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For more than 20 million years, beavers have been, well, busy. They’ve been felling trees for that long, and building dams and lodges for at least the last few million years, earning a well-deserved reputation for industriousness and ingenuity. It seemed only fitting, then, that MIT saw fit to claim the beaver as its mascot in 1914. By 1921, The Tech reported that gray beaver hats had become “the distinguishing mark of an Institute man” at college gatherings. The toothy, mainly nocturnal rodent has appeared on every rendition of the MIT class ring—now lovingly called the brass rat—since it was introduced in 1929. 

Read on to learn more about Castor canadensis, the remarkable four-legged engineers.

Family life

The North American beaver is the largest rodent in the Northern Hemisphere, typically weighing in at 35 to 65 pounds. (Only the South American capybara weighs more.) They make their homes in ponds, rivers, streams, and wetlands throughout most of North America.

long scene of beavers in a natural environment swimming, chewing wood and grooming
SUZI KEMP

They are one of the few species in the world that typically mate for life. Their offspring, known as kits, can swim within days of birth, but their childhoods are among the longest in the animal world. They generally live for two years with their parents, which both take part in raising them. It takes that long for the parents and older siblings to show them, by example, how to build dams and lodges, how to plan and dig channels, and how to select food, harvest it, and store it for the winter. It’s kind of like going to engineering school. Beavers then move on to form their own families, often building their own colonies. They typically live to age 10 or 12 in the wild.

well-planned diet

Beavers are vegetarians but with a twist. They favor the inner bark of certain tree species, including willow, poplar, aspen, birch, and maple, feasting on the cambium, the soft, sap-laden layer immediately under the outer bark. Conifers, however, are not considered a delicacy. Beavers eat them only rarely, and tend to fell them mainly for dam building and to encourage growth of things they’d rather eat. In summer they consume readily available grasses, leaves, herbs, fruit, and aquatic plants. To prepare for winter in cold climates, they create an underwater cache of sticks and logs they’ve gnawed from trees they’ve felled. First they assemble a floating raft of not-so-delicious branches above a deep part of their pond; then they stash their preferred branches beneath them. The pile absorbs water and sinks to the bottom, with the less-favored branches often freezing in the ice at the surface and acting as a protective covering that secures the more-desirable lower branches, which remain accessible below the ice. The cold water preserves the nutritional value of the branches.

While humans can’t digest cellulose, beavers have a small sac between the large and small intestines containing microorganisms that ferment this material, helping them digest up to 30% of it.

chieving the perfect pelt

Forget mink, ermine, and sable. Of all fur-bearing animals, beavers have the coat that is rated the warmest. So it’s no surprise that European demand for hats made of warm, water-resistant, and durable beaver felt led to lucrative trapping and fur-trading ventures in North America. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as many as 200,000 North American beaver pelts were exported annually to Europe. (Fierce competition to monopolize the fur trade led to a series of so-called Beaver Wars between 1628 and the Treaty of Montreal in 1701: the Iroquois Confederation, backed by the Dutch and British, battled the Huron Confederation, backed by France.) These enterprises gave rise to many European settlements and trading centers in North America—and nearly wiped out the continent’s beaver population.

On January 17, 1914, MIT President Richard Maclaurin accepted the Technology Club of New York’s proposal that the beaver—nature’s engineer—serve as MIT’s mascot. In 1977, TIM the beaver first showed up on campus to celebrate the 50th reunion of the Class of 1927

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By: William Miller ’51, SM ’52
Title: I’m a beaver. You’re a beaver. We are beavers all.
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/28/1087624/im-a-beaver-youre-a-beaver-we-are-beavers-all/
Published Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2024 12:00:00 +0000

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The Download: Neuralink’s biggest rivals, and the case for phasing out the term “user”

This is today’s edition of The Download our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Beyond Neuralink: Meet the other companies developing brain-computer interfaces

In the world of brain-computer interfaces, it can seem as if one company sucks up all the oxygen in the room. Last month, Neuralink posted a video to X showing the first human subject to receive its brain implant, which will be named Telepathy. The recipient, a 29-year-old man who is paralyzed from the shoulders down, played computer chess, moving the cursor around with his mind.

Neuralink’s announcement of a first-in-human trial made a big splash not because of what the man was able to accomplish—scientists demonstrated using a brain implant to move a cursor in 2006—but because the technology is so advanced.

But Neuralink isn’t the only company developing brain-computer interfaces to help people who have lost the ability to move or speak. Read on to take a look at some of the companies developing brain chips, their progress, and their different approaches to the technology.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly health and biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

It’s time to retire the term “user”

People have been called “users” for a long time; it’s a practical shorthand enforced by executives, founders, operators, engineers, and investors ad infinitum.

Often, it is the right word to describe people who use software: a user is more than just a customer or a consumer. Sometimes a user isn’t even a person; corporate bots are known to run accounts on Instagram and other social media platforms, for example.

But “users” is also unspecific enough to refer to just about everyone. It can accommodate almost any big idea or long-term vision. We use—and are used by—computers and platforms and companies. Though “user” seems to describe a relationship that is deeply transactional, many of the technological relationships in which a person would be considered a user are actually quite personal. That being the case, is “user” still relevant? Read the full story.

