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This robot can heal its own cuts like a human

Credit: Terryn et al., Sci. Robot. (2017)

Scientists in Brussels have engineered soft robots that can use heat to heal their own wounds, barely leaving "scars." The key is rubbery material called elastomers that can change shape when exposed to mild heat.

Why it matters: "The lifespan of the robot is increased," Bram Vanderborght, one of the researchers, told Axios. Soft robots are unique in their adaptability — they're malleable and can navigate unknown environments. Most recently, Stanford researchers developed a vine-like soft robot that can "grow" like a plant and could potentially guide a patient's catheter in the future. These new self-healing properties could make robots resilient in potentially destructive environments.

How it works:

  • When exposed to temperatures around 80 degrees Celsius for 20 to 40 minutes, the elastomers loosen enough that they can move to fill the gaps created by cuts.
  • After they cool down to about 25 degrees Celsius, the robots are as good as new.
  • This healing process can be repeated indefinitely. But, it's not just melting and re-forming the robots, Vanderborght says. The heat changes the elastomer so it can move, but melting the material would destroy it, he says.

What's next:

The goal, according to Vanderborght, is to create robots that are able to sense when they are hurt. For example, a robot might detect increased exposure to air through the gap created by a cut. This sensory ability combined with engineering that allows scientists to place self-activating heat sources within the robots could be used to build soft robots that can detect their injuries and start the healing cycle by themselves.

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The worst flu season in eight years

Note: Activity levels are based on outpatient visits in a state compared to the average number of visits that occur during weeks with little or no flu virus circulation; Data: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

This year's flu season caught many experts off guard with both its sustained prevalence and its virulence. At its peak, there was a higher level of flu-like illnesses reported than any other year during the past eight years. Watch in the visual as it hits its peak around Week 18.

Why it matters: Public health officials try to capture this data when developing the next year's vaccines. And, of course, they want to find better ways to prevent severe flu seasons. There's a "Strategic Plan" to develop a universal vaccine to protect against a wider range of influenza viruses, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells Axios.

Steve LeVine 18 hours ago
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The stakes for who wins the AI race

A sentient computer saying 'Hello World' in English, Chinese and Russian.
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

One of the most urgent themes in technology is the global rivalry for dominance of the evolving sector of artificial intelligence — geopolitical and economic supremacy is said to be at stake. Experts view the U.S. and China as the top contenders, but other nations, including Russia, are working on AI, too.

What it means: In its latest edition, the Economist draws a sharp line as to the extraordinary ramifications of the race. "The global spread of a technosystem conceived in, and to an unknown extent controlled by, an undemocratic, authoritarian regime could have unprecedented historical significance," the magazine wrote.