Robot hot among surgeons but FDA taking a new look

Robot hot among surgeons but FDA taking a new look


CHICAGO (AP) — The biggest thing in operating rooms these days is a million-dollar, multi-armed robot named da Vinci, used in nearly 400,000 surgeries nationwide last year — triple the number just four years earlier.

But now the high-tech helper is under scrutiny over reports of problems, including several deaths that may be linked with it and the high cost of using the robotic system.

There also have been a few disturbing, freak incidents: a robotic hand that wouldn’t let go of tissue grasped during surgery and a robotic arm hitting a patient in the face as she lay on the operating table.

Is it time to curb the robot enthusiasm?

Some doctors say yes, concerned that the “wow” factor and heavy marketing have boosted use. They argue that there is not enough robust research showing that robotic surgery is at least as good or better than conventional surgeries.

Many U.S. hospitals promote robotic surgery in patient brochures, online and even on highway billboards. Their aim is partly to attract business that helps pay for the costly robot.

The da Vinci is used for operations that include removing prostates, gallbladders and wombs, repairing heart valves, shrinking stomachs and transplanting organs. Its use has increased worldwide, but the system is most popular in the United States.

“We are at the tip of the iceberg. What we thought was impossible 10 years ago is now commonplace,” said Dr. Michael Stifelman, robotic surgery chief at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

For surgeons, who control the robot while sitting at a computer screen rather than standing over the patient, these operations can be less tiring. Plus robot hands don’t shake. Advocates say patients sometimes have less bleeding and often are sent home sooner than with conventional laparoscopic surgeries and operations involving large incisions.

But the Food and Drug Administration is looking into a spike in reported problems during robotic surgeries. Earlier this year, the FDA began a survey of surgeons using the robotic system. The agency conducts such surveys of devices routinely, but FDA spokeswoman Synim Rivers said the reason for it now “is the increase in number of reports received” about da Vinci.

Reports filed since early last year include at least five deaths.

Whether there truly are more problems recently is uncertain. Rivers said she couldn’t quantify the increase and that it may simply reflect more awareness among doctors and hospitals about the need to report problems. Doctors aren’t required to report such things; device makers and hospitals are.

It could also reflect wider use. Last year there were 367,000 robot surgeries versus 114,000 in 2008, according to da Vinci’s maker, Intuitive Surgical Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Da Vinci is the company’s only product, and it’s the only robotic system cleared for soft-tissue surgery by the FDA. There are other robotic devices approved for neurosurgery and orthopedics, among other things.

A search for the company’s name in an FDA database of reported problems related to medical devices brings up 500 reports since Jan. 1, 2012. Many of those came from Intuitive Surgical. The reports include incidents that happened several years ago and some are duplicates. There’s also no proof any of the problems were caused by the robot, and many didn’t injure patients. Reports filed this year include:

— A woman who died during a 2012 hysterectomy when the surgeon-controlled robot accidentally nicked a blood vessel.

— A Chicago man who died in 2007 after spleen surgery.

— A New York man whose colon was allegedly perforated during prostate surgery. Da Vinci’s maker filed that report after seeing a newspaper article about it and said the doctor’s office declined to provide additional information.

— A robotic arm that wouldn’t let go of tissue grasped during colorectal surgery on Jan. 14. “We had to do a total system shutdown to get the grasper to open its jaws,” said the report filed by the hospital. The report said the patient was not injured.

— A robotic arm hit a patient in the face during a hysterectomy. The company filed that report, and said it is unknown if the patient was injured but that the surgeon decided to switch to an open, more invasive operation instead.

Intuitive Surgical filed all but one of those reports.

Complications can occur with any type of surgery, and so far it’s unclear if they are more common in robotic operations, but that’s part of what the FDA is trying to find out.

Intuitive Surgical disputes there’s been a true increase in problems and says the rise reflects a change it made last year in the way it reports problems.

The da Vinci system “has an excellent safety record with over 1.5 million surgeries performed globally, and total adverse event rates have remained low and in line with historical trends,” said company spokeswoman Angela Wonson.

But an upcoming research paper suggests that problems linked with robotic surgery are underreported. They include cases with “catastrophic complications,” said Dr. Martin Makary, a Johns Hopkins surgeon who co-authored the paper.

