Monday, October 22, 2018
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Mindfulness meditation promotes healthy living

Practising mindfulness meditation for ten minutes a day improves concentration and the ability to keep information active in one’s mind, a function known as “working memory”. The brain achieves this by becoming more efficient, literally requiring fewer brain resources to do these tasks.

Many big claims have been made about the effects of meditation, but too often the scientific evidence behind these claims is weak or even lacking altogether. In our latest study, published in Scientific Reports, we addressed several shortcomings of earlier research to gain more certainty about what changes when people meditate.

Collaborating with colleagues from Osnabrück University in Germany, we carried out a randomised controlled study to investigate the effects of mindfulness meditation on cognitive functions that are important in daily life.

For our study, we randomly allocated 34 participants to one of two groups. For eight weeks, one group practised mindfulness meditation while the other group – the control group – performed muscle relaxation exercises.

Using so-called “active controls” – where controls are given a similar task rather than doing nothing – rules out many alternative reasons for changes in task performance. For example, simply being selected for the experimental group or engaging in any new activity might boost performance, without being the effect of meditation practice.

We also addressed other limitations of earlier research. For example, in some studies, the cognitive tasks were so simple that all participants, experimental and controls, reached an optimum level, which overshadowed the potential effects of meditation. Sometimes, participants only needed to distinguish and respond to four different stimuli that repeatedly appeared on a screen, one by one. Soon, all participants had optimised their performance. To avoid this, we used the challenging multiple object tracking task.

The task involves tracking two to five discs (“targets”) that are moving on a computer screen, among 16 identical discs that are also moving on the screen. Participants need to concentrate on the target discs without getting distracted by the other non-target discs.

We tested participants on this task a few days before and after practising either meditation or the relaxation exercises for eight weeks. (Participants in the meditation group meditated about four times a week over the eight-week period.)

In the meditation group, the accuracy of tracking the targets rose by about 9% – a statistically significant change – showing that their concentration and working memory had improved. The participants in the control group did not improve at all.

A more efficient brain

Black picture showing human brain
Meditation boosts brain power | Aspioneer

To find out what changed in the brain, we recorded the participants’ brain activity with an electroencephalogram (EEG) while they performed the task. We combined this with a method we pioneered 15 years ago: rapidly switched the moving discs on and off at a fixed rate of 11Hz. Their continuous flickering drives a brain signal called the steady-state visually evoked potential (SSVEP). Put simply, the brain generates electrical activity with the same frequency as the flickering discs, a signal that is then picked up by the EEG.

We found that after the eight weeks of training the SSVEP signal was reduced by about 88% – again, only in the meditation group. Based on previous work, we know what this reduction means. The brain networks involved in tracking the discs became more refined so that fewer brain resources were needed to carry out the task.

One simple technique

Most research investigating mindfulness meditation uses complex programmes, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction. However, because these programmes include yoga, stretching and different types of meditation, it is impossible to say whether reported improvements are truly the result of a particular meditation practice.

For clarity, we instructed the meditation group to do one simple meditation exercise for ten minutes a day. The exercise is called mindful breath awareness meditation. It involves focusing on the sensation of your breath – for example, the air flowing in and out of your nostrils. If any thoughts, feelings or other sense impressions arise, you should just recognise them and return to the breath, without judging the distraction or further thinking about it.

It is curious that simply focusing on the breath in a balanced way can have such an effect on concentration and working memory. We think this is happening because meditation is a form of brain network training, where the same brain networks are repeatedly activated and so become more efficient. It seems that this form of meditation targets core brain networks, interconnected areas of the brain that work together and play a key role in many cognitive tasks.

It is easy to see how this is relevant for daily life. Staying concentrated, singling out important from distracting information and keeping it in mind, are useful skills in situations of information overload. For instance, radar operators perform better on this task and, on a more mundane level, so do people playing fast-paced video games.

So, let’s get started:

We feel the formless stream of air at the tip of our nose and let thoughts, sounds and feelings pass without evaluation…

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Legalizing medicinal or recreational marijuana can solve the opioid crisis

The legalization of cannabis for adult use in Canada is one of the biggest national public policy shifts that many of us will ever witness in our lifetimes.

This historic change in drug policy was proposed by the Canadian government as a way to promote public health, as the country grapples with some of the highest cannabis consumption rates of the developed world, including among adolescents.

Meanwhile, Canada is struggling to contain an entirely different substance-related problem: The opioid overdose epidemic.

Fuelled by the contamination of the illicit drug supply with fentanyl and its analogues, the opioid epidemic is Canada’s gravest public health crisis since the emergence of HIV in the 1980s. Experts agree on the need for creative responses based on scientific evidence.

Increasingly, scientists from the fields of public health, medicine and economics are aiming to figure out if cannabis legalization could be part of the solution.

The possibilities are multiple — from the use of cannabis to treat chronic pain to the potential of cannabis to reduce opioid cravings.

We published a new study last month showing that highly marginalized patients on “opioid agonist therapy,” with the drugs methadone or suboxone, were more likely remain on their treatment six months later if they were using cannabis on a daily basis.

