currently, a robot’s initial movements are jerky, preventing them from being able to undertake specific tasks. The inclusion of muscle tissue would result in smoother, steadier overall movements. Scientists are planning to use these biorobots for more detailed exploration of the human body, as well as to enhance our medical capabilities. This could be partially accomplished by performing tests on the biorobots, instead of humans. In addition, they would increase the manufacturing ability of robots, currently limited due to intricate parts and assembly necessary, and their ability to monitor certain environments.

Despite the great benefits of biorobotics, the technology does have its limitations, including the need to feed these living cells. Until a way to do this can be found, the biorobots would have a limited lifespan. The surrounding temperature would also affect the length of time they could survive for, as well as their operating capacities. As the field expands, these limitations are expected to be improved upon, and it is almost a certainty that biorobots will eventually become a part of our daily lives.

The Future of Spying – Chemically Created Passwords

The safety of many countries depends on their ability to defend themselves during times of war, which often requires transporting secret messages. Each country has their own spies that are responsible for obtaining and transferring this information securely. As technology has advanced, much of this secret information is stored in password protected systems. Computers often generate these passwords which makes it possible for them to be hacked. This has caused ongoing research to develop secure ways of hiding information physically. One of these is chemical cryptography, which involves creating passwords made from atomic structures.

Although not currently on the market, the technology shows immense potential. Messages would be secured by coding them in the form of small molecules, that would be absorbed by a napkin. They could only be decrypted using the key, which would be the molecule’s structure. The method has been developed by German company Karlsruher Institut fur Technologie. Their molecular library has at least 500,000 keys that, because of their structural diversification, would be impossible to decode without the sample. The message can also only be revealed after being scanned with the same equipment used by microbiologists to analyze new compounds in their research. Researchers plan on expanding the technology to including DNA which would increase the number of keys that could be made, making passwords even more secure.

The small size of molecular keypad locks also makes them difficult to detect. This is a form of steganography, where both the locks and keys are hidden. This technology was first developed in 2007, with the possibility of only one password being used per lock. Researchers have recently found ways to allow locks to have multiple passwords, according to a study published in Journal of the American Chemical Society. Most florescent molecular sensors generate discreet optical signals but the one used was able to generate a unique optical ‘fingerprint’ for each chemical, making it possible to differentiate between them.

This inclusion enables the system to operate like both an electronic keypad lock, which can be opened by entering the correct password, and a biometric lock, opened by recognizing a unique signature (such as a fingerprint). Electronic locks have accessible entry keys, placed on the keypad, and can be opened by anybody that knows the password. Biometric locks are more secure as each user carries their own key. The molecular keypad lock would require both a password and optical fingerprint and would increase security even more, as the key is chemical and the correct password would need to be entered.

Designer Bodies – DNA Manipulation to Recreate Ourselves

Many people often wish that it was possible to recreate themselves to be ‘perfect,’ physically, mentally or both. To fulfil this desire, scientists are exploring how DNA manipulation can be used to change plants and animals, as well as redesign our human bodies and minds. DNA is the source code of all forms of life, and changes in our genetic composition may make it possible for us to survive longer, and in more extreme situations. Founding Director of the Life Sciences project at Harvard Business School, Juan Enriquez, has spoken about using gene editing to take evolution into our hands, instead of depending on nature to choose which species survive. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is through CRISPR, a genome editing technique that can modify a specific part of a gene without harming any others.

Enriquez pointed out the evolution of science itself, which used to be about discovery but is now about creation.’ Technology has changed the pattern of our world from ‘survival of the fittest,’ to one in which humans can decide which species live and die. We can also modify the genes of plants and animals to live in conditions they would previously have been unable to survive in. Although the ability to modify the body of different species is phenomenal, an even greater achievement is the ability to recreate our minds.

DNA manipulation means humans can decide who they want to be, and which experience they want to dominate their lives at any given moment. The mind can be shaped by altering, creating and deleting memories, which are the foundation of who we are. This would allow people to change their entire identity, past experiences and personal beliefs almost instantaneously. This altering of self, with technology, raises many questions and the possibility of harmful or immoral consequences. Would justice still be served if a person had no recollection of committing a crime? Would other members of society be affected if somebody ‘created’ a relationship in their head? Would existing financial obligations be avoided by changing the circumstances in the mind?

Although the question of the morality remains, the ability to change our DNA would be frequently lifesaving. In addition to altering or removing DNA associated with genetic illnesses, the length of time taken to make vaccinations would decrease significantly. Future survival would be guaranteed, even in the event of a catastrophic planetary event, as DNA could be altered for life outside of our atmosphere. Space exploration would increase exponentially, as Enriquez believes that the human species was created for expansion. ‘As explorers at heart’ we will always be drawn to the unknown, breaking barriers, creating and recreating, with DNA manipulation being only a part of the process of expanding our beings.

Future Pandemic – Is an Outbreak Inevitable?

Scientists, and other researchers, spend much of their time developing ways to prevent possible disasters, both natural and unnatural, from taking place. History is famous for repeating itself, and there have been several recorded pandemics that were responsible for the deaths of a large percentage of the population. The Spanish Flu outbreak, in 1918, is one of the most deadly examples. An incredibly contagious form of influenza, this virus affected everybody and spread to some of the most remote parts of the planet. It is estimated that, over the course of two years, the Spanish Flu killed between 50-100 million people worldwide.

Although our medical techniques, and pharmaceuticals, have advanced significantly since the early 20th century; The General Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom, has addressed the fact that we are still as unprepared for a pandemic as we were at the beginning of the 20th century. The dreaded event could begin in any country and spread quickly, before most nations were aware of its presence. Although this is a scenario we have witnessed many times in horror books, and films, the possibility of it happening in real life is much higher than most of us would like to admit.