“The rapid adoption of robotic surgery … has been done by and large without the proper evaluation,” Makary said.

The da Vinci system, on the market since 2000, includes a three- or four-armed robot that surgeons operate with hand controls at a computer system located several feet away from the patient. They see inside the patient’s body through a tiny video camera attached to one of the long robot arms. The other arms are tipped with tiny surgical instruments.

Robotic operations are similar to conventional laparoscopy, or “keyhole” surgery, which involves small incisions and camera-tipped instruments controlled by the surgeon’s hands, not a robot.

Almost 1,400 U.S. hospitals — nearly 1 out of 4 — have at least one da Vinci system. Each one costs about $1.45 million, plus $100,000 or more a year in service agreements.

The most common robotic operations include prostate removal — about 85 percent of these operations in the U.S. are done with the robot. Da Vinci also is often used for hysterectomies, Wonson said.

Makary says there’s no justification for the skyrocketing increase in robotic surgery, which he attributes to aggressive advertising by the manufacturer and hospitals seeking more patients.

He led a study published in 2011 that found 4 in 10 U.S. hospitals promoted robotic surgery on their websites, often using wording provided by the manufacturer. Some of the claims exaggerated the benefits or had misleading, unproven claims, the study said.

Stifelman, the Langone surgeon, said it makes sense for hospitals to promote robotic surgery and other new technology to, but that it doesn’t mean that it’s the right option for all patients.

“It’s going to be the responsibility of the surgeon … to make sure the patient knows there are lots of options,” and to discuss the risks and benefits, he said.

His hospital expects to do more than 1,200 robotic surgeries this year, versus just 175 in 2008.

For a few select procedures that require operating in small, hard-to-reach areas, robotic surgery may offer advantages over conventional methods, Makary said. Those procedures include head and neck cancer surgery and rectal surgery.

Some surgeons say the robotic method also has advantages for weight-loss surgery on extremely obese patients, whose girth can make hands-on surgery challenging.

“At the console, the operation can be performed effectively and precisely, translating to superior quality,” said Dr. Subhashini Ayloo, a surgeon at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System in Chicago.

Ayloo, who uses the da Vinci robot, last year began a study on the effectiveness of doing robotic obesity surgery in patients who need a kidney transplant. Some hospitals won’t do transplants on obese patients with kidney failure because it can be risky. In the study, robotic stomach-shrinking surgery and kidney transplants are done simultaneously. Patients who get both will be compared with a control group getting only robotic kidney transplants.

“We don’t know the results, but so far it’s looking good,” Ayloo said.

Aidee Diaz of Chicago was the first patient and was taken aback when told the dual operation would be done robotically.

“At first you would get scared. Everybody says, ‘A robot?’ But in the long run that robot does a lot of miracles,” said Diaz, 36.

She has had no complications since her operation last July, has lost 100 pounds and says her new kidney is working well.

Lawsuits in cases that didn’t turn out so well often cite inadequate surgeon training with the robot. These include a malpractice case that ended last year with a $7.5 million jury award for the family of Juan Fernandez, a Chicago man who died in 2007 after robotic spleen surgery. The lawsuit claimed Fernandez’s surgeons accidentally punctured part of his intestines, leading to a fatal infection.

The surgeons argued that Fernandez had a health condition that caused the intestinal damage, but it was the first robot operation for one of the doctors and using the device was overkill for an ordinarily straightforward surgery, said Fernandez’s attorney, Ted McNabola.

McNabola said an expert witness told him it was like “using an 18-wheeler to go the market to get a quart of milk.”

Company spokesman Geoff Curtis said Intuitive Surgical has physician-educators and other trainers who teach surgeons how to use the robot. But they don’t train them how to do specific procedures robotically, he said, and that it’s up to hospitals and surgeons to decide “if and when a surgeon is ready to perform robotic cases.”

A 2010 New England Journal of Medicine essay by a doctor and a health policy analyst said surgeons must do at least 150 procedures to become adept at using the robotic system. But there is no expert consensus on how much training is needed.

New Jersey banker Alexis Grattan did a lot of online research before her gallbladder was removed last month at Hackensack University Medical Center. She said the surgeon’s many years of experience with robotic operations was an important factor. She also had heard that the surgeon was among the first to do the robotic operation with just one small incision in the belly button, instead of four cuts in conventional keyhole surgery.

