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 FIRST LOOK

Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Sustainable Slopes
Sustainable Slopes

ARCHITECTURE
Sustainable Slopes


When snow melts in the Alps, European ski and snowboard fanatics may soon be heading to Skipark 360º, 45 minutes from Stockholm, a year-round indoor winter sports arena with everything from downhill skiing to ice hockey and international slalom competitions. Dominated by a covered, 150-foot-wide reinforced concrete slope rising nearly 600 feet, it will manufacture its own snow yet rely on renewable energy. At least, that’s the plan developed by Berg | C. F. Møller Architects with help from Sweco, an engineering firm specializing in sustainability. The $300 million project still needs investors, says Jan-Erik Mattsson, head of the architecture firm’s Stockholm office. But if it succeeds, coinventors Glenn Bovin and Per Hammarström could market their concept elsewhere. Istanbul and Las Vegas are interested. – MARK MATTHEWS

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Images courtesy Berg | C. F. Møller Architects




BRAIN CHEMISTRY

BRAIN CHEMISTRY
Bye-bye Blues


Millions of people – up to 25 percent of those living in nontropical regions – get the blues during winter. Current treatment for the aptly named SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, requires shining a light in the sufferer’s face for up to two hours a day. But Finnish start-up Valkee has a better idea: directing light into sufferers’ ears. The therapy is based on research from Oulu University that discovered the exact location of light-sensitive proteins on the surface of the brain. The OPN3 proteins are part of a group also found in the retina. Researchers believe the brain proteins are key to curing SAD, however, because they are clustered in the same areas that control mood, sleep, and depression; shining light into ear canals is the most effective way of reaching them. The Valkee device resembles a portable MP3 player, but each earbud contains an LED bulb that emits the same wavelength light as sunshine. In clincal tests with a small sample, 92 percent of severe SAD sufferers who used the device for 8 to 12 minutes a day reported all symptoms of depression had disappeared. A psychiatrist-administered test found that 77 percent experienced full remission of symptoms. On sale in Finland for about $130, the Valkee is proving popular. While there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues, for many people the wintertime variation may soon be history. –THOMAS K. GROSE



CIVIL ENGINEERING

CIVIL ENGINEERING
Britain’s Big Dig


The Olympics and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee will draw tourists to London this summer. But another big event under way in the British capital is sadly off limits to visitors: Europe’s largest civil engineering project. When completed in 2018, the $25.6 billion Crossrail system will run 73 miles—26 of them via underground tunnels—from Maidenhead and Heathrow west of London to Shenfield and Abbey Wood to the east. The first of eight massive tunnel boring machines (TBMs) began excavations in March for the underground links in Royal Oak, West London. At a snail’s pace of 330 feet a day, the TBM is boring its way to Farringdon, some 10.3 miles to the east. The 495-foot-long TBMs weigh some 1,000 tons each and can operate around the clock, thanks to a 20-person “tunnel gang.” (Each TBM contains a kitchen and toilet for the crew.) An aboveground controller uses GPS to keep track of the mechanical mega-moles, helping them maneuver around such existing infrastructure as sewers and London Underground subway tunnels. The burrows run deep, too, down to 132 feet at some points. And dig this: Once this project is finished, the TBMs will be refurbished by German manufacturer Herrenknecht for subterranean jobs elsewhere. Nothing boring about that. – TG



Hiriko

RENEWABLE ENERGY
Germany’s Gamble


Renewable energy forms the centerpiece of an ambitious plan by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right government to devote more than $260 billion – 8 percent of GDP – toward the goal of ensuring that half the country’s energy comes from renewables by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050. Moreover, because of last year’s meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima reactor, Germany’s green-energy crusade is sans nuclear power. Over the next decade, plans call for shuttering 17 nuclear plants, which provide a fifth of the country’s electricity. Germany counts on replacing much of that loss with power from wind farms in the North and Baltic seas. The offshore farms will cover an area six times the size of New York City, according to Bloomberg News. Coal-rich Germany will include that nonrenewable fuel in its energy mix, but future plants will be made superefficient to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Many of the technologies Germany will need to succeed, particularly large-scale power storage to accommodate the intermittent nature of renewable energy, are either in their infancy or do not yet exist, however. If Germany overcomes those hurdles, an energy expert told Bloomberg News, it will become a clean-energy role model. Failure, she adds, “will be a disaster for Germany’s politicians, society and economy.” So, no pressure then. – TG



FACTOID - 33% - The percentage drop in U.S. net oil imports over the past six years from their peak in 2005. The decline results from a combination of higher oil prices, an economic slowdown, and an increase in domestic supplies of oil and alternative fuels. Source: Congressional Research Service April 4, 2012, report, “U.S. Oil Imports and Exports”.



