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There’s No Way China’s Artificial Moon Will Work, Says Expert

Good Luck

On October 10, a Chinese organization called the Tian Fu New Area Science Society revealed plans to replace the streetlights in the city of Chengdu with a satellite designed to reflect sunlight toward the Earth’s surface at night.

But in a new interview with Astronomy, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin named Ryan Russel argued that based on what he’s read, the artificial moon plan would be impossible to implement.

Promised the Moon

Wu Chunfeng, the head of the Tian Fu New Area Science Society, told China Daily the artificial moon would orbit about 310 miles above Earth, delivering an expected brightness humans would perceive to be about one-fifth that of a typical streetlight.

The plan is to launch one artificial moon in 2020 and then three more in 2022 if the first works as hoped. Together, these satellites could illuminate an area of up to 4,000 square miles, Chunfeng claims.

But Russell is far from convinced.

“Their claim for 1 [low-earth orbit satellite] at [300 miles] must be a typo or misinformed spokesperson,” he told Astronomy. “The article I read implied you could hover a satellite over a particular city, which of course is not possible.”

Overkill Overhead

To keep the satellite in place over Chengdu, it would need to be about 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, said Russel, and its reflective surface would need to be massive to reflect sunlight from that distance. At an altitude of just 300 miles, the satellite would quickly zip around the Earth, constantly illuminating new locations.

Even if the city could put the artificial moon plan into action, though, Russell isn’t convinced it should.

“It’s a very complicated solution that affects everyone to a simple problem that affects a few,” he told Astronomy. “It’s light pollution on steroids.”

Maybe Chengdu shouldn’t give up on its streetlights just yet.

READ MORE: Why China’s Artificial Moon Probably Won’t Work [Astronomy]

More on the artificial moon: A Chinese City Plans to Replace Its Streetlights With an Artificial Moon

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There’s No Way China’s Artificial Moon Will Work, Says Expert

Clean Coal Startup Turns Human Waste Into Earth-Friendly Fuel

Gold Nuggets

A company called Ingelia says it’s figured out a way to turn human waste — the solid kind — into a combustible material it’s calling biochar. And if Ingelia’s claims are accurate, biochar can be burned for fuel just like coalexcept with nearzero greenhouse gas emissions, according to Business Insider.

That’s because almost all of the pollutants and more harmful chemicals that would normally be given off while burning solid fuels is siphoned away into treatable liquid waste, leaving a dry, combustible rod of poop fuel.

“Clean Coal

Ingelia, which is currently working to strike a deal with Spanish waste management facilities, hopes to make enough biochar to replace 220 thousand tons of coal per year, corresponding to 500 thousand tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

But that’s by 2022, at which point we’ll have even less time to reach the urgent clean energy goals of that doomsday United Nations report. In an ideal world, we would have moved away from coal years ago. At least this gives us a viable alternative as we transition to other, renewable forms of electricity.

So while we can, in part, poop our way to a better world, biochar — and other new sewage-based energy sources — will only be one of many new world-saving sources of clean energy.

READ MORE: This Spanish company found a way to produce a fuel that emits no CO2 — and it’s made of sewage [Business Insider]

More on poop: Edible Tech is Finally Useful, is Here to Help you Poop

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Clean Coal Startup Turns Human Waste Into Earth-Friendly Fuel

Ford’s Self-Driving Cars Are About to Chauffeur Your Senator

Green-Light District

It doesn’t matter how advanced our self-driving cars get — if they aren’t allowed on roads, they aren’t going to save any lives.

The future of autonomous vehicles (AVs) in the U.S. depends on how lawmakers in Washington D.C. choose to regulate the vehicles. But until now, AV testing has largely taken place far from the nation’s capital, mostly in California and Arizona.

Ford is about to change that. The company just announced plans to be the first automaker to test its self-driving cars in the Distinct of Columbia — and how lawmakers feel about those vehicles could influence future AV legislation.

Career Day

Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, announced the decision to begin testing in D.C. via a blog post last week. According to Marakby, Ford’s politician-friendly focus will be on figuring out how its AVs could promote job creation in the District.

To that end, Ford plans to assess how AVs could increase mobility in D.C., thereby helping residents get to jobs that might otherwise be outside their reach, as well as train residents for future positions as AV technicians or operators.

Up Close and Personal

Marakby notes that D.C. is a particularly suitable location for this testing because the District is usually bustling with activity. The population increases significantly during the day as commuters arrive from the suburbs for work, while millions of people flock to D.C. each year for conferences or tourism.

D.C. is also home to the people responsible for crafting and passing AV legislation. “[I]t’s important that lawmakers see self-driving vehicles with their own eyes as we keep pushing for legislation that governs their safe use across the country,” Marakby wrote.

Ford’s ultimate goal is to launch a commercial AV service in D.C. in 2021. With this testing, the company has the opportunity to directly influence the people who could help it reach that goal — or oppose it.

READ MORE: A Monumental Moment: Our Self-Driving Business Development Expands to Washington, D.C. [Medium]

More on AV legislation: U.S. Senators Reveal the Six Principles They’ll Use to Regulate Self-Driving Vehicles

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Ford’s Self-Driving Cars Are About to Chauffeur Your Senator

This AI Lie Detector Flags Falsified Police Reports

Minority Report

Imagine this: You file a police report, but back at the station, they feed it into an algorithm — and it accuses you of lying, as though it had somehow looked inside your brain.

That might sound like science fiction, but Spain is currently rolling out a very similar program, called VeriPol, in many of its police stations. VeriPol’s creators say that when it flags a report as false, it turns out to be correct more than four-fifths of the time.

Lie Detector

VeriPol is the work of researchers at Cardiff University and Charles III University of Madrid.

