Archive for September, 2012

September’s Fascinations of the Month

6 | By Michael A. Robinson

Microscopic materials are extremely hard to work with.

It’s not like you can just use tweezers to pick up two items you can’t see with the naked eye and glue them together.

But soon, we may be able to “program” tiny substances to work like materials “ants” that build their own colonies once someone flips a switch.

At least, a team at the University of Delaware just demonstrated that a group of microscopic particles could be guided to form specific structures at the nanoscale level.

The researchers started with materials as wide as a small fraction of a human hair – materials that became magnetic once an outside source was applied. Team members found that by using the right frequency and strength, they could see the particles change from a random substance into highly organized structures. This breakthrough could help clear a major nanotech hurdle.

Imagine: Computer chips that can build themselves.

If this emerging field of the future sounds out of this world, it actually is. The team got help from NASA so it could watch the process aboard the International Space Station to figure out how gravity affects self-assembly of these cutting-edge materials.

This was far from the only fascinating high-tech advance I came across this month.

Take a look…

Your Kids and Grandkids Will Love This

Scientists are hard at work to perfect pain-free shots and injections.

One team at MIT believes doctors will soon use non-invasive ultrasound technology to give shots. Most people know that doctors use ultrasounds to image the human body, including giving pregnant women an exam to check the health of their babies.

But the MIT team members say ultrasound tech can increase the permeability of skin by lightly wearing away the top layer. The effect only last a few seconds and causes no pain. By combining both high and low frequency sound waves, they can increase the number and amount of drugs that can be delivered using this approach.

But that’s not the only needle-free breakthrough to be excited about.

A team in South Korea has just come up with a new laser-based system that blasts tiny jets of drugs into the skin. Researchers installed a small adaptor that contains the liquid drug to be delivered. It’s designed to make getting a flu or other “shot” as painless as a puff of air. If nothing else, it’s a high-speed process – each laser pulse lasts one-250 millionth of a second.

Oh – and did you hear about the robot that can outrun Usain Bolt?

This U.S. Lab Just Hit a Nuclear Fusion Milestone

23 | By Michael A. Robinson

For decades, researchers have toiled away in the quest to provide nuclear power that is cheap, safe, and stable.

And for just as long, skeptics have said their work will never pay off.

But a team from Sandia National Labs has just hit a new milestone that is paving the way for a viable nuclear-fusion concept at last.

This breakthrough is crucial for two reasons.

First, U.S. environmental groups still largely oppose our current type of nuclear power. It’s based on nuclear fission – in which one atom inside a reactor gets split into two. Nuclear power plants use the resulting release of energy to warm water and produce steam to drive turbines.

But the nuclear accident in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami last year gave fresh ammo to global foes of fission-based power, who say it is patently unsafe. Indeed, two weeks ago, Japan said it would close all nuclear plants by the 2030s. Not only that, but here in the U.S., we face a lot of trouble getting rid of spent nuclear rods without hurting the environment.

Then there’s the terrorist threat. Some security experts warn that we can’t be certain terrorists will never take over a nuclear-power plant. If they did that, they could possibly destroy the plant or steal enough nuclear fuel to make a bomb.

Those two reasons alone have many scientists still hoping for a breakthrough that will make nuclear fusion work.

You see, in a fusion reactor, there’s no possibility of some catastrophic accident releasing destructive amounts of radioactivity. That’s because nuclear fusion can only take place in precisely controlled limits of temperature, pressure, and magnetic field. If the reactor sustained damage, those parameters would be disrupted, and it would immediately shut down.

And it gets better.

See, Earth already relies on fusion energy – that’s what powers the sun.

By using the same fuel the sun does, namely hydrogen, we would have enough raw material in our oceans to last us thousands, if not millions, of years. So if we could get “high-gain” fusion to work, we could get 1,000 times more power out than the energy supplied by the fuel.

But that’s the big problem facing this field. As of now, it still takes more power to get two atoms to fuse together than you get back out from the process. That means it isn’t economical. (Think of it as trying to line up several stars and use them to replace the sun.)

Now along comes Sandia and its new advance.

The lab has created a system in which controlled nuclear fusion could work at break-even or better within the next few years. The team says this has “extraordinary energy and defense implications.”

And to think – it all hinged on coming up with a new type of “liner”…

Three New Findings Change Our View of the Brain

23 | By Michael A. Robinson

Our knowledge of the human brain is improving even faster than I thought.

Just last month, I told you about five new brain secrets you needed to know about. What amazes me is that in just a few weeks, top researchers have announced several major new findings.

