Just for the tech of it: Air pollution pigeons, plastic eating bacteria, and more

Each week, DT’s own Drew Prindle tackles some of technology’s craziest topics, just for the tech of it. This week, we learn how scientists are using machine learning to fight terrorism, how the U.K. is fighting air pollution with birds, and all about a new bacteria that can eat plastic.

Earlier this week, a computer science student from Jordan unveiled a machine learning system that can reveal the identity of terrorists just by analyzing images of their fingers. Apparently, after a terrorist does something terrible like chop off someone’s head or blow up a school, it’s a common practice for the perpetrator to throw up a “V for victory” sign and have one of their buddies snap a picture. But of course, because doing this could potentially expose their identity, most terrorists tend to cover their faces with scarves or masks before they pose for the pic, which makes identifying them very difficult.

But not for long! Scientists have actually figured out a way to analyze these V for victory signs with sophisticated machine learning algorithms and use the data to identify the person in the picture. To do this, the system measures 16 different features on the terrorists’s hand — things like length between the first and second knuckle of each finger, or the width of each fingertip, and so on. When taken together, these attributes create a unique photographic fingerprint that can be