In a paper published earlier this year in the journal Knowledge-Based Systems, they describe how they trained the lie detector with a data set of more than 1,000 robbery reports — including a number that police identified as false — to identify subtle signs that a report wasn’t true.

Thought Crime

In pilot studies in Murcia and Malaga, Quartz reported, further investigation showed that the algorithm was correct about 83 percent of the time that it suspected a report was false.

Still, the project raises uncomfortable questions about allowing algorithms to act as lie detectors. Fast Company reported earlier this year that authorities in the United States, Canada, and the European Union are testing a separate system called AVATAR that they want to use to collect biometric data about subjects at border crossings — and analyze it for signs that they’re not being truthful.

Maybe the real question isn’t whether the tech works, but whether we want to permit authorities to act upon what’s essentially a good — but not perfect — assumption that someone is lying.

READ MORE: Police Are Using Artificial Intelligence to Spot Written Lies [Quartz]

More on lie detectors: Stormy Daniels Took a Polygraph. What Do We Do With the Results?

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This AI Lie Detector Flags Falsified Police Reports

These Bacteria Digest Food Waste Into Biodegradable Plastic

Factory Farm

Plastics have revolutionized manufacturing, but they’re still terrible for the environment.

Manufacturing plastics is an energy-intensive slog that ends in mountains of toxic industrial waste and greenhouse gas emissions. And then the plastic itself that we use ends up sitting in a garbage heap for thousands of years before it biodegrades.

Scientists have spent years investigating ways to manufacture plastics without ruining the planet, and a Toronto biotech startup called Genecis says it’s found a good answer: factories where vats of bacteria digest food waste and use it to form biodegradable plastic in their tiny microbial guts.

One-Two Punch

The plastic-pooping bacteria stand to clean up several kinds of pollution while churning out usable materials, according to Genecis.

That’s because the microbes feed on waste food or other organic materials — waste that CBC reported gives off 20 percent of Canada’s methane emissions as it sits in landfills.

Then What?

The plastic that the little buggers produce isn’t anything new. It’s called PHA and it’s used in anything that needs to biodegrade quickly, like those self-dissolving stitches. What’s new here is that food waste is much cheaper than the raw materials that usually go into plastics, leading Genecis to suspect it can make the same plastics for 40 percent less cost.

There are a lot of buzzworthy new alternative materials out there, but with a clear environmental and financial benefit, it’s possible these little bacteria factories might be here to stay.

READ MORE: Greener coffee pods? Bacteria help turn food waste into compostable plastic [CBC]

More on cleaning up plastics: The EU Just Voted to Completely ban Single-Use Plastics

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These Bacteria Digest Food Waste Into Biodegradable Plastic

You Can Now Preorder a $150,000 Hoverbike

Please, Santa?

It’s never too early to start writing your Christmas wish list, right? Because we know what’s now at the top of ours: a hoverbike.

We’ve had our eyes on Hoversurf’s Scorpion-3 since early last year — but now, the Russian drone start-up is accepting preorders on an updated version of the vehicle.

Flying Bike

The S3 2019 is part motorcycle and part quadcopter. According to the Hoversurf website, the battery-powered vehicle weighs 253 pounds and has a flight time of 10 to 25 minutes depending on operator weight. Its maximum legal speed is 60 mph — though as for how fast the craft can actually move, that’s unknown. Hoversurf also notes that the vehicle’s “safe flight altitude” is 16 feet, but again, we aren’t sure how high it can actually soar.

What we do know: The four blades that provide S3 with its lift spin at shin level, and while this certainly looks like it would be a safety hazard, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration approved the craft for legal use as an ultralight vehicle in September.

That means you can only operate an S3 for recreational or sports purposes — but you can’t cruise to work on your morning commute.

Plummeting Bank Account

You don’t need a pilot’s license to operate an S3, but you will need a decent amount of disposable income — the Star Wars-esque craft will set you back $150,000.

If that number doesn’t cause your eyes to cross, go ahead and slap down the $10,000 deposit needed to claim a spot in the reservation queue. You’ll then receive an email when it’s time to to place your order. You can expect to receive your S3 2019 two to six months after that, according to the company website.

That means there’s a pretty good chance you won’t be able to hover around your front yard this Christmas morning, but a 2019 jaunt is a genuine possibility.

READ MORE: For $150,000 You Can Now Order Your Own Hoverbike [New Atlas]

More on Hoversurf: Watch the World’s First Rideable Hoverbike in Flight

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You Can Now Preorder a $150,000 Hoverbike

Everyone’s Genome Is Different. That’s Why Scientists Are About to Sequence a Million of Them.

A new NIH program aims to sequence the DNA of a million volunteers, to better understand genetic variation between people and develop new treatments.

RIPPED GENES

The first time scientists sequenced the entire human genome, it took 13 years and nearly $3 billion dollars.

It was an incredible accomplishment. But now a program called All of Us wants to blow it out of the water by sequencing the DNA of a million volunteers. One goal is to better understand variation between different people’s DNA. Another is to develop better tailored treatments — presumably ones with a genetic component, like Parkinson’s or certain cancers.

“Diversity is a hallmark of this effort,” said Eric Dishman, the director of the program, in a press release. “We strive for diversity of people and also diversity of data types, so researchers can understand the many factors that influence health and health outcomes for each of us.”

GENOME WIZ

Since the Human Genome Project wrapped up in 2003, it’s become dramatically faster (and cheaper) to sequence a genome. If all goes according to plan, the All of Us program will sequence a huge swathe of the population. Then the program, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, will make that extraordinary trove of data available to researchers.

All of Us hasn’t said how long the project might take. But this week the NIH kicked off the project by awarding $28.6 million to genome centers at Baylor College, the Broad Institute and the University of Washington, which will carry out the sequencing work.

