Alt-week 12.01.12: Bigfoot DNA, bombs on the moon and shapeshifting robots

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James Trew
December 1st, 2012
Alt-week 12.01.12: Bigfoot DNA, bombs on the moon and shapeshifting robots

Alt-week takes a look at the best science and alternative tech stories from the last seven days.

Science. We like to think of it as a force for good. But, in the wrong hands, this isn't always the case. Something we're reminded of all too well this week. As a counter to that negative vibe, we are also reminded that for every Yin, there is a Yang, and this comes in the form of some developments in med-science that could mean new technology options for the blind. Then there's the Bigfoot DNA and shape-shifting robots, of course. This is alt-week.

Researchers in Switzerland have been investigating ways to help the blind see with technology. A device called the Argus II uses a small camera mounted on a pair of glasses, a portable processor to convert the input into electrical stimulation and a chip implanted on the retina. Using such a device, patients can see color, movement, and even objects. The team in Switzerland, however, took the use of the device one step further by removing the camera, and stimulating the retina with programmed images of braille characters directly. So, instead of reading with the tips of the finger, the subject was having the characters "projected" straight onto their retina. The results showed that the patient could "read" single letters in under a second 89 percent of the time, while two to four letter words were received with an accuracy of 80 percent. While the Argus II primarily remains a camera input-based device, this study shows that in the future, information could be delivered to users of the device in a different way.

Altweek 120112

It was only a few weeks ago that we reported on the latest attempt to hunt down Bigfoot. Little did we know that not only has someone beaten that team to it, they've got some DNA, and given it the full analysis. The announcement comes via a press release from a firm called DNA Diagnostics and a Dr. Melba S. Ketchum of Nacogdoches, TX. She claims to have had the sample for at least 5 years, over which time her team has been analysing it. Their findings? The research -- reportedly under peer review -- claims to have proven the existence of a "novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called 'Bigfoot' or 'Sasquatch,' living in North America." Not only this, apparently the species is a distant relative of humans, arising 15,000 years ago after homo-sapiens crossed with an "unknown primate." Despite the confidence of the claims, there are of course many unanswered questions. Where did the DNA sample come from? How can we be sure it's from an actual Bigfoot? Is there definitely no chance of human contamination? While we wait for these answers, or the findings of the peer review, Ketchum isn't taking her new discovery lightly, and is already calling for public officials and law enforcement to "immediately recognize the Sasquatch as an indigenous people."

The moon. Hardly the first place that comes to mind when you think of nuclear warfare, but according to a UK newspaper report this week, the US military did sketch out plans to launch an atom bomb up there as an extravagant display of Cold War muscle. The project bore the rather more innocent name of "A Study of Lunar Research Flights" and involved the contributions from a young Carl Sagan. The hope was that the Soviet Union would see the nuclear flash, and be intimidated by the technological power that must have been behind it. Fortunately, the mission was abandoned over fears of the potential impact to humans on Earth, as well as concerns over contaminating the moon. Something Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin were no doubt eternally grateful about.

Altweek 120112 Bigfoot DNA, bombs on the moon and shapeshifting robots

We love robots, we really do. So, the idea of one being developed that can change into any shape instantly gets our interest. Okay, it's early days yet, but the MIT-developed device, dubbed the milli-motein, introduces some interesting new technology that could set the foundation for further shape-shifting machines. A proprietary motor that uses magnets to drive a steel ring that surrounds them only draws power when changing shape. This means it can hold position permanently -- once set -- without a power source. The mechanical inspiration, however, comes from nature. Some proteins have been observed naturally folding into complex arrangements, which helped lead to the milli-motein's configuration (and name). While the parts are relatively large, milli-motein is still the highest resolution chain-type programmable matter according to its makers. The individual modules receive their instructions -- the desired shape's "DNA" -- on which way to turn (left, right, or straight), and the motors then make take care of the physical movement. The end goal is a system that can infinitely reconfigure itself to perform a variety of tasks. Who else's first thought was robots in disguise?

Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

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