Category: Disruptive Technology

15 Jan 2018

CES 2018: Most Absurd Technologies To Come

CES: Consumer Excess Show

Each year tech nerds from around the globe converge on Sin City for the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to get first looks at the near future of gizmos. Walking the floor of the expo, you’re surrounded by some truly incredible tech that will certainly enhance our lives. Conversely, you can also stumble onto some earnest tech that ranges from unnecessary to downright terrifying. Here’s a collection of some of the most absurd technologies from CES 2018.

Robot Strippers

CES isn’t just a straight-laced trade show. There are tons of corporate-sponsored parties and after-hours events that allow attendees to partake in some of the more leisure-focused offerings of Las Vegas. Most of these events entice party-goers with promises of access to big names in tech or with free food and drink. Others might go a little overboard with their PR stunts. This year, that honor (or shame) is bestowed upon Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club and their creepy Orwellian robot strippers.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, these bots are less Pris and Zhora from Blade Runner and more like a scintillating pair of gyrating fax machines. The website of Sapphire Las Vegas invited patrons to “Come watch sparks fly as the Robo Twins shake their hardware and leave everyone wondering if those double Ds are real or made in ‘Silicone’ Valley.” How charming.

However, it seems that the organizers of this spectacle completely missed the point of these particular robots. The artist who built the bots, Giles Walker, said that he was influenced by the increasing numbers of CCTV cameras which made him want to explore voyeurism and turn that on its head by making the cameras themselves “sexy.”

Weight-Loss Brain Zapper

Weight loss is a multi-billion dollar industry filled with fads and endless gimmicks promising to not only help you lose weight but to do it with the least amount of effort from you. Usually, when a weight loss product sounds too good to be true, it likely is. This brings us to the second of CES’s absurd technologies, the allegedlyheadache-inducing headset from Modius Health.

Image Credit: Modius Health

The plastic headset features two dangling electrodes that you attach to pads that you stick behind your ears. The headset is said to send electrical signals to your hypothalamus, the hypothesis being that stimulating the hypothalamus makes you want to eat less.

The company’s website has a “science” section where it touts the results of a study. However, the study only included 15 people over the course of 16 weeks. Neuroscientist, Sandra Aamodt, told The Verge, “I can say with confidence that they haven’t tested it carefully enough to prove that it does work. If someone approached the FDA for approval of a weight-loss drug based on evidence like this, they’d be laughed out of the building.”

Intimate Digital Art

This next product may not fall into the absurd technologies category, but it could be penalized for debuting at the wrong venue. Project ARTGASM comes off more as an avant garde art exhibit than a serious consumer product. The message behind the tech is very sex positive, and there is definitely room in the market for it. But still, the idea of recording data from sexual experiences and turning it into a colorful laser-light-esque spectacle is not likely to appeal to everyone.

The tech is designed to work with the Lioness smart vibrator to map data metrics like force, motion, and temperature. That data is then converted into a unique visual experience. The project may not attain iPhone-level success, but it is bound to open greater conversations about the role that developing technology will have in the future of sexuality.

$6,000 Smart Toilet

Generally, Japan is a much more technologically forward-thinking nation than the United States, at least in terms of everyday conveniences. The country has long had fancy high-tech toilets with enough features to confuse the typical Westerner not familiar with this level of decadence in the bathroom. Even so, it seems that the U.S.’s attempts to catch up may be a little more zealous than necessary.

Kohler has unveiled their Konnect suite of smart bathroom products, featuring the Numi, an Amazon Alexa-compatible toilet that can lift the lid for you, play your favorite playlists from its built-in sound system, flush with a magic wave of the hand, and even track your bowel movements. Yes, in the age of constant hacking, someone thought it might be a good idea to upload your poop data to the cloud.

The basic Numi models start at $5,625 with more advanced models costing up to $7,500.

 Source: Futurism
11 Jan 2018

NASA Is Testing the Telescope That Will Revolutionize Our View of the Cosmos

IN BRIEF

The James Webb Space Telescope, the highly anticipated successor of Hubble, recently successfully completed cryogenic vacuum testing. This round of testing is one of the last major milestones before the telescope is finally launched.

