SciTech Now Episode 242

In this episode of SciTech Now, an underwater drone that explores environmental oceanic conditions; bringing bots into our everyday lives; learning about Menlo Park’s legendary inventor, Thomas Edison; a holistic treatment for depression; and a library that is about more than just books.


Coming up, studying the soundscape of the sea.

We know what the conditions, the environmental conditions, were before we heard the animal, when we heard the animal, and after we leave the animal.

Bots break out of infancy.

There's also an infrastructure that's growing that enabled sort of more efficient ways, like chatting in a CRM, in a customer-service kind of way, that's making it much more usable and much more, you know, efficient.

The Wizard of Menlo Park.

Edison decided, 'I don't want to be last.

I don't want to be second.

I want to be first.'

So he hires experts, people who are experts in their own field, and he brings them all together here.

And, finally, the library, version 3.0.

There's always been a strong component of children's programming in libraries since the beginning -- storytimes and all those different types of things.

We just decided to continue on with that.

The libraries, much in the way they are used to fill in with literacy gaps, we're also trying to fill in with other gaps, one of them being the STEM field and science.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. 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.

'Blackbeard' may bring to mind the infamous English pirate, but scientists have developed an oceangoing drone with the same name to explore environmental oceanic conditions.

Complete with solar panels, GPS, and satellite technology, Blackbeard the wave glider provides oceanographers new opportunities to study the soundscape of the sea.

Okay, Frank.

I want you to grab the handle on the other side and lift.

1, 2, 3.

You have to be careful when handling Blackbeard.

Oh, that's Blackbeard the wave glider.

It has a weather station.

It has GPS and satellite-communication antennas.

And then this is a radar reflector.

It has an all-around white light so it's visible from the surface of the sea by other vessels at night.

It's got solar panels to power all of that.

There's a battery pack inside and a computer that runs all the sensors.

This is the satellite, um... antenna that sends lots of conditional data, so you can send more than just text-message-sized things with this.

But now you get a better idea that this part floats at the surface, and this is 20 feet long, and this part sinks and swims.

And this is what pulls Blackbeard.

It may look like a giant set of window blinds, but it's actually an underwater paddle that opens and closes its levers for propulsion.

Combining that with the movement of the waves on the surface, and there's enough power to slowly tow the wave glider.

This is where the rudder is.

When we send a command from our computer, it will move this either straight or 90 degrees left or right, and that'll turn the whole wave glider on a path that we design.

Blackbeard then tows this underwater microphone.

It's called a hydrophone.

And these are floats and sinkers that create an 'S' shape to the tow cable because they act as a shock absorber, because this will be pulled along by the sun.

It all looks a little jumbled inside this garage at East Carolina University, where scientists ready Blackbeard for its next mission.

It's been working just perfectly... and it's gonna expand our research capabilities along the coast.

But out on the open ocean...

[ Speaks indistinctly ]

...Blackbeard is a satellite-connected, instrument-laden, oceangoing science robot.

This is the most tricked-out wave glider in the world, and so we had ordered it so we could do things like measure the weather at the sea surface, we can determine the wave height, we can determine water-circulation patterns underneath the wave layer all the way to the bottom.

We can also determine the primary production that's occurring right at that location, so the plankton and so forth is there.

And then we can also listen for fish, turtles, anything else that's tagged with an acoustic tag, and have the ability to pull this tow body, which looks like a torpedo.

And that has a recorder in it that records every noise in the ocean, so that would include snapping shrimp or croakers croaking or red drums drumming or whales humming, dolphins clicking, or -- so, we're identifying the soundscape of the sea.

Sound travels much faster in water than in the air, and how far sound travels underwater depends on water pressure and temperature.

Pressure increases with ocean depth.

Temperature drops to a point but then stabilizes.

And that all means that sound travels in a narrow channel through the ocean, but it can travel a long way...

It gives you an idea of the kind of things that we heard.

[ Croaker croaking ] That's a croaker.

...which means the soundscape of the ocean can provide a wealth of information within those waves of sound.

Here's another sound.

This is a toadfish.

[ Toadfish clicking, grunts ]

It's the toadfish movement.

[ Clicking continues ] [ Toadfish grunts ] Remember, this is 20 feet down, though, but it's away from the surface noise, which is important.

