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Microsoft Plans to Have a DNA-Based Computer by 2020
It’s durable, exponentially scalable, and it’ll last millennia, if not millions of years.
Moore’s Law will run out soon. This is the idea that computer processing power doubles every 18 months. Some scientists say they can even see our progress beginning to slow. The microchip can only get so small. At a certain point, the silicon will be too small and thin for the heat it’ll endure and it’ll fry itself. That’s troubling. A lack of progress on this front could bring the swift velocity at which technology is progressing to a screeching halt.
So what will replace the microchip? How about DNA? Researchers have already saved a movie, a computer virus, an Amazon gift card, and more, on the “building blocks of life.” Currently, China has the world’s fastest supercomputer, known as the 93 petaflop Sunway TaihuLight. It can make 93,000 trillion calculations per second. The TaihuLight has 64 kilobytes of memory (64,000 bytes). Meanwhile, the human brain, arguably the most advanced computer ever, is estimated at one terabyte (1 trillion bytes) of memory.
The TaihuLight contains 41,000 chips, each with 260 processor cores, for a total of 10.65 million cores. The design isn’t practical for mass market use. What about DNA, how does it measure up? In 2012, researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute stuck 700 terabytes of data into one single gram (0.03 oz.) of DNA.
A Chinese supercomputer. Wikipedia Commons.
Scientists estimate that DNA could hold 455 exabytes of data in all. An exabyte equals a quintillion bytes or 1 billion gigabytes. Since DNA is so densely packed, you could fit all of the world’s information on four grams (0.14 oz.) of DNA, a mere teaspoon full.
DNA allows nature to jam-pack a lot of information into a tiny space. It’s fortunate that the nucleotide bases that make up DNA can easily be converted into binary code. Here, “A” (adenine) and “C” (cytosine) represent 0, and “G” (guanine) and “T” (thymine) represent 1.
Just four nucleotides are mere atoms wide. So you get the sense of how much you can pack in at this scale. We should be able to get one zettabyte, or a trillion gigabytes of storage, out of DNA in all, a mind-boggling figure.
If fossils have proven anything it’s that, DNA is incredibly durable, lasting millennia. Kept at subzero temperatures, it could last millions of years. Say we wipe out the human race and an intelligent extraterrestrial race came along at some point in the future. They might be able to decipher all of the information left behind by our species, in a package they’d likely recognize.
If kept at subzero temperatures, data saved on DNA could last millions of years. Getty Images.
So how does DNA computing work? Researchers using advanced algorithms translate data from computer language into DNA. Then to read it, the computer sequences the DNA.
Last year, Swiss researchers found a way to preserve DNA in silicon, much like a fossil, in order to protect it. While scientists at the University of Manchester, led by Prof. Ross D. King, created self-replicating DNA computers which grow as they go, to allow for tons more processing power, while using far less electricity. Scientists can easily build redundancies into the system too, making it more stable.
Now, Microsoft Research has announced that it will usher in an operational DNA-based computer by 2020. The plan is, according to partner architect Doug Carmean, a “proto-commercial system in three years storing some amount of data on DNA in one of our data centers, for at least a boutique application.” So you may be storing your information in a DNA-based cloud in the beginning of the next decade.
The first model is expected to be the size of one of a 1970’s Xerox machine. Carmean told MIT Technology Review, “We hope to get it branded as ‘Your Storage with DNA.’” At first, the system is expected to only store really important information, such as medical records or police body-cam videos. Microsoft set a record last July, when it saved 200 megabytes of data directly onto DNA, a record.
1970’s Xerox Machine. Getty Images.
One problem the company will need to overcome is the speed at which the system processes data. In this last experiment, the rate of converting data into DNA was 400 bytes per second. To make it commercially viable, it’ll need to reach 100 bytes per second.
Another obstacle, it’s incredibly expensive. Microsoft’s experiment used 13,448,372 individual pieces of DNA, which on the open market would cost $800,000. But getting it isn’t enough. Encoding just one megabyte of data costs another $12,500.
That’s to say nothing of retrieving information. Sequencing costs about the same as encoding. One thing is, the price has dropped dramatically in recent years, and is likely to continue. But it’s still not enough to make the process practical. Microsoft hasn’t announced any progress on the price front, but it may have something up its sleeve.
Though DNA-based computers are on the horizon, experts agree that the ultimate development would be quantum computing. This system would operate by holding quantum particles in superposition, or in two states at once, allowing for them to represent both 0 and 1 simultaneously. This would increase the calculation speed of certain operations exponentially.
The drawback is one cannot save anything on a quantum computer, due to what’s known as the “no cloning theorem.” A DNA-quantum hybrid may be the answer.
To learn more about DNA-based computers, click here:
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.