What it is: Researchers have managed to replicate octopus flesh, developing “a structure that senses, computes and responds without any centralized processing—creating a device that is not quite a robot and not quite a computer, but has characteristics of both.”
Why it’s weird and awesome: Its developers call it “soft tactile logic,” and it can “make decisions at the material level” through input and processing on site, rather than a centralized logic system somewhere else. And you might remember credible speculation last year that octopus DNA might come from aliens, which isn’t the only thing that makes it one of the most intriguing creatures on earth.
But seriously, Biosynthesis is an application of “soft” technology using “neuromuscular tissue that triggers when stimulated by light,” which, if it becomes complex enough, is practically indistinguishable from autonomous biobots. This tech actually goes back to at least 2014, when professors Taher Saif and Rashid Bashir of the University of Illinois developed a bio-mechanical sperm-like thingy. It could swim. Sure, that autonomy could be a little creepy and is the stuff that science fiction disaster scenarios and international regulatory and ethics discussions are made of. But it’s also awesome! Replacement of cells! Cures for heart disease, radical improvements in prosthetic technology and more.
They tested Loch Ness for DNA
What it was: Two New England geneticists conducted a sweeping environmental DNA survey of the greater Loch Ness area—not just the lake, but also the surrounding ecosystems. They found no sign of giant reptile DNA, aquatic dino-DNA, or any mysterious monster genetics. The scientists found signs of all kinds of creatures—fish (obviously), deer, pigs, bacteria, human tourists, but no Nessie. We’ve known for a while that those famous photos of Nessie were faked. This is another nail in the proverbial coffin.
Why it’s important: The Monster is iconic across popular cultural and pseudoscience. But it’s also fun, and historically necessary, to bust myths. More importantly, DNA testing still feels like a revolutionary breakthrough, solving real crimes while debunking legends.
The interrupting robot you’ve always wanted
What it is: Do you hate it when other people finish your sentences? What if robots did it? Called “BERT” for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformer, the system uses “natural language processing.” This doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch from the auto-complete function in texting. But it also does “sentiment analysis,” similar to the way in which businesses and political campaigns can take from masses of data in order to qualitatively analyze subjective information.
Why it’s inevitable no matter how we feel about it: Because this kind of AI is inevitable. Daniel Shapiro, who founded an AI firm called Lemay.ai, agrees with me on this, and says that “AI does some things well and some things poorly, but on balance, the benefits exceed the costs of having an algorithm making decisions.” As to whether it’s a job killer, Shapiro says”no more than the humble spreadsheet was.”
Slipping into a new you
What it is: A postgraduate fellow at Central Saint Martins University in London, and a microbiologist at Ghent University in Belgium, have developed “Skin II,” a garment that they say will “improve body odour, encourage cell renewal and boost the immune system.” It also doesn’t need to be washed as often because, you know, reduced odor. One of the designers called Skin II “wellness clothing,” which, all jokes about B.O. aside, sounds exciting.
Why it’s basically necessary: Because odor management is an important part of the management of public spaces. People complain of odors on trains due to smokers, strong perfume, and yes, body odor. Any frequently-used space (and those are the most valuable spaces, really) are going to smell bad. Why not do our part to make it easier to manage those things publicly? Also, L.A. Metro is experimenting with deodorizers on trains, so that’s an interesting supplemental piece of tech news.