SciTech Now Episode 304

In this episode of SciTech Now, the first biodesign event in New York City; Caleb Scharf explores the possibility of life on other planets; cyborg rights activist Neil Harbisson talks about the present and future of human augmentation; and a San Antonio youth program brings kids and code together.



Coming up... Innovation in Biodesign.

Our project is 'Liver Clear.'

It's a biofilm, which is, essentially, a bacterial membrane that has specific bacteria and microbes in it that can capture and degrade estrogen from your water supply.

The viability of life on other planets.

Essentially every star that you see in the sky has a planetary system around it, and something like at least 15% of those planetary systems have worlds that could be other blue marbles.

Cyborgs among us.

There's a chip inside that allows me to perceive the light frequencies of color through vibrations in my head.

The vibrations become inner sounds, so I hear the sound of each color.

And finally, teens jam out on code.

These are also skills that teach them how to think logically, how to think critically, and how to create and design.

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.

An air purifier made of spiderwebs, a toilet insert that filters estrogen, and a cactus-like water harvester -- these are just a few of the projects presented at the first Biodesign Challenge in New York City.

'Science Friday' has the story.

'Stabilimentum' is a project that tries to bridge a new type of symbiotic relationship between humans and spiders.

So our project is called 'Liver Clear,' and it's a bacterial membrane that will reside in your toilet in order to filter out estrogen.

Our project was called 'Bioesters.'

If you've ever had seaweed salad before, there's kind of like viscous gel -- you know, extract that and kind of concentrate it.

That's what we were working with.


We are now in a culture where everything's about the pitch.

You know, you go to an accelerator, and they have a demo day, and it's all about sell, sell, sell.

We're trying to do something very different.

We're saying, 'Think, think, think.'

The three goals of the challenge have been, one, to create a community of scientists, designers, and artists who are all collaborating together.

Goal number two has been inform the public about what the potentials of the technology might be, and, number three, hey, let's see some fresh ideas in the space of biotechnology.

Let's see what we do.

As droughts and desertification are increasing on the planet worldwide, and existing water sources are rapidly depleting, we do need to look for other sources of water, and the various members of the Opuntia Genus actually have this great ability to collect water from fog with specially designed spines.

So, what we did is took inspiration from these cacti to create synthetic panels that can basically do the same thing.

Just by, like, delving into the body of research that's out there, we found this biopolymer alginate and started experimenting with it, kept learning more and more and more, and we eventually came up with this fiber that we extruded out of a syringe and actually had some strength to it.

Fibers are kind of what make the textile industry run, and rather than, you know, growing it in forms, we can extrude it and use any existing knitting machine to fabricate the product that we're looking to make.

There's a type of spider fiber that has a glue component to it, and it's been identified that that glue not only catches prey, but it also catches microparticles and pollen and other things that are in the air -- basically anything that's charged.

So our project -- take these natural spiderweb fibers and use them as an air-filtering system.

In our design, you don't really wear the spider.

We kind of have the spider here as a provocative statement of what it could be.

What we are proposing is to create a good environment for spiders to live in so that they would be happy, produce webs, and then we could use the webs.

They would be this kind of shape that would have webs in the middle, and you wear it as you would wear a mask.

Our project is 'Liver Clear.'

It's a biofilm, which is, essentially, a bacterial membrane that has specific bacteria and microbes in it that can capture and degrade estrogen from your water supply.

Suddenly, there's so many female fish in the rivers, and they couldn't reproduce anymore, and that's where we kind of stemmed from with this estrogen idea.

The idea is that it kind of tapers off towards the normal hole in your toilet, and the estrogen will get trapped in this membrane here.

But the water can still go through the honeycomb structures, so your toilet will function normally, and there is also an idea of having an indicator saying, 'Okay, this is coming out of your body.'

I think the judges were excited to see that the students, even though they were Art and Design students, actually delved into the science.

To be perfectly frank, it's not ready for showtime, but that they had made the material, that they had thought about how it might work, how it's different from materials that are already out there.

I think they were excited that the students had explored context.


In my lab, we measure the human brain, which is, of course, incredibly exciting and interesting, but very hard to measure.

So we do that in a number of ways.

We use functional imaging -- it's called functional magnetic resonance imaging -- to image the human brain while it's engaged in cognition and thought and memory formation.

The way we test human subjects is by taking our very big questions about memory and behavior, reducing them to something as simple and specific as possible, and implementing that question in a form of, basically, a computer game, and now we ask people to play this computer game while their brain is being scanned, and that way we can track what's happening in their brain and where as they're engaged in a particular aspect of learning or memory.