Taken together, these latest advances mean we are getting much closer to the day when we will achieve the Holy Grail of neuroscience — complete knowledge of how the brain really works.

That’s key because many of our worst diseases target the brain. Of course, I’m talking about dreaded ailments like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But the list also includes inoperable tumors as well as chemical imbalances that could be a major cause of mood swings and drug addiction.

I spend a lot of time reading about brain research for a very good reason. As I see it, the goal is to have a complete map of this highly complex organ. To do so, we need to know how every single brain cell works.

Some experts even foresee the day when we will reverse-engineer the entire brain. Doing that would allow us to create artificial intelligence systems that would be as smart as humans but less prone to their downsides — like anger, drinking binges, and the effects of stress.

I believe the brain ranks at the top of key breakthroughs that make the Era of Radical Change so exciting. Solving the brain puzzle we will rid mankind of many cruel diseases while making our physical world smarter and more in tune with the way our minds work.

Here is a look at three new breakthroughs pushing the limits of neuroscience.

The Next Big Thing in Social Networking

26 | By Michael A. Robinson

Scott McNealy knows how to create the kind of cutting-edge high tech that makes money for his investors.

Lots of it.

You probably know McNealy as a cofounder (in 1982) and CEO of Sun Microsystems. For more than 20 years, that Silicon Valley firm set the standard for computer servers and workstations. Sun was a key contributor to open-source software. It also created the widely used Java programming language that still runs of billions of computing devices around the world.

Not only did McNealy and his tech firm help change the world forever, they brought incredible payoff to investors along the way. Sun went public in 1986, and it sold to Oracle Corp. (NASDAQ:ORCL) in 2009 for about $7.4 billion.

I’m a long-time tech writer who has followed McNealy’s career for many years. When I heard that he is the force behind a new startup, I decided it was time to find out what he’s up to these days. I got the chance to chat with him by phone for about half an hour the other day.

After hearing firsthand from McNealy about his latest startup, my first thought was, it’s no wonder an elite group of investors has already ponied up about $20 million to back this idea.

Take a look…

Two New Advances Fusing Man and Machine

7 | By Michael A. Robinson

Robots are becoming more human all the time.

I predict that in the near future, robots will be so human-like that it will seem natural for us interact with them. We’ll also see the advent of people who are what I call “bionics” – those who put computer chips or other devices in their brains or bodies.

As I see it, we are fast approaching the day in which man and machine become fused together.

Just in the last few days, researchers reported major breakthroughs that promise to do just that. In a moment, I’ll tell you all about it.

First, remember the new hydrogel we investigated Tuesday – the material that could greatly improve human health and aging by replacing damaged cartilage? Turns out there’s another part of the part of the story we need to know about.

This type of hydrogel could play a vital role in the cutting-edge field of robotics, too.

See, we’re getting very close to the day in which we augment robots with “smart” human tissue. We’ll grow tissue in labs and equip it with onboard electronics made possible by nanotech circuits.

That’s where the hydrogel would come in handy. We won’t just replace damaged cartilage in people. We’ll use that or something like it to link sensor-laden tissue inside robots or in people with organ transplants or artificial limbs.

Just two weeks ago, a research team from MIT and the University of Pennsylvania said they had blurred the boundary between biology and machines even further. They genetically engineered skeletal muscles for robots that work by responding to light.

This is just amazing…

This Tough Gel Could Replace Human Cartilage (and It’s Self-Healing)

5 | By Michael A. Robinson

A team of researchers at Harvard University just reported a fantastic new medical breakthrough – in the form of a hydrogel.

The compound is made mostly of water, but it’s almost unbelievably tough, strong, and resilient. It can stretch to more than 20 times its original length. Not only that, but it can actually heal itself, too. Given time to relax between stretches, the bonds in the compound are able to “re-zip,” self-repairing any cuts or breaks.

Think about the major impact this could have on medicine.

As some experts quickly pointed out, the new gel could be used to engineer human tissue. No doubt, that would be huge. We could someday use a version for skin grafts for burn victims, or to grow tissue for other needs, like organ transplants.

But I’m more excited about a much more immediate use for the hydrogel – one that could benefit the nearly 30 million Americans who suffer from osteoarthritis.

This is a painful condition in which cartilage wears out around the joints such as the knees and elbows. The risk of osteoarthritis onset grows with age, particularly for people over the age of 45.

That’s why so many seniors have bad knees, elbows, or shoulders that are stiff and seem to hurt all time. Many take pain relievers every day, but even the strongest over-the-counter drugs can’t get rid of all the pain all the time. And it’s not just seniors who hurt – torn cartilage is a leading form of sports injury across all age groups.

