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      News — science

      Elon Musk’s Secretive Brain Tech Company Debuts a Sophisticated Neural Implant

      Elon Musk’s Secretive Brain Tech Company Debuts a Sophisticated Neural Implant

      Neuralink says it can robotically implant more than 3,000 flexible-polymer electrodes in a rat or monkey brain. The device is still a long way from routine human use, however

      Late on Tuesday evening, Elon Musk, the charismatic and eccentric CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, took to the stage at the California Academy of Sciences to make a big announcement. This time, he was not unveiling a new rocket or electric car but a system for recording the activity of thousands of neurons in the brain. With typical panache, Musk talked about putting this technology into a human brain by as early as next year.

      The work is the product of Neuralink, a company Musk founded in 2016 to develop a high-bandwidth, implantable brain-computer interface (BCI). He says the initial goal is to enable people with quadriplegia to control a computer or smartphone using just their thoughts. But Musk’s vision is much more ambitious than that: he seeks to enable humans to “merge” with AI, giving people superhuman intelligence—an objective that is much more hype than an actual plan for new technology development.

      Neuralink prototype device. Credit: Neuralink

      On a more practical note, “the goal is to record from and stimulate [signals called] spikes in neurons” with an order of magnitude more bandwidth than what has been done to date and to have it be safe, Musk said at Tuesday’s event, which was livestreamed.

      The system unveiled last night was a long way from Musk’s sci-fi vision. But it was nonetheless marked an impressive technical development. The team says it has now developed arrays with a very large number of “channels”—up to 3,072 flexible electrodes—which can be implanted in the brain’s outer layer, or cortex, using a surgical robot (a version of which was described as a “sewing machine” in a preprint paper posted on bioRxiv earlier this year). The electrodes are packaged in a small, implantable device containing custom-built integrated circuits, which connects to a USB port outside the brain (the team hopes to ultimately make the port wireless). Neuralink also intends to have the electrodes write signals back into the brain to provide sensory feedback in the form of touch or of visual stimulation of the retina in a blind person.* The company reported some initial results of its neural interface in rats in a white paper it made public, and it is currently doing experiments in monkeys at the University of California, Davis. None of this research has been peer-reviewed.

      “More work in this area is great, and I think it’s fantastic that they’re giving this attention,” says Ken Shepard, a professor of electrical and biomedical engineering at Columbia University, who is part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative to develop a flexible, implantable wireless chip that uses electrodes on the surface of the brain to record up to a million neurons. Neuralink is focused on three themes that will be important to any future brain-computer interface technology, Shepard says: flexible materials for the electrodes, miniaturization of the electronics with integrated circuit technology and fully wireless interaction with outside devices. “They have made significant progress in the first two,” he says. But he adds that the challenges are going to be shrinking the electrical connections between the integrated circuits and the probes and incorporating many more electrodes without significantly increasing the size of the device. “The other big challenge is regulatory,” he says, noting the use of penetrating electrodes of this scale in humans is going to face significant hurdles from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

      Neuralink surgical robot. Credit: Neuralink

      One of the big problems with existing electrodes is that they can damage vasculature when the brain moves as it does with each breath and heartbeat. The new device aims to get around this problem by using a small but rigid needle that inserts the flexible, polymer-based electrode “threads”—each a tenth the width of a human hair—into the cortex, taking care to avoid veins or arteries on the way in.

      Perhaps the gold standard in neural recording for BCI research is the Utah Array, which consists of a rigid grid of up to 128 electrode channels. This array has been successfully used in a number of BCIs, including the BrainGate device developed by researchers at Brown University and their colleagues. But it also causes a tissue response that can lead to scarring of tissue composed of glia (the brain’s support cells), which may interfere with the quality of recorded signals or cause damage to brain cells. Another successful design is the Neuropixel, a probe developed by researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and their colleagues that consists of nearly 1,000 recording sites on a single tip, or shank, which can record from more than 500 neurons in the brains of mice. Developing tools for such high-density neural recording was one of the goals of the Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative.

