SciTech Now Episode 239

In this episode of SciTech Now, a hackathon exploring the intersection of hip hop, technology and education; battery powered pills that deliver medication in the body when and where it’s needed; the fascinating manipulation techniques of the orchid flower; and an innovative new wheelchair for people with mobility loss.


Coming up, meet the coders who are hacking hip-hop...

We would always have rap battles and stuff at our other hackathons, so we said, 'Oh, you know, let's just have a straight hip-hop hackathon so then we can have everybody who likes hip-hop make something and show it off to everybody else.

...designing a smart pill...

One of our discoveries was that we could actually use pigments from our hair and our skin and our eyes -- melanin pigments as components in these biodegradable batteries.

...orchids, the great manipulators...

In some extreme cases, the lip, or labellum, can be modified into a completely different shape.

It can resemble even the female of a species of insect, which actually will trick the males into attempting to mate with the flower.

...and, finally, engineering hope for people with mobility loss.

One of the strengths of our team is that we can take technology and see our work and then find the bigger purpose for it.

And when you infuse that with compassion, you end up really being able to engineer hope for a lot of people.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

In New York City, music meets technology at what's called the Monthly Music Hackathon, where engineers, coders, and musicians join forces to confront a different theme or music genre.

We go inside their first event, exploring the intersection of hip-hop, technology, and education.

Let's take a look.

[ Hip-hop music plays, record spinning ]

That's hot.

With Monthly Music Hackathon, we take a little bit of a different approach.

We're not thinking so much about the end result.

We're thinking more about the process.

Right, but so this is where it starts.

You've heard of hackathons, collaborative forums that aim to solve business and social problems through technology.

But at this event, they're hacking something unconventional -- hip-hop music.

You hear it in the lyrics.

If it inspires you, go ahead and write, dude.

We want to go through the life cycle of a creative project, kind of all the way from scratch, all the way through to a presentation in a single day.

The hip-hop hackathon took place at Spotify's New York City offices and was co-hosted by Young Hackers, a group that unites high-school students from diverse backgrounds through technology.

We would always have rap battles and stuff at our other hackathons, so we said, 'Oh, you know, let's just have a straight hip-hop hackathon so then we can have everybody who likes hip-hop make something and show it off to everybody else.

The hackathon kicked off with a panel of expert programmers, educators, and music producers.

You should be learning hip-hop culture in high school, not only in history class.

You should be learning it in music class.

You should be learning it in phys ed.

Then it was time for like-minded hackers to form teams and get to work.

One of the things I try to do all the time is take hip-hop songs and make them into acoustic arrangements.

I want to find somebody who is really interested in development to see if maybe we can work on a database because we're kind of flying by the seat of our pants there and just starting the brainstorming process.

So, our idea -- we're calling it 'Hip-Hop Hacks Maps' -- is the idea that you can look up a song's lyrics, and then a map will appear with all the locations that the song mentions.

Especially with hip-hop, there's a lot of 'hyperlocatlity --' throwin' some terms -- of places and even specific addresses that can come up on the maps.

So that's us.

So, we're working on something called the Kimye Project, where basically it's Kanye's lyrics and songs that you can listen to on the website -- basically the way SoundCloud works, where you can add in your reaction at any point of the song.

It would be the same thing, except you just add 'Kim Kardashian gifts' as your reaction.

The teams are wrapping up for today, but they'll be back tomorrow to put the final touches on their projects.

[ Hip-hop music plays ] On day two, the groups continued, while also attending free workshops like DJ 101, Intro to JavaScript, and Songwriting.

♪ [ Rapping ] Just wanted to be successful, but this game is very stressful ♪ ♪ The devil is holding me back, like, how can I let you shine? ♪

Listening to hip-hop a lot more really has led me to understand, like, the richness of education and of knowledge in this, like, medium that is considered unconventional.

♪ [ Rapping ] Insect ligament, I'm the bee's knees ♪ ♪ Grammatically correct like question marks and apostrophes ♪ ♪ I'm allergic to failure, you could guess I never sneeze ♪ ♪ Me and rap go together like a pod and two peas ♪

While this month the focus was hip-hop, the Monthly Music Hackathon attracts coders and musicians from many different communities.

We spoke with deaf composer Jay Zimmerman, a hackathon regular whose closed-captioning and music-visualization software aims to make music more accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing.

I'm trying to bring wireless captioning so you can walk into any show and you get the captions on your phone and sit wherever you want.

And it works!

It works great, it works great.

We just have to convince people that we have this and that it's worth it to provide captions for everyone.

