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See Inside August 2008

Updates: Whatever Happened to Robotic Limbs?

Genomic Exit -- Mind-Controlled Limbs -- Ad Hoc Networks -- Isolated Peoples

Human Genome Head Resigns
On August 1, Francis S. Collins, the face of the Human Genome Project, was scheduled to have stepped down as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), after some 15 years of leadership. While announcing his plans, Collins said that he is proud of his accomplishments and those of his colleagues—most notably, the mapping of the human genome [see “Deciphering the Code of Life”; SciAm, December 1999]. On leaving his post, the 58-year-old geneticist stated that he wanted the freedom to write books and explore opportunities that are off-limits to federal employees.

The signing into law of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act in May also contributed to his decision, he said, because it provided the assurance he needed that his research would move forward even without him at the helm. Alan E. Guttmacher, deputy director of NHGRI for the past six years, will serve as acting director.

Monkey Think, Monkey Do
Neuroprosthetics took another step forward when University of Pittsburgh researchers got two rhesus macaques to feed themselves using mentally controlled robotic arms. The scientists connected a grid of 100 electrodes to neurons in the monkeys’ primary motor cortex. The grid picked up the neural activity and relayed it to a computer that controlled a nearby prosthetic arm. The monkeys succeeded in grabbing and eating fruit dangled in front of them 61 percent of the time, which, though lower than hoped, compares favorably to similar efforts in which monkeys (and humans) have moved objects in virtual environments [see “Controlling Robots with the Mind”; ­SciAm, October 2002]. Many challenges remain, however, before people can ever be fitted with mind-controlled limbs—the electrodes, for instance, must be made more durable and the gripping force of the prosthetics more variable. Grab onto these results in the May 29 Nature.

Smart Sewer Control
Inexpensive, thumb-size computers that incorporate sensors and radio transceivers could link up to create ad hoc wireless networks useful for monitoring wildlife behavior, factory work and other spread-out activities [see “Smart Sensors to Network the World”; SciAm, June 2004]. In an effort to control storm runoff in South Bend, Ind., engineers from Purdue University, the University of Notre Dame and a local start-up firm called EmNet will create what they believe will be the largest such network in a permanent, industrial setting. They plan to attach 105 smart sensors to the undersides of manhole covers and to install smart valves in sewers to prevent backflow automatically. The network, to be completed in 2009, should also work in other cities where sewage and storm runoff share drainage systems.

A Glimpse of the Past
Several dozen indigenous tribes that have never been contacted by the modern world live in Amazonia. The existence of one group was photographed near the border of Brazil and Peru, from a low-flying airplane sent by FUNAI, Brazil’s National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples. The flights, between April 28 and May 2, produced several astonishing images of the tribe, which ­FUNAI did not identify; in one shot, the men, wearing red body paint, can be seen pointing arrows at the aircraft. Brazil’s anthropological philosophy is to leave these tribes alone and keep their positions secret to prevent cultural contamination and dislocation by development [see “Prime Directive for the Last Americans”; ­SciAm, May 2007].

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Updates". 

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