February 2017




Science & Tech

The Future Postponed 2.0 Report Released

Basic research lies at the core of the U.S. innovation system. Most of the technologies that surround us started from breakthroughs in basic science. Although the payoff can be tremendous, it can take years for fundamental research to become practically useful. The long time frame raises concern about what cutting basic research budgets today means for the technologies of tomorrow.

Like its predecessor report, which detailed 15 science opportunities ripe for advancement, The Future Postponed 2.0 provides a snapshot of 13 additional breakthrough opportunities for basic research. These forward-looking case studies illustrate some ways in which fundamental research can lead to profound social and economic benefits, and forward leaps in knowledge. Learn more at www.futurepostponed.org 

Voice control everywhere

The butt of jokes as little as 10 years ago, automatic speech recognition is now on the verge of becoming people’s chief means of interacting with many of their computing devices. In anticipation of the age of voice-controlled electronics, MIT researchers have built a low-power chip specialized for automatic speech recognition. Whereas a cellphone running speech-recognition software might require about 1 watt of power, the new chip requires a miniscule range of between 0.2 and 10 milliwatts. The low-power, special purpose chip could make speech recognition ubiquitous in electronics. Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/low-power-chip-speech-recognition-electronics-0213

New resource for optical chips

The Semiconductor Industry Association has estimated that at current rates of increase, computers’ energy requirements will exceed the world’s total power output by 2040. Using light rather than electricity to move data would dramatically reduce computer chips’ energy consumption, and the past 20 years have seen remarkable progress in the development of silicon photonics— optical devices that are made from silicon so they can easily be integrated with electronics on silicon chips.

MIT researchers now present a practical way to introduce second-order nonlinearities into silicon photonics, demonstrating that silicon can reproduce physical phenomena exploited by high-end telecommunications devices. Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/new-resource-optical-chips-0220

MIT researchers inform World Food Program work to reduce post-harvest losses

According to the World Food Program, nearly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, and over half of that food waste happens during production, post-harvest handling, and storage. New storage technologies have been successfully developed and piloted with smallholder farmers to mitigate food loss caused by improper storage, but none of these technologies have reached significant scale — until now. Within just a couple of harvests, over 110,000 farmers have chosen to participate in WFP’s post-harvest loss reduction program. MIT’s new report evaluates various post-harvest storage technologies sold as a part of a special operation run by the WFP in Uganda to better understand which technologies are best poised for scale. Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/mit-researchers-inform-work-to-reduce-post-harvest-losses-0223


MIT Finds a way to regenerate inner ear cells, combat hearing loss

Within the inner ear, thousands of hair cells detect sound waves and translate them into nerve signals that allow us to hear speech, music, and other everyday sounds. Damage to these cells is one of the leading causes of hearing loss, which affects 48 million Americans.

Each of us is born with about 15,000 hair cells per ear, and once damaged, these cells cannot regrow. However, researchers at MIT and colleagues have now discovered a combination of drugs that expands the population of progenitor or supporting cells in the ear and induces them to become hair cells, offering a potential new way to treat hearing loss. Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/drug-treatment-combat-hearing-loss-0221

Tiny fibers open new windows into the brain

For the first time ever, a single flexible fiber no bigger than a human hair has successfully delivered a combination of optical, electrical, and chemical signals back and forth into the brain. With some tweaking to further improve biocompatibility, the new approach could provide a dramatically improved way to learn about the functions and interconnections of different brain regions. Developed through a collaboration among material scientists, chemists, biologists, and other specialists, the fibers are designed to mimic the softness and flexibility of brain tissue. This could make it possible to leave implants in place and have them retain their functions over much longer periods than is currently possible with typical stiff, metallic fibers, enabling more extensive data collection.  Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/multifunctional-tiny-fibers-brain-0221