Cellular biology allows us to understand with more precision how life functions from the most basic unit of a cell, to a human’s overall physiology. The field provides the scientific community with a breadth of knowledge that can be applied to help develop new vaccines, provide identification of molecular causes of diseases, and offer understanding in regards to cellular mechanisms of the brain. Recently, the force of scientific discovery has approached a very exciting milestone in cellular biology, the development of the first “living robot”.
People are calling it the Xenobot. These millimeter-wide micromachines are considered the world’s first programmable organisms having the potential to deliver medicine to targeted regions of the body, scrape plaque from arteries, and even clean the world’s oceans of polluted microplastics.
What exactly are the characteristics of Xenobots that give them such promise in solving a myriad of different problems faced by the modern world? The endeavor of developing a micromachine required the use of a supercomputer called Deep Green at the University of Vermont. Deep Green implemented an evolutionary algorithm that generated thousands of candidate designs. The parameters of the algorithm follow the laws of cellular biophysics, as well as ensuring that the potential “xenobots”, would be able to perform a designated task. For this experiment, the specific task was locomotion. The top-performing designs were sent over to Tufts University for assembly. Interestingly enough, biologists at Tufts harvested stem cells from the embryo of the Xenopus laevis frog species (hence the nomenclature). Because of the dynamic nature of stem cells, these cells were able to be grown into heart and skin cells. The team performed microsurgery on these cells in order to create the Xenobot organisms.
Heart cells convulsing in unison give the Xenobot the mechanics to propel itself forward, thus achieving the task of locomotion.
The first functional living organism prototype successfully performed its simple task; this is more significant than many people realize. The discovery of a process that can synthesize micromachines such as the Xenobot will lay the foundation for future, more complicated ‘living robots’ that can serve a multitude of functions in physiological repair, medicinal transport, and environmental recovery.
As our technology has progressed since the turn of the century, we have witnessed evolving methods of interaction with external devices. Take your iPhone for example; we can control the phone using the touch of a finger on its screen, followed by voice control, and most recently, touch ID and facial recognition. It may seem that companies such as Apple have exhausted their options for device interaction. However, new technology may allow an entirely new mode of transmitting a device command to your iPhone, or to any external device for that matter.
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are fully functional systems that translate an unspoken thought into a device command. These systems have become a very fascinating field opening endless possibilities for new innovative technology. Implementing this technology to solve real-world problems will have an unprecedented impact on medical device development, neural mapping technology, neuroprosthetics, and countless other developing innovations. BCI systems will have such a powerful influence on the world in many positive ways, but this technology has the potential to create monstrous world problems as well.
For example, Facebook Technologies has been working to develop a brain-computer interface that allows the user to send a text message by using nothing more than a thought. They are developing this technology to address the serious problem of texting while driving. Although this tech could provide a legitimate solution to this deadly problem, there are many implications for granting a phone company access to the direct information stream between the device and the user’s mind. Facebook’s track record has given the company prominent notoriety when it comes to privacy breaches. The fact that they are developing their own BCI’s capable of thought-texting is a very alarming concept. Imagine a future where thoughts and ideas have the potential to be monitored and stored without the consent of the user; this would be the most personal invasion of privacy.
In future submissions, we will look at some different applications of brain-computer interfaces and consider the concerns that should also be considered.
Solar power generated from space is possible in the foreseeable future, but economically, it is still very difficult to develop. Solar satellite production can cost between $500 million to $10 billion depending on the technology and complexion of the satellite. These extortionately high costs are due to an inability to transport materials efficiently, as the development of said satellites require multiple trips to space.
The environmental community has allocated a tremendous amount of intellectual focus to space solar power due to the potential abundance of energy the source could create. If you didn’t know, every hour enough solar energy hits the Earth to power the whole world for over a year. Unfortunately, most of this energy is used up by evaporation, photosynthesis, reflected back into space, or converted to heat. The small percentage (less than 0.1%) that can be used, is only harnessed through solar panels, which are both an inefficient and scarce resource. We use less than 0.001% of Earth’s energy from the sun as electricity. More staggeringly, the Earth only utilizes and receives one-one-billionth of the sun’s total energy output. Therefore, if technological innovation permits space solar power to be of conceivable usage in the future, fears of energy scarcity would be lost. In space, there is nothing to reflect the solar energy, no nighttime, and nothing to evaporate or photosynthesize. Therefore, solar energy can be captured at a colossal amount. The Department of Energy estimates that with developing technology, just one satellite will generate enough electricity to power a large city.
So how does all of this work? Essentially, there are two types of solar satellites: Microwave Solar Satellites and Laser Solar Satellites. As described in the name, the main difference lies in the method used to transport the energy to Earth. However, there are also some important structural differences that affect the cost as well. Microwave satellites have giant mirrors attached to the ends of them in order to direct the sunlight toward the panels. The energy produced by each panel is then transformed into a microwave and sent to a terrestrial transmitter on Earth, where it is converted into utilizable electricity.
The second type of panel does not feature large mirrors, it is a single-paneled satellite that harnesses the energy. This panel converts energy to laser beams, which can be sent to a transmitter on Earth and converted into electricity. The laser beam satellites are designed to function in a group, making them less expensive to build. The microwave satellites may cost up to $10 billion to construct, whereas each laser satellite is predicted to cost closer to $1 billion. These satellites aswell are self-assembling once they are launched into space.
In conclusion, solar energy from space has extremely high energy potential, but immediate functionality of this technology has been currently blocked due to its insanely high capital costs. It is hard to believe that the U.S. would be anywhere close to realistically developing this technology for commercial energy, but as we continuously attempt to eliminate fossil fuels, space solar energy would certainly be a viable alternative due to its abundance and efficiency.
After hearing about this week’s “climate strike” I was tempted to remind people of some very important thoughts relating to the climate debate. This reminder is that the Green New Deal is an insufficient solution to our environmental situation: here is why. I recently attended an energy symposium at my university, and the panel featured the former president of Shell, the current director of energy operations at Shell, and the former premier of British Columbia in Canada. All of these individuals are activists for climate change and limiting emissions, yet none of them support the Green New Deal in any way, shape, or form. The former president of Shell and current professor at the University of Houston, said the Green New Deal is “an insult to human intelligence,” and I could not agree more. The Green New Deal promotes energy policy that is not theoretically possible. The bill proposes completely getting rid of fossil fuel energy. However, the only energy source that can come close to replacing coal under current technology is nuclear, but they want that gone too. Eighty-five percent of America’s energy consumption is in the form of fossil fuels or nuclear energy, with the other twelve percent being renewables such as biomass, hydroelectric, wind, solar, etc. If you’re wondering what these renewable energy sources can produce, the answer is simple: electricity. We cannot use renewable energy to replace oil or natural gas quite yet. In order to replace the energy production we get from coal and nuclear, we would have to commit to mass deforestation just to build wind and solar farms. But by doing this to make up for renewable energy shortage, the effect on emissions would be almost neutral.
With that being said, renewable energy sources can be of beneficial usage, and there is a lot of research and development constantly going into improving them. But, these energy sources are not technologically viable as a replacement for fossil fuels yet. Yes, there are major steps that can be taken to limit emissions and massively increase the amount of renewable energy that we use, but there is no way that a nation as big as ours can wipe out 88% of our energy sources and replace it with these one-dimensional and inefficient forms of energy. It’s very easy for climate strikers to go out and tell everyone that there is a problem. Yet, until a realistic solution is presented, nothing is going to change at the federal level, because we have no where else to turn yet.
Science and Technology Contributor