Opioids, cannabis and pain

Almost one in five Canadians live with some form of chronic pain. In the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies began to develop slow-release formulations of opioids (e.g. OxyContin) and marketed them as safe and effective medications for the treatment of chronic non-cancer pain.

Opioids are now known to carry a high risk of dependence and overdose and yet more than 20 million opioid prescriptions are still filled each year in Canada.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 50, and prescription opioids are involved in nearly half of these deaths.

It is also becoming apparent that opioids might be less effective than initially thought in treating certain types of chronic non-cancer pain (for example, neuropathic pain).

Cannabis, derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, contains several compounds. These include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the primary psychoactive component of cannabis) and cannabidiol (CBD). Beyond the well-known psychoactive effects of cannabinoids, new research has shown that they also interact with systems in the body involved in the regulation of pain.

This discovery has led researchers to investigate the potential for cannabis to treat various pain conditions for which opioids are currently first- or second-line therapies.

Although high-quality clinical research involving cannabis has been stunted by its prohibited legal status and the quality of the experimental studies in question ranges from low to moderate, recent extensive reviews of experimental research on cannabinoids for chronic non-cancer pain generally agree that they offer modest relief of pain.

This begs the question: if cannabis becomes more available, do people switch from opioids to cannabis?

Ground-breaking findings

In a landmark 2014 study, a team of researchers analyzed data from across the United States over a 10-year period. They found that states with legalized medical cannabis saw 25 per cent fewer opioid-related deaths than states where medical cannabis remained illegal.

These findings broke ground for others in the field to find associations between U.S. medical cannabis laws and reduced state-level estimates of opioid prescriptionsmisuse and dependence, as well as opioid-related hospitalizations and non-fatal overdoses.

Opioid overdose trends have also changed in the aftermath of recreational cannabis legalization in some U.S. states. For example, a recent study found that opioid-related deaths in Colorado were reduced (albeit modestly) relative to two comparison states in the short term following recreational cannabis legalization.

Although it’s tempting to conclude that increasing access to cannabis is an effective intervention against the opioid crisis, there are several reasons to be cautious when interpreting these study findings.

First, not all cannabis laws are created equal. For example, Colorado and Washington followed a commercialized approach to cannabis legalization with fewer restrictions around things like marketing and product sales compared to Canada’s public health framework.

These regulations are likely to impact the ways in which people access and use cannabis products, which could create different shifts in other substance use trends.

Indeed, a study led by leading drug policy economists in the U.S. found that the passage of a medical cannabis law on its own was not associated with changes in opioid-related outcomes. Only after the authors accounted for access to cannabis through legal provisions for retail dispensaries did they find a 25 per cent reduction in opioid-related deaths.

This suggests that if there’s a causal link between the law change and opioid overdoses, access to cannabis through retail outlets could be a driving factor.

Second — and this is the subject of ongoing discussion among substance-use researchers — these population-level studies are limited by their inability to observe individual-level changes in cannabinoid and opioid use.

As a result, it’s impossible to conclude whether it was actually the change in law that created these shifts in opioid outcomes. To better understand this, we need to take a closer look at different sub-populations of opioid users.

Pain patients and illicit users

Findings from surveys with medical cannabis users across North America demonstrate a clear preference for cannabis over opioids. For example, roughly one-third of a sample of patients enrolled in Health Canada’s Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) program in B.C. report substituting cannabis for prescription opioids.

For chronic-pain patients using medical cannabis, this substitution effect appears even more prominent, with cannabis substitution occurring in roughly two-thirds of a sample of former prescription opioid patients in Michigan who started using medical cannabis.

In another recent study, 80 per cent of medical cannabis patients in California reported that taking cannabis alone was more effective for treating their medical condition than taking cannabis with opioids. More than 90 per cent agreed they would choose cannabis over opioids if it were readily available.

However, two recent high-impact studies challenge our understanding of this complex topic. A four-year study of Australians on opioid therapy for chronic pain did not find significant reductions in use of prescribed opioids or severity of pain among cannabis users.

A second study analyzed a large U.S. dataset and found that individuals who reported cannabis use at baseline were actually more likely than non-users to start using prescription opioids non-medically and have an opioid use disorder three years later.

This discrepancy in findings points to a need for research exploring why this substitution effect is seen in some patient populations but not others.

But what about the relationship between cannabis and opioids among some of those most affected by the opioid crisis — people with long-term experience using illicit opioids?

Untreated pain and substance use have a high degree of overlap. Pain was reported by almost half of people who inject drugs surveyed in a recent San Francisco study.

Research from our colleagues in Vancouver found that under-treatment of pain in this population is common and results in self-management of pain using heroin or diverted prescription opioids. This is becoming increasingly more dangerous, as almost 90 per cent of the heroin found in Vancouver is contaminated with fentanyl or fentanyl analogues.

Could there be a role for cannabis as an opioid substitute even among individuals with extensive experience using illicit opioids? A study from California of people who inject drugs found that those who used cannabis used opioids less often. We need more research, to know whether this is a direct result of cannabis use.

Cannabis as an addiction treatment

There is growing evidence for the use of cannabis in treating opioid addiction. CBD, the non-psychoactive component of cannabis, is known to interact with several receptors involved in regulating fear and anxiety-related behaviours. It shows potential for the treatment of several anxiety disorders.

Research is also investigating CBD’s role in modulating cravings and relapses — behaviours that are tightly linked to anxiety — among individuals with opioid addiction. Recent preliminary studies suggest that CBD reduces opioid cravings. A larger clinical trial is now under way in the United States.

Our own research suggests that patients are more likely to stay in opioid agonist therapy during periods of intensive cannabis use.

These findings suggest we need rigorous experimental research into the use of cannabinoids as an adjunct treatment to opioid agonist therapy.

Meanwhile, the opioid overdose crisis is so dire in some regions that community harm reduction groups, like the High Hopes Foundation in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, are starting cannabis-based substitution programs that provide free access to cannabis products for drug users.

Harnessing a unique opportunity

Canada is the first country in the G-20 to introduce a legal framework regulating the use of cannabis by adults.

Legalizing cannabis will break down historic barriers to understanding its clinical and public health impacts.

Certain measures like rates of youth use and impaired driving will no doubt be top priorities for evaluating the new law’s impact on population health and safety. But we should also be prepared to monitor indirect public health gains, especially against the backdrop of the ongoing overdose crisis.

Canada should harness this opportunity to understand if, and how, cannabis legalization could fit into a multi-faceted opioid prevention and response strategy.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What will disrupt retail sector in 2018 and beyond?

Retailers, struggling to connect with their customers, have been trialling new technologies to blend in-store and digital experiences.

Interactive kiosks, mobile-friendly websites and transactional apps have become the norm.

But shoppers are looking for deeper connections. If mobile is the glue connecting digital and physical retail, then location and voice technology are the bedrock of meaningful shopping experiences of the future.

When technology meet shopping

Historically, the first three rules of retail were always – “location, location, location”. Consultants pulled out that catch phrase at every opportunity, telling retailers that the only way to succeed was to secure the best spot.

Then the internet happened, which facilitated the growth of online shopping. Retailers soon realised that customers could reach them online, no matter where they were located.

By 2010, stores like Target and David Jones moved to set up their online platform, positioning themselves as a true “multi-channel retailer”, despite offering only about 1,500 products online.

Since retailers initially operated their online and physical stores as separate entities, customer demand for a seamless shopping experience across all channels and touch points was not being met.

By 2015, terms like “seamless experience” and “omni-channel” emerged in retail boardrooms. An omni-channel strategy enabled retailers to offer a consistent experience, brand message and transactional functionality to their customers across all platforms: online, social media, mobile and in-store.

One way retailers moved toward blending their channels was by adapting their websites to be mobile-friendly, but even that is not enough to keep customers engaged.

Going mobile, going social

After decades of collecting consumer data, retailers know who their customers are, but not where they are. Customers are mobile. They are at work, at the gym, on public transport and sometimes shopping. But most have one thing in common – they have a smartphone.

In Australia, smartphone ownership sits at 88%, and purchases made via mobile phones have risen by 25% in 2017. In the United States it is predicted that almost half of all online shopping will be made via mobiles – m-commerce – by 2020.

While physical retailers have attempted to leverage this trend by blending a variety of technologies with their in-store offer, such as mobile-POS (point of sale) terminals, non-retailers – most notably Instagram – are providing innovative solutions for retailers

In mid-March the social media site launched “shop-able” posts that allow retailers to tag items posted on Instagram with product, pricing information and a link to their online stores for purchase. Given that Instagram is the third most popular social media site in Australia (with around 9 million active users per month), and 81% of Australians use their smart phones to access social media, this move seems a natural progression for retailers.

Location again

After many decades of strategic to-and-froing, retailers have refocused their attention on location – but not their location, your location.

Micro-location technology enables retailers to know where you are – and this technology will change the nature of the relationship between retailers and consumers. International retailers, such as Macys and IKEA, have been using this technology since 2014. Last month it finally arrived on our shores, with Australian liquor retailer Dan Murphy’s. The Dan Murphy’s App is now able to send customers a push notification to tell them their order is ready, but also alert the store when the customer is within 400 metres.

As speed becomes the new currency for retailers, this technology is more about saving shoppers time, than tracking where they go – although that data is also very valuable.

Speaking out loud

The growth of smart digital home assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home and Apple’s Home Pod will also influence the way many of us shop in the future.

Mobile searches for “where can I buy” grew 85% over the past two years. Meanwhile, 44% of those who use a voice-activated speaker, said they use the device to purchase groceries and household items at least once a week.

To take advantage of this trend, Google last month launched “Shopping Actions” – an initiative that lets users make purchases via voice using Google Assistant, or by clicking on shopping ads in Google search results.

Google had already partnered with Wal-Mart, to offer voice shopping to customers. Investment by the world’s biggest retailer and the world’s biggest search engine, suggests this technology will provide significant opportunities for retailers to integrate the data from voice assistants into their omni-channel offering.

What will be the future like?

While we are not going to stop wandering through our shopping centres anytime soon, our desire for a seamless digital and in-store experience will be satisfied by blending mobile, micro-location and voice technologies.

As we leave home in the morning, we might simply tell our digital home-assistant to order some groceries and two bottles of wine. While scanning social media posts on the way to work, we could tap on an image of Jennifer Hawkins and immediately purchase the t-shirt she is wearing. During the day, push notifications will let us know our purchases have been picked and transactions safely processed. Waiting for our train home, we’ll be reminded to stop in and collect our purchases. As we approach the store, a team member will be notified and will meet us at the “click n’ collect” area, goods in hand.

As retailers increasingly integrate location technology into their offerings, the future of shopping is set to become ultra-convenient.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Stephen Hawking essay says race of ‘superhumans’ will rise

The new species will be result of gene-editing and would end human civilization.

Days after the publication of his last paper Stephen Hawking is back in limelight. The newest is an essay by him published in Sunday Times from his book ‘Brief Answers to the Big Questions’ unveiled today.

In his essay the late physicist predicts that a race of new ‘superhumans’ will be born. This race will be far better in intelligence, conscious, reasoning, memory, disease-resistance and longevity over the normal humans. It would therefore slowly replace the human civilisation which we all know. This would be so due to advances in gene-editing techniques.

We are now entering a new phase of what might be called self-designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA,” he writes.

We have now mapped DNA, which means we have read ‘the book of life,’ so we can start writing in corrections.”

The world will slowly adopt the new scientific explosion. In early stages gene-editing technique like CRISPR would be used for treating genetic defects.

I am sure that during this century people will discover how to modify both intelligence and instincts such as aggression,” Hawking writes.

Laws will probably be passed against genetic engineering with humans. But some people won’t be able to resist the temptation to improve human characteristics, such as size of memory, resistance to disease, and length of life.”

However the moneyed would use the technique to get alterations done to their and their children DNA.

Once such superhumans appear, there are going to be significant political problems with the unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete,” he suggests.

Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings who are improving themselves at an ever-increasing rate.”

With the scientists divided on the ethics of using gene-editing tools on human embryology. Clearly, Prof. Stephen Hawking prediction would further intensify the turmoil….

Why too much optimism is not good for business

    Most business start-ups end badly. While the number of new businesses created in the UK in 2016 – 414,000 – looks impressive at first, it is less so when set against the number that failed that same year: 328,000.

    Failure has always been the hallmark of entrepreneurship – only around 50% of businesses survive their first five years. And not only are the chances of survival slim, but there is evidence that on average business owners earn less than if they had remained as someone else’s employee. They also work substantially longer hours than their counterparts in paid employment.

    So what sort of person decides to leave the relative security and comfort of employment and invest on average 70% of their wealth on the high risk lottery ticket that is entrepreneurship? And in such large numbers?

    The answer: optimists.

    Sure, the potential returns from founding a successful business and becoming the next Bill Gates may be so great that the gamble is possibly worthwhile. Or perhaps the attraction of “being our own boss”, is part of the attraction. But a dash of optimism is a powerful catalyst to action.

    Psychologists have long documented our tendency to be optimistic. In fact, optimism is one of the most pervasive human traits. By optimism, we mean a tendency to overestimate the probability of doing well (or conversely, underestimating the probability of failure).

    For instance, most people overestimate their driving ability, their future financial prosperity, and their chances of a successful, happy marriage. Across many different methods and domains, studies consistently report that a large majority of the population (about 80% according to most estimates) display an overly optimistic outlook.

    Viewing ourselves and our chances of future success in implausibly positive ways may increase ambition and persistence. It may persuade others to cooperate with us. There may even be an element of self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby exaggerated beliefs increase the probability of success.

    Nevertheless, there is a downside. As it is better to use correct information when making choices, optimism tends to result in faulty assessments and mistaken decisions. Yes, it may well enhance our performance but it also results in participation in activities doomed to fail.

    In our research, we examine how these forces play out in business start-ups – a big decision involving much uncertainty. Previous studies have documented that optimistic thinking tends to be highest when outcomes are uncertain. It also flourishes when success is perceived to be under the individual’s control.

    So it is no surprise that optimists are attracted to the uncertain and turbulent world of entrepreneurship. The greater an individual’s optimism, the more likely they have been fooled into thinking they have found a good business opportunity and that they have what it takes to exploit it successfully. Every episode of the BBC’s Dragons Den provides examples of such delusional thinking. Realists and pessimists are less likely to proceed with unpromising prospects.

    Our findings provide evidence that higher optimism is indeed associated with lower entrepreneurial earnings. Optimism is measured as bias in forecasting personal financial outcomes when subjects are still in paid employment, prior to beginning their entrepreneurial adventure.