REAL TREATMENTS

The three centers will sequence the DNA of volunteers from all over the country. About 110,000 have registered so far, according to the NIH. Along with genetic material they’ll provide access to their health records, fluid samples and fitness tracker data so that researchers can look for relationships between their DNA and health.

All that data will doubtless lead to a better understanding of humans’ genetic code. But the NIH also hopes it will lead to new breakthroughs in treatments and preventative medicine.

READ MORE: NIH-funded genome centers to accelerate precision medicine discoveries [National Institutes of Health]

More on genetic sequencing: 15 Years Ago, We Sequenced the Human Genome. Now We Can 3D Map It.

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Everyone’s Genome Is Different. That’s Why Scientists Are About to Sequence a Million of Them.

SpaceX Will Send Another Company’s Robots to the Moon in 2021

Japanese space exploration company ispace is teaming up with SpaceX on two lunar missions, one in mid-2020 and the other in mid-2021.

MOONSHOT

This year, Google’s Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) competition ended without a winner. None of the private companies involved in the challenge were able to make it to the Moon before the March deadline.

But one of those companies, called ispace, isn’t ready to give up on its lunar ambitions just yet. It’s now working with SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space exploration company, to deliver a pair of robotic rovers to the Moon’s surface in 2021.

DOUBLE DATE

ispace is a Japanese lunar exploration company that managed Team HAKUTO, one of the final five competitors in the GLXP. Its goal, like its competitors, was simply to get a rover on the Moon. Now, it’s hoping scientists (or anyone who wants to) will pay to use the lander and rovers it developed for the competition.

On Wednesday, ispace announced that it had selected SpaceX to transport its Lunar Lander and Lunar Rovers to the Moon. According to the plan, SpaceX will use a Falcon 9 rocket to place ispace’s Lunar Lander in the Moon’s orbit in mid-2020. Then in mid-2021, a lander will gently deliver the Lunar Rovers to the Moon’s surface.

GREEN MOON

While Team HAKUTO may have missed out on the $30 million GLXP winnings, ispace has already raised more than $90 million. The goal of these missions is to demonstrate its ability to successfully navigate the Moon’s surface.

If successful, ispace could make even more money as the contractor of choice for anyone looking to explore the face of the Moon.

READ MORE: Lunar Exploration Startup, ispace, Partners With SpaceX for 2020 & 2021 Moon Missions [ispace]

More on Lunar XPRIZE: Google’s Lunar XPrize Is Over. Spaceflight Innovation, However, Is Not.

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SpaceX Will Send Another Company’s Robots to the Moon in 2021

These Robots Weave Super Durable Fiberglass Structures So Humans Don’t Have To

MIT researchers have created Fiberbots, autonomous robots that can weave fiberglass into tall tubes that we could one day use for construction projects.

PROS AND CONS(TRUCTION)

Fiberglass is a double-edged sword. It’s an excellent building material because it’s strong and durable, plus it’s easy to mold into pretty much any shape. But fiberglass’ thin strands often cause skin irritation, vision issues, and breathing problems for humans that come into contact with it.

How can we take advantage of fiberglass’ excellent structural properties without putting human health at risk? Why, robots of course!

A team of researchers from MIT has invented a type of swarm robot builders they call Fiberbots that can weave sizable structures from the material, like robotic silkworms — no human contact necessary.

TUBULAR

The Fiberbots create fiberglass tubes around themselves, one layer at a time, climbing the inside of the tubes to create lengthy cylinders, according to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics. Tubes spun by several Fiberbots could create structures as large as bridges or buildings.

First, one of the bots combines fiberglass thread with resin, which it then winds around an inflated membrane surrounding its squat, cylindrical body. Once the Fiberbot completes a segment of tubing, it deflates the membrane and “climbs” the inside of the tube to start another segment, which overlaps the one that came before it. Layer by layer, it can curve the material, even fitting it together with tubes built by other Fiberbots.

STANDING TALL

To put their system to the test, the MIT researchers directed the Fiberbots to build a series of 22 tubes stretching as high as 4.5 meters (14.7 feet), which took about 12 hours. The tubes stayed intact for seven months, withstanding the harsh conditions of a Massachusetts winter.

We already use fiberglass for things like bridges, house insulation, and many different products. But in truth, that could be only the beginning. We could one day use Fiberbots to create the tubes we need for construction projects without requiring human workers to handle the material, the researchers write.

The bots could even build their structures in harsh or dangerous environments that humans simply shouldn’t or can’t access — including other planets.

READ MORE: Design of a Multi-Agent, Fiber Composite Digital Fabrication System [Science Robotics]

More on construction bots: This Three Story Home Was Built by Robots

The post These Robots Weave Super Durable Fiberglass Structures So Humans Don’t Have To appeared first on Futurism.

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These Robots Weave Super Durable Fiberglass Structures So Humans Don’t Have To

Astronomers Discover a New Source of Spectacular Radio Jets

For the first time ever, researchers have discovered radio jets launching from a neutron star with a strong magnetic field.

JET SETTER

In a ranking of cool space phenomenon, radio jets have to take a spot near the top. They’re near-light-speed blasts of material from black holes or neutron stars, which are known as “stellar corpses” because they are the remnants of stars left after they’ve gone supernova, and they’re downright spectacular.

Scientists thought the only neutron stars that could expel radio jets were those with very weak magnetic fields. But a new discovery has punched a big hole in that understanding.

They just figured out that a jet-spewing neutron star called Swift J0243.6+6124 has got a really, really strong magnetic field, according to a paper published Wednesday in Nature.

THE FORCE IS STRONG

The University of Amsterdam-led research team discovered the phenomenon using the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array radio telescope and NASA’s Swift space telescope.