TELESCOPE TESTING

In 2017, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) successfully completed cryogenic vacuum testing that lasted for over 100 days, solidifying the instrument’s capabilities and potential as a full observatory. In a NASA media briefing on January 10, officials at the Johnson Space Center in Houston discussed these efforts and the magnitude of this successful testing. The “world’s largest space freezer,” as described by Mark Voyton, Webb telescope Optical Telescope Element and Integrated Science Instrument Module (OTIS) manager at Goddard, allowed the team to successfully test the instrument and its pieces at the extreme temperatures it will endure in its missions.

Additionally, this testing showed that all mirrors and instrument models were aligned, with the primary mirror’s 18 segments all operating as one monolithic mirror. The tests also allowed NASA to exercise operations as they would occur in orbit, confirm that the integrated fine guiding system can track a star through the optical system, and ensure that the telescope could maintain correct observatory pointing. This laundry list of successful testing puts the JWST right on schedule to move forward and open our eyes to previously unseen corners of the universe.

The Webb testing was completed in Chamber A, a thermal-vacuum test facility that was first made famous in testing the Apollo spacecraft. While the Apollo tests were completed with both extreme heat and cold in mind, the chamber was heavily modified for the JWST. The Apollo craft were tested at temperatures as low as 100 Kelvin, but with these modifications, testing commenced at temperatures as low as 40 Kelvin with no high-temperature testing.

The success of this testing is not only a significant milestone for the James Webb Space Telescope and its highly-anticipated 2019 launch; it’s also a testament to the human spirit. This cryogenic testing occurred 24/7 throughout Hurricane Harvey, uninterrupted, as its international teams worked together in a collaborative effort.

MOVING FORWARD

After the success of this testing, the JWST will be transported for integration into a complete observatory and to undergo final environmental testing before traveling to its launch site. While there was a delay that pushed the launch from 2018 to 2019, the telescope is currently right on track to successfully make its launch window.

Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope observing the cosmos.
Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope observing the cosmos. (Image Credit: Northrop Grumman / NASA)

The capabilities of the JWST will far surpass anything that has been created before. This mammoth telescope, described by Voyton as “the world’s most magnificent time machine,” proved a piece of this capability in testing: it detected, with all four instruments, the light of a simulated star for the first time. The fine guidance subsystem was successful in not only generating the position of the light, but also in tracking its movement. This was a first in testing, and it shows the remarkable applications that this telescope will have.

Because it is an infrared telescope, as opposed to a visual light telescope like Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope requires a cold environment such as the one it was tested in. This will allow it to observe light from some of the earliest moments of the universe. Additionally, it will give us clarity in viewing exoplanets that we’ve only before dreamed of, closely observing Earth-like planets that could hold the promise of solidifying the existence of extraterrestrial life.

It hasn’t even left Earth yet, but this phenomenal instrument continues to inspire.

Source: Futurism

04 Dec 2017

Rippling Graphene Sheets May Be the Key to Clean, Unlimited Energy

Clean, Unlimited Energy

Physicists at the University of Arkansas have invented a nano-scale power generator that could potentially use the movement of graphene to produce clean, unlimited energy. Called a Vibration Energy Harvester, this development provides evidence for the theory that two-dimensional materials could be a source of usable energy.

Paul Thibado, a professor of physics at the university, got the idea for the generator after his team observed some strange, microscopic movements in sheets of graphene, which is made up of a single layer of carbon atoms. After laying out the sheets over a copper scaffold, the team was confused by the images they were collecting with a microscope.

Then they tried narrowed their focus and “separated each image into sub-images,” Thibado said in Research Frontiers article. “Looking at large-scale averages hid the different patterns. Each region of a single image, when viewed over time, produced a more meaningful pattern.”

Once they started analyzing the sheets point-by-point, they made an amazing discovery — the graphene was essentially rippling, flipping up and down through a combination of small, random motions and larger, sudden movements known as Lévy flights. This was the first time such movement had been observed in an inorganic, atomic-scale system. The team determined that the movements were due to ambient heat at room temperature.

Because of graphene’s sheet-like nature, its atoms vibrated in tandem, which sets it apart from the random vibrations you would see in, say, molecules of a liquid. Thibado said to Research Frontiers, “This is the key to using the motion of 2D-materials as a source of harvestable energy.” The tandem vibrations cause ripples in the graphene sheet from which we can harness energy using the latest nanotechnology.