And the sea-creature sounds recorded by Blackbeard reveal a lot about what's happening in the ocean.

We know what the conditions, the environmental conditions, were before we heard the animal, when we heard the animal, and after either the animal leaves or we leave the animal, and so it helps us understand better why that animal is in that particular location.

Another thing that this will allow us to do is, as we're going along, given trajectory here, we can determine where there are biological hotspots -- in other words, where there's a lot of biological diversity, the different sounds that are coming from all the different species.

And there might be some areas that are more like a desert and then other areas that might be more like an oasis, where there's a lot of biological activity.

So that we can study fish, whales, dolphins, plankton, and currents, along with other measurements, without actually having to be physically present on the water.

♪♪ [ Dolphin clicks ]

Bots have contributed to everything from chat rooms to Apple's Siri.

Today companies as prominent as Facebook and as small as your neighbor's start-up are working to find new ways to bring bots into our everyday lives.

Brian Hecht, our resident serial entrepreneur and advisor to many digital teams, including our own, joins us to discuss this global trend.

First off, what's a bot?

A bot is any technology that allows a human being to interact with a machine using artificial intelligence, sometimes using natural language but now also increasingly using text, whether it's in a messenger app or in a text message.

So, for example, sometimes if I'm trying to get tech support on a product or a page, it might not be a human, it might be an artificial-intelligent being?

It could be.

You can usually tell.

I mean, the way that people right now think of bots or artificial intelligence is in Siri or in Amazon's Echo.

And we know that that's a little bit glitchy.

I mean, you'll ask Siri, 'What's the score for the Mets game?'

and you'll get the weather in Mexico, which is a problem.

But that technology is getting better, and there's also an infrastructure that's growing that enabled sort of more efficient ways, like chatting in a CRM, in a customer-service kind of way, that's making it much more usable and much more, you know, efficient.

Everyday life examples of how bots in the next three or four years might be interacting with us?

Yeah. Well, there are examples right now.

I mean, the real breakthrough came earlier this year when Facebook announced that it would support bots in its Facebook Messenger, which I think a lot of us use, and it opened it up to developers to say, 'Go ahead and make apps or technology that will work within Facebook Messenger,' and almost immediately, more than 10,000 companies began developing bot technology for Facebook Messenger.


'Cause Facebook has an interest in you staying inside their ecosystem, right?

That's right.

The more questions you get answered, the longer the relationship you have.

As long as it's inside their garden, they're happy.

That's exactly right.

So, there's a few ways that you could use it actually right now.

Taco Bell just announced a new program -- it's still in beta -- but where you can actually order tacos for your office for lunch.

Without any humans involved in that chain?

You never have to speak to a human, and it's more interesting and fun than doing one of the online ordering systems because it'll offer you discounts and it can really be interactive with you.

Another example is, if you're a video gamer, Activision has a franchise, 'Call of Duty.'

In the advance of a new release, they decided to create hype by having a bot on Facebook that directed you, in the voice of a character from the video game, to solve different puzzles, and if you did the puzzles, you unlocked an exclusive trailer that, for you, is very exciting.

So, why are investors looking into this space?

I mean, is it because this is part of that giant automation trend, meaning reduced labor costs and higher profits?

Some of it is that, but I think a lot it has to do with the user experience.

I think we're detecting that there's a little bit of app fatigue.

If you look at the app download, it sort of plateaued in terms of general-usage apps.

If you think about your own phone, you kind of downloaded all the apps that you need, and you might download one for a novelty.

So, what do you do next?

You make them better and you change the user interface so instead of tapping on things, you're either talking to things or typing to things, and that's a behavior that's sort of more organic to the way we communicate with each other.

So, they're looking for ways to tap in to more value in apps and services that we're already using, and that's kind of a common investment hypothesis.

And there are some venture-capital firms that are now focusing exclusively on bot technology, and that's very often sort of an early signifier that that's where the money's gonna be flowing.

So, do companies build their own bots, or are they now essentially the equivalent of what used to be app-development firms and houses that are now botmaking factories?

All of the above, yes.

Some companies are developing their own, if they have very robust internal engineering, but an example is a company called Shopify that just acquired a smaller bot company called Kit CRM.