“The magnetic field of the neutron star we studied is about 10 trillion times stronger than that of our own Sun, so for the first time ever, we have observed a jet coming from a neutron star with a very strong magnetic field,” lead researchers Jakob van den Eijnden said in a press release. “The discovery reveals a whole new class of jet-producing sources for us to study.”

ENERGY IN, ENERGY OUT

As co-author James Miller-Jones added, radio jets play a major role in the transfer of gravitational energy from black holes and neutron stars back into the surrounding environment, so anything that expands our understanding of the phenomenon subsequently improves our understanding of the universe as a whole.

And now, thanks to this study, we can start hunting down radio jets in places we never thought to look.

READ MORENeutron Star Jets Shoot Down Theory [EurekAlert]

More on radio jets: Researchers Discover “Bizarre” Black Holes That Are All Aligned

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Astronomers Discover a New Source of Spectacular Radio Jets

Nuclear Power Used to Seem Like the Future. Now Its Fate in the US Is in Question.

When nuclear power started feeding electricity into the grid in the 1950s, there was a sense of heady optimism. We could harness cutting-edge physics to generate cheap electricity!

In 1954, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss gushed that atomic energy would soon make electricity “too cheap to meter.” The ghostwriters behind the popular “Tom Swift” series of young adult novels churned out a series of titles glorifying atomic tech, from “Tom Swift and his Atomic Earth Blaster” to “Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire.”

Public support for nuclear power faded, however. The accidents at Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) showed that even though the tech worked perfectly most of the time, it also had the potential for rare and dangerous catastrophes. Though the United States still gets about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear fission, it’s built few new reactors since the 1980s. The average nuclear plant in the U.S. is now nearly 40 years old.

How we feel about technology is often as important to its adoption as anything intrinsic about it. Nuclear power used to feel like the future, but now it keeps getting easier to imagine an era without it.

Take the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, a half-built fission facility in Georgia. It  was supposed to provide affordable electricity for the region. But now the project is now billions of dollars over budget, and could be canceled entirely, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Make no mistake: there are good things about nuclear power. It doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, and releases significantly less carbon dioxide than power generated with coal, oil, and natural gas. Statistically, it’s safer than people think.

But there are also downsides, too. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan showed that the even with modern safety precautions, nuclear plants can still spin out of control. There’s the question of what to do with radioactive waste, which will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. Uranium mining pollutes groundwater. Building new plants costs a fortune.

We now have many more green energy options than they did in the 1950s. Wind and solar are getting cheaper every year. They’ve got the longevity and low carbon toll of nuclear power, without the toxic waste. And that’s to say nothing of nuclear fusion, a much cleaner energy source that’s rapidly becoming more feasible.

If we still need nuclear plants as a stopgap to moving away from fossil fuels, fine. But overall, atomic power no longer feels like the future. Instead it feels like the past.

More on atomic energy: Use of Nuclear Power Is in Decline; Why?

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Nuclear Power Used to Seem Like the Future. Now Its Fate in the US Is in Question.

URBAN-X Is Jumpstarting the Startups That Will Reimagine City Life

It takes more than elbow grease and moxie for someone with a good idea to find their place in the startup ecosystem. Even with the best idea, the pitfalls of building a real business are countless, the work required for success is daunting, and the reward often lies years in the future. To address this question we spoke to Miriam Roure, program director of URBAN-X, a startup accelerator that’s been instrumental in investing in and supporting new companies using design and technology to improve city life.

As the program director for URBAN-X, you look at hundreds of applications from startup founders hoping to work with you. What are the things that make a company stand out?

The first question that we ask ourselves is, “Is this the right team?” We evaluate their level of commitment, if the founders have complementary skill sets, or if they have started a company before. What is harder to evaluate is if they have the kind of marathon mindset it takes to build a startup, if they are quick learners, and if they are able to take advice in a constructive way.

Second, we look at the size of the opportunity. Even with a great team, if the market is too small or will take too long to mature, it can be hard to scale. The opportunity for us also means the potential impact that the solution can have. Can this solution reach 100 cities within five years? If so, what are some key KPIs that we could identify as drivers for positive change in these urban environments?

What’s the toughest part of making those decisions? Is it stressful holding the future of someone’s company in your hands?

We like to think about it as a matching process – some companies are too early and some other ones are too late, some fit our mission and some don’t, some have the growth potential and speed that the venture capital model requires and some might benefit from other kinds of funding. It’s important for us to be able to provide value to the companies in the program.

We are especially sensitive to our own biases and not dismissing opportunities because they might not fulfill a certain profile that we have in mind. We are also aware of founder stereotypes, “hot” markets and FOMO. Team selection is one of the hardest things we have to do and no investor gets it right 100% of the time.

You talked about how important it is to find companies that can have a real impact. Do you have a white whale? An urban problem that you’d love to have a hand in solving?

Our current white whale is water – no pun intended. For many areas, local sources are being exhausted and it’s really hard to find good, quality drinking water. Flint, Michigan is a touchpoint for what happens when archaic policy mixes with old technology. With climate change, cities need to find novel approaches to resilience dealing with sea level rise, storms and flooding. It’s hard to find solutions for problems that are so structural to how we have built our resource system.

For example, how we use water in our homes is the same water that we drink from the faucet and flush down our toilets. In the United States, the end consumer doesn’t perceive the true price of water and as a result, she doesn’t relate to the water crisis as much as other arguably less relevant challenges.

Does working in cities create unique challenges for URBAN-X startups?

