SciTech Now episode 337

In this episode of SciTech Now, new clues about the lost colony on Roanoke Island; the potential to restore vision to the blind; what our devices reveal about us; and a shared work space for artists and scientists.



Coming up, new clues to a lost colony...

There's also a lot of later material, and there's a lot of native material, and a lot of this is in a mixed context.

...the potential to restore vision to the blind...

Vision is a lot more complex, and so we need to re-create those highly complex signals.

That's the big struggle.

...what our devices reveal about us...

We are willing to use our data as a currency in return for a concrete, valuable product or a service.

...sharing tools and cutting costs.

The concept of a maker space is basically a place for people to kind of come, utilize tools they wouldn't be able to afford, to educate the community on how to use these tools.

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.

Archaeologists and researchers from a Durham, North Carolina nonprofit have used old maps, traditional archaeology practices, and technology to discover new clues about the fate of the lost colony on Roanoke Island in North Carolina.

Here's the story.

If only these trees near the banks of the Chowan River could talk...

Even with all of the pieces of the puzzle starting to come together, they're still missing.

...the oaks and maples could tell us what happened in this forest near the head of the Albemarle Sound more than 400 years ago.

The pattern and the temper and the design, you know, this little thing can tell us a lot.

Archaeological evidence verifies the Native American village of Mettaquem was nearby.

But researchers believe they've found intriguing evidence that some of the settlers from The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island were here as well.

Some artifacts from this particular site came up that were particularly early English types of pottery.

The colonists' fate is America's longest-running historical mystery.

115 men, women, and children settled along the North Carolina coast in 1587, but the colonists who made up the first permanent English settlement in the New World had disappeared, and their settlement was found abandoned three years later when their leader, John White, returned.

The only signs left behind were the letters 'Cro' carved into a tree, and 'Croatoan' carved into a fort post.

This is North Carolina's heritage.

This is the heart of Elizabethan America.

True, it went up to the James River and to the Chesapeake Bay.

They visited there.

They planned there.

But they lived here.

And those lives and those stories should not be forgotten.

The most tantalizing clue in centuries to the colonists' fate was found on this watercolor map of the coast.

It was drawn by White.

It's now in the British museum.

X-ray spectroscopy revealed a tiny four-pointed star under a patch layered atop the map.

Researchers from the First Colony Foundation believe the fort symbol could indicate where the settlers went.

It has a lot going for it.

You can fit it into the documentary.

There's one statement in the documentation that talks about the colonists' intent to move 50 miles 'into the main' from Roanoke Island, which means sort of 50 miles further inland.

It makes it intriguing.

It makes us want to come back and do more.

But inland search marks an important shift away from Roanoke Island, where researchers have found few clues to the colonists' fate.

That's effective.

Oh, yeah.

At the inland site, dubbed Site X, First Colony Foundation archaeologists have turned up large amounts of Native American pottery, but they've also discovered English pottery similar to that found on Roanoke Island and common at Jamestown.

It's not the type of pottery associated with later English settlements.

Other colonial artifacts recovered include a hook, a buckle, a food-storage jar, and pieces of an early gun.

We found a number of artifacts that could potentially date to the time period that we're looking for.

There's also a lot of later material, and there's a lot of native material, and a lot of this is in a mixed context, so it's difficult to say exactly what we're looking at and what it all means.

The information for where these artifacts come from are put on the bag.

That way, the artifacts stay with the bag.

They stay with their contexts as they transition to the lab and through analysis.

And that way, we know where everything comes from and what unit it came from, where it came vertically, dependent upon the level.

We have several thousand years of occupation at this one site, so we've got all these things overlapping.

So you've got Native American storage pits overlapping -- we have 18th-century probably, metalworking going on here.

So it all kind of overlaps itself.

So one of the ways we can sort of figure out what these features -- what time period they relate to is by actually excavating.

And that's the challenge.

Researchers say radiocarbon and other dating methods aren't precise enough.

Pottery styles don't change precisely over time, and Native Americans could have scavenged the materials and brought it to the village.

While the evidence suggests at least a few of the colonists wound up at the site, nobody can say for certain.

That's probably one of the biggest arguments that we have, or strongest arguments we have for this being an earlier English site is because of the types of ceramics that are coming from -- the types of pottery that are coming from here are specific to a certain time period.

And you don't really see them after a certain time period.

Oh, here's another one.

The findings add to the growing theory that at least some of the colonists survived and split up, making their homes with Native American tribes.

And we have found some pottery, different kinds of pottery -- different kinds from different kilns in England, different parts of the country, different styles -- that match the late Elizabethan production.

