A database of fish faces, electrode-outfitted headphones, and a new twist on the tourniquet.
- By Eliza StricklandEliza Strickland is a senior associate editor at IEEE Spectrum, a publication for tech and engineering insiders.
While training for the Rio Olympics last year, a few athletes donned headsets that zapped their brains. The Halo Sport, a $700 gadget that became available to general consumers in the fall, looks like a fancy pair of headphones that wouldn’t seem out of place in a gym. But rubbery electrodes tucked into the headband press against the top of the wearer’s head and send an electrical current through the motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls voluntary movement. The stimulation, when sustained for 20 minutes, strengthens the neural connections between the brain and muscles. Initial research by the company indicates that when athletes later enter competition, they have souped-up motor memory.
Elite athletes, including NFL linebackers and Olympic sprinters, have endorsed the Halo Sport, proudly saying that training with it has enhanced their performance. Does brain-zapping constitute doping, though? The World Anti-Doping Agency says it’s “actively monitoring” the new technology. So far, it hasn’t told athletes to lay off the electricity.
The old adage is no longer true: There are not plenty of fish in the sea. According to a recent study of ocean stocks, 68 percent of wild fisheries are being harvested at unsustainable rates—though the decline may actually be worse, as the authors noted a paucity of data from the developing world.
Researchers from the Nature Conservancy Australia are adapting human face-recognition technology to combat the problem. Their project, dubbed FishFace, involves using a camera to snap a photo of a catch on, say, a vessel’s deck. Computer software then automatically analyzes the image to identify the species. Data about what kind of fish are being caught, where, and in what quantities are sent to the cloud, where researchers and policymakers can access them. “The idea is to use this information for improved fishery management,” says Peter Mous, a fisheries program director at the Nature Conservancy.
“If the stock is showing signs of over-exploitation, the responsible authority could consider reducing fishing pressure.” FishFace won a $750,000 prize from Google in 2016, providing a boost before its first trial run this year in Indonesia, where Nature Conservancy scientists will work with dozens of deepwater boats that harvest snapper and grouper.
Before then, the team needs to do some fine-tuning. FishFace software has been coded to identify species based on polished, standardized photos of fish in an existing database. In real-world use, it will be assessing much messier pictures snapped on wet, bloody docks or on packed conveyor belts at processing plants. Moreover, the program has only been trained to identify 20 species so far. Mous says that number needs to jump to about 100 to cover all types of fish typically seen in Indonesian waters. The team is working with Refind Technologies, a Swedish company that makes AI-enabled equipment with the ability to smartly sort through e-waste; its tech is being applied to categorizing fish photos with greater accuracy. Eventually, FishFace hopes to offer a smartphone app, placing a safeguard for fragile ocean ecosystems in fishermen’s hands.
Demand for seafood around the world has skyrocketed in recent years. A 2016 United Nations report notes that per capita consumption has doubled globally since the 1960s, and fishing now accounts for about 9 percent of global agricultural exports. To keep human coffers and plates full, it’s time to look the problem of overfishing in the face.
Charge of the Light Brigade
A typical U.S. “soldier load”—how much a service member carries in a rucksack—ranges from 60 to 100 pounds. That’s because packs are full of radios, night-vision equipment, GPS devices, and the like, all requiring batteries, which add extra weight. The Army estimates that soldiers on a standard 72-hour mission in Afghanistan carry 16 pounds of batteries alone.
At the University of Central Florida (UCF), researchers want to turn fatigues into power sources. They’ve invented a flexible electronic ribbon, only a few inches long, that contains solar cells and a component called a supercapacitor that stores energy harvested from the sun. When interwoven with cotton threads in a military uniform, the ribbon would connect to clip-on adaptors that soldiers could use to recharge depleted gear. The UCF team is looking to partner with a company that manufactures fatigues and turn a bright idea into something durable.
That’s how many video clips were used to train LipNet, a new deep-learning computer program that reads lips. In a test that played videos of people speaking nonsensical sentences, LipNet, created by Oxford academics, correctly identified 95 percent of words—easily topping the 86 percent achieved by the next-best program. Experienced human lip readers got just 52 percent right.
Clot on Command
Tourniquets have been used to stanch the flow of blood since Alexander the Great marched his soldiers across Asia Minor. But researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York, have put a new twist on the old technology. Their “neural tourniquet” is a handheld electronic stimulator that, when pressed against the skin, jolts the neural pathway to the spleen, where blood cells receive instructions to clot wounds anywhere in the body. The message? Start working, stat.
Lab studies show that, within three minutes of this electronic priming, there is an increase of clotting enzymes at injury sites. Researchers have also found that the gadget decreases both bleeding time (by 40 percent) and blood loss (by 50 percent) from a wound. They envision the innovation being used during surgeries, on battlefields, and in other situations where there’s a high risk of bloodshed. For instance, the Feinstein Institute has partnered with the Global Good Fund on a clinical trial investigating whether the neural tourniquet can help mothers at risk of bleeding out after childbirth. (Postpartum hemorrhage is the leading cause of maternal death worldwide.) If the tourniquet works, women may be able to go into labor feeling more sanguine.
A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of FP magazine. Subscribe to FP Premium for 20% off now!
Photo credit: Via YouTube/Creative Commons