After two full days, the teams took to the stage to demo their work.

You visit our app, and when you search for a song, a search executes, and you can choose the song.

And, hey, we're looking at 'Hello Brooklyn.'

And it shows you Brooklyn!

[ Applause ] [ R&B music plays ]

As it starts, you can see that you have new GIFs coming in.

And you can choose which GIF you really want to like.

[ Rapping indistinctly ]

And the GIFs change as the music plays.

And of course, no music hackathon would be complete without a concert.

♪ [ Rapping ] I ride beats like Tyler Perry ride dresses ♪ ♪ Avoid stress like... avoid messes ♪ ♪ The young don, stay heavy, no question ♪ ♪ Can't nobody outweigh, this a blessin' ♪

I organize these events because I want to learn about different music subjects.

There's basically an infinite number of approaches to music represented here in New York City.

And if you're collaborating with people who have really different points of view than you do, you get a bunch of different, more diverse input, and so more options.

And I think more options means more likelihood for innovation, more likelihood to make some new art, new science, or new project of some kind.

♪ I'm not rap's heroes...

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a prototype for edible electronics, battery-powered pills programmed to deliver medication where and when it's needed within the body.

How do these smart pills work?

Here with me now to explain is Professor Christopher Bettinger.

So, you have one in your hand.

What is in this pill, and why would I take it?

So, my laboratory focuses on designing new materials for use in smart pills.

And so, ultimately, we want to enable new technologies that can deliver drugs, as you said, to when and where we need them in the GI tract.

And one important component of that is designing materials that are degradable and electronically active, that can enable these new kinds of drug-delivery technologies.

And so what I have here in this pill is essentially a biodegradable current source, so we're able to leverage nontoxic, biodegradable polymers and pigments for use in essentially a power supply that could be used to activate these electronic devices.

So this thing is a power supply.

There is a battery -- the equivalent of -- in here.

And it's gonna do what in my gut?

It's gonna say -- Maybe there's gonna be sensors attached to it as, 'Well, this is exactly what he's trying to treat.

Let's dispense the medicine now'?

Yeah, that's right.

So perhaps this device could administer drugs like a vaccine or a protein therapeutic in a specific location, and it would use sensors to know where that pill is on the GI tract.

Or just heartburn?

That's right.

Could be heartburn.

So, how did you get something that can be a battery but that can dissolve in our body?

'Cause when I think battery, I think acids, and I think things that you should never put in your mouth.

That's right.

And so that's a great point.

So, a lot of the existing electronic devices that are ingestible leverage electronics and battery materials that are designed oftentimes for personal devices like laptops and cellphones, and so we think about designing new materials that are optimized for this new kind of context, this biological context, this medical context.

And so one of our discoveries was that we could actually use pigments from our hair and our skin and our eyes -- melanin pigments as components in these biodegradable batteries.

But how does that work?

So, what melanin pigments do in the body is really shuttle around electrons and move ions, and that's basically what a battery does.

And so we made that connection along the way, and we're able to sort of re-leverage that same process, that biological process, in this synthetic context.

So what makes us different shades of brown are literally the pluses and minuses of batteries.

That's right. That's right.

So it's a good example of sort of bio-inspired materials design, where we take materials that nature has optimized over millennia of evolutionary forces and just kind of redirect that capacity in some interesting new technological application.

So, how long till a patient actually gets one of these pills?

Yeah, that's a great question.

So, we are excited about this prospect because an orally delivered device can perhaps obviate many of the typical regulatory constraints that might be facing, let's say, an implantable device, right?

So there's an intrinsic, chronic nature to an implant that an ingestible device would be able to sort of skirt around essentially, right?

And so because of that, we think there's more latitude in new kinds of materials and new kinds of devices that can be approved, so it can be more efficient in terms of navigating that regulatory pathway.

So we think that, conceivably, within 5 to 10 years, that there could be smart pills that are enabled by biodegradable batteries maybe on the shelf of your local pharmacy.

Are there other things that biodegradable batteries could work in?

Yeah, so that's a great question.

We think that there are other opportunities for degradable batteries, for example, like environmentally disposable electronic devices could leverage these, as well.

But we are most excited about medical applications and specifically orally deliverable electronic devices because these batteries, again, they're not designed for performance and cost.

They're designed mainly for reduced toxicity, reduced risk to the patient.

All right, Christopher Bettinger, Carnegie Mellon University.

Thanks so much.


With their pungent aromas and vibrant blooms, orchids lure insects, green thumbs, and romantics alike.

Up next, the Curator of Orchids at the New York Botanical Garden describes how the plants manipulate insects into pollinating them.

Science Friday has the story.

[ Mid-tempo music plays ] [ Microscope clicking ]

Coming into this room for an insect might be just as overwhelming as it is for our visitors.

There's so much color, pattern, and fragrance in here.

But depending on what type of species you are, you might be drawn to an orchid...

That may have spots, hairs, warts, and even smell really unpleasant.

Or you could gravitate towards...

Something sweet perhaps, looking for a nectar reward.

This sensuous sea of orchids just might cause you to bug out.

They're probably one of the most diverse groups of flowering plants, with over 33,000 naturally occurring species.

Dozens of which are on display at the New York Botanical Garden's annual Orchid Show.

So I have a lot of children under my care.

Marc Hachadourian is the garden's Curator of Orchids, a responsibility that borders on obsession.

Been growing orchids now for over 30 years, so they do have a little bit of control and a little bit of power over me.

But it's something that I'm willing to submit to because I just -- orchids are just such an important part of my life.

Marc isn't alone in his compulsion.

These plants have evolved the incredible ability to convince many species to do their bidding.

Everything we see and appreciate about orchids, in terms of the flowers themselves, the colors, the patterns, are really are there to achieve reproduction.

They are the reproductive organs of plants.

Orchids turn their pollinators into slaves to their desires, drawing them in with unseen forces.

There are orchids that smell like roses, there are orchids that smell like jasmine, and there are many orchids that smell like you should be checking the bottoms of your shoes for something you might have stepped in.

Not particularly alluring to us, but flies love it.

Some orchids will produce chemical fragrances that mimic the pheromones of insects in order to bring the insect to the flower itself.

Others might mimic the aroma of the perfect nursery for a pollinator's larvae.

A group of South American orchids, this particular genus, actually produces some of the same chemical compounds produced by mushrooms.

That you might see a monkey face in the bloom is purely coincidental.

But to its pollinator, it sees a mushroom that it would lay its eggs on for its larvae to survive.

This type of deceptive lure is a hallmark adaptation of the orchid family.

The lip, or labellum, is a specialized petal found on the flower of an orchid.

The lip, or labellum, can be modified into strange colors and patterns to guide a pollinator towards its nectar reward, like a runway for a visiting pollinator.

Or in some extreme cases, the lip, or labellum, can be modified into a completely different shape.

It can resemble even the female of a species of insect, which actually will trick the males into attempting to mate with the flower.

And end up fertilizing the flower instead.

And this level of trickery turns the orchid into a specialist, dependent on its pollinator.

In some cases, it may even be a one-to-one relationship in which there's only one species of insect or animal that pollinates that one species of orchid -- the most famous example being the Darwin star orchid that has this long nectar spur at the back of the flower.

He theorized that, since it was a white flower only fragrant at night and with that long nectar spur, it was pollinated by a long-tongued moth with a 12-inch-long tongue.

Lo and behold, the moth was discovered 42 years after Darwin's prediction.

Special relationships like these hinge on an orchid's ability to transfer their pollen from one plant to another.

To ensure this, orchids have evolved a unique method of distributing their pollen.

The pollen itself on an orchid is not granular or dust-like, but fused into a solid mass.

Known as the pollinium, this shotgun approach to fertilization has obvious benefits.

By concentrating all of your pollen into one solid mass, you don't just get a little bit from flower to flower.

You get an efficient transfer of a lot of genetic material.

And orchids typically need a lot of pollen to fertilize all of their seeds.

A single seed pod of an orchid can have upwards of 250,000 or, in some cases, up to over 1 million seeds in a single seed pod.

You may have seen and enjoyed one of these seed pods in the form of a vanilla bean.

As with most orchid species, these seeds are tiny and actually lack the nutrients to grow on their own.

And why should they when they can get those from another organism?

Orchid seeds require the presence of a specialized group of fungi.

That fungus essentially provides the orchid embryo with the nutrients it needs to grow and develop into a seedling.

Kind of like a parasite, an, oh, so beautiful parasite.

They're just a group of plants that is not only highly evolved, but also highly adaptive might be a better way of looking at it.

True, but that doesn't explain why they cause such an infatuation.

There might be things that we may not realize and that the orchid is drawing us in and sort of attracting us, as well, with something beyond our natural perceptions.

There's no science to back that up, but would it surprise you?

Artiphon is a consumer-electronics company.

We design musical hardware and software for everyday music making.

The Instrument 1 is one musical instrument that can be played like a bunch of different instruments, all using the familiar, fundamental musical gestures and techniques, the kind that we have had in our culture forever, but in a digital experience that can allow you to transition and adapt between multiple sounds and techniques.

Basically, it's a way to design your own instruments and explore your musical creativity.

You pick it up, you turn it on, you plug it in to your smartphone or your tablet or your computer, and we built apps that go along with it.

You decide what you want it to sound like, how you want it to be tuned, and how you want it to actually react when you touch it -- strum it like a guitar, bow it like you would a violin, or slide between notes like a slide guitar, put it down and play it like a keyboard with your fingertips, or divide it up into drum pads and play individual drum triggers.

When it comes to creative media and creative tools, it's really about what people are in the mood for and what fits into their life well, and I think there's a lot more room for musical expression in the world.

Most people say they want to be making music, and a really small percentage of people actually do it, so the goal is just to bring more people into the world of expressing themselves through sound.

How can technology help with quadriplegia regain mobility and independence?

A team of engineering students at the University of Central Florida are working with a nonprofit tech organization to design and create an innovative new wheelchair for people with mobility loss.

Let's take a look.

[ Upbeat music plays ]

One of the challenges with disability technology is that it's difficult to make enough money commercially to have a lucrative business.

And universities and nonprofits are uniquely positioned to be able to take some of that risk financially and be able to have a huge impact.

There's not a big population of people with spinal-cord injuries, especially at a high level.

Like, I'm a C3 complete, so I'm pretty high up in the cervical area.

So there's not the funding, there's not the money out there to really bring a lot of change to treatments and research and things like that.

So anything I can do to help get the word out that we need this type of help, assistance, innovation -- whatever you want to call it -- that's why I'm involved with this.

Charles Merritt relies on his wheelchair for countless everyday tasks that most of us don't even think about.

Albert Manero had an idea for a low-cost invention that would make it easier for quadriplegics to get around.

At the University of Central Florida, engineering students must complete a senior design project in which they create a useful device.

Albert took his idea to several undergrads.

I was drawn to it because it was the only senior design project that directly helped somebody.

What we were making was for somebody.

And I think that's one of the strengths of our team is that we can take technology and see our work and then find the bigger purpose for it.

And when you infuse that with compassion, you end up really being able to engineer hope for a lot of people.

To help is a great thing, and I think a lot of that is sometimes lost when you get an injury like this 'cause you just feel like there's no hope.

But it's good to know that there's people out there like Limbitless Solutions just doing things to help you.

The wheelchair control system uses electromyography -- EMG for short -- a technology that detects muscle activity.

When you flex any muscle, you generate a voltage like a battery.

We can read that, and we can do the signal's processing to be able to use your flexing of muscles in a pattern to be able to control the wheelchair left, right, forward, and back.

The team is using Arduino microcontrollers, an open-source product.

This Arduino acquires the voltage signals from the EMG sensors, and the program on this Arduino takes the numbers and plots them in a more graphical sense.

The designers use the graph to determine threshold values for a specific wheelchair user.

Those values then allow them to program the wheelchair.

To set the thresholds, we look at the baseline readings, which is what we call noise or just normal everyday activity.

You want the threshold value, which is the value that the microcontroller, when it gets the signal from the EMG and it's above this threshold value, it tells the wheelchair to go in whatever direction that it's programmed to go.

And if it's below this value, it does nothing.

So, now I'm ready to demonstrate the wheelchair.

If I clench the right side of my jaw, I go right.

And if I clench the left side, I go left.

And then, to go forward, I quickly clench both, and then I stop.

Basically, it's just as easy as biting down or chewing.

So it kind of comes naturally once you get the hang of it.

Watching Charlie drive out of the lab with it was one of the most exciting points of our work here.

It's incredible to be able to see the technology actually help someone.

Oh, I was so happy to see somebody that had never seen our device, didn't know how it worked, and then, within five minutes of us telling him how it worked, he was able to ride around and go all through the engineering atrium.

It was awesome.

It doesn't obstruct your everyday activities, so for people to be able to become involved with it, to get it attached to their wheelchairs, it's really simple.

And we've gotten Charlie's feedback, and we're working now to make it even better in the hopes of getting this into the different wheelchair for people with ALS or MS or traumatic brain injury or quadriplegic victims, and being able to empower them and give them back their freedom and independence so they need an attendant to drive them around, but let them go and roll out through life.

What they've come up with just brings it to the masses and allows people to maybe get outside.

It allows people to kind of get around without having to have somebody drive their chair for them.

So the expense of it is next to none.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...