The Biggest Tech Breakthroughs of the Month

6 | By Michael A. Robinson

Of all the concerts I went to in my younger days, a Ramones performance I attended at the historic Fillmore auditorium more than 20 years ago is the one I remember the best.

I remember it so well because I couldn’t hear for three days.

As a musician, the experience gave me an indescribable scare; though I attended more concerts, I’d learned my lesson and promised to never let that happen again.

But others haven’t been so lucky.

Two decades later, volume-related hearing loss is one of the few bridges spanning the so-called “digital divide” – the gulf that separates Baby Boomers like me from the smartphone-savvy Millennials that are half our age. For older adults, too much loud music at rock concerts is a common cause. For our younger “Generation Y” counterparts, it’s the “ear-bud” headphones that blast music from iPods or other mobile devices.

But the millions of Americans who currently suffer from hearing loss may finally have hope … thanks to new “ear drops.”

In a recent research project, a drug applied to the ears of mice restored at least some of their hearing. For the study at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, researchers used loud noises to deafen the mice.

They then applied a drug that allows crucial inner ear “hair cells” to regrow, reversing hearing loss.

Although there still is no universal “cure” for hearing loss, I believe this breakthrough shows that we are on a path that will deliver one in the very near future.

This is just what we look for in the Era of Radical Change … the kind of science that helps us all live healthier lives lets us live happier lives – and eventually richer ones, too. You can bet that when a drug firm gets a product like this to market, investors will make huge profits on the stock.

This wasn’t the only fascinating advance that I’m sharing with you this month.

Just take a look:

An Artificial Gel That Acts “Alive”

Back in November, I demonstrated how a breakthrough synthetic skin will help usher in the age of bionics.

Now, the University of Pittsburgh has created a synthetic gel that behaves as if it were actually alive. This new, self-propelled material can even mimic the primitive communication found in simple life forms.

“This study demonstrates the ability of a synthetic material to actually “talk to itself’ and follow out a given action or command, similar to such biological species as amoeba and termites,” said team leader Anna Balazs.

“Imagine a LEGO set that could by itself unsnap its parts and then put itself back together again in different shapes but also allow you to control those shapes through chemical reaction and light.”

They haven’t said why, but two branches of the Pentagon helped fund the study…

Flexible “Nano-Circuits” Now Much Thinner Than Paper

They are 10,000 times thinner than paper. They could become a tablet computer you fold up and put in your pocket. And they could be put inside your clothes to monitor your vital signs.

A team at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center of International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM) has developed what are thought to be the world’s most flexible electronic circuits at the nano scale. As such, they could have a virtually endless number of applications.

Team members pulled the razor-thin material off a silicon wafer and placed it on a piece of plastic – a process that itself was an “industry first.”

Turns out it’s easy to transfer these circuits at just about any size. They are highly flexible and can be made into almost any shape you can imagine.

“In certain applications such as space satellites and portable consumer electronics, weight of onboard devices is the key factor,” explained team member said Stephen Bedell. “Thin flexible circuits are so light that a large number of these circuits can be stacked to provide unprecedented computing power.”

“Magic Carpet” Helps Keep Seniors From Falling

There probably isn’t an aging U.S. Baby Boomer alive today who doesn’t remember two things … the iconic 1960s hit song “Magic Carpet Ride” from rock band Steppenwolf … and that cliché “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercial depicting the plight of a fictional senior citizen named “Mrs. Fletcher.”

Now, a U.K. research team has developed what it calls a “magic carpet” that will keep future Mrs. Fletchers from falling in the first place. The team at the University of Manchester made the prototype carpet by embedding it with plastic optical fibers. The researchers also equipped it with tiny electronic sensors.

These sensors can detect subtle nuances in pressure caused by someone who has changed the way they walk. It maps these patterns in real time, since that change in gait may signal an impending fall – and result in injuries from which some seniors never recover.

The carpet is connected to a computer system and is designed for use in assisted-living facilities where fall-related injuries are common, team members said. Experts say falling is the most serious and frequent accident in the home and accounts for 50% of hospital admissions in the over-65 age group.

Sensors Track Posture, Eating Habits, Excessive Drinking

Of course, that was far from the only piece of cutting-edge tech that featured sensor breakthroughs that I’m bringing to you this month.

Speaking as someone with lifelong back problem, the one I think could have the biggest impact is a system that monitors your posture. The LUMOback device sells for $149.

It features a waistband that rests against your lower back. It vibrates when you fail to keep your back straight while sitting. There’s even a mobile app.

For those worried about their weight, there’s high-tech fork that measures how quickly you eat. The idea is to make people eat more slowly, since research shows it takes about 20 minutes for people to feel full.

Enter the http HAPIfork from French firm HAPIlabs. Pricing the electronic fork at $99 each, the firm hopes to begin shipping by May. It warns you with a vibration and a blinking light. Between meals, you can upload data from the fork to a computer or smartphone for better long-term tracking.

Meantime, LED ice cubes that glow are designed to keep partygoers from taking in too much booze. This invention is the brainchild of MIT graduate student Dhairya Dand who got too drunk, blacked out and woke up in the hospital.

The “smart cubes” change from green to orange to red, letting users know when to slow down. Each cube is molded into a waterproof jelly that protects the circuitry that Dand says won’t compromise the drink’s taste.

I hope you enjoyed this month’s fascinations. And remember to share what’s fascinating you either by leaving a comment below or writing to me at

6 Responses to The Biggest Tech Breakthroughs of the Month

  1. Bill Costello says:

    Michael sorry to have to tell you that you look just like my extreme nutcase next door neighbor. Don’t take that to heart though….looks aren’t everything. I always read your emails and appreciate them very much. Keep up the great work and thanks…..bc

  2. sorab mistry says:

    i have truly been enlightened by your articles . i can be kept up to date with new stuff easily by just reading your updates. many congratulations and thanks .

  3. CHRISTINE says:

    Before all this techie stuff there was whole-some f o o d; and, it always will be the answer. Nutrition isn’t what it used to be in our diet-fare , to-day so-0 we must learn how to supplement what the body can use/ don’t add more junk to our DNA.

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