    Flip-side of optimism

    Allowing for earnings while an employee, we find that business owners with above average optimism earn some 30% less than those with below average optimism – suggesting they would have been better off if they had made the prudent choice of remaining an employee.

    Marriage is in some ways like starting a business. As a further test of whether optimism leads to rash decisions, we found that optimists are more likely to divorce.

    Overall, our results suggest that many entrepreneurial decisions can be viewed as mistakes, based upon an excessive belief in the probability of doing well. Too many people are starting business ventures, at least as far as private returns are concerned.

    It seems likely that optimism is partly responsible for the sizeable churn of business births and deaths that happen year on year around the world. Governments should therefore be cautious in adopting policies that encourage start-ups – it seems people need little encouragement as it is.

    And while it is true that new businesses create new jobs, it should also be noted that when start-ups fail, they are responsible for a great deal of job destruction and heartache.

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

    4D printing: The next evolution of 3D printing

    An irresistible proposition….

    TED professor Skylar Tibbits in his February, 2013 speech at the MIT Conference defined 4D printing as “The use of a 3D printer in the creation of objects which change/alter their shape when they are removed from the 3D printer. The objective is that objects made self-assemble when being exposed to air, heat or water, this is caused by a chemical reaction due to the materials utilised in the manufacturing process.

    In other words 4D printing is the method of 3D printing where there is an addition of the dimension i.e. time. Generally the input in 4D printer is a “smart material” that can be a hydrogel, a shape memory polymer or a printed active composites (PAC’s). These smart materials due to their material properties can be configured to specific shape when subjected to external stimuli like water, heat, pressure, temperature etc. The most popular technology being shape memory alloy, where a change of temperature triggers a shape change. Other successful approaches use electro-active polymers, pressurised fluids or gasses, chemical stimulus and even in response to light. In contrast to 3D printed objects that are rigid.

    4D printed objects are dynamic and can undergo computational folding allowing objects larger than printers to be printed.

    Hence using 4D printing and right material any transformable shape can be attained. As such kind of self-assembling non-living objects would have wide range of applications. It is noteworthy for businesses that use of multi-material shape memory polymers in 4D printing world can revolutionize the world of materials and industries.

    In the 255th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) researchers presented the most powerful 4D printer. “We are on the cusp of creating a new generation of devices that could vastly expand the practical applications for 3D and 4D printing,” H. Jerry Qi, Ph.D., says. “Our prototype printer integrates many features that appear to simplify and expedite the processes used in traditional 3D printing. As a result, we can use a variety of materials to create hard and soft components at the same time, incorporate conductive wiring directly into shape-changing structures, and ultimately set the stage for the development of a host of 4D products that could reshape our world.

    Until now most of the commercial printers could print structures of a single material only. However the 4D printer built by Qi and his colleagues combines four different printing techniques, including aerosol, inkjet, direct ink write and fused deposition modelling. As a result Qi and his team have developed an all-in-one 4D printer that could print almost all practically possible complex structures in one go.

    It can handle stiff as well as elastic materials including hydrogels, silver nanoparticle-based conductive inks, liquid crystal elastomers and shape memory polymers (SMPs). The researchers can also use the printer to project a range of white, gray or black shades of light to form and cure a component into a solid. This grayscale lighting triggers a crosslinking reaction that can alter the component’s behaviour, depending on the grayscale of shade shined on it. So, for example, a brighter light shade creates a part that is harder, while a darker shade produces a softer part. As a result, these components can bend or stretch differently than other parts of the 4-D structure around them. Since the printer integrates direct-ink-write method to produce a line of silver nanoparticle ink it can be used to print electric wires coated with plastic that encases the wire. Instead of running multiple processes say for electrical or plastic component this super-4D printer could use multiple materials to print an entire mobile phone, antenna or other electrical devices in a single manufacturing process.

    Impending applications:

    4D printing can have various applications in the real-world depending on the smart material used and changes in environmental circumstances which act as stimuli:

    1. Architecture: Buildings delivered as flat pack could assemble and disassemble themselves under right stimuli. Smart valves, connections and self- healing pipes of a plumbing system that dynamically change their diameter in response to the flow rate and water demand.
    2. Clothing: Clothes and footwear which change their function according to environment and the wearer. Shoes that can become water-resistant or transform themselves according to the use required. Clothes that can cool/ insulate depending on the type of weather, change style/size/shape according to wearers need. Imagine your closet with a single pair of highly durable fabric that can be worn in several ways.
    3. Medical Applications: Creating drug capsules that release medicine at the first sign of an infection .Using body temperature as trigger for 3D printed skin grafts which can change with conditions. In bio components, artificial muscles, implants, prosthetics and stents that expand after being exposed to body heat.
    4. Home appliances: 4D printing flat-board self-assembling furniture that curl up into a chair or a refrigerator on external stimuli say heat stimuli applied by a home hair dryer. Home appliances and products that can adapt to heat or moisture to improve comfort or add new features to better working.
    5. Transport: Roads which self-heal potholes. Components and structures made of morphing materials that could change shape in response to environmental temperature, air pressure, rain or other factors.
    6. Aviation: In aeroplane wings which transform themselves according to the flow of air for better lift. 4D printed hinges, motors or hydraulic actuators which would make planes simpler and lighter in weight.
    7. Aerospace: In extreme environments, such as space. 4D printed transformable shape bridges, shelters or any kind of installations, as they would build up themselves or repair themselves in case of weather damage.
    8. This also opens up potential uses in biomedical devices, soft robotics, wearable sensors and shape-changing photovoltaic solar cells.