Many URBAN-X companies face the challenge of operating in spaces that are regulated – and about 25% of our portfolio sells to or works closely with governments. This is not only challenging in and of itself, but it also can be tricky from a fundraising perspective. Many investors don’t know how RFPs and sales cycles with state or municipal governments work. We believe these solutions are not only necessary, but also operate in markets prime for disruption. In our last cohort, which concluded in February 2018, 100% of the companies have gone on to close their next round of capital, with many operating as B2G or in highly regulated markets.  With the Urban Us team, we have been proactive in building a network of investors and key players in government, policy-making and city services that are able to advise, connect and continue to invest in our startups.

By the end of the year, we will have roughly 40 startups in our portfolio. This growing network is also proving to be incredibly valuable as founders share resources, insights and respective networks.

Another challenge all early-stage startups face is their limited amount of runway and small teams. These limited resources make it such that staying focused becomes crucial. For first time founders, this is even more challenging. Beyond the investment, having access to expertise around the fundraising process, product strategy, team culture, customer discovery, design and engineering resources, and media exposure dramatically increases the chances of startup success and helps reduce the risk of failure.

What does it take? What are the qualities that a startup, or its founders, absolutely need to have to be successful?

It takes a committed and complementary team, an actionable vision, a relevant problem and a great solution, and the passion and wherewithal to not give up and make it happen.

Most important, optimism. As Clayton Christensen points out in his famous book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” founders systematically underestimate the amount of risk that they are taking. This necessary underestimation is actually really inspiring – the idea that one can create a business that can improve the lives of people at scale makes it worth the effort. When we find a founder that’s in love with the problem they have taken on (more than their solution), we know we are on the right track.

URBAN-X, the accelerator for startups reimagining city life, invites you to Demo Day 04 on September 27, 2018 at A/D/O in Brooklyn, NY. Come get inspired by what’s next for more efficient, enjoyable, and livable cities. If you can’t make it in person, we’ll be live streaming the morning session from Futurism’s Facebook and YouTube pages!


Futurism fans: To create this content, a non-editorial team worked with URBAN-X, who sponsored this post. They help us keep the lights on. This post does not reflect the views or the endorsement of the Futurism.com editorial staff.

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This “Flying Sports Car” Is Like a Giant Drone You Can Ride In

This week, Philippine inventor Kyxz Mendiola took his Koncepto Milenya, a flying sports car prototype, out for its first public test flight.

PRETTY FLY

The founding member of an award-winning hip-hop dance troupe hangs up his sneakers to engineer a flying sports car. Tale as old as time, right?

Yeah, not exactly. But it’s the path former dancer Kyxz Mendiola has carved out for himself.

Six years ago, Mendiola decided he was sick of dealing with traffic, so he did what anyone in a similar situation would: started digging tunnels building a flying car.

He calls the craft, which looks a lot like a giant remote controlled drone, the “Koncepto Millenya.” On Sunday he took it out for its first public test flight in the Philippine province of Batangas. It lasted about 10 minutes.

“It was amazing,” the Filipino inventor told Reuters. “All the hard work paid off. Everything worked perfect.”

THE SPECS`

Koncepto Milenya seats just one person weighing up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds). Its six lithium-ion batteries power 16 rotary motors, which allow the craft to reach a height of 6.1 meters (20 feet) and a top speed of 60 kph (37 mph).

According to Mendiola, who co-founded the Philippine All Stars hip-hop dance group in 2005, flying the craft is pretty simple.

“Press a button and it will go up, then push the stick forward, it goes forward,” he told Reuters. “It’s very smart, that’s why I’m saying it has a lot of potential.”

MASS PRODUCTION

Mendiola is working with Australian company Star8 to further develop the vehicle, with the goal of mass producing it. Star8’s CEO told Reuters he wants to market the flying sports car in Australia, Europe, and Hong Kong.

No word on when Koncepto Milenya might come to the U.S., so traffic-averse Americans will just have to hope Elon Musk’s tunneling scheme works out.

READ MORE: Philippine Inventor Aims to Cut Travel Times With Passenger Drone [Reuters]

More on flying cars: How Close Are We Really to Flying Cars?

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This “Flying Sports Car” Is Like a Giant Drone You Can Ride In

If We Want Drone Delivery to Be a Reality, We’ve Gotta Keep It Simple

DRONING ON

In 2013, we learned about Amazon’s splashy plans to drop packages off at customers’ homes using drones. Sure, there have been a few pilot drone deliveries, but for the most part, even Amazon hasn’t made that future a reality yet.

But in Iceland, a startup called Aha has been using drones to deliver hot food and other goods for five months. Its secret: keeping the system very, very simple.

As we creep towards a future in which drone delivery is commonplace, Aha’s success shows that a simple approach might work best — and that maybe tech giants like Amazon are over-engineering the concept.

BARE BONES

Aha’s delivery drones have no cameras or radar, IEEE Spectrum reports. In fact, they navigate the Reykjavik area using only GPS, which keeps them on pre-determined routes selected because they’re free of trees and other obstacles. When they arrive at a customer’s home, the drones lower deliveries — burgers are popular, but the company also sells electronics — on a line.

That stands in contrast to Amazon’s high-tech approach. In 2014, the company filed documents with the FAA claiming that its delivery drones sport “sense-and-avoid sensors.” A patent the company filed earlier this year describes a system that lets its drones respond to voice commands, and another patent from last year explains a beehive-like structure where drones can roost and collect new items for delivery.

AIN’T BROKE

In this case, the simple approach seems to be winning. Aha says it’s made 500 drone deliveries over the past five months, with no injuries. A delivery costs the equivalent of a modest US $7.

But don’t count Amazon out yet. The company is still pouring resources into its nascent drone program. Maybe it just needs to focus on a simpler set of features.

READ MORE: Are Delivery Drones Commercially Viable? Iceland Is About to Find Out [Spectrum IEEE]

More on drone delivery: Are Delivery Drones Actually Better for the Environment?