Right now there is no cure. Finding one could save the country a small fortune. Experts estimate that osteoarthritis costs us more than $186 billion a year in medical care, drugs, and lost wages. We’re talking about nearly $2 trillion a decade – and that’s just here in the U.S.

Not only that, but this is clearly a growth market. The “graying of America” promises to greatly increase the number of these arthritis cases.

As I see it, in the very near future, doctors will be able to go in and actually remove the bad or torn cartilage that’s causing you pain. They’ll replace it with a hydrogel that is much stronger and more resilient than the original organic substance with which you were born.

In the Era of Radical Change, we will continue to see a steady stream of advances like this – breakthroughs that will help us live longer and healthier lives.

Hey, longevity is good. But quality of life is vital. What’s the point of living to 100 if your knees hurt so bad you can barely walk? Or your shoulder floods with you so much pain you can’t pick up your grandkids? But this new compound promises to change all that. It could even help a century-old man take up long-distance running again…

No doubt there will be plenty of opportunity for smart companies and their investors to become filthy rich in the process.

But just getting rid of a painful condition that afflicts hundreds of millions of people around the world ranks as a major “win” in my book.

Let’s take a look at how the team at Harvard did it…

Let’s Take a Look at Your Mobile Wave Comments

0 | By Michael A. Robinson

Talk about striking a chord…

My recent three-part series on how quickly the mobile computing wave is changing the world around us was a hit. It got dozens of “likes” and shares and drew responses from more than 60 Era readers. Quite a few of you voiced some strong opinions and excellent ideas.

Given both the quantity and high caliber of feedback, I want to address some of your questions and comments today.

But first, I hope you will recall that for this series, I drew heavily on my chat with Michael Saylor, author of the new bestseller “The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything.

Now, several of you expressed strong concerns about mobile security (the focus of Part 3 in the series). I’m going to use a comment from Gordan F. as an example:

“Good article. But what happens when someone has a gun to your head and quietly says “Draw out some cash please.’ Do you argue with the drug induced maniac? Or will the technology beat the crap out of the moron? You have no means to complain when you are dead with a bullet in the head, while the killer uses your finger print, eye recognition, etc. Don’t think so? There is no such thing as foolproof security, and what happens when the battery goes flat?”

Gordan, no, there is no foolproof security. That’s true. Having said that, street crime is really a very different level of threat. Most stolen phones get sold on the street pretty quickly for petty cash.

The kind of security Saylor was referring to involves turning the phone into a useless brick if it does get stolen. And also tracking the thieves who run away with it.

Take the recent burglary of $60,000 worth of goods, including computers, from the home of the late Steve Jobs. Police caught the thief after he turned on some of Jobs’ computers. An automatic alert went out to Apple and to local police. I see that type of alert becoming embedded in a huge number of phones, tablets, and PCs.

Also, as regards a gun to the head, that is a scary scenario, no doubt. But it might be similar to the alarm in my home. I have a special code I can press that will turn off the alarm, so the intruder thinks I’ve complied, but it also sends a panic alert to the company, which in turns sends out cops – who are told to approach with guns drawn.

Next up is a reader who identified himself as Anonymole…

August Fascinations of the Month

16 | By Michael A. Robinson

Can you imagine the home of the future?

It now appears that crews will be able to “print” out your home… in a single day… and hey, on Mars, no less, if that’s where you want to go.

See, NASA is now funding a project in the fast-growing field of 3D printers. These are devices that take blueprints and turn them into real objects. The “printer” has a nozzle that spits out special polymers. Once you add a binding agent, you can create everything from replica car parts to human jaws.

Back in March I wrote about these “desktop factories” for our sister publication Money Morning. I predicted that, by the end of this decade, everyone from consumers to big businesses to solo inventors will be able to make their own unique products in just a couple of hours. (You can read that article right here.)

Now, with funding from NASA, USC engineering professor Behrokh Khoshnevis has devised a process he calls “contour crafting.” The prof says the printed home of the future will have it all – wiring, plumbing, and air conditioning. He says this field has the “potential to build safe, reliable, and affordable lunar and Martian structures, habitats, laboratories, and other facilities before the arrival of human beings.”

Wow…

Like I keep telling you, this is the Era of Radical Change. Soon, we will be traveling to other planets as a matter of course, as part of the New Space Race. So I wanted to keep you abreast of the latest breakthrough in this field.

And that was far from the only fascinating piece of cutting-edge tech I came across this month.

Take a look…