    Undoubtly, the 4-D printing would completely reshape the world we live in… At Aspioneers, we say the change is indeed welcomed!!!….

    Shaking up the banking sector-What are ‘challenger banks’?

    Digital technology has transformed the established ways of doing business across industries – and banking is no exception. New start ups are challenging traditional service providers with a more personalised and innovative service. Traditional banks have been slow to adapt but they haven’t – yet – lost too much of their business.

    Challenger banks like Starling, Monzo, Revolut, Atom and Tandem are all digital banks without high street branches. They are more flexible, quicker to adapt to user needs, more user-friendly and more personal than traditional banks. Their biggest advantage is that they have started fresh with a digital offering and the use of the latest technology available. Traditional banks, meanwhile, are typically slower to respond to market demands and keep up-to-date with technological developments.

    In contrast, challenger banks are able to incorporate new products much more quickly and with less friction through their platform business model, which can easily connect customers with new products developed by third parties. This greatly increases customer choice.

    For instance, the account opening procedure is a lot easier and quicker with challenger banks, often only involving taking a picture of your ID and a video of yourself. Plus, they offer novel features such as making recommendations based on your transaction data for saving money, making payments to nearby friends via bluetooth, or even blocking gambling transactions from customer accounts.

    Challenger banks can change how we do banking for good.
    Challenger banks can change how we do banking for good | Aspioneer

    They can also be better at security and preventing fraudulent behaviour thanks to their more intelligent analytic capabilities. Monzo, for example, recently noticed a data breach of the ticketing platform Ticketmaster and took action to replace all cards that had used Ticketmaster, without waiting to receive customer requests.

    The trend of these new providers has been accelerated by recent regulatory changes in the UK (Open banking) and across Europe (PSD2). Taking effect in early 2018, these reforms force banks to share their customers’ data with third parties that can provide financial services if their customers request this. The change aims to boost competition and also challenges the powerful position of the traditional banks in the market by forcing them to share customers with new players.

    What most challenger banks have in common is their ability to offer lower fees to their customers due to their lean set up and lower cost structure. Challenger banks (and fintech start ups in general) capitalise on the perception that they are looking after the customers’ best interests, rather than doing what is best or most profitable for themselves (at least not in the short term).

    But this benefit to the customer makes it difficult to make profits. This is the norm for most UK challenger banks, as their focus is on accelerated growth and winning over new customers, while trying to work out their business model and how they will turn profits in the long term. Revolut marked itself out as an exception when it reported breaking even in December 2017.

    Techfin to Fintech: What’s holding on?

    Part of the issue is that, although challenger banks bring obvious benefits to users, we do not see a large number of customers leaving their traditional banks for these new players. While challenger banks increase their customer base and market presence, the number of customers using these banks as their main bank and having their payroll registered to them is low.

    The main reason for this is trust. Trust is of paramount importance when it comes to where customers put their money, and here established banks seem to have the upper hand. The common view is that even though the customers do not trust traditional banks for giving them the best deals, they trust these banks for keeping their money safe.

    The system failures that new players might face can also cause hesitation among potential customers and make gaining their trust more difficult. For instance, some app-only banks ran into problems recently due to issues with one of their technology suppliers, resulting in some reduced services. This suggests there’s promise, but also challenges.

    The overall picture we see so far in our research into challenger banks is that people stick with their traditional banks for keeping their savings and salaries and prefer making frequent, small payments into their challenger bank accounts to use in their daily lives.

    The pessimists say that the challengers will not necessarily win out. Although they are growing their users every day, they will not be able to grow beyond a certain size and will need to be acquired by established players. On the other hand, stats show that millennials are much more willing to switch financial providers in order to get better, more customised services.

    Plus, despite the uncertainty around the future of challenger banks, there are hints – including new regulations and tech firms getting into financial services – that show there will be no return to banking as we have known it.

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

    Bacteriophage: An alternate to antibiotic treatment?

    White blood cells stained blue | Aspioneer
    Bacteriophage can be an alternative solution to tackle antibiotic resistance | Aspioneer

    Viruses that infect and kill bacteria….

    New strains of infection causing bacteria are constantly propping up. At the same time antibiotics are losing their effectiveness towards presently existing bacteria. Scientists are constantly looking for new ways to combat infections by trying new antibiotics, using combination drugs or changing the dosage of antibiotics currently available.

    A new less popular method is making a comeback. The antibiotic resistance crisis can be fought by killing disease causing bacteria with help of viruses. Like any other organisms cell gets infected by bacteria, bacterial cells can be also attacked by carefully selected specific virus called bacteriophages (phage shortly). These phages act by killing bacteria by incorporating them in their lifecycle.