Tedros pointed out that, ‘Universal health coverage is the greatest threat to global health.’ He went on to explain that as many as 3.5 billion people still do not have access to essential health services. Others that can attain the services are often forced into poverty, because of the high costs of this care. To avoid this problem many people neglect seeking medical treatment, even when it is necessary. This results in many illnesses progressing further than can be treated, and an unnecessary spreading of infectious diseases. This negligence could result in the earliest signs of an outbreak being overlooked.

Each country’s health organization relies on funding from their government to monitor the spread of diseases, as well as ensure the proper treatment. The (CDC) Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States, has recently announced that its budget for the epidemic prevention programs is being cut by 80%. In light of a possibly outbreak occurring at any moment, other countries are also experiencing the same difficulties. This demonstrates that governments are viewing healthcare as an unnecessary cost, instead of a necessary investment.

Tedros pointed out that healthy citizens are an advantage to the economy of any country. It has been proven that proper healthcare from children are in the womb, which is continued throughout their childhood, helps to make them stronger members of society. He also noted that at the moment a possible pandemic couldn’t be predicted, but dreads the terrible toll it would take on humanity. Despite there being no guarantee that a pandemic free world will ever be created, he is urging that we take back the control of our own lives. The best way to ensure our survival is by governments investing in proper healthcare, in every way possible, for each and every one of its citizens.

Winning the Fight Against HIV and AIDS

It is estimated that over 35 million people worldwide are currently living with HIV. The virus attacks and destroys our immune system resulting in AIDS, in its final stages. HIV weakens the immune system by destroying T-helper cells, which are a type of white blood cell. It then duplicates itself, and break down the cells completely over time. This limits the ability of those infected to fight off diseases and infections. The speed at which the virus progresses is determined by the individual’s age and health. For most people, if HIV is left untreated for 10 to 15 years it collapses the immune system. This results in an inability to fight off any infection, and inevitably death.

A significant amount of research has gone into ways in which HIV can be stopped before it begins to multiply, thus preventing it from breaking down the immune system. A study was recently conducted at Loyola University in Chicago, which suggests that this might be possible. Results were published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and showed a method which would incorporate the microtubule tracks through which the virus travels and a protein called bicaudal D2.

HIV moves through the body so quickly that the immune system doesn’t have enough time to react to its presence. The virus uses microtubules, and attaches to bicaudal D2, to transport itself to the nucleuses of the T-helpers. If the protein is missing the virus cannot find its way to the nucleus. The researchers suggested stranding the virus by creating a drug which prevents it from attaching to the bicaudal D2. It would remain in the cytoplasm, which is filled with other proteins and mitochondria. Due to its small size, in comparison to these surrounding elements, the virus could not navigate to the nucleus.

The scientists believe that this method will be essential in the creation of future treatments for HIV, and possibly coming up with a cure. Each patient reacts differently to current treatment options, which researchers are hoping to use alongside the bicaudal D2 detachment method to inhibit the progress of the virus. More experiments need to be conducted to ensure that any drug made using this process would be safe, as well as compatible with other HIV treatments. Some of the methods currently being used include: antibodies which can kill up to 99% of HIV strains, and a vaccine by Johnson and Johnson which is being tested in Africa. The vaccine would prevent those exposed from getting the virus, to begin with.

Mission V – Completing the First Stages of a Mission to Mars

On January 19, 2017 six participants, which had been selected for a special NASA mission, entered a ‘dome’ located on Big Island in Hawaii. The project was hosted by The University of Hawaii, on behalf of NASA, and its aim is to determine the psychological effects of long term isolation. The living conditions were designed to reflect those that would be necessary for future missions to Mars. The ‘space’ accommodation, which housed the four men and two women, was approximately the size of a two bedroom apartment. During their stay they were allowed no physical contact with the outside world and their communication with NASA was delayed by 20 minutes, which is the same amount of time it would take during a mission to Mars.

Sian Proctor/University of Hawaii via AP

In excess of 700 applicants were put through a detailed screening process, requiring background and personality checks and several full length interviews. The team which was selected included: engineers, a biomedical expert, a computer scientist and a doctoral candidate. Crew members for expeditions to Mars will need to be in the best of health, both physically and mentally, sufficiently qualified and with an ability to solve problems as they arise. NASA plans to send a crew to an asteroid in the 2020s and Mars by the 2030s, which will take a minimum of 2-3 years to complete. The dome experiment has proved successful in showing NASA ways in which the crew will need to be supported during their journeys.

The dome where the crew stayed is operated by the University of Hawaii, and called Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). Two previous NASA missions have taken place here, lasting a year and eight months respectively, to determine food requirements and how to build a healthy rapport with crew members. There are sleeping quarters for each crew member, kitchen, bathroom and a laboratory in the dome, and meals consist mainly of freeze dried and tin foods and snacks. The landscape on Big Island is similar to the one on Mars, with its rugged terrain. To maintain the crew’s sense of isolation, food packages were dropped off a short distance from the dome and robots sent to retrieve them.

Sian Proctor/University of Hawaii via AP

Although not confined to the dome, the team were required to wear spacesuits when going out. The outings were mainly for mapping the landscape, geological exploration or other tasks related to what the experience would be like on Mars. Each participant was also equipped with a monitor, worn around the neck, which measured their mood as well as their proximity to other crew members. Virtual reality devices were also provided to simulate comforting experiences and surroundings. As the end of the mission was approaching, even though they had enjoyed the experience, the crew members were all eager to get back to their everyday lives.