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Glimpse: On the Promise of a Future with Artificial Wombs, and Why It’s Being Stopped by the Present

Given the speed at which reproductive technology has advanced over the past few decades, it doesn’t feel all that far-fetched: A future in which anyone can have a baby, regardless of creed or need, whenever they feel like it. Already, in our present moment, one can buy or sell eggs and sperm; we can give embryos genetic tests to ensure the children they produce don’t have any life-threatening hereditary conditions; and babies can even be born, now, with the genetic information from three parents.

So it follows that we should soon be able to to have pregnancy outside the body — artificial wombs. Right?

You’d think. Scientists have already figured out how to mimic many of the body’s processes for techniques like in-vitro fertilization and even hormonal birth control. But the ways mothers’ bodies support and signal fetuses is incredibly complicated — and the science isn’t yet at a point where we can simulate these processes. And because scientists are prohibited from studying embryos 14 days past their fertilization, that’s one sci-fi vision that is not likely to come to fruition.

At least, not in the near future.

For now, it’s imagined in The Stork, the second episode of Glimpse, a new original sci-fi series from Futurism Studios (a division of Futurism LLC) and DUST. Watch the episode below.

That’s not to say that artificial wombs aren’t useful. They might just have a slightly different use than the sci-fi works that have employed them have envisioned.

That is: They can address the growing problem of premature birth.

When “premature” births are discussed, people are usually referring to babies born before 37 weeks of gestation. But the biggest concern surrounds babies born between 22-24 weeks, on what’s called the “border of viability.”

In recent years, doctors have figured out some interventions that make it more likely that babies born in this window will survive. But even then, they’re much more likely to have long-term neurological problems, lung issues, or other effects on their minds and bodies. The survival rate for babies born at 23 weeks is just 30 percent. One more week, though, makes a huge difference; at 24 weeks, the odds of survival double.

It’s important now because, in the United States, the rate of premature birth has risen in recent years. No one is quite sure why, but some factors that increase a mother’s risk of preterm birth include the mother’s age (the average age of the first-time mother has risen in the U.S.), and if the mother has other medical conditions during pregnancy (more common for older mothers).

Artificial wombs could help. And for this use, at least, they could be on the not-too-distant horizon.

In 2017, researchers from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) unveiled a working prototype of an artificial womb. In experiments, the system (which looks a bit like a Reynolds oven bag) helped carry eight extremely premature baby lambs to term. The researchers shifted the fetuses into the “womb-like environments” at 110 days gestation — the equivalent of the human border of viability.

In their study published last year in Nature Communications, the researchers never refer to their systems as “artificial wombs,” likely because the term carries too much weight and controversy with it. “Our goal is not to extend the current limits of viability, but rather to offer the potential for improved outcomes for those infants who are already being routinely resuscitated and cared for in neonatal intensive care units,” the researchers write.

Of course, like plenty (if not all) reproductive technologies before it, the “womb-like environment” was met with controversy. In the days following the CHOP study’s release, a wave of media expressing concerns popped up, with most of them asking some variation of the same questions: How ethical is it to grow a fetus in a bag? Is this the end of natural pregnancy? Will a Matrix-like baby factory open in your neighborhood?

And of course, yes: There are absolutely legitimate ethics issues to sort out over artificial wombs. The technology could eventually lower the age at which fetuses are considered “viable,” which could complicate abortion rights. And there’s also the question of who decides which families get access.

Copyright Dust/Futurism, 2018

And this technology won’t move forward until we start having conversations like these — which is exactly why we need to have them now, before the technology gets here. But it also shouldn’t stop the research from moving forward.

Yes, parents of premature babies might be uncomfortable seeing their newborn inside a plastic bag (that is, if the CHOP technology matures to be used on humans). But doing so might save the baby’s life.

It’s why addressing the binary of whether or not this kind of technology is or isn’t dangerous or “unnatural” is counterproductive. Yes: We’ve got a lot of work to do before artificial wombs are available for human use. We need to increase the breadth and quality of healthcare coverage. We need to revamp the laws and regulations governing reproductive health.

But education — about how these devices work, about why they’re needed — and storytelling, about people whose lives could be improved by such devices, can help keep these conversations balanced. It could reduce alarmism and overreaction. It could begin to facilitate the manifestation of this sci-fi fantasy into a real-life story.

After all, artificial wombs aren’t so different than any other transformative technology that’s taken root across history. As with those, scientists will create the tools — and we won’t just determine how we’ll use them, but not before we decide how long it is before we stop fearing them, and start exploring the possibilities of a world that uses them.

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Glimpse: On the Promise of a Future with Artificial Wombs, and Why It’s Being Stopped by the Present

Why Scientists Grew a Tiny Human Esophagus in a Lab

Researchers have created the first lab-grown esophagus using pluripotent stem cells, and it could help identify new treatments for digestive disorders.

GROWING PAINS

The next time you pop a pill, you probably won’t think about everything it took just to develop it. We want to develop new medicines and technologies that will help patients, but testing human subjects is risky and time-consuming.

As an alternative, researchers have started growing comparable versions of human body parts in the lab, specifically to test new treatments. Now a team from the Cincinnati Children’s Center for Stem Cell and Organoid Medicine has added another body part to the list we can grow on demand: the esophagus.

GULLET TIME

The human esophagus is a tube, about eight inches long, that connects the throat and the stomach. The researchers grew a smaller version of the esophagus called a human esophageal organoid.

In research published Thursday in the journal Cell Stem Cell, scientists began with pluripotent stem cells (PSCs), “master cells” that can grow into any tissue type. By targeting the expression of a gene known to affect esophageal formation, they were able to trigger the PSCs to grow into esophageal tissue. Within two months, they had a lab-grown mini-esophagus, less than a tenth of an inch long.

MR. NICE ESOPHAGI

When the researchers compared the lab-grown esophageal tissue to tissues biopsied from patients, they found the two were “strikingly similar in composition,” according to a press release. That means the lab-grown versions will likely be useful for medical testing.

“Disorders of the esophagus and trachea are prevalent enough in people that organoid models of human esophagus could be greatly beneficial,” lead investigator Jim Wells said in the release. “In addition to being a new model to study birth defects like esophageal atresia, the organoids can be used to study diseases like eosinophilic esophagitis and Barrett’s metaplasia, or to bioengineer genetically matched esophageal tissue for individual patients.”