    Phage action                 

    destroy infection causing organisms | Aspioneer
    Bacteriophage destroy infection causing organisms | Aspioneer

    Bacteriophage or ‘bacteria-eater’ where first independently discovered by Frederick W. Twort in Great Britain and Félix d’Hérelle in France.

    They act by attacking the bacteria, inserting its genetic material (DNA), replicating and finally lyses (bursts open) the cell wall destroying it. As a type of virus, phages cannot live and reproduce alone. Generally phages start their killing action by recognising their host bacteria and attaching itself to a specific site on it. The phages then enters to inject its DNA through bacterial cell wall. The DNA now makes multiple copies of self by parasitically using bacterial cell nutrients as fuel. Each of the DNA then raps a cell wall around itself. Finally the phages release toxic substances to kill the bacteria and release even more virus looking for host like that of parent bacteria.

    Soon after making their discovery, Twort and d’Hérelle began to use phages in treating human bacterial diseases such as bubonic plague and cholera. However the phage therapy was abandoned due to World War 1, shortage of funds and discovery of antibiotics. With the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, however, the therapeutic potential of phages has received renewed attention.

    Why world needs Phage therapy

    With increase in antibiotic resistance old technique like phage therapy is making a come back
    With increase in antibiotic resistance old technique like phage therapy is making a come back | Aspioneer

    Phage therapy has many advantages over the antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics work by failing one of the biological cycle of the bacteria. Since they are not specific in their action antibiotics indiscriminately kills the natural ecosystem of even healthy bacteria found in the gut and on the skin of humans. Since phages are specific for a kind of bacteria this shortcoming of antibiotics could be easily overcome. Again the phages can act on antibiotic-resistant bacteria too. Any kind of confrontation developed by the bacteria (bio-films) against the bacteriophage won’t stop the virus from homicide. But finding, isolating and developing pure- right concentration- phage specific for a bacteria is a time consuming process for by now very ill patients. If not prepared cleanly human body can trigger a deadly immune response triggering a cascade of changes that can damage multiple organ systems, causing them to fail. But that’s not the end of the problems. Phages don’t simply diffuse to the site of infection and is likely to be attacked by body’s immune system too.

    The new study where phages were found functional

    New study shows phage therapy can combact infection
    New study shows phage therapy can combact infection | Aspioneer

    A US-based team of researchers used phage therapy to treat antibiotic-resistant pneumonia. Using a bio degradable polymer and a sublime chemical the researchers produced right sized shells carrying the phages in it. Due to the precise size of shell enclosed phages could be delivered at the site of infection without triggering bodies white blood cells immune response. These when inhaled by mice infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa (causing lung infections) dropped infection levels by a factor of 10. While only 13 percent of untreated mice survived the infection, all of the phage-treated mice survived.

    All of this looks incredibly promising. May be in the near future, as antibiotics lose their effectiveness phage therapy might move to our first resort against all antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

    Beware: Cryptojacking is infecting the Internet of Things

    It can affect your organisation…..

    With the increase in popularity and value of cryptocurrencies interest in malicious cryptomining malware is also growing strong. Cryptocurrencies use cryptography to secure transactions and mint new virtual coins which are generated when computers loaded with cryptomining software perform complex mathematical calculations. The user who successfully completes each calculation gets a reward in the form of a tiny amount of that cryptocurrency.

    What is cryptojacking?

    Cryptojacking (comes from “cryptocurrency” and “hijacking”) is unauthorized use of someone else’s internet-connected devices to mine Ethereum, Monero or any other kind of digital cash. When an attack is complete the crypto mining code keeps running in the background, often unsuspected by the owner, to mine virtual cash for the hacker. The victim mostly doesn’t try to track down the source as converse to ransomware cases where sensitive data may get compromised. The cryptomining malware does not steal/ corrupt/ encrypt any data of the owner hence detecting it becomes hard. This explains the increase in popularity of cryptojacking, like a lower risk and more profitable avenue, among hackers. Currently hackers prefer Monero and Zcash over the more popular cryptocurrency like Bitcoin because it is harder to track the illegal activity back to them.

    How it can harm your devices?

    Cryptojacking can effect devices by reducing CPU processing and effect its hardware.
    Cryptojacking can harm your device | Aspioneer

    Since mining is a very processor-intensive process it requires more power. Thus a cryptojacked device will draw more power and quickly drain its battery. Also to prevent over heating the fan of the machine needs to run faster. However, even with proper cooling, the increased heat over the long term damages the hardware of the device. And in extreme cases blows up IoT devices. Other sign will be slower performance or lags in execution since cryptojacking steals CPU processing resources.

    Cryptojacking not only harms the individual whose computer is being hacked but also effects universities, companies and other large organizations. A large number of cryptojacked machines across an institution can consume substantial amounts of electricity and damage large numbers of computers. Since cryptojacking can go undetected for long it would be difficult for an organisations employee to cope with slower computer performance. Not to mention the time/ energy spent tracking down performance issues and replacing components or systems in the hope of solving the hitch.