DATA MINING
DATA MINING
Cancer Sleuth


Remember Watson, the IBM supercomputer that walloped two former human champions on Jeopardy last year? Well, Watson’s now in med school – sort of. The machine is learning oncology so it eventually can become a “decision-support tool” for physicians at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the world’s oldest and largest private cancer hospital. Watson is devouring not only Sloan-Kettering’s vast collection of patient records but also information from texts and journals that it can mine later. Dr. Watson won’t make diagnoses or prescribe therapies. Rather, it will give doctors what IBM calls “evidence-based, statistically ranked responses” to help them select treatments. Watson is adept at understanding natural-language queries and swiftly making sense of massive reams of unstructured information – it can digest 200 million pages of data in three seconds. Watson should be ready to begin assisting physicians sometime next year. - TG



ROBOTICS

ROBOTICS
Rock Stars


They’re no American idols, but robot musicians have grown surprisingly talented. At this year’s TED conference, Vijay Kumar, deputy dean for education at the University of Pennsylvania, wowed the crowd with a video of flying robots called quadrotors that darted over keyboard, drum, and electric guitar to belt out a passable rendition of the James Bond theme. (http://bit.ly/HVAaTP) Kumar is a member of Penn’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab, which develops robots that mimic the swarming behavior of birds, fish, and insects. Not to be outdone, electrical and computer engineering students at Drexel University’s Music and Entertainment Technology Laboratory released a video of their autonomous HUBO humanoid robots playing — and singing — a foot-tapping version of the Beatles’ hit “Come Together.” (http://bit.ly/IXADqE) The fabricated four play drums and specially devised percussion instruments called Hubophones. Get set for Hubomania. – TG



FACTOID - Estimated annual economic losses, in dollars, in the year 2100 resulting from the impact of climate change on the world’s oceans. Effects include loss of fishing income and tourism, storms, and sea-level rise. - Source: Stockholm Environment Institute



FOOD SAFETY

FOOD SAFETY
Cleaning Greens


Raw veggies taste good, but they’re often the source of foodborne diseases. An outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in 2006 was linked to bagged spinach, and 5 percent of food-poisoning cases worldwide are caused by green onions. Researchers have long sought to find new, more effective ways to clean produce. The Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology has been working with organic salad producer Earthbound Farm on technology that uses ultrasound during the wash to rid leafy greens of pathogens. High-powered ultrasound waves produce millions of tiny bubbles on the leaf’s surface that burst in microseconds; the process, called cavitation, dislodges germs into the wash. Tests so far look promising, but Earthbound stresses that the technique is not a “kill step,” but merely an adjunct to existing sanitation processes. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Delaware report that they have effectively cleansed green onions of both E. coli and Salmonella enterica pathogens by placing them in commercial pressurizers at up to 5,000 times atmospheric pressure. The pathogens didn’t survive, but the onions did — with taste and color intact. – TG



GENETIC ENGINEERINGGENETIC ENGINEERING
Mammoth Park


One potential bizarre side effect of global warming: The woolly mammoth may walk the Earth again, some 10,000 years after becoming extinct. South Korea’s Sooam Biotech Research Foundation has inked a deal with Russia’s North-Eastern Federal University to work on joint research aimed at cloning the giant mammal, whose bones were discovered with marrow intact when Siberia’s permafrost melted. The plan is to extract somatic cells from the marrow and swap them with the nuclei of elephant egg cells. Sooam’s controversial founder Hwang Woo-Suk claimed to have cloned human embryonic stem cells in 2004, but his resulting fame was short-lived when it became apparent his data were faked. Since then, however, he has successfully cloned the first dog, Snuppy, and gone on to clone cows and coyotes. Re-creating a woolly mammoth from DNA is no Jurassic Park scenario. But it’s close enough to worry Canadian evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, who sees no scientific reason to clone an extinct species. “Why would you bring them back?” he told CBS News last year. “To put them in a theme park?” – TG




SPYWARE
Cool Tool


A camera that can see around walls may sound like something Q devised for fictional secret agent James Bond. But the device is real, and its inventors aren’t MI6 boffins but researchers at MIT’s Media Lab. The camera makes use of walls, doors, and floors to reflect light shot from a femtosecond laser, which spits out bursts of photons measured in quadrillionths of a second. The photons bounce around a room and finally re-emerge, where they’re picked up by a detector every few trillionths of a second. By measuring the time it takes photons to reach the detector, the device can figure how far they’ve traveled. By repeating the procedure at different angles and comparing the different times and ways the light hits the detector, a 3-D picture of the room’s geometry emerges. Algorithms that process the data picked up by the sensor can produce images of items or people out of the camera’s line of sight that are blurry but recognizable. Possible applications include helping firefighters search for people in burning buildings or vehicle navigation systems that help drivers negotiate blind turns. 007 would probably find it a handy tool, too. – TG



ONLINE EDUCATION
Clicks and Mortar


Will online courses kill demand for campus experiences? Earlier this year, KnowLabs, a company founded by former Stanford University computer scientist Sebastian Thrun, announced the start of Udacity, an online university offering such free, high-quality courses as Programming a Robotic Car. In March, MIT rolled out a free course on circuits and electronics, the first in a portfolio of self-paced Web offerings in the MITx initiative. And Stanford computer engineering professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller just secured $16 million in venture funds plus partnerships with five leading universities, including Princeton, to expand Coursera, a Web-based portal for top-end courses in subjects from cryptography to game theory. Most offer “certificates of completion.” Thrun saw Udacity’s potential to transform education last year when KnowLabs simultaneously presented the same artificial intelligence course he was teaching to 200 Stanford graduate students—and attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries. Thrun imagines that in 50 years, only 10 institutions worldwide will be delivering higher education. Edward Tenner disagrees. In an Atlantic blog, the noted historian of technology calls Thrun’s AI class a “smashing success” but says online courses will help build the elite schools’ brands and increase on-campus demand. Indeed, Stanford reviewed a record 36,631 applications, up 9 percent from 2011. – TG






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