Two portraits of Albert Einstein hang on the walls of a makeshift laboratory on Nairobi’s outskirts, inspiring a pair of self-taught Kenyan innovators who have built a bio-robotic prosthetic arm out of electronic scrap.
Cousins Moses Kiuna, 29, and David Gathu, 30, created their first prosthetic arm in 2012, after their neighbour lost a limb in an industrial accident.
But their latest invention is a significant upgrade, according to the duo.
The device uses a headset receiver to pick up brain signals and convert them to an electric current, which is then sent to a transmitter that wirelessly relays commands to the arm, prompting it into action.
It all happens in less than two seconds.
“We saw people living with disabilities go through a lot of struggles and desired to make them… (feel) far more abled,” Gathu told AFP.
Kiuna said their first prosthetic arm, custom-made for the neighbour, had “helped him operate around the house on his own”.
The high cost of prosthetics means only one out of 10 people in need are able to access them globally, with the World Health Organization warning that such exclusion adds to the burden of disability.
“We noticed that Kenya imports prosthetics which are costly,” Kiuna told AFP. “So we asked ourselves, ‘How can we solve our own problems?”
– Recycling waste –
They found the answer in junkyards.
Since high school, the pair have been scouring dumping grounds around the Kenyan capital in search of discarded gadgets that they have repurposed to create over a dozen inventions.
Although conventional education did little to feed their curiosity, with Gathu dropping out of school at 17 and Kiuna quitting college a couple of years later, their appetite for learning has not dimmed.
The shelves in the bare-bones lab next to their grandmother’s house are stacked with science books and the sheet metal walls are covered with charts detailing human anatomy or the periodic table.
“We studied neurophysiology by reading books and sitting with doctors to explain concepts to us,” Gathu said, explaining how they came up with the prosthetic arm.
It is just one of the inventions conjured up by the cousins.
When Covid-19 struck, they built a device to sterilise banknotes using infrared technology, and later, a green-energy generator that converts oxygen into electricity, aimed at tackling climate change.
– ‘Drive the future’ –
“These two are proof that Africans can make a significant contribution to technology and science as we know it,” said Mukuria Mwangi, the founder of the Jasiri Mugumo school in Nairobi, which caters to youths up to 10-years-old.
Mwangi, who regularly invites Gathu and Kiuna to mentor children at the school, told AFP that Kenya’s education system did little to encourage innovation.
“Invention is not a discipline harnessed in our schools, yet innovation is what will drive the future,” Mwangi said.
Other challenges such as a lack of funds also prevent innovation from taking centre stage in the East African nation, as reflected by the number of inventions gathering dust in Gathu and Kiuna’s lab.
The pair hope to turn their prosthetic arm and other innovations into a thriving business.
“We have many other ideas that we can make viable commercially, but we lack finances and support,” Gathu said.
Amazon empowers Alexa with generative AI
Amazon’s popular Alexa digital assistant is about to be supercharged with the powers of generative artificial intelligence, the company said on Wednesday, as the tech giant steps into the AI race dominated by ChatGPT, Google and Microsoft.
Voice assistants like Alexa or Apple’s Siri are often designated as perfect candidates to have their sometimes-glitchy and robot-like technology streamlined with capabilities of generative AI.
Generative AI, such as used in the ChatGPT chatbot, delivers content as complex as a poem or scholarly essay in just seconds, and Amazon’s goal is that Alexa could do that and even more with verbal commands from a user’s living room or kitchen.
At an event at the company’s offices near Washington, the company said that an English-language version of Alexa AI would be made available as an opt-in on all its devices in the United States in the coming months.
“It’s going to take some time to integrate these technologies into the surface area that is Alexa. But I am super optimistic that we are off to a wonderful an excellent start,” said Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services.
With the change, Alexa will be able to converse with a more personable style and drop its robotic tone, the company said.
Alexa would also tap into real-time information and create the semblance of a personal rapport with users that would include an awareness of their habits or favorite sports teams.
“For example, you could say ‘Alexa every morning at 8 am turn on the coffee machine, open the blinds, dim the lights in the study and play my morning news,’ and boom — it creates the routine,” Limp said.
While widely plugged as the next stage of consumer technology, in the past decade Alexa and its connected smart home devices have yet to become big money spinners for Amazon, with Google and Apple also struggling to make traction in the space.
