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Talk nerdy to me

This week we're Talking Nerdy about real-life replicators, cyborg rats controlled by humans, recycling plastic bags into batteries, and much more.

Making it so

Ask any Sci-Fi nerd about their favorite fictional piece of technology and you learn something about their personality. The fun answer is the lightsaber, the adventurous answer is the Tardis, but the practical one is the replicator from Star Trek. That exact technology isn’t here yet, but we’re seeing something like it in the next generation of 3D printing.

Out of thin air. New 3D printing technology rapidly creates fully formed objects, seemingly from nowhere. Courtesy Science magazine.

While most 3D printers apply layer after layer of plastic to build up a shape, a new device can create any structure all at once. The new printer starts by projecting 2D images into a photosensitive gel. The container of the gel rotates, and the photons of the projection meet each other at specific angles. The gel solidifies where they contact and the liquid is drained, leaving behind the finished project.

This new technique is faster than traditional 3D methods, and can even apply plastic parts to outside objects. The research team proved this by printing a plastic handle around a screwdriver’s shaft. You may not be able to replicate a hot meal anytime soon, but this is probably closer to Federation technology than we’ve ever been.

Read more: Dusting for 3D prints

Crowdsourcing infrastructure 

<strong>An eight-lane bridge</strong> outside Minneapolis unexpectedly collapsed during evening rush hour in 2007, killing 13 people. To help prevent future disasters, scientists have developed a smartphone-compatible sensor to crowdsource data about crumbling infrastructure. Courtesy Tony Webster. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>(CC BY 2.0)</a>The US is facing a major infrastructure crisis. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, fixing all the ailing roads, dams, water, and electrical systems would require $4.6 trillion. To save costs, figuring out which facilities are most in need of rehabilitation would be enormously helpful.

That’s why University of Missouri researchers have developed a sensor that plugs into a smartphone that allows drivers to collect infrastructure data. A person can easily operate their vehicle while wirelessly transmitting vital data. Crowdsourcing large amounts of data would let engineers make better decisions about the status of roads and bridges.

Read more: Real-time answers for traffic jams

Bee brain

Add it up. When bees were taught to recognize colors as symbols for + and -, they were able to solve math problems 90% of the time. Courtesy RMIT University.

Humans are often quick to judge animals as “stupid” because their brains can’t do everything ours can. That said, science has shown time and again that even the smallest creatures are capable of a surprising level of intelligence.

Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, set up a Y-shaped maze where bees were shown a set of between one and five shapes that either meant +1 or -1. This equated to an arithmetic math problem, with the correct answer leading to a sweet sugar solution in one of the two passageways in the maze. The scientists found that the bees were able to eventually understand the math problem presented to them, suggesting an ability to do simple arithmetic.

Read more: Hitching a ride with a honeybee

Brain buddies

<strong>Brain to brain interface.</strong> The rat cyborg is controlled by a human wearing an EEG. A computer decodes the EEG signals and passes them to electrodes that stimulate the rat’s brain, telling it which way to go. Courtesy Zhejiang University. While we’ll probably never fully understand the difference between human brainpower and that of animals, we do know one thing – rats are similar enough to link their brains with ours. 

Researchers from Zhejiang University in China implanted electrodes inside a rat’s brain that were then connected via computer to an EEG device worn by a human. This allowed the person to use their own knowledge to actually navigate a rat through a complex maze. The navigation was successful 90% of the time, suggesting that brain-brain interfaces (BBI) are not only possible, but have a promising future in cybernetics.

Machines muddy the truth

A central theme within science is the pursuit of truth. However, the truth gets a little muddy once we add machine learning.

<strong>We shouldn't trust</strong> machine learning systems that never return results of ‘I don’t know,’ says Statistician Genevera Allen. She wants future machine learning systems to critique themselves and question their own predictions. Courtesy Tommy LaVergne, Rice University.Rice University statistician Genevera Allen implores the scientific world to be skeptical of discoveries made by machine learning programs. She warns that we haven’t yet developed computational systems that can effectively critique themselves, and this could lead to incorrect conclusions.

“A lot of these techniques are designed to always make a prediction,” Allen said. “They never come back with ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I didn’t discover anything,’ because they aren’t made to.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that recent machine learning discoveries should be dismissed. Rather, we should understand the limitations of these systems before we completely trust them with the truth. 

Read more: How deep is your network

From bags to batteries

<strong>From eyesore to energy.</strong> Single-use plastics are some of the worst polluters of our rivers and oceans. A new method would allow them to be upcycled into carbon chips that could power lithium-ion batteries.The single-use plastic bag is perhaps one of the worst products to ever be introduced. Their excruciatingly long period of natural decomposition means the Earth will be flooded with these commercial byproducts for centuries to come. While some organizations are attempting to ban bags outright, as the EU did, others are trying to tackle the surplus we already have. 

A group of chemists have recently explored a means of upcycling the polyethylene in plastic bags into useful carbon chips. The researchers submerged polyethylene bags in sulfuric acid and then sealed this in a solvothermal reactor. This allowed the bags to be heated to extremely high temperatures without giving off dangerous gases. Finally, they took the sulfonated polyethylene and heated it in a furnace to create carbon that was then used to make anodes for lithium-ion batteries.

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