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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Rebecca M Oliver
March 08, 2021

Robots with sensitive “skin” and hearing, and an algorithm that virtually unfolds sealed letters. This week’s coolest things really get in touch with their feelings.


Hearing Crickets


Locust ear in a chip


What is it? Scientists at Tel Aviv University used a dead locust’s ear to give a robot a sense of hearing.

Why does it matter? Scientists believe that the inherent advantages of biological systems — finely tuned senses such as smell, sight, hearing and touch — could one day be used to build smarter electronic systems, according to the university. “Nature is much more advanced than we are, so we should use it,” says Dr. Ben M. Maoz, who co-supervised a new study that applied this approach.

How does it work? First, researchers built a robot that responds to environmental stimuli. Next, Maoz and his colleagues created what they call an “Ear-on-a-Chip,” a device that supplied oxygen and food to the locust ear and took electronic signals out. They amplified these signals and sent them to the robot. “The result is extraordinary: When the researchers clap once, the locust's ear hears the sound and the robot moves forward; when the researchers clap twice, the robot moves backwards,” the university reports. The results of the experiment were published in the journal Sensors. Maoz says the study “opens the door to sensory integrations between robots and insects—and may make much more cumbersome and expensive developments in the field of robotics redundant.”


AI Against Alzheimer’s


AI medicine Getty Images


What is it? Medical researchers built an artificial-intelligence platform that identifies potential Alzheimer’s treatments by screening drugs already approved for other conditions.

Why does it matter? “Repurposing FDA-approved drugs for Alzheimer's disease is an attractive idea that can help accelerate the arrival of effective treatment,” says Artem Sokolov, Ph.D., a director at Harvard Medical School (HMS). “We therefore built a framework for prioritizing drugs, helping clinical studies to focus on the most promising ones.”

How does it work? Developed by researchers from Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital and described in Nature Communications, DRIAD — Drug Repurposing In Alzheimer's Disease — “works by measuring what happens to human brain neural cells when treated with a drug,” a hospital press release explains. The machine-learning system then weighs whether those effects are likely to have an impact on Alzheimer’s disease. The results identified several candidates for further research, including a class of anti-inflammatories that blocks a specific protein known to affect autoimmune diseases and suspected to play a role in Alzheimer’s.


The Latest Sensation




What is it? A research team at City University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong developed a tactile sensor for robots that mimics the characteristics of human skin. “A robotic gripper with the sensor mounted at the fingertip could accomplish challenging tasks such as stably grasping fragile objects and threading a needle,” the university reports.

Why does it matter? “Our skin can act as feedback and allow us to adjust how we should hold an object stably with our hands and fingers or how tight we should grasp it,” City University says. Dr. Shen Yajing, professor at the university and co-leader of the study, says the sensor “could be beneficial to various applications in the robotics field, such as adaptive grasping, dextrous manipulation, texture recognition, smart prosthetics and human-robot interaction.”

How does it work? According to City University, the sensor is inside a skin-like, multi-layered structure topped with a “specially magnetized” film. “When an external force is exerted on it, it can detect the change of the magnetic field due to the film's deformation,” the school says. The approach can separately measure the force pushing on the sensor perpendicularly and the shear force, which acts sideways. Shen says “the advancement of soft artificial tactile sensors with skin-comparable characteristics can make domestic robots become part of our daily life."


Down To The Letter


Virtual unfolding


What is it? A team of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic developed a “flattening” algorithm that can virtually unfold centuries-old, sealed documents.

Why does it matter? Literary researchers have long faced the hurdle of “letterlocking,” which MIT Libraries describes as “the historical process of folding and securing a flat sheet of paper to become its own envelope.” Jana Dambrogio, a conservator at MIT Libraries, says “it plays an integral role in the history of secrecy systems as the missing link between physical communications security techniques from the ancient world and modern digital cryptography.” Now, researchers have used a process called “automated virtual unfolding” to read a sealed and locked 17th-century letter. “Sometimes the past resists scrutiny,” says Daniel Starza Smith, a lecturer at King’s College London. “We’ve learned that letters can be a lot more revealing when they are left unopened.”

How does it work? Researchers at Queen Mary University of London used X-ray microtomography, a 3D technology designed for dentistry, to produce high-resolution, high-contrast, volumetric scans of the locked letter. The team, which detailed its findings in the journal Nature Communications, then applied what it calls a “computational flattening algorithm” developed by MIT alumna Amanda Ghassaei and undergrad student Holly Jackson. “The virtual unfolding generates 2D and 3D reconstructions of the letters in both folded and flat states, plus images of the letters’ writing surfaces and crease patterns,” MIT News explains. “One of [the] coolest technical contributions of the work is a technique that explores the folded and flattened representations of a letter simultaneously,” Jackson says. “Our new technology enables conservators to preserve a letter’s internal engineering, while still giving historians insight into the lives of the senders and recipients.” Now that’s something to write home about.

Bonus: Click here to read how a conservator in Berlin used GE’s CT imaging technology to virtually unroll a tiny scroll of ancient scripture.


Solid Performance


Battery and getty images


What is it? Artificial Intelligence helped scientists in California create a stable, high-performance conductor for solid-state sodium-ion batteries that could meet the demands of high-voltage applications like the energy grid. 

Why does it matter? Expanding use of renewable energy will also require large-scale battery storage systems to meet peak demand when power generation varies. Sodium-ion batteries look increasingly promising with this breakthrough material — a halide sodium conductor named NYZC and detailed in Nature Communications — which increases conductivity at lower cost. 

How does it work? University of California researchers used a machine-learning model to identify a good candidate material, then experimented extensively to identify its electrochemical properties. The team took Na3YCl6, a poor sodium conductor on its own, and substituted zirconium for yttrium, a swap that boosted the conduction of sodium ions, SciTechDaily reports. Lead researcher Shyue Ping Ong says the findings “highlight the immense potential of halide ion conductors for solid-state sodium-ion battery applications.”