I, Snowbot


In science fiction, robots perform all kinds of tasks. Sometimes they dictate the fate of humanity, such as in Isaac Asimov’s “Reason,” in which Q-T, a robot with impressive and frustrating existential curiosity, keeps an energy beam steady during an electron storm, thus saving everyone relying on that energy. In Asimov’s “Runaround,” a robot named Speedy is sent on a dangerous mission to gather selenium on Mercury. These two stories exemplify the three Ds of modern robotics—making robots to perform tasks that are dull, dirty, and/or dangerous.

It makes sense that robot development would head in this direction—even Rosie of the Jetsons regularly attended to two of the three Ds. Now we have “family” robots such as Jibo to help us realize the domestic dreams fueled by Rosie, and robots such as Rapiro and Nextage that can make us our daily cup of joe (though the speed of the preparation and the quality of the coffee might be up for debate). Then again, making a cup of coffee isn’t particularly dull, dirty, or dangerous. But I’ll tell you what is—shoveling snow.

After digging out of this week’s snowpocalypse, I can say with confidence that I’m over shoveling. It was fun for the first ten minutes or so, bearable for the next hour, and then it got pretty old, especially as my fingers and toes started freezing while other parts of me started overheating. Omni Magazine, a groundbreaker in the then genre of science writing back in 1978 when it debuted, predicted that “by 2010, robots would “clean the rug, iron the clothes, and shovel the snow.” Omni, Asimov, and so many other sci-fi writers were right.


Check out Yuki-taro, a robot that looks like Pikachu made babies with a tank (“yuki” means snow in Japanese, and “Taro” is a common Japanese name for a boy). The thing eats snow—even dirty, salty, slushy, snow, and then it poops out snow bricks, like of like those plastic igloo-making snow toys, except way better because—well, because it’s a robot. Duh. Yuki-taro “the friendly snowbot” comes equipped with two omni-directional VGA cameras, twin servomotors, a GPS positioning sensor, laser and ultrasonic range sensors, and obstacle recognition software, all of which enable it to guide itself to snowy streets. It spent its early days practicing its snow removal in Niigata, Japan, which receives an average of 85 inches of snowfall per year. Its developers first debuted the machine back in 2005 with the promise of bringing a version to market at an estimated cost of roughly $9,000. They said it would only take five years or so, and now it’s been ten. Sadly, it seems that even after winning the Good Design Award, Yuki-taro has gotten stuck in its tracks. I’d like to make an official plea now to bring it back—and to bring it to Boston.

While $9,000 might seem a bit extravagant to get out of shoveling duty, I can’t help thinking how handy it would be to have a couple of these around Boston right now (especially given the $18.5 million snow removal budget, which will likely be exceeded).


One of the biggest challenges associated with a large snowstorm is what to do with all the snow. The city is so dense that there’s really nowhere to put it all—there are snowbanks twice my height, at least half of the usual parking spots are nonexistent, and roads in some areas are still dodgy. Once upon a time, dump trucks used to toss snow into the Charles River, which may explain, in part, how the water got so polluted. I love this retrospective on Boston snow removal over the past couple centuries, particularly the SNOWTRON snow melter used in the 60s (and which cost the equivalent of $750,000). Maybe the ultimate problem with SNOWTRON is that it wasn’t a robot, even though its name suggests that it should be.


Yuki-taro’s snow removal system is ingenious. It doesn’t push or blow snow to the side or into massive drifts—it essentially eats the snow through its shovel-like mouth, uses an internal compressor to “digest” them, and then poops out small, stackable snow bricks. Sure, one would have to find something to do with the poop-bricks, but kids could play with them, they could be stored for later use, or fashioned into some kind of awesome snow house—perhaps a garage to house the machine, because even snowbots deserve a little shelter from the storm.

Posted in robot | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Microsoft’s Holographic System Will Project More Than Princess Leia

help me obi wan

When I first watched R2D2 beam a hologram of a distraught Princess Leia onto a tabletop, I was more interested in how I could get my hands on that technology than I was about her problem (don’t judge—I was little and it was the beginning of the movie). I wasn’t allowed to touch our family’s answering machine, so the idea of a holographic message blew my mind. And then there was Star Trek’s holodeck, an entire simulated environment used for training, crime scene investigation, and recreation (Deep Space Nine’s Quark has particular fun renting out holosuites). The Emergency Medical Hologram could stand in for an real doctor, though unlike the holographic Leia, the EMH is an actual character who has a family and other relationships, many with actual people. There are even holo-novelists who write narratives for the holodeck—perhaps this will turn out to be a job of the future.