      Leigh Hochberg, a professor at Brown University and one of the leaders of the BrainGate team, calls the Neuralink system “a novel and exciting” neurotechnology. “Given the great potential that intracortical brain-computer interfaces have to restore neurologic function for people with spinal cord injury, stroke, [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis], traumatic brain injury, or other diseases or injuries of the nervous system, I’m excited to see how [the company will] be translating [its] system toward initial clinical studies,” adds Hochberg, who is also a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Providence VA Medical Center.

      Neuralink claims its system can record from about 1,500 or 3,000 electrodes, depending on the version of the device being tested. The company asserts that because its electrodes are much thinner and more flexible, they are less likely to cause tissue damage. At the event, Musk said the reason for going with an invasive BCI—rather than one that detects neural signals outside the brain, such as electroencephalography—is that the company wants to record signals from individual neurons. “Everything we see, perceive or think are action potentials, or spikes,” he said. Musk noted that the ultimate goal is to make Neuralink’s device available to anyone, not just those with serious neurological illnesses, and to have it implanted in a minimally invasive procedure akin to LASIK eye surgery—though experts say such an achievement is a long way off.

      The company hopes to begin its first human trial next year, the team said last night. This is an extremely ambitious target, given it still needs to obtain the necessary approval from the FDA, however.

      Others in the field were gratified to get some transparency from a company that has shrouded itself in secrecy over the past few years. “Everyone is really appreciative that Elon has thrown his weight behind BCIs and brought visibility to the field,” says Matt Angle, founder and CEO of Paradromics—a firm that is also developing high-data-rate brain-computer interfaces—who is also part of the DARPA project. Angle is not as surprised by the technical developments, saying the achievements build on previous work by Neuralink senior scientist Philip “Flip” Sabes and bioengineer Timothy Hanson while they were both at the University of California, San Francisco. He notes that a challenge of such polymer-based electrodes is that they do not last as long as other inorganic materials when subjected to harsh conditions of the body. But he thinks Neuralink’s microfabrication expert Vanessa Tolosa and her team have made some impressive progress in materials science. Overall, Angle says, “I saw the most significant part of the announcement being [a willingness to] open up and engage with the community.”


      How is it that in space, despite the Sun's presence, the surroundings look black? Apollo photos show a black sky, even with strong sunlight on the surface.

      How is it that in space, despite the Sun's presence, the surroundings look black? Apollo photos show a black sky, even with strong sunlight on the surface.

      The answer to this question can be summed up in two words: no atmosphere.

      Planetary atmospheres cause bright light to scatter. Atoms, molecules, and dust interact with photons, causing them to diffuse through increasingly dense layers as they near a body’s surface. On Earth, our atmosphere preferentially scatters blue light, so the daytime sky appears blue. And although Mars has an atmosphere that is some 100 times thinner than our planet’s, there’s still enough of it to cause the sky to appear a deep grayish blue, and if martian dust is whipped up by the tenuous surface winds, the sky turns a salmon pink.

      On the Moon, there is no atmosphere, so there’s nothing to scatter photons, even from a brilliant source like the Sun. In fact, if you could find a deep enough shadow that shields your eyes from direct sunlight as well as light reflected off the surrounding terrain, you’d be able to see the stars!

      There’s another factor that plays into images taken by the Apollo astronauts from the Moon’s surface, and that is the limited dynamic range of the film used to record their surface activities. The sunlight is so overwhelmingly bright that, in order to record highlights, the shadows and sky had to be heavily underexposed.

      Geoff Chester
      U.S. Naval Observatory
      Washington, D.C

      Scientists discovered a mushroom that eats plastic, and believe it could clean our landfills.

      Scientists discovered a mushroom that eats plastic, and believe it could clean our landfills.

      Plastic waste is one of the biggest environmental issues of our time. And while a straw ban is not the way we're going to solve it — here's why – people everywhere are looking for ways to reduce plastic use and mitigate the effects of waste.