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Scientists Need to Solve These Two Mysteries to Find Life on Mars

An international team of scientists just announced their strategy for trying to figure out whether Mars can support life.

Back in June, NASA revealed two mind-blowing facts: that there is organic matter on Mars, and that levels of methane in the planet’s atmosphere ebb and flow over time. It’s pretty exciting news that shook our understanding of astrobiology. And while this isn’t necessarily proof that aliens are out there, much of our terrestrial methane was produced by living things. And as any child can tell you, if you smelled it, someone must have dealt it.

The recent methane findings “confront us with robust data that demand interpretation,” a team of international scientists wrote in a study published last week in Astrobiology. The study authors have done just that — they sorted out what measurements, experiments, and missions NASA and other space organizations should prioritize as they seek more evidence that Mars does (or did) support life.

In short, the scientists want to study Mars’ geological activity. They want to understand the relationship between these newly discovered organic compounds and the fluctuating methane in the atmosphere. Their goal is to find traces of other molecules and gases that might make it possible for some primitive, microscopic life forms to survive beneath the planet’s surface. Here’s what exactly they’re looking for.

One: Redox Gradient

When we eat, our bodies pull energy out of our food through chemical reactions that create a back and forth flow of electrons and oxygen atoms between molecules. This back and forth is necessary for fueling our bodies — all living things do it. But because of Mars’ extreme atmosphere, this balance doesn’t exist. The atmosphere is so strongly oxidizing that these reactions would only happen in one direction. Any living thing on Mars would be reacting so strongly with the air that it wouldn’t be able to survive. The researchers are looking for components in the Martian atmosphere that would balance out that reaction, which would make life possible.

Two: Source of the Methane

The next step towards understanding whether Mars could have ever hosted life, the researchers suggest, is to dig beneath the surface of Mars in order to figure out where all this methane is coming from. While living things on Earth produce methane as they digest food, that’s not the only way the gas could emerge in an atmosphere. NASA’s upcoming InSight mission will probe beneath the surface of Mars. It’s primarily geared towards learning about seismic activity, but who knows what it might discover along the way.

Our best guess for why Mars’ methane levels fluctuate? The seasonal freezing and thawing of ice, which traps and releases methane over time (we know this from data from the Curiosity rove). But there’s no easy way to tell how long that methane has been there or whether more is being generated. And that means finding the source of Martian methane is more complex than pulling the finger of a little green alien.

By examining the chemical composition of subterranean samples and taking more atmospheric measurements, scientists would be able to learn whether this methane came from biological processes or complex chemical reactions that don’t involve life at all.

The researchers behind this plan aren’t suggesting it because there’s super compelling evidence that Mars supports life. In fact, as astrobiologist Caleb Scharf once asserted, it is far more reasonable to assume that it does not exist anywhere other than Earth. After all, that’s the only place we know for sure has got it.

But if, by some fantastic chance, there are some microbes hiding under the planet’s surface, or if there used to be some form of life on Mars, the study authors’ strategy likely represents our best chance at finding it.

More on major Mars findings: There’s A Huge Subterranean Lake of Liquid Water on Mars

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Glimpse: How An Army of Resurrected Mammoths Could Curb Global Warming

It’s 12,000 B.C. Modern humans are starting to migrate to the Americas for the first time. We won’t discover farming for another 2,000 years. We won’t build cities for another 9,000 years. As a species, our story is just beginning. In Siberia, another’s is coming to an end.

The mammoth steppe, one of the world’s most expansive ecosystems, is on the brink of collapse. For millennia, these arctic grasslands have played host to a variety of enormous plant-eating mammals, most notably the wooly mammoth. As a keystone species, the mammoths had long ensured environmental harmony. They kept the trees from multiplying, which allowed grass to grow in its place, sustaining all of the animals in the steppe.

But then, around 12,000 B.C., that changed. Rising global temperatures (a product of a receding ice age) and human activity rapidly drove down the populations of mammoths, triggering a domino effect that transformed the Siberian landscape. Trees, bushes, and shrubs proliferated in the mammoths’ absence, choking out the grasses that once sustained life there. As a result, the permafrost slowly began to thaw, releasing potent greenhouse gases that sped up global warming.

Now, 14,000 years later, scientists are faced with record-breaking global temperatures of humans’ own doing. And they’re realizing how valuable that ice age ecosystem was, and that we may be able to bring it back.

This possibility is explored in Sebastian Moller, the third episode of Glimpse, a new original sci-fi series from Futurism Studios (a division of Futurism LLC) and DUST. Watch the episode below.

Famed geneticist George Church has made bringing back the ice age ecosystem his mission. In 2015, he and a team Harvard researchers successfully spliced the DNA of a wooly mammoth into the genome of its closest living relative, the Asian Elephant. They chose 14 of the mammoth’s most recognizable genes for the experiment, activating them for the first time since their extinction. It was a watershed moment — scientists finally had all the tools they needed to bring an extinct animal back from the dead.

That’s the good news. The bad news, as Church well knows, is that bringing one mammoth back isn’t the same as bringing the species back. To restore the mammoth steppe to its Pleistocene glory, he estimates that we’ll need 80,000 mammoths. At least.

Making pretty much anything in such high numbers is daunting. But an enormous, extinct organism? Even harder. Genetic engineering isn’t exactly known for its ability to scale.

Current de-extinction proposals rely on surrogate mothers from living species to bear the resurrected organisms. The shorter the evolutionary distance — that is, the number of genetic differences — between the extinct species and the surrogate species, the better. That makes the Asian Elephant a perfect candidate to carry mammoth babies — there are only 44 differences between them. Unfortunately, the elephants are also endangered.