“I’m 33, and for the rest of my life I’m going to be looking at those scars,” she said.

The operation went smoothly. Grattan was back at work a week later.


Hints of Human Language Heard in Lip-Smacking Monkey Talk

Hints of Human Language Heard in Lip-Smacking Monkey Talk

Sounds made by a little-known monkey living in Ethiopia’s mountain grasslands may hint at the origins of human speech. Unlike most other primates, which communicate in strings of short, relatively flat-toned syllables, geladas possess uncannily human-like vocal tempos and undulations.

“When we first started working with geladas in 2006, we noticed sounds like people were talking around you,” said evolutionary biologist Thore Bergman of the University of Michigan. “Most primates only make a few sounds, but geladas produce a complex stream with a rhythm similar to language.”

Key to the gelada vocalizations,described today by Bergman in Current Biology, is the ability to smack their lips. Underlying that seemingly simple action is a rich synchrony of lips, tongue and the hyoid bone beneath them.

Earlier research on lip-smacking in macaque monkeys found it distinct from lip-moving while eating, and also noted an intriguing correspondence to the universal rhythms of human language.

Though the monkeys moved their lips without without actually vocalizing, the researchers speculated that lip-smacking could have been a precursor to human speech, setting a tempo for what would become the sonic foundations of language.

Bergman builds on that notion. He shows that geladas sometimes use lip-smacking to shape their calls, giving them a human language-like quality. Geladas were already known to possess an extremely rich vocal repertoire; lip-smacking adds to that richness.

An open question, said Bergman, is whether the lip-smacking vocalizations have some special significance. “We don’t know much about the function,” he said. “It will be interesting to see if the fact they produce these complex sounds allows them to communicate things other monkeys might not be able to.”

Image: Alastair Rae/Flickr

The possibility that early ancestors of humans may have shared this ability raises a linguistic chicken-egg-problem, Bergman added.

“The ability to produce complex sounds might have come first. Then, when we could do that, we could attach meanings and communicate in more sophisticated ways,” he said. “Or it could be that, as we needed to communicate more, we developed an ability to produce a greater variety of sounds.”

Whatever the order, vocal complexity is likely intertwined with social complexity. Baboons are closely related to geladas, but use fewer vocalizations and don’t smack their lips. Perhaps not coincidentally, baboons live in relatively small, short-lived groups.

Gelada groups stay together for many years, with females having especially long-lived relationships. Often groups come together in bands of several hundred individuals. “It’s a very complex social system. They have some of the largest groups of any primate,” Bergman said. “These very large group structures may be linked to vocal complexity. There’s some evidence across primate that bigger groups make more sounds.”… Read more

Your 7-Step Guide to the Shadow Universe

Your 7-Step Guide to the Shadow Universe

Five-sixths of the universe is missing. That statement feels strange to write, and I’m sure it feels pretty strange to read as well. Given the vastness of the cosmos–and given how little of it humans have explored–how can we know for sure that anything is out of place? The claim sounds positively arrogant, if not delusional.

Color-coded, composite of the galaxy cluster Abell 520. Green denotes hot gas; orange highlights starlight from galaxies; blue shows the inferred location of dark matter. (Credit: NASA, ESA, CFHT, CXO, M.J. Jee, and A. Mahdavi)

And yet scientists have assembled a nearly airtight case that the majority of the matter in the universe consists dark matter, a substance which is both intrinsically invisible and fundamentally different in composition than the familiar atoms that make up stars and planets. In the face of staggering difficulties, researchers like Samuel Ting of MIT are even making progress in figuring out what dark matter is, as evidence by teasing headlines from last week. Time to come to terms, then, with the new reality about our place in the universe. Here are seven key things every informed citizen of the cosmos should know.

1 Dark matter is real. The evidence for dark matter goes all the way back to apaper published by visionary Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky in 1933–less than a decade after Edwin Hubble definitively proved the existence of other galaxies. Zwicky noticed that galaxies in clusters were moving so quickly that the clusters should be flying apart, and yet the clusters remain intact. He concluded that there must be dunkle Materie (dark matter) scattered through the clusters, providing the extra gravitational pull that holds everything together. At the time, most of Zwicky’s colleagues considered the evidence too tentative, and the idea too weird, to believe. In the 1970s, American astronomer Vera Rubin changed their minds with the same kind of observations carried out in much greater detail. She found that galaxies systematically rotate so quickly that they should fly apart unless bound together by dark matter–or unless our understanding of the laws of gravity are wrong. More recently, astrophysicists have run elaborate computer models of how galaxies form. These models beautifully fit the observed structure of the universe, but only if they include dark matter into their equations.

