Collage and illustrations by Maggie Thrash.

Collage and illustrations by Maggie Thrash.

In this month’s edition of Tech Trek, Amber considers science and technology that will impact our near future, and Maggie reviews the stimulating sci-fi thriller Arrival.


Explore: Looking Ahead

explore (1)Even when politics are bleak and the future seems uncertain, innovation is always happening. We never stop moving forward. With that in mind, here is a very small but exciting sampling of inventions and ideas that we can look forward to as we approach 2017 and beyond.

Smart textiles

In search of eco-friendly renewable energy resources, scientists in the United States and China are researching a fabric that turns sunlight and body movement into a power source. A recent article in Live Science explains that this “smart textile” is made from lightweight, inexpensive polymer fibers coated with metals and semiconductors that make it possible for the fabric to collect energy. The fibers are then woven together by a standard industrial weaving machine. So far, the smart textile has been able to power an electric watch and charge a cellphone. But it isn’t too difficult to imagine this material one day being used to make curtains or shelters, and ultimately helping to democratize energy.

De-extinction

Hold on to your butts! Recent developments in genetic technology may make it possible for scientists to bring extinct species back to life. I know, I know—anyone who’s seen Jurassic World or any of the other movies in that man-eating dino franchise knows that the very idea of resurrecting species is a major ethical powder keg. Where will these animals live? How will a prehistoric species impact the modern-day biodiversity of whatever environment they’re placed in? Will the de-extinct species be brought back solely for scientists to conduct tests on them, or will they be entertainment? There are so many huge questions that need to be asked and answered as this technology is developed. Such as: How would scientists plan on even doing this? DNA from extinct species up to 200,000 years old would be recovered from museum specimens and fossils. However, the actual process for bringing species back has not been nailed down yet. When (and if) that’s figured out, you won’t have to worry about being chased down by a raptor. Dinosaurs will not be on the resurrection menu, as their DNA is considered too old to be recovered. Scientists are primarily focused on bringing back species like the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon.

Proponents of de-extinction believe that the prospect of bringing back species should be seen as a beacon of hope—we will be able to learn more about why these species were wiped out and restore populations of animals that are on the brink of extinction. The return of extinct animals may also be good for the Earth. The grasslands that the woolly mammoth grazed on have become species-poor tundra and boreal forests, since the giant herbivore’s extinction. The woolly mammoth’s return could reduce the greenhouse gases produced by the tundra.

Self-adjusting shoes

It’s been almost 30 years since Back to the Future Part II was released, and while we still don’t have the flying cars that the movie predicted, we can at least be grateful for self-adjusting shoes. Yes, thanks to the sneaker innovators at Nike, you can wear a pair of shoes that “adjust to the contours of your foot via adaptive lacing technology,” so you can finally feel like the futuristic, 21st-century person that you are! Called the Nike HyperAdapt 1.0 , the shoe purportedly “senses what the body needs in real-time,” which is bound to improve athletic performance and hoverboard balance.

Emoji diversity

The Unicode Consortium, the group of technologists that approves all the official emoji, have proposed 51 new emoji for 2017. Even though the new T. rex, merperson, and zombie will undoubtedly prove to be super useful, a few of the new additions are an exciting win for inclusion and representation.

Right alongside some of your favorite OG emoji, you’ll soon be seeing a breastfeeding woman and a character wearing a headscarf. The latter was proposed by 15-year-old Rayouf Alhumedhi who, in an interview with the BBC, said, “There are so many Muslim women in this world who wear the headscarf. It might seem trivial…but it’s different when you see yourself on the keyboard around the world. Once you experience that, it’s really great.” Though this may be considered a small step forward to some, we should celebrate every victory for multiculturalism, allow ourselves to be energized by the wins, and continue to push for more.

An HIV vaccine is closer to reality

Over the past 30 years, scientists have made tremendous gains in treating and preventing HIV infection. Advancements include antiretroviral therapy (or ART) that helps many people who are HIV positive manage the virus, as well as increased awareness and education about safer sex practices. But HIV is still a worldwide health issue. According to the World Health Organization, in 2015, 1.1 million people died from HIV-related causes globally.

One of the many teams of scientists working to change this is at the University of Adelaide in Australia. They’ve been able to reduce HIV infection in mice by using the common cold virus to introduce a vaccine into the mouse’s body and then injecting another DNA-based vaccine into the skin. Professor Eric Gowans, the Head of the Virology Group conducting the study, says, “There’s an element of HIV known as Tat that helps the virus to replicate quite rapidly. One of the beauties of our vaccine approach is that the antibodies inhibit the Tat effect, preventing HIV from replicating itself.” Will this be the study that finally leads to a vaccine that’s successful in humans? It’s too early to tell. However, it’s heartening to know that no one is giving up on this. If this method isn’t a success, the research will continue—just as it has since the ’80s—until we finally get there. —Amber

Movie of the Month: Arrival (2016)

movieI went to see Arrival to escape. It was three days after the election, and I wanted to get out of my brain, my house, my country, my world. I didn’t know anything about Arrival except that it was a sci-fi movie, which seemed promising because I was in the mood to get as far away from Earth as possible. I did not want to think about politics anymore. Turns out, Arrival was the exact wrong movie to go to for that kind of escape. But I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time, because Arrival was actually exactly what I needed.

Arrival is a movie very much in the tradition of Contact. It’s not about space explosions and punching out aliens, but about the intellectual, philosophical, and political questions that would arise if aliens made sudden contact with us. In the movie, 12 mysterious spacecrafts appear in seemingly random positions across the globe, with one in the middle of Montana. Louise Banks, an expert in linguistics played by Amy Adams, is brought in by the government to attempt to communicate with the aliens inside the crafts. Without giving anything away, what transpires is a lesson in the importance of diplomacy and cooperation (NOT GUNS AND FEAR) in the face of the unknown. This is definitely a movie to drag any Trump supporters in your family to over the holidays. The political undertones are subtle enough that they won’t even realize you are sneakily getting them out of their bubble.

What I really love about this movie is that it manages to transcend the “surprise ending” obsession of many filmmakers today (think Shyamalan, and more recently, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan). It really annoys me when peacocky twists hijack an entire movie. A great plot twist enhances the story rather than commandeering it, and that’s what you get with Arrival. Plus, the movie has so many interesting things to say about human evolution and language. You will leave the theater smarter than you were before. Which is pretty much the greatest gift you can give yourself and your loved ones this holiday season. So go see this movie, people of Earth! —Maggie ♦