    How it is done?

    There are two ways hackers deploy cryptojacking on victim’s computer:

    1. To trick a user to load cryptomining code to their computer. This is done by luring victims to click on a legitimate-looking email that leads them to a webpage or a website where the mining script is embedded. The script is placed on the victim’s device and keeps running in the background.
    2. Another way used is to inject crypto mining scripts into ad pops that are then distributed to several legitimate websites who then unknowingly serve it to their visitors. No code is stored on the user’s computers.

    No matter which variant is used when the code runs the user’s device carries out complex mathematical calculations and sends the results to a server that the hacker controls.

    What all devices it affects?

    Hackers can use all kind of IOT devices for secretly mine cryptocurrency from themselves
    Cryptojacking effects all IOT devices | Aspioneer

    Cryptojacking can affect machines including PCs, servers, smart phones, laptops, tablets and even Internet of Things connected devices such as security cameras, sensors, smart TVs, smart speakers, toys, wearable’s, smart appliances, actuators etc.

    How to stop it?

    Various approaches can be employed by users as well as organisations to secure their devices
    Secure your devices | Aspioneer

    Organisations who are concerned their computers may have been subjected to cryptojacking can take following approaches:

    1. Cryptojacking scripts are not viruses but running an up-to-date antivirus program/end point protection can identify and block it.
    2. Users should also regularly install software updates that would block any malicious software running in the background.
    3. Installing an ad-blocking or anti-crypto mining extension on the web is another way to counter any cryptojacking code from getting accidentally downloaded on the users system.
    4. Deploying a network monitoring solution to prevent or detect a number of systems affected by cryptomining malware.
    5. Maintaining up-to-date browser extension and web filtering tools which would block users (employees in an organisation) from reaching web pages loaded with cryptojacking script.
    6. Monitoring your own websites for file changes on a web server or website themselves which may contain hidden crypto-mining code.
    7. Technical solutions can sometimes fail to incorporate cryptojacking-employee training can help users to have beforehand knowledge about the malware.

    Crypto-minor hackers constantly keep changing their techniques to avoid detection. At Aspioneers, we advice businesses to beware of this new IoT security threat and constantly take step to protect their systems.

    CRISPR: Can we create new human-made species?

    Gene-editing technology used to fit entire genome of yeast on a single large chromosome.

    Brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) normally has 16 chromosomes. In the latest study published in Nature, a group of Chinese scientists successfully fitted all the genetic material on a single large chromosome. This was done along with deletion of some unnecessary genes (19). Other than reduced asexual reproduction no other deleterious effect was witnessed on the new man-made yeast specie.

    The single strain chromosome is the result of extreme genetic surgery performed by this group of scientists using CRISPR gene-editing tool. Using the technology scientists first removed the telomeres (caps that protect the end of chromosomes from degrading) and simultaneously removed centromere (button that joins two chromosomes strands together) of one of the two chromosomes. Followed by fusing the chromosomes end to end, one by one. Finally adding all other chromosomes successively in the similar fashion. During the process each addition of chromosome lead to reduction of chromosome number until a single large chromosome was obtained. The super chromosome (one) so produced was identical to the normal yeast chromosomes (16) except of the fact that here all the genetic material was condensed on one long chromosome.

    Gene-editing technology used to fit entire genome of yeast on a single large chromosome.
    Single chromosome yeast prepared using CRISPR technology | Aspioneer

    The paper also said that Jef Boeke, a geneticist at New York University, and his team submitted their outcome for similar research. Boeke’s team also used CRISPR to remove telomeres and centromere and relied on yeasts natural DNA repair mechanism. They ended up with a yeast strain that had two extra-long chromosomes, but they could not get the pair to fuse into one. Possible explanation can be removal of 19 repetitive stretches of DNA, by Qin and his team, which might have interfered with the mechanism that cells use to fuse two chromosomes into one.

    Both the study suggests the role of DNA-sequence changes in creating new species. As the new single chromosome yeast strain produced shows similar biological function like cell growth, development, assimilation like normal 16 chromosome yeast. Also the new yeast strain can mate with each other but not its parent yeast from which it was made.

    Beyond the current finding, the study is also important in understanding the function of telomeres. Earlier research found that the length of telomeres is related to early aging, the formation of tumors, and other diseases. Telomeres shorten as a cell splits, but if telomeres cannot shorten anymore, the cell dies.

    Again the study will help in studying fundamental concepts in chromosome biology, including replication, recombination and segregation. Though the discovery gives an insight to some of the answers it also raises fundamental questions like why the number of chromosomes that eukaryotes have varies wildly but seems to have no correlation with the amount of genetic information they possess. Why does every organism has a specific set of chromosomes? In fact why cells have chromosomes at all? With only one chromosome and two telomeres, it will be easier to find the patterns.

    The work is also a demonstration how “large-scale genome engineering” can be done to create “new man-made species”.

    Would CRISPR technology be a prime in creating man-made species of future?

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