Galaxy rotation

Stars in the outer regions of spiral galaxy M74 move much more quickly than expected if they were held in orbit only by the visible matter. The best explanation is that they are being pulled by a large halo of unseen, dark matter. (Credit: Gemini Observatory/GMOS Team)

Two other lines of evidence strongly support dark matter. One comes from observations of gravitational lensing, the bending of light due to gravity. Astronomers can make crude maps of where the matter is in galaxy clusters by observing how they distort the light of more distant galaxies. These maps not only confirm the presence of huge amounts of dark matter, they also show that the dark stuff moves independentlyfrom hot gas in the cluster, something that alternate theories of gravity cannot easily explain. Another, completely independent line of evidence comes from studies of the cosmic microwave background, radiation left over from the Big Bang. The distribution of that radiation on the sky is very sensitive to the exact composition of the early universe. The observed pattern allows a very precise measurement of the makeup of the universe, as I described recently, in which dark matter outweighs visible matter by a factor of 5.5 to 1. All three types of observations not only show evidence of dark matter, they also show the same amount of dark matter. That’s awfully persuasive.

2. Dark matter can be visible…sometimes. That sounds like a contradiction of all that I’ve just said, so bear with me. Dark matter seems not to interact with light or any other form of electromagnetic radiation (radio, x-rays, etc), but it may be able to interact with itself. One of the leading theories of dark matter holds that it consists of fundamental particles called WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles) that can destroy each other if they happen to smack into each other. In the vastness of space, particles don’t collide very often but it will inevitably happen occasionally. If two WIMPs annihilate each other, they might create visible radiation in the form of gamma rays; or they might give rise to more familiar types of particles, such as electrons and their antimatter partners, positrons.

In fact, two space-based experiments are currently looking for both signals, and both see some intriguing signs of something strange going on in the depths of space. NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope has picked up an extremely faint but unusual glow of gamma rays having a very specific energy: 130 giga-electron volts (GeV), or about 60 billion times the energy of visible light. That looks a lot like the breakdown of a dark-matter particle, but Christoph Weniger of the Max-Planck Institute for Physics cautions that the evidence right now “is as ambiguous as it can be.” Further hints of dark matter come from Samuel Ting and the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS, experiment aboard the International Space Station. That’s the one that just made headlines last week. (New York Times: “Tantalizing New Clues into the Mysteries of Dark Matter”.) AMS is picking up a slight excess of positrons from all directions of the sky, which is again consistent with the presence of dark matter but not yet at all conclusive. Stay tuned for more results; Ting says it will take “several more years” before he has enough data to say for sure.


The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment (top left) aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA/AMS)

3. Dark matter might show up here on Earth. In theory, we are swimming in dark matter all the time. It should be passing through you right now. Because dark matter is so unreactive, most of the time it keeps going and nobody here is any the wiser for it. But starting in the 1990s, a few hardy (or foolhardy, depending on your perspective) physicists decided to try to sense dark matter particles as they pass. The idea is that on very rare occasions, a dark matter particle might strike an atom of ordinary matter, giving it a kick. That could potentially be detected as a thermal signal: a minuscule dose of heat. Several experiments along these lines have claimed tentative sightings of dark matter signals. The most celebrated results have come from the detector known as DAMA, short simply for DArk MAtter. Beyond a core of true believers, nobody considers these results convincing, however. A new experiment called LUX should clarify the situation. “The sensitivity is significantly better than previous direct detection experiments,” promises LUX principle investigatorRichard Gaitskell of Brown University. By the time LUX finishes its first full run in 2015 it will be, he hopes, “a very definitive experiment.”

