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December 22, 2011

Top Ten Innovations of 2011

As the year draws to a close, it is time to look back at the ten most important technological achievements of the year.  There were many worthy of consideration, but the list according to  33rd Square is...

10.  Stratolaunch Launch Aircraft

It may go down in history as the next Spruce Goose, but for now the exciting aircraft developed by space pioneer, Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen through the company Stratolaunch Systems represents a new, low-cost method for achieving low-earth orbit, and may help usher in an era of space tourism.

It will use six 747 engines, have a gross weight of more than 1.2 million lb/544 metric tons and a wingspan of more than 380 ft/116m. For takeoff and landing, it will require a runway 12,000 ft/3,658m long. Systems onboard the launch aircraft will conduct the countdown and firing of the booster and will monitor the health of the orbital payload.

The plane will be built in a Stratolaunch hangar, which will soon be under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port. It will be near where Scaled Composites built SpaceShipOne, which won Allen and Scaled Composites the $10-million Ansari X Prize in 2004 after three successful sub-orbital flights.

9. Print Brush

If any sufficiently advanced technology appears as magic, The Print Brush certainly may apply.  The handheld PrintBrush prints 4x6 images onto nearly any material, be it wood, fabric or paper. Users hold the 8.8-ounce device over the surface and slowly swipe it back and forth, while sensors on the bottom reflect infrared beams off the surface. A processor uses the infrared data to determine the speed and direction of the nozzle movement and to keep track of which pixels have already been printed so that each dot lands in the right spot.

8. Stem Cells from Fat 

Instead of throwing it out, fat that’s vacuumed out during liposuction could be transformed into heart cells to compensate for dying tissue. Fat contains stem cells that can be turned into heart muscle in a lab dish, and now researchers have developed a method for extracting stem cells from a liposuction sample.

An interdisciplinary team of Queen's University researchers led by Dr. Lauren Flynn, a professor in the Departments of Chemical Engineering and Anatomy and Cell Biology, has been working with stem cells extracted from samples of human fat and is developing new methods in the lab to develop these cells into mature tissue substitutes.

7. iPhone 4S / Siri

OK, so it wasn't the iPhone 5, and it is still in the same outer industrial design as its predecessor, however the iPhone 4S still captured the imagination and wallets of the world when it was released this Fall.  Is this the best iPhone yet? Yes, of course it is. The iPhone 4S takes the previous king, gives it some more pep and adds on a better camera to boot, all without really gaining any extra weight. The iPad2 was also released in 2011, but the innovation of Siri bumps the iPhone 4S as Apple's product on our list.
Siri, the voice-activated "assistant" on-board the 4S, represents the first large scale deployment of such technology.  Apple is clearly using the 4S as s test-bed for Siri and will spin this off to future devices.  Other companies are already using Siri as a platform, like the IRIS 9000 from ThinkGeek.

6. Boston Dynamics PETMAN

When  the team at Boston Dynamics unveiled the buzzing Big Dog in 2010, we knew to expect big things from them.  Now, with PETMAN, they are are using their approach on a humanoid robot.

PETMAN is Boston Dynamics’ test dummy – Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin – for the military. No, they’re not creating an army of Terminators to replace our troops, but using it to test chemical protection suits for soldiers – at least that’s what’s being widely reported. I couldn’t find the specific DARPA program, and while Boston Dynamics says PETMAN will perform “suit-stressing calisthenics during exposure to chemical warfare agents,” one has to wonder if there are bigger plans for the robot than a chemical bath. Part of a $26.3M program, the advances gleaned from PETMAN could benefit DARPA’s RE-NET program that’s developing neural interfaces for prosthetics.

