I spoke last night at University Book Store on the science of sending sight, sound, and more in and out of the human brain – the real life science behind my novels Nexus and Crux. For those who couldn't make it, you can check out a video of an earlier version of the talk that I gave at Google back in January.
Wiring the Brain: The Science of Nexus
Over the last few months (and a bit over the past few years) I wrote a number of pieces around the web, primarily on energy, sustainability, genetically modified foods, and economic growth. I did a poor job of linking to them on my own site. So here's a roundup.
Science Will Save the Planet (If We Let It), Wired UK, May 2013
Seven Reasons Why China May Lead the World in Fighting Climate Change, Slate, May 2013
Grantham Is Wrong: We Are Not Headed For a Disaster of Biblical Proportions, Business Insider, April 2013
Why Polluters Should Pay YOU to Fix Climate Change, FastCoExist, April 2013
The Limits of the Earth: Part 1, Problems, Scientific American Guest Blog, April 2013
The Limits of the Earth: Part 2: Expanding the Limits, Scientific American Guest Blog, April 2013
Greener Than Green: Biotech and the Future of Agriculture, Genetic Literacy Project, April 2013
Why Organic Advocates Should Love GMOs, Discover Collide-a-Scape Blog, April 2013
Why GMO Advocates Should Embrace Labels, Discover Collide-a-Scape Blog, April 2013
How Innovation Could Save the Planet, The Futurist, March 2013
Can We Capture All the World’s Carbon Emissions?, Scientific American Guest Blog, March 2011
Smaller, Cheaper, Faster: Does Moore’s Law Apply to Solar Cells?, Scientific American, Guest Blog, March 2011 (Cited by Paul Krugman)
In my upcoming sci-fi novel Nexus , I write about a nano-device that can cross the blood-brain barrier and which has a very real impact on the mind. Not so far fetched…
A team of scientists from Johns Hopkins and elsewhere have developed nano-devices that successfully cross the brain-blood barrier and deliver a drug that tames brain-damaging inflammation in rabbits with cerebral palsy.
via Nano-devices that cross blood-brain barrier open door to treatment of cerebral palsy, other neurologic disorders.
By the end of the decade, manufacturers in the United States could make solar panels that are less than half as expensive as the ones they make now. That would be cheap enough for solar power to compete with electricity from fossil fuels, according to a new study in Energy & Environmental Science. The cost reductions will come via technology that’s already being demonstrated in research labs at startups, universities, and major solar manufacturers, and could involve silicon, the material most solar panels are made from today.
The report, from researchers at MIT led by Tonio Buonassisi, a professor of mechanical engineering and manufacturing, identifies early-stage technologies that, if employed together, could reduce the cost of making solar panels to 52 cents per watt. Currently, the cost is over a dollar per watt. At 52 cents per watt, assuming similar cost reductions for installation and equipment such as inverters, solar power would cost six cents per kilowatt-hour in sunny areas of the U.S.—less than the average cost of electricity in the U.S. today. Solar power in sunny areas now costs roughly 15 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, although the cost can be sharply higher in small installations or in cloudy areas where solar installations generate less electricity.
via Making Solar Power Competitive with Coal – Technology Review.
More advances in mind-machine interfaces this week. MIguel Nicolelis (a pioneer in neural interfaces) and colleagues announced that they were able to send touch sensory data into the brains of monkeys.
So the tally is now:
Vision: In and out
From New Scientist:
Monkeys have feelings too. In a mind-meld between monkey and computer, rhesus macaques have learned to “feel” the texture of virtual objects without physically touching a thing. In the future, prosthetic limbs modelled on similar technology could return a sense of touch to people with amputations.
Using two-way communication between brain and machine, the monkeys manoeuvred a cursor with their minds and identified virtual objects by texture, based on electrical feedback from the computer
via Monkeys ‘feel’ texture of virtual objects – life – 05 October 2011 – New Scientist.
Below is a clip showing the reconstruction of video subjects where shown via MRI scanning of their brains. Pretty remarkable.
The ‘reconstructed’ video looks odd because the reconstruction method was actually to match the brain activity against snippets of YouTube videos. Future techniques will be able to do far better. The key proof of concept here is the fidelity with which the MRI scanning of the brains can identify what sort of thing they’re looking at at all.
Reconstruction from brain activity – YouTube.
A frequently voiced concern about solar energy is the dependence of solar cells on rare earth elements such as indium. While rare earth elements are actually far more plentiful than their name suggests, it’s also encouraging to see studies showing that components made from abundant elements can replace them.
In this case, a team headed by Marc C. Hersam at Northwestern has found that they can replace indium tin oxide with carbon nanotubes, one of many examples of extremely versatile carbon replacing other elements that I expect to see in years to come.
From Science Daily:
Solar cells are composed of several layers, including a transparent conductor layer that allows light to pass into the cell and electricity to pass out; for both these actions to occur, the conductor must be both electrically conductive and also optically transparent. Few materials concurrently possess both of these properties.
Currently, indium tin oxide is the dominant material used in transparent conductor applications, but the material has two potential limitations. Indium tin oxide is mechanically brittle, which precludes its use in applications that require mechanical flexibility. In addition, Indium tin oxide relies on the relatively rare element indium, so the projected increased demand for solar cells could push the price of indium to problematically high levels.
Hersam and Marks’ team has created an alternative to indium tin oxide using single-walled carbon nanotubes, tiny, hollow cylinders of carbon just one nanometer in diameter.
via Researchers use carbon nanotubes to make solar cells affordable, flexible.
New Scientist covers another step towards functional neural prosthetics. Development here will be slow and complex, but we now have sufficient proof of concept across the field to see that interfacing digital systems with out brains is quite possible. We’ll use that first to help those who’ve suffered brain damage of some sort, and then eventually to augment.
AN ARTIFICIAL cerebellum has restored lost brain function in rats, bringing the prospect of cyborg-style brain implants a step closer to reality. Such implants could eventually be used to replace areas of brain tissue damaged by stroke and other conditions, or even to enhance healthy brain function and restore learning processes that decline with age.
Now Matti Mintz of Tel Aviv University in Israel and his colleagues have created a synthetic cerebellum which can receive sensory inputs from the brainstem – a region that acts as a conduit for neuronal information from the rest of the body. Their device can interpret these inputs, and send a signal to a different region of the brainstem that prompts motor neurons to execute the appropriate movement.
“It’s proof of concept that we can record information from the brain, analyse it in a way similar to the biological network, and return it to the brain,” says Mintz, who presented the work this month at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence meeting in Cambridge, UK.
via Rat cyborg gets digital cerebellum – tech – 27 September 2011 – New Scientist.
Theodore Berger and team, who I’ve been following since describing their work in More Than Human, achieved success earlier this year in recording a rat memory during encoding, and playing it back to the rat later.
This is a very very very early step towards being able to encode our memories digitally, outside of our brains, and potentially even transfer them from person to person. It’s on the path towards Matrix-style transfer of skills. The first applications will be for those who’ve suffered memory damage through aging, senility, disease, or brain damage. But eventually (perhaps in decades), it has the power to enhance our cognitive abilities.
With a flick of a switch and a burst of electrical activity, rats have been given access to lost memories. The concept might one day help people with brain damage remember how to perform everyday tasks.
Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and colleagues, used electrodes implanted within the hippocampus to record patterns of brain activity while rats learned how to operate a sequence of levers to gain a reward.
via Rat memory restored by installing replay electronics – tech – 20 June 2011 – New Scientist.