      From handing out plastic bags with embarrassing labels to removing the plastic from six-packs to harnessing the power of a plastic-eating mutant (bacteria), more and more of us are working to find solutions to a growing global program.

      Add one more strange and awesome plastic-killing discover to the list: A rare mushroom that feasts on plastic the same way you or I would when we go to that $5 buffet at Cici's. (I have been only once and I'm still thinking about it, even though just the thoughts are bad for my blood pressure.)

      According to reports, the mushroom's plastic-devouring properties were first discovered in 2011, when a team of Yale undergraduates and their professor traveled to Ecuador for a research trip. They found the mushroom — Pestalotiopsis microspora — in the amazon and were astounded to find that the fungus not only subsists on polyurethane (it's the first plant to sustain itself only on plastic), but could do so without oxygen.

      That means it could be planted at the bottom of landfills and happily eat its fill of plastic for eons to come! (Just like us at Cici's pizza!)

      Despite our best efforts at increasing conservation and reducing waste, the U.S. continues to produce more plastic waste each year, while other recent studies suggest that recycling of plastic waste is actually declining.

      The amount of plastic waste that we're producing is estimated to rise 3.8% each year, with an estimated 40 million tons of plastic waste expected to be generated in 2019 alone by American companies and consumers. National Geographic says that over the past 60 years, we've created an estimated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste. An astonishing 83.7% of that waste is expected to end up in landfills. Anything we can do to put a dent into the damage we're creating could make a world of difference for us and the planet.

      Will these mushrooms be the end to our plastic problems? More research is needed to tell. Until then, we can all help keep landfills cleaner by avoiding single-use plastics in our lives. 

      This wild golden chamber contains water so pure it can dissolve metal, and is helping scientists detect dying stars

      This wild golden chamber contains water so pure it can dissolve metal, and is helping scientists detect dying stars

      Hidden 1,000 metres under Mount Ikeno in Japan is a place that looks like a supervillain's dream.

      Super-Kamiokande (or "Super-K" as it's sometimes referred to) is a neutrino detector. Neutrinos are sub-atomic particles which travel through space and pass through solid matter as though it were air.

      Studying these particles is helping scientists detect dying stars and learn more about the universe. Business Insider spoke to three scientists about how the giant gold chamber works — and the dangers of conducting experiments inside it.

      Seeing the sub-atomic world

      Neutrinos can be very hard to detect, so much so that Neil deGrasse Tyson dubbed them "the most elusive prey in the cosmos." In this video, he explains that the detection chamber is buried deep within the earth to stop other particles from getting in.

      "Matter poses no obstacle to a neutrino," he says. "A neutrino could pass through a hundred light-years of steel without even slowing down."

      But why catch them at all?

      "If there's a supernova, a star that collapses into itself and turns into a black hole," Dr Yoshi Uchida of Imperial College London told Business Insider. "If that happens in our galaxy, something like Super-K is one of the very few objects that can see the neutrinos from it."

      Before a star starts to collapse it shoots out neutrinos, so Super-K acts as a sort of early-warning system, telling us when to look out for these dazzling cosmic events.

      Crab Nebula
      The Crab Nebula is the result of a supernova explosion observed in 1054.
       NASA, ESA, G. Dubner (IAFE, CONICET-University of Buenos Aires) et al.; A. Loll et al.; T. Temim et al.; F. Seward et al.; VLA/NRAO/AUI/NSF; Chandra/CXC; Spitzer/JPL-Caltech; XMM-Newton/ESA; and Hubble/STScI

      "The back-of-the-envelope calculations say it's going to be about once every 30 years that a supernova explodes in the sort of range that our detectors can see," said Dr Uchida. "If you miss one you're going to have to wait another few decades on average to see the next one."

      Firing neutrinos through Japan

      Super-K doesn't just catch neutrinos raining down from space.

      Situated on the opposite side of Japan in Tokai, the T2K experimentfires a neutrino beam 295 km through the Earth to be picked up in Super-K on the west side of the country.

      Studying the way the neutrinos change (or "oscillate") as they pass through matter may tell us more about the origins of the universe, for example, the relationship between matter and anti-matter.

      Inside Super-Kamiokande
      Looking at the top of Super-Kamiokande.
       Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research), The University of Tokyo

      "Our big bang models predict that matter and anti-matter should have been created in equal parts," Dr Morgan Wascko of Imperial College told Business Insider, "but now [most of] the anti-matter has disappeared through one way or another." Studying neutrinos might be one way of figuring out how this came to be.

      How Super-K catches neutrinos

      Buried 1,000 metres underground, Super-Kamiokande is as big as a 15-storey building, and looks a little something like this.

      Super-Kamiokande diagram
      A diagram of Super-Kamiokande.
       Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research), The University of Tokyo

      The enormous tank is filled with 50,000 tonnes of ultra-pure water. This is because when travelling through water, neutrinos are faster than light. So when a neutrino travels through water, "it will produce light in the same way that Concord used to produce sonic booms," said Dr Uchida.

      "If an aeroplane is going very fast, faster than the speed of sound, then it'll produce sound — a big shockwave — in a way a slower object doesn't. In the same way a particle passing through water, if it's going faster than the speed of light in water, can also produce a shockwave of light."

      The chamber is lined with 11,000 golden-coloured bulbs. These are incredibly sensitive light-detectors called Photo Multiplier Tubes (PMTs) which can pick up these shockwaves. Here's one close up:


      A post shared by Kim Nielsen (@knielsen73)

      Dr Wascko describes them as "the inverse of a lightbulb." Simply put, they can detect even minuscule amounts of light and convert it into an electrical current, which can then be observed.

      Terrifyingly pure water

      In order for the light from these shockwaves to reach the sensors, the water has to be cleaner than you can possibly imagine. Super-K is constantly filtering and re-purifying it, and even blasts it with UV light to kill off any bacteria.

      Which actually makes it pretty creepy.

      "Water that's ultra-pure is waiting to dissolve stuff into it," said Dr Uchida. "Pure water is very, very nasty stuff. It has the features of an acid and an alkaline."

      "If you went for a soak in this ultra-pure Super-K water you would get quite a bit of exfoliation," said Dr Wascko. "Whether you want it or not."

      When Super-K needs maintenance, researchers need to go out on rubber dinghies to fix and replace the sensors.

      Super K dingy lowered
      A dinghy is lowered into the detector.
       Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research),The University of Tokyo
      Super K maintenance
      From the dinghies, scientists can inspect the PMTs.
       Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research),The University of Tokyo
      Super K dinghies
      Gradually the water-level is lowered so the researchers can get to each domed PMT in turn.
       Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research),The University of Tokyo
      Super K PMT
      Here researchers replace a PMT.
       Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research),The University of Tokyo
      Super K cross section
      A cross-section photograph of the tank after it's been totally drained for refurbishment gives some sense of scope.
       Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research),The University of Tokyo

      Dr Matthew Malek, of the University of Sheffield, and two others were doing maintenance from a dinghy back when he was a PhD student.

      At the end of the day's work, the gondola that normally takes the physicists in and out of the tank was broken, so he and two others had to sit tight for a while. They kicked back in their boats, shooting the breeze.

      "What I didn't realise, as we were laying back in these boats and talking is that a little bit of my hair, probably no more than three centimeters, was dipped in the water," Malek told Business Insider.

      As they were draining the water out of Super-K at the time, Malek didn't worry about contaminating it. But when he awoke at 3 a.m. the next morning, he had an awful realisation.

      "I got up at 3 o'clock in the morning with the itchiest scalp I have ever had in my entire life," he said. "Itchier than having chickenpox as a child. It was so itchy I just couldn't sleep."

