Are viruses the way to green manufacturing?


If Prof Angela Belcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gets it right, the future of manufacturing will rest on the shoulders of tiny organisms.

Although she’s probably told the story a thousand times, Prof Belcher still talks with reverence about the shell she cradles in her hand.

The humble abalone, a slimy sea snail that occasionally ends up as someone’s dinner, pulls calcium and carbon from sea water and transforms them into a durable, protective shell. Crusty and dingy on one side, shimmery and alluring on the other, this body armour is 3,000 times stronger than chalk, which is its chemical equivalent.

Abalone shells have inspired Prof Belcher’s work for more than two decades and brought her to the pinnacle of science.

And they have implications for the future of manufacturing, green energy, medicine and science – just for starters.

Prof Belcher’s work unites the inanimate world of simple chemicals with proteins made by living creatures, a mash-up of the living and the lifeless.

She is motivated, she says, by a simple question: “How do you give life to non-living things?”

Like the abalone collecting its materials in shallow water and then laying them down like bricks in a wall, Belcher takes basic chemical elements from the natural world: carbon, calcium, silicon, zinc. Then she mixes them with simple, harmless viruses whose genes have been reprogrammed to promote random variations.

The resulting new materials just might address some of our most vexing problems.

“What drives me is solving important problems,” Prof Belcher says. “I look at what are the important problems: energy, healthcare, water.”

Help from nature

To that end, her work has already led to efficient solar cells and powerful batteries (that she hopes one day will be good enough to run her car); a possibly cheaper, greener way of producing plastics; and a potentially better way to peer into deeply buried tumours in the breast and abdomen. This summer her lab started a water purification project.

Prof Belcher is far from the only scientist trying to solve important problems with help from nature. There are glues inspired by gecko feet, robots designed to mimic bugs, and myriad other examples.

The distinctiveness of Prof Belcher’s work, colleagues say, lies in her use of biology to synthesise new materials for such a wide range of uses, to develop an entirely new method for producing entirely novel materials.

“Her methodologies for directing and assembling materials I think will be unique,” says Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT professor who collaborates with Prof Belcher on battery research. “I think 50 years from now, we’ll look back on biology as an important part of the toolkit in manufacturing… we’ll look back and say this is one of the fundamental tools we developed in this century.”

In her element

Nature has done an amazing job of making materials that create and feed themselves with readily abundant, non-toxic resources. But it took a long time to get good at this stuff. The big explosion of diversity of life started 500 million years ago, in the Cambrian period, and took 50 million years.

As Prof Belcher jokes with a straight face, it’s hard to convince funders and graduate students to sign on for a 50-million-year-long project.

Angela Belcher can be a quite funny person, particularly in her speeches – although you have to pay close attention to realise she’s just made a joke.

She doesn’t signal ahead of time that it’s coming, or even crack a smile when it does. It’s almost as if she’s checking to see if you’re really paying attention.

Prof Angela Belcher
Image caption“Angela’s technology is literally like Project God,” say colleagues

One of her favourite things to talk about in speeches are the periodic tables she hands out to incoming freshmen at MIT each year. “Welcome to MIT. Now you’re in your element,” they proclaim. She gave one to President Barack Obama when he toured her lab last year. “He promised to look at it periodically,” she tells crowds.

The periodic table is more than a prop for Prof Belcher, though. It’s also her muse. Abalone genes code for proteins that call pull calcium and carbon from the sea; diatoms, a type of phytoplankton, do the same with silicon to make their own glass “houses.”

Prof Belcher is now in the process of throwing viruses together with different elements from the periodic table to see what she can make.

Putting evolution to work

Instead of waiting 50 million years, she’s speeding up the evolutionary process by running 1 billion experiments at a time. She starts with a billion viruses, harmless to everything except bacteria, that have been genetically altered so they each create slightly different proteins.

These viruses are mixed together with whatever elements Belcher has chosen from the periodic table – and out of the billion different proteins the viruses make, roughly 100 will link up with the elements the way she wants. Further testing narrows the candidate proteins down to a handful that have promising capabilities.

The viruses are the factories producing the material – their genes are programmed to link the organic and inorganic – but they are not present in the final product, so there’s no potential risk of viruses running amok, says Prof Belcher.

She’s found a few candidate viruses that can link methane and oxygen to form ethylene, a building block of plastics, fertilizers and tires. This ethylene assembly line can take place at room temperature, using natural gas, which is low polluting and abundant; current production requires lots of energy from high-pollution fossil fuels.

“There is some poetic justice in that we’re using nature’s techniques to be better stewards of the resources nature gave us,” says Alex Tkachenko, president of Siluria Technologies, a small San Francisco start-up that Belcher founded to commercialise the process.

“Angie’s technology is literally like ‘Project God,'” says Mr Tkachenko. “You can produce materials the way nature makes them, so you can essentially remake the whole world in the way you like it.”

Looking ahead

Just 43 years old, Prof Belcher is already at the pinnacle of science.

The mother of two boys – one and four years old – she is a full professor at MIT, supporting the work of roughly three dozen students. She was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, has been named a Time Magazine climate change “hero”, and won every major award for young scientific innovators.

In addition to doing research and starting companies, she still teaches undergraduates, and rarely turns down a speaking request, whether to potential donors or school girls.

To say Prof Belcher has wide-ranging scientific interests is an understatement. At MIT, she works in the departments of Materials Science and Engineering as well as Biological Engineering – but her official title is Professor of Energy, and she sits in a new building designed for cancer researchers.

“Even in a place like MIT where you can’t walk down the hall without running into someone famous, she stands out for her scientific vision and scientific bandwidth and ability to touch all areas of the community,” says Prof Chiang.

Another colleague, engineering professor Paula T. Hammond, describes Angela Belcher as “the ultimate creative thinker.”

“She does not get stuck or fenced in by other people’s definitions or commonly accepted attitudes,” says Prof Hammond. “She does not think ‘within’ a field, but beyond fields, allowing her to make connections between nature, medicine, energy, etc.”

Prof Belcher does not seem to dwell on her accomplishments or the compliments of her colleagues. She’s also not interested in changing the world in 50 years – she wants to do it now.

“We like to dream, but we also like to build things that can be integrated into people’s everyday lives,” Belcher said. “Everything to me is a material – material for cancer or material for energy doesn’t matter.”

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Scientists Have Developed Eye Drop That Can Melt Away Cataracts.


Scientists in California make research and have actually found that the naturally occurring steroid lanosterol is able to melt away cataracts and prevent them from returning when administered to clients via eye drops. If approved for human use, the components would be offered as a non-invasive treatment for individuals with moderate kinds of cataracts. Scientists first became aware of lanosterol cataract-blocking abilities by observing 2 kids in China who had a hereditary type of the condition.

Upon closer assessment, it ended up being clear that the kids shared an anomaly that blocked the production of the steroid lanosterol, reported Science Alert. Their moms and dads lacked this mutation and as an results never ever went on to establish cataracts. From this observation, the team proposed that the steroid should play a role in the formation of cataracts. In a series of experiments described in a research study now released in Nature, the group checked lanosterol on donated human lenses and live rabbits and pet dogs. Outcomes consistently showed that lanosterol had the ability to substantially diminish cataract size.

Cataracts establish when protein in the lens builds up and avoids light from getting through. Although the condition can be genetic, such as in the case of the Chinese siblings, it is regularly likely to establish at an older age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Avoidance, cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide and the leading root cause of vision loss in the United States Currently, the only treatment offered for cataracts is surgically eliminating the clouded lens from the eye and replacing it with a synthetic lens. Although it’s not totally clear how lanosterol is working, the scientists think that the steroid avoids the proteins from developing.

According to Tech Times, if the drops show to also deal with people, they could provide a non-invasive treatment for individuals with mild to moderate cataracts and serve as a way to avoid the condition from ever returning. While cataract surgery is reasonably simple and safe, the drops would act as an easier option for the 50 million Americans approximated to be affected by the condition by the year 2050. In spite of not yet being checked on people, the study is currently triggering excitement.

Jonathan King, a molecular biologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, informed Armitage that the research study is the greatest of its kind that he’s seen in decades. “They found the phenomena then followed with all of the experiments that you should do- that’s as biologically relevant as you can get,” King explained.

Scientists urge artificial intelligence safety focus


The development of artificial intelligence is growing fast and hundreds of the world’s leading scientists and entrepreneurs are urging a renewed focus on safety and ethics to prevent dangers to society.
Roboy, a humanoid robot developed at the University of Zurich,at the 2014 CeBIT technology trade fair on March 9, 2014 in Hanove

An open letter was signed by famous physicist Stephen Hawking, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk along with some of the top minds from universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, and Oxford, and companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM.

“There is now a broad consensus that (AI) research is progressing steadily, and that its impact on society is likely to increase,” the letter said.

“The potential benefits are huge, since everything that civilization has to offer is a product of ; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools AI may provide, but the eradication of disease and poverty are not unfathomable,” it added.

“Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls.”

How to handle the prospect of automatic weapons that might kill indiscriminately, the liabilities of automatically driven cars and the prospect of losing control of AI systems so that they no longer align with human wishes, were among the concerns raised in the letter that signees said deserve further research.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-01-scientists-urge-artificial-intelligence-safety.html#jCp

Want to influence the world? Map reveals the best languages to speak


Speak or write in English, and the world will hear you. Speak or write in Tamil or Portuguese, and you may have a harder time getting your message out. Now, a new method for mapping how information flows around the globe identifies the best languages to spread your ideas far and wide. One hint: If you’re considering a second language, try Spanish instead of Chinese.

Many books are translated into and out of languages such as English, German, and Russian, but Arabic has fewer translations relative to its many speakers. (Arrows between circles represent translations; the size of a language's circle is proportional to t

The study was spurred by a conversation about an untranslated book, says Shahar Ronen, a Microsoft program manager whose Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) master’s thesis formed the basis of the new work. A bilingual Hebrew-English speaker from Israel, he told his MIT adviser, César Hidalgo (himself a Spanish-English speaker), about a book written in Hebrew whose translation into English he wasn’t yet aware of. “I was able to bridge a certain culture gap because I was multilingual,” Ronen says. He began thinking about how to create worldwide maps of how multilingual people transmit information and ideas.

Ronen and co-authors from MIT, Harvard University, Northeastern University, and Aix-Marseille University tackled the problem by describing three global language networks based on bilingual tweeters, book translations, and multilingual Wikipedia edits. The book translation network maps how many books are translated into other languages. For example, the Hebrew book, translated from Hebrew into English and German, would be represented in lines pointing from a node of Hebrew to nodes of English and German. That network is based on 2.2 million translations of printed books published in more than 1000 languages. As in all of the networks, the thickness of the lines represents the number of connections between nodes. For tweets, the researchers used 550 million tweets by 17 million users in 73 languages. In that network, if a user tweets in, say, Hindi as well as in English, the two languages are connected. To build the Wikipedia network, the researchers tracked edits in up to five languages done by editors, carefully excluding bots.

In all three networks, English has the most transmissions to and from other languages and is the most central hub, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But the maps also reveal “a halo of intermediate hubs,” according to the paper, such as French, German, and Russian, which serve the same function at a different scale.

In contrast, some languages with large populations of speakers, such as Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic, are relatively isolated in these networks. This means that fewer communications in those languages reach speakers of other languages. Meanwhile, a language like Dutch—spoken by 27 million people—can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers. This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online.

The network maps show what is already widely known: If you want to get your ideas out, you can reach a lot of people through the English language. But the maps also show how speakers in disparate languages benefit from being indirectly linked through hub languages large and small. On Twitter, for example, ideas in Filipino can theoretically move to the Korean-speaking sphere through Malay, whereas the most likely path for ideas to go from Turkish to Malayalam (spoken in India by 35 million people) is through English. These networks are revealed in detail at the study’s website.

The authors note that the users they studied, whom they consider elite because—unlike most people in the world—they are literate and online, do not represent all the speakers of a language. However, “the elites of global languages have a disproportionate amount of power and responsibility, because they are tacitly shaping the way in which distant cultures see each other—even if this is not their goal,” Hidalgo says. When conflict in Ukraine flared this past summer, most people in the world learned about it through news stories originally written in English and then translated to other languages. In this case, “any implicit bias or angle taken by the English media will color the information about the conflict that is available to many non-English speakers,” Hidalgo says.

The networks potentially offer guidance to governments and other language communities that want to change their international role. “If I want my national language to be more prominent, then I should invest in translating more documents, encouraging more people to tweet in their national language,” Ronen says. “On the other side, if I want our ideas to spread, we should pick a second language that’s very well connected.”

For non-English speakers, the choice of English as second or third language is an obvious one. For English speakers, the analysis suggests it would be more advantageous to choose Spanish over Chinese—at least if they’re spreading their ideas through writing.

The problem of measuring the relative status of the world’s languages “is a very tricky one, and often very hard to get good data about,” says Mark Davis, the president and co-founder of the Unicode Consortium in Mountain View, California, which does character encoding for the world’s computers and mobile devices. “Their perspective on the problem is interesting and useful.”

Cultural transmission happens in spoken language too, points out William Rivers, the executive director of the nonprofit Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies in Garrett Park, Maryland. Data on interactions in, say, the souks of Marrakech, where people speak Arabic, Hassaniya, Moroccan Arabic, French, Tashelhit, and other languages, are impossible to get but important in cultural transmission, he says. He adds that “as the Internet has become more available to more people around the world, they go online in their own languages.” When they do, now they know how to connect to other languages and move their ideas, too.

New technique enables targeted, controlled delivery of pain meds


US researchers have developed a biodegradable nanoscale film that can be used to deliver targeted pain medications, either directly through injections or by coating implantable medical devices, in a controlled manner.

The film can be implanted into the patient to release active drug for more than 14 months, said study author Professor Paula Hammond from the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US. “The technique can reduce toxicity to vital organs typically caused by systemic administration and decrease the need for medical intervention because of its long-lasting release.”

To make the film sturdy enough to limit hydrolysis – a reaction by which the body’s water breaks down the bonds in a drug molecule – the researchers utilized a layer-by-layer technique of attaching drug molecules to layers of thin-film coating. The layering strategy also allows them to adjust the dose of medication being delivered to targeted sites.

The effect was demonstrated with diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used to treat pain and inflammation associated with arthritis. The layering technique allowed diclofenac to produce substantial painkilling effect through COX (cyclooxygenase) inhibition at a constant rate. Diclofenac also remained active after release, suggesting that the method does not reduce the potency of the drug.

“Normally you need a reservoir or a device to get long-term drug release and you have this foreign object retained in the body. But with this biodegradable film, you don’t have to go in or recover it,” said Mr. Bryan Hsu who helped develop the project as a doctoral student in Hammond’s lab.

The treatment technique has future applications for a broad spectrum of chronic or recalcitrant diseases, for example tuberculosis which requires oral antibiotics daily for at least 6 months to destroy the Mycobacterium tuberculosisbacteria.

Moving forward, the team is looking at optimizing the technique for different bodily environments, tests and medications for chronic pain. The idea is to develop something that could create an easier lifestyle for people with chronic pain and inflammation, the researchers said.

New sensor tracks zinc in cells, could be exploited for early diagnosis of prostate cancer


Zinc, an essential nutrient, is found in every tissue in the body. The vast majority of the metal ion is tightly bound to proteins, helping them to perform biological reactions. Tiny amounts of zinc, however, are only loosely bound, or “mobile,” and thought to be critical for proper function in organs such as the brain, pancreas, and prostate gland. Yet the exact roles the ion plays in biological systems are unknown.

 

 

 

A new optical sensor created at MIT tracks  within cells and should help researchers learn more about its functions. The sensor, which can be targeted to a specific organelle within the cell, fluoresces when it binds to zinc, allowing scientists to determine where the metal is concentrated.

The MIT chemists who designed the sensor have already used it to shed light on why zinc levels, normally high in the prostate, drop dramatically in cancerous prostate cells.

“We can use these tools to study zinc trafficking within prostate cells, both healthy and diseased. By doing so we’re trying to gain insight into how zinc levels within the cell change during the progression of prostate cancer,” says Robert Radford, an MIT postdoc who led the project and who is an author of the paper describing the sensors, which appears in the Dec. 9 issue of theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Radford works in the lab of Stephen Lippard, the Arthur Amos Noyes Professor of Chemistry and senior author of the paper. The paper’s lead author is Wen Chyan, a 2013 MIT graduate.

Researchers in Lippard’s lab are now working on exploiting similar fluorescent sensors to develop a diagnostic test for early detection of , which is the second leading cause of cancer death in American men, but is considered very treatable if caught early enough.

Pathway to cancer

Among its known roles, zinc helps to stabilize protein structure and catalyzes some cellular reactions. In the prostate, zinc is believed to help with reproductive functions by aiding in the accumulation of citrate, a component of semen. Within mitochondria of epithelial prostate cells, zinc has been shown to inhibit the metabolic enzyme aconitase. By blocking the activity of aconitase, zinc truncates the citric acid cycle, the series of reactions that produce ATP, the cells’ major energy currency.