Copyright Dust/Futurism, 2018

“If we want to have 80,000 wooly mammoths or cold-resistant elephants that satisfy the wooly mammoth range at once, there aren’t enough mothers that you have access to, even it all relevant governments say, ‘This is a good thing.’” George explained in a recent interview on the After On podcast with Rob Reid.

He estimates there are only about 17,000 Asian Elephant females in prime reproductive health left on earth. That’s barely enough to keep their own species going, especially since the species reproduces slowly (it takes 22 months of gestation for a baby elephant to be born). Using them to bring an extinct species back? A tough sell. African Elephants could be used, too, but you’ll eventually run into the same problem.

The only viable solution, Church posits, is “full development outside the body with adequate blood supply and nutrients.” He’s talking about growing baby mammoths in artificial wombs. No scientist has ever accomplished that for a species that gives birth to live young (that is, not in an egg). But Church and his team are already making a lot of progress with mice, and plan to release the results of those studies this year.

“We’re getting better at turning stem cells into embryo-like structures. We’re getting better at turning embryos into support structures that are vascularized. Mice can implant into that,” he told Reid.  “Once that’s working well for mice, we’ll try moving into larger animals.” Church believes the first success for a mammoth will happen within a decade.

Even if he has all the organisms and technology he needs to accomplish his mission, Church will still run into opposition from ethicists. They’ll argue, among other things, that we should focus our limited resources on protecting species we still have with us. But Church and others like him believe the rewards of such a feat make it worth the struggle — and cost.

 

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Make Music A Full Body Experience With A “Vibro-Tactile” Suit

A high-tech suit vibrates to let users feel music — a new way for everyone to experience sound, according to its creators, but especially for deaf people.

SYNESTHETES

Tired: Listening to music.
Wired: Feeling the music.

A mind-bending new suit straps onto your torso, ankles and wrists, then uses actuators to translate audio into vivid vibration. The result: a new way for everyone to experience music, according to its creators. That’s especially exciting for people who have trouble hearing.

THE FEELIES

The Music: Not Impossible suit was created by design firm Not Impossible Labs and electronics manufacturing company Avnet. The suit can create sensations to go with pre-recorded music, or a “Vibrotactile DJ” can adjust the sensations in real time during a live music event.”

Billboard writer Andy Hermann tried the suit out, and it sounds like a trip.

“Sure enough, a pulse timed to a kickdrum throbs into my ankles and up through my legs,” he wrote. “Gradually, [the DJ] brings in other elements: the tap of a woodblock in my wrists, a bass line massaging my lower back, a harp tickling a melody across my chest.”

MORE ACCESSIBLE

To show the suit off, Not Impossible and Avnet organized a performance this past weekend by the band Greta Van Fleet at the Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas. The company allowed attendees to don the suits. Mandy Harvey, a deaf musician who stole the show on America’s Got Talent last year, talked about what the performance meant to her in a video Avnet posted to Facebook.

“It was an unbelievable experience to have an entire audience group who are all experiencing the same thing at the same time,” she said. “For being a deaf person, showing up at a concert, that never happens. You’re always excluded.”

READ MORE: Not Impossible Labs, Zappos Hope to Make Concerts More Accessible for the Deaf — and Cooler for Everyone [Billboard]

More on accessible design: New Tech Allows Deaf People To Sense Sounds

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Should Coma Patients Live or Die? Machine Learning Will Help Decide.

A team of Chinese researchers has created software that can predict whether a coma patient will wake up or not. Can it replace human decision-making?

In some cases, all it takes is a major blow to the side of the head.

When somebody falls into a coma, they lose all motor functions. Brain activity slows significantly. In most cases, no external stimuli, like light or movement, can wake them up. It’s notoriously difficult to determine their future state — will they ever wake up again?

Chinese neurologists at the Academy of Sciences and the PLA General Hospital in Beijing are working hard to develop a tool that can help doctors assess exactly that. But they’ve got a technological advantage generations of doctors before them didn’t: machine learning. Algorithms like this one are part of a growing arsenal of data-driven tools that can help emotional family members and doctors make difficult decisions about a patient’s treatment, or help determine when it’s time to say goodbye.

The researchers fed fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) data from thousands of coma patients into a machine learning algorithm. That helped them understand how likely a particular patient would be to recover.

As it turns out, the results are very promising: “We have successfully predicted a number of patients who regained consciousness after being initially determined to have no hope of recovery,” the researchers told the South China Morning Post.

The algorithm was 90 percent accurate, the researchers found. And they have already used the technique on more than 300 hundred patients from all over China. They hope the same technology could help more of the estimated 50,000 “patients with chronic disturbance of consciousness” in China.

Image Credit: Thomas Schultz/Victor Tangermann

The stakes may seem high, but coma patients may in fact be the ideal application for this kind of machine learning technology, says Pascal Kaufmann, neuroscientist and founder of Starmind, a Switzerland-based company working to develop artificial intelligence to help employees at big companies communicate with one another. In fact, machines are way better at analyzing this kind of complex biological data than humans are. “These machines are doing nothing other than what the human beings are doing. They are looking at the same data sets — they do exactly the same. However, they do it a million times faster and more reliably.”

The researchers in Beijing are not suggesting that machines should have the final word on deciding whether coma patients live or die. “When we informed the family of the AI score, we always told them it should only [affect] 20 to 50 percent in their decision,” Yang Yi, a doctor in the neurosurgery department at PLA General Hospital and researcher on the project tells the SCMP.

Kaufmann agrees — a computer system’s assessment should only matter if it determines that a coma patient shows promise after human doctors deemed it a lost cause — not the other way round. “When the human doctor says the patient will never wake up again, that would be a horrible scenario. That you actually let a patient die because of machine input — that should not be possible,” Kaufmann says. “I think you should only pay attention to the results if somebody can tell you there is hope.”

