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Living in the Future: Crystal “life”, Health-care via robot, and Gold-extracting bacteria

This week on We are Living in the Future: crystals that imitate some aspects of life, doctors who offer healthcare via robot telepresence, and bacteria that extract gold from sediment.

While life has several characteristics that define it, including reproduction, metabolism, and mobility, most people agree that crystal and fire are not lifeforms. But scientists at NYU have designed crystals that react to light, causing flocking behavior similar to birds or fish. When illuminated with blue light, the crystals in a solution form and follow the light instead of randomly moving. The crystals have mobility, then, and a metabolism of sorts – and are the beginning of research into what life really is.

Imagine this: you’re in a busy hospital waiting for the doctor to arrive. The door opens, but instead of a human doctor, a robot rolls in, and stands next to your bed. It says: “Please wait while a connection to your doctor is established”. A screen lights up, and you see the face of your doctor – who might be elsewhere in the hospital, or on the other side of the planet. This telepresence healthcare scenario may help doctors work in remote hospitals with specialized expertise – and is already being implemented in several hospitals across the lower 48. The robots are self-directed, and avoid running into obstacles, including humans, by similar technology to that used in the robotic vacuum cleaners.

In the microscopic world of bacteria, gold acts as a universal weapon of destruction. One bacterium, called Cupriavidus Metallidurans, extracts gold from its surroundings and wears a “golden halo” around itself to protect itself from its enemies. Scientists in Canada have recently identified the genes that trigger this behavior, and are working to develop a genetically modified version that will extract gold, and slough it off for easy extraction. This behavior would be less environmentally harmful than current gold extraction techniques.