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The Research Nest

Latest in Science: July 2018

The Thailand Cave Rescue, AI Space Robots, and more!

Image credits: The Irish Times

Here is the next edition of ‘Latest in Science’ where we explore some of the most significant events that happened in the recent times related to different domains of science. Here is my top 5 pick, explored short and brief:

Can DNA be used as an Artificial Neural Network?

A representation of an ANN

We know that DNA is one of the fundamental building blocks of biological life. An artificial neural network, on the other hand, is one of the key building blocks of modern machine learning systems. Exploring one of the many ‘what if’s related to the intersection of AI and biology, scientists have achieved something truly spectacular. They have created a neural network made of DNA that can recognize molecular handwriting!

Quan, one of the key scientists behind this research said;

“Similar to how electronic computers and smart phones have made humans more capable than a hundred years ago, artificial molecular machines could make all things made of molecules, perhaps including even paint and bandages, more capable and more responsive to the environment in the hundred years to come.”

So what exactly is the significance of this development for the common man? This research could lead to finding new ways for medical diagnosis and also help in the detection of various bio-molecules. I have included the link to the research paper discussing this technology at the end of the article.

Meet CIMON, the world’s first AI space robot!

Before you read further, take a moment to watch the above video. This is no longer science fiction. You might have seen such robots in popular sci-fi movies like Star Wars, and believe it or not, this robot is now at the International Space Station. In a historic launch on June 29, 2018, humans have sent a one-of-a-kind AI machine into outer space. It is called CIMON, short for ‘Crew Interactive Mobile Companion’.

Beautifully designed, it’s appearance and working sends a shiver down my spine. A very intriguing product born out of human space research and exploration, the success of this mission will pave way to AI playing a major role in future space missions. CIMON is designed to assist the astronauts on board the International Space Station in various tasks including some complex experimentation.

There is still a long way to go, but it affirms that someday, AI based robots will be there to support humans in outer space, and they can be used in a wide variety of scenarios like spaceship repairs, medical treatment of sick astronauts and the such during long space missions.

“This one step for CIMON, A giant leap for AI”

The Thailand cave rescue mission

Image Credits: CNN

This is definitely one of the most dangerous rescue missions anyone has carried out in recent times. The entire nail-biting story of successfully saving all the children and the coach has already been covered extensively by media. However, that’s not what I am going to do here (Check out the link at the end for that!).

If you are not aware of it, here is a small introduction. 12 boys of a young football team went on an exploration along with their coach to Thailand’s Chiang Rai province only to be trapped deep inside due to flooding of the cave system. What followed is one of the greatest rescue missions, a race against time and nature to bring them back out safe and sound. Just look at the image above to assess how complex the situation is. The Thai Navy seal unit and other volunteers did an excellent job and with support and guidance from across the world including Elon Musk, humanity stood united in hope more than ever before. If not for science, the mission would have been impossible. Here we will take a brief look at the technology that was used to make this mission a grand success.

As pointed out by the MIT Technology Review:

“Drones, zoom lenses, and thermal cameras were used to create the first 3-D aerial map of the region and scout for cave access points. Powerful handheld radios have allowed the rescuers to communicate with the soccer team from long distances despite a lack of radio infrastructure in the area.”

Top entrepreneur Elon Musk came up with a suggestion of using a Mini Submarine in this situation. The diving suits, oxygen tanks and other miscellaneous devices used are equally noteworthy.

It’s a multidisciplinary intersection of our understanding of thermodynamics, communication engineering, robotics, optics, and even chemistry that made everything possible. It is another testament of how advancements in science and technology have saved the day.

It’s faster than sound, yet silent!

The X-59 QueSST will test its quiet supersonic technologies by flying over communities in the United States. Credits: NASA

Sound travels at a speed of 343 m/s in dry air. When an object travels faster than this, it creates what is known as a sonic boom that essentially results in a very loud and explosive noise. Supersonic Jets have for a very long time posed this problem and clearly flying them over residential places is not possible.

Guess what? In what appears to be as if Nature’s laws have been defied, NASA in partnership with Lockheed Martin is working on a plane that can fly in complete silence, in spite of travelling at such humongous speeds! It was named the X-59 QueSST (Quiet Supersonic Transport).

The physics behind the design is quite complex but it is based on some clever re-shaping of the jet. Once successfully tested, this can revolutionize commercial air travel cutting down on travel times enormously. It was estimated that, such a supersonic jet could comfortably make it from New York to London in about 3 hours!

But do you think everything will go as planned? Anything can happen at such high speeds, raising questions of how safe it is. Only time will let us know.

Is there a way to resurrect the extinct species?

Jurassic World (Movie Poster)

Every once in a while scientists are met with a dilemma. ‘Why? Why should we do this?’ Some raise a debate, some question the ethics, while some other answer with a ‘Why not?’ We humans are inherently afraid about things we don’t fully understand and we do know that it all can be quite risky. But that does not stop scientists in pursuing genetic engineering research further, and mastering the art of creating life itself.

In a research that could one day lead to a real life Jurassic World, scientists have devised methods to bring back the extinct white rhinoceros. Here is an approach that can be implemented: Taking the eggs of the last female remaining and using in-vitro fertilization with the frozen male sperm, fertilized embryos can be produced with a related species as a surrogate mother. Also, scientists are working towards effectively producing eggs and sperms from stem cells that can lead to a great breakthrough in solving this problem. As long as we have the stem cells of extinct species, we can use that to resurrect the species.

As with the others, this comes with it’s own question marks and shortcomings. To start with, it is expected to create no genetic diversity and the species will not be able to sustain in a long run. Also, it is essential to create the lost ecosystem in which the species once thrived, which is again a huge task. If there’s one thing pop-culture and Hollywood repeatedly tried to show us, it’s why we should not meddle with nature, trying to play God.

It used to be a question of ‘Can we?’, but now it is more like ‘Should we?’

What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts in the responses below!

“Science never solves a problem without creating ten more”

-George Bernard Shaw

For further reading;

  1. ‘Scaling up molecular pattern recognition with DNA-based winner-take-all neural networks’, published in the international science journal, Nature.
  2. The full story of Thailand’s extraordinary cave rescue from BBC.
  3. The physics behind NASA’s “quiet” supersonic jet design

Stay tuned for the next article in the series and do follow ‘The Research Nest’ more insightful content.

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