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Talk nerdy to me

This week we talk nerdy about running faster, dishwashing robots, tiny quantum engines, and more.

Running faster and cheaper

Whether it’s a sprint or a marathon, a runner’s goal is to cross the finish line ahead of the pack. Researchers at Stanford University, Queens University, and the UC Santa Barbara, have developed a device to help people run faster. But, it’s not a jet pack or a custom-fit exoskeleton. This technology is essentially a rubber band clipped between a runner’s shoes.

<strong>A runner demonstrates</strong> use of the exotendon, which can help people run faster. Courtesy Cole Simpson.The researchers call their device an exotendon. It’s designed to reduce running’s mechanical inefficiencies. According to Elliot Hawkes, ninety percent of the energy expended in running is wasted as the runner stops and starts between strides.

The rubber band works by slowing both legs when they are far apart. Then it gives the legs a little kick as they come back together, saving energy in both phases of the movement. Subjects fitted with the band while running on a treadmill increased their efficiency by 6.4% (as measured by carbon dioxide output). When asked what it feels like to wear the exotendon, Hawkes said, “It feels fast.”

Dreaming of a robot dishwasher

You may not realize it, but artificial intelligence (AI) is already a part of everyday life. We use it when we shop, travel, bank, eat, sleep...the list goes on. AI can defeat a chess grandmaster or help your doctor make a diagnosis, so why can’t it do the dishes and help around the house? Anthony Zador, a professor of neurosciences at Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory is trying to find out.

<strong>Smarter than who?</strong> AI can beat most of us at chess. Why can’t it figure out how to do the dishes?Artificial intelligence is good at solving complex problems but confounded by physical tasks. Zador says that animals, including humans, learn quickly because we possess a biological neural network sculpted by evolution that prioritizes the skill needed to survive. He thinks that if artificial neural networks (ANNs) identified and adapted similar frameworks—rather than searching for the perfect algorithm—we may one day have dish-washing robots in our kitchens.

Read more: Why does AI fascinate us?

The littlest engine that could

An international team of physicists has built the world’s smallest engine. Made from a single calcium ion, it’s about ten billion times smaller than a car engine.

<strong>The world’s smallest engine</strong> is based on a single calcium ion. The ion’s intrinsic spin is used to convert heat into oscillations. Professor Ferdinand Schmidt-Kalerand Ulrich Poschinger of Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany led the team that created the experimental engine. The calcium ion’s intrinsic angular momentum (spin) converts heat absorbed from laser beams into vibrations or oscillations of the trapped ion. The vibrations behave like a flywheel and capture the generated energy.

One of the team’s researchers, John Goold of Trinity College Dublin, says this research introduces a new era for the investigation of energetics of technologies based on quantum theory. He adds, “Heat management at the nanoscale is one of the fundamental bottlenecks for faster and more efficient computing. Understanding how thermodynamics can be applied in such microscopic settings is of paramount importance for future technologies.”

Nature-inspired camouflage

The chameleon blends into its surroundings by changing color. This skill helps the animal avoid detection by predators, adjust its temperature, and even communicate with other chameleons. The color change is possible thanks to chromatophores, skin cells with contractile fibers that move pigments around. Borrowing this technology, researchers at Cambridge University have developed artificial chromatophores.

This artificial chameleon skin changes color when exposed to heat or light, thanks to artificial chromatophores made of polymer-coated gold particles. Courtesy Cambridge University.

The experimental material is made of tiny particles of gold coated in a polymer shell. The particles are then squeezed into microdroplets of water in oil. Exposure to heat or light causes the particles to stick together, changing the color of the material. Currently, the material can change to only one color because it is in a single layer. Extra layers made of different nanoparticle materials and shapes could produce a more dynamic range of colors.

The team is working to replicate the material on a large scale. “Using structured light we also plan to use the light-triggered swimming to ‘herd’ droplets,” says co-author Sean Cormier. “It will be really exciting to see what collective behaviors are generated.”

Learning to go with the flow

In a recent article, environmental researchers suggest that moving populations and development away from at-risk areas is the smart strategy for dealing with effects of climate change.

<strong>Planned retreat</strong> from areas at-risk due to climate change could mean moving towards opportunity instead of running from disaster. Courtesy US Army.The researchers from the University of Delaware (UD), Stanford Universityand the University of Miami call for a carefully planned ‘managed retreat’. “We need to stop picturing our relationship with nature as a war,” says A.R. Siders of UD’s Disaster Research Center.

Retreat already happens—such as during hurricane or wildfire evacuations—but it’s usually focused on risk reduction. Such ad hoc retreats are also frequently inequitable, as the affluent are usually better equipped to relocate than those who have fewer financial resources. Siders wants managed retreat to be part of the larger conversation in discussions about social programs. She adds, "Retreat can't be just about avoiding risk. It needs to be about moving toward something better."


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