March research digest: DNA storage, runaway blackholes, infrared Wi-Fi, growing computers and more

All the cutting edge research news in science and technology from March in one place.

In case you missed it, here is one handy list of all the cutting edge research news and developments in science and technology from the month of March. There are self growing computers, molecular race cars, new and exotic forms of matter, Wi-Fi networks a hundred times faster than conventional ones, and more.

DNA as a storage medium 

Researchers from Columbia University and the New York Genome Center have successfully demonstrated the ability to store digital information within DNA molecules. The binary code of the data was mapped to the nucleotides in DNA, and the scientists successfully stored a movie, an entire operating system, a study, the pioneer plaque and a computer virus. DNA is an ideal storage medium because it is ultra compact and can last hundreds of thousands of years if stored in cool and dry conditions. Unlike other storage media, DNA is unlikely to become obsolete.

Using audio pulses to hack smartphones

Researchers from the University of Michigan successfully used audio signals to confuse the accelerometers in various different models of smartphones. The phones were fooled into registering movements which never really occurred. The research challenges the long held notion in computer science that any internal inputs from hardware can be explicitly trusted by the software. A cheap speaker was used to register five thousand phantom steps in a Fitbit tracker, steps that no one had walked. The acoustic signals allowed for a backdoor entry into the system, allowing the researchers to perform all kinds of unauthorised actions on devices.

 March research digest: DNA storage, runaway blackholes, infrared Wi-Fi, growing computers and more

A cheap speaker was used to compromise sensors commonly used in consumer electronics. Image: University of Michigan.

Nasa spots a runaway black hole

The Hubble space telescope has discovered an abnormal supermassive black hole in a galaxy 8 billion light years. Supermassive black holes usually reside in the center of the galaxy, but this one was 35,000 light years away from where it was supposed to be, and appeared to be moving fast. The scientists calculated that the energy required to eject the black hole was equivalent to the output of 100 million supernovas. Gravitational waves caused by the collision of two galaxies and the two supermassive black holes at the respective centres is what scientists believe caused the supermassive black hole to be booted out into space.

Supersolids, a new form of matter

MIT scientists realised in their labs a new form of matter known as supersolids. Supersolids were theoretically said to exist, but had not been directly observed in labs. The researchers manipulated a Bose-Einstein condensate, itself an exotic form of matter known as a superfluid, with lasers to create the supersolid in lab conditions. The supersolid has a solid structure, typical to regular solids, but can flow without viscosity, a property seen in superfluids. The actualisation of a form of matter with contradictory characteristics has potential implications in superconductors, computing and low energy transport.

The apparatus used to create the supersolid. Image: MIT/

The apparatus used to create the supersolid. Image: MIT/

Electronic tattoos for controlling electronics 

Boils, pimples, wrinkles, birthmarks and blemishes are considered undesirable features of the skin, under regular circumstances. However, in the future, these might be useful as controls for smartphones. Scientists at the Saarland University in Germany have developed temporary electronic tattoos which can turn the skin into controls for a smartphone. As people intuitively know the locations of the bumps and birthmarks on their skins, these features are ideal for smartphone controls, according to the scientists. The tattoos are called SkinMarks and are thinner than a strand of human hair.

Finding aliens becomes more likely because of shapes of planet systems

Scientists had so far assumed that most planetary systems around the universe were very different in shape from the solar system. New observations by the Australian National University shows that this is a flawed interpretation, and that most planetary systems in the universe are shaped like the solar system. The finding increases the chances of finding extraterrestrial life, as it shows that most planets in most planetary systems are aligned along a single plane in relation to the host star. The simulations of planetary systems used by scientists were also flawed because of the wrong assumptions by scientists so far.

The Trappist-1 System is similar in shape to the solar system. Image: Nasa.

The Trappist-1 System is similar in shape to the solar system. Image: Nasa.

A growing computer

Scientists at the University of Manchester have demonstrated that it is feasible to use DNA for computing instead of traditional computer chips. The research shows for the first time that it is possible to engineer a non deterministic universal Turing machine (NUTM). As the DNA is much more compact than traditional computers, it is possible for a single desktop computer to be packed with more computational power than all the conventional computers currently in existence all around the planet. Conventional computers have a fixed number of chips, but a DNA based computer could grow with the increasing demand for computation.

The deadliest bacteria known to man

The World Health Organisation published a list of 12 families of bacteria that pose the most threat to mankind. The bacteria are all getting increasingly resistant to treatment, and some of the most critical bacteria are resistant to the best known treatments. The list highlights the need for being careful when introducing new treatments, to ensure that the treatments are effective for as long as possible. Overuse of some treatments when other options are available allow the bacteria to evolve resistance to the treatments faster. The most dangerous bacteria spread in hospitals and through shared instruments such as catheters and ventilators.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is in the critical category. Image: CDC/ U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Medical Illustrator

AI that can lip-read better than humans

Researchers from the Oxford University have created an artificial intelligence that is better than humans at reading lips. The system is known as ‘Watch, Attend and Spell’ (WAS), and uses the technologies developed by DeepMind. The neural network for the AI was trained on thousands of hours of BBC footage. When tested against an expert human lip reader, the system managed to be as accurate as fifty percent, whereas the human expert only managed to get accurate readings twelve percent of the time. The test also showed that the machine tended to make smaller errors, as compared to the humans.

A computer can tell when you will get bored of a smartphone game

A Tokyo based video game studio has developed an algorithm that can predict on what day and at which stage users will stop playing a video game. The model is called survival ensemble and depends on multiple machine learning algorithms instead of a single one, which increases the accuracy of the predictions. The research potentially could allow video game developers to create more engaging experiences. The studio has already used the algorithm for increasing sales on its own games by focusing on the users that tend to spend the most on the titles.


Superfast Wi-Fi networks

Conventional Wi-Fi networks can only achieve a maximum speed of  300 Mbits per second. Researchers have created a Wi-Fi network that uses infrared rays to achieve speeds of 42.8 Gbits per second, which is over a hundred times faster than the everyday Wi-Fi networks. The network is delivered through ceiling-mounted antennas, and has the additional advantage of not interfering with other Wi-Fi networks nearby. The cutting edge technology was realised by the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Tiny gold pyramids for delivering drugs

Harvard researchers have successfully demonstrated the use of nanoscale heated gold pyramids to deliver drugs directly into cell walls without having any destructive effect on the cells. Delivery mechanisms so far were specific to the payload, because of the various natural protection mechanisms that cells have to prevent alien substances from breaching the cell walls. The new method was initially tested on cancer cells, but the researchers plan to further test the method on T cells, stem cells and blood cells.

Image: Nabiha Saklayen/Harvard SEAS

Image: Nabiha Saklayen/Harvard SEAS

Sticky sands on Titan

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology observed the strange sand dunes on Titan and noticed that they tended to maintain their shapes even though prevailing winds were in the opposite direction. The scientists discovered that the electrically-charged particles of sand on Titan are sticky, and behave like wet sand on the beaches of Earth, without the need for moisture. If a sand castle is built using the dry sand on Titan, the castle is likely to maintain its shape for weeks, and even months. The grains of sand are so sticky and cohesive, that only the heaviest of winds can move them.

The world's first Nanocar race

The National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France is all set to host the world's first race of molecular cars. The molecular cars, made up of a few hundred atoms and will be powered by electrical pulses on a gold race track. Six teams around the world are using molecules of various kinds as race cars. The undertaking is first and foremost a scientific and technological exploration, but will be telecast live on YouTube as a spectator sport. The main aim is to test the viability of molecular machines, and the scientific instruments needed to control them.



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