Researchers are testing a new type of implant that has the potential to restore vision to the blind.

The implant is a hair-like device that generates magnetic fields to induce electrical activity in the brain, and that stimulates the visual cortex.

The device is being developed through a collaboration between Harvard Medical School, Mass General Hospital, and the Palo Alto Research Center.

Shelley Fried, Professor of Neurosurgery at the Harvard Medical School, joins me now.

How is it possible that something implanted in your brain can actually reactivate what we think of as sight?

So, the brain is a bunch of neurons, a bunch of nerve cells, and those nerve cells signal one another by small changes in their voltage.

When the nerves stop functioning, we've discovered many years ago that we could stimulate them electrically and get them to re-work again.

So we go to a part of the brain that's not working or not working normally.

We put in a tiny electrode, or a tiny magnetic coil in this case, and we re-stimulate them.

So you're saying that, basically, what I'm seeing is triggering electrical impulses, and you have essentially been mapping and studying how these electrical impulses happen.

Every time I see red, this thing happens.

So now you're trying to say, 'Let's go backwards, and let's make this thing happen, and maybe he'll see red'?

That's exactly right.

If 20 nerve cells combine with a certain signaling pattern to image me in your vision, then we can re-create those patterns and restore that exact same image with stimulation.

That's the goal.

Vision is fairly complicated, right?

I mean, it's that I can see all of the different colors around you right now, that I can perceive depth, that I can see sort of gradients of shade and lighting.

How will a computer be able to match that?

Yeah, so, there are two answers to that question.

First is vision is amazingly complex, so we're not the first ones to think of stimulating the nervous system.

Others have done it quite successfully.

Cochlear prostheses have been around for decades, and deep-brain stimulation to restore motion in patients with Parkinson's disease have both been wildly successful.

But those regions of the brain are a lot -- The neural coding is a lot simpler in those regions.

Vision is a lot more complex, and so we need to re-create those highly complex signals.

That's the big struggle.

Our goal is not to perfectly re-create all of vision, all of what we see as normal vision, but just, at least initially, to give the crude components of vision back to patients.

So what would that... I guess, what would that look like?

An elderly blind person might not be able to see the face of a loved one but could tell that this is his wife versus his granddaughter, or could tell that a truck was moving down the street.

As you take these incremental steps, what's the end goal?

What would be a device or what would that look like, in implant?

I mean, is it something that I would go into a surgery for and you would put something literally into the visual cortex of my brain?

That's correct.

It does require surgery.

It would be a complex chip that gets inserted into the brain.

There would be a pair of glasses that wirelessly converts the visual world into a series of stimulating signals that we would send to the chip.

All of that would be implanted surgically, yes.

Where are we in that research time line now?

So, in the retina, we've made tremendous progress.

Retinal devices are currently for sale.

Patients can go in and -- patients that are blind, for diseases like macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa, can go and have one of these chips.

The quality of vision that they elicit is still quite limited, but there are many patients that aren't candidates for a retinal device.

Those who've lost their eye, for example -- soldiers in battlefield injuries, or those that are blind due to glaucoma don't have the retina left to stimulate, so we're working on devices for cortical stimulation.

We're still in early testing.

We've had this major breakthrough that gives us stability, that enhances the stability of the device, that gives us more control over the neural activity than ever before, so we're hopeful that this is going to lead, in the next few years, to a human trial and then ultimately to a high-quality device.

All right.

Shelley Fried, Department of Neurosurgery at Mass General, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

As our mobile devices become more advanced and ubiquitous, marketers are developing more targeted ways of reaching consumers.

From GPS tracking to price customization, marketers are using data science to track consumer movement and behavior, raising more concerns about privacy.

Anindya Ghose, Professor of Information, Operations, and Management Sciences at New York University's Stern School of Business, joins me now via Google Hangout with some insights.

First, thanks for joining us.


Thanks for having me.

You study mobile ads in a way that -- while most of us find advertising annoying, you go out of your way to go find it and see if it's working or not.

So, you know, as we see advertisements evolve from television, newspapers, to websites, and now to mobile phones, why are mobile ads working?


I mean, so let me start by saying, you know, you raised the question that advertising is annoying, and let me briefly explain why so.

The reason it's annoying is because we are basically being bombarded by, you know, highly frequent and irrelevant ads, right?

And the reason that's happening is because, even -- This might seem astonishing, but marketers, even today, actually don't have sufficient information about our preferences.

So the solution to this problem of us being, you know, overwhelmed and inundated with ads is not consumers holding back more information about themselves but, rather, them coming forward and sharing more information.