4. We might be able to create our own dark matter. That is one of the great goals for the ambitious Large Hadron Collider: making dark matter in the lab so that scientists can study it. The core concept of the LHC is that the mad smashing of particles into other particles will shake loose all kinds of things that do not show up in the calm and quiet of everyday physics. In essence, the huge amounts of energy created at the LHC can be spontaneously transformed into various particles (mass and energy being equivalent–remember your e=mc²?). That is how the physicists at the LHC (probably) found the Higgs Boson. If WIMPs have the kinds of masses that theorists expect, the LHC should create them too. Such dark matter particles will be hard to track down, because of their elusive nature. They tend to fly right out of the detectors, unseen, and so would initially show up as missing energy in the LHC reactions: One more shadow to chase. Still, if the WIMPs really are there, the crafty researchers and enormous computers that sift through data from the LHC should be able to find them when thecollider restarts in 2015.

5. Dark matter is a totally different thing than dark energy. In 1998, two competing teams of cosmologists discovered that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. The force behind that cosmic expansion is now known as “dark energy,” a term that was coined byMichael Turner at the University of Chicago as a deliberate (if sometimes confusing) counterpoint to dark matter. Both are dark in the sense that they are unseen, and both are dark in the sense that they are mysterious. But dark matter seems to consist of some sort of particles, and it exerts a gravitational pull that tends to bring things together: it glues together galaxies and galaxy clusters, and may have provided the extra attraction that allowed these structures to form in the first place. Dark energy, on the other hand, is even less well understood but it seems to be a form of energy that is embedded into the fabric of space itself, and it exerts a repulsive force–almost like antigravity–over extremely long distances. To add further confusion, dark energy has the equivalent of mass (if you didn’t remember your e=mc² before, try remembering it now) and when you total up all that mass, dark energy is the dominant component of the universe.

6. The dark stuff really dominates.Based on the latest observations from the Planck observatory, the universe consists of 68.3 percent dark energy, 26.8 percent dark matter, and 4.9 percent ordinary matter. A little perspective: More than 95 percent of the universe is dark and fundamentally unobservable, most of the universe does not consist of matter, and most of the matter does not consist of atoms like the ones that make up you and me. Feeling insignificant yet?

7. The dark universe might have a life of its own. A few years back, Savas Dimopoulos of Stanford University postulated that dark matter could form dark atoms that create their own dark chemistry. Neal Weiner at NYU has kicked around the thought problem of how a hypothetical scientist composed of dark matter might be able to find the visible universe (which of course would be invisible to him or her). The answer: It wouldn’t be easy. And just recently a group of Harvard University physicists led by JiJi Fan and Lisa Randall have theorized that some dark matter might be able to cool and collapse just the way ordinary hydrogen gas does, leading to the possibility of dark galaxies, perhaps even dark stars and dark planets.

Right now nobody knows. Perhaps these ideas are just flights of fantasy, but they are fantasies that are consistent with what we currently understand about how the universe works. In fact, they are supported by some of the best available current observations. Douglas Finkbeiner, an astrophysicist at Harvard, neatly sums up the wonder and uncertainty of this kind of research: “We should all be lying in bed awake wondering what dark matter is.”

Hands-On With the Sleek and Stunning HTC One

Hands-On With the Sleek and Stunning HTC One


The new HTC One, which begins shipping on April 16, is a complete hardware and software reinvention of HTC’s premium Android phone. It has a sleek aluminum body, unique camera sensor, front-facing stereo speakers, and a news-feed-based version of its Sense Android overlay. There’s just one problem: It’s coming out around the same time as Samsung’s blockbuster Galaxy S4.


The One’s seamless aluminum design is gorgeous and feels substantial in the hand. At just over 5 ounces, it’s a bit heavier than the 4.6-ounce Samsung Galaxy S4 and a full ounce heavier than the iPhone 5, but it doesn’t feel weighty or out of place in your pocket. In fact, the arched back of the case makes it feel like a thinner device than it is. The screen is large at 4.7 inches, though not as large as the 5-inch screen of the S4. Like all of the new high-end smartphone screens, the display on the One is incredibly crisp, with a ludicrous pixel density of 468 ppi. Inside, the phone has a 1.7-GHz, quad-core Snapdragon processor (we found it snappy and responsive), and it can be purchased with 32GB or 64GB of built-in memory.

There is a downside to the One’s seamless design that may be a deal-killer for some Android users: The case is sealed. There aren’t even any exposed screws. That means no removable battery and no expandable memory. In fact, the repair site iFixit has declared the One impossible to repair without destroying the phone.


