The world’s smallest, 4D-printed stent is even smaller than you think

9 Aug 2019

Image: De Marco et al/Advanced Materials Technology 2019/ ETH Zurich

This week in future tech, researchers have created the world’s smallest stent to treat new-born babies with a blocked urethra.

With approximately one in every 1,000 children developing a urethral stricture – even when they are still a foetus in the womb – researchers at ETH Zurich have unveiled what they say is the world’s smallest stent to treat it.

To prevent life-threatening levels of urine accumulating in the bladder, paediatric surgeons to date have to surgically remove the affected section of the urethra and sew the open ends of the tube back together again.

Publishing their findings to Advanced Materials Technologies, the researchers said their ‘microstent’ is just 50 micrometres in width and 0.5mm in length. Carmela De Marco, lead author of the study, said: “We’ve printed the world’s smallest stent with features that are 40 times smaller than any produced to date.”

It was constructed using ‘indirect 4D printing’, with the stent’s shape-memory properties that give it its fourth dimension. Even if the material is deformed, it remembers its original shape and returns to this shape when warm.

However, the stents are a long way from being used in the real world and the researchers now plan to test them in animal models.

Slow human brain inspires new ultrafast AI breakthrough

The brain remains the most powerful computer available to us today, but for decades researchers have been trying to build artificial intelligence (AI) that could surpass it in computing speed. However, a team of researchers from Bar-Ilan University in Israel has demonstrated a new type of ultrafast AI algorithm based on the brain, which is actually quite a slow machine.

In a paper published to Scientific Reports, the team said its creation can outperform learning rates achieved to date by state-of-the-art learning algorithms. This will help rebuild the bridge between neuroscience and advanced AI algorithms, which has been left virtually useless for almost 70 years.

“The number of neurons in a brain is less than the number of bits in a typical disk size of modern personal computers, and the computational speed of the brain is like the second hand on a clock, even slower than the first computer invented over 70 years ago,” said Prof Ido Kanter, lead author of the study. “In addition, the brain’s learning rules are very complicated and remote from the principles of learning steps in current AI algorithms.”

The idea of efficient deep learning algorithms based on the very slow brain’s dynamics offers an opportunity to implement a new class of advanced artificial intelligence based on fast computers.

Researchers reveal soft robots that feel pain and repair themselves

A €3m EU project is aiming to create a self-healing soft robot, Shero, made from flexible plastics, which can detect damage, temporarily heal itself and then resume its work without needing human intervention.

Led by the University of Brussels (VUB), the international team of researchers is focusing on integrating these materials into soft robotic arms for use in modular robotics, educational robotics and evolutionary robotics, where a single robot can be ‘recycled’ to generate a fresh prototype.

Prof Bram Vanderborght of VUB said of the project: “With this research we want to continue and, above all, ensure that robots that are used in our working environment are safer, but also more sustainable.

“Due to the self-repair mechanism of this new kind of robot, complex, costly repairs may be a thing of the past.”

Wearable tech set to become a $54bn industry by 2023

Data analytics firm GlobalData has released a report estimating that the wearable tech industry will jump from a value of $23bn in 2018 to $54bn by 2023. This would mark a compound annual growth rate of 19pc.

The report said that the consumer market growth for wearables will be driven by sales of smartwatches. In contrast, fitness tracker sales are falling due to their limited capabilities when compared to smartwatches.

As well as the growing consumer market, enterprise adoption of wearable tech is also increasing, thanks to activity in the healthcare, logistics, insurance, fintech and defence markets.

Ed Thomas, principal analyst for Technology Thematic Research, commented: “The wearable tech theme incorporates more than just wrist-worn devices.

“Smart earwear, or hearables, has become a more prominent category with the emergence of devices that incorporate voice-activated virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant. Hearables also have the potential to match, or even exceed, the performance of smartwatches when it comes to providing health monitoring services.”

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic