Wee teeth – and we are not talking small…

Chinese researchers have made a phenomenal breakthrough in stem cell research.

Duanqing Pei and his team from Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health have  found a way to coerce stem cells collected from urine to become induced pluripotent stem cells that can be used to generate other types of cell. They have demonstrated this potential by making teeth, though they could also make cells for other major organs.

The team are quick to point out that this technology is still very experimental, with the teeth produced not yet as hard as the teeth that humans are born with and a success rate currently running at 30%.

Their research is published in the  online open access journal Cell Regeneration.

The potential is incredible, particularly in terms of immune system responses. Just think, in future you might literally pee out the foundation for your new teeth!

It certainly lends a whole new meaning to the phrase “taking the piss”…

Perspectives from Saturn


Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

On 23rd July, NASA published a picture of Earth taken from the dark side of Saturn by its Cassini spacecraft. It is, apparently, only the third time that Earth has been photographed from the outer reaches of the solar system. The picture was taken in a photo session of Earth that occurred on 19th July between 2:27 to 2:42 pm PDT (9.27 to 9.42 pm in the UK). We have the technology to take that kind of picture from almost 900 million miles away.

Look at that amazing picture and think about it just for a moment.

Where were you and what were you doing between 9.27 and 9.42 pm?

I was eating my tea, having walked home through Gloucester Park after a trip to the cinema and a showing of Pacific Rim. It had been a beautiful evening – I posted a picture on Facebook – and I spoke to Laura on my way.

I’m on that dot. We are all on that dot. All of us together.

Suddenly, we all seem very insignificant.

Stupid & Dangerous – but extraordinary, too

A slo-mo highlights reel from the Danish TV show Dumt & Farligt (“Stupid & Dangerous”) has been posted online. A series of madly hypnotic stunts, usually involving some form of explosive energy, there is something beautifully hypnotic about the results. Shot at 2500 FPS, you get to witness aspects of motion that you would never ordinarily see.

Mushrooms to save the planet?

It may sound like Day of the Triffids in reverse, but it might just be that mushrooms are about to save the planet.

Bloomberg Business Week reports on the work of Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre and the innovative work on plastic substitutes that they have been doing with mushroom fibres:

It starts with a mash of corn stalks and vegetable husks impregnated with mushroom spores. The fungus eats the plant nutrients, then grows a complex root network that fills the shapes of the molds. The final product is a foam that looks something like a big wafer of nougat candy. It is placed in an oven to stop the spores from growing and to give the material the proper texture, hardness, and elasticity.

“The products literally grow themselves. In the dark. With little to no human contact,” says McIntyre. Each mold can be treated to create a material with different qualities. Home insulation must be fire-retardant and energy efficient; cabinets have to be sturdy; a car dashboard or bumper has to be strong but with give.”

And to get rid of it?

Simply throw it on the compost heap and it is gone in weeks.

The reason this is so important?


Polystyrene is non-biodegradable and so takes hundreds of years to disappear. The blowing agents that are used to expand it can be highly flammable. Some versions of it are made with hydrofluorocarbons that are over a thousand times more potent in terms of global warming potential than carbon dioxide. It is also regularly excluded from recycling services as it is uneconomical to collect and compact (due to its lack of density versus the space it occupies).

The company behind the mushroom fibre revolution, Ecovative Design, has just signed a deal with the packaging behemoth Sealed Air, the company responsible for Bubble Wrap and Cryovac. Both Dell and Steelcase are already using the material for packaging and it promises a biodegradable revolution in how we ship stuff.

I wonder if this is something that the impressive Centre for Process Innovation should pick up here in the UK? They are the increasingly impressive outfit based in Redcar. In their own words:

“CPI helps companies to prove and scale up processes to manufacture new products and create more sustainable, efficient and economic industries of the future.”

There is some real talent out there in the British economy, particularly in the emerging green and high-tech industries. A UK angle on this would help boost manufacturing, jobs and the wider economy, whilst at the same time helping to tackle the huge waste problem there is with packaging.

Coming soon… A history of noise


It fills our lives. It is something that is so constant that I doubt any of us really experience true silence except perhaps on a few occasions in our lives. There is the daily burr that forms a soundtrack to our lives that we barely pay attention to any more. There are the phones chirruping away, cars passing, doors closing, papers shuffling, colleagues talking at the water cooler, footsteps in the corridor. The list is endless.

In more peaceful places there is still noise: the wind in the trees, birds singing, the sea on the shore, the rustle of grass as we walk. Even now, in this house, with no music playing, the windows double-glazed and with the heating currently off, I can hear the whirr of the computer’s fan and my fingers clicking on the keyboard (and what a joy it is to be typing on a real keyboard, not a laptop or a Blackberry). At other times there might be the creak of pipes or the sound of the house settling after the day or a distant siren howling through the town.