Daniel Rausch, the executive in charge of Alexa, told reporters that the AI would put an extra emphasis on accuracy and that its efforts in AI were not comparable with chatbots that have been shown to output inaccuracies or go off the rails.
“Accuracy in smart home means yes, we did turn on the right light, we did lock the right door, we are sure about the state of the security system,” he said.
At the launch event, Amazon also introduced its latest Echo 8 smart home hub as well as a soundbar for televisions and new AI-fueled search capabilities on its FireTV service.
Limp, Amazon’s longtime device chief, is retiring after more than a decade in the role amid reports he will be replaced by a senior executive from Microsoft.
Biden launches ‘climate corps’ for green jobs
US President Joe Biden launched a new “Climate Corps” on Wednesday to help young people get green jobs, as he tries to sell voters on his plans for a clean energy economy.
“Today, we are mobilizing the next generation of clean energy, conservation, and climate resilience workers,” Biden said on X, formerly Twitter.
Biden added that the scheme would train over 20,000 young people to get “good-paying jobs” after they complete their paid training.
The US president has made the economy a key plank of his bid for reelection in 2024, particularly through his signature Inflation Reduction Act.
The ambitious climate law aims to speed the US transition to clean energy, rebuild US industry and boost social justice.
Biden, who is in New York for the UN General Assembly, warned the world body yesterday that the climate crisis poses an existential threat to “all of humanity.”
US climate activists, who have long called for the initiative, gave it a mixed reception.
One group, Evergreen, said it was a “big step toward delivering good jobs for young people in the booming clean energy economy.”
But Keanu Arpels-Josiah, an organizer of an anti-fossil fuels march in New York last Sunday, said it was “not enough.”
The Climate Corps’ name has echoes of the US Peace Corps which has sent volunteers around the world for decades.
US media said however that it was more closely modelled on a scheme during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to get America out of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The Civilian Conservation Corps set around a quarter of a million unemployed young men to work on a huge program of projects like reforestation and dam-building.
Tire maker honored for tackling electric car pollution
Electric cars are widely hailed as the future of transport, but even though they eliminate the issue of fuel emissions from tailpipes, the problem of particle pollution as a result of tire wear hasn’t been resolved.
A British company selected as a finalist for Prince William’s Earthshot Prize now promises more durable tires that increase vehicle range and decrease the emission of toxic chemicals.
“We have here a very harmful and hidden pollution,” Gunnlaugur Erlendsson, founder and CEO of ENSO, which caters specifically to electric vehicles, told AFP. “We’re exposed to it whenever we breathe.”
Because of decades of regulations that brought about improvements to internal combustion engines, tire and brake wear are today responsible for significantly more small particle pollution than vehicle exhausts, studies show.
Tire wear particles are also microplastics, with emerging evidence linking them to a range of impacts on heart and lung health, as well as cancers, in addition to widespread environmental harm.
For example, as much as 28 percent of the microplastics that reach the ocean comes from tire wear.
Some research suggests that electric cars might be worse offenders than gasoline and diesel powered vehicles on this front.
A study carried out by the research company Emissions Analytics this year found that the Tesla Model Y was responsible for 26 percent more emissions than the similar-sized hybrid Kia Niro. The report’s authors said the electric car’s heavier weight and harder acceleration was to blame.
Erlendsson disagrees with the idea that electric cars are uniquely problematic — rather, the tire pollution problem has grown as vehicles become heavier, with the US market in particular trending towards large SUVs.
By using higher-grade raw materials combined with better engineering, ENSO has been able to improve its tires in a market that hasn’t prioritized durability.
During real-world trials organized by Transport for London, the company’s tires were shown to reduce particulate emissions by 35 percent and increase driving range by 10 percent.
“The energy saving we deliver is a direct carbon reduction because we still don’t live in a world where electricity comes only from non-carbon sources,” said Erlendsson.
By contrast, the wider industry is focused on cost-saving, making tires that don’t last as long and need to be replaced faster, in order to boost sales. Researchers in the field of tire pollution are demanding stricter regulation, a call Erlendsson agrees with.
All that said, there are limits, he stressed. “We won’t make tires last forever, but we can severely reduce the pollution that comes off them,” he said.
“But of course, if people don’t want to be generating tire pollution, they shouldn’t be driving.”
ENSO was among 15 Earthshot Finalists honored on Tuesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
They are now in the running to receive one of five one million pound prizes ($1.24 million) awarded at a ceremony in Singapore later this year.
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