The researchers then designed a tiny generator to do just that. This device could have a drastic impact on our access to clean, unlimited energy. It could allow our tech to send, receive, process, or store information, powered solely by the heat available at room temperature. This clearly could have remarkable and widely varied applications.

Fantastical Technologies

Now, while Thibado has applied for a patent and is insistent on the potential of this device, it has yet to be proven effective. It has remarkable possibilities, but we will have to see how the prototype of the tiny electric generator turns out before we know whether it is a viable energy solution. But, if the claims of this team prove to be true, it could revolutionize not only how we create energy, but the devices that we are capable of creating.

One potential application is medical devices. Current medical implants often require batteries. And, while these batteries are long-lasting, a self-charging device that relies on microscopic graphene movement could allow devices to be both smaller and more effective in the long-run. Thibado remarked on this possibility to Research Frontiers, saying “Self-powering enables smart bio-implants, which would profoundly impact society.”

This could extend into a range of biomedical applications. Microscopic, self-powering capabilities could be remarkably helpful for hearing devices which often require frequent, expensive, bulky battery changes. Pace-makers and wearable sensors could also improve from such tech.

Graphene could also power non-medical wearable technologies. From “smart” graphene fashion to in-ear translators and wearable cryptocurrency, devices that blend with our organic shapes and movement are becoming increasingly popular and capable.

While this unique application of graphene is new and has yet to be fully proven, Thibado and his team will continue to explore the unique material’s potential as a clean, unlimited energy source. Such a power source would be game-changing, as it could immeasurably advance technologies that are becoming more compatible with our own human biology.

Source: Futurism

27 Nov 2017

Magnetically-Controlled Organic Microbots Could Change Medicine in the Next Decade

IN BRIEF

Microbots designed to traverse the human body are one of the most potentially transformative technologies in the future of healthcare. Researchers have developed a microbot made from algae that solves some problems with the tech.

TINY DOCTORS

Google’s chief engineer and notable futurist Ray Kurzweil has said that nanobots or microbots will flow through our bodies by 2030. While the technology could be life-changing, the prospects for these nanobots are still limited by challenges in powering the micro devices and guiding them through the body.

A team of researchers led by Li Zhang, a materials scientist from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shatin, may have found a solution to both problems. In a study published in the journal Science Robotics, Zhang and his colleagues turned to a type of miniature alga called Spirulina platensis, commonly used as a dietary supplement.

 

The key is coating the Spirulina with iron oxide nanoparticles. The helical or spring-like shape of the magnetized alga provides maximum mobility when propelled by magnetic fields that harmlessly pass through the body. Best of all, these synthetic microbots are completely biocompatible. They degrade in days or hours, depending on how much magnetic coating they have, without harming cells — except for cancer cells. The magnetized alga destroyed about 90% of tumor cells exposed to it for 48 hours in a lab dish, an unexpected side-effect discovered by the researchers.

MICROBOTS — THE FUTURE OF TREATMENTS

Miniature technologies, like these synthetic algae microbots, show potential for delivering medical treatments to every corner of the the human body. The microbots could also provide more efficient treatment; they can be easily controlled and monitored by either observing their fluorescence or through a medical imaging tool called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) when the algae travels deeper into the body.

The ability of the algae microbots to carry cargo like drugs inside the body still needs to be tested, however. “It’s still not ready for a doctor to use,” Joseph Wang, a nanoengineer who’s developing a different type of medical microbots, told Science. He thinks the technology might be available in the next ten years, a timetable that nearly aligns with Kurzweil’s prediction.

Nanotechnology presents better chances of treating diseases in the future, although we do have to iron out more details than just mobility and control. Nevertheless, the technology is one of many advances in medical research — together with developments in the use of gene editing tools, stem cells, 3D-printed organs, and improved prostheses — that’s worth keeping an eye out for.

Source: Futurism

29 Oct 2017

Skin Cells Could Be Building Blocks in Fighting Cancer and Other Diseases

IN BRIEF

A team has discovered how to re-program skin cells so that they can become any other type of body cell. This work could create non-invasive, customized treatments for a range of serious illnesses.

