Redditors find the future in the present

What are the most mindblowing recent advancements most people still don't know about?

The hive mind of r/AskReddit has spat out a great thread on the quiet breakthroughs being made all over the world. mrfujidoesacid asked "Tech savvy folks of Reddit, what are the most mindblowing recent advancements most people still don't know about?" As ever with Reddit, for the full experience of in-jokes, bizarre conversations, and impenetrable interface, click through to the whole thread; but the best posts are collected below.

moby323 says:

I work in a hospital laboratory. The advancement of PCR technology is pretty damn amazing.

Before, to identify the source of an infection or illness (i.e. which bacteria) we had to harvest the organism and then grow it on Petri dishes containing different nutrients and inhibitors. By seeing in which dishes it grew, and its characteristics, we could narrow it down. Then we would perform many biochemical tests (does it turn blue when we add this, does it fizz when we add this etc. ) until we could finally identify the organism. This process can take several days and requires a fair amount of expertise by the lab tech.

Now, for some the most common pathogens, we have a Polymerase chain reaction machine. What it does is amplify and measure the organism's DNA so it can determine with high precision exactly which organism it is causing the infection. It can detect the organism even if there is only a single strand of its DNA present.

How simple it is to use is fucking insane: you swab the patient with a sterile q-tip, then you stick the q-tip in a cartridge. Then you pop the cartridge in the machine and close it. Come back in about 30 minutes for your answer. It is hardly more difficult to operate than a Keurig and it is the size of a microwave. I still sometimes just look at the thing and shake my head in wonder.

Fluerr writes:

Nuclear reactors. Specifically, molten salt reactors (MSRs). MORE specifically, Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs, pronounced "lifters").

Imagine a nuclear power plant that

  • can't blow up
  • can't have fuel stolen to make a nuclear bomb
  • produces zero carbon emissions
  • produces almost ZERO nuclear waste
  • of the waste it produces, it lasts on the order of 100 years (as opposed to 100,000 years)
  • the byproduct of mining the fuel for this reactor is precious earth metals used in solar cells and wind turbines (and currently bought from China, who owns >80% of the world's supply of rare earth metals)

This is the future. MSRs have been proven to work since the 1960s (the MSRBE {Molten Salt Breeder Reactor Experiment} at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee). The first LFTR may go online in 3-5 years in Alabama.

Edit: Probably should have realized the bee's nest I poked with this comment. I'll try answering questions to the best of my abilities! I'm not a nuclear engineer, but I have experience/degrees in health physics (radiation protection) and a little bit of nuclear environmental engineering. I've also done a few specialized research proposals on MSRs, but if other NucEs want to step up they can.

Double Edit: /u/ProjectGO commented below about the "can't blow up" portion of MSRs/LFTRs (also known as "passive safety"). I've copied his post verbatim here, but if you find it interesting please make sure to upvote his comment appropriately.

At the bottom of the reactor chamber, there's a plug made out of salt. The plug is constantly cooled by pipes running refrigerant around it. If anything happens that causes the plant to lose power (for example, getting hit by a tsunami) the cooling system stops working. The molten salt in the reactor melts the plug, and drains out into a number of storage tanks, all sized to hold too little fuel to sustain the reaction.

I believe the term for it is "walk-away safe", since you could literally walk away and it would safely shut down on it's own if something went wrong.

IrTechthrowaway discusses… well, IR tech:

3d facial imaging and recognition. There's a "stealth mode" company that has developed an Infrared (invisible) laser (lidar) face scanner that can accurately scan your face while you're walking from 100 feet away, without you knowing.

3d facial recognition was all the rage about 10 years ago in the wake of 9/11, but died off because it didn't work very well. This company has kept plugging away at it, and they've got it working. You know those license plate scanners the police are starting to use everywhere? This system can do the same thing, but with faces.

For the tech folks: the lidar scanner can create a 10,000 point mesh of your face, with a simultaneously captured and aligned high res texture from a camera. It takes less than a second, and compensates for movement automatically. The laser range (depth) precision is under 1mm, even at 100 feet away. In fact, the laser is so fast and accurate that if you leave it pointed at a single spot on the neck, it can detect a pulse.

lordnikkon writes:

graphene supercapcitors With new ways of making graphene that are finally cheap enough for mass production we may soon see large supercapacitors that make electric cars really viable. A super capactior can hold that same amount of electricity as a battery but yet only takes a few seconds to charge. Imagine an electric car that had few hundred mile range and you could pull into a charge station and fully recharge in 60 seconds.

Super capacitors will replace batteries within the next 10 or 20 years. The only down side of a capacitor is it slowly drains even if not in use. Currently the charges can last for few weeks or even a month without any use or charging. But even things like your cell phone will become lighter and you will be able to charge them in seconds

Although others disagree with the potential for supercapacitors, with tophermeyer writing:

Capacitors tend to fail pretty spectacularly. And, by nature, they have the ability to fully discharge really quickly. Making them failure resistant is one the the key things that will need to happen before they're widely adopted as power sources.

Imagine an automobile's capacitor being damaged in an accident and rapidly discharging. Or a smartphone in someone's pocket.

Akefay adds:

[A few weeks to a month] is how long it lasts when not in use. As in you charge your car on Friday, leave it in the garage over the weekend, and Monday it's at 70%.

Batteries self discharge also, but not nearly that fast.

Edit: Yes, I know you can top it up! I'm not criticizing, I'm just pointing out that "charge lasts up to a month" doesn't mean you can drive for a month between charges.

And diamondjo pours a lot more cold water on the promise:

…that's actually a lot of wastage. You would still need to pay for the electricity and that energy has to come from somewhere. Imagine if you filled up your car with $50 worth of fuel on Friday night and $15 worth had slowly evaporated by the time you came to drive to work on Monday morning.

Edit: sorry, you all seem to be missing the point I'm actually trying to make and that's entirely my fault for putting dollar values on there. I was just trying to illustrate my point using gas because that's something we would notice if it went missing because it's relatively valuable.

What I'm saying is, from an engineering perspective, a 30% loss over a few days (all without performing any work) is hugely wasteful and inefficient. Wherever it came from, that energy is now entropy and can never be used again. Fine, you say, electricity is cheap. Well, watch what happens when everyone has electric cars and demand for it goes up. Suddenly, if a city of 3 million people are all pouring 20-30kWh down the drain every few days, it's kind of a big deal. Even where I live today, our power company cracks the shits if we all use our air conditioners at the same time.

Also, capacitors charge quickly, yes, but only as fast as the power source will allow. Not many people have 3 phase power in their house, so you're limited to 2.4kW. Even a slow car will max out at around 60kW. But let's say on our morning commute, we average around a third of that over the hour it takes us to get there and back: 20kWh. Your home electricity supply would require a good 8 hours to supply that at full capacity. So for this to scale, we need infrastructure; if not to our homes then to charging stations (who you can bet will charge a premium for the prodigious number of amps they can deliver)

So yeah, for you personally, 30% is fine, but the technology won't scale yet, that's one of the problems they need to work out and why we can't have it right now.

A PCR machine in use in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.