Engineer Notes: Robotic Teachers, the Dadbot, and Sweat Powered Tech

This week’s edition of Engineer Notes looks at the latest and greatest in the tech world, including nutritious 3D printed food, how scientists reversed brain damage, and the effects that young blood has on an older body.

Customizable 3D Printed Food

The idea of 3D printed food is not a newfangled idea. In fact, in previous versions of Engineer Notes, I’ve mentioned the beginnings of 3D printed milk and 3D printed food to help people who suffer from dysphagia, a condition that makes it painful to swallow. What is new, though, is the idea of using 3D printed food for customizable nutrition. A new project initiated by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) is exploring just that. This may be the future of healthy living by tailoring these 3D printed foods based on a person’s genetic makeup, physiological state, and lifestyle. The team, led by Dr. Amy Logan, just began a three-year study in which they will examine how they can “retain the ‘mouthfeel’ of eating actual food.” High protein foods will be key in being able to have structurally stable foods. The trend of monitoring food intake is on the rise and Logan hopes that this type of customizable diet will be utilized in places where people may not be getting the nutrition they need, like in elementary schools. With a few more advances in additive manufacturing technology, food 3D printers may soon be as common as coffee machines.

Robotic Teachers

Using robots to teach your kids may not be a popular idea, yet it is a very likely possibility due to the fact that they are virtually inexhaustible and can store and communicate endless amounts of knowledge. Although a robot may not be your child’s next second grade teacher, one may be present in the classroom assisting “introverted or disabled or non-conforming children.” Robots would fit seamlessly into this role because they appear less intimidating to quieter kids, they are always available, and they can maintain patience indefinitely. In Singapore, a robot named Nao was deployed at MY World Preschool to teach children in more interactive ways, such as by dancing. Nao offers a fun and unique way of learning that engages and interests kids. As the growth of artificial intelligence rapidly continues, an important question arises: how do we teach both our generation and the next generation to grow accustomed to human-machine interactions? By placing these robots in the classroom, children will become acquainted with robots from an early age, eliminating the need to teach them how to interact with such a foreign species later in life.

The Dadbot

If you have seen the episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror “Be Right Back,” you are familiar with the idea of communicating with the deceased through an instant messaging application. In the episode, the wife of the deceased uses an application that compiles all of her late husband's online communication and social media to create a new, virtual version of her husband. This seemed like a farfetched and very futuristic idea, until now. After James Vlahos found out that his 80-year-old father had Stage 4 lung cancer, he decided that he was going to keep his father alive by recording hours and hours of conversation that he would use to replicate him in an instant messaging robot. These conversations consisted of his father talking about everything from his first crush to his parents’ lives growing up in Greece. Vlahos uploaded over 700 minutes of conversation to PullString, a computer conversation software, along with videos to create Dadbot. Vlahos claims that “As [his] father declined, the Dadbot slowly improved,” and by the time his father passed, even Vlahos’s 7-year-old son was able to talk to Dadbot as if it was his living grandfather.

Sweat Power

Has science come so far that human sweat is now a suitable replacement for batteries? In a way, yes. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have created a flexible skin patch that, using human sweat, can power a radio for up to two days. The patch works by using lactic acid that is found in sweat along with enzymes that replace metals that are found in batteries. This type of technology holds great implications for wearable technology. If our own bodily fluids can power these devices, then the challenge of figuring out where to get power from is solved with the easiest possible solution. The next step for these researchers is to create wearable sensors that will be able to monitor health conditions solely with the power generated by sweat. They have already reached a power level so high that “if you were out for a run, you would be able to power a mobile device.”

Reversed Brain Damage

The day has finally come, scientists have successfully reversed brain damage in a little girl after she spent 15 minutes submerged in a 40 degree swimming pool. Before the start of her oxygen therapy, two-year-old Eden Carlson was immobile, unresponsive to stimuli and constantly shook her head. MRI indicated that Carlson had extensive loss to her brain's white and grey matter. To reverse this brain damage, doctors administered two types of oxygen therapy – normobaric oxygen therapy and hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). She was given normobaric oxygen, which are levels of oxygen that are the same as sea level, which made her more alert, able to laugh and to move her arms and hands. After being administered the HBOT therapy for 40 session, she was back to her normal motor functioning, she was able to to speak, and her cognitive abilities were almost completely restored back to what they were pre-drowning. Doctors believe that the regrowth of tissues was possible because Carlson’s brain was still growing which enabled the activation of genes that promote cell survival and reduce inflammation. To the researcher's knowledge, this is the first case of brain damage reversal and they have great hope that oxygen therapy will be able to restore brain function in people who have suffered similar tragedies.

What Would it Take for Mass Extinction?

Have you ever wondered what it would take to wipe out all life on our planet? Lucky for you, scientists have figured out, from the top three most likely mass extinction events, how likely it would be for an asteroid, a supernova, or a gamma-ray burst to wipe out mankind. They suggested that the simplest way for this to happen would be for one of the above three events to provide enough energy to boil the world’s oceans. For asteroids, only 17 potential objects could provide enough energy to boil the oceans and destroy the planet. Luckily, none are in orbits that coincide with Earth’s orbit. As for a supernova, a star would need to explode at a distance of around 0.013 light years for its energy to boil the oceans and eliminate life. Thankfully, the nearest star is almost 300x farther than that at 4.25 light years away. Lastly, a gamma-ray burst, which is an explosion that produces enormous amounts of energy that are forced into jets of radiation, could only produce enough energy if the beam was within 42 light years and if the planet lay directly within the beam. This is, again, incredibly unlikely and very few planets would ever be sterilized by a gamma-ray burst. So if you’ve ever worried that a mass extinction event might take place in your lifetime, let that worry go!

Young Blood

“Young blood,” a term that typically refers to a new, naive person in an unfamiliar setting, is now one of the most valuable things a person can posses. Dating back to the 1950’s, researchers started to examine how the blood from young mice could revitalise organs and reverse ageing in older mice. Through a variety of research, results indicated that young blood boosted bone density in older mice, it helped broken muscles of older mice heal better, it tripled the proliferation rate of liver cells in older mice, and shared blood even extended the lives of older mice by four to five months. Unfortunately, this research was described as “gross and crude,” and by the 1970's research had stopped. Recently, scientists have started to again look into the effects that blood from younger people/animals have when put into the bodies of older people/animals. But blood is a very complicated liquid and scientists have yet to determine exactly what in the blood causes revitalization. Despite the lack of research, a handful of firms offer blood plasma infusions to try and produce an anti-ageing effect. This procedure is risky but with more research, scientists have hope that this will be the future of curing diseases that occur later in life.

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