Interestingly, pretty much the world’s quietest place isn’t in the middle of nowhere at all. It is at Orfield Laboratories, in their anechoic chamber:

anechoic chamberAnechoic means echo free and this chamber is designed to completely absorb sound waves and create an experimental space in which there can be absolute silence. Somehow or other I suspect that I would end up being driven mad by the sound of the blood rushing in my ears!

Anyway, browsing Facebook, the feed of an old friend with whom I wish I kept in better touch flashed up a link to a blog: Noise – A human history. Starting Monday 18 March, this 30-part series will explore the role of sound in the past 100,000 years of human history As it says on the blog:

“Recorded on location around the world, it will take us from the shamanistic trance-music of our cave-dwelling ancestors, the babel of ancient Rome, the massacre of noisy cats in pre-revolutionary Paris, and the sonic assaults of trench warfare, right through to our struggle to find calm in the cacophony of a modern metropolis. This is not about sound in the abstract: it is about sound as a matter of life and death, pain and pleasure, feeling and intellect. People, and their past behaviours, are at the heart of it.”

Sound has always fascinated me – how we become attuned to some sounds and not to others, how music can bend our emotions, how people communicate, how we hear the world when we actually stop to listen. Something tells me that this series will be quite special.

Check it out – and those of you who enjoy quality radio, listen out for it.

A tale of three astronauts – and Soichi Noguchi’s photographs

Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away…

Or something like that.

It was actually 1983 and Langdon Hills, Essex – and two friends, Bob and Ben, dreamed of becoming astronauts.

They used to sneak off to the school library in Lincewood Junior School  to look at space books. They wrote to NASA. They wrote space stories and they made space project books.

Then one day reality bit, as it tends to, and the dream died. One got embroiled in politics and the other joined the army (no prizes for guessing which I didn’t do!).

However, just at the time that Ben and Bob were dreaming space, Soichi Noguchi was in his penultimate year at Chigasaki-Hokuryo High School, about to study Aeronautical Engineering at Tokyo University.  In 1996, while Ben was stepping into Parliament for the first time, Noguchi was selected to train as an astronaut.

Noguchi was later lucky enough to travel to the International Space Station. His official NASA biography  is enough to make a Ben or a Bob green with envy:

SPACE FLIGHT EXPERIENCE: STS-114 Discovery (July 26-August 9, 2005) was the Return to Flight mission during which the Shuttle docked with the International Space Station and the crew tested and evaluated new procedures for flight safety and Shuttle inspection and repair techniques.  Noguchi served as MS-1 and EV-1 and performed 3 EVAs (spacewalks) totaling 20 hours and 5 minutes.  After a 2-week, 5.8 million mile journey in space, the orbiter and its crew of seven astronauts returned to land at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Noguchi next launched aboard a Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft on December 21, 2009, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, docking with the International Space Station two days later to join Expedition 22 crew.  He became the first Japanese to fly on Soyuz as left-seat Flight Engineer.  For the next 161 days, Noguchi lived and worked aboard the International Space Station as a Flight Engineer on Expedition 22/23, accomplishing Kibo full configuration assembly complete.  The Expedition 23 crew returned to a safe landing in central Kazakhstan on June 2, 2010.  In completing this long duration mission, Noguchi logged 163 days in space.

Whilst in space, Noguchi took a series of amazing pictures which he tweeted from the ISS. Below is a selection of some of my favourites.

In the mean time, neither Bob nor Ben have lost their interest in space. Bob assures Ben that he is delaying his visit to Jodrell Bank until Ben can get up there.

And both can take heart from the fact that Soichi Noguchi is at least seven years older than either of them and so there’s time yet for them to get their butts up to the ISS.

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For those that don’t like iPhones… Blend it!

You may or may not be familiar with the amusingly odd website Will It Blend? Basically, the website’s title says it all.

You may also remember that I have previously blogged about my irrational dislike of all things Apple. Such a cathartic moment, then, to discover that the folks at Will It Blend? have decided to apply themselves to the iPhone.


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The stories in numbers

Last night I stumbled across one of the most inspirational and best-presented documentaries I’ve seen in years. Typically it was on in the middle of the night and a brief summary (a history of statistics presented by a Swedish professor) might make you think it was one from the early canon of Open University spectaculars.

However, Professor Hans Rosling is one of the most exciting and engaging presenters I’ve seen on television in a long time. After a long day in the office, his quirky, amusing and insightful jaunt through the past, present and possible future of statistics was gripping. If you missed it, you can look at The Joy of Statistics on BBC iPlayer.

One of the most engaging aspects was his demonstration of how the stories of numbers are often best told through visual depiction.

For instance, I had no idea that Florence Nightingale was a statistician. It was her meticulous record-keeping translated into startling pictures that drove the changes in nursing that she instituted:

Over a hundred years later, people like David Mccandless make their living finding ways to translate complex information into more readily understandable pictorial form.  On his Information Is Beautiful blog he finds different and exciting visualisations of statistical data. The Billion-pound-o-gram is his way of making those mad, large numbers more comprehensible:

Perhaps the most spectacular use of animation was Professor Rosling’s depiction of the progress of countries in terms of their life expectancy and their income. His enthusiasm, love and knowledge are a real joy to behold. To really see a story told in numbers, watch this little snippet below:

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“Roads Untaken”: the intersection of art and mathematics

I imagine that Leonardo Da Vinci is the person most of us would call to mind if asked to think of an individual who embraced both the abstract world of mathematics and the tangible world of artistic creation.

However, poking around on the internet I came across the work of George W. Hart, a sculptor who is also a research professor in the department of computer science at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, New York. Hart specialises in geometry, one of his publications being the online Encyclopedia of Polyhedra, in which he writes:

“Polyhedra have an enormous aesthetic appeal and the subject is fun and easy to learn on one’s own… The more you know about polyhedra, the more beauty you will see.”

He could not be more right, for Hart is also a sculptor.

The picture that prompted me to this blog piece is below. It is a stunning testament to the beauty of mathematical forms translated into sculpture. Here, he describes it in his own words:

“Here is one of my favorite sculptures: Roads Untaken.  A mosaic of three exotic hardwoods (yellowheart, paela, and padauk) with walnut “grout,” it is 17 inches in diameter, and stands 21 inches on the base.  Those are the natural colors; it is just oiled, not stained.  The ball just rests on the three struts, so it can be lifted and returned in any orientation.”

Roads Untaken, George W. Hart

For more of Hart’s hypnotic creations, take a look at the section of his website on geometric sculpture.


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Corpse-eating robots, Jedi and computer games – did James Cameron understate the Terminator threat? #darpa #eatr #jedi

Robot dietary requirements and Jedi

I am definitely not the first person to have blogged about the wince-inducing news that the American military have developed robots that can power themselves by eating organic material. However, I’ve not read much that speculates on what interesting things could happen if you marry this robot technology with several other recent developments in the field of computing – like “adaptive behaviour” for instance. (I use “interesting” in that very British way: gross understatement, superficial calm and underlying blind panic all at once.)

The Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR – geddit?!) was sponsored as a business project by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This is the U.S. Government’s geek arm, where techno-nerds work on things like removing debris from space and developing an autonomous walking quadruped platform. (Basically they are all Star Wars fans and want to build a real life Imperial AT-AT – George Lucas should sue for breach of patent. And I bet they all put “Jedi” in the religion box on census forms.)

DARPA has been responsible for lots of sci-fi military technology.

They sponsored the development of the MQ1-Predator. This is the un-manned drone missile platform that costs $4.5 million a pop and that enterprising Iraqis hacked using a €30 piece of software called SkyGrabber – PayPal accepted. (If you are not quite sure yet what you’d do with your very own MQ1-Predator there is a trial version here).

Rather more “out there” DARPA projects include research into military-trained beesremote-control rats and thought-controlled weapon systems (see ST081-022) . (If you are feeling really brave, there are 522 pages of declassified projects for 2010-2011 on the DARPA website. )

I first became aware of EATR in a report by Stephen Sackur on Radio 4, excerpted from a report he prepared for the BBC World Service. (If you’ve time, have a listen. It is chilling.)

In it, the scientist behind the technology explains rather lamely that its diet would be restricted to a vegetarian one as eating human corpses would be against the Geneva Conventions.

Really?! I am glad they are straight about that!

Considered in isolation, I can fully accept that the problem we are dealing with here is one to do with the ethics of the individuals charged with programming these robots. There is only a problem with the Geneva Conventions if someone set the parameters for their diet too widely. (I am not entirely convinced on this point. I am diabetic – and I know something about the vagaries of diet control.)

Chaos Theory and “adaptive behaviour”

All well and good.

However, a few weeks ago, I was among those who marvelled at Professor Jim Al-Khalili’s programme “The Secret Life of Chaos”, a scientific tour de force which sought to outline the role played by chaos theory in producing the order we see about us every day. Whether or not you accept his assertion that the simple yet unpredictable rules of chaos which underpin evolutionary theory are the sole reason for our existence (rules best depicted by the infinitely variable intricacies of the Mandelbrot set) his analysis of process and the role of mathematics in revolutionising our understanding of biological processes was simply brilliant. (As it happens, I disagree with his assertion that this understanding takes science beyond philosophy and religion – for even if you argue this understanding to be true, there is still no scientific explanation for the existence of this behaviour-dictating rule-set in the first place. Btw you should really watch the Mandelbrot set zoom sequence above. It is incredible.).

One fascinating part of that programme was a demonstration of evolutionary behaviour in successive generations of computer avatars. Games software has often been at the cutting edge of computer technology. The increasingly complex coding necessary to create more life-like games enjoys a symbiotic relationship with computer hardware manufacturers producing faster and more powerful computer chips.

The software development company Natural Motion grew out of work at Oxford University, commercialising research into human and animal movement. Co-founder Torsten Reil, described as an “animating neural biologist”, worked on creating simulations of nervous systems based on genetic algorithms. He and his team set out to teach stick figures to walk using virtual neural networks analogous to that bit of the nervous system in the spine, something described in computer terms as “adaptive behaviour”. (It’s important to distinguish between this “learning” process (complex) and simply programming a computer avatar to walk (simple). This was the former, effectively the computer-generated avatar teaching itself how to walk).

Reil’s team started with lots of neural networks. By their very nature, those in this first generation were going to behave in a random manner. However, a genetic algorithm selected those examples that showed some promise, for example the avatar managing a small step rather than falling over, and then included that behaviour in the next generation of avatars. In twenty generations, the avatars had taught themselves to walk in a straight line.  If you are interested, there is the most phenomenal video available at Technology, Entertainment, Design: Ideas Worth Spreading, in which Reil gives an inspirational and fascinating presentation to a live studio audience:

Natural Motion’s white paper on “Dynamic Motion Synthesis”, published in March 2005, sums up the power of adaptive behaviour technology:

“[If] animation assets are synthesised by a sufficiently fast CPU, they need not be static but can be dynamic and adaptive. This means that animations can be fully interactive and adapt to user input and a changing or unpredictable environment.”

This technology is now an integral part of computer game design in some of the world’s largest studios. Natural Motion’s endorphin technology is used by firms like Sony and Electronic Arts, whilst its morpheme software is used by Codemasters and Eidos, amongst others.

What if?

The moment I heard Sackur’s piece on Radio 4, I found myself asking the “What if?” question.

What if some bunch of loons, with a multi-billon dollar budget, thought that there might be some merit in at least experimenting with a synthesis of EATR and adaptive behaviour technology? Could those be the sort of loons that spend millions on bot-bees and robo-rats? The very same techno-brilliant weapons nerds you might find digging into the deep pockets of DARPA?

Throw the robo-rat technology into the mix and suddenly the prospect of a corpse-eating robot, that adapts itself to its fighting environment and, from time to time, turns captured soldiers into DARPA’s version of the “Borg” (or even EATR’s version of the “Borg” – the ones it doesn’t eat, anyway), and suddenly it all looks even more alarming.

Is it really too fanciful to conceive of robots that are imprinted with an evolutionary artificial intelligence and that then calculate it is in their best survival interests to over-ride the protocols relating to the Geneva Conventions, eat the corpses of dead soldiers to remain fuelled and re-deploy captured enemy combatants by remote control to bolster their offensive capabilities? After Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Project MK-ULTRA and Binyam Mohamed, reliance on the programming ethics of human beings seems a rather flimsy defence. It seems even flimsier in a context of unconventional warfare, billion-dollar research budgets and ever-diminishing physical resources.

Tech-heads and Terminators

James Cameron’s Terminator franchise depicts a world in which an artificially intelligent computer, Skynet, takes over the world, with computer-controlled robots deployed to destroy humanity. The long trailer for Terminator 2: Judgement Day gives you a pretty good idea of what it is all about. Not even Cameron had Arnie eating the corpses of fallen fighters for fuel. (Incidentally, for all you conspiracists out there, Skynet does indeed exist as a family of military satellites providing strategic communications to the UK Armed Forces and its NATO allies on coalition operations).

We may laugh about these things, but as we do, teams of DARPA boffins are beavering away in the classified bowels of the U.S. Department of Defense. If EATR, robo-rats and mind-control target acquisition are declassified, we can only wonder at what is going on behind DARPA’s firmly closed doors – and suddenly Cameron’s Skynet is looking distinctly ZX-81 compared to what could be coming down the military technology track…

And now for something (not) completely different…

In the meantime, rest assured that it’s not just the DARPA boffins that risk losing the techno-weaponry plot. Deep in the badlands of Texas, the gun nuts of Mil-Spec Monkey™ have discovered a need for flash-lights that double as submachine guns.

I kid you not.

Watch… And snigger. Or groan. And be glad you don’t live in Texas.

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