And when that happens, what we see is that marketers then have more precise information, so they reduce the frequency of the communication and increase the relevancy of the ads.

Is this a matter of people sharing more information and that information actually being used?

Because there's a lot of information about me, my search habits, where I visit that's already out there, and I still feel like, 'You know what?

I have a house with hardwood floors, and I still see ads for carpets,' right?

It doesn't make -- or carpet-cleaning services, so it doesn't make much sense.

So it seems that there needs to be a little bit of an industry understanding that, 'Let's figure out how to get those relevant ads in front of him.'

Yeah. No, I think you raise a great point.

So, first of all, what's going on is, even though, like you said, there's a lot of information about you out there, but the ad-tech ecosystem is very fragmented.

So, sitting between the publishers and the advertisers are sitting, you know, 100-plus intermediaries.

You've got ad exchanges, demand-side platforms, supply-side platforms, all these highly, sort of, niche players, and somebody has to essentially do the job of stitching the data together and get a more precise profile of the consumer.

The most powerful ammunition in the hands mobile advertisers is your context.

Context means, you know, information about your current location, the time of the day, the weather in the proximity of where you are, so I -- And I have a book that's coming out in the next few weeks that I talk about the nine forces that are shaping the mobile economy.

And each of these forces are essentially, you know, super powerful on their own, but when you combine them all, it becomes, you know, tremendously sort of strong.

And so what happens in this context is location data combines with context, time, weather, and some other factors, and that's not something that marketers on, let's say, a desktop or in the offline world have easy access to.

But your mobile device becomes sort of the database of all of these forces that marketers have real-time access to, and that's what they're able to leverage and harness.

With that, all of those pieces of information, our smartphones are giving out a ton of information about us, which I'm wondering whether there's a generational gap, whether I'm the last generation of old fuddy-duddy that cares that a store knows all of this information about me, and maybe the generations after me, not so much.

I have studied this phenomenon, not just in the U.S.

but also in the Far East, in China, and South Korea, and in Germany, in India and so on, and one of the things I've seen is that there's actually, like you said, not so much of a cultural difference, not so much of a regional difference, but much more of a generation difference.

So Millennials, you know, Gen Z's, Gen Y's, and, to some extent, even Gen X's are more comfortable sharing data, but here's what's really going on.

And one of the things I keep hearing from them is, 'We really care about the privacy of our data.'


'But we are willing to use our data as a currency in return for a concrete, valuable product or a service.'

If you are getting something for free, how do you empower people to say, 'Hey. You know what?

You're walking around with something of value, and here's how you can leverage that to get these things that you seem to be interested in.'

So, we've done, for example, a bunch of studies in shopping malls, you know, large shopping malls, where what we are saying is, 'Look.

If you come forward and partake in this two-way relationship between, you know, marketers and consumers, then the mobile phone can be used as your concierge, as your butler and not as a stalker.'


And so people are like, 'Okay.

So this means that you're going to put money in our pocket,' and we're like, 'Yes.

Our marketers want to put money in your pocket.

They're not going to take money out of your pocket.'

And so I think these, you know, small, steady but powerful use cases are sort of the first steps towards this meeting of the minds.

There also seems to be, besides the mobile platform which we talked about a lot, there also seems to be now concerns about active versus passive sharing of information.

I mean, there are examples of Alexa and Google Home being devices that are listening for a key word, but you could also think, one day perhaps, they could listen and say, 'Now, these people talk a lot about bicycles.

Maybe a relevant ad to serve them would to be something about bicycles.'


So, I envision a world here where, you know, let's say Saturday night, it's 2:00 a.m.

You've come back after a good time with your friends, and you just switch on your Apple TV.

You have your Apple smartwatch, and you have your Apple smartphone.

The ad that you will see on Apple TV should not be for a Grey Goose vodka because you just come back with having a great time.

It should be something that they should soothe you down.

Now, how would they know it?

Well, the Apple smartwatch is using the Wi-Fi in your home to transmit your biometric data, your heart rate, your pulse rate, you know, your walking patterns back to the TV, and the TV is saying, 'Let me show him an ad for this nice, you know, pristine beach in the Caribbean islands that's going to put him back to sleep.'

Or, perhaps, it says, 'Well, his heart rate is beating so hard.

Maybe he needs to have a hangover-cure ad for tomorrow morning, too,' right?

[ Laughs ] Yeah. That will also work.

Anindya Ghose from NYU's Stern School of Business, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you so much for having me, Hari.

And thank you for joining us.

To learn more, check out Anindya's new book 'Tap: Unlocking the Mobile Economy.'

