08 June 2007

We Are All Cyborgs Now, Tesla's Dream, and more

Scientists at Tel Aviv University have cultured brain cell networks in the lab that can be taught rudimentary memories--and can retain the memories for a few days.
"The main achievement was the fact that we used the inhibition of the inhibitory neurons" to stimulate the memory patterns, says physicist Eshel Ben-Jacob, senior author of a paper on the findings published in the May issue of Physical Review E. "We probably made [the cell culture] trigger the collective mode of activity that … [is] … possible."

The results, Ben-Jacob says, set the stage for the creation of a neuromemory chip that could be paired with computer hardware to create cyborglike machines capable of such tasks as detecting dangerous toxins in the air, allowing the blind to see or helping someone who is paralyzed regain some if not all muscle use.

MIT researchers have used a pair of metal coils to transmit electrical energy wirelessly over a short distance to light a 60 W lightbulb.
The research, published in the June 7 edition of Science Express (the online publication of Science magazine), is the experimental demonstration of a theory outlined last November by the MIT team. (See "Charging Batteries without Wires.")

....Two copper helices, with diameters of 60 centimeters, are separated from each other by a distance of about two meters. One is connected to a power source--effectively plugged into a wall--and the other is connected to a lightbulb waiting to be turned on. When the power from the wall is turned on, electricity from the first metal coil creates a magnetic field around that coil. The coil attached to the lightbulb picks up the magnetic field, which in turn creates a current within the second coil, turning on the bulb.

This type of energy transfer is similar to a well-known phenomenon called magnetic inductive coupling, used in power transformers. However, the MIT scheme is somewhat different because it's based on something called resonant coupling. Transformer coils can only transfer power when they are centimeters apart--any farther, and the magnetic fields don't affect each other in the same way. In order for the MIT researchers to achieve the range of two meters, explains Soljačić, they used coils that resonate at a frequency of 10 megahertz. When the electrical current flows through the first coil, it produces a 10-megahertz magnetic field; since the second coil resonates at this same frequency, it's able to pick up on the field, even from relatively far away. If the second coil resonated at a different frequency, the energy from the first coil would have been ignored.

Scientists at Harvard have made incremental progress in the quest for improved "self-assembly" in nanotechnology. Although this represents a small degree of progress, it actually illustrates how far nanotechnology has to go to challenge natural processes of self assembly in living systems.

Researchers at U Maine are looking into using potatoes to replace petroleum in the making of plastics. Although researchers have been making plastic from maize for several years, the recent multiple demands for maize in biofuels has prompted a search for other renewable feedstocks in the production of plastics.

One of the main obstacles to large scale use of cyborg implants, is the absence of good chip to nerve interfaces. By developing ways of programming artificially grown neural nets, the Tel Aviv researchers above are creating an important component in the development of a broadly useful cyborg implant industry.

Scientists have developed chips that act as useful "relays" of neural signals, and useful "playback mechanisms" of complex neural signals to guide the rebuilding of damaged brain tissue. But what is needed for cyborg implants is a real-time interactive neural signal to electronic interface and translating system.

As for Tesla's Dream, Nikola Tesla had always wanted to be able to transmit useful energy through the air and through the ground. The MIT research above suggests that if Tesla had possessed the necessary electronic technology, he would have made breakthroughs in this area over a hundred years ago.

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