Have you ever longed for a magic dress that changes itself while you are wearing it? Well, someone has, because it is a trending topic in Ambient Intelligence.

Actually, color change is already solved (up to a point) and the answer is a substance known as thermochrome, that changes colors depending on the temperature. There are two blends of thermochromes: liquid crystals and leuco dyes. The first ones, you have probably seen in (cheap) thingies like mood rings or color changing mugs. Leuco dyes are a combination of colored chemicals that react when temperature goes over 25º C (approximately) and become colorless. The reaction is reversible, so when the temperature drops, they gain their color back. A layer of leuco dyes can be applied to any cloth and the resulting color is the combination of its original color and the substance … until it goes colorless. (Not so) Instant color change!

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Picture taken from Del Sol clothing

Of course, heat is kind of ok for a mug, because you can check whether the liquid inside is cold or hot, but not so much for clothes, because temperature tends to change too slow for changes to be too flashy. Other substances can be affected by different stimuli, like light, heat and friction. Lauren Bowker, from the Unseen, worked out a new ink (PHNX) that reacts to seven different parameters in the environment, including air pollution, heat, air friction and moisture. This basically means that your sweater could switch colors when you move from one part of the city to another. Chameleon style!

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Image taken from wired.co.uk

Cool, right? Well, you don’t have to pretend. I know that when we started talking about color changing fashion, you were thinking of this:

Well, maybe we can’t get exactly this (pity), but, is it actually possible to change textiles at will if we mix thermochromes and electronics. Take, for example, Chromosonic, by Hungarian designer Judit Eszter Karpati. She also relies on a temperature-sensitive dye, but instead of leaving changes to the whims of nature, she has actually woven nichrome wires into the fabric.

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Nichrome is a fairly well known alloy of nickel, chromium and other elements that has been widely used as industrial heater. If one heats up the wires in a pattern using, for example, a microcontroller, the dye in the surrounding textile changes colors responding to the pattern, which, in the case of Chromosomic, turns out to be an audio file. Problem is, obviously, that it’s actually way easier to heat things up that to cool them off.

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Image taken from Chromosomic (Tumblr)

… or, if you want to stick solely to electronics and make a dress that it’s not just a christmas tree, you can actually sew sensors and LEDs into your fabric and make it sensitive to whatever magnitude you want to measure. Environment Dress, from UH513, won the Next Things 2015 award doing exactly that. Only for the brave people, though!

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Anyone has seen Big Hero 6 probably loves the movie. Anyone who’s seen the flick and actually works in robotics probably loves it ten times more. Unlike many (supposedly) historic blockbusters I’d rather not remember, these guys actually enrolled some very well robotics scientists as consultants and the benefits are obvious: most of the basic stuff is scientifically sound.

For a start, let’s focus on microbots. More specifically on swarms.

Swarm robots are (large-ish) groups of robots that work together. Their collective behavior results from local interactions between the robots and between the robots and the environment in which they act. This research field has been active for a long time now and Marco Dorigo is probably one of the best known scientists in it. Swarms work collectively and without explicit centralized supervision. This means that robots have a global goal and a set of rules to follow, but each robot makes decisions on its own. Hence, we get fault tolerant, scalable and flexible systems, i.e. it does not matter that a handful of robots are not working properly, the strength is in the number.

Obviously, if we want to work with a few hundred robots at a time, they need to be cheap, small and battery savvy (imagine you had to recharge 300 robots every few hours!). A good example of this are Rubenstein’s Kilobots (Harvard University).

rubenstein2small-1408024399454Instead of conventional motors, Kilobots make do with smartphone-like vibration motors, much cheaper, lighter and easy on the batteries. When these motors start to vibrate, they change the center of mass of the robot, actively displacing it forwards (imagine someone pushes you a bit when you are standing: you need to move to regain equilibrium, right?). This is actually the basis of a classic workshop for kids to build the simplest robot using a toothbrush and a smartphone vibration motor.

If you have two motors, one on each side of the robot, you can also rotate right and left by activating one or the other. Kilobots also talk with each other via infrared communication. Thus, they can calculate approximately where they are with respect to the rest. Using this information, they can collectively adopt any shape simply following three simple rules: edge-following, gradient formation and localization.

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The system works as follows. We give ALL robots information about the shape they must adopt and fix a small number of (stationary) robots in a corner of the shape (that becomes our origin of coordinates, i.e. the 0 km of our reference). The rest of the robots will try to estimate their position within the shape with reference to these robots (i.e. the coordinate system). They also keep information about how many robots are between these static robots and themselves (gradient). Robots basically move by following the frontier of the global robot formation (edge following). They keep moving until they decide that they are within the boundaries of the desired shape and they stop when they detect that they are about to leave those boundaries or they collide with a robot with the same gradient value. After a while (unfortunately, several hours, unlike in Big Hero 6) robots manage to organize themselves into the desired shape. Taking into account that we are talking about more than 1000 robots and only these simple rules are used, this is quite a big deal.

So, yup, just planar shapes and quite slow with respect to the movie, but definitely in the same line!

More information on IEEE Spectrum and How Stuff Works

So you’ve watched Orphan Black for a while and one of the big end season 1 revelations turns out to be …

-Beware, spoilers ahead ..-

… evil corporation Dryad has actually encoded a copyright on the DNA of the clones. And one may think, so what’s the big deal? Yep, you knew you were all clones so why care if you find hard coded copyright in your genes? This is discussed further in the series, but we can move immediately to the real world on this.

Actually gene patenting is a very spiky issue. And we can discuss on law and consequences. Let’s start with law.

Human genes cannot be patented in US, according to a Supreme Court Ruling released on June 13, 2013. The argument is clear: a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and, hence, not patent-eligible. Think, for example, that someone wants to patent air, or water.

Of course, major companies working on the field claim that they are investing large amounts of money on research to isolate nucleotide sequences in specific genes that may help with preemptive diagnosis and/or treatment of severe conditions like cancer. Despite this claim, it’s been stated that any naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent-eligible merely because it has been isolated. However, companies can actually patent sequences that are synthetically created: in the case of Orphan Black, any DNA sequence not coming from the biological parents of the clones as such. If this law was applied to Orphan Black and assuming that clones DNA were mostly synthetic, Cosima would actually be under copyright infringement if she studied her own DNA to heal herself unless she worked directly for Dryad. And that brings us all the way into (real) consequences.

Major protests against gene patenting focus (with reason) on monopolies. If a company has a patent on a sequence of DNA that is related to, e.g. breast cancer, they’d be the only ones allowed for testing of that sequence and, hence, they could ask for as much money as they wanted for any test. Furthermore, scientists not belonging to the company would not be allowed to keep studying on that specific sequence, so progress would slow down. This is a proven fact: let’s evaluate the Myriad Genetics case, which actually led to  the United States Supreme Court decision.

Myriad Genetics Inc. was prevented from holding patents on two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are linked with a increase in the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Using its patents, they have tested more than 1 million women since the late 1990s for mutations that often lead to breast and ovarian cancer. The price of the procedure was 3340 USD for breast cancer, plus an additional amount of 700 USD for final confirmation if the initial result was not clear enough. Shortly after the decision against gene patenting was released, DNATraits, a division of Gene by Gene, said they could offer the test for just $995.

Actually, Orphan Black even suggests at (hypothetical) consequences derived from patenting artificial sequences of DNA. If one can actually mutate a sequence inside a person to, let’s say, achieve resistance against cancer, any child of the person could actually carry the mutated sequence and, by definition, be a walking copyright infringement … or (partially) belong to the company.

In any case, thousands of genes have been patented thus far. It would be interesting to keep in mind why inventions like the polio vaccine were never patented. And there’s still people who wonder why we spend money on public research …

Source: Live Science