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Talk Nerdy to me

We’re back with another list of the coolest developments in tech, science, and general nerdery. This week, we discuss entire buildings used to filter polluted air, bacteria that can create electricity, an attempt to quantify bigotry, and much more!

Holy automaton Robatman!

<strong>The Robat autonomous vehicle</strong> has an ultrasonic speaker that mimics the mouth of a real bat and microphones that mimic ears. Inspired by real bats, it uses echolocation to map its surroundings and help it navigate obstacles. Courtesy Eliakim, et al.Despite the fact that bats aren’t actually blind, many do utilize sound to navigate their environment. In a process called echolocation, our fuzzy flying friends bounce sound waves off the surrounding area to paint a picture of what’s around them.

This gave researchers at Tel Aviv University the inspiration to create the “Robat.” A fully-autonomous terrestrial vehicle, the “Robat” uses echolocation to successfully drive around a given area. The machine’s sonar even maps the environment— it has a 70 percent accuracy rate for determining if obstacles lie in its path. 

I sing the bacteria electric

<strong>Snap, crackle, pop?</strong> The discovery that some kinds of bacteria—including ones in your gut-- produce electricity as a byproduct of metabolic regulation may one day lead to living batteries that generate green power from waste treatment plants. You may not want to think about it, but your body is filled with bacteria. In fact, microorganisms make up between 1 and 3 percent of your body’s total mass. While many of these invisible cohabitors are beneficial, some, like the diarrhea-causing bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, most definitely are not.

But in addition to its “special” effects on the human digestive system, L. monocytogenes, possesses another unique property—it can produce electricity.

Listeria monocytogenes isn’t alone in this regard. Other bacteria, both good and bad, also produce electricity as they “breathe.” Discoveries like these might one day allow for green batteries that can generate electricity from the bacteria in waste treatment plants.

Recycling air

<strong>Choking smog</strong> in India’s capital is so severe that there’s an official ‘pollution season’ when residents are advised to stay indoors. But a Dubai architecture firm could build a network of 100-meter-high towers that would suck in dirty air and scrub it clean, then be pumped back into the city with giant fans. Courtesy Sumita Roy Dutta. <a href='https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Low_visibility_due_to_Smog_in_entry_of_Chelmsford_Road_New_Delhi_31st_Dec_2017_9AM_DSCN8819_1.jpg’>(CC BY-SA 4.0)</a>Delhi has a major pollution problem. India’s capital city is so far gone that it even has a pollution season. While many efforts are underway to lower the amount of pollution produced, one solution is strikingly simple – just filter the air.

At least, that’s the proposal from Znera, an architecture company in Dubai. The firm’s concept would install 100-meter-high buildings around the city to suck up polluted air, process it, and release it when it’s breathable. Up to 3.2m cubic metres of clean air could be produced each day.

Data decrypted

<strong>Hacker’s delight.</strong> A newly discovered laptop firmware exploit leaves both Windows and Mac users vulnerable to an attack that could steal passwords and login credentials. Encrypting information to keep it safe from the hands of enemies has been around for centuries. After all, the word “crypt” comes from the Greek word kryptos, meaning hidden or secret. These days, we use advanced technologies to secure our data. Sadly, high-tech doesn’t always mean perfect, and that can lead to major security flaws like those discovered by F-Secure.

The security firm found that firmware security measures in a vast majority of consumer laptops failed examinations into their ability to prevent data theft. Both Windows and Mac computers are vulnerable to an easy to exploit ‘cold boot’ attack.

While such a flaw requires the hacker to have physical access to the laptop, this vulnerability could allow hackers to steal passwords and corporate login information. In such a scenario, it only takes one unattended laptop to bring down a whole system.

Quantifying bigotry

<strong>How do stereotypes influence behavior?</strong> A new study uses computational modeling to quantify and predict unequal treatment based on perceptions of warmth and competence. Researchers found that how people are perceived correlated with how they were treated in scenarios such as whom to interview for a job.Bias—whether based on gender, race, religion, or other factors—is a very real problem facing society, but finding a reliable metric to connect bias to actions has proven difficult. However, one scientist is working to change that.

Professor Ming Hsu of the University of California, Berkeley has created a computational model that can predict racism based on “perceptions of warmth and competence.” The model will allow researchers to quantify and compare different types of discrimination across different social groups. In the future, Hsu believes this model could help even the playing field in everything from job callbacks to college admissions.


Love the robotic skin you’re in

Robot powers activate. A new transformable skin can transform any soft object into a robot. The hope is that astronauts will be able to use this single, versatile material in place of specialized tools to solve problems in space. Courtesy Yale University.

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could turn everyday objects into robots? With the help of robotic skins developed by Yale researchers, you no longer need to wonder how that might work.

Made from sensors embedded in plastic sheets, these robotic skins can stretch over any object and induce motion. This research was conducted in partnership with NASA to help astronauts on future space missions to accomplish multiple tasks with the same material. Think of it as the duct tape of robotics.

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