Jellyfish robots to watch over endangered coral reefs

A jellyfish robot next to a coral reef  Jellyfish robots to watch over endangered coral reefs d26efeec49Image copyrightFlorida Atlantic University
Image caption The robotic jellyfish propel themselves with rubber tentacles

A fleet of robotic jellyfish has been designed to monitor delicate ecosystems, including coral reefs.

The underwater drones were invented by engineers at Florida Atlantic University and are driven by rings of hydraulic tentacles.

The robots can squeeze through tight holes without causing damage.

One expert praised the design but warned that the man-made jellyfish might be eaten by turtles.

The flexible, 20cm-wide bots are modelled on the appearance of the moon jellyfish during its larval stage.

The design is intended to be less environmentally disruptive than a drone submarine, according to Prof Erik Engeberg, of Florida Atlantic University.

“Mini-submarines are rigid and typically use a propeller for locomotion,” he said. “The propellers can chop up the reef and the tough shell of a sub can cause damage to delicate ecosystems if there is a collision.

“The soft jellyfish robot can avoid these problems with its unorthodox design and locomotion strategy, inspired by biology.”

Image copyrightFlorida Atlantic University
Image caption The underwater bots can squeeze through tight holes

To move, the robots use eight silicon rubber tentacles powered by pumps. Water flows into the tentacles, filling them up and then – as the pumps are switched off – it flows back into the surrounding sea again.

This propels the robot jellyfish forward and produces a lifelike flapping motion.

Other researchers have modelled robots after jellyfish.

A team from the University of Texas at Dallas, for example, tested a hydrogen-powered bot, while engineers from Virginia Tech have experimented with a mechanical jellyfish measuring 1.7 metres.

The prototypes from Florida Atlantic University are much smaller than this – only 20cm wide.

They can also swim untethered, although this does mean they could drift away if the engineers aren’t careful.

“It is important to track their locations so that they can be retrieved after a mission,” said Prof Engeberg.

Turtle fodder?

Basing a robot on a real organism is “a great idea”, according to Prof John Turner, a marine biologist at Bangor University.

The drone’s jerky movement might not be ideal for recording video or sound, but Prof Turner said it could monitor the health of the reef, for example by spotting changes in oxygen levels, or evidence of erosion.

“Of course one risk might be the drone being consumed by turtles, sea mammals and large fish,” he told the BBC, noting that the robot could have “a harmful effect on the unfortunate animal that swallowed it”.

He said the designers should consider adding an acoustic warning device, or giving the jellyfish an “unpalatable taste”.

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3D printing shop closes after accusations of idolatry

Screen grab from Al-Qabas news showing 3D printed figure  3D printing shop closes after accusations of idolatry 372f9e34e0Image copyrightAl-Qabas News

A 3D printing shop in Kuwait has reportedly been shut down by authorities following pressure from an Islamist cleric.

The shop, which specialises in producing figurines that bear a life-like resemblance to real people, was accused of creating “idols” by Sheikh Othman al-Khamis.

The Kuwaiti Al-Qabas newspaper reported that the shop was closed on 16 September and the shelves cleared.

However, it did not indicate which authority approved the closure of the shop and no official statements have been made.

The incident has sparked a debate about idolatry on social media. The hashtag “idols in Kuwait” has been used more than 21,000 to discuss the issue.

One Twitter user, Abdulrahman al-Nassar, used the hashtag to warn that “the danger posed by these idols is great”.

He continued: “Today these idols are mementos, but in years to come, people will seek blessings from them… and then they will be worshipped instead of God.”

Image copyright Abdulrahman al-Nassar

Another wrote that the “mementoes” are a “means of leading people to polytheism”, along with a photograph of one of the statues.

Skip Twitter post by @alsaeedsaleh

#اصنام_في_الكويت

محل في الكويت يصنع لك ولعائلتك تماثيل و يقصد وراء ذلك الذكرى .

وهذه وسيلة عظمى تؤدي للشرك كما فعل قوم نوح عليه السلام .

قال تعالى (مَا هَذِهِ التَّمَاثِيل الَّتِي أَنْتُمْ لَهَا عَاكِفُونَ). pic.twitter.com/wIDkGtNPiQ

— د. صالح عبدالرحيم السعيد (@alsaeedsaleh) September 12, 2018

End of Twitter post by @alsaeedsaleh

However, a number of people called the outrage “stupid”, “unbelievable” and “ignorant”.

Many responses to the story have not been as serious.

Some people have jokingly shared images of their “new idols”.

One user shared a photo of his collection of football figurines, while another posted an image of her collection of Disney characters.

Twitter user @Sayed_Esma3eel posted a photograph showing a group of toy animals with the caption “new animal cult”.

Skip Twitter post by @Sayed_Esma3eel

My animal cult #اصنام_في_الكويتpic.twitter.com/OLaSNvSymY

— سيدإسماعيل بهبهاني🛶🌊 (@Sayed_Esma3eel) September 17, 2018

End of Twitter post by @Sayed_Esma3eel

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Kuwaiti journalist Bashar Jassim Al-Kandari shared a video with his 27,000 followers of his many figurines including Michael Jackson and Elmo.

“Nothing like some coffee with my idols,” he wrote.

Skip Twitter post by @bashar__jassem

مالي الا القهوة مع اصنامي#اصنام_في_الكويتpic.twitter.com/txRb5qYgCC

— بشار جاسم الكندري (@bashar__jassem) September 19, 2018

End of Twitter post by @bashar__jassem

Idolatry in Islam

“Shirk” – an Arabic term often translated as idolatry – is considered a sin in Islam.

The figurative depiction of living creatures, especially human beings, is discouraged. Islamic art has therefore tended to be abstract or decorative.

Salafists and Wahhabis are deeply opposed, sometimes violently, to the cult of saints, idolatry, and shrine and tomb visitation.

Shia Islamic tradition is far less strict on this ban. Reproductions of images of the Prophet, mainly produced in the 7th Century in Persian, can be found.

In recent years, militant groups have destroyed historical sites over accusations of idolatry.

Speaking to the Al-Qabas newspaper Mohamed al-Yousifi, the manager of shop in question, said: “I never expected that we could open a shop in the year 2018 and then have someone accuse the company of selling idols.”

The manager added that, while he respects all religious opinions, it is up to each person to choose which opinions to abide by.

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Breck Bednar murder: Film warning of online grooming launched

Breck Bednar murder: Film warning of online grooming launched 67aa33807c
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Media captionVideo raises awareness of online grooming

A film telling the “absolutely horrific” story of how a 14-year-old boy was lured to his death by a man he met online has been launched.

Breck Bednar was murdered by Lewis Daynes in Grays, Essex, in 2014.

Four police forces have teamed up to produce “Breck’s Last Game”, which aims to educate and protect boys from online grooming.

However, organisation VictimFocus has warned such films can do more harm than good to youngsters.

The short film, which will be rolled out in schools across Surrey, Essex, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, explains how the teenager from Caterham, Surrey, played games online with friends, on a server run by his killer.

Daynes, then 18, groomed Breck over 13 months before luring him to his flat where he fatally stabbed him.

He pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life with a minimum of 25 years in January 2015.

Image copyrightEssex Police
Image caption Surrey schoolboy Breck Bednar met his killer, Lewis Daynes, online before travelling to Essex to meet up with him
Image copyrightEssex Police
Image caption Daynes was sentenced to life with a minimum of 25 years in 2015

Jessica Eaton, founder of organisation VictimFocus, said there was no evidence to prove child sexual exploitation (CSE) films prevented offending, but there was “a catalogue of evidence that CSE films and resources traumatise children who see them”.

However, Breck’s mother Lorin LaFave, who appears in the broadcast, said she believed it was important for children to understand what can happen.

Ms LaFave, who said she had cried every time she watched the film, added:: “At the time, I believed the offender was older than he was because he was so controlling and manipulative, even with me.

“It’s important for young people to realise not only can predators lie about their age, where they live or who they are online, they can also be a similar age to the victim.

