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The Vanguard

5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

June 23, 2017
This week, researchers unlocked the secrets of underwater stickiness by reverse-engineering octopus tentacles, mended broken bones with a pioneering new stem cell therapy and built a silicon chip that mimics the behavior of neurons to make deep-learning systems faster and more efficient.

Computer Chip Makes Deep-Learning Networks A Little Brighter

 width= A new silicon chip runs on light instead of an electrical current to mimic the behavior of neurons. Image credit: sakkmesterke/iStockphoto

What is it? Using beams of light to emulate the behavior of neurons in the human brain, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a silicon chip that holds the potential to unlock new speed and efficiency in deep-learning networks — computing systems that power tools such as Alexa-style virtual assistants and language-translation apps.

Why does it matter? The new silicon chip offers a cost-effective way to power deep-learning networks that currently require expensive and highly specialized computers. “Part of why this is new and exciting is that it uses silicon photonics, which is this new platform for doing optics on a chip,” says Alex Tait, an electrical engineer at Princeton University who was not involved in the work, in an interview with Science Magazine. “Because it uses silicon, it’s potentially low cost. They’re able to use existing foundries to scale up.”

How does it work? Unlike conventional transistor-based chips that rely on electrical current to function, the new chip processes information by guiding beams of light through glass lenses. Though the notion of “photonic processing” isn’t new, the MIT chip represents the first time it’s been implemented in a practical form factor.


These Drones Can See Through Walls

 width= Researchers envision a variety of applications for their drone-based imaging system, including search-and-rescue missions or archaeological surveys. Image credit: University of California, Santa Barbara.

What is it? What can fly, see through solid concrete and isn’t Superman? A new imaging system from researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara that uses Wi-Fi signals and a pair of unmanned octocopters to peek through walls and create a high-resolution 3D image of what’s behind.

Why does it matter? Researchers hope the system can be used in a variety of contexts, such as search-and-rescue missions or archaeological surveys.

How does it work? The system works by piloting two drones around a structure along a designated route. One continuously broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal through walls while the other measures the power received back. The gathered data is then used to render an accurate image of objects and persons inside. "Our proposed approach has enabled unmanned aerial vehicles to image details through walls in 3D with only WiFi signals," said Yasamin Mostofi, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCSB, in an interview with Phys.Org. "This approach utilizes only WiFi RSSI measurements, does not require any prior measurements in the area of interest and does not need objects to move to be imaged."


Reveal Thy Secrets, Cephalopod!

 width= A new octopus-inspired adhesive could be a key to developing new bandages that can stick to wet skin. Image credit: Sang-Yul Baik et al

What is it? Scientists have long turned to nature for inspiration in resolving humanity’s greatest technological challenges, such as putting people in the sky (birds) or healing their gravest maladies (plants). Now, South Korean researchers are looking to the humble octopus to answer one of our most profound questions: How do you make things sticky underwater?

Why does it matter? Scientists believe the adhesive they’ve created can be used to develop a new generation of medical tape to bind wounds, as well as bandages capable of sticking to wet skin.

How does it work? The team closely studied how octopi adhere to objects in the water, as well as in oil, and used their findings to create a polymer patch densely packed with 50-micrometer “dimples.” The dimples mimic the suckers that line the tentacles of a cephalopod. “We thought that there would be a secret of how octopuses stick to underwater surfaces, so we started to observe them with curiosity,” assistant professor Changhyun Pang from Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea told Gizmodo. “We revealed nature’s secret regarding this particular architecture.”


To Mend Bones, Look Within

 width= Researchers hope a new technique that uses stem cells to prompt bone regrowth could replace bone grafting. Image credit: Gazit Group/Cedars-Sinai

What is it? Cedars-Sinai researchers recently succeeded in coaxing broken bones to regrow their own tissue using a new stem cell therapy that has advanced the notion that medicine can come from within. "We are just at the beginning of a revolution in orthopedics," said Dan Gazit, co-director of the Skeletal Regeneration and Stem Cell Therapy Program in the Department of Surgery and the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute. "We're combining an engineering approach with a biological approach to advance regenerative engineering, which we believe is the future of medicine."

Why does it matter? Doctors hope the new technique will prove to be a viable alternative to bone grafting, which carries numerous disadvantages for patients.

How does it work? The technique uses a combination of stem cell, gene and ultrasound therapies to mend severe bone breaks. The repair gene is delivered to the stem cell, and then ultrasound pulses are used to get it inside.



 width= A new method allows for multiple edits to a single gene, which is crucial in treating a variety of diseases. Image credit: Science Magazine

What is it? The nascent field of gene editing hit a major milestone recently as scientists announced a method for “allowing multiple guide RNAs to be packaged in a viral shell.”

Why does it mater? The new method allows for multiple edits to a single gene, which is crucial in treating a variety of diseases. It’s believed the advance will have applications in the treatment of muscular dystrophy and hepatitis B.

How does it work? In a study published in the journal Nature, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida say the new technique can target, cut and paste human genes with greater precision than earlier methods.