5.  Lytro Light-Field Camera

“Light-field” technology, is where a sensor captures not only the color and intensity of a scene, but also the lighting’s directional components (call it “3D light sampling”). According to Lytro, “Unlike a conventional camera that captures light in just two dimensions, the Lytro camera captures the entire light field, which is all the light traveling in every direction in every point in space.” By sampling light in three dimensions and adding a computational element, you can do all sorts of things with the image in post-processing. Like “synthetic aperture photography,” which lets you fiddle with the focus along multiple planes within a picture, “refocusing” the digitally captured image accurately after you’ve snapped it.
Try out the sample image below:

4. Self-healing electronic chips
In what initially has been targeted for space travel applications, self-repairing chips, could eventually lead to  more sustainable consumer electronic devices. University of Illinois professors Nancy Sottos, Scott White and Jeffrey Moore applied their experience in self-healing polymers to electrical systems, developing technology that could extend the longevity of electronic devices and batteries.


3. IBM's Watson wins on Jeopardy!

"I for one, welcome our new computer overlords," wrote Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, as he gave his final answer. The new digital champ is Watson, a supercomputer designed by IBM to play Jeopardy!, a US quiz game famous for its strangely worded clues. Watson polished off two human contestants - former winners Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings - on February 16th in the final of three televised episodes.

The 200 or so engineers who watched the game in an auditorium at the University of California, Berkeley, didn't seem too concerned by humanity's defeat. Quite the opposite: a show of hands before the game revealed that around three-quarters of the audience were rooting for Watson. "It's fun to see a computer beat a human," said one student, who went on to reminisce about watching Deep Blue, another IBM creation, defeat world chess champ Garry Kasparov in 1997.

What is next for Watson?  The system is to be implemented as a sort-of medical assistant service, providing aid to doctors and medical practitioners.

2. Nanorobotics
Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory
Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory have designed and developed self-assembled "micro-robots."  The robots, just half a millimetre wide, are composed of microparticles. Confined between two liquids, they assemble themselves into star shapes when an alternating magnetic field is applied. People can control the robots' movement and even make them pick up, transport and put down other non-magnetic particles—potentially enabling fabrication of precisely designed functional materials in ways not currently possible.

The main significance of this discovery is the remarkable accuracy and delicacy that these magnetic controls can provide. If you watch the videos embedded below, you can see these micro-robots being used to ferry tiny objects around, either by “cupping” the object or by forming a box of “bouncers” that move in unison to shuttle the object around. In the first video a 3mm glass bead is being carried; in the second video, particles as small as 0.15mm (150 micron) are enclosed and transported.

The study has been published at: http://www.nature.com/nmat/journal/v10/n9/abs/nmat3083.html

1.  Connectome Observatory for a Mouse Brain (and beyond)

The Connectome Observatory is a detailed design by Dr. Kenneth Hayworth for a machine automating this thick sectioning procedure on the scale of a whole mouse brain. An entire plastic-embedded mouse brain would first be sectioned on this machine into a tape containing 500 tissue slabs (each 20 microns thick). The same machine is then used to section each of these slabs into 300 tissue pillars each 15mm long and 20x20microns in cross section. These “pillar tapes” have been carefully designed to allow random access FIB-SEM imaging of any 20x20x20micron sub-volume within the mouse brain quickly and with 100% reliability.

Spreading these pillar tapes among 20 specially designed FIB-SEM machines would create a “Connectome Observatory” of the mouse brain. Similar to an astronomical observatory, individual neuroscience researchers could request time on this Connectome Observatory, and over a ten year period could use it to map out 50 separate brain regions each with a dense reconstruction of 300x300x300microns in volume and trace over 8 meters of the finest projecting axons between these 50 regions.

With proposed imaging technology this researcher states they can theoretically gather all of the circuits of a human brain to collect the data necessary to recreate a person.  In the video below at 1:03, Hayworth states, "In my opinion, this is more than sufficient resolution to determine all the connectivity and properties of the synapse that are needed to explain [the] functionality of the circuit."

There was quite the list of innovations, technology and advances to choose from this year.  Some of the items that did not quite make it onto the list were:

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