—Taylor Majewski

This story is from the next magazine issue of MIT Technology Review, set to go live on April 24. If you don’t already, sign up now to get a copy when it lands.

Three ways the US could help universities compete with tech companies on AI innovation

—Ylli Bajraktari, CEO of nonprofit the Special Competitive Studies Project, Tom Mitchell, the Founders University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Daniela Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT

The ongoing revolution in artificial intelligence has the potential to dramatically improve our lives. Yet ensuring that America and other democracies can help shape the trajectory of this technology requires going beyond the tech development taking place at private companies.

Research at universities drove the AI advances that laid the groundwork for the commercial boom we are experiencing today. But large AI models require such vast computational power and such extensive data sets that private companies have replaced academia at the frontier of AI. Here’s a few ideas for how the US could empower its universities to remain alongside them at the forefront of AI research.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Bitcoin investors are eagerly awaiting the ‘halving’ 
The scheduled reduction in the number of newly produced bitcoin could mean their current holdings are worth even more. (FT $)
The halving is due to start in the early hours of Saturday morning. (NYT $)
The event is the crypto equivalent of the Super Bowl. (Reuters)

2 Meta is integrating its AI into its social media apps
But LLMs and social platforms are dangerous bedfellows. (WP $)
Case in point: X’s Grok bot offers up fake news based on users’ jokes. (Ars Technica)
Meta launched its newest model, Llama 3, too. (WSJ $)
Big Tech is scrambling to make its AI as easy to use as possible. (The Information $)

3 The World Health Organization’s AI avatar struggles with health questions
The bot has been trained on outdated data, and it shows. (Bloomberg $)
Artificial intelligence is infiltrating health care. We shouldn’t let it make all the decisions. (MIT Technology Review)

4 China ordered Apple to pull Meta-owned apps from its App Store
Beijing is reportedly unhappy with ‘inflammatory’ Threads and WhatsApp content. (WSJ $)
The move is likely to worsen the already-tense relations between the US and China. (FT $)

5 University students are turning to cyber crime to make money
A major phishing site recruited fraudsters to scam tens of thousands of victims.

Read More

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: Neuralink’s biggest rivals, and the case for phasing out the term “user”
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/04/19/1091515/the-download-neuralinks-biggest-rivals-and-the-case-for-phasing-out-the-term-user/
Published Date: Fri, 19 Apr 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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How to build a thermal battery

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here

The votes have been tallied, and the results are in. The winner of the 11th Breakthrough Technology, 2024 edition, is … drumroll please … thermal batteries!

While the editors of MIT Technology Review choose the annual list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies, in 2022 we started having readers weigh in on an 11th technology. And I don’t mean to flatter you, but I think you picked a fascinating one this year.

Thermal energy storage is a convenient way to stockpile energy for later. This could be crucial in connecting cheap but inconsistent renewable energy with industrial facilities, which often require a constant supply of heat.

I wrote about why this technology is having a moment, and where it might wind up being used, in a story published Monday. For the newsletter this week, let’s take a deeper look at the different kinds of thermal batteries out there, because there’s a wide world of possibilities. 

Step 1: Choose your energy source

In the journey to build a thermal battery, the crucial first step is to choose where your heat comes from. Most of the companies I’ve come across are building some sort of power-to-heat system, meaning electricity goes in and heat comes out. Heat often gets generated by running a current through a resistive material in a process similar to what happens when you turn on a toaster.

Some projects may take electricity directly from sources like wind turbines or solar panels that aren’t hooked up to the grid. That could reduce energy costs, since you don’t have to pay surcharges built into grid electricity rates, explains Jeffrey Rissman, senior director of industry at Energy Innovation, a policy and research firm specializing in energy and climate. 

Otherwise, thermal batteries can be hooked up to the grid directly. These systems could allow a facility to charge up when electricity prices are low or when there’s a lot of renewable energy on the grid.

Some thermal storage systems are soaking up waste heat rather than relying on electricity. Brenmiller Energy, for example, is building thermal batteries that can be charged up with heat or electricity, depending on the customer’s needs.

Depending on the heat source, systems using waste heat may not be able to reach temperatures as high as their electricity-powered counterparts, but they could help increase the efficiency of facilities that would otherwise waste that energy. There’s especially high potential for high-temperature processes, like cement and steel production.

Step 2: Choose your storage material

Next up: pick out a heat storage medium. These materials should probably be inexpensive and able to reach and withstand high temperatures.

Bricks and carbon blocks are popular choices, as they can be packed together and, depending on the material, reach temperatures well over 1,000 °C (1,800 °F). Rondo Energy, Antora Energy, and Electrified Thermal Solutions are among the companies using blocks and bricks to store heat at these high temperatures.

Crushed-up rocks are another option, and the storage medium of choice for Brenmiller Energy. Caldera is using a mixture of aluminum and crushed rock.