The researchers’ next goal is to identify projects that could put their lab-grown esophagus to therapeutic use. Given today’s influx of funding for biotech research, that likely won’t be hard.

READ MORE: Scientists Grow Human Esophagus in Lab [EurekAlert]

More on lab-grown body parts: Lab-Grown Skin With Hair Will Illuminate Treatments for Skin Conditions

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Why Scientists Grew a Tiny Human Esophagus in a Lab

UK Researchers Just Deployed a Massive Net to Catch Space Debris

UK researchers are now testing RemoveDEBRIS, a satellite designed to trap space debris in a net so it can be removed before it damages spacecraft.

JUNKY SKIES

If aliens ever visit our planet, their first impression could be that Earthlings are a messy bunch: There’s an estimated 7,500 tonnes worth of discarded satellites, rocket parts, and other debris currently floating in our planet’s orbit.

Now, efforts are underway to clean it up. One such effort: RemoveDEBRIS. In April, the team out of Surrey Space Centre (SSC) sent its RemoveDEBRIS satellite to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft; on Sunday the satellite launched from the ISS to demonstrate one of several debris-wrangling technologies.

DEBRIS DEMO

For this demo, the satellite released a shoebox-sized object to act as its target, then fired a spider-like web that wrapped around the box.

“It worked just as we hoped it would,” SSC Director Guglielmo Aglietti told BBC News. “The target was spinning like you would expect an uncooperative piece of junk to behave, but you can see clearly that the net captures it, and we’re very happy with the way the experiment went.”

In a full-scale version of the technology, the net will remain tethered to the RemoveDEBRIS satellite so it could pull the captured junk out of the sky when it dives toward the Earth at the end of its mission.

But since this was just a demonstration, both the box and the net will simply burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere within the next couple of months. Had the demo occurred higher up in the atmosphere, though, both would have continued to orbit the planet along with the rest of the space junk.

TRASHTOR BEAM

In 2019, the RemoveDEBRIS satellite will demonstrate another technology — a harpoon that snares space junk. Russian scientists are also building a gigantic space laser to zap junk out of the sky, and NASA is working on a large, flat sheet it hopes to use to envelop debris.

And, really, we have no time to waste. This debris already threatens the rockets and satellites already in commission. More cluttered space could make it difficult to launch new spacecraft. If that happens, we might be stuck hoping aliens do find us — after all, we won’t be able to go out hunting for them.

READ MORE: RemoveDebris: UK Satellite Nets ‘Space Junk’ [BBC News]

More on RemoveDEBRIS: An Experimental Space Junk Collector Is on Its Way to the ISS

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People Are Zapping Their Brains to Boost Creativity. Experts Have Concerns.

BRAIN BOOST

There’s a gadget that some say can help alleviate depression and enhance creativity. All you have to do is place a pair of electrodes on your scalp and the device will deliver electrical current to your brain. It’s readily available on Amazon or you can even make your own.

But in a new paper published this week in the Creativity Research Journal, psychologists at Georgetown University warned that the practice is spreading before we have a good understanding of its health effects, especially since consumers are already buying and building unregulated devices to shock them. They also cautioned that the technique, which scientists call transcranial electrical stimulation (tES), could have adverse effects on the brains of young people.

“There are multiple potential concerns with DIY-ers self-administering electric current to their brains, but this use of tES may be inevitable,” said co-author Adam Green in a press release. “And, certainly, anytime there is risk of harm with a technology, the scariest risks are those associated with kids and the developing brain”

SHOCK JOCK

Yes, there’s evidence that tES can help patients with depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, and other serious conditions, the Georgetown researchers acknowledge.

But that’s only when it’s administered by a trained health care provider. When administering tES at home, people might ignore safety directions, they wrote, or their home-brewed devices could deliver unsafe amounts of current. And because it’s not yet clear what effects of tES might be on the still-developing brains of young people, the psychologists advise teachers and parents to resist the temptation to use the devices to encourage creativity among children.

The takeaway: tES is likely here to stay, and it may provide real benefits. But for everyone’s sake, consumer-oriented tES devices should be regulated to protect users.

READ MORE: Use of electrical brain stimulation to foster creativity has sweeping implications [Eurekalert]

More on transcranial electrical stimulation: DARPA’s New Brain Device Increases Learning Speed by 40%

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This Super Powerful Magnetic Field Puts Us One Step Closer to Nuclear Fusion

Researchers from the University of Tokyo have created the strongest-ever controllable magnetic field, and it could help make nuclear fusion a reality.

CRUISIN’ FOR A FUSION

Inexpensive clean energy sounds like a pipe dream. Scientists have long thought that nuclear fusion, the type of reaction that powers stars like the Sun, could be one way to make it happen, but the reaction has been too difficult to maintain. Now, we’re closer than ever before to making it happen — physicists from the University of Tokyo (UTokyo) say they’ve produced the strongest-ever controllable magnetic field.

“One way to produce fusion power is to confine plasma — a sea of charged particles — in a large ring called a tokamak in order to extract energy from it,” said lead researcher Shojiro Takeyama in a press release. The magnetic field that a tokamak would require is “tantalizingly similar to what our device can produce,” he said.

MAGNETS, HOW DO THEY WORK?

To generate the magnetic field, the UTokyo researchers built a sophisticated device capable of electromagnetic flux-compression (EMFC), a method of magnetic field generation well-suited for indoor operations. They describe the work in a new paper published Monday in the Review of Scientific Instruments.

Using the device, they were able to produce a magnetic field of 1,200 teslas — about 120,000 times as strong as a magnet that sticks to your refrigerator. Though not the strongest field ever created, the physicists were able to sustain it for 100 microseconds, thousands of times longer than previous attempts. They could also control the magnetic field, so it didn’t destroy their equipment like some past attempts to create powerful fields.

As Takeyama noted in the press release, that means his team’s device can generate close to the minimum magnetic field strength and duration needed for stable nuclear fusion — and it puts us all one step closer to the unlimited clean energy we’ve been dreaming about for nearly a century.

