How Animals make spacial decisions, Exercise in a pill and transforming materials with lasers
This week we discover how animals make spatial decisions. How do they navigate through a complex world? We also look at a possible pill to replace the role that exercise plays in brain health. We examine a new Hydrogen powered aircraft design that will be able to fly from London to San Francisco. Finally we investigate a new way to transform materials with lasers.
How do Animals make spatial decisions?
The next question might be why should we care? Researchers at the University of Konstanz and Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany have employed virtual reality to decode the algorithm that animals use when deciding where to move when they are faced with many options.
The study found that animals cope with environmental complexity by reducing the world into a series of sequential binary decisions (i.e. two choices, just pick one). This strategy results in highly effective decision making no matter how many options there are or how complex the environment. This appears to hold across species and suggests that there is a fundamental geometric principle that animals use in deciding how they move.
Animals are constantly faced with decisions on where to go. They need to choose where to eat, where to hide and what other animals are safe to be around and which are not. The 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for discovering how animals represent spatially distributed options. The researchers applied this discovery to the changes that animals experience as they move through space and to how they make decisions on where to move.
They found that they brain spontaneously breaks down decisions among multiple options to a series of two choice decisions, until only one option, the option selected, remains. This means that animals exhibit a series of sudden changes in direction, each associated with the exclusion of one of the options. This “bifurcation” process results in highly accurate decisions.
The team used immersive virtual reality to test their predictions in flying, walking and swimming animals (the fruit fly, desert locust and zebrafish). All species were found to exhibit the some bifurcations of decisions. We used to think that animals decided where to go and then move to the target. The team also found that they same geometric principles likely apply to mobile herds or flocks. The next time you watch a flock of birds remember that the many small binary decisions that each bird makes combine to determine the shape and direction of the flock.
So why should we care? There are likely implications for how we design and code robots, self driving cars and other similar devices to move through unknown environments. Animals have known all along what we are now just discovering.
Exercise in a Pill
I know that some of you will be rejoicing right now. Yes researchers at Australian National University have identified a molecular signal that is sent to our brains and eyes immediately after exercise. The signal travels via lipid particles to the central nervous system.
The team started out trying to determine the effects of exercise on the retina. They knew that exercise helps with healthy eyesight however the impact was not understood. It has also been suggested that prescribing exercise to patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s can improve and slow down the progression.
If the team is able to develop a pill that provides the brain with the same messages as traditional exercise, patients that are unable to exercise may receive the same benefit to eye and brain function as those of us that rise at 5.30am every day in order to hit the gym. Don’t turn off the alarm and give up the gym just yet though. Exercise has many other benefits in addition to brain health.
A Hydrogen Plane that flies further
We have spoken a few times about the potential for Hydrogen to become a fuel for aircraft. Developments to date have mainly surrounded short haul hops between regional airports.
Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI, a UK Government backed research firm) has developed a concept design for a new liquid hydrogen powered airliner called FlyZero. The aircraft seats 279 passengers and has the same performance capability as other mid sized aircraft. It can fly from London to San Francisco without needing to refuel.
The new plane will store hydrogen in cryogenic tanks at minus 250C. Two tanks will be placed at the rear of the aircraft while two smaller tanks will be closer to the front in order to keep the aircraft balanced. Each 54 meter wing will have a turbofan engine attached.
ATI expects that Hydrogen powered planes will have superior operating economics from the mid 2030’s onwards. Once the economics tip in the hydrogen plane’s favor, uptake will be rapid.
Transforming Materials with Light
We are already able to change the properties of materials by using high powered lasers however these lasers heat up and damage the materials being modified. A team at CalTech have now solved this problem of materials being damaged by the lasers during transformation.
The objective of shining a laser onto a material is to change the electronic properties of the material and thus the performance of the material. For example; a window that can be transformed into a mirror by shining a laser on it. Turn the laser off and the material returns to its’ original state.
The team wanted to be able to subject materials to very intense laser light without the material absorbing any of that light (it is the absorption that heats the material up). They found a frequency to tune the laser to, that would markedly change the material without imparting any unwanted heat. Using a semiconductor called manganese phosphor trisulphide they shone intense laser pulses each lasting for 1/10th of a picosecond (1/10,000 of a nanosecond). This rapidly changed the energy of the electrons inside the material. As a result the material shifted from a highly opaque state for certain colors of light to highly transparent.
The process is reversible. When the laser is turned off the material instantly returned to its’ original state. This is only possible because none of the light from the laser was absorbed.
The light actually alters the differences between the energy levels of electrons without kicking the electrons into higher energy levels (which is what happens when the light is absorbed). In principle the method can change the optical, magnetic and other properties of materials. Instead of inventing new materials, one material can be given a broad range of useful properties. The method could potentially be used to develop quantum magnets. Something that would otherwise have been extremely difficult if not impossible to create naturally.
The speed of progress in robotics is astonishing. They are looking more and more human every day.
Paying it Forward
If you have a start-up or know of a start-up that has a product ready for market please let me know. I would be happy to have a look and feature the startup in this newsletter. Also if any startups need introductions please get in touch and I will help where I can.
If you have any questions or comments please email me via my website craigcarlyon.com or comment below.
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Till next week.