“They are not always the stereotypical ‘creepy old guy’.”

Image copyrightPA
Image caption Breck’s mother Lorin LaFave has given her full support to the film

The full version of “Breck’s Last Game” will not be available to the public until spring 2019 to allow pupils to see it in planned classes first.

Essex Police’s Assistant Chief Constable Andy Prophet said: “This is not an issue we can shy away from – Breck’s death clearly shows us that the consequences of grooming can be absolutely horrific.”

The film is made by the same company which produced “Kayleigh’s Love Story”, a film about the grooming, rape and murder of 15-year-old Kayleigh Haywood, which has been viewed by an estimated 36.6m people worldwide.

Image copyrightPA
Image caption Police said a film about Kayleigh Haywood’s story led to 50 children coming forward to say they were being groomed

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Poor Toad: How Stormy Daniels ruined Mario Kart

Stormy Daniels and Toad from Super Mario  Poor Toad: How Stormy Daniels ruined Mario Kart 663a74047aImage copyrightGetty Images/Nintendo
Image caption Stormy Daniels used Toad from the Mario series to describe something about President Trump

He’s the lovable mushroom-headed character from the Super Mario games.

But thanks to excerpts from porn star Stormy Daniels’ tell-all book, Toad has become associated with US President Donald Trump.

In it, she compares Trump’s penis to the “mushroom character in Mario Kart”.

It was a detail which sent people online reeling, with many suggesting Toad deserved much better, and it wasn’t long before the inevitable memes and jokes started.

Image Copyright @McKelvie@McKelvie
Twitter post by @McKelvie: Thinking about how Toad is just the purest, cutest videogame character and how nothing could sully his image. Now to take a big gulp of coffee and check twitter  Poor Toad: How Stormy Daniels ruined Mario Kart 882eb53aaeImage Copyright @McKelvie@McKelvie

Image Copyright @dapurplesharpie@dapurplesharpie
Twitter post by @dapurplesharpie: Me Oh cool, Toad is trending. Wonder if they announced a new Mario Kart?!Me *after reading why its trending*   Poor Toad: How Stormy Daniels ruined Mario Kart 6599585ff5Image Copyright @dapurplesharpie@dapurplesharpie

The Guardian has got a copy of the yet-to-be-published memoir Full Disclosure.

It apparently goes into salacious details about her alleged affair with President Trump.

Stormy Daniels was paid $130,000 (about £90,000) through Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, shortly before the 2016 election.

Reactions online ranged from amusement to horror, as both Toad and Mario Kart began trending.

Nintendo Life, a website which covers all things Nintendo, got in on the joke.

Image Copyright @nintendolife@nintendolife
Twitter post by @nintendolife: Yay #MarioKart and #Toad are trending on Twitter!   Poor Toad: How Stormy Daniels ruined Mario Kart d0e031a084Image Copyright @nintendolife@nintendolife

Before bringing back one of the president’s most infamous tweets.

Image Copyright @nintendolife@nintendolife
Twitter post by @nintendolife: We apologize for this unfortunate tweet from our social media intern. He'll be collecting the covfefe for the rest of the week!   Poor Toad: How Stormy Daniels ruined Mario Kart 74c90f48eeImage Copyright @nintendolife@nintendolife

Nintendo did not comment, though one of their tweets from 2015 became popular once more.

Image Copyright @NintendoAmerica@NintendoAmerica
Twitter post by @NintendoAmerica: ...........................................................   Poor Toad: How Stormy Daniels ruined Mario Kart 1a4eda8fcfImage Copyright @NintendoAmerica@NintendoAmerica

Image Copyright @darth@darth
Twitter post by @darth: .............................................   Poor Toad: How Stormy Daniels ruined Mario Kart fcbff29d89Image Copyright @darth@darth

Writing for Slate, self-described Toad fan Nitisha Pahwa said: “I am simply mourning that Toad, in my view the best Mario Kart character – both as a personified mushroom and as a racer – will now forever be associated with an ‘unusual’ penis.”

Meanwhile, NY Mag’s Brian Feldman argued this was the latest example of the “modern joys” of being a Mario fan.