READ MORE: Magnetic Field Milestone [The University of Tokyo]

More on nuclear fusion: The Long Wait for Fusion Power May Be Coming to an End

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This “Robotic Skin” Can Turn Pretty Much Anything Into a Robot

Yale researchers have created a robotic skin that they can wrap around inanimate objects to give them the ability to move.

CREEPSHOW

Inanimate objects coming to life — the stuff of nightmares? Not so when you can control the objects thanks to “robotic skin.” Then it’s just really, really cool.

You don’t have to take our word for it, either. Yale researchers have actually created this robotic skin, and they posted a video of it in action on Wednesday— the same day they published their research on the tech in the journal Science Robotics.

The robotic skin is made of sheets of elastic embedded with pairs of sensors and actuators. Using a controller, the team can direct the skin to contract, hold, or release. Wrap the sheets around pretty much anything flexible — such as the stuffed horse in the video — and you can program it to move.

BRING ME TO LIFE

While it’s good fun to watch a stuffed horse saunter across a tabletop, the Yale researchers have far more practical applications in mind for the robotic skin. The technology could be fashioned into a wearable, such as a shirt designed to help the wearer improve their posture.

And it might even be useful in space — in fact, the researchers designed the technology in partnership with NASA.

“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multifunctionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns?”

One potential answer: have a few robotic skins handy.

READ MORE: ‘Robotic Skins’ Turn Everyday Objects Into Robots [EurekAlert]

More on robotic skin: New Soft Robotic Skin Automatically Heals Itself, Even if You Shoot It Full of Holes

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This “Robotic Skin” Can Turn Pretty Much Anything Into a Robot

All Our Stuff Is Gonna Be Traded on the Blockchain, Finance Companies Say

A consortium of prominent energy and financial institutions say they'll soon start trading commodities on a new blockchain platform called Komgo.

PAPERCRAFT

The companies that trade commodities like oil and wheat make a lot of money. But they also do a lot of paperwork. They have to send invoices, contracts, and letters of credit around the world, and it’s pretty tedious and time-consuming.

Now, a consortium of prominent energy and financial institutions including Royal Dutch Shell and Citigroup plans to start trading commodities on a new blockchain platform called Komgo.

“Blockchain technology will answer the needs of key participants in commodity trading by improving efficiency and security,” said Souleima Baddi, the chief executive of the startup, in an interview with the Financial Times.

ETHEREAL

The new platform will run on the Ethereum network, a distributed computing platform that uses a blockchain to host contracts. Similar organizations have tried trading commodities on the blockchain in the past few years, according to Reuters, but Komgo stands out because of its prominent launch partners and because any firm will be allowed to use it.

If all goes according to plan, Reuters reports, the system will become available for energy trading in November. Next year it will expand to agriculture and metals.

BLOCKHEADS

Not every major player has bought in. Bloomberg points out that the top three independent oil traders — Vitol Group, Glencore Plc and Trafigura Group — are “notably absent” from the Komgo founders.

But if Komgo is a success, it could be a proof of concept for any industry that want to use a distributed ledger to make complex contracts and paperwork easier.

READ MORE: Energy traders and banks back new blockchain platforms [Financial Times]

More on blockchain: There’s Now A Religion Based On the Blockchain. Yes, Really.

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All Our Stuff Is Gonna Be Traded on the Blockchain, Finance Companies Say

Clearing Faulty Cells Out Of The Brain May Stave Off Cognitive Decline

A NEW APPROACH TO BRAIN DISEASE

There are something like 37 trillion cells in your body, each doing its designated task to keep you alive and healthy. But sometimes, some of those cells, particularly in our brains, simply become inert — these cells, called senescent cells, aren’t quite dead but they’re not performing their jobs, either.

Scientists have long thought the buildup of those cells were related to aging and diseases like cancer. New research published Wednesday in Nature shores up that link: the more senescent cells in a mouse’s brain, the more severe its cognitive decline.

OUT WITH THE INERT

Much of what we know about Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases comes from retroactively examining a dead person’s or animal’s brain. This, however, was a controlled experiment, which means the researchers know the senescent cells actually caused the cognitive decline — we could rule out the chance that the higher senescent cell count was coincidental.

The researchers bred a type of lab rat that naturally developed senescent cells in their brain, thus experienced greater age-related cognitive decline. But when they started to prevent the cell buildup with a drug treatment, they saw that mice who received the treatment had healthier brains, plus reduced levels of cognitive decline and memory loss, than mice who didn’t receive the treatment and had a buildup of inert brain cells like normal.

STILL JUST A RAT IN A CAGE

It would be great if we could assume that human brains worked the same way, but so far there’s no evidence to suggest that it will. Senescent cells give rise to clusters of tau, a kind of protein that is difficult to break down and is linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.

So it’s easy to make the jump and assume that because can develop similar conditions, the drug treatment given to mice will also work for people. But often, medical research conducted on animals fails to generalize to human biology. So this certainly isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s yet, but it might be a valuable avenue to explore in humans as well.

More on Alzheimer’s research: Gamers Built a “Digital Museum” That Unlocked New Secrets of the Brain

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“Synthetic Skin” Could Give Prosthesis Users a Superhuman Sense of Touch

Researchers have created a synthetic skin that could give people with prosthetics the ability to sense touch with super-human sensitivity.

IN THE FEELS

Today’s prosthetics can give people with missing limbs the ability to do almost anything — run marathons, climb mountains, you name it. But when it comes to letting those people feel what they could with a natural limb, the devices, however mechanically sophisticated, invariably fall short.

Now researchers have created a “synthetic skin” with a sense of touch that not only matches the sensitivity of natural skin, but in some cases even exceeds it. Now the only challenge is getting that information back into the wearer’s nervous system.

UNDER PRESSURE

When something presses against your skin, your nerves receive and transmit that pressure to the brain in the form of electrical signals.

To mimic that biological process, the researchers suspended a flexible polymer, dusted with magnetic particles, over a magnetic sensor. The effect is like a drum: Applying even the tiniest amount of pressure to the membrane causes the magnetic particles to move closer to the sensors, and they transmit this movement electronically.

The research, which could open the door to super-sensitive prosthetics, was published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics.

SPIDEY SENSE TINGLING

Tests shows that the skin can sense extremely subtle pressure, such as a blowing breeze, dripping water, or crawling ants. In some cases, the synthetic skin responded to pressures so gentle that natural human skin wouldn’t be able to detect them.

While the sensing ability of this synthetic skin is remarkable, the team’s research doesn’t address how to transmit the signals to the human brain. Other scientists are working on that, though, so eventually this synthetic skin could give prosthetic wearers the ability to feel forces even their biological-limbed friends can’t detect.

READ MORE: A Skin-Inspired Tactile Sensor for Smart Prosthetics [Science Robotics]

More on synthetic skin: Electronic Skin Lets Amputees Feel Pain Through Their Prosthetics

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Here’s Why Google Built an AI-Powered Lion Statue That Spits out Poems

AI POETRY

Your head is warm with thine
And cannot fly
Eclectic shadows that display the sky
Listen to the wild rose of the old man’s sight

This is the beginning of the first poem composed by a new artificial intelligence. Google teamed up with sculptor Es Devlin to collect words from passersby at the London Design Festival and use them to generate new lines of verse. It’s an intriguing conceptual experiment about algorithms that produce original works of art, and the ways they can collaborate with humans.

LION ON THE COLD HARD GROUND

The statue is a bright red lion, placed next to the four bronze lion statues that have stood in Trafalgar Square since 1867. Unlike the existing lions, though, this one has a computer screen in its mouth.

On a small kiosk in front of the lion statue, Trafalgar Square visitors can input a word. Then, using a machine learning algorithm trained on tens of millions of words of 19th century poetry, it spits out a new line incorporating the new word. At night, the evolving poem — it’s pleasant, but reads a bit like a poetry Mad Lib, lacking that je ne sais quoi of a human author with, like, feelings — is projected onto the lion’s body and the towering column behind it.

AND/ROAR

The exhibit, which will run until September 23, came about after Deslin visited Trafalgar Square last year started thinking about the history of the spot as a forum of protest and celebration. He started imagining ways that visitors could work together to create something.

“I had this thought that what if these lions had absorbed all of this sound in celebration and in protest through their bronze skin,” Deslin wrote in a post about the origins of the project. “What if you could open one of their mouths and let it speak, what would it say?”

READ MORE: Please Feed The Lions [Google Arts & Culture]

More on AI art: Artificial Intelligence Is Already a Better Artist Than You Are

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A Pair of Japanese Robots (Hopefully) Just Landed on an Asteroid

Japan's space agency just deployed two asteroid-exploring robots from its Hayabusa2 spacecraft, and they could teach us about the solar system's past.

ASTEROID LANDING

Move over, Bruce Willis — a pair of robots are the latest to attempt a landing on an asteroid millions of miles from Earth. But unlike Willis, these bots aren’t there to blow it up. No, the bots, each of which weighs 1.1 kilogram (2.4 pounds), is there to study the kilometer-wide space rock.

Whether they’ll succeed, though, is a real nail-biter. We won’t know until Saturday, when the bots go online, whether they survived the landing.

“We are very much hopeful,” said Yuichi Tsuda, a project manager at Japan’s space agency, according to Phys.org. “We don’t have confirmation yet, but we are very, very hopeful.”

BOUNCE BOTS

In December 2014, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency launched Hayabusa2, a refrigerator-sized spacecraft destined for Ryugu, a lumpy asteroid roughly 289 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth. Hayabusa2 reached Ryugu in June; on Friday, it tossed a pair of small exploratory robots toward the asteroid.

If they land successfully, the robots will use their solar-powered motors to bounce around the asteroid’s surface, remaining airborne for periods as long as 15 minutes thanks to Ryugu’s weak gravity. From a vantage point up to 15 meters (49 feet) above the surface, the bots will record information such as surface temperature and photos of the asteroid, then beam it back to Earth.

HOME AGAIN

The mission could help us better understand how our solar system formed, since Ryugu and asteroids like it haven’t changed much over the past 4.5 billion years.

It could also provide valuable information for future asteroid mining efforts. After all, Ryugu is worth an estimated $95 billion, so there’s a huge financial incentive to figuring out how best to harvest those potential profits.

Hayabusa2 will hang around Ryugu until the end of 2019 to complete several other experiments. By 2021 it will return to Earth with samples in tow — and hopefully new insights into our past and future along with it.

READ MORE: Japan Space Robots to Probe Asteroid 170 Million Miles From Earth [Bloomberg]

For more on asteroid mining: Want to Snag a Job Mining Asteroids Someday? You Can Now Get Your Masters in It.

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The World’s First Practical Quantum Computer May Be Just Five Years Away

You’ve read the headlines: quantum computers are going to cure disease by discovering new pharmaceuticals! They’re going to pore through all the world’s data and find solutions to problems like poverty and inequality!

Alternatively, they might not do any of that. We’re really not sure what a quantum computer will even look like, but boy are we excited.

It often feels like quantum computers are in their own quantum state — they’re revolutionizing the world, but are still a distant pipe dream.

We’re really not sure what a quantum computer will even look like, but boy are we excited.

Now, though, the National Science Foundation has plans to pluck quantum computers from the realm of the fantastic and drop them squarely in its research labs. And it’s willing to pay an awful lot to do so.

In August, the federal agency announced the Software-Tailored Architecture for Quantum co-design (STAQ) project. Physicists, engineers, computer scientists, and other researchers from Duke and six other universities (including MIT and University of California-Berkeley) will band together to embark on the five-year, $15 million mission.

The goal is to create the world’s first practical quantum computer — one that goes beyond a proof-of-concept and actually outperforms the best classical computers out there — from the ground up.

A little background: there are a few key differences between a classical computer and a quantum computer. Where a classic computer uses bits that are either in a 0 or 1 state, quantum bits, or qubits, can also be both 1 and 0 at the same time. The quantum circuits that use these qubits to transfer information or carry out a calculation are called quantum logic gates; just as a classic circuit controls the flow of electricity within a computer’s circuitry, these gates steer the individual qubits via photons or trapped ions.

In order to develop quantum computers that are actually useful, scientists need to figure out how to improve both hardware we use to build the physical devices, and the software we run on them. That means figuring out how to build systems with more qubits that are less error-prone, and determining how to sort out the correct responses to our queries when we get lots of noise back with them. It’s likely that part of the answer is building automated tools that can optimize how certain algorithms are mapped onto the specific hardware, ultimately tackling both problems at once.

