Sound waves, Robobees and Climate Change

A month's worth of cool science stories summed up.
Alistair Jennings, Contributor

This is not a hologram - even though it really looks like one. It’s actually a tiny polystyrene ball - about a mm wide - suspended by sound waves. An array of speakers underneath the ball uses sound-waves to create pressure in the air, pushing the ball up against gravity. The sytsem can also use those pressures to move the ball around, very fast. Move it fast enough, give it some mood lighting, and you can create what seem like solid, beautiful, floating structures called volumetric displays. Not holograms.

This isn’t actually the first time we’ve seen such volumetric displays - this one from last year used lasers for levitation instead. But the new system can do more. Much more. As well as floating the ball, it can use its sound waves to create pressure on your fingertips, so when you get near it, it feels like you are actually touching something. And, perhaps less surprisingly, they can also the sound waves to generate noises. This is the first multi-sensory responsive display of its kind. And it’s REALLY COOL. We’re are getting closer and closer to a sci-fi future. 

One in which we hand over increasing control to artificial intelligence. In the last month alone, AI tools have been developed to better predict life-expectancy from heart disease patients, identify blood cells to diagnose for acute myelogenous leukaemia, find more economic ways to produce hydrogen for renewable energy, even design, build and test entire chemical-producing biology-incorporating factories. But my favourite has to be an anti-censorship AI, that evolves to find its way around censor blockade. It’s inspired by the workings of DNA: the AI has access to many, many fragments of code and puts them together in different ways to create strategies to evade censorship. The strategies that work are kept, the rest chucked out. Then the AI randomly changes some code fragments, combines others together - and tests them again - it’s like it’s mutates and crossbreeds its strategies then using natural selection to evolve the best one. Using this AI, the researchers showed that a computer behind the great chinese firewall could access websites that were normally forbidden. An AI that evolves and mutates… this feels like the part of the film where someone dies horribly. I hope it’s not me. Although that sort of sci-fi dystopia is getting closer: this is the Robobee. It’s the first every flying microbot that can control its hovering using soft artificial muscles. The soft tissue of artificial muscle changes shape under electrical fields, and flap the Robobee’s wings. Perhaps more importantly, it’s soft enough to be undamaged when it inevitably crashes into other bees. Or the floor.

And we may need that Robobee sooner than we’d like - climate breakdown is driving us through the sixth mass extinction: and who knows if the real bees will make it? Society may fall apart as the climate changes and now we know that that’s happened before! Researchers exploring caves in eastern Iraq found evidence of climate shifts 1000s of years ago which propelled the collapse one of the worlds great empires - the Assyrians. The researchers discovered how wet the local climate had been using the changing composition of oxygen atoms in the stalactites and stalagmites from the caves. They found that almost 2700 years ago, there was a great drought, which killed the Assyrians’ crops and contributed to that civilisation’s downfall. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. So, go! And learn more about that study in this article on the Inside Science website. And that’s it from me, I’ll see you next month for a round-up of the year’s best science. Goodbye!

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Ali Jennings has his PhD in neuroscience from University College London.