Shopify is a company that lets you run your own stores online, and they use the kit technology so that if you run a store, you'll get a text message in the morning that gives you your sales report, and you can write back and say, 'Give me a more detailed report' or 'Send a thank-you note to all of my customers.'

But that's a good example of where the innovation is coming from the start-up and then it's getting acquired and incorporated into bigger companies.

All right, Brian Hecht.

Thanks for joining us.

My pleasure.


Historic inventor Thomas Edison earned the nickname 'The Wizard of Menlo Park,' a nod to the seeming magic of his innovations and the New Jersey town where he developed them.

Reporter Lauren Wanko takes us inside the Thomas Edison Center in Menlo Park for a closer look at the famed creator and his work.

Towering over a 35-acre state park is a tribute to New Jersey's legendary inventor, Thomas Edison.

This is where invention was created.

Menlo Park.

In the early 1870s, it was a failed housing development in a rural area, until Thomas Edison purchased land here in 1875.

What Edison does here is he creates what today we know as the first organized research-and-development site.

Edison decided, 'I don't want to be last.

I don't want to be second.

I want to be first.'

So he hires experts, people who are experts in their own field, and he brings them all together here.

It's almost like a brain trust.

The Ohio native had been conducting experiments since he was a child, but it's the phonograph, an invention created at Menlo Park, that makes him a household name, says Kathleen Carlucci, director of the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park.

He got the idea after conducting experiments on the telephone.

People were fascinated by the phonograph.

No one had ever heard the voice recorded and played back.

Carlucci says Edison had a burst of astonishing creativity here in Menlo Park, creating 400 of his most important inventions.

He became known as 'The Wizard of Menlo Park.'

Edison himself called this site The Invention Factory.

The eager inventor soon moves on to light the incandescent light bulb.

And that's what Edison's known for.

He doesn't invent the light bulb, but he makes it a commercial commodity.

Edison creates an experimental electric railway at Menlo Park and hundreds of other things.

He was awarded 1,093 U.S. patents.

In the late 1880s, Edison moved his lab from Menlo Park to West Orange.

He died there in 1931.

Soon after, the Menlo Park property was donated to New Jersey and became Edison State Park, says Carlucci.

The Edison pioneers, which included those who worked with the inventor, were determined to honor his legacy and his associates with this 131-foot tower.

It was dedicated in 1938 on Edison's birthday -- February 11th.

Today it still serves as a reminder that this inventor let his imagination and creativity soar.

His eyes were open to possibilities, and it really shows, especially our youth today, with hard work and persistence, you can really create a beautiful world.


We offer TMS here at the Healing House.

It is a neuroscience where we deliver magnetic pulses at a high frequency to the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, and it allows us to stimulate the neurons to connect, so we're essentially treating the source of depression rather than the symptoms.

This is a NeuroStar machine.

So, we're gonna put him back 'cause it looks just like a dentist's chair, and right now we're just making sure we're going through the appropriate metrics.

We're gonna be targeting his left prefrontal cortex right here.

It's teaching the neurons to do what they should have been doing all along.

This allows us an option to not only help those individuals that don't respond well to medication but also to allow people an alternative.

A 10-year research study, 14,000 research applicants, 46% remission rate, 75% response rate, so significant numbers with a significant sample size, and no side effects is what makes this a holistic treatment for depression.

TMS is an incredible technology, or modality, so to speak, that allows us to treat depression naturally, holistically, without medication.


While many communities turn to their local libraries for books, information, and quiet time, some libraries are meeting the digital age head-on.

At The Hive in Tampa, Florida, a library card opens doors to create music videos and robots or to experiment with 3-D printing.

Here's a look.


Looking for a place to make a robot, do some 3-D printing, or perhaps create music?

Look no further than your public library.

We were looking at our spaces and remodeling them to provide more people space and more access not just to our books and collections but to offer additional resources that people can use for creative, hands-on, D.I.Y. purposes.

And that's how we got started with maker spaces in libraries.

♪♪ We decided that we were going to add space here at the John F. Germany Library for folks to come in, and whether they wanted to build something, learn a new skill, do audio/video production, that we could create a space for them to learn that.

This is The Hive, a place where Hillsborough County library cardholders can come and take advantage of some really cool technology.

