A hardworking robot for the heart of a nuclear fusion reactor

26 May 2019

3D illustration of a tokamak nuclear fusion reactor chamber. Image: © Evgen3d/Stock.adobe.com

A UK engineering team is building a robot that can withstand an extreme environment, while DARPA is backing ambitious brain-machine interface projects and the UN is critiquing our voice tech choices.

In news from the frontline of emerging technology this week, we learned of an engineering firm developing a robot robust enough to work at the heart of a nuclear fusion reactor.

Based in Sunderland in the UK, Assystem aims to build robotic equipment that can safely remove irradiated components and impurities such as dust from inside a tokamak, the chamber in which fusion reactions take place and an environment of intense levels of heat and radiation.

The company is working with ITER, the world’s largest fusion experiment based in the south of France, and plans its first major tests of the divertor remote handling system (DRHS) in 2025. If successful, DRHS will be key to the maintenance of the ITER fusion reactor, which could end our excessive reliance on fossil fuels for energy.

Brain-machine interfacing gets funding boost from DARPA

The advancement of brain-machine interfacing received a boost this week from DARPA’s Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) programme. N3 has awarded funding to six groups attempting to crack communication from brain to machine without the need for surgical implants.

If successful, this could lead to wearable technology for the military such as headsets enabling soldiers to control drones with just their thoughts. Incredibly, DARPA wants these projects to be ready for human trials within four years.

Krishnan Thyagarajan, a research scientist at PARC and principal investigator of one of the N3-funded projects, noted that the proposed timeline is “aggressive” but believes it will challenge the teams to push the limits and accelerate development.

Voice tech under fire for gender bias

A UN report says that female voice assistants fuel damaging stereotypes. The report is titled ‘I’d blush if I could’, because that’s a response that Siri gives when someone calls the Apple voice assistant a slur often directed at women.

Far from simply hurling abusive comments at robotic assistants for no reason, these researchers were examining a common factor of interactions with this technology. So common, in fact, that programmers behind these technologies are having to code responses to sexual harassment.

The UN report warns how gender biases and stereotypes are being hardcoded into voice technology products as they become more and more common. As it happens, these technologies – particularly in a service-centric role such as with Siri or Alexa – are often coded as women.

The report recommends that we refrain from making these default voices sound like women and instead explore a genderless voice. One such example of experimental genderless voice tech is Q from creative agency Virtue. Q’s voice is engineered to be gender-neutral based on research from the University of Copenhagen.

Octopus-inspired medical sensor

Back to the world of wearables, a team of researchers has developed a low-cost, graphene-based, adhesive biosensor inspired by octopus ‘suckers’.

To overcome the challenges of creating a flexible, wearable medtech sensor that can adhere successfully to all skin types, whether wet or dry, and still be comfortable for the wearer, Changhyun Pang, Changsoon Choi and their colleagues took inspiration from the animal kingdom.

Their elastic polyurethane and polyester fabric is coated with graphene oxide and soaked in L-ascorbic acid to aid in conductivity while remaining strong and stretchy. Next, a coating of a graphene and PDMS film forms a conductive path from the fabric to the skin. But it’s the final step that makes this idea stick: they etched tiny, octopus-like patterns on the film to aid adherence to skin.

Reporting their findings in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, the researchers highlighted the sensor’s potential use in medical applications, as it can monitor an array of activities such as electrocardiogram signals, pulse and speech patterns.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.