This technology is now reality. This week Microsoft revealed its HoloLens. The holographic computing system is part Star Wars, part Star Trek, and part something else that transcends both of them. The system projects holograms, but does so in three dimensions, rather than two, taking images “out of the screen and into the world.” What’s really exciting about the HoloLens isn’t just that it can project these images, but that it also the actual physical stuff in a user’s environment into holograms users can interact with, thus merging digital and actual reality. It seems appropriate that Google should retire Glass at the same time this system was announced—what the HoloLens does is far beyond anything Glass could do (except perhaps the looking silly part).

minecraft hololens

Those invited to test out the visor-like system experienced a few different scenarios that merged the virtual world with the actual world. For example, one demo turned a user’s real environment into a Minecraft version of that environment, transforming, among other objects, the actual coffee table into a Minecraft one. Microsoft has been pretty tight-lipped about how the system works, but it’s thought that the holographic images are actually projected into the eye of the user, tricking their brain into thinking, in this case, that the coffee table is made from Minecraft bricks (the visor is also equipped with sensors to monitor the wearer’s head movements to make sure the projections are properly oriented). So what happens when the user takes a virtual Minecraft hammer and smashes the table? It splinters into pieces before their eyes.


Other demos included getting electrical (or plumbing) help via the HoloLens camera, which allowed an actual electrician to see the light switch in question and give verbal and drawn instructions about how to fix it. There’s also something called HoloStudio, an app for creating 3D objects that can then be printed. But I think the most exciting scenario involves scientists using the HoloLens to “work” on Mars. This one uses OnSight software developed by folks at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It allows scientists to see through the eyes of the Curiosity rover so they can explore Mars, interact with 3D holographic images, and even perform experiments on Mars.


The system sounds similar to that of Magic Leap, a company recently purchased by Google that is developing “cinematic reality,” which is a step beyond virtual or augmented reality. The HoloLens may end up competing with Magic Leap, especially for hardware, but Microsoft doesn’t see virtual reality systems such as Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus, or Glyph as competitors: “We are integrating holograms into the world around you–transforming the ways you create, connect, and explore. Oculus, Magic Leap, Glass developers and everyone else, we humbly invite you–come create holograms with us.” It’s worth noting that Oculus Rift can be used to generate holographic environments too, including a room that pays homage to the holodeck.

In conjunction with the announcement, Microsoft also revealed Windows 10, which will feature “holographic experiences.” Windows 8 and 8.1 users can upgrade for free (right now the Technical Preview is available to “Windows Insider” users). And if my previous experiences with Windows updates are any indication, we’ll all be forced to upgrade at some point soon whether we want to or not–unless Obi Wan can do something to stop it.

Posted in Could this Happen?, technology, virtual reality | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Apes Shall Inherit The Earth (Or At Least A Little Piece)

planet poster

One of the reasons Planet of the Apes resonates so deeply with viewers is the plausibility of its premise. Have you ever seen monkeys up close? Their profound intelligence is clear, and there’s no question we evolved from them. Their eyes convey not just their cognitive abilities, but a deep level of awareness. Monkeys, apes, and gorillas are also emotional creatures—if you’ve ever seen Koko grieve the loss of her kitten or hang out with Robin Williams, you know they’re capable of love, sadness, and even compassion. Given their intelligence, sentience, and opposable thumbs, it’s not too difficult to imagine them ruling the world.

Planet of the Apes subeverts the paradigm that humans are the smartest and most capable life forms around. We keep primates in zoos because despite their intelligence and capabilities, we generally still believe we have the right to study them and hold them captive. I’ve seen monkeys at sub-par zoos that seem downright depressed (I even saw a monkey smoking a cigarette in a zoo once). Sure, sometimes protective measures are necessary, especially when it comes to gorilla poaching and other abhorrent practices. But to put these animals behind bars diminishes the vary qualities that fascinate and endear us—not to mention the qualities we’ve inherited from them—and much like sci-fi movies that feature robots seeking revenge for past enslavement, Planet of the Apes suggests that primates could, like robots, exceed human intelligence and even turn the tables on us by taking over. It also asks whether that would be such a bad outcome in the grand scheme of things.

Among other things, the movie challenges the morality behind keeping these animals in captivity, and it turns out that courts are deliberating the same question. In December, a criminal appeals court in Argentina ruled in favor of an orangutan named Sandra, granting her the right to life and liberty, as well as to protection against harm. Sandra was born in a German zoo in 1986 and has lived in captivity ever since, now residing at the Buenos Aires Zoo. The habeas corpus petition was filed by the Argentina’s Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights, who argued that it is illegal to deny Sandra her freedom. The petition was initially denied before being granted by the appeals court.


Sandra (credit: Buenos Aires Zoo)

That ruling will lead to another legal proceeding—this time to figure out where Sandra should live. A committee will be appointed by the Argentine justice system to decide the best home for the orangutan, considering factors such as her ability to travel, her age, and available and appropriate sanctuaries.

This isn’t the first time such claims were filed, both in and out of Argentina. Similar motions have been made in Brazil and in New York State. In 2012, PETA unsuccessfully tried to apply the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery and servitude, to captive orcas. The ruling in favor of Sandra would have widespread effects—first and foremost for 17 chimpanzees currently in Argentinian zoos. The ruling will also fuel a growing movement to return primates, as well as other intelligent animals such as dolphins and whales, to their natural environments, or in cases where that’s not possible, to sanctuaries. Such animals have been shown to possess “sentience, self-consciousness, and individuality,” according to University of Buenos Aires primatologist Aldo Giúdice. “We cannot be accomplices and let them suffer in prison.”

Perhaps such rulings will help build humans’ credibility and goodwill. If primates evolve to be the superior species on Earth or on some other planet we happen to land on, maybe they’ll think twice before performing brain surgery on us or putting us behind bars.

Posted in Could this Happen? | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wake Me Up Before You Go Go


British neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote Awakenings in 1973, detailing his experiences giving a drug called L-Dopa (Levodopa, now commonly used to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s by increasing the brain’s supply of dopamine) to catatonic patients. The book was later made into the movie Awakenings, starring Robin Williams as the doctor and Robert De Niro as one of the patients who awoke after being administered L-Dopa. Sudden awakenings from catatonic or comatose states are staples in science fiction, as writers and directors can fling unsuspecting and unconscious characters into space, as in Pandorum; give them post-awakening psychic abilities, as in Dead Zone; or suddenly awake mass numbers of comatose patients with the directive to stop World War III, as in the forthcoming Coma. Even though these sudden awakenings may seem unbelievable, Sacks’ L-Dopa treatments really were that effective—at least for a while. They allowed patients to increasingly participate in aspects of life that otherwise would have been forever unavailable to them.

Recently, a medical breakthrough in Italy allowed a patient who had been in a “minimally conscious state” for two years not just to regain consciousness, but to engage in conversation. The man wasn’t in exactly the same state as Sacks’ patients, who suffered from something called encephalitis lethargica, which attacks the brain and causes everything from headaches and double vision to Parkinson’s-like symptoms to catatonia or a coma-like state. An encephalitis lethargica epidemic began in 1917 and lasted over a decade, resulting in the deaths of roughly 5 million people. The patients Sacks treated contracted the disease during that epidemic and had been hospitalized and catatonic for over 30 years.

The Italian patient had been in a car accident, after which he was comatose for 40 days. He then awoke from the coma, but remained minimally conscious—he had a sleep-wake cycle, he could reach out and touch things, and he could open and close his eyes, but that was about it. When he was released from the hospital about a year after his accident, he couldn’t communicate or respond when people asked him to blink. Then his cognition took a nosedive in a way that mirrored the decline of Sacks’ patients. His movements became excruciatingly slow, and he sometimes exhibited random, almost tic-like behavior, such as clapping.

Roughly two years after his car accident, he underwent a CT scan so doctors could get a better idea of what was going on. As is typical, the doctors administered midazolam, a mild sedative often used for such procedures. What isn’t typical is the man’s response—within minutes, he began talking and interacting. He didn’t just have rudimentary conversations, either. According to the case report, the man “talked by cellphone with his aunt and congratulated his brother when he was informed of his graduation; he recognized the road leading to his home.”

This is the first time doctors have reported midazolam as promoting an “awakening” in a patient, as detailed in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience. However, the effects of the midazolam wore off after a couple hours, after which the man reverted to his previous state. Doctors wanted to confirm that the drug was indeed responsible for the dramatic shift in the man’s state, so they gave him the drug again. After just a few minutes the patient was not only responsive and talkative, but was also able to do some simple math problems. Brain scans before, during, and after the second dose of midazolam revealed that the regions of the brain affected by the drug are associated with catatonia.