Scientists have theorized that when prostate cells become cancerous, they banish zinc from mitochondria (the cell structures where most ATP production occurs). This allows the cancer cell to produce the extra energy it needs to grow and divide.

“If a cell is dividing uncontrollably and it needs a lot of chemical energy, then it definitely wouldn’t want zinc interfering with aconitase and preventing production of more ATP,” Radford says.

The new MIT study supports this theory by showing that, although cancerous prostate cells can absorb zinc, the metal does not accumulate in the mitochondria, as it does in normal .

This finding suggests that, in normal cells, zinc is probably transported into mitochondria by a specialized transport protein, but such a protein has not been identified, Radford says. In cancer cells, this protein might be inactivated.

Follow the zinc

The new zinc sensor relies on a molecule that Lippard’s lab first developed more than 10 years ago, known as Zinpyr1 (ZP1). ZP1 is based on a dye known as fluorescein, but it is modified to fluoresce only when it binds to zinc.

The ZP1 sensor can simply be added to a dish of cells grown in the lab, where it will diffuse into the cells. Until now, a major drawback of the sensor was the difficulty in targeting specific structures within a cell. “We have had some success using proteins and peptides to target small molecule zinc sensors,” Radford says, “but most of the time the sensors get captured in acidic vesicles within the cell and become inactive.”

Lippard’s team overcame that obstacle by making two changes: First, they installed a zinc-reactive protecting group, which altered the physical properties of the sensor and made it easier to target. Second, they attached an “address tag” that directs ZP1 into mitochondria. This tag, which is a derivative of triphenylphosphonium, is tailored to enter the mitochondria because it is both positively charged and hydrophobic. The resulting sensor readily entered cells and allowed the researchers to visualize pools of mobile zinc within .

“This is an exciting new concept for sensing using a combination of reaction- and recognition-based approaches, which has potential applications for diagnostics involving zinc misregulation,” says Christopher Chang, a professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley who was not part of the research team.

In future studies, the researchers plan to expand their strategy to create a palette of sensors that target many other organelles in the cell.

“The identification of intracellular targets for mobile zinc is an important step in understanding its true function in biological signaling. The next steps will involve discovery of the specific biochemical pathways that are affected by zinc binding to receptors in the organelles, such as proteins, and elucidating the structural and attendant functional changes that occur in the process,” Lippard says.

The lab’s immediate interest is study of zinc in the brain, where it is believed to act as a neurotransmitter. By understanding mobile zinc in the auditory cortex, optic nerve, and olfactory bulb, the researchers hope to figure out its role in the senses of hearing, sight, and smell.

 

Camera takes 3D photos in the dark


3D images of mannequinOn the left is an image created using current technology – the photo on the right was produced from the MIT team‘s new camera technology
A camera that can create 3D-images in almost pitch black conditions has been developed by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The team captured images of objects, using just single particles of light, known as a photons.

“Billions” of photons would be required to take a photo using the camera on a mobile phone.

The researchers say the technology could be used to help soldiers on combat operations.

Ahmed Kirmani, who wrote the paper containing the findings, said the research has been called “counter-intuitive” as normally the number of photons detected would tell you how bright an image was.

“With only one photon per pixel you would expect the image to be completely featureless,” he told the BBC.

Combat advantage

The camera technology already existed and is similar to the Lidar system used by Google for its Streetview service he explained.

Mannequin with laser
Lidar uses laser pulses and the team used the reflected photons to create their 3D image

“We borrowed the principles form this, the detectors can identify single photons but they still need hundreds of thousands to form images. But we took the system to its limit.”

Lidar uses a laser to fire pulses of light towards an object in a grid sequence. Each location on the grid corresponds to a pixel in the final image.

Normally the laser would fire a large number of times at each grid position and detect multiple reflected photons.

In contrast the system used by the MIT team moved on to the next position in the grid as soon as it had detected a single photon.

A conventional Lidar system would require about 100 times as many photons to make a similar image to the one the team captured which means the system could provide “substantial savings in energy and time”.

The team say the technology could be used in many different fields. It could help ophthalmologists when they want to create an image of a patient’s eye without having to shine a bright light in someone’s eye.

The research was part funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which commissions research for the Department of Defense. Mr Kirmani said the military could use the technology to allow soldiers to see in the dark, giving them an advantage in combat situations.