“A relatively bland franchise has been pushed to incredible new heights by an internet hive mind relentlessly devoted to corrupting every part of this franchise,” he wrote.

“In fact, that’s really the main appeal of Mario at this point.”

President Trump has not commented on the latest revelations from Stormy Daniel’s book.

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Sony unveils mini PlayStation Classic console

Sony unveils mini PlayStation Classic consoleImage copyrightSony
Image caption Sony’s PlayStation Classic is 45% smaller than the original.

Sony has announced a miniature version of the first PlayStation console, which originally launched in 1994.

The mini version will come with 20 retro titles, including Final Fantasy VII and Tekken 3.

The PlayStation Classic is around half the size of the original and is due to launch on 3 December.

One expert said nostalgia was driving interest in retro consoles, which offer a means of making historical video games more accessible.

The console is the first of Sony’s video game machines to be given this kind of compact makeover. Nintendo has previously made mini versions of its NES and SNES consoles, which also included a set of pre-loaded classic games.

Among other titles to be featured on Sony’s new system are Ridge Racer Type 4, the role-playing game Wild Arms and first-person platformer Jumping Flash.

The device will retail for £89.99. As well as the mini console, an HDMI cable for connecting to a TV and two wired controllers will be included.

The design of the console is faithful to the original – even featuring a disk eject button, despite the lack of an actual disk reader. Instead, pressing the button will swap the game being played for another.

The release date will mark exactly 24 years since the launch of the first PlayStation, which went on sale in Japan on 3 December 1994. It was launched in the UK the following September.

Clunky buttons

“It changed everything,” said games journalist Chella Ramanan about the original PlayStation. “It became part of ‘lad culture’, for better or worse. It became part of youth culture.

“It was the first console I owned. Sony did an incredible marketing campaign, tapping into club culture to make games cool. It became a lifestyle thing for people in their 20s.”

Ms Ramanan argued the retro consoles created by Nintendo and Sony appeal to the nostalgia that people have for the 1980s and 1990s, from pop music to TV shows like Stranger Things: “They have the aesthetic people want from older technology. There’s something charming in the huge, clunky buttons.”

Also, retro systems offer a way for a new generation to play a ‘canon’ of iconic games, said Ms Ramanan: “The industry is getting older so we do need to find a way to keep an archive of our history.”

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US judge allows e-voting despite hack fears

US voters using electronic voting machines  US judge allows e-voting despite hack fears fa56be2425Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption E-voting machines are in use across 14 US states

A judge in the US state of Georgia has approved the use of electronic voting machines – despite being “gravely concerned” that they could be hacked.

There wasn’t enough time before November’s mid-term elections to switch to a secure paper-based alternative, said District Judge Amy Totenberg.

Fears that e-voting machines could be hacked have caused some to warn against their adoption in some countries.

The judgement was a “significant” one, according to one e-voting expert.

A lawsuit was filed in May last year against Georgia’s Secretary of State over the Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines.

There are now less than two months until the US mid-term elections in November, when many new members of the US Senate and House of Representatives will be elected.

Judge Totenberg said in her judgement the lawsuit had taken place at the “eleventh hour” and that switching to a paper-based voting system now could “just as readily jeopardise the upcoming elections, voter turnout and the orderly administration of the election”.

However, she also acknowledged the seriousness of the threat posed by hackers, and rebuked state officials for not dealing with the problem sooner.

‘Heads in sand’

“The court is gravely concerned about the state’s pace in responding to the serious vulnerabilities of its voting system – which were raised as early as 2016 – while ageing software arrangements, hardware and other deficiencies were evident still earlier,” she said.

Later, she concluded, “The state’s posture in this litigation – and some of the testimony and evidence presented – indicated that the defendants and state election officials had buried their heads in the sand.”

There are 14 US states which use machines to record votes. No paper record of the voting is made in the process.

“I think that judgement is really significant,” said e-voting expert Prof Steve Schneider at the University of Surrey.

“The judge is asking for it to be addressed… saying that the 2020 elections are around the corner.”

