MIT Researchers Develop ‘Living Materials’

My friends from down the road at MIT have just announced that they have managed to make bacterial cells produce biofilms that can act as “living materials.”

In the press release that you can read here, the researcher state that they can use the man-made living materials to conduct light or generate energy. Like live cells, the living materials are environmentally responsive, but also have all the traits of non-living particles.

To quote senior author Timothy Lu, an MIT assistant professor of electrical engineering and biological engineering, “Our idea is to put the living and the non-living worlds together to make hybrid materials that have living cells in them and are functional. It’s an interesting way of thinking about materials synthesis, which is very different from what people do now, which is usually a top-down approach.”

Lu said the practical, everyday uses for the research would be self-healing materials, solar cells, diagnostic sensors and more.

The paper was published in the journal Nature Materials.

The researchers used mostly the E. coli bacteria for its naturally produced curli fibers biofilm. Curli fibers are proteins that stick E. coli to various surfaces, which is probably one of the things we don’t generally like about it, but they are useful for the project because they help retain non-living particles.

e-coli

E-coli

The research team also demonstrated how the cells even appeared to communicate with each other, designing living materials that could coordinate the stimulation of each cell to control the composition of the biofilms.

To quote Prof Lu again “It’s a really simple system but what happens over time is you get curli that’s increasingly labelled by gold particles. It shows that indeed you can make cells that talk to each other and they can change the composition of the material over time. Ultimately, we hope to emulate how natural systems, like bone, form. No one tells bone what to do, but it generates a material in response to environmental signals”.

I like the bone analogy. Some months ago I visited another lab here in Cambridge where they use natural animal traits to design applications for science. You can read about my visit to the Karp Laboratory for Advanced Biomaterials and Stem Cell Based Therapeutics here, but the general idea is that researchers mimic the natural world. Lab Director Dr Jeffrey Karp explained that evolution offered incredible examples of innovation that could be used for scientific research today. We were shown examples of how porcupine needles are used to model surgical needles, and how gecko climbing techniques can be applied to medical adhesive design.

I look forward to learning about possible applications.

Facebook Addiction?

Do you ever feel that Facebook has got the better of you? That it has some kind of force that draws you in every time you go near your computer? Well if so you should know that you are not alone.

Two researchers here at MIT have conducted some experiments to see if they could halt their addiction in its tracks. The researchers put some code into their machines that monitors the sites they visit through their browser. When they visit Facebook too often an electric shock is sent through a peripheral device to their keyboard, and they get a jolt.

Now if you have ever spent any time with cows you will know that they respect electric fences because they hurt, and the researchers think that this system might deter them from too much use. They call it Pavlov’s Poke.

And surely enough after a few shocks the boys used Facebook a little less.

Thumbs down.

Thumbs down to Facebook overuse.

There is also the story of a young man who hired a woman through our local newspaper to help him avoid Internet distraction. She sat next to him in his office and slapped him in the face when he lost the thread of his searches. Probably a little cumbersome as a solution though, not to mention pricey. Read the story here.

So the boys came up with an automated version that posts a job request through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service when the quota is reached. The job requires a person to call and abuse you reading from a script, simple and a much better use of human resources I would think.

And we might really be talking about addiction here. A study cited in Forbes by the University of Chicago claims that Facebook is more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol, with the average user spending 400 minutes a month on the site.

Another report from the University of Utah shows that people who use Facebook a lot are led to believe that other people’s lives are better than theirs.

This is an easy conclusion to come to when you look at photos of your friends (and people you don’t really know or never really speak to face to face) while they are on holiday, having fun in clubs, meeting new people and going to music festivals, while you are sitting at home in front of your computer feeling miserable. Photos of arguing with your partner or the kids waking up at 4 in the morning are rarer.

Researchers at the University of Michigan came to the same conclusion. Read their report in full here. This is a brand new piece of research.

The truth is that these social media sites are designed to be both addictive and necessary. They make you feel better in some ways, people of course like you, but they distort views of real life and can lead to distraction and unhappiness.

They make money by selling, so they need as many online presences as they can get and for as long and often as possible. They are (as they openly admit) marketplaces, designed to sell access to their users for publicity purposes. They are not apolitical and have goals, and their success makes or breaks their share price.