Image Credit: TheDigitalArtist/Victor Tangermann

To better understand what this program might produce, Futurism caught up with Kenneth Brown, the Duke University engineer in charge of STAQ. Here’s our conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. We’ve supplemented Brown’s answers with hyperlinks.

Futurism: A lot of what we hear about quantum computing is very abstract and theoretical — there’s lots of research that might lead towards quantum computers, but doesn’t show any clear path on how to get there. What will your team be able to do that others haven’t been able to do in the past?

Kenneth Brown: I think it’s important to remember that quantum computers can be made out of a wide variety of things. I usually make an analogy to classical computers. The first classical computers were just gears, pretty much because that was the best technology we had. And then there was this vacuum tube phase of classical computers that was quite useful and good. And then the first silicon transistor first appeared. And it’s important to remember that when the silicon transistor first appeared, it couldn’t quite compete with vacuum tubes. Sometimes I think people forget it was such an amazing discovery.

Quantum computing is the same thing. There are lots of ways to represent quantum information. Right now, the two technologies that have demonstrated the most useful applications are superconducting qubits and trapped ion qubits. They’re different and they have pluses and minuses, but in our group, we’ve been collectively focused on these trapped ion qubits.

With trapped ion qubits, what’s nice is that on a small scale of tens of ions, all the qubits are directly connected. That’s very different from a superconducting system of a solid-state system, in which you have to talk to the qubits that are nearby. So I think we have very concrete plans to get to 30, 32 qubits. That’s clear. We would like to extend that to something closer to 64 or so, and that is going to require some new research.

F: What makes this a “practical” computer compared to all of the other people working on quantum computers?

KB: I do think there are industrial efforts pushing towards building exactly these practical devices. The thing which really distinguishes us is being on the academic side. I think it allows for more exploration, with the goal of making a device which enables people to test wildly different ideas on how the architecture should be and what applications should be on it, these sort of things.

Just to pick an example, the guys at IBM have their quantum device. I actually collaborate with them through other projects, and I think they’re pretty open. But right now, the way you interact with it, you’re already at a level of abstraction [in that people can ask things of the computer online but can’t change how it’s programmed]. If you were thinking about totally optimizing this thing, you can’t. They have a tradeoff: they have their computer totally open for access on the web, but to make it stable like that, you have to turn off some knobs. [The IBM computer, because it’s sequestered off and intended for many researchers to use, can’t be customized to do everything an individual might want it to.]

So our goal is to make a device reaching this practical scale where researchers can play with all the knobs.

F: How would quantum computing change things for the average person? 

KB: I think in the long term, quantum computing and communication will change how we deal with encoded information on the internet. In Google Chrome, in fact, you can already change your cryptography to a possible post-quantum cryptography setup.

The second thing is I think people don’t think about all the ways that molecular design impacts materials — from boring things like water bottles to fancy things like specific new medicines. So what’s interesting is if the quantum computer fulfills its promise to efficiently and accurately calculate those molecular properties, that could really change the materials and medicines we see in the future.

But on what you’re going to do on your home computer, the way I think about it is most people use their computer to watch Netflix and occasionally write a letter or email or whatever. Those are not places where quantum computers really help you.

So it’s sort of funny — I don’t know what the user base would be. But when computers were first built, people had the same impression. They said that computers would just be for scientists doing lab work. And, clearly, that’s no longer the case.

F: What sort of person will be able to use a quantum computer? How do you train someone to use it, and what might the quantum computing degree of the future look like?

KB: When I try to explain quantum computing to someone, if they know the physics or chemistry of quantum mechanics, then I can usually start there to explain how to do the computing side. And the other side is also true: if people understand computing pretty well, I can explain the extra modules that quantum computing gives you.

In the future, we probably need people trained from both of those disciplines. We need people who have a physical sciences background who we get up to speed on the computer science side and the opposite.

The specific thing we’re going to try to do is have this quantum summer school, with the idea to bring in people from industry who are maybe excellent microwave engineers or software engineers, and try to give them enough tools so they can start to think about the extra rules you have to think about with quantum.

F: What sorts of new research will you need to sort out before this thing can be built? What will that take?

KB: We have some ideas. In a classic computer you work with voltage, but in quantum computing, I need to somehow carry information from one place to another. Do messenger qubits that carry information to other parts of the computer have to be the same type of qubit that the rest of the computer is made of? We’re not sure yet.

A common way to think about scaling up the complexity of quantum computers is called the CCD architecture. The idea is to shuttle manageable chains of ions from point to point. That’s one possibility.

There’s been some theoretical work looking at whether you can have photons interconnect between ion chains. The idea across all kinds of supercomputers is to use photons as these messenger qubits. And by doing that, you can basically have a bunch of small quantum computers wired up by all these photons that collectively act like a larger computer.

But that’s farther out. I think getting that to work at the bandwidth we need in the next five years would be pretty challenging. If it happens, that would be great, but it’s probably farther out.

F: Along the way, how will you know that you’re making tangible progress? Do you have benchmarks for knowing that you’re, say, halfway there? How can you test to know for sure that it’s working?

KB: On the hardware side, we can increase the number of qubits and get the gates [these are, if you recall, the things that move ions or photons to transfer information] better and call it tangible progress. We have a sense that we have to get, even though the number moves, somewhere above fifty qubits to have a fighting chance. [As of March, Google holds the record with a 72-qubit system]

At the same time, we’re going to take algorithms and applications that we know, and we’re going to map them onto the hardware. We’re going to try to optimize the algorithm as we map it in a way that makes the overall application less vulnerable to noise.

Before we run these applications, we have a rule of thumb about how often they should fail in tests and general use. But after this software optimization that my team is working on, ideally it will fail much less often. That helps us explore more in the algorithm space because it gives you confidence that you can push quantum computers towards more complicated systems. I think it’s important to note that we have the space to be very exploratory, to look at problems people aren’t thinking about.

F: What’s the worst misconception about quantum computers that you run into? What do people always seem to get wrong about them?

KB: The one misconception is that it’s magic. Quantum computers aren’t magic; they don’t allow you to solve all problems.