The One runs Android Jelly Bean, but you’d hardly know it. Like most Android phone manufacturers these days, HTC adds a sophisticated overlay of software and UI features. HTC’s software skin is called Sense, and the latest upgrade includes a constantly updating blend of customized news and social updates called BlinkFeed. The concept is very reminiscent of the home screen of Windows Phone, but somehow the execution is noisier and more chaotic than the colorful Windows tiles. I found myself trying not to touch any of the BlinkFeed tiles for fear they would instantly launch me into a Facebook post or news item rather than get me to the task for which I had picked up the phone in the first place. The most useful thing I found about BlinkFeed is that you could pick a different home screen and avoid it altogether.

Another slick feature of the One is its remote-control functionality, which the company calls Sense TV. Much of the functionality of Sense TV is adopted from the company Peel, which formerly produced its own Wi-Fi-linked infrared repeater hardware, plus accompanying smartphone apps, to control all your AV gear. Now the company’s software has been folded into hardware like the One, which has its own infrared blaster that can imitate almost any remote control. What should be more interesting is Peel’s content-discovery software, which promises to find shows you would want to watch and tell you when they are on the air. But a reminder to watch a show is hardly the instant gratification of the show itself. And for those shows that hadn’t yet aired, the time I spent setting up a reminder could have just as easily been spent setting up my DVR to record them.


The biggest news about the HTC One is its camera. There has been a race among smartphone makers to make the built-in cameras as sophisticated and powerful as possible. But, given the shallow-body requirements of the form, there is no way to fit a big sensor that captures lots of light. Instead, most phone manufacturers have been carving up the space on small sensors into more and more megapixels—producing more and more resolution from the same captured light. Eventually, this strategy has a point of diminishing returns. Each pixel gets tinier with each bump up in resolution, and the amount of light captured by each pixel decreases.

HTC decided to buck that trend by creating a 4-megapixel sensor (most premium smartphones have 8 or even 16 megapixels) with larger “UltraPixels” that capture more light. The result is supposed to be brighter, more vivid shots and better low-light pictures. In our experience, this does seem to be the case, but in uneven light the One can overexpose sections of the shot, often blowing out pale skin tones. And even though we wholeheartedly agree that the current megapixel war is nonsense, the relatively low resolution of the One’s sensor starts to show when you zoom in and find that the details of your photo are fuzzy.

The One’s camera software features an innovative feature the company calls Zoe. Because the One’s shutter speed is so fast, Zoe mode can simultaneously capture 20 still photos and a 3-second video with sound. The idea is to create “living” photos that move like the shots in a Harry Potter newspaper. In practice, it’s a little weirder than that. Three seconds is a pretty short period of time to capture on video—it’s essentially a sentence fragment of your life. We have around 15 Zoe shots on our test phone that feel like clipped, stuttering false starts for a longer video. The concept is interesting, though, and if it were extended to 5 or 6 seconds, or maybe if we trained ourselves to work within Zoe’s boundaries, the results could be interesting. Then again, the micro-video-sharing site Vine already does something similar in a more compelling way, and it should be coming to the Android platform soon.


The onboard speakers of a smartphone may seem like an afterthought, but the way the One handles sound is one of the phone’s most impressive design features. With two front-facing stereo speakers, The HTC is simply louder and clearer than any other phone on the market. In fact, sound from the One’s speakers is almost on par with some of the self-powered mini Bluetooth speakers you can buy for $100. It’s almost a shame that the One doesn’t have the little flip-out kickstand that HTC used to put on its phones, since this device would make an excellent mini-stereo system for hotel-room travel.


Overall, the HTC One is impressive. It’s a grown-up, sophisticated phone with impressive build quality. Battery life is good; with moderate use, a single charge got us through two full days. The display is amazingly vivid and crisp, and videos look fantastic (although, like most Android phones, it won’t natively play the high-quality .mkv videos that file sharers love).

It’s almost a shame that this thing has to compete against the marketing muscle of Samsung and Apple. On the coming weeks and months, this well-designed and constructed device is likely to be lost in the news and reviews of the Galaxy S4 and next-gen iPhone. That’s sad news, since the One is a better deal when lined up head-to-head against those phones. The baseline One comes with 32 GB for $199 (that’s the two-year contract price). Sprint even has a promo deal selling it for $99. Meanwhile, the Galaxy S4 is expected to launch with a 16 GB phone at that price point, and Apple’s $199 iPhone 5 also has only 16 GB.

