Monthly Archives: April 2012

Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) – Part 1

Honda demonstrates its brain-machine interface (courtesy Honda Research Institute)

Earlier this week, The Associated Press reported that a paralyzed man remotely controlled a simple robot using only thoughts.  (The images shown here are not from that experiment, but from one done three years ago by Honda.  More on that later.)

The robot was a small, simple device that moved on wheels, was equipped with a camera, and had a laptop computer perched on top.  The paralyzed man, Mark-Andre Duc, was 62 miles (100 km) away and controlled it using only a head cap while trying to raise his paralyzed fingers.  The electroencephalogram (EEG) cap measured his brain signals, which were interpreted as command movements.

Both the researchers and the Mr. Duc admit it is not easy to use.  Jose Millan, the team’s leader said, “Sooner or later your attention will drop and this will degrade the signal.”  Mr. Duc told The Associated Press through the video link on the laptop, “When I’m in pain it becomes more difficult.”

Using measureable thoughts to control an electronic device isn’t totally unique.

  • Spring 2006: Honda Research Institute in Japan used feedback from an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine to remotely control a robotic hand. (Shown in video below.)
  • Spring 2009: A team lead by Javier Minguez at the University of Zaragoza in Spain worked on robotic thought manipulated wheelchairs.
  • Spring 2009: Honda Research Institute in Japan demonstrated how their robot Asimo could lift an arm or a leg through signals from a user with EEG and NIRS (near-infrared spectroscopy sensors). (Shown in video below.)
  • Fall 2009: Toy maker Mattel released a game based on a simplified version of this concept with mixed reviews.
  • Fall 2010: A team lead by Rajesh Rao from Neural Systems Laboratory, University of Washington, not only working on mind control of a robot, but also to how to teach the robot simple tasks using the same mechanism (The Robot That Reads Your Mind to Train Itself).
  • Spring 2011: A team lead by C.T. Lin from California State University at Northridge creates EEG cap driven wheelchair that adapts to the operator’s unique brain patterns. For obstacle avoidance, the wheelchair is also equipped with a laser sensor and cameras. (See their video.)

Intricate manipulation such as tying shoelaces is not possible yet with EEG caps since the signal is inherently too noisy.  To get cleaner signals, we have to tap directly into the brain.  Ouch.  That painful subject is for another blog.

FDA Proposes Rules for Nanoparticles

On Friday, April 20, 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued tentative guidelines for food and cosmetic companies interested in using nanoparticles.

“This is an emerging, evolving technology and we’re trying to get ahead of the curb to ensure the ingredients and substances are safe.” — Dennis Keefe, director of FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety

Nanosphere

SOURCE: Chad Mirkin, Northwestern University

The FDA is “an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, protects the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, and security of human and veterinary drugs, vaccines and other biological products for human use, and medical devices. The agency also is responsible for the safety and security of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, dietary supplements, products that give off electronic radiation, and for regulating tobacco products” (Source: FDA Press Release).

Nanoparticles are nanoscale materials generally less than 100 nanometers (a billionth of a meter) in diameter.  To put the size in perspective, 100 nm is about 500 times smaller than the diameter of human hair.  Something so small that they can’t be seen with a standard microscope.

But materials enhanced with nanoparticles can have physical, chemical, and biological properties that differ from those of their larger counterparts as the video below illustrates.

According to the FDA Press Release: “The submicroscopic particles are increasingly showing up in FDA-regulated products like sunscreens, skin lotions and glare-reducing eyeglass coatings. Some scientists believe the technology will one day be used in medicine, but the FDA’s announcement did not address that use.”

So are American consumers safe?  The FDA does its best, but it’s limited in resources and scope.  For example, it has less authority over cosmetics than food additives.   Nanotechnology has been used in cosmetics since the 1990s. “Generally, the FDA does not review cosmetics before they launch, and companies are responsible for assuring the safety of their products” (Source: AP News: FDA proposes rules for nanotechnology in food).  In addition, it’s limited testability.  How do you test for a problem you never knew existed?  How do you test for dangers that don’t show symptoms for ten or twenty years? What happens to the stuff when you’re done with it?  What impact does it have on the environment?  When it “decays,” what does it turn into?

I was a test engineer in the medical industry, and I was astonished by how sloppy some of the regulatory tests were handled.

In our rush for better products and profits, we may be endangering ourselves.  Time for additional testing and thinking is worth the cost.

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In my science fiction short story, Death Has no Shadow, a nanotechnology accident releases swarms of microscopic robots called forger nanites into the environment and a science intern finds that her lab is their target.

First Quantum Network Prototype

“One day, this might not only make it possible to communicate quantum information over very large distances, but might enable an entire quantum Internet.” Dr. Stephan Ritter, leader the experimental team from Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (MPQ).

That one day is likely years away, but for now there’s been a step forward towards a quantum internet.  A team at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (MPQ) demonstrated the transfer of an atomic quantum state and the creation of entanglement between two identical nodes in separate laboratories.

This is a very basic prototype of a quantum network based on single atoms embedded in optical cavities.  In layman’s terms, they were able to get one atom to exhibit the same quantum states as another.  They did this by copying the data from the first atom to a photon (a light “particle”), transmitting that photon through a cable to the second atom in another room, and copying the data to the second atom.  (There was something else going on here called entanglement, that is way cool and beyond the scope of this blog.)

Now the data is not somebody’s phone number or a text message.  It copied the quantum state, which is used to determine a qubit.  What is that?