Molten materials can offer even more options for delivering thermal energy later, since they can be pumped around (though this can also add more complexity to the system). Malta is building thermal storage systems that use molten salt, and companies like Fourth Power are using systems that rely in part on molten metals.

Step 3: Choose your delivery method

Last, and perhaps most important, is deciding how to get energy back out of your storage system. Generally, thermal storage systems can deliver heat, use it to generate electricity, or go with some combination of the two.

Delivering heat is the most straightforward option. Typically, air or another gas gets blown over the hot thermal storage material, and that heated gas can be used to warm up equipment or to generate steam.

Some companies are working to use heat storage to deliver electricity instead. This could allow thermal storage systems to play a role not only in industry but potentially on the electrical grid as an electricity storage solution. One downside? These systems generally take a hit on efficiency, the amount of energy that can be returned from storage. But they may be right for some situations, such as facilities that need both heat and electricity on demand. Antora Energy is aiming to use thermophotovoltaic materials to turn heat stored in its carbon blocks back into electricity.

Some companies plan to offer a middle path, delivering a combination of heat and electricity, depending on what a facility needs. Rondo

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: How to build a thermal battery
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/04/18/1091481/how-to-build-a-thermal-battery/
Published Date: Thu, 18 Apr 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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The Download: American’s hydrogen train experiment, and why we need boring robots

This is today’s edition of The Download our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology

Hydrogen trains could revolutionize how Americans get around

Like a mirage speeding across the dusty desert outside Pueblo, Colorado, the first hydrogen-fuel-cell passenger train in the United States is getting warmed up on its test track. It will soon be shipped to Southern California, where it is slated to carry riders on San Bernardino County’s Arrow commuter rail service before the end of the year.

The best way to decarbonize railroads is the subject of growing debate among regulators, industry, and activists. The debate is partly technological, revolving around whether hydrogen fuel cells, batteries, or overhead electric wires offer the best performance for different railroad situations. But it’s also political: a question of the extent to which decarbonization can, or should, usher in a broader transformation of rail transportation.

In the insular world of railroading, this hydrogen-powered train is a Rorschach test. To some, it represents the future of rail transportation. To others, it looks like a big, shiny distraction. Read the full story.

—Benjamin Schneider

This story is for subscribers only, and is from the next magazine issue of MIT Technology Review, set to go live on April 24, on the theme of Build. If you don’t already, sign up now to get a copy when it lands.

Researchers taught robots to run. Now they’re teaching them to walk

We’ve all seen videos over the past few years demonstrating how agile humanoid robots have become, running and jumping with ease. We’re no longer surprised by this kind of agility—in fact, we’ve grown to expect it.

The problem is, these shiny demos lack real-world applications. When it comes to creating robots that are useful and safe around humans, the fundamentals of movement are more important.

As a result, researchers are using the same techniques to train humanoid robots to achieve much more modest goals. They believe it will lead to more robust, reliable two-legged machines capable of interacting with their surroundings more safely—as well as learning much more quickly. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

How to build a thermal battery

Thermal energy storage is a convenient way to stockpile energy for later. This could be crucial in connecting cheap but inconsistent renewable energy with industrial facilities, which often require a constant supply of heat. It’s so promising, MIT Technology Review’s readers chose it as an honorary 11th technology in our annual list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies.

Casey Crownhart, our climate reporter, wrote about why this technology is having a moment, and where it might wind up being used, in a story published earlier this week. Now, she’s dug into what it takes to make a thermal battery, and why there are so many different types.

Read the full story.

This story is from The Spark, our weekly climate and energy newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Amazon posed as a small retail business to snoop on its rivals
It used competitors’ payment and logistics data to inform its own operations. (WSJ $)+ The company insists its cashierless tech is powered by AI, not humans. (The Verge)

2 Landlords are asking prospective renters for 3D scans of their faces
And in many cases, if you don’t consent, you can’t tour the property alone. (The Markup)
The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty. (MIT Technology Review)

3 India’s elections will be a major test of AI literacy
AI-generated videos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are addressing voters by name. (NYT $)
Three technology trends shaping 2024’s elections. (MIT Technology Review)

4 The US National Guard will use Google’s AI to analyze disaster zones
Just in time for the summer wildfire season. (WP $)
The quest to build wildfire-resistant homes. (MIT Technology Review)

5 OpenAI’s GPT-4 outperformed junior doctors in analyzing eye conditions
But a lot more work would be needed before deploying it in a clinical setting. (FT $)
Artificial intelligence is infiltrating health care. We shouldn’t let it make all the decisions. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Digitizing the real world is a long, tedious process
Engines originally developed for video games are bridging the uncanny valley. (New Yorker $)

7 AI is unlikely to improve the welfare of factory-farmed livestock 
While AI tools could make farming more efficient, it probably won’t make it humane. (Undark Magazine)
How CRISPR is making farmed animals bigger, stronger, and

Read More

————

By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: American’s hydrogen train experiment, and why we need boring robots
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/04/18/1091490/the-download-americans-hydrogen-train-experiment-and-why-we-need-boring-robots/
Published Date: Thu, 18 Apr 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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