Are We Paying Enough Attention to Information Technology’s Dark Side?

Are We Paying Enough Attention to Information Technology’s Dark Side?


For centuries, the threat and selective use of brute force has steered the international balance of power. In the last couple decades, the system has increasingly accommodated economic power as a means of non-violent leverage between states. Now, says Singularity University’s Marc Goodman, we must add technology into the mix.

Technological power is not new, of course, but information technology’s exponential pace and declining cost is changing how the global game is played and who the players are. Control of technology is passing from the richest states and governments to smaller groups and individuals, and the results are both inspiring and terrifying.

As Goodman says, “The ability of one to affect many is scaling exponentially—and it’s scaling for good and it’s scaling for evil.”

Of course, Singularity Hub andSingularity University like to focus on the first half of Goodman’s equation; the potential good accelerating technology can and will do. Ordinary individuals and small groups can now build robots, code ingenious apps, send satellites into orbit, and disrupt entire industries in ways that used to take pooled resources of giant corporations or governments.

But technology is and always has been a double-edged sword. Destructive non-state actors—terrorists and criminals—and internationally weak authoritarian regimes can leverage the same tools for more nefarious purposes.


Goodman says, “Previously, there were only so many countries that could build a nuclear weapon—nuclear material was expensive, it was hard to obtain, and it was tightly controlled. So, from a weapons perspective, we did a fairly good job of containing who got access. But in terms of cyber warfare, anybody with a computer or a smart phone is capable of launching an attack.”

Indeed, James Clapper, US Director of National Intelligence, listed the threat of cyber attacks as the top concern in his recent Worldwide Threat Assessment Statement to Congress. Cyber attacks may be launched by other states, diffuse groups with a common agenda (Anonymous or WikiLeaks), or individuals acting alone. In the digital world, giant states and tiny non-state actors can be equally powerful—a David and Goliath phenomenon capable of upsetting the status quo in international relations.

Hackers can target information (theUS Chamber of Commerce,Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft) or physical systems. The Stuxnet virus, for example, infected the control terminals of Iranian uranium-enriching centrifuges, thereby destroying them. In the near future, the Internet of Things will give everything from your car to your pacemaker an IP address and wireless internet access.

The havoc capable individuals can wreak online will grow as we network more and more of our world—and therefore, so too will the power of those individuals and groups who best know how to cause it.

But it isn’t just cyber threats Goodman studies. Information technology is bleeding into and accelerating robotics and biotech and enabling individuals to build powerful machines and weapons, once reserved for state militaries.

SH 79_#2

According to Goodman, “If I wanted to mount a terrorist operation in the past, I might have had some guns and explosives, but I wouldn’t have had the capacity to launch my own drones, or build a bio-weapon, or build robots that could automatically deliver IEDs [improvised explosive devices] in the battle space.”

Even as technology empowers non-state actors, it also allows dictators to maintain an iron grip on their populations. Many rushed to credit the successes of the Arab Spring to information technology and social networks. But after Egypt’s Hosni Mubarrak was deposed, Goodman says the revolutionaries “went in and found massive monitoring centers capable of recording everybody’s Tweets and cellphone calls and aggregating their address books and phone history.” It’s a poignant juxtaposition—ordinary humans concurrently enabled and repressed by information technology.

Goodman sees “some rather fundamental challenges to the concept of the nation-state as we increasingly live in a global and interconnected online community.” But he doesn’t think the post-Westphalian world will simply go away. What the system looks like in the future depends on how quickly states adapt—updating laws and ethics, regulating unsecure software, even making borders more porous to law enforcement to match the border-free internet.

While the idea of lumbering bureacracies adapting quickly may seem unlikely; it’s entirely possible they’ll adapt just fast enough to remain in place for awhile yet. And instead of quick change, the classic definition of the state will twist and wither. Whether its successor proves good or ill remains to be seen—but if history (and Marc Goodman) is any guide, it’ll be some of each.

Fusion Rocket Would Shoot People To Mars In 30 Days

Fusion Rocket Would Shoot People To Mars In 30 Days

Rocket Test Chamber The magnetic chamber for heating deuterium plasma University of Washington, MSNW

One team will be testing fusion propulsion this summer in Redmond.