Here’s the thing — in classical computing, we have the sense that there are some problems that are easy and some problems which are really hard, which means we can’t solve them in polynomial time [a computer science term used to denote whether a computer is able to complete a task quickly].

It turns out we spend a lot of our computing power trying to solve the problems that we can’t solve in polynomial time, and we just have approximations.

Quantum computers do allow you to solve some of the problems which are intractable on a classic computer, but they don’t solve them all. Usually, the thing which drives me crazy is when a quantum computer article says they can solve all problems instantly because they do infinite parallel calculations at once.

I’m really excited for when we have large scale quantum computers. With some problems — the famous example is the Traveling Salesman Problem — we know we can’t solve it for all possible routes of salesmen, but we have to solve it anyway. The classical computer does the best it can, and then when it blows it, nobody’s upset. You’re like, ‘oh okay, well it’s going to get it wrong some of the time.’

When we have large-scale quantum computers, we can test algorithms like that more accurately. We’ll know we can solve the classical problem, just occasionally the new computer gets bogged down.

I’m a big optimist. I guess that’s how you end up working this kind of field.

More on teams racing towards a quantum computer: AI Will Lead the Charge Developing Quantum Computers

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Facebook Makes Dating Service “Facebook Official”

POKE BACK

Facebook has already tried to help you find your dream job, catch up on the latest news, and even sell all that junk cluttering up your basement. Yes, all those ventures have either flopped or become mired in controversy.

But the company isn’t satisfied with just knowing that stuff about you. Now, if you live in Colombia, it hopes to help you find love.

LIKE-LIKE

The social giant began testing Facebook Dating on Thursday. The details sound awfully familiar.

Any adult Facebook user in Colombia can create a Facebook Dating profile that includes up to nine photos and ice-breaker questions (a feature that borrows heavily from dating app Hinge.) Once enough people sign up, an algorithm will match them based on criteria like their mutual friends and shared interests. Users also have the option to match with people who belong to the same Facebook groups they do, or who go to the same events.

They won’t be able to send potential mates links, photos, or payments. For that, they’ll need to switch to a different messenger or go the old-fashioned route and swap digits.

COME HERE OFTEN?

It’s tough to say whether the service will catch on (especially with younger users who are moving away from the platform), and it’s not clear when it’ll spread into other countries.

One thing’s for sure: it’ll present us with some uncharted territory where human interactions are concerned. Like if you go to a friend’s poetry reading (organized on Facebook of course), will you end up chilling with a friend-of-a-friend you went on a horrible first date with two years ago? Only time will tell.

READ MORE: Facebook Is Testing Its Dating Service. Here’s How It’s Different From Tinder [WIRED]

More on online dating: Hinge Is Using a New Algorithm to Identify Your “Most Compatible” Mate

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This Week in Science: Sept 15-21

From computers made out of living cells to mutant frogs, this week was filled peculiar news stories from the world of science. Ever wondered what catching space debris using a spider-like web looks like? To find out, read on.

You Can Now Genetically Engineer Your Own Mutant Frogs For $499. A famed biohacker is selling a kit that allows anyone to genetically engineer mutant frogs that are more massive than their naturally-occurring counterparts.

Researchers Just Got Funding to Grow a Neural Network in a Petri Dish. A team of biologists and computer engineers won a grant to develop a computer made out of living cells.

This Super Powerful Magnetic Field Puts Us One Step Closer to Nuclear Fusion. Researchers from the University of Tokyo have created the strongest-ever controllable magnetic field, and it could help make nuclear fusion a reality

Alphabet AI Is Helping Release Sterile Mosquitoes in Singapore. An Alphabet-owned healthcare company called Verily is hoping to release male mosquitoes that carry a naturally-occurring bacteria that reduces the bugs’ ability to transmit disease in Singapore.

See the First Image Produced by NASA’s Newest Planet Hunter. NASA just shared the first image produces by Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a satellite designed to help in the hunt for exoplanets.

UK Researchers Just Deployed a Massive Net to Catch Space Debris. UK researchers are now testing RemoveDEBRIS, a satellite designed to trap space debris in a spider-like web so it can be removed before it damages spacecraft.

More on This Week in Science: This Week in Science: Sept 8-14

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This Week in Science: Sept 15-21

Traveling To Mars Will Blast Astronauts With Deadly Cosmic Radiation, New Data Shows

RADIATION STATION

We already knew sending crewed missions to Mars would be dangerous. Now we know that it will blast them with horrifying doses of cosmic radiation. The silver lead lining: now at least we know exactly how much, so we can prepare.

In 2016, the European and Russian space agencies launched the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), an orbiting probe designed to monitor the Martian atmosphere. The TGO also collected radiation data during its journey from Earth to Mars — the same journey we hope to send astronauts on within the next decade — so now we know how much radiation they’ll encounter along the way.

LEAD VEST

According to the researchers’ calculations, which they presented this week during the European Planetary Science Congress, the 12-month round-trip journey to Mars would expose astronauts to 600 mSv of radiation.

That’s the equivalent of about 600 chest x-rays. It’d account for 60 percent of the astronauts’ career radiation dose limit, the maximum amount of radiation exposure experts predict they could withstand without substantially increasing their risk of cancer, central nervous system damage, and other catastrophic health problems.

CHOP’N’CREWED

The TGO calculations don’t even take into account the radiation exposure an astronaut will experience while on Mars or in its orbit — just the radiation they’ll suck up along the journey.

We’re clearly going to need to figure out some way to protect astronaut crews from this dangerous radiation. Knowing exactly what they’ll be up against is a crucial step toward making that happen.

READ MORE: Orbiter Data Confirms Manned Mars Missions Face Severe Radiation Hazards [New Atlas]

More on radiation: Here’s How Future Astronauts Could Survive the Radiation of Space

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Traveling To Mars Will Blast Astronauts With Deadly Cosmic Radiation, New Data Shows

This Week in Tech: Sept 15-21

Have you ever seen a bright red lion statue reading out poems generated by a machine learning algorithm? We hadn’t, either — until this week. Perhaps researchers from Yale University can wrap it in their newly-developed “robotic skin” to allow it to pounce on unsuspecting passers-by. Have absolutely no idea what we’re talking about? Read on to get the picture.