Slide from MIT presentation
Current 3D imaging techniques require more than single photons unlike the team’s new system

“Any technology that enhances a military’s ability to navigate, target or engage in near-total darkness would be highly prized. 3D imagery married with existing imagery and navigation technologies could significantly enhance the capabilities currently possessed,” said Reed Foster, a defence analyst at IHS.

Eventually, the researchers explain, the technology could be developed to make 3D cameras for mobile phones. The camera requires less light than the ones currently available and therefore uses less power.

Google ramps up plan to make robots


 

Meka M1 robot
Meka’s M1 robot is one of the systems that has been acquired by Google

Google has revealed it has taken over seven robotics companies in the past half a year and has begun hiring staff to develop its own product.

A spokesman confirmed the effort was being headed up by Andy Rubin, who was previously in charge of the Android operating system.

The spokesman was unwilling to discuss what kind of robot was being developed.

But the New York Times reports that at this stage Google does not plan to sell the resulting product to consumers.

SchaftGoogle has hired a team of Japanese engineers who make humanoid robots

Instead, the newspaper suggests, Google’s robots could be paired with its self-driving car research to help automate the delivery of goods to people’s doors.

It notes the company has recently begun a same-day grocery delivery service in San Francisco and San Jose, called Google Shopping Express.

That would pitch the initiative against Amazon’s Prime Air Project, which envisages using drones to transport goods to its customers by air.

“Any description of what Andy and his team might actually create are speculations of the author and the people he interviewed,” said Google of the NYT article.

One UK-based expert welcomed the news.

“This is a clear sign that days of personalised robotic technology entering the mainstream market is imminent,” said Prof Sethu Vijayakumar, director of the Robotics Lab at the University of Edinburgh.

“Movement and sensing systems for robotics technology have made great strides. Now, with mainstream companies like Google taking up the challenge, other elements such as robust software integration, standardisation and modular design will pick up pace.”

Industrial Perception robot
Google now owns a company that makes a robot arm designed to handle packaged goods

The search giant’s robotics project is based in Palo Alto, California, and will have an office in Japan – one of the world’s leading nations in the field.

Speaking to the NYT, Mr Rubin said Google had a “10-year vision” for bringing the effort to fruition.

“I feel with robotics it’s a green field,” he said.

“We’re building hardware, we’re building software. We’re building systems, so one team will be able to understand the whole stack.”

Meka S2 robot head
Meka’s parts have been developed with human-robot interactions in mind

The companies acquired by Google to jumpstart its effort are:

  • Autofuss – a San Francisco company that employed robotics to create adverts. It has worked on several campaigns for Google’s Nexus-branded products.
  • Bot & Dolly – a sister company to Autofuss that specialised in precise-motion robotics and film-making. Its systems were used to make the film Gravity.
  • Holomni – a Mountain View, California-based company that specialised in caster wheel modules that could accelerate a vehicle’s motion in any direction.
  • Industrial Perception – a Palo Alto-headquartered business that focused on the use of 3D vision-guided robotic technologies to automate the loading and unloading of trucks, and handle packages.
  • Meka Robotics – A spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that built robot parts that appeared friendly and safe to humans. Its products included heads with big eye sensors, arms and a “humanoid torso”.
  • Redwood Robotics – a San Francisco-based company that focused on creating next-generation robot arms for use in manufacturing, distribution and service industries such as healthcare.
  • Schaft – a spin-off from the University of Tokyo that focused on the creation and operation of humanoid robots.

Camera takes 3D photos in the dark


A camera that can create 3D-images in almost pitch black conditions has been developed by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

3D images of mannequin

The team captured images of objects, using just single particles of light, known as a photons.

“Billions” of photons would be required to take a photo using the camera on a mobile phone.

The researchers say the technology could be used to help soldiers on combat operations.

Ahmed Kirmani, who wrote the paper containing the findings, said the research has been called “counter-intuitive” as normally the number of photons detected would tell you how bright an image was.

“With only one photon per pixel you would expect the image to be completely featureless,” he told the BBC.

Combat advantage

The camera technology already existed and is similar to the Lidar system used by Google for its Streetview service he explained.

Mannequin with laser
Lidar uses laser pulses and the team used the reflected photons to create their 3D image

“We borrowed the principles form this, the detectors can identify single photons but they still need hundreds of thousands to form images. But we took the system to its limit.”