Unfortunately, the long-term effects of this treatment mirror those of the patients in Sacks’ memoir. He found that his patients built up a tolerance to the drug, so he had to administer more and more of it, which resulted in side effects such as irritation, increased physical tics, spasms, and even psychosis: “For the first time, then, the patient on L-DOPA enjoys a perfection of being, an ease of movement and feeling and thought, a harmony of relation within and without. Then his happy state – his world – starts to crack, slip, break down, and crumble; he lapses from his happy state, and moves toward perversion and decay.” Eventually, the patients relapsed, and a decade after Sacks published his memoir, 17 of those patients had died, most of them from Parkinsonism. The movie Awakenings ends with Williams and De Niro once again using a Ouija Board to try and communicate.

Researchers ran up against this same problem with their Italian patient. They tried giving him another drug of the same class called lorazepam, which is generally thought to be safer than midazolam, but after a few days, the patient became agitated and angry. The doctors switched him to an epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, which apparently has allowed him to “maintain the improvement of his ability to interact and communicate with people,” though perhaps not to the same degree as he could while on the midazolam.

Still, the Italian patient’s experience, as well as other accounts of sedatives, particularly sleeping pills such as Ambien, inducing temporary consciousness in patients, gives researchers hope for treating patients in catatonic, comatose, and vegetative states. It also provides a solid lead for treating Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and other neurological disorders. And hey, it beats using a Ouija board.

Posted in Could this Happen?, medicine | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Am I Only Dreaming?


Ever since I first saw Nightmare on Elm Street as a kid (and watched Johnny Depp get blended by his bed and splattered on the ceiling), I’ve been fascinated and a little scared by dreams. If you die in your dream, as in the movie, are you toast in real life as well? Somewhere around this time I also heard the myth that if you don’t dream, you die. While there is a rare genetic disorder called fatal familial insomnia, most people who think they don’t dream simply don’t remember them (we supposedly have 3-7 per night, on average). There are folks called “non-dreamers” who really don’t dream, and while perhaps they’re a little less creative or spontaneous because of it, studies show they are alive and well. Dreams commonly feature in science fiction because of the ease with which they present another world—one that doesn’t require a portal or time travel to access. Sci-fi raises some interesting questions about the line between dreams and reality, as well as the relationship between dream and memory. Christopher Nolan’s Inception involves both dream stealing and implanting ideas via dreams. Movies such as the Matrix and Richard Linklater’s Waking Life grapple with the question of how to tell if one is dreaming or not, and which world is the “real” one (and how to exercise free will in both). But what if there’s not an “either/or” answer to the question of which is real?

Some people claim to be able to control their dreams–it’s called “lucid dreaming.” Lucid dreamers know they’re dreaming, and can thus learn how to choose their own adventure, basically scripting their dreams like books. Most people experience snippets of lucid dreaming. Have you ever woken up from a wonderful dream and willed yourself back into it? Have you ever had a nightmare and willed yourself awake? Have you ever been conscious of the fact that you’re dreaming? These are all basic aspects of lucid dreaming. A number of people have taught themselves how to harness this ability, and regularly choose to fly, visit outer space, time travel, and have meaningful personal interactions and experiences via their sleep that affect their waking lives. In fact, a number of famous artists and scientists described themselves as lucid dreamers, including Nikola Tesla, who had visualizations so intense that he did “dream experiments” in the lab; Salvador Dali (does this really surprise anyone?); Richard Feynman, who honed the ability enough to “observe [himself] in [a] dream” and “could control the direction of [his ] dream; Albert Einstein (“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”); Stephen King; and, unsurprisingly, Richard Linklater, the Wachowskis, and Christopher Nolan.

It turns out, though, that one doesn’t have to be a scientific or artistic genius to experience lucid dreaming. One doesn’t even have to practice the techniques. Recent studies suggest that lucid dreaming can be electrically induced. In a study published in Nature Neuroscience, scientists studied the brainwaves of people who identified as lucid dreamers and found that the dreamers’ gamma waves were in the range of those that indicate conscious attention (somewhere between wakefulness and REM-sleep, which, incidentally, MIT researchers recently induced in mice via optogenetics).

transcranial alternating current

transcranial alternating current stimulation set-up

The scientists wanted to see if they could replicate that finding on people who had never experienced a lucid dream, so they rounded up 27 participants and sent electrical pulses to their scalps via a technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation as they entered REM sleep. The participants received a bunch of different types of electrical stimulation—various frequencies, as well as a sham/placebo stimulation. After getting zapped at frequencies between 25-40Hz–higher and lower frequencies produced no effect, while the 40Hz frequency induced increased gamma brainwave activity in the participants–some of the subjects reported that they had been aware they were dreaming—the first step toward lucid dreaming. Some participants could also control their actions in the dreams, such as by getting dressed before heading to work, since we all hate that “naked in public” dream. They also experienced the third basic condition of lucid dreaming–observing their dream self from a third-person perspective.