Flying Cars May Work Best When Tethered To Power Lines. To make flying cars more practical, one company suggests tethering them to the ground and making them run along a network of power lines.

Germany Just Rolled Out the World’s First Hydrogen-Powered Trains. The world’s first hydrogen-powered trains are now in operation in Lower Saxony, Germany. They could help lower diesel emissions.

Elon Musk Tweeted Some Very Cool New Renders of the Big Falcon Rocket. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted two new BFR renders, giving people a preview of the rocket it expects to ferry passengers to the Moon and Mars.

Military Pilots Can Control Three Jets at Once via a Neural Implant. DARPA just unveiled a research project that lets people control multiple jet planes at once with just their thoughts. For now, though, it requires invasive surgery.

This “Robotic Skin” Can Turn Pretty Much Anything Into a Robot. Yale researchers have created a robotic skin made out of sheets of elastic embedded with sensors and actuators that can give inanimate objects the ability to move.

Here’s Why Google Built an AI-Powered Lion Statue That Spits out Poems. A bright red statue of a lion in Trafalgar Square was programmed to generate poems. It used a machine learning algorithm trained on tens of millions of words of 19th century poetry.

More This Week in Tech: This Week in Tech: September 8-14

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This Week in Tech: Sept 15-21

Ten Crypto Exchanges Told Us How They Work. Looks Like They’re at Least as Sketchy as We Thought.

COINTELPRO

According to New York’s Attorney General, the best way to learn how cryptocurrency exchanges work might be simply asking them.

In April, the AG’s office sent questionnaires to 13 crypto exchanges, asking about everything from their trading operations to their insurance policies. On Thursday, it released a report based on those responses — and the results don’t inspire confidence.

RISKY BUSINESS

Ten of the 13 exchanges submitted responses, including major players Bitfinex and Coinbase. According to the report, these responses give crypto investors three broad reasons to be wary.

First off, exchanges have many potential conflicts of interests, in some cases owning large quantities of the same currencies they help investors trade. They also aren’t doing much to prevent abusive trading practices. And the platforms do little or nothing to protect customer funds — though some do give the illusion of protection.

HONOR SYSTEM

It’s hard to know how seriously we should take this report. After all, the information it contains was all willingly submitted by the exchanges themselves. There’s no way of knowing whether they fudged the facts in their favor the same way a less-than-scrupulous employee might lie on a self-evaluation.

If the exchanges were less than honest, the crypto space could be even less scrupulous than the report paints it. The only way to know for sure may be through more stringent inquiries into their practices.

READ MORE: New York’s Damning Report on Crypto Exchanges Will Be Good for the Industry [MIT Technology Review]

More on cryptocurrencies: New York’s Attorney General Begins Inquiry Into Cryptocurrency Practices

Disclosure: Several members of the Futurism team, including the editors of this piece, are personal investors in a number of cryptocurrency markets. Their personal investment perspectives have no impact on editorial content.

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One Way to Sate South Africa’s Thirst: Bring in an Iceberg

PARCHED

Earlier this year, experts feared that a drought would force the South African metropolis of Cape Town to shut off residential tap water. Cape Town would have been the first major world city to face “Day Zero.”

The city narrowly avoided the crisis when rain finally arrived, but the threat is likely to return in 2019. As the region grows desperate, an international team of scientists and adventurers have proposed a new scheme: tow an entire iceberg just off the coast, then melt it down for drinking water, the BBC reports.

LET US ICEBERG

Scientists have floated concepts for importing icebergs for drinking water since the 19th century. They’ve suggested trying the plan in India and Saudi Arabia, but no plans have made serious progress.

Now, a team of scientists and adventurers say they have a plan to capture an iceberg near Gough Island, in the South Atlantic, and tow it more than 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) to Cape Town over the course of about three months.

TUG RUG

There are lots of reasons this isn’t a good idea. You’d need an oil tanker and three tug boats to pull the iceberg, which would burn an enormous amount of shipping fuel, the BBC reports. The iceberg would have to be stored in cold waters off the coast of Cape Town so the team could slowly harvest it as it thaws. Oh, and Cape Town authorities have said they’re not interested.

But Cape Town isn’t the only place where drinking water may become scarce in the coming decades. Maybe it’s worth investigating some moonshot ideas, after all, before the situation gets too dire.

Correction (9/22/18, 10:30 AM EDT): This piece previously misstated the number of miles the iceberg would need to travel (the distance in kilometers was correct). We regret the error. 

READ MORE: The outrageous plan to haul icebergs to Africa [BBC]

More on radiation: Cape Town Has More Time to Solve Its Water Crisis. How Will It Use It?

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Clearing Faulty Cells Out Of The Brain May Stave Off Cognitive Decline

A NEW APPROACH TO BRAIN DISEASE

There are something like 37 trillion cells in your body, each doing its designated task to keep you alive and healthy. But sometimes, some of those cells, particularly in our brains, simply become inert — these cells, called senescent cells, aren’t quite dead but they’re not performing their jobs, either.

Scientists have long thought the buildup of those cells were related to aging and diseases like cancer. New research published Wednesday in Nature shores up that link: the more senescent cells in a mouse’s brain, the more severe its cognitive decline.

OUT WITH THE INERT

Much of what we know about Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases comes from retroactively examining a dead person’s or animal’s brain. This, however, was a controlled experiment, which means the researchers know the senescent cells actually caused the cognitive decline — we could rule out the chance that the higher senescent cell count was coincidental.

The researchers bred a type of lab rat that naturally developed senescent cells in their brain, thus experienced greater age-related cognitive decline. But when they started to prevent the cell buildup with a drug treatment, they saw that mice who received the treatment had healthier brains, plus reduced levels of cognitive decline and memory loss, than mice who didn’t receive the treatment and had a buildup of inert brain cells like normal.

STILL JUST A RAT IN A CAGE

It would be great if we could assume that human brains worked the same way, but so far there’s no evidence to suggest that it will. Senescent cells give rise to clusters of tau, a kind of protein that is difficult to break down and is linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.

So it’s easy to make the jump and assume that because can develop similar conditions, the drug treatment given to mice will also work for people. But often, medical research conducted on animals fails to generalize to human biology. So this certainly isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s yet, but it might be a valuable avenue to explore in humans as well.