“I think you should only pay attention to the results if somebody can tell you there is hope.”

In fact, now that we have technology that could help better predict whether coma patients will wake up, Kaufmann says it could be dangerous to allow human doctors to sift through the data alone. It’s like self-driving cars — human drivers are far more prone to accidents than their autonomous counterparts. “It might be dangerous to leave the judgment of whether a person will wake up or not to the doctor because the error rate is much higher in human doctors than in machines,” Kaufmann says.

For now, though, this algorithm is only being used for coma patients. And that’s probably a good thing. Machines are actually better than doctors at evaluating the condition of a patient, says Kaufmann. But they don’t have the soft skills patients like to see from their doctors. “The problem is, when it comes to human interaction [with patients that are not in a coma], then of course the human doctors are much superior to machines, because you can evaluate behavior, smell, how they talk etc. — there are many factors that the machines are not good with coping with.”

Allowing a computer to influence the decision over a patient’s life or death feels like an episode of Black Mirror, but it might actually be a good thing. It’s quite likely machine learning algorithms will make their way into many more areas of healthcare — they might analyze crowdsourced medical data through high-tech wearables, or help a robotic surgeon operate on patients with little human input. With more data, they are bound to get even more accurate.

But a future where machines alone make that decision to pull the plug on a coma patient? We probably won’t be there for a while.

More on comas: New Electrical Brain Stimulation Could “Awaken” Comatose People

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Tread Lightly: This AI Can Identify You by Monitoring Your Footsteps

Researchers have created an AI that can identify a person with 92 percent accuracy after recording just seven consecutive footsteps.

ELEMENTARY

Teachers take attendance, students reply “here.” Some things never change. But what if that process got a tech upgrade? What if AI could tell which students were there based on the way they walked into the classroom?

Automating classroom attendance is just way we could use a new artificial intelligence that can identify a person simply by analyzing their footsteps. This unusual system is the work of researchers at Indian Institute of Technology, who published their study on the preprint server arXiv on Monday.

UNDER FOOT

The team needed a lot of data on footsteps to create their system. To collect it, they used a geophone, a device that converts ground movement into electrical signals. They asked eight volunteers to each walk barefooted in a circle with a geophone at the center, coming as close to the device as 1 meter (3.2 feet) and as far as 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) from it.

The researchers gathered about an hour of walking data for each individual. That added up to 46,489 footsteps, which they believe is the largest footstep database ever collected. Then they used the data to train an algorithm to differentiate between the steps of different participants by evaluating the time between steps, their length, and their rhythm.

In the end, the AI could identify a person with 92 percent accuracy after recording just seven consecutive footsteps. The researchers believe their system could eventually replace other biometric identification systems, such as fingerprint or retina scanners, as it is easily camouflaged and doesn’t require the cooperation of the person it’s analyzing.

WALK IT OFF

As for applications beyond the classroom, the researchers note that high-security areas, such as military bases, could use the system to detect anyone who isn’t in an approved footstep database. It could also prove useful in the smart homes of the future; for example, the AI could tell your home’s audio system to start playing a different radio station depending on the family member that walks into a room.

Of course, there are still kinks to work out — as it stands, the system can’t identify more than one person at a time, so it’d be useless in crowds. However, the researchers are already working to improve their device, so it might not be long before your footstep is all you need to prove your identity.

READ MORE: Researchers Train AI to Identify People From Their Footsteps [VentureBeat]

More on biometrics: A Top Manufacturer Is Taking a Chance on in-Display Fingerprint Sensors

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Does Uber Have Any User Trust Left To Spare?

Ridesharing app Uber agreed to pay a whopping $148 million fine today for covering up a 2016 hack — and bribing the hackers not to release the data.

Today, ridesharing app Uber agreed to pay a whopping $148 million for covering up a 2016 hack — and bribing the hackers not to release the data. The fine, which will be paid to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, is the largest payout ever for a data breach, Bloomberg reports.

“Uber’s decision to cover up this breach was a blatant violation of the public’s trust,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “The company failed to safeguard user data and notify authorities when it was exposed. Consistent with its corporate culture at the time, Uber swept the breach under the rug in deliberate disregard of the law.”

Uber once looked like a cutting-edge plan for the future of transportation — decentralizing it by giving drivers part-time work. But the fine caps a years-long series of scandals and missteps that has frayed the public trust in the company — a violation that has serious financial repercussions.

Let’s recall Uber’s Very Bad Few Years. There was the viral blog post by a former engineer who detailed rampant harassment at the company. Then the nasty court case, ultimately settled, in which Alphabet’s autonomous car startup Waymo alleged that Uber had stolen its trade secrets. There was the video of then-CEO Travis Kalanick berating an Uber driver who complained about the company’s notoriously low pay. There was Uber’s decision to continue making trips to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport even after taxi drivers refused the serve the route to protest against the Trump administration’s travel ban.

And, of course, there was the hack of 57 million Uber users and drivers’ information, plus the company’s $100,000 bribe to get the hackers to delete it. Even if you were gung-ho about Uber’s vision for the future, it was hard to stay in their corner through all that.

For Uber, it all adds up to a crisis of consumer confidence. To make matters worse, competitor Lyft has edged in, capturing 35 percent of the ridesharing market earlier this year.

Uber has already started to kick some of its bad habits. In 2017, it ousted Kalanick and replaced him with a CEO who has pledged to “celebrate differences” and “do the right thing.” This month, it pledged $10 million to fight street congestion.

But for some riders, it’s going to take more than a few band-aids to build back trust — they’ll need to see a sustained pattern of good behavior. Paying a huge fine isn’t a solution, but it’s a place to start.

More on Uber: Uber’s CEO Knows We Need Equality To Move The World Forward

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