Extraordinary machines – with neuroscientist Susan Hockfield
Convergence 2.0: Engineers are using the "natural genius" of biological systems to produce extraordinary machines—self-assembling batteries, cancer-detecting nanoparticles, super-efficient water filters made from proteins found in blood cells. Neuroscientist and MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield and host Jason Gots discuss what all this could mean for our future.
- "One of my tools as president was never to talk about change. People hate change. But at MIT no one could deny you the opportunity to do an experiment."
- "If we can create these spaces for convening around our most important problems, We can make progress much faster than we can by insisting that people do the work on their own. And that's the power of the university at its best."
"Are we in the best of times? Or the end of times? One of the oddities of the current era is that extreme pessimism about the world coexists with extreme optimism — and both have a plausible case to make."
I'm quoting Gideon Rachman from a recent Financial Times piece about Bill Gates and David Attenborough. Broadly speaking, Gates is a technooptimist: convinced, like his friend Steven Pinker, that the world's getting better all the time due to technological and scientific progress, and that our problems are largely solvable. Attenborough is the world's most recognizable narrator of nature documentaries and, well, with all that's been happening to the flora and the fauna of the Earth, you can probably guess where he stands.
My guest today, neuroscientist and MIT president emerita Susan Hockfield, is the author of the new book THE AGE OF LIVING MACHINES. And I think it's fair to say she leans toward the Bill Gates side of the spectrum. Given what she's seen and done in her historic career, it's easy to understand why. The technologies she looks at in the book sit at the intersection of biology and engineering—what Hockfield calls "Convergence 2.0". From water filters based on cellular proteins to self-assembling batteries, they seem miraculous, even to the trained eye. And they're densely packed with hope for human ingenuity, and for solving global problems from food shortages to climate change.
Surprise conversation starters in this episode:
What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.
- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Technology may soon grant us immortality, in a sense. Here's how.
- Through the Connectome Project we may soon be able to map the pathways of the entire human brain, including memories, and create computer programs that evoke the person the digitization is stemmed from.
- We age because errors build up in our cells — mitochondria to be exact.
- With CRISPR technology we may soon be able to edit out errors that build up as we age, and extend the human lifespan.
The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.
- U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
- A jury on August 2018 awarded a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma victim $289 million in Roundup damages.
- Bayer/Monsanto says Roundup is totally safe. Others disagree.
The pizza giant Domino's partners with a Silicon Valley startup to start delivering pizza by robots.
- Domino's partnered with the Silicon Valley startup Nuro to have robot cars deliver pizza.
- The trial run will begin in Houston later this year.
- The robots will be half a regular car and will need to be unlocked by a PIN code.
Would you have to tip robots? You might be answering that question sooner than you think as Domino's is about to start using robots for delivering pizza. Later this year a fleet of self-driving robotic vehicles will be spreading the joy of pizza throughout the Houston area for the famous pizza manufacturer, using delivery cars made by the Silicon Valley startup Nuro.
The startup, founded by Google veterans, raised $940 million in February and has already been delivering groceries for Kroger around Houston. Partnering with the pizza juggernaut Domino's, which delivers close to 3 million pizzas a day, is another logical step for the expanding drone car business.
Kevin Vasconi of Domino's explained in a press release that they see these specially-designed robots as "a valuable partner in our autonomous vehicle journey," adding "The opportunity to bring our customers the choice of an unmanned delivery experience, and our operators an additional delivery solution during a busy store rush, is an important part of our autonomous vehicle testing."
How will they work exactly? Nuro explained in its own press release that this "opportunity to use Nuro's autonomous delivery" will be available for some of the customers who order online. Once they opt in, they'll be able to track the car via an app. When the vehicle gets to them, the customers will use a special PIN code to unlock the pizza compartment.
Nuro and its competitors Udelv and Robomart have been focusing specifically on developing such "last-mile product delivery" machines, reports Arstechnica. Their specially-made R1 vehicle is about half the size of a regular passenger car and doesn't offer any room for a driver. This makes it safer and lighter too, with less potential to cause harm in case of an accident. It also sticks to a fairly low speed of under 25 miles an hour and slams on the breaks at the first sign of trouble.
What also helps such robot cars is "geofencing" technology which confines them to a limited area surrounding the store.
For now, the cars are still tracked around the neighborhoods by human-driven vehicles, with monitors to make sure nothing goes haywire. But these "chase cars" should be phased out eventually, an important milestone in the evolution of your robot pizza drivers.
Check out how Nuro's vehicles work:
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