“A qubit (quantum bit) is a representation of a particle state, such as the spin direction of an electron or the polarization orientation of a photon.  A qubit is the quantum equivalent of a bit in ordinary computing.

But where a bit exists in one of two states (1 or 0), a qubit can exist in an arbitrary combination of both states. Physicists describe this as a coherent superposition of two states. This superposition is often represented by a point on a sphere with values 0 and 1 at the sphere poles.”

~ Misha Brodsky, Photon Entanglement over the Fiber-Optic Network, AT&T Labs Research, January 10, 2011.

Disclaimer:  Don’t expect HP, Dell, Apple, or any other computer manufacturer to replace this year’s models with quantum computers.  Besides being in early development, quantum computations are not a wholesale replacement of today’s technology.  Some very basic quantum computers have been developed and they do a few things better — a whole lot better — than the average computer: code-breaking, integer factorization, and simulation of quantum mechanics that would be used in chemistry and nanotechnology.

My guess is that, if these laboratory breakthroughs can be duplicated and scaled up in manufacturing, we may see quantum coprocessors integrated into standard computers or mobile devices.  That way, they would handle the specific tasks for which they are best suited.

Network image courtesy Andreas Neuzner, Max Planck Institute of  Quantum Optics.  For more information, see their article in Nature.  Qubit image courtesy AT&T Labs Research.

See the Avar-Tek Event short story Death Has No Shadow for a quantum computer named Prometheus.

Intel’s 3D Transistors

I apologize for a short blog about something in the near future… or under present development, but the video does a great job illustrating the basic concept of transistors and more specifically, Intel’s new 3D Transistor.  Enough of my blather.  Here’s their images and video:

Planar and Tri-Gate transistor compared (concept)

Planar and Tri-Gate transistors compared (concept)

Planar and Tri-Gate transistor compared (actual image)

Planar and Tri-Gate transistors (microscopic mages)

Later this year, Intel expects to begin production of the new Tri-Gate processors, codenamed “Ivy Bridge.”

Images and video courtesy of Intel Corp.

Healing Stones – Part 3: More Targeted Cancer Therapy

All that glitters is not gold.  Sometimes it is cancer.

How about gold-plated cancer?

We can do that now, or more technically: gold nanoparticles infused with an antibody called cetuximab attach to growth factors (EGFR) expressed on the surface of some cancer cells.  In other words, bind just the right antibodies to gold nanoparticles, inject them into tissue, and cancer cells will be covered with gold.

Ok, you get gold to stick to cancer cells like socks stick to a sweater pulled from a dryer.  What a waste of money, right?

Well, no. First, although they’re not cheep, don’t go rushing to the gold exchange with jar filled with nano-gold-slush.  You won’t get much for it there.  The gold nanoparticles are spheres of gold less than 100 nanometers (nm) in diameter.  To put the size in perspective, 100 nm is about 500 times smaller than the diameter of human hair.

Second, according to a paper released by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, you can zap the gold-targeted cancer cells with shortwave radiofrequency (RF) energy.  “Exposure of cells to a noninvasive RF field produced nearly 100% cytotoxicity in cells treated with the cetuximab-conjugated gold nanoparticles, but significantly lower levels of cytotoxicity in the two control groups (P < 0.00012).”  In other words, the cancer cells died, and the normal cells lived.

Shortwave RF penetrates deeply into the body with no adverse side effects, as long as you’re not entirely made of gold.  Like putting a fork in the microwave oven, it kills the cancer cells by heating them up.  Now in this study, it only worked with two types of cancer cells: ones for pancreatic and colorectal cancer (Panc-1 or Difi cells), but similar methods may be available for different cancers.  In another study (How could gold save my life?), it was shown that the same method might also be used to detect breast cancer.

Thanks guys.  Great work!

Video courtesy Kathryn Dean via YouTube.

See the soon-to-be-published science fiction novel Recruiting Angles for bio-nanotechnolgy in action.

Jumping Robot

SandFlea“Soldier, I want you to take this video camera, jump onto the roof that building, take images of the enemy, and come back.  Oh, and they’ll be shooting at you.”

“Or you can use the SandFlea.”

The SandFlea looks like the RC car most kids would love to play with because, in addition to cruising around the yard, it can jump 30 feet into the air, high enough to clear a wall, on to a roof of a house, up the stairs, or though a second story window.  An onboard stabilization system keeps it oriented during flight to improve the view from the video uplink and to control landings.

Sand Flea is funded by the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force and scheduled to undergo safety and reliability checks at the Army Test and Evaluation Command (ATEC).  If it passes evaluation, several will be field tested in Afghanistan, where US military currently uses more than 2,000 robots.

Specifications:

Weight
11 lbs. (5 kg)
Speed
3.4 mph (5.5 km/h)
Jump Height
3-30 ft. (1-8 m)
Camera resolution
1280 x 960
Battery life
2 Hours
Kinetic energy
25 Jumps
Operating Environment
Tolerant of humidity, salt, oil, and sand
Intended use
Ruggedized reconnaissance robot
Unique Features
It is equipped with
 
Onboard gyro stabilization system to assist in-flight
(a) orientation,
(b) video quality, and
(c) controlled landings,
 
Laser guided the launching,
 
Launching piston used for the jump fires out the back of the robot and is powered by CO2,
 
Wheels designed to cushion the shock of landing.

For more information visit http://www.bostondynamics.com/robot_sandflea.html.

See Death Has No Shadow for fictional acrobatic-mechs in action.