On a personal note I recently applied for a job in the USA as a freelance journalist. Although I have lots of experience, good qualifications and a measurable reader base, I got no further than the application form. The employers wanted details of my social network, Facebook, Google plus etc, not my writing.

I had nothing to offer them.

The Third Industrial Revolution

Recently there has been a lot of talk about a third industrial revolution in the making. It is of course that involving 3D printing. Take a look at the other articles on the website for an overview.

The thing about these machines is that they can produce individual tailor made objects at low cost, something that was not really possible in the days of mass production, when multiples were cheap but individual one off projects very expensive.

It is a contentious technology though for several reason, the first being its versatility. A few months ago we had the first fully printed gun, the plans were put online for free before being removed but only after more than 100 000 people downloaded them.100 000 more unlicensed guns in the world possibly. Check out this article.

Another reason is that these machines will completely change manufacturing. The old days of heavy machinery in production lines might be numbered, and this means that the power and financial strength that the organizations that have control of these systems currently posess is about to be lost.

So where should somewhere like MIT here in Cambridge MA stand? They have to support new technology, it is their job, but in doing so they might be undermining their own foundations, rooted as they are in large scale US industry.

3D Printed Prosthetic Hand

3D Printed Prosthetic Hand

As well as the printable gun though there are obviously a million good uses for this technology. Two weeks ago I mentioned an engineering company that is testing an aeroplane engine that uses printed parts, and in case of dire need you can now print a prosthetic hand for about $150 through an open source website. Read the article here.

Last week the Bassetti Foundation sponsored a series of events in San Francisco based around these problems. One of the main speakers was Chris Anderson, ex editor of Wired magazine and author of the book Makers, he is a leader in thinking on these matters. There is plenty of information on the website for interested readers, including videos of the symposium about the political and social implications of a move towards 3D printed manufacture.

3D Printed Motorbike

3D Printed Motorbike

Check out the photos too, here is a printed motorbike. They can produce far more than you imagine.

Hackathon Season is Upon Us

The use of the term hacker used to be derogatory, conjuring up images of someone cackling like a Witch, hunched over a computer as they steal some poor unsuspecting fool’s bank details. This is changing though, and the present use of the word is much broader and less critical.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about Aaron Swartz, and many see him as “a hacker for good”. He was greatly revered and respected in the Internet world and considered a programming genius by many.

Also today many Internet companies offer prizes to hackers who can break their security systems, so that they can then repair the weaknesses, all done more or less in secrecy obviously.

Here last week in Cambridge Massachusetts MIT held a Hackathon. The prize for the best “hack” was $1500 dollars, with plenty of runner’s up prizes too. And it is sponsored by Techfair, who organize a large business fair.

People from tech companies are invited to the hackathon to meet the ‘contestants’. It is in fact a job fair too, but as the website says don’t bring a CV, we just watch to see what you can do. There are tech talks and mini lectures, all above board as you can see from the website here.

A Hackathon

Inside a Hackathon

And this 20 hour marathon is neither the only nor the biggest hackathon in the USA. In January the Foursquare hackathon took place in New York City. The website has a link to all of the submitted hacks, and they are possibly nothing like you imagine. They are websites that can tell you how long you might have to wait in a certain restaurant, tell you NASDAQ values or help you influence the choice in music played around you, and that is to name just a few.

All this is organized with the help of Hacker League, as they say on the website you can “trust Hacker League to handle hackathon planning and organization” because they “power Hackathons”.

The biggest is in Pensylvania and is called PennApps (presumably after the University). Their January event attracted more than 450 students from 40 universities from all over the world, their prize being $4000 and a visit to Google HQ to demonstrate their work.

So the use of the word “hack” has clearly taken on a different meaning.

As many of you might know my work at the Bassetti Foundation is all about responsible innovation.  If we take case 1, writing code to steal bank details or destroy somebody’s reputation by getting into their email account, we might see this as irresponsible. But case 2, improving security, breeding entrepreneurs and innovation using the same skills and through the same actions by the same people, might be seen as much more responsible and in fact is promoted by organizations, businesses and universities.

It doesn’t look much like hacking to me though.