TWIE 102: Hearing Aids That Cancel Noise

This Week in Engineering - Noise-cancelling hearing aid; brain implants control an arm; crab computer; 20-year light bulb; greener Antarctic research base; and NES coffee table.

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Noise-cancelling hearing aid
Typical hearing aids simply amplify all sounds, which can make it difficult to understand a conversation in a noisy room. Now, the same circuitry used in noise-cancelling headphones are being adapted to amplify only those frequencies used in conversation, around 80 hertz. The wearer can also cause the device to re-tune, by cupping his ear, which is detected by the device¦s tiny processor. Nice! I¦m not hard of hearing, but I want this technology to filter out annoying sounds while I¦m driving -- car horns, sirens, oncoming trains. Ah! That¦s a blissfully ignorant commute!

Brain implants control an arm
A team lead by Lee Miller of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine has used decoded brain waves to allow a paralyzed monkey to control its arm. Researchers first implanted electrodes in the monkey¦s primary motor cortex, recording the neural activity when the monkey operated its arm. Then, using a drug to temporarily paralyze the monkey¦s forearm, a neuroprosthesis connected the brain signal to the arm, and the monkey was able to grab and drop a rubber ball. I¦m just glad that other monkeys aren¦t tech-savvy enough to hack into the neuroprosthesis signal -- those monkey bullies would play a horrible high-tech game of "Why are you hitting yourself?"

Crab computer
Computer scientist Yukio-Pegio Gunji and colleagues from Kobe University in Japan have found a way to make elementary logic gates out of swarms of crabs. When the crabs sense a threat, they move as a swarm in a single direction, and when two swarms collide, the swarms merge and continue in the direction of the sum of the two vectors. Using forty real crabs, the researchers were able to build an OR gate and an AND gate. I¦m just glad the crabs they used were soldier crabs found in the Pacific, and not the kind of crabs I found in college. Hermit crabs -- inedible and kind-of gross. What did you think I meant?

20-year light bulb
Sunday was Earth Day, and also the day that electronics behemoth Phillips released a new LED light bulb. Emitting with ten watts the same light as a 60-watt incandescent, the bulb has won the US Department of Energy¦s (Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize÷, and is rated to last 30,000 hours, or about 20 years of use at four hours a day. Okay, I can buy another one in twenty years. Of course, by then, light bulbs will probably be able to talk and do chores, so I¦ll want to upgrade anyway.

Greener Antarctic research base
The United States National Science Foundation has conducted a review of the process of conducting scientific investigations in Antarctica, and experts believe they are likely to recommend more international collaboration, fewer people, more robotics, and more energy efficiency. The 55-year-old base at McMurdo, which has about 100 buildings, some of which have no insulation, will most likely receive some renovation. Good, but can I make a request that you guys stop melting and reviving old frozen forms of hostile Alien life? I can¦t tell if it¦s a remake or a prequel.

NES coffee table
Furniture maker Charles Lushear has designed and built a coffee table that looks like -- and functions as -- an NES controller. The table comes with a glass top for when you¦re not playing, and thin legs that feel like they¦re straight out of the eighties. Instead of plastic, the table is made of real woods -- mahogany, maple and walnut. Nice! This is way more appealing than my idea for a recliner that looked like a power glove. Nobody ever liked the power glove.