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The Year That Was
by Michael Keller
It’s the last day of 2013 and the past year has proven to be chock full of astounding science and technology news. From major advances to the announcement of new initiatives, this year offered glimpses of a better future through the liberal application of the scientific method and some good engineering. We’re recapping a few of them and checking some of the predictions we made at the start of the year.
Some of the biggest stories:[[MORE]]
-The U.S. and Europe announced two major initiatives to plumb the brain for answers to the mysteries about how it works and breaks. President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, announced in April with an initial $100 million in funding, will attempt to map every cell and neural circuit in the brain to understand how it operates. The European Union’s Human Brain Project will build new information-technology architecture to simulate the complete brain, understand diseases that impact it and recreate its computational power.
-In space news, officials announced that Voyager 1 had left our solar system and entered interstellar space, making it the first human-made object to accomplish that feat. NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, meanwhile, uncovered strong evidence that the planet could have once been home to life. The meteor that turned into a fireball and exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February brought potentially existential hazards coming from space to the world’s attention.
-The story of the history of life got major upgrades this year with advances in gene sequencing techniques. These improved methods and equipment let researchers decode genetic information from a 700,000-year-old bone that once belonged to an ancient horse, the oldest genome yet sequenced. Others later deciphered the DNA blueprint of a 400,000-year-old cave bear and of an ancestor to humans from the same period.
We could keep going, but others have compiled ample lists of big news, from AIDS cures that weren’t to major advances in growing organs from stem cells. Instead, here are the predictions we made this time last year and how they stacked up against reality.
1. Brain mapping continues to shed light on the most complex organ
As we mentioned above, Europe and the U.S. both announced this year that they would launch major brain research initiatives that will surely offer profound insights into how our computers work. These efforts come from the tantalizing possibilities presented by our still nascent understanding of the organ.
In just one recent case, research is offering insight into a dreadful disease—Alzheimer’s. Columbia University doctors in December said they had used high-resolution functional MRI to understand where the disease starts and why it starts there. They were also able to see how it spreads.
In April, scientists revealed a new technique called CLARITY, which provides a stunning level of anatomical detail to the brain by making it transparent. Researchers say this will give a major push to understanding the complex wiring that makes the brain work. Instead of needing to split the brain in myriad physical slices to study its details, CLARITY strips lipids out of the tissue to make it see-through.
Advances in creating brain activity maps allowed at least two separate teams to show individual neurons firing in fish brains. Japanese scientists in February were able to visualize what thoughts look like as they happen in a zebrafish’s brain. In March, Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers showed neuronal activity as it occurred across the entirety of a larval fish’s brain.

2. DNA sequencing costs keep falling
Analysis by the National Human Genome Research Institute indicates that DNA sequencing costs have plateaued since April 2012. The institute’s most recent April 2013 data estimates that sequencing a full human genome runs about $5,800. That’s $0.06 per million base pairs. The price for a full human genome in September 2001? $95.3 million, or almost $5,300 per million base pairs.
3. More things talking to each other
It may be slightly creepy to anthropomorphize it, but we might just look back in years to come and recognize 2013 as the debutante ball for the Industrial Internet. This year, the widespread installation of cheap sensors combined with machines talking to other machines about what those sensors are detecting, has amounted to a coming-out party for the technology. The Industrial Internet has popped up all over the place, in both insider and lay conversations. 
Numerous car companies are developing robotic vehicles, which will likely one day all connect to autonomously optimize traffic flows. Mercedes and Infiniti were just a few examples of companies starting to offer partially autonomous vehicles in 2013 while fully autonomous vehicles took researchers in the U.S. and Europe on long road trips. Several states have adopted, or are considering, laws to legally allow robot cars on public roads.
But the machines aren’t just getting to the point where they chauffer us around without help, they’re also talking about us. In 2013, the quantified-self became a household word. Wearable sensors in bracelets, smartphone apps, Internet-connected body scales and other places turned on the faucet of body-monitoring data. That data can flow between devices and through the Internet to create a virtual life coach offering information on what to eat and when to sleep, wake, calm down or push harder at the gym, what to eat.  
On the industrial side, the machine Internet is being deployed across sectors. From wind power generation to wastewater treatment and companies building cloud-based analytic engines so real-world jet engines can operate at higher efficiency, man-out-of-the-loop machine communication is the future seeping into many aspects of the present.
4. First plane flies without fuel across the U.S.
This happened. Thanks, Solar Impulse team, for reminding us of the amazing things people can do when they don’t accept the status quo and push the limits. They flew an airplane. Across the country. With no fuel.
Top Image: Gif created from NASA video.

The Year That Was

by Michael Keller

It’s the last day of 2013 and the past year has proven to be chock full of astounding science and technology news. From major advances to the announcement of new initiatives, this year offered glimpses of a better future through the liberal application of the scientific method and some good engineering. We’re recapping a few of them and checking some of the predictions we made at the start of the year.

Some of the biggest stories:

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Better Brains Making Brilliant Wind Turbines 
by Txchnologist staff
It’s an easy mistake to make. Driving past a distant wind farm, the machine-topped towers appear to be simple, timeless giants lumbering over the landscape. But clean lines and a streamlined profile belie complex modern wind turbines—more intelligent jet engine atop a football-field-long mast than old Dutch artist’s subject. [[MORE]]
Wind farm operators can adjust GE’s turbine drivetrains to rotate faster or slower, change the blades’ pitch to fine-tune airflow over them and make a range of alterations that optimize how much power they put out.
And now, GE turbines are set to get a better brain that tunes those adjustments for even greater efficiency. During the company’s Minds + Machines 2013 Conference, which took place last week in Chicago, GE unveiled PowerUp, a new customized software-enabled platform that will let the turbines autonomously react to changing conditions and increase power output by up to 5 percent.
“PowerUp gives us a bunch of dials and levers that let us tune the different elements of the wind turbine to make it operate at an optimal level,” says Andy Holt, general manager of Renewable Energy Services at GE Energy. “In generating power from wind, the fuel’s free. So by installing the PowerUp platform, the 5 percent efficiency gain can translate to 20 percent more profit per turbine.” 
Holt says that today’s advanced turbines use different technologies and settings depending on whether they’re operating in a weak or strong wind, and the time of year. Blades can pivot to change the amount of lift they produce; air-jet blowers on the blades’ surfaces can be activated to change the aerodynamics of wind moving over their surfaces; the unit can rotate to change the direction it faces; and torque can be adjusted to maximize energy production.
The PowerUp package takes data generated by sensors distributed throughout the turbine’s components to make intelligent decisions about machine settings in real time. 
The platform joins other GE products to bring the Industrial Internet to the wind farm. Predix, another such platform, optimizes operations by standardizing large-scale analytics and connects machines, data and people. Crunching data as it streams out of turbines, it compares how one is working compared to the group. Predix combines distributed computing and big data analytics, asset management, machine-to-machine communication and mobility.
Another package called PulsePOINT monitors the condition of equipment and uses algorithms to detect anomalies. Taken as a system, these offerings allow the analysis of thousands of data points every second to increase output, decrease equipment downtime and improve reliability.
Turbines can now monitor themselves, talk to each other and communicate with technicians when something has gone awry.
“They’re aware of themselves and check with their neighbors to see if they are underperforming,” Holt says. “If they are, they put in a work order and call us, saying, ‘Hey, I’m making 1.4 megawatts of power and my neighbor is making 1.5. I have a lot of vibration on this bearing. Come fix me!’”

Better Brains Making Brilliant Wind Turbines 

by Txchnologist staff

It’s an easy mistake to make. Driving past a distant wind farm, the machine-topped towers appear to be simple, timeless giants lumbering over the landscape. But clean lines and a streamlined profile belie complex modern wind turbines—more intelligent jet engine atop a football-field-long mast than old Dutch artist’s subject. 

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Minds + Machines

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by Txchnologist staff

Starting at 11 a.m. EDT today, GE will be holding its second annual Minds + Machines Conference on the state of the Industrial Internet. Speakers will include CEO Jeff Immelt, industry leaders, and GE customers and partners.

The meeting coincides with the release of a new report,The Industrial Internet @ Work, written by GE’s Chief Economist, Marco Annunziata, and Director of Global Strategy and Analytics, Peter C. Evans. The conference and report explore how the Industrial Internet—a digital network that links machines, sensors generating data, predictive analytics and new machine-human collaboration in the workplace—can significantly boost productivity, create new jobs and skills, and minimize unplanned downtime in major industries.

We’ll be streaming Minds + Machines live here:

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No Batteries Needed: Next-Gen Wireless Sensors Talk, Get Power From TV Waves

by Michael Keller

Imagine these formerly dumb systems gone smart: a roof that announces when it’s about to spring a leak; a garden that monitors moisture on its own and applies just the right amount of water when it’s needed; and a bridge that automatically puts in a work order at the first sign of a hairline crack in a support structure.

These are just a few of the innovations promised by the growth of the industrial internet, a communications network in which objects and machines generate data about themselves and communicate it with each other to make better decisions about how they operate. This advance promises major efficiency gains—think of a jet engine monitoring and injecting fuel precisely when it’s needed. It will also mean cost reductions through repair and maintenance that head off problems before they become major, among other advantages. But for this more-automatic world to take root, objects of all sorts need to be embedded with simple instruments—moisture detectors, accelerometers, and identification chips—that can sense and communicate their state to the broader world.

One of the major constraints of this potentially disruptive technology taking off is the power requirement of these sensors, which must be fed either by wires or batteries. But how does one install a wireless moisture detector into a roof and then periodically go in to change the batteries? How would a farmer gather up thousands of cheap sensors embedded in the soil that tell an irrigation system when to work after they’ve been spread over the land?

“Sensors have needed batteries up until now, which makes deploying them difficult because you have to maintain those batteries,” University of Washington computer science and engineering professor Shyam Gollakota tells Txchnologist. “We asked, ‘Can you generate power without batteries?’”

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