      Super K gondola
      The water in Super-K has some disconcerting qualities.
       Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research),The University of Tokyo

      He realised that the water had leeched his hair's nutrients out through the tips, and that this nutrient deficiency had worked its way up to his scalp. He quickly jumped in the shower and spent half an hour vigorously conditioning his hair.

      Another tale comes from Dr Wascko, who heard that in 2000 when the tank had been fully drained, researchers found the outline of a wrench at the bottom of it. "Apparently somebody had left a wrench there when they filled it in 1995," he said. "When they drained it in 2000 the wrench had dissolved."

      Super-K 2.0

      Super-Kamiokande may be massive, but Dr Wascko told Business Insider that a yet bigger neutrino detector called "Hyper-Kamiokande" has been proposed.

      "We're trying to get this Hyper-Kamiokande experiment approved, and that would start running in approximately 2026," he said.

      Hyper-K would be 20 times bigger than Super-K in terms of sheer volume, and with about 99,000 light detectors as opposed to 11,000.


      Science Says People Who Are Always Late Are More Successful and Live Longer

      Science Says People Who Are Always Late Are More Successful and Live Longer

      We all have that friend (or maybe, we are that friend) who is late to every single brunch, baby shower, and school board meeting ever put in the calendar and spend most Sundays slinking into the back pew at church hoping not to draw attention. While Southerners pride themselves on good manners, which includes timeliness, some people simply seem incapable of being on time.

      While it’s certainly a frustrating characteristic both for the people waiting to order lunch until the tardy friend makes their appearance and for the well-intentioned, but perennially late person, turns out there is a silver lining to it. A recent body of scientific work, reveals that the traits that tend to make people late, are the very same traits that can help them live longer and more productive lives.

      Science has shown that stress is incredibly bad for overall health. People who are late typically feel less stressed, unconcerned with deadlines, and generally more relaxed.  That can lead to lower blood pressure, lower risks of heart disease, greater cardiovascular health, lower risk of stroke, and lower chance of depression, all of which can prolong life.

      As Diana DeLonzor wrote in her book, Never Late Again, many late people tend to be both optimistic and unrealistic. That means they truly, deeply believe that they can, say, go for a run, take a shower, stop at the Piggly Wiggly to buy groceries for dinner, pick up the dry cleaning, and still make it on time to pick up the kids from school all in one hour. That is a clearly optimistic schedule, yet many chronically late people truly believe it’s possible, even when proven time and again that it’s not. That level of optimism reaches far beyond an over-planned schedule, though. According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, “Research tells us that an optimistic outlook early in life can predict better health and a lower rate of death during follow-up periods of 15 to 40 years.”

      Optimism can also effect productivity and success. A study among salesmen revealed that optimists sold 88 percent more than their pessimistic colleagues.They performed better because they have a better outlook.

      Similarly, some chronically late people are perfectionists who can’t leave the house until the dishwasher is empty and the laundry is folded, according to Dr. Linda Sapadin, a time management specialist and fellow at the American Psychological Association. That may be frustrating trait in a friend, but is a desirable characteristic in an employee and can lead to more successful career.

      Another reason that a person may end up perpetually tardy is that they are simply engrossed in another activity and lose track of time. Being passionate about a subject can translate to long-term success, which means late people may end up being very successful. Business leaders like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos have all weighed in on the fact that being truly passionate about your work is the secret to success. So the next time someone is late, ask them what they were working on, it may be enlightening.

      Finally, it’s important to understand that for some people, lateness is not entirely their fault, because they may have a completely different sense of time than you. A team of scientists put one minute on the clock and asked two different groups of people with Type A (ambitious, driven) or Type B (relaxed, creative) personalities and asked them to guess how much time had passed. Their study revealed that people with Type A personalities guessed that an average of 58 seconds had passed, while those with Type B personalities thought an average of 77 seconds had passed. That 19 second difference in perception could add up quickly leading someone to be very late to lunch.

      The next time someone is tardy to the party, keep in mind that they may be happier, healthier, and more productive—and then mull that over while you order an extra appetizer to eat while you wait.