While there’s lots we don’t yet understand about sleeping and dreaming, researchers generally believe people have two levels of consciousness. The primary one involves senses and emotions—it’s the level of consciousness we experience during pretty much all of our waking life, and it’s one animals are thought to experience as well. But the second level of consciousness involves metacognition—being aware of and understanding one’s own thoughts. Lucid dreams experience this second level, as they’re aware that they’re dreaming, and via that awareness and perspective can control their dreams and/or mine them for insight. Scientists believe the brain’s gamma waves play an important role in determining this awareness, hybridizing two general states of consciousness—awake and asleep.

Lucid dreaming may be helpful in treating PTSD, which often causes recurring nightmares. If patients could distance themselves from the events in their dream, or even control those events, they could potentially reduce the traumatic effects of those events and dreams). It’s also possible that lucid dreaming could be used to help treat other mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. That is, of course, if no one’s sharing or stealing the dreams.

Posted in Could this Happen?, dreaming | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Back To The Future Part II: How Far Off Are We?


Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. Except we do. But flying cars do exist, such as the Terrafugia and the AeroMobil, aircraft-car hybrids that can fly, and then fold in their wings and drive around. There’s also the Florida-based Maverick, which earned the dubious distinction of being the first flying car to crash after it slammed into some trees near a school in British Columbia. None of those have the sleek design of the DeLorean, so if you have your heart set on that look, you’ll have to settle for one of the awesome replicas, including the one below built by Californian Matthew Riese. Where he’s going, he legally can’t use roads, so I guess this is the next best thing.

Watching the car skim the water brings up the number one invention people hoped would exist by 2015: hoverboards. I’m happy to report that hoverboards are reality—just ask Tony Hawk, who recently demoed the Hendo Hover. It only gets about an inch off the ground, so it doesn’t get the dramatic air Marty McFly does, but it fits the bill. The design incorporates physicist Heinrich Lenz’s law of electrodynamics by generating opposing electrical currents that push the hoverboard off the ground.

I’m sure people will also be thrilled to know that in 2015, they’ll be able to buy Marty’s power-lacing Nike high tops. In 2011, Nike made 1,500 pairs and auctioned them on Ebay, making $6 million for Parkinson’s research. But rather than forking over thousands of dollars to snag one of these, sneaker connoisseurs can get a pair this year. Nike hasn’t released the details, but the price will likely be a bit closer to the $200-$300 Air Mags they made in 2013.

Remember the dehydrated Pizza Hut pie the future McFlys have for dinner? It’s encased in Mylar and needs only a two-second rehydration. It’s not exactly the same, but the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center has been developing MRE (meals ready to eat) pizza for a while now, and believe they’ve developed a pizza that can remain edible for three years, so long as the package stays sealed. The biggest challenge has been figuring out how to keep the sauce from making the dough soggy, but they’ve got humectants, iron filings, and extra acidity that seem to do the trick.

MRE pizza

When the McFlys are enjoying that pizza dinner, Marty’s future kids are both wearing virtual reality goggles that look more like Oculus Rift headsets but seem to function more like Google Glass, since his daughter is talking to her friend via the device. This is just one example of the seemingly ubiquitous wearable technology available today, and one aspect the movie got right. The movie also features some holographic billboards, which when coupled with virtual reality technologies sounds a lot like Magic Leap, a company that pushes virtual reality to the next step, which it calls “cinematic reality.” It’s not just holograms, but 3-D, high-resolution objects that users can actually manipulate.

magic leap

So while fax machines and phone booths have been phased out (or in some cases, upgraded), we’re not too far from some of the futuristic visions of the movie. If the Cubs win the World Series this year, we’ll know we’ve truly arrived at the incredible.

Posted in Could this Happen? | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Going Out For a Jaunt? Try Teleportation


I’ve long said that if I could have any superpower, it would be teleportation. To be liberated from airports, airplanes and tickets would be amazing. I wouldn’t mind leaving behind my passport and never suffering another border crossing again, although the elimination of travel bureaucracy would be a breakthrough of a different kind. Science fiction great Alfred Bester was similarly fascinated with teleporting, or as he calls it in The Stars My Destination, “jaunting.”