More on Alzheimer’s research: Gamers Built a “Digital Museum” That Unlocked New Secrets of the Brain

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This System Converts Our Trash Into Fuel and Reduces Greenhouse Gases

The need for a waste management solution has never been more pressing. The statistics surrounding our trash are staggering: people are buying plastic bottles at a rate of one million per minute. By 2050, it’s estimated the ocean will contain more plastic, by weight, than fish. And while efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle might be making a dent in those numbers, a whopping 91 percent of plastic still isn’t recycled. Trash in landfills is poisoning our air, and junk in our oceans is killing our marine life.

Figuring out a sustainable solution to our trash issue isn’t a simple task. But Synova, a U.S.-based company with technology and sales offices in Europe and Asia is tackling the problem head-on – they’re turning trash into energy or green chemicals. The innovative approach both solves the problem of waste management and meets our growing need for cleaner power and chemicals.

Converting waste to energy isn’t a new idea. The concept behind the solution is simple: strip the waste down to its chemical components and turn it into a fuel to meet our growing demand for power. In theory, the process would reduce landfill volume and create a clean, and far more climate-friendly, fuel than oil, gas, or coal.

The problem with traditional waste-to-energy solutions is that the seemingly simple concept isn’t so simple in execution. Even the methods with the best of intentions come with costly, inefficient, and toxic consequences. Directly burning waste to make steam power or heat (incineration) can release harmful pollutants, carbon dioxide, and toxic ash into that thin air – often at prices that make it a risky and cost prohibitive investment.  Another technique uses a gasifier to create a synthesis gas out of waste. That process creates tars, and conventional treatments that minimize tar production are often ineffective or costly –overall not materially different from incineration. Nailing the combo of a clean and cost-effective waste-to-energy solution seemed just out of reach.

That’s when Synova stepped in. The company took a hard look at gasifiers around the planet and attempted to create a more affordable and efficient solution. They came up with MILENA-OLGA, a system that uses four steps to convert waste into fuel and reduce greenhouse gases in the process.

First, the waste is lightly processed: water, sand, metals, or recyclables are removed from waste to produce a feedstock. Next, this feedstock is gasified in the MILENA gasifier, creating a dense synthetic gas. Then, that gas is cleaned in the OLGA system, removing contaminants including tar. Finally, that clean gas can be used to produce power via an engine or gas turbine to create electricity, both of which are far more efficient than a boiler at any given scale. Removing impurities before use allows the gas to be used in many other ways. Units to synthesize natural gas or harvest renewable plastic feedstocks or fuels are also demonstrated and will soon be commercially available.

Credit: David Helfenbein

The system combines technologies that Synova worked to innovate, rather than outright invent. The OLGA part of the system was developed over decades by a team at the Energy Research Center of the Netherlands (ECN), formerly led by Bram van der Drift, now Synova’s Chief Technology Officer.

“It’s the result of carefully looking at what happened on tar removal around the globe, looking at the steel industry where tar removal has been done for ages already, and thinking again from the very basics up,” van der Drift told Futurism.

Unlike most who have historically started with a gasifier and then tried to figure out a way to mitigate tars, the team focused first on creating OLGA, a way of cleaning gas in order to rid it of tar. Where most gasifier developers had tried to come up with technologies that gasified solids while minimizing tars, ECN worked on a cost-effective and efficient way to remove the tar after it had been created.

Upon realizing the potential with OLGA, the team developed a gasification model based on working with tar rather than against it. Thanks to OLGA, Synova had the freedom to work on an efficient, step-by-step technique that treated waste without having to worry about producing tar. And because OLGA also removes other impurities, such as dioxins and fine particulates, the end result is a synthetic gas far cleaner than traditional systems.

“Synova couldn’t have developed that process if they hadn’t taken on the problem in the same way that a kayaker might take on the rushing rapids,” said Giffen Ott, co-founder and CEO of Synova. “If you fight the waves, you’ll end up smashed on the rocks,” Ott told Futurism. “But if you go with the waves or embrace the problems, you end up with very different results. By embracing the tars, and by starting with a robust tar solution, the team was able to completely rethink the gasifier and come up with very different results.”

Credit: Dahlman Renewable Technologies, A Synova Power Company

The resulting four-step method made the process slightly more complex. But breaking it down into manageable parts actually made the technique 50 percent more efficient than the average efficiency of a waste-to-energy plant, which slashes costs. That makes Synova’s system the elusive combo of cost-effective and clean, a tantalizing prospect for the parts of our planet increasingly burdened with growing landfills and garbage patches.  Its economics hold the potential for disruption in the developed world, since existing solutions are much more expensive and waste is often transported 100s or 1000s of miles away to be buried or burnt. In the developing world, this is the first practical solution to stop alarming pollution of the land and water.

“The waste-to-energy market is huge and mostly unmet,” Christian Jacqui, Synova’s President and Chief Operating Officer told Futurism. “The greatest need often comes in places where the infrastructure and communities are least able to solve the waste problems themselves.”

Investing in Synova’s waste-to-energy plants across the continents creates a win-win situation, said Ott. Along with pocketing great returns, Synova backers will have the opportunity to be part of a project that could save as much as four tons of greenhouse gases per ton of waste diverted, and know they’ve helped stop that trash from ever making its way to Earth’s oceans. Greenhouse gas savings are lower but still very beneficial in the developed world, and the financial returns are even more attractive.

“Demand is already high, as many parts of the world are desperate for a solution, but the big opportunity to roll-out the solution will follow once people see a unit running in their region.” he said. “We believe the opportunity is huge for both reducing CO2e and plastic in oceans as well as making a good return.”


The preceding communication has been paid for by FullCycle Energy Fund. This communication is for informational purposes only and does not constitute an offer or solicitation to sell shares or securities in FullCycle or any related or associated company. None of the information presented herein is intended to form the basis for any investment decision, and no specific recommendations are intended. This communication does not constitute investment advice or solicitation for investment. Futurism expressly disclaims any and all responsibility for any direct or consequential loss or damage of any kind whatsoever arising directly or indirectly from: (i) reliance on any information contained herein, (ii) any error, omission or inaccuracy in any such information or (iii) any action resulting from such information. This post does not reflect the views or the endorsement of the Futurism.com editorial staff.

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