What we actually measure with the FMRI are changes in metabolism and oxygenation in the brain, and those images that we see after processing show us where in the brain, or it was an area where there was more metabolism and more activity under a certain condition.

So, for example, where there's more activity when you remember something relative to when you don't remember something.


It's one of the biggest and most complex questions out there -- Are we alone in the universe?

The field of astrobiology studies the origin, viability, and future of life on other planets, and asks, is planet Earth really as unique as we think?

Joining me now is Caleb Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University.

I'm sure you have the answer to this question -- Are we alone? -- right, but this is kind of a question that we've always wondered as soon as we had the capacity to wonder, and then when we were able to look at that beautiful image of the blue planet for the first time, and then we started looking around and seeing a kajillion of these, how many other blue ones are there?

How do we tackle that?

It's a great question, and I should say, we don't know whether there's anything else out there, which is a fascinating puzzle because, as you mention, we're at this point in our history where we've now discovered that there are other worlds around other stars, and 20 years ago, we didn't know if that was the case, and we suspected that there were probably planets around other stars, but we didn't know if it happened very often.

We now know that it happens very often -- essentially, every star that you see in the sky has a planetary system around it, and something like at least 15% of those planetary systems have worlds that could be other blue marbles like the famous picture that you're evoking.

And so the big question now is, do any of them harbor life?

And that's a big focus for science right now, but it is, also, this fundamental ancient question that we've asked for a very long time.

We have this kind of Goldilocks just far enough away from the sun, not too far.

There's so many things that had to go just right for the preconditions of life here.

What's to say 4 billion years ago that combination didn't repeat, considering that there's a kajillion different planets in the galaxies and solar systems?

Again, it's a great question, and it's really at the forefront of inquiry at the moment is how robust is this phenomenon that we call life.

What does it take to get it going and what does it take to sustain it across 4 billion years?

We tend to forget that we, or life on earth has been here for something like 4 billion years, and it's gone through many changes, and it's gone through many different environmental conditions.

So, on the one hand, it looks like life is pretty robust.

On the other hand, we still don't know what the key pieces are for the origin of life or the sustaining of life over timescales like that.

So it's still a central puzzle.

What are the factors that point to the possibility of this happening?

Is it just the sheer number of it -- I mean, the mathematical probability of one in a billion not so much if you have 50 billion?

That's right.

Well, that is our intuition.


And it may well turn out to be absolutely correct.

Scattered amongst the stars we see in the sky, there's lots of other life, but the truth is, we simply don't know, and it's very interesting because it's to do with the way in which we make inferences on the basis of very little data.

So I like to say that astrobiology is a field that has one datapoint, which is us.


And we can extrapolate from that, but it turns out to be really difficult.

You can't do much with one datapoint, and so we're in this kind of interesting point of tension where everything is saying surely there's got to be life out there, there has to be other life, and it may be abundant, but we still don't quite know.

We haven't crossed that next threshold.

Given the tools that we have today, how does science study the viability of life elsewhere?

I mean, we have one or two really great telescopes up in the sky, but, you know, there's lots of interpolation that has to happen based on how light is traveling to us, what sorts of gases that we see, and then, really, just to try to get down to that miniscule level and say, 'Is that planet viable?'


So with our telescopes, we're trying to probe the chemistry of distant planets, and, again, that's very difficult, and it's right at the forefront of current inquiry, and in the future, we're aiming to do better than just look for oxygen.

We're aiming to look at a whole host of different chemicals that might exist in a planetary atmosphere, for example, that give away the presence of a biosphere.

Now, of course, the really interesting thing would be if we get some of that data, and we say, 'Hey, this planet has oxygen.

Maybe it's got methane in the atmosphere.'

What do we do next?

How do we convince ourselves that there's life there?

That, I think, is a puzzle we've yet to tackle.

Even if, best-case scenario, we say it looks like there are signs of life on some distant planet, one, we're not necessarily -- we don't have the technology yet to be able to travel anywhere close to that 'cause a telescope might be able to see light-years out, right, but we're never gonna be able to travel that, and then, two, life there might not have evolved the same way that life here evolved.

There's so many wonderful puzzles in this field.

We look at our surroundings and go, 'Wow.

This is just perfect for us.'


But in truth, we came out of those circumstances, and so it's only natural that they will seem to work well for us.

But this question of could it have happened differently, and you'd still, after 4 billion years, arrive at thinking, supposedly intelligent organisms like us.

Also, something we want to try to understand much, much better, because it's deeply linked to questions of chance and chaos in the universe.

It's linked to fundamentals of evolution.

How does evolution work on these very long timescales?

What are other possible trajectories that you can take and still end up at roughly the same place?

So, the marvelous thing about astrobiology as a science is, although you're asking questions about life elsewhere in the universe, ultimately it comes back to answer our deepest questions about ourselves, I think.

Got a very cool job -- Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University -- Caleb Scharf.

Thanks for joining us.

My pleasure.

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Once found only in Science Fiction, cyborgs are now a reality, a growing community of people using technology to enhance and expand their human capabilities.

Neil Harbisson, a cyborg himself, cofounded the Cyborg Foundation in 2010, an international organization to help humans become cyborgs and defend cyborg rights.

Up next, reporter Andrea Vasquez speaks to Harbisson via Google Hangout.

And joining me via Skype is Neil Harbisson.

Neil, thanks for being with us.

Thank you.

How did you become a cyborg?

How did you even get the idea to approach your color blindness in this way?

Well, my aim was to perceive color without changing my sight, 'cause, to me, seeing in grayscale has many advantages 'cause I see better at night.

Also, I see better distances.

I memorize shapes more easily.

So not seeing color was an advantage for me, so I wanted the new sense to perceive color that wouldn't modify my sight or my hearing or any of my other senses.

So, the aim was to create a new sense for color, and for doing that, I needed, also, a new sensory organ.

So, and then I designed an antenna that goes inside my head, and then a doctor drilled the head, and then there's a chip inside that allows me to perceive the light frequencies of color through vibrations in my head.

So then I memorize the vibrations for each color, and then I can sense color through this new sense, which, actually, allows me to also hear color, 'cause the vibrations in the head become inner sounds, so I hear the sound of each color, and, also, it allows me to go beyond the visual spectrum, 'cause it also includes infrareds and ultraviolets, and also Internet perception.

So Internet then allows me to receive colors from other devices or other people that can send colors to my head.

Can you show us how it's kind of connected and where it goes?

So this is an antenna that picks up the light frequencies in front of me, and then it goes at the back of the occipital bone, and then there's four implants in the back -- one for the chip that vibrates depending on the light frequency in front.

Two other implants are to hold this structure, and the fourth implant is Internet connection so people can send colors to my head, or I can also connect to satellites so that I can then sense the colors from space.

So, people can send colors to your head?

They can send colors anytime of the day or night, so if there's a beautiful sunset in Australia now, my friend from Melbourne can actually stream light images from the mobile phone to my head, and then I suddenly sense the colors of a sunset, or if someone sends colors at night, and I wake up, and I realize that my dream was very violet, then it's probably 'cause someone was sending violet colors at night.

And do you find that things that people say look beautiful tend to also sound beautiful to you?

Uh, not always, no.

Like, sunsets sound a bit sad 'cause it's like a descending note.

So it sounds like 'do-o-o-o' -- a bit sad, whereas supermarkets sound much more exciting.

I like the sound of supermarkets much more than the sound of a sunset.

You're hearing a whole spectrum of noises beyond what we're even seeing.

Do you feel it there constantly?

Do you forget it's there?

Do you shower and sleep with it?

Yeah, there's two things.

One is the sense.

The new sense is completely integrated with my brain.

So the software in the brain feel like one, so that's one union, and the other union is the union between the body part and my head.

It's just like any other body part, and, yes, it's waterproof, so I can shower, and I just had to get used to the new height, and also the fact that people are not used to seeing humans with antennas, but I think in the 2020's, we might see more people with new body parts, and it will become normal to meet people with new sensory organs.

And you and cofounder Moon Ribas from the Cyborg Foundation, you guys have really sort of spearheaded this effort.

So, what is the motivation here in promoting cyborgism?

Is it about fixing things?

Is it about enhancing and pushing the boundaries of human capability?

It's about extending our perception of reality.

We are, I guess, the first generation that can actually design how we want to perceive life in a very profound way.

We can design new senses, we can design new body parts, and we can design our perception of reality.

So we see this as an art, cyborg art -- also, something that can change our species.

I've read about something called North Sense, which is one of these extensions, and read an explanation that it can add to your memories in the sense of you remember where you were, maybe what you were wearing, what you were hearing when something happened, and then now this added layer of which cardinal direction you are pointing.

What are some of the other senses that we can add to our experiences?

The North Sense now, people are buying it at Cyborg Nest, and it's something that will allow you to feel the magnetic North of our planet, and this will change the way we sense orientation.

It will gain the way we perceive our context, and, also, it's a sense that other species have.