I think it's beneficial because if you don't have access to these tools or you've never encountered robotics before or sewing before, any of the equipment that we have, it gives people a chance to do that and to discover something that they might not have otherwise known they were interested in or give them the tools to accomplish something that they might not otherwise be able to accomplish.


The Hive has a variety of classes to help people take advantage of the resources here.

Taynisha Berenguer inspires kids to try robotics.

With the Robotix Blox program, the main thing that we're trying to do is to introduce them to the main tenets of robotics, so a little bit about engineering, a little bit about coding, and a little bit on what it is that goes in to how robotics works and how to make your bot move and how to make it move and the pieces you need to build to make it work.

♪♪ There's always been a strong component of children's programming in libraries since the beginning -- storytimes and all those different types of things.

We just decided to continue on with that.

This program is mostly for ages 9 to 14, so the middle-school age, and with that, there's a huge drop-off with the interest in science once they hit middle school.

So, the libraries, much in the way they are used to fill in with literacy gaps, we're also trying to fill in with other gaps, one of them being the STEM field and science.

Engaging these young people is critical for keeping them interested in the sciences.

It's so fun to see them when it clicks and when they finally understand what they're doing or when they see the bot do something that they built.

They really get a huge kick out of just watching it do something that the made it do.

There are several 3-D printing stations at The Hive.

People crank out all kinds of gadgets here.

To get up to speed, you may want to take their 3-D printing class.

We have open labs and different design classes to get people more comfortable with using the technology, and once you've see it in action, it's not quite as scary as you might think.

So, you want to check out the 3-D-modeling side of it?

A lot of it is based on 3-D modeling and design, and then the actual printing part is basically just building, layer by layer, using a plastic material.

After learning the design software, you can start creating and making all kinds of objects.

People have used it to make sort of little trinkets, but then we've got people that also use it for rapid prototyping of new inventions that they want or to create replacement parts for things that have broken around their house.

Whether you're an engineer or an artist, local residents here can take advantage of the latest technology.

We've got our dedicated users that send in prints every month, and they use up their four hours as soon as the 1st of the month hits.

So, everybody with a library card with Hillsborough County that's in good standing gets four hours of print time per month.

We have a full sewing lab.

We offer sewing machines to the public.

They can book time with them.

Our classes have been very, very popular and, actually, very popular across all ages.

We've provided sewing classes on different topics -- everything from how to make a tote bag to cosplay workshops.

We provide them access to the equipment so that they can kind of test it out, see if it's something that they're interested in, and then let their imagination run wild.

Kirsten Vanderkelen is a regular visitor to The Hive.

She's an expert seamstress who can't afford her own equipment.

A friend of mine -- she's a carhop, and she wanted a custom apron with an embroidered unicorn on it.

She wanted very rainbow.

She wanted zippers in the front of the apron so her change and the receipts and everything didn't go flying in case she fell, 'cause she is on skates.

The sewing room allows Kirsten to spread out and multitask.

She can be cutting fabric and sewing while her unicorn design is embroidered into the apron.

And I can be in here doing this.

My husband can be in the recording studio.

The kids can be in the Minecraft club, and, literally, the entire family can be here for the whole weekend.


The Hive also has an audio/video recording studio for those who love to create digital media.

It's fully equipped with an iMac, 27-inch.

It's able to handle the full Adobe creative cloud, which works well for our patrons as far as editing any of the media that they capture.

It's equipped with all of the native Mac software.

♪♪ We do have a MIDI controller available, which is actually a MIDI trigger that allows the sounds within the software to be activated, so you're able to use something that looks like a standard keyboard and play a cello or a guitar.

And if you want to create some amazing images to go with your music...

We do have a full chroma key screen that is able to be utilized for recording.

We do have a great amount of lighting, and we have a nice HD camera available, as well, for our patrons to utilize and create their footage and YouTube videos.

Today we want to introduce you to The Hive at the...

It is a great feeling to actually be on the cutting edge as far as where the libraries of the future will actually be not only a place to enjoy content that was created by others but to actually create your own content.

Collaborative spaces are available, featuring video projectors and large monitors.

We're not a quiet library space.

We are definitely encouraging people to talk and to collaborate.

The Hive is a place for innovators and lovers of lifelong learning.

I love the nature of the maker movement -- that it encourages people to form a community and work together to solve problems and learn new things.

I think that's what a library can do best.

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... ♪♪