Bester focuses on the implications of jaunting, namely the social and economic ones. In fact, the inner planets and the outer planets are warring because of it, even though there’s a 1,000-mile limit to each jaunte (but no limits to how many times one can jaunte so long as there’s an open landing platform and one knows from where and to where one’s jaunting). There are jaunte-proof prisons for criminals and people who want or need to be isolated or protected; other than that, people who can’t jaunte are both unemployable and outcasts. Bester’s portrayal of worlds where inhabitants can jaunte isn’t particularly appealing, but I’m not deterred—teleportation is still my superpower of choice. Recently, there have been three recent scientific breakthroughs suggesting that teleportation might not be limited to the Starship Enterprise.


Researchers from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews and the Czech Republic’s Institute of Scientific Instruments built a miniature tractor beam that can draw objects in by figuring out a way to create a negative force on particles. This means that the light pulls in particles, rather than pushing them away, which is what usually happens with light and solid matter collide. Their methodology entails creating an optical field that reverses light’s radiation pressure. This tractor beam only works on a microscopic level, but jaunting has to start somewhere.

Scientists have also recently created a tractor beam made from water. Professors from the Australian National University have been playing with wave generators recently, and not just so they can surf in a swimming pool, or even generate electricity. What they realized is that while it might seem that wave generators would push all floating objects in the same direction as the waves, that’s not necessarily the case. Wave generators can actually move objects in the opposite direction as the waves.

The scientists discovered that this won’t just work for any waves–the secret is the height and frequency of the waves. By floating ping pong balls on the water and toying with the waves, they figured out how to generate this effect. It’s not the waves themselves that move the objects; rather, the surface currents generated by the waves moves objects in the opposite direction (or keeps them stationary, if desired). The waves create flow patterns on the surface, including “inward flows, outward flows, or vortices….The tractor beam is just one of the patterns.” This technology probably won’t be too helpful in outer space, but in the water it could be used to achieve rescues or clean up oil spills.

Scientists at the Netherlands’ Delft Institute of Technology have figured out how to teleport data—and not by run-of-the-mill teleportation, but by quantum teleportation. This method proves the concept of quantum entanglement (even Einstein was an entanglement skeptic). Quantum entanglement is the theory that even when particles are divided, they remain linked to the extent that even when they’re separated, what happens to one affects the other—or as Einstein puts it, “spooky action at a distance.”

Spooky or not, there quantum links can be created between particles, and Dutch scientists have used that to achieve teleportation. The scientists entangled electrons inside super-cooled diamonds using lasers, and then they separated the diamonds by ten feet. Every time they changed the direction or rate of spin of one particle, the other followed suit. Even though they were only ten feet from each other, the technique should work no matter how far away the two are (the next step is to prove this by increasing the distance between the particles). If entangled quantum particles are used in, say, computers, we could all forget about thumb drives and transmit our information faster than the speed of light.

Quantum-teleportation makes me think of the ultimate feat accomplished by the protagonist of Bester’s book: space-jaunting. Now that would be something. But until then, I’ll keep hoping that my desired superpower is within reach. Whether I’ll be around to see it is another question, but by then, maybe we’ll have learned to time-jaunte.

Posted in Could this Happen? | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Double Take: NASA’s Twin Study

Time for the Stars

In the sci-fi novel Time for the Stars, Robert Heinlein explores something called the “twin paradox,” an Einstein-inspired thought experiment involving the splitting up of identical twins. One rockets off into space while the other remains on Earth. Even though time dilation, or the actual difference in elapsed time as measured by the two twins, who are both moving relative to each other, might suggest that each twin would find the other to have aged more slowly, when the space-traveling twin comes home, he actually finds that the Earth-bound twin has aged more quickly. Doc Brown demonstrated it best when he showed Marty that time on Einstein’s watch moved more slowly than theirs when they sent Einstein back to the future (and when Doc and Marty themselves do the same).

At any rate, in Time for the Stars, one twin, Tom, goes into space looking for habitable planets. During his mission he communicates telepathically with his Earthbound twin, Pat. But because Pat ages more quickly than Tom, their ability to telepathically communicate is compromised—at least, until they figure out that Tom can also communicate with Pat’s offspring, which he does for generations. Eventually, scientists on Earth use those telepathic powers to help develop FTL technology, and they bring back Tom and the remainder of the crew from an expedition gone wrong (and speaking of things gone wrong, when Tom does return, he ends up marrying his most recent telepathic partner—his grandniece).