Lidar uses a laser to fire pulses of light towards an object in a grid sequence. Each location on the grid corresponds to a pixel in the final image.

Normally the laser would fire a large number of times at each grid position and detect multiple reflected photons.

In contrast the system used by the MIT team moved on to the next position in the grid as soon as it had detected a single photon.

A conventional Lidar system would require about 100 times as many photons to make a similar image to the one the team captured which means the system could provide “substantial savings in energy and time”.

The team say the technology could be used in many different fields. It could help ophthalmologists when they want to create an image of a patient’s eye without having to shine a bright light in someone’s eye.

The research was part funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which commissions research for the Department of Defense. Mr Kirmani said the military could use the technology to allow soldiers to see in the dark, giving them an advantage in combat situations.

Slide from MIT presentation
Current 3D imaging techniques require more than single photons unlike the team’s new system

“Any technology that enhances a military’s ability to navigate, target or engage in near-total darkness would be highly prized. 3D imagery married with existing imagery and navigation technologies could significantly enhance the capabilities currently possessed,” said Reed Foster, a defence analyst at IHS.

Eventually, the researchers explain, the technology could be developed to make 3D cameras for mobile phones. The camera requires less light than the ones currently available and therefore uses less power.

Quantum gas goes below absolute zero .


It may sound less likely than hell freezing over, but physicists have created an atomic gas with a sub-absolute-zero temperature for the first time1. Their technique opens the door to generating negative-Kelvin materials and new quantum devices, and it could even help to solve a cosmological mystery.

Lord Kelvin defined the absolute temperature scale in the mid-1800s in such a way that nothing could be colder than absolute zero. Physicists later realized that the absolute temperature of a gas is related to the average energy of its particles. Absolute zero corresponds to the theoretical state in which particles have no energy at all, and higher temperatures correspond to higher average energies.

However, by the 1950s, physicists working with more exotic systems began to realise that this isn’t always true: Technically, you read off the temperature of a system from a graph that plots the probabilities of its particles being found with certain energies. Normally, most particles have average or near-average energies, with only a few particles zipping around at higher energies. In theory, if the situation is reversed, with more particles having higher, rather than lower, energies, the plot would flip over and the sign of the temperature would change from a positive to a negative absolute temperature, explains Ulrich Schneider, a physicist at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany.

Schneider and his colleagues reached such sub-absolute-zero temperatures with an ultracold quantum gas made up of potassium atoms. Using lasers and magnetic fields, they kept the individual atoms in a lattice arrangement. At positive temperatures, the atoms repel, making the configuration stable. The team then quickly adjusted the magnetic fields, causing the atoms to attract rather than repel each other. “This suddenly shifts the atoms from their most stable, lowest-energy state to the highest possible energy state, before they can react,” says Schneider. “It’s like walking through a valley, then instantly finding yourself on the mountain peak.”

At positive temperatures, such a reversal would be unstable and the atoms would collapse inwards. But the team also adjusted the trapping laser field to make it more energetically favourable for the atoms to stick in their positions. This result, described today in Science1, marks the gas’s transition from just above absolute zero to a few billionths of a Kelvin below absolute zero.

Wolfgang Ketterle, a physicist and Nobel laureate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who has previously demonstrated negative absolute temperatures in a magnetic system2, calls the latest work an “experimental tour de force”. Exotic high-energy states that are hard to generate in the laboratory at positive temperatures become stable at negative absolute temperatures — “as though you can stand a pyramid on its head and not worry about it toppling over,” he notes — and so such techniques can allow these states to be studied in detail. “This may be a way to create new forms of matter in the laboratory,” Ketterle adds.

If built, such systems would behave in strange ways, says Achim Rosch, a theoretical physicist at the University of Cologne in Germany, who proposed the technique used by Schneider and his team3. For instance, Rosch and his colleagues have calculated that whereas clouds of atoms would normally be pulled downwards by gravity, if part of the cloud is at a negative absolute temperature, some atoms will move upwards, apparently defying gravity4.

Another peculiarity of the sub-absolute-zero gas is that it mimics ‘dark energy’, the mysterious force that pushes the Universe to expand at an ever-faster rate against the inward pull of gravity. Schneider notes that the attractive atoms in the gas produced by the team also want to collapse inwards, but do not because the negative absolute temperature stabilises them. “It’s interesting that this weird feature pops up in the Universe and also in the lab,” he says. “This may be something that cosmologists should look at more closely.”