The cost of high-tech design tools can be prohibitive, a situation that led Douglas Brown to start a shared work space in Downtown Orlando.

At Factur, artists and scientists are able to bring their ideas to life through microprocessors, computer-controlled laser cutters, 3D printers and more.

We take you inside this collaborative space.

Every inventor knows the adage 'The right tool for the right job.'

But how to unleash individual's creativity when tools can cost tens of thousands of dollars?

Factur, in Downtown Orlando, offers one solution to that problem.

Factur's a maker space.

The concept of a maker space is, basically, a place for people to kind of come, utilize tools they wouldn't be able to afford, to educate the community on how to use these tools.

Factur is a labor of love for founder Douglas Brown.

I started Factur with the idea that I would be able to surround myself with talented artists, talented entrepreneurs, and talented machinists and mentors to kind of learn myself how the tools are used.

By design, the space is many things to many people.

We have a wide variety of members.

I think that we have a lot of retired individuals that have worked in this industry before.

They no longer have the workshop.

They don't have, even, a garage.

We also have a lot of new entrepreneurs that are looking to kind of create new companies, new designs, and they don't have the capital to buy the tools themselves, or even get the warehouse space required to kind of do production.

So we offer that ability for our members to come in, start their company.

Members have access to a number of tools to bring their ideas to fruition.

We do 3D printing with laser cutting, and we also do a woodshop, and we do a metal shop, and we have an electronics room, as well.

We have a laser machine.

It's used for cutting acrylic, for wood, for leather.

The machine itself runs for about $40,000, so it's very difficult for users or members or starting companies to afford that capital outlay.

Most Factur members pay a monthly fee.

Others pay with their time and expertise.

X-Factur is an opportunity here at Factur where you can volunteer time to help teach classes or help teach people on different equipment in exchange for the membership fee.

I volunteer here in the electronics room.

All right.

So this is the intro to Arduino.

Arduino is a set of open-source software and hardware.

The Intro to Arduino class kind of helps people get started with the Arduino hardware.

It teaches a lot of the basics of how to interface with the hardware, a little bit of the coding so that you can learn how to turn an LED on and off, how to get input from a button.

By the time you're done, you've got kind of a basic foundation to help build some type of project that you might be interested in.

In addition to providing access to expensive tools, Factur serves as a place where ideas can cross-pollinate.

I met another member here named Bill Ball, and, together, we both had a similar vision for a low-cost robot that people could learn about electronics and about robotics and about programming.

And so we kind of worked together over a couple months and put together an initial prototype for this robot, that our target is to try to keep it under $50.

This project really wouldn't have been possible without Factur.

Really, more than anything, it's the opportunity to meet people who have similar interests but different levels of expertise and different types of expertise.

I feel like I'm kind of a creative person, and I have a lot of ideas.

And I like to be able to get those ideas out to a certain point to see if it's worth going further with it.

And being able to learn the stuff that will teach other people, you kind of in turn learn a lot about your own ideas.

For Douglas Brown, it's also important that Factur welcomes a broad range of creators.

We're about as evenly demographiced as possible.

I mean, the concept there is we have an equal segment of artists that come in here that are looking to expand upon their art.

One of the pieces that I'm best known for around town is the dinosaur skull out of cardboard.

One of those artists is Bob Barnett.

I do a lot of work where art and technology meet.

I'm very inspired by science fiction.

Here, I get work with a lot of great engineers who have taught me a lot about electrical engineering and computer programming, and they're helping me with the process of building a better version of all the different things that I build.

This object exists in a niche of its own where it is the intersection of astronomy, computer programming, mechanical design, electronic design, graphic design, interface design.

It has so many different aspects that it ties into for this specific piece.

You can use it to point at objects in the sky and track them and take photographs of them, or you can use it to map an area of the sky.

You could use it also for home security.

You could plot the infrared temperatures of crops.

I wanted to build it for the common user.

It's only about $200 to build the thing, and it's all open-source architecture.

So you can program it yourself to do what you'd like it to do.

Factur may appear to be a cool workshop decked out with cutting edge tools, but ultimately, it's not just about shiny new hardware.

Factur is about people.

We have a number of really talented people that have kind of come out of the woodwork to come to Factur to kind of see their own dreams become a reality, and that's a wonderful thing, because when you work for a job and you have a plethora of tools but you can only work on those tools for somebody else, it's nice to be able to have the skill set to come someplace and work on those tools for yourself.

So that's one of the pride things that we have in Factur.

People should be empowered to be able to have the knowledge to create the ideas that they have so that they can share them with the world.

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... ♪♪