Prof Schneider told the BBC that there was a risk people using the machines would begin to distrust the democratic process if security researchers’ concerns weren’t taken seriously.

“I would hope that the authorities would take whatever steps they could to regain that trust while they’re still using these machines,” he told the BBC.

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IBM launches tool aimed at detecting AI bias

Algorithms and machine learning could increasingly be used to calculate things like car insurance IBM launches tool aimed at detecting AI bias IBM launches tool aimed at detecting AI bias ee143f1ff0Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Algorithms and machine-learning could increasingly be used to calculate things like car insurance

IBM is launching a tool which will analyse how and why algorithms make decisions in real time.

The Fairness 360 Kit will also scan for signs of bias and recommend adjustments.

There is increasing concern that algorithms used by both tech giants and other firms are not always fair in their decision-making.

For example, in the past, image recognition systems have failed to identify non-white faces.

However, as they increasingly make automated decisions about a wide variety of issues such as policing, insurance and what information people see online, the implications of their recommendations become broader.

Often algorithms operate within what is known as a “black box” – meaning their owners can’t see how they are making decisions.

The IBM cloud-based software will be open-source, and will work with a variety of commonly used frameworks for building algorithms.

Customers will be able to see, via a visual dashboard, how their algorithms are making decisions and which factors are being used in making the final recommendations.

Image copyrightIBM
Image caption An example of the IBM dashboard

It will also track the model’s record for accuracy, performance and fairness over time.

“We are giving new transparency and control to the businesses who use AI and face the most potential risk from any flawed decision-making,” said David Kenny, senior vice president of Cognitive Solutions.

Bias tools

Other tech firms are also working on solutions.

Last week, Google launched a “what-if” tool, also designed to help users look at how their machine-learning models are working.

However, Google’s tool does not operate in real time – the data can be used to build up a picture over time.

Image copyrightGoogle
Image caption An example of Google’s What-If dashboard, showing faces identified as non-smiling in blue, and smiling in red, over time

Machine-learning and algorithmic, bias is becoming a significant issue in the AI community.

Microsoft said in May that it was working on a bias detection toolkit and Facebook has also said it is testing a tool to help it determine whether an algorithm is biased.

Part of the problem is that the vast amounts of data algorithms are trained on is not always sufficiently diverse.

Image copyrightJoy Buolamwini
Image caption Joy Buolamwini found her computer system recognised the white mask, but not her face.

Joy Buolamwini launched the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL) while a postgraduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2016 after discovering that facial recognition only spotted her face if she wore a white mask.

And Google said it was “appalled and genuinely sorry” when its photo algorithm was discovered to be incorrectly identifying African-Americans as gorillas in 2015.

In 2017, the UK police were warned by human rights group Liberty about relying on algorithms to decide whether to keep an offender in prison based purely on their age, gender and postcode.

There is a growing debate surrounding artificial intelligence and ethics, said Kay Firth-Butterfield from the World Economic Forum.

“As a lawyer, some of the accountability questions of how do we find out what made [an] algorithm go wrong are going to be really interesting,” she said in a recent interview with CNBC.

“When we’re talking about bias we are worrying first of all about the focus of the people who are creating the algorithms and so that’s where we get the young white people, white men mainly, so we need to make the industry much more diverse in the West.”

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Playing ‘Not Tonight’ – the dystopian Brexit video game

Would you play a video game about Brexit?

Not Tonight is a game that imagines a dystopian post-Brexit future where citizens of European heritage have been rounded up and exiled.

Forced out of your previous life, you find yourself in the midst of a booming gig economy, fighting to scrape by and return to the city you call home.

The game’s publisher – No More Robots – says it is very satirical and hope it will be played by both Remainers and Brexiteers alike.

BBC Click finds out more.

See more at Click’s website and @BBCClick.

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Facebook accused of job ad gender discrimination

Facebook job ads Facebook accused of job ad gender discrimination Facebook accused of job ad gender discrimination 2a1b06cd09Image copyrightFacebook
Image caption These ads were among those directed only at men on Facebook, according to the complaint

Van driving, roofing, police work – all jobs for men. At least, that’s what a cluster of job ads placed on Facebook seemed to suggest.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Tuesday submitted a complaint to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that Facebook’s advertising system allows employers to target job ads based on gender – a practice the ACLU says is illegal.