Separating identical twins and sending one into space isn’t just fiction anymore–NASA is doing just that in an effort to determine whether the twins will still be identical after one spends a year in space. The experiment will start next March, when Scott Kelly heads to the ISS. Scott’s twin brother, Mark, who is also an astronaut, will remain Earthbound—he’s the “control” twin. Both twins will give samples and measurements before, during, and after the year-long experiment so NASA researchers can pinpoint how and why space may create physiological distinctions that didn’t previously exist.


NASA’s not particularly interested in measuring the passage of time—at 17,000 mph, the ISS doesn’t move quickly enough to dilate time or produce relativistic effects. But NASA will measure the twins’ genes, biochemistry, vision, and cognition, among others, to see what effects space travel has. In fact, NASA solicited and selected 10 research proposals for the study as part of their Human Exploration Research Opportunities Program.

One thing scientists already know is that humans’ immune systems are weakened when in space, so one of the experiments will involve the twins’ reactions to identical flu vaccines. They’ll also monitor the twins’ telomeres, which are repeating nucleotide sequences at the tips of chromosomes that help protect chromosomes and prevent them from merging with other chromosomes. Aging negatively affects telomeres, and NASA scientists wonder whether increased cosmic radiation will do the same, essentially speeding up aging in astronauts. They’ll also study digestion, which relies on bacteria and microbiomes that may be affected by space travel (not to mention all that delightful space food). Other studies will focus on changes in astronauts’ vision (perhaps a bright sunrise every 45 minutes has something to do with it?), as well as the mental fogginess some astronauts report.

It doesn’t appear that any of the studies will focus on social or other external influences. Mark Kelly will probably be subject to a whole lot more media than his brother, for better or for worse, and Mark also won’t be dealing with isolation or separation from his friends and family. While it might seem that space-bound Scott will generally fare less well on a physiological level, it’ll be interesting to see whether the lack of environmental influences such as pollution and other chemicals (aside from that pesky radiation) has any effect. Regardless, if Mark’s got a competitive streak, Scott’s return to Earth would be the best time to challenge him to an arm wrestling contest.

Posted in Could this Happen? | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

New Man’s War

old man's war

In John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, the home planet’s military consists of old folks who join the fight because they have nothing left to lose. Of course, they can’t just battle as is—they need some pretty serious upgrades first. They get BrainPals, which allow them to telepathically communicate with their comrades, as well as access information. They also get genetic and physiological upgrades in the form of new bodies designed from their DNA and that allow them all kinds of impressive new skills ranging from super strength to cat vision.

Could this happen? Could we upgrade people, octogenarians or not, and turn them into super soldiers?

DARPA seems to think so.

In 2010, DARPA announced its BioDesign project, designed to create “synthetic organisms” to replace those natural organisms—ie, people—that are limited by “the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement.” One of those limitations is mortality. DARPA’s answer is to create fortified organisms with death-resistant cells that ultimately will result in their ability to live “indefinitely.” Of course, that’s a double-edged sword, so they’ll be genetically engineered to be loyal, too—or at least, “tamper proof.” They’ll have traceable identity numbers in case they go MIA and if all else fails, they’ve got a genetic kill switch.

BioDesign coupled with DARPA’s synthetic biology program, as well as DARPA’s recently established Biotech Division shows just how serious DARPA is when it comes to creating super soldiers. I think I’d feel more comfortable if they started as old folks first before getting enhanced. These synthetic organisms are…well, synthetic. Can they be genetically coded to have compassion or the wisdom of experience? That would make them less ruthless fighters, so we’ll likely never find out.

Recently, the BioDesign program got an additional $8 million to continue their work with synthetic organisms. DARPA also founded the Living Foundries program to “leverage the unparalleled synthetic and functional capabilities of biology to create a revolutionary, biologically-based manufacturing platform to provide access to new materials, capabilities and manufacturing paradigms” by “transform[ing] biology into an engineering practice by developing the tools, technologies, methodologies, and infrastructure to speed the biological design-built-test-learn cycle and expand the complexity of systems that can be engineered.” So maybe the soldiers of the future will be more like synthetic humans and less like T-800 robots, but I’m not sure that makes me feel any better. What’s also not particularly comforting is that some of the modification techniques involve combining modified DNA with a virus, and injecting that cocktail into the human body. The altered DNA would attach to the existing DNA when the virus permeates the cells. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the advantages DARPA hopes to create for its futuristic soldiers is the ability to survive major blood loss. They’re working on techniques such as metabolism self-regulation to maintain the functioning of cells even if they don’t get oxygen due to blood loss. They may be able to induce something akin to hibernation that would allow soldiers to survive for hours, even days, before treatment.