CELLULAR METAMORPHOSIS

Researchers from the University of Michigan, University of Maryland, and Harvard University have developed a method of making cells undergo a remarkable transformation: a shortcut that can transform skin cells into any other type. Their study detailing this metamorphosis was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Cells in our body naturally specialize,” said senior author Indika Rajapakse, a professor in mathematics and bioinformatics at University of Michigan, in a press release. “What we propose could provide a shortcut to doing the same, to help any cell become a targeted cell type.”

The new method builds on a technique pioneered in the late 1980s, which bathes cells in transcription factors (TFs), molecules that encourage genes to “read” the DNA of certain cells. Rajapakse’s team revised the method by targeting cells with specific TFs at certain points in their growth, using a mathematical control model to map out the proper timing for each TF injection.

By tracking when certain genes are “read,” the team could understand when and how certain transcription factors act in transforming a cell.

“We believe we can go from the cell’s initial configuration to the desired configuration,” says Rajapakse.

SKIN CELLS: THE FUTURE OF MEDICINE

The team is now testing this method with the help of Max Wicha, the Forbes Professor of Oncology at Michigan Medicine.

“This algorithm provides a blueprint that has important implications for cancer, in that we think cancer stem cells may arise from normal stem cells via similar reprogramming pathways,” says Wicha, co-author of the paper. “This work also has important implications for regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, since it provides a blueprint for generating any desired cell type.”

Similar work in stem cells has opened incredible new doors for medicine, allowing doctors to create customized treatments, grow complex structures like neurons, and cure seemingly intractable diseases like cancer and diabetes. The discovery of stem cell pluripotency — their ability to transform into any other cell type — earned John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2012.

For many years, the use of stem cells has been highly controversial, as early methods required that the cells be removed from human embryos. Yet that period appears to be ending: research into new methods of harvesting stem cells, as well as work like that of the U. Mich, U. Maryland, and Harvard team that requires nothing more than a skin scrape, could usher in a new era of non-invasive, highly flexible customized medicine for a range of illnesses.

As Wicha added, this work “also demonstrates the beauty of combining mathematics and biology to unravel the mysteries of nature.”

Source: Futurism

16 Oct 2017

Scientists Confirmed the Theory Behind the Quantum Networks of the Future

IN BRIEF

Scientists have finally been able to demonstrate and prove the theory of quantum entanglement of many atoms — 16 million, in fact — revealed by a single photon.

QUANTUM LIGHT ANALYSIS

Quantum theory predicts entanglement; that huge numbers of atoms can be intertwined due to quantum forces, across distances, or inside macroscopic structures. However, “predicts” has been the key phrase up until recently — as actual hard evidence from experiments has been lacking. Experimental evidence was just presented by University of Geneva scientists, who demonstrated the entanglement of 16 million atoms in a one-centimeter crystal.

Achieving entanglement hasn’t been the real challenge for physicists looking to generate empirical proof of the concept, though. Researchers can generate entangled photons by splitting a photon. It is the observation and recording of entanglement that has proven next to impossible — until now. With one caveat, as explained by UNIGE applied physics group researcher Florian Fröwis explained in a press release  about the team’s research. “But it’s impossible to directly observe the process of entanglement between several million atoms since the mass of data you need to collect and analyze is so huge.”

Image Credit: UNIGE
Image Credit: UNIGE

Therefore, Fröwis and his team took inventory of which measurements they were able to take, and of those, which might be able to generate the evidence they were searching for. They settled on the single direction of light re-emitted by the crystal, and analyzed its statistical properties. This was how the the team was able to show the entanglement of 16 million atoms, rather than a few thousand.

QUANTUM FUTURES

Quantum networks will be essential to data protection in the future, because they make it possible to send a signal and detect any interception of that signal by a third part immediately. To send and receive these kinds of signals, you need quantum repeaters which can unify entangled atoms with a strong quantum relationship despite being separated by great distances. These quantum repeaters house crystal blocks supercooled to 270 degrees below zero and enriched with rare earth atoms. Once these blocks are penetrated by a photon, entanglement is created.

Particle entanglement is at the heart of the coming revolutions in quantum computing and quantum encryption, which will themselves be driving everything from artificial intelligence to personalized medicine. And while this is high-level stuff, it all depends on the entanglement of atoms at the quantum level, which this research has demonstrated on an unprecedented scale.

Read more: Futurism

10 Oct 2017

New Eyeglass Accessory Translates Sound Into Light for the Hearing Impaired

IN BRIEF

A group of students from the Singapore University of Technology and Design have designed a clip-on accessory for glasses that turns nearby sounds into flashing lights. The project, called Peri, is meant to help those suffering from hearing loss.

Peri is an accessory that clips onto eyeglasses and translates nearby sounds into flashing lights — perfect for those with hearing problems, who sometimes miss out on what’s being said to them, or on noises that could alert them to events occurring nearby.

The design takes some inspiration from video games, which alert the player to nearby threats via a red glow. In games, however, they typically only appear when someone takes damage, while Peri could help the wearer avoid harm.

Pavithren Pakianathan, lead designer of the team from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), told Mashable it took about four months to complete the current prototype, which utilizes four microphones and LED lights. Peri’s circuits create a specific lighting pattern according to the loudest sound detected, and indicate the direction of the sound. The project was so impressive it won the James Dyson engineering award.

The Peri prototype, worn by one of the team members. (Image Credit: Peri/Pavithren Pakianathan)

Pakianathan and his team aim to improve the accessory’s design while maintaining the low cost to users. Future iterations may be able to better separate sounds in busy areas, and could include light sensors capable of adjusting the brightness of the LED lights.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 5 percent of the world’s population(360 millions people) suffer from hearing loss, with 32 million being children. If Peri, or a similar idea, gets proper funding, development, and becomes mainstream, it could improve the lives of those with hearing problems, and provide some additional color to their quieter world.

Source: Futurism

04 Oct 2017

Disney Built a Blockchain — Can It Compete With Ethereum?

From animatronics to digital animation, the Walt Disney Company has long been a pioneer in emerging technology. And blockchain technology is no exception.

In 2014, Disney’s tech-focused Seattle office started building what’s now known as Dragonchain, a blockchain protocol designed to allow for more data privacy than is possible on other enterprise-oriented blockchains like Ethereum. The idea was to develop a secure asset management system to be used internally.

However, Disney dropped the project in 2016 and decided to make it open source. Soon after, a group of former Disney employees founded the Dragonchain Foundation, a non-profit which manages upkeep of the protocol.

Now, they’re looking to build a commercial business — called Dragonchain Inc. — on top of the platform to help other companies quickly and easily start using blockchain.

But first they need to raise money to do so.

Gap in the Market

It’s commonly believed in blockchain circles that the technology could some day make up an entirely new infrastructural layer of the internet, replacing traditional contracts and payment systems used in industries like law and real estate, because the design of the technology makes it difficult to commit fraud.

Dragonchain Inc. chief business officer George Sarhanis (left) and CEO Joe Roets. Image Source: Dragonchain

This promise has drawn in research and development funds from industry powerhouses including IBM and Cisco, which have joined various unifying organizations such as Hyperledger and the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance to better understand how this new technology can be leveraged commercially.

But many large corporations, such as Disney, have been hesitant to put their own data on public blockchains because the design would leave much of their proprietary and sensitive data open to prying eyes. The hope for Dragonchain is that other companies feel the same way.

Joe Roets, now CEO of Dragonchain Inc., was one of the engineers behind the original project at Disney.

“Disney was very forward thinking and wanted to know how people use different tech,” Roets said. “We started building things. It took two years to build out the platform, give or take.”

Roets described Dragonchain Inc’s platform as a “turn key” product, which makes it easier for companies to build what they want on top of the Dragonchain blockchain protocol, without investing in expensive and hard-to-find technological expertise.

Roets said that while it is possible to build security and encryption on top of a public blockchain, it’s a costly and time-consuming project. With Dragonchain, the encryption and obfuscation is built in.

“We realized some of the real world problems are that companies have access to traditional engineers, but they don’t necessarily have a crypto background,” Roets said . “If you go even further into blockchain, you need an economist or a game theory expert.”

More Private Than Ethereum

Like the technology behind the cryptocurrencies bitcoin and ethereum, Dragonchain is a digital ledger that uses complex algorithms to document transactions in a way that cannot be easily modified. Every blockchain contains a complete history of everything that has happened on it, which makes it harder for fraud to occur in financial transactions. Unlike the public bitcoin and ethereum protocols, however, Dragonchain is a hybrid. This means some information is private, and some is public.

“The main difference would be that with ethereum or any public blockchains, your data is out there,” Roets said. “You can do certain things to obfuscate your data. You could encrypt it. But it won’t matter in 10 years or 20 years.”

While Disney originally built the project as a private blockchain, this method doesn’t have the same authenticity benefits as a public or hybrid protocol. Having some of the data public is vital to making the technology effective in protecting fraud. That’s because the ability to spread data across a decentralized network is a key component of authenticating the validity of transactions. The blockchain usually requires consensus from multiple companies and computers in order to make a change to the blockchain’s history. Theoretically, this makes it difficult for solo actors to delete receipts for their own benefit.

Initial Coin Offering

Whether or not Dragonchain Inc. is able to move forward with its commercial ambitions depends a lot on how things go over the next month.

From October 2 to November 2, Dragonchain Inc. will hold an initial coin offering (ICO), also known as a token sale, to raise money for the company. Around 238 million tokens, which the team calls “dragons,” will be available for sale to the public.

Artwork, such as Mimmo Rotella’s “Palinsesto,” is for sale by auction on Look Lateral’s website. The company is working with Dragonchain to build a secure way to authenticate and pay for art. Image Source: Look Lateral

“Disney has no involvement in Dragonchain’s initial coin offering,” a Disney spokesperson said.

ICOs are an increasing common fundraising technique in the blockchain world. Companies like Dragonchain Inc. offer up a select number of tokens that can be purchased with cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum. The tokens can be exchanged for goods and services within the blockchain platform. On its website, Dragonchain describes dragons as “tokenized micro-license for interaction with Dragonchain commercial platform services.”

While tokens are not currencies, they can be traded on token exchanges for higher or lower cash value than they were purchased for. Not every investor necessarily wants to use services within Dragonchain. Some may see it as an investment that could generate gains in the longterm.

Those that do want to use the service will have access to three different commercial products. The first is a developer-friendly platform for building new projects on top of Dragonchain. There’s also a marketplace that has a library of pre-built smart contracts and features to make the building process faster. The company will also fund an incubator for teams that want to develop projects on top of the protocol.

Several companies are already working on Dragonchain to develop new tools and businesses.

Look Lateral is an Italian fine art site which is using Dragonchain to create proof of authenticity for the art that it sells on its platform. Some pieces of art on the site cost over $100,000, so the blockchain will function as a way of paying for art, as well as a record of ownership. In the art world, this is referred to as “provenance.”

Another company called LifeID is working to build a secure identity platform on the blockchain. This would allow users to verify that they are who they say they are in digital and physical spaces, without relying on state-issued IDs, or corporately-owned social media, like Facebook profiles.

Dragonchain Inc’s ICO begins October 2.

Read more at: Futurism

17 Sep 2017

A Stanford Neuroscientist is Working to Create Wireless Cyborg Eyes for the Blind

IN BRIEF

Stanford neuroscientist E.J. Chichilnisky has a bold plan—Create implantable devices to restore vision to a number of people who have gone blind. But to do this, he’ll have to revolutionize the way electronic devices interface with the human brain.

Seeing The Light

For the nearly two million Americans who have degenerative eye conditions, the ability to see is anything but a guarantee. Although we can slow the progression of vision loss—for example, patients can take special vitamins for the disease—there is no cure. And once it’s lost, vision can’t be restored.

Two of the most notable conditions, retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cause cells on the retina, which is the region at the back of the eye that converts light into electrical signals, to die off. As a result, those afflicted with the diseases lose their sight as they get older. Thus, these conditions are of increasing concern, given our growing aging population.

Fortunately, a futuristic solution is on the horizon. And it has to do with becoming cyborg.

In the past few years, some patients have been fortunate enough to get devices implanted on their retinas to help them see again. Unfortunately, these devices aren’t very good, only illuminating blotches of light and dark, devoid of details. Alos, they’re expensive, costing patients upwards of $150,000. To some, that’s better than nothing. “I understand that I will not have 20/20 vision and that I won’t be able to distinguish faces. But at least I will be able to know that my grandchildren are running across the yard or walking into my house,” one recipient told the University of Michigan in 2014.

But E.J. Chichilnisky, a professor of neurosurgery and ophthalmology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, has a much grander vision for retinal implants. To fulfill it, he plans to create a device that revolutionizes the way electronic devices interface with the brain.

A Dialogue With The Retina

To break down the issue a bit more, in a healthy eye, light passes through the cornea and lens, entering the eye through the pupil. That light then falls on the retina, where a series of different cells turn light into electrical signals that are then transmitted into the brain via the optic nerve.

As previously noted, retinitis pigmentosa and AMD cause many of the cells in the retina to die, so the signals that transmit visual information are stopped before they can reach the brain. Current retinal implants simply take the place of those dead cells, turning light into electric signals.

But the disease doesn’t kill all cells in the retina—and this is where the problems arise with current implants.

Retinal ganglion cells, which pull in information from all the other cells in the retina, seem to survive the culling. There are about 20 different types of retinal ganglion cells scattered across the retina, each of which transmits a different type of information to the brain.

Timing is essential to the function of these cells. One type of cell could tell the brain a region on the image is brighter now than it was a moment ago, and another could tell the brain the image is darker. If both are activated at once, “that’s a nonsense signal sent to the brain,” Chichilnisky says.

That’s part of the reason current retinal implants are so limited. As Chichilnisky notes, they ignore the functioning retinal ganglion cells, activating them all at once. “Vision is like an orchestra trying to play a symphony. It depends on having [the right signals] at the right time and right place,” Chichilnisky tells Futurism. “If you instruct all the instruments to play indiscriminately, someone will hear you. But it’s not music.”

The tiling effect of cells on the retina. Image credit: Chris Sekirnjak

Chichilnisky aims to get each type of ganglion cell, each “instrument,” to play at its proper moment. Eventually, his team’s so-called smart prostheses will be surgically implanted into patients’ eyes and be powered wirelessly, probably from a pair of specialized glasses that the patient would wear.

But they’ve got to do a lot to get there. Getting the right signal to the right cell at the right time is difficult because the mixture of different types of ganglion cells varies between individuals and may even change over time, Chichilnisky says.

Chichilnisky’s solution is to create a device that can not only transmit the right signals to the ganglion cells, but also read the retina to figure out which kind of ganglion cell sits where. Then, the device can stimulate it at the right time to create a cohesive image. “It’s a dialogue with the retina—you have to talk back and forth to the circuit,” he notes. He envisions that the final version of the device will “write” all the time, but “read” the retina only occasionally.

But there are other technical challenges. The device has to be made of the right material so that it can stay on the retina for long periods of time without damaging it or sparking an immune response. It also demands a dense concentration of fine-grained electrodes on a small chip that doesn’t emit too much heat. “We have to take everything we know and program it effectively into chip that can sense its environment, figure out what’s going on, and do the right thing at right time in the right place, always. And it has to be smart enough to talk to a neural circuit,” Chichilnisky says. “It’s a tall order.”

A Bright Future

Chichilnisky’s team, made up of neuroscientists, circuit designers, and an eye surgeon, is still figuring out the exact design of their device. Currently, the researchers are testing different techniques on the excised retinas of animals used for other experiments. To perform all the tasks that their compact device will eventually perform, they need an entire room full of scientific equipment. They plan to reduce all this to a small implanted chip.

But this isn’t the only team in the game.

Other scientists are working to restore vision in patients with retinitis pigmentosa and AMD, and already, tests of gene therapy and stem cell therapy techniques have produced interesting results. But Chichilnisky isn’t worried. “I’ll be thrilled if someone comes along and cures AMD while we’re doing this stuff,” he says.

The retina—one of the best-understood and most accessible avenues to the brain—is only the beginning

This is because Chichilnisky believes that, regardless of what other developments in treating blindness come about, the technology he is developing will represent the future of neural implants, as their utility extends far beyond just sight. Devices that can both listen and talk to the brain in the same “language” will enable humans to treat neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s or control prosthetic limbs.

The same tech will likely be used to hack our own biology, augmenting our memory and pushing our vision to new limits. “It’s going to happen. If you think it won’t, you haven’t been reading enough,” Chichilnisky says. According to him, the retina—one of the best-understood and most accessible avenues to the brain—is only the beginning.

Chichilnisky hopes to have a lab prototype in the next couple of years and to start testing it on live animals within five years. Predicting when such a device could be tested in humans, to say nothing of when it could be widely available, becomes murkier. But he hopes that human studies could happen within the next decade.

Though the technology is still at too early a stage to spin off into a company and seek investors, Chichilnisky has no doubt that many will be interested…and soon. “The thing I’m talking about is a revolution,” he says. And we are fortunate enough to be here to witness the start of it all.

Source: Futurism

29 Aug 2017

Scientists Move One Step Closer To “Curing” Diabetes Using First-Ever Stem Cell Implant

Clinical trials have begun for ViaCyte’s PEC-Direct, an implant that grows insulin-producing cells from stem cells to treat type 1 diabetes patients. If successful, the implant could eliminate the need for these patients to inject themselves with insulin.

NO MORE INJECTIONS

The World Health Organization reports that more than 422 million people worldwide are living with diabetes, a condition that can take two forms. In the first, the body’s immune system attacks cells in the pancreas, preventing the organ from producing enough insulin [type 1 diabetes (T1D)]. In the second, the body doesn’t know how to use the insulin that is produced [type 2 diabetes (TD2)].

T1D accounts for roughly 10 percent of diabetes cases, and unlike T2D, which can often be reversed through lifestyle changes such as weight loss or increased exercise, scientists have yet to figure out how to prevent or cure T1D.

Right now, T1D is best managed by balancing insulin doses, but this method can be problematic in high-risk cases, taking time to act. Moreover, patients with hypoglycemia (low glucose) unawareness may not notice when their blood sugar drops dangerously low. Thankfully, researchers all over the world are hard at work looking for a cure that will free T1D patients from their dependence on insulin injections and from risky situations when their levels drop low.

Now, one group may have found such a cure.

Just last week, California-based company ViaCyte began trials involving two T1D patients who were implanted with the company’s PEC-Direct device.

Each of these credit card-sized implants carries cells built from stem cells. These cells are designed to mature inside the human body into the specialized pancreas cells the immune system destroys in those with T1D. The implant is placed just below the skin and releases insulin whenever necessary.

“Patients with high-risk type 1 diabetes complications, such as hypoglycemia unawareness, are at constant risk of life-threatening low blood glucose,” clinical trial investigator Jeremy Pettus from University of California, San Diego, said in a ViaCyte press release. “The PEC-Direct islet cell replacement therapy is designed to help patients with the most urgent medical need.”

“There are limited treatment options for patients with high-risk type 1 diabetes to manage life-threatening hypoglycemic episodes,” added ViaCyte president and CEO Paul Laikind. “We believe that the PEC-Direct product candidate has the potential to transform the lives of these patients.”

INSULIN INDEPENDENCE

Truly, freeing T1D patients from the need for constant insulin shots hasn’t been an easy task. Researchers in Finland have been looking into it for 25 years and only recently did they manage to develop a vaccine for type 1 diabetes — that breakthrough will go to clinical trials by 2018. ViaCyte’s device is another promising discovery.

 

Prior to last week’s clinical trial, PEC-Direct implants using smaller amounts of stem cells were tested in 19 diabetes patients. Although these did mature into the desired islet cells, the limited number wasn’t designed to treat the condition. The PEC-Direct implants received by the two patients last week contain more cells. The hope is that three months from now, when the cells have matured, they’ll be able to take the place of injections by releasing insulin automatically when needed.

If it does work, the only thing T1D patients will have to do is take immunosuppressant drugs to make sure their bodies don’t reject the new cells. That’s a small price to pay to be freed of daily injections. As James Shapiro at the University of Alberta, Canada, told New Scientist, “A limitless source of human insulin-producing cells would be a major step forward on the journey to a potential cure for diabetes.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated. A previous version implied that individuals should take insulin when blood sugar levels are low. This has been updated to note that individuals need insulin when sugar levels are high.