Specifically, the complaint refers to three women in the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois who were not shown advertisements for what have traditionally been considered male-dominated professions.

The complaint highlights 10 different employers who posted job adverts on Facebook – for roles such as mechanic, roofer and security engineer – but used the social network’s targeting system to control who saw the ad. In one example, that targeting meant one job was promoted to “men” who were “ages 25 to 35”, and lived “or were recently near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania”.

A separate investigation by ProPublica discovered what it said were more examples showing a similar pattern.

Earlier this year the investigative journalism site released a tool which readers could use to collect data on the Facebook ads they had seen, and send that information directly to ProPublica for analysis.

Using that method, the site said it discovered men were targeted specifically in dozens of cities around the US for driving jobs with Uber. This conclusion was based on 91 ads placed by Uber’s recruitment arm, only one of which was targeted specifically at women, with three not targeting any particular gender. The rest were designed to be seen by men only.

In a statement, Uber said: “We use a variety of channels to reach prospective drivers – both offline and online – with the goal of enabling more people, not fewer, to earn on their own schedule.”

Missing information

However, this data should be treated with caution. It is not clear that any broad conclusions can be made about perceived discrimination on Facebook.

While one advertisement in isolation may be targeting men specifically, there may have been an equivalent advertisement targeting women running in the same time frame – ads that may not have been picked up by ProPublica’s tool. Furthermore, if a user clicks on an ad to see why it has been targeted – as in the ACLU complaint – they will be told why they specifically saw the ad, but not details on the entire audience for the ad.

The BBC understands Facebook is in the process of putting together data to dispute the findings and respond to the ACLU’s complaint.

While targeting users based on gender may seem relatively harmless when it comes to, for instance, clothing brands, doing so for job advertisements may be against US law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically prohibits discriminating against a person because of “race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin”. The law applies to every stage of employment, including recruitment.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Fcaebook said it was looking into the complaint

“When employers in male-dominated fields advertise their jobs only to men, it prevents women from breaking into those fields,” said Galen Sherwin, from the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, arguing that “non-binary” people, those who choose not to identify with a specific gender, are also excluded.

“What’s more, clicking on the Facebook ads brought viewers to a page listing numerous other job opportunities at these companies for which job seekers might be qualified.

“Because no women saw these ads, they were shut out of learning not only about the jobs highlighted in the ads, but also about any of these other opportunities.”

Facebook said it was reviewing the ACLU’s complaint and looked forward to “defending our practices”.

“There is no place for discrimination on Facebook,” said spokesman Joe Osborne.

“It’s strictly prohibited in our policies, and over the past year, we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse.”

The company has recently removed over 5,000 targeting options for advertisers. The move was prompted by a lawsuit accusing the firm of unlawfully targeting users based on race or sexual orientation.


Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC

Do you have more information about this or any other technology story? You can reach Dave directly and securely through encrypted messaging app Signal on: +1 (628) 400-7370

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Will we ever get self-healing smartphones?

young woman with cracked mobile phone Will we ever get self-healing smartphones? Will we ever get self-healing smartphones? 807410ed0eImage copyrightGetty Images

The BBC’s Circular Economy series highlights the ways we are designing systems to reduce the waste modern society generates, by reusing and repurposing products. This week we look at the prospects for hi-tech materials that can heal themselves.

You don’t have to be a liquid metal cyborg assassin from Terminator 2 to know that the ability to self-heal can be pretty useful. After all, our bodies do it all the time, so what if our phones, prone to cracks and scratches, could do it too?

In January, tech giant Samsung filed a patent for an “anti-fingerprinting composition having a self-healing property” and there’s been speculation that such a coating might give its next smartphone the S10, which comes out in early 2019, the ability to self-heal small scratches too.