DARPA has also initiated a biochronicity program to try and identify the relationships between biology and the passage of time. We’ve all heard of the biological clock that supposedly motivates females’ reproductive drives, but biological clocks do a lot more than that, especially on a cellular level as we age. DARPA believes that unlocking secrets about the way time affects the body will help the medical treatment of soldiers, as well as the survival of blood loss; it could also improve their performance in battle.

Scientists both inside and outside DARPA have been making strides toward creating these synthetic organisms. Recently, researchers built an artificial yeast chromosome, which included about 50,000 modifications from the original. It imbued the yeast chromosome with artificial traits, including the ability to rearrange itself when chemically induced. This is a yeast-based organism, rather than a replica. DARPA’s soldiers will probably be similar, with all kinds of new traits that will allows them to bleed less, sleep less, lift more weight, run faster, and fight harder and better.

A DARPA-designed synthetic organism wouldn’t have to play by nature’s rules, which is precisely the point, but also the problem—at least, depending your ethical stance. Transhumanists wouldn’t object, though plenty of others might. This sounds a little bit like Captain America to me, but better that than Avatar, I suppose.


Posted in Could this Happen? | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cop A Feelie

sensory fiction

In Brave New World, there’s all kinds of fun to be had. There’s Centrifugal Bumble Puppy, rudimentary sexual games for the young ones in school, and, of course, there’s the feelies.

The feelies aren’t exactly virtual reality—based on Huxley’s descriptions, moviegoers don’t step into the film and become the protagonist, but they experience what Lenina calls “feely effects” when they grab the metal knobs on the arms of their chair. The Savage freaks out when he feels a “sensation on his lips” when the two characters on screen start making out. And don’t get me started on the musk-breathing scent organ.

It would be nice for some sensory enhancement to accompany movies and books, wouldn’t it? Just think of how interesting the library would be, or class. In fact, a class at MIT inspired its students to create something they call “Sensory Fiction” (though not because the class was boring—a class called Science Fiction to Science Fabrication would pretty much be the most awesome class ever). Sensory Fiction isn’t exactly like the feelies—in its current incarnation, it only works for books. But books are more important It also requires more than a couple metal knobs—in effect, a reader wears this book and experiences the emotions felt by the characters.

Sensory Fiction is really a vest (can I suggest a Malthusian birth control model?) that contains a network of sensors and actuator that deliver sensations such as warmth, coldness, tightness, looseness, vibrations, and light. Since the vest has to be programmed specifically for a book, so far it only works for James Tiptree’s The Girl Who Was Plugged In. Appropriate, no? The creators of the technology also chose the story because of its variety of landscapes, from sunny to underground, and its variety of emotions, from love to despair. The experience of reading the book starts with an animated cover, and tumultuous passages cause vibrations, and tense ones cause the vest to constrict via air pressure bags.

Sensory Fiction is similar to the haptic jacket created by Philips Electronics that contains vibrating motors. The jacket is lined by a 16 by 4 grid of independent actuators and can run on two AA batteries at full throttle for an hour. Its designers say that wearers wouldn’t feel kicks and punches—not because the jacket couldn’t do it, of course, but because the point of the garment is to study emotional, not physical, immersion.

haptic jacket

The jacket has a bit more range than the vest—it can respond to signals encoded in a DVD, or it can be used with a program that allows it to work on the fly. The motors can evoke shivers, tension or a pulsing reminiscent of a thumping heart. The skin’s neural connections and our brains do the rest in terms of creating realistic sensations.

Like virtual reality, haptic technology is becoming more and more integrated into what used to be our fictional forays, but are now becoming our firsthand experiences. In fact, the IEEE has a Technical Committee on Haptics which, among other things, holds conferences at which researchers showcase these wearable technologies. I’m holding out for a crew from MIT to program Brave New World to work with their vest. The orgie porgies would be religious on a whole new level, and simulating soma seems like a good time. And the Assistant Predestinator, and later Lenina and the Savage, get to experience “every hair of the bear reproduced” when they watch a love scene on a bearskin rug at the feelies—don’t Sensory Fiction readers deserve the same?

Posted in Could this Happen? | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment