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Technology Tuesday: June 6


Welcome to Technology Tuesday! Every week The Job Shop Blog will bring you our 5 top science and technology news stories from around the web.

This week: A new type of computing could mark the end of the Silicon Age, improvements to the amputation process, discoveries about the human brain which could lead to advances in AI, a gene therapy that could cure asthma and allergies, and China just put the world’s largest floating solar array online.


Does This Technology Mark the End of The Silicon Age?


A team lead by the University of Utah has discovered a new group of materials called organic-inorganic hybrid perovskites that could bring spintronics from a largely conceptual concept into reality. Spintronics aims to use the magnetic properties of electrons rather then their ability to conduct electricity to store and transmit information. Instead of using the ebb and flow of electrical current (charge, recorded using ones and zeros) through thousands of electrons, spintronics uses the ‘up’ or ‘down’ orientation of far fewer electrons.

The problem spintronics has encountered is that a material could not be found that could have its spin changed easily and retain the change in spin. Sarah Li, assistant professor of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Utah and lead author of the study, told Newswise that what makes this discovery special is that the material “can be manipulated and, at the same time, have a long spin lifetime.”



A New Amputation Process Could Improve Prosthetics


Hugh Herr, head of the Biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab — and who was called “Leader of the Bionic Age” by TIME in 2011 — has helped author a study on a new form of amputation called agonist-antagonist myoneural interface (AMI). The process takes its inspiration from the way the body already works. Our muscles control limbs using agonist-antagonist pairs: one flexes while the opposite muscle stretches, sending electrical signals to your brain so it knows where the limb is.

Current amputation techniques, which haven’t changed much since the Civil War, disrupt this relationship by slicing through nerves and muscles, and then wrap some additional muscle around the end of the limb for cushioning. This causes nerve pain because the nerves do not have anything to control, and the subsequent nerve weakening makes it harder to control any prostheses using the body’s natural circuitry.



Discovery About the Human Brain Could Lead to 2nd Gen AI


The Neurophysiology department at the University of Lund has discovered that individual neurons can be taught patterns rather than just respond to a single, specific signal. This means that individual Purkinje cells (cells that control motor movement) are capable of learning, rather than learning being an emergent property (a property that a collection has but individual members do not).

Scientists’ previous understanding was that learning occurred due to an interaction of an entire neural network, however the study states:

Cerebellar control and coordination of motor behaviors may rely more on intracellular mechanisms and less on neuronal network properties than previously thought. It also suggests the capacity for information storage in the individual neuron is vastly greater and of a very different nature than suggested by the dominant paradigm.



Promising Gene Therapy Cure for Asthma and Allergies


Scientists from the University of Queensland have used gene therapy to turn off the immune response responsible for asthma. The team believes their technique may also be able to permanently silence severe allergy responses to common allergens such as bee venom, peanuts, and shellfish. Thus far, the research has been successful in animal trials, and if it can be replicated in human trials, it may provide a one-time treatment for asthma and allergy patients.

The technique erases the memory of the cells which cause allergic reactions using genetically modified stem cells that are resistant to allergens. “We have now been able ‘wipe’ the memory of these T-cells in animals with gene therapy, de-sensitizing the immune system so that it tolerates the [allergen] protein,” lead researcher Ray Steptoe said in a press release. “We take blood stem cells, insert a gene which regulates the allergen protein and we put that into the recipient. Those engineered cells produce new blood cells programmed to express the protein and target specific immune cells, which ‘turn off’ the allergic response.”



The Worlds Largest Floating Solar Plant Is Online


The world’s largest floating solar power plant is now online in China. Built by Sungrow, a supplier of PV inverter systems, the 40MW plant is now afloat in water four to 10 meters deep, and successfully linked to Huainan, China’s grid. The placement was chosen in large part because the area was previously the location of coal mining operations; and, as a result, the water there is now mineralized and mostly useless. The lake itself was only formed after years of mining operations, the surrounding land collapsed and created a cavity that was filled with rainwater.

Floating solar plants are advantageous because they put otherwise useless water and land to good use, and the water naturally cools the system and the ambient temperatures, improving generation and limiting long-term damage from heat. They also avoid taking up space in densely populated regions, which is especially an issue in China; the country is currently home to more than 100 cities with populations of at least one million people each. Finally, the floating PV arrays, customized to work efficiently despite higher levels of humidity, prevent the evaporation of fresh water.



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