OZY on PBS: On Batteries, Brains and Ballet

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Why you should care

They might not be getting big press now, but these developments could reshape our world.

What do a bionic memory cell, an edible battery and fast-twitch digital ballet have in common? They’re all technologies that offer an exciting glimpse of a richer, more environmentally and culturally aware future lifestyle. The cool part is that these technologies are not pie-in-the-sky dreams. They’re viable and ready for the spotlight right now.

In this week’s PBS NewsHour appearance, OZY Editor-in-Chief Carlos Watson discussed these under-the-radar developments with Gwen Ifill. Read on to learn more about these technologies.

The Race to Build the Bionic Brain

The bionic brain is years in development and according to the latest research, it is closer than ever. An Australian group recently developed a cell that can both store and process information similarly to the human brain’s long-term memory process, while the U.S. has launched a decadelong, $3 billion initiative to map all 100 billion of the brain’s neurons. Where might this all lead? To the creation of accurate neurological models that could improve drug testing and speed up research into severe conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Read OZY’s story on the bionic brain, excerpted here:

After creating a bionic ear decades ago, scientists in the land Down Under now plan to get a working bionic eye into human trials next year. Meanwhile, the first mechanical mind is expected to be seen in many of our lifetimes — in “decades, rather than centuries,” says Steve Furber, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Manchester in England. He says scientists are close to replicating the way humans store long-term memory in chips, which could eventually be mass-produced for much less than it would cost today. These steps could help lead to developing machine psyches.

The Incredible Edible Battery

One of the holy grails of tech industry is a long-lasting, inexpensive and environmentally friendly battery, and an energetic professor from Carnegie Mellon may have finally built one. But here’s a surprise — the battery is basically nontoxic, so much so that you could eat parts of it as well. (Though you won’t find it on menus anytime soon.) Jay Whitacre’s Aquion Energy startup is designing batteries that run on seawater and other simple organic components and are already being used in solar arrays all over the world. They soak up excess energy from the sun throughout the day, and then send it out to electrical systems during slow intake periods. Read OZY’s story on Whitacre’s edible battery, excerpted here:

Cheap, long-lived batteries could make the antiquated electric grid more efficient, more resilient to usage spikes or natural disaster, and better suited for renewable energy that helps fight climate change. (These storage options just need to get “cheap enough and big enough,” Whitacre says.) In some ways, the development resembles the locavore trend in food, only with billions of dollars at stake — not to mention the electricity that powers your air conditioner, TV and Internet connection. The prospect has drawn high-profile competitors like Tesla Motors, which a few months ago announced its own big push into home-battery systems that could help some homeowners disconnect from the grid entirely.

Finding the Beauty of Ballet on YouTube

Guillaume Côté is a young director of a top ballet company who was discouraged by waning audience interest in his art. So he decided to take one of the world’s oldest arts and modernize it via digital interpretations. After working for years as a classical dancer, he started making online videos whose quality and verve better resemble MTV hits than anything you’d see on public television. And he seems to have started a movement: Ballet bad boy Sergei Polunin recently racked up 12 million YouTube views with an angsty performance set to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” while the Boston Ballet recently posted a slo-mo video to promote its lineup. Read OZY’s story on Côté’s YouTube ballet, excerpted here:

Historically, ballet has refused to have much to do with video. While dancers watch clips to learn the steps to a new dance, these low-budget, grainy pieces tend to suck the life right out of the grand jeté —they’re utilitarian and drab. Côté’s videos, on the other hand, are expressly made to convert non-ballet audiences into fanatics of the pirouette, and so they have style, verve, swagger. His moves are not purely traditional — Côté’s toes are not always pointed, the lines of his body not always euclidean — because, he says, “there’s a little more humanness in breaking the classical form.”

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