Sharks and some birds can feel the magnetic North, and this helps them orientate, but, yes, there's many other senses, like feeling what's behind you.

All of our senses are focused in front of us, but if you have a small sensor that allows you to feel vibrations at the back, like the senses that we give to cars, it will give you a sense of presence behind you.

Also, sensing ultrasounds or infrasounds, or ultraviolets or infrareds, like the antenna, or also something very simple like magnetoception, feeling the magnets around us.

So it's just extending a bit more of the senses that we have or adding completely new senses, like the seismic sense that Moon has.

She can feel all the earthquakes of the world by an implant in her arm that allows her to feel the vibrations of the planet.

So she feels a strong connection with the earth 'cause whenever the earth shakes, she shakes.

So she feels like she has, like, two heartbeats -- Earth beat and her own beat.

And part of the human experience is that our brains, without us realizing, are ignoring a certain amount of stimuli as we go through our day, and it would be too distracting for us to do what we needed to do if we were hearing everything.

Is there any kind of concern that we could end up overstimulating ourselves if we start adding all these senses?

At the beginning, it might be a bit more predominant.

Having a new sense will dominate your daily life, but then, after some months, this sense will integrate with the other senses and it will become normal to have this new sense.

So, how do you see this cyborgism expanding in the population, and the other side of it, the cyborg rights that you and Moon have been pushing for?

Yeah, the cyborg rights is having the right to have surgery is one of the main points 'cause some of the cyborg surgeries are still not bioethically allowed.

The aim is that these surgeries should be allowed, and they should be ethically approved by the Bioethic Committee.

So that's one of the basic cyborg rights -- the right that we should all have to extend our senses and our perception of reality, and I think we'll be seeing this in the 2020's.

The union between humans and technology will not only be psychological union, it will be a biological union, and many people will merge their bodies with technology in order to have permanent new sensory organs and new senses.

A whole new world.

Neil Harbisson, thanks again for joining us.

Thank you.

Teaching upper elementary through high school students to code is the goal of one San Antonio, Texas, program called Youth Code Jam.

The program helps get kids excited about computer science and motivates them to aspire to high-tech jobs of the future.

Let's take a look.

Today's event is a Youth Code Jam for teens with high-functioning autism and Asperger's.

This is really important to me, this particular event.

They're all important to me, but this one is special to me.

As our event, our large Code Jam grew bigger and bigger and bigger, what we discovered was that some of our kids with sensory issues and with some social anxiety were having a challenging time managing that big, loud, busy environment, and so we decided last year to do our first pull-out event.

It's a low-sensory event, very quiet.

There's not music in the background.

The kids are seated.

Our volunteers are seated.

And this gives an opportunity for kids to be in an environment that's comfortable for them, where they feel safe and secure and not distracted by a lot of other activity going on around them so that they can really focus in on what they want to learn.

This is our second time here at a Youth Code Jam.

It's hard to really keep his interest sometimes.

He has a lot of different extracurricular activities as it is.

Me being more of a technology-oriented parent, I'm always trying to push him to something along those lines, which is why I really appreciate the CodeCombat because it's a video game.

He happens to like video games quite a bit, so it really does keep his attention and keep him going.

Our goal is really to inspire an interest in programming, to build their confidence, and to help them imagine themselves in a job of the future.

What we know about this particular population is about 80% of -- The statistics say about 80% of young adults with Asperger's are either underemployed or unemployed.

That's a huge number.

Now, hold that number in your mind, and then think about the fact that there's going to be a million unfilled programmer jobs by the year 2020, and that computing jobs are now the number-one source of new wages in the United States.

So, we have not only a growing field, but a field that doesn't have enough people in it already.

As a parent, you don't know if your kid has the skill set.


And you may not even know that it's easy for these kids to learn this skill set.

So what happens is these kids come to these events, their parents bring them thinking maybe there's something there, the kids are saying maybe there's something there.

They sit down, they write their first line of code, and you should see a a parent's eyes light up when they see their kid and the capacity that they have for this.

Now, as a parent, what do we want for our kids?

We want them to be happy.

We'd also like them to have a job.

[ Laughs ] Right?

There are companies that want these kids because their neural systems are so well-suited to this arena.

It's just an excellent opportunity for us and for all the other young people here because, I mean, teaching code is basically teaching how to get jobs in the future.

It's teaching order, it's teaching structure, and it's teaching discipline.

These are skills that will really carry them through a lifetime.

These are also skills that teach them how to think logically, how to think critically, and how to create and design, how to be creative, so those tools are really important no matter what we decide to do in life.


Thank you.


Thank you.


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... ♪♪