A research team in Washington state is on its way to making a fusion rocket that could carry people to Mars in 30 days, NBC News reported.

Scientists spent much of the last century trying to harness fusion energy, but never succeeded. NASA funded this latest effort through its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which the agency describes as a program for creative ideas that may be 10 years or more away from use on a mission. Phase II projects, such as this fusion rocket, received about $600,000 over three years.

The Washington team members include physicists from the University of Washington who say they’ve demonstrated all of the parts of their technology. They now need to combine the components into one experiment that creates energy.

The team’s idea is to use a strong magnetic field to fuse a series of metal rings into a shell around a deuterium plasma. The shell compresses the plasma, creating a fusion reaction that lasts just 25 millionths of a second, NBC News reported. The reaction heats the metal shell and blasts it out of the back of the rocket at 67,000 miles per hour, propelling the rocket. The team hopes that with enough of these brief reactions, they can push a rocket along continually, all the way to Mars.

The team members, led by University of Washington aeronautics researcher John Slough, have heated deuterium plasma up to fusion temperatures. They’ve also tested their magnetic field. They plan to put the two together late this summer, NBC News reported. The experiment will take place at the University of Washington’s Plasma Dynamics Lab in Redmond.

Best of Pioneer: A Look at Mankind’s First Encounters With Jupiter and Saturn

Best of Pioneer: A Look at Mankind’s First Encounters With Jupiter and Saturn

Though not well remembered, Pioneer 10 and 11 were the first spacecraft to ever pass through the asteroid belt and encounter the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. Here, we take a look at some of these exploratory probes’ best images… Read more

Great collection of images of Earth from space.

This great collection of images of Earth from space comes from several different satellites as well as the International Space Station. There are awesome shots of glaciers and sea ice, city lights at night and sand dunes. Some of the best stuff involves dynamic data visualizations that start at 1:22 in the video and show things like the winds during Hurricane Sandy, changing sea surface temperatures and ocean currents.

Smell Receptors In Heart Suggest Nose Isn’t Only Odor-Detecting Organ

Smell Receptors In Heart Suggest Nose Isn’t Only Odor-Detecting Organ


Your nose may not be the only organ able to sense the enticing aromas of roasted coffee or freshly baked bread. Such sensors are also found in the heart, lungs and blood, research shows.

“But does this mean that, for instance, the heart ‘smells’ the steak you just ate? We don’t know the answer to that question,” Peter Schieberle, a food chemist at the Technical University of Munich and the German Research Center for Food Chemistry, in Germany, said in a statement. Schieberle described the fragrant findings Sunday (April 7) at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans.

When airborne chemical compounds from food and other substances enter the nose, they bind to olfactory receptors there, triggering a cascade that tells the brain what something smells like. These receptors were thought to exist only in the mucus-laden tissue in the back of the nose, but growing evidence suggests that other organs have them, too.

For example, sperm cells are known to contain odor receptors, which are thought to play a role in helping thesperm locate the egg. Growing evidence now suggests these receptors are also found in the heart, lungs and blood.

Schieberle and his colleagues recently found that human blood cells are attracted to molecules associated with certain odors. When scientists put blood cells on one side of partitioned chamber and an odor compound on the other side, the blood cells migrated in the direction of the odor. It’s unclear whether these odor compounds work the same way in the body as they do in the nose, Schieberle said, but he hopes to find out. [10 Amazing Facts About the Heart]

The science of taste

Schieberle works in the field of “sensomics,” which seeks to understand which of the myriad aroma compounds are important for human taste and smell. Sensomics helps explain what makes foods taste, feel or smell appetizing or unappealing.

In particular, Schieberle is interested in the complex aromas involved in foods such as chocolate or coffee. In his lab, researchers break smells down into their chemical components, and recombine those components in unique ways for taste tests. Researchers found that coffee contains as many as 1,000 odor components, but only 25 of these components bind to odor receptors to produce a smell.

Odor receptors are a kind of G-protein-coupled receptor, which earned the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2012. While there are about 400 of these smell receptors in the human body, there are only about 27 taste receptors. Until now, most research on food and taste has focused on the components in food, rather than how they are perceived, Schieberle said…. Read more