Although a patent is by no means any guarantee that a certain product will make it to market, this one has captured the attention of smartphone fans who have long yearned for more damage-resistant devices.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption There has been speculation that Samsung’s next smartphone may include self-healing technology

So how can an inanimate object possibly heal itself, and is it really likely that we will see self-healing phones, or other products, on the market any time soon?

Research in the world of materials science is often a lot slower and more sober than certain headlines would have you believe.

Take for example the self-healing polymer, a string of grouped molecules, reported in Science late last year. Discovered by accident, the polymer is able to self-heal when a small crack forms thanks to a substance called thiourea.

Image copyrightTakuzo Aida
Image caption Takuzo Aida’s team is working on these self-healing polymers

It contains hydrogen atoms that create new bonds with each other in a subtle zigzag pattern when the damaged material is squeezed gently. The zigzag repair line avoids crystallisation – which helps to keep the material rigid.

This was reported by lots of news sites as a potential smartphone screen material, but Tokyo University’s Prof Takuzo Aida, one of the report’s authors, tells me he doesn’t think this particular polymer would be suitable. It’s not necessarily strong enough to withstand the pressures of daily outdoor use, he explains.

“I think that the first application should be a device used [indoors],” he says.

Similarly, a self-healing polymer developed at the University of California, Riverside, has been touted as a potential phone screen saviour – but so far it has only been tested in artificial muscle models in the lab.

Image copyrightTakuzo Aida
Image caption Self-healing polymers are likely to be first used in indoor devices, says Prof Aida

A self-healing screen is still possible but it may be a few years before you can buy one yet. Future phones may heal themselves in other ways, though. Internal circuitry could be resistant to damage thanks to self-healing conductive composites like the one being tested at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The idea of having electric circuitry that can repair itself without any human interaction or intervention does have potentially huge applications,” says Rian Whitton at research firm ABI. But the people most likely to benefit from this technology may be those who need it for more specialised applications.

“Perhaps in high-risk situations involving first responders or military,” suggests Mr Whitton.

To return to polymers, those in the know say that this class of self-healing material is reasonably well-developed, in fact some products do already contain them.

“You can already find some coatings, some car paints that include self-healing,” says Sandra Lucas at Eindhoven University of Technology.

Image copyrightFeynlab
Image caption More car manufacturers will be using these self-healing coatings in the near-future

Indeed, US firm Feynlab has developed a coating for use on cars that contains ceramic polymers able to fill in small scratches.

“Imagine nano-sized magnets attached to the end of the durable ceramic chains, creating a memory-polymer,” explains the company website. “The memory polymer recovers to its original (cured) state when heated.”

How to heat your car? Leave it in direct sunlight – or pour hot water over the affected area. There are some eye-catching demonstrations of the coating instantly fixing itself online.

Surface scratches are one thing, but what if materials could heal deeper flaws too? Research into self-healing metals, a completely different material, is also yielding promising results at an early stage. The idea is to create metals that can better cope with the repeated pressures of daily use, known to cause structural failures.

“We know now that these cyclic stresses, although they do not cause shape change, they cause tiny cracks in the microstructure of the metal,” explains Prof Cem Tasan at MIT.

Image copyrightLillie Paquette/MIT
Image caption Cem Tasan is investigating metals containing structures that can resist the growth of tiny cracks

More commonly known as metal fatigue, it is one of the suspected causes behind the catastrophic engine failure that hit a Southwest Airlines flight in the US in April. The US National Transportation Safety Board has said it found six crack lines on the fan blade that broke apart in mid-flight. It broke a window, almost sucking a woman out of the plane. The woman died of her injuries.

Circular Economy

More on the Circular Economy.

Prof Tasan and his team are investigating metals containing tiny structures that resist crack growth in each stress cycle. “It transforms to a new type of crystal but the new crystal is larger in volume,” he says.

This wouldn’t fill in gaps visible to the naked eye, but it could stop the proliferation of those micro-cracks behind metal fatigue, at the nano-scale.

Despite the many challenges involved in developing these technologies, the tantalising prospect remains: a future in which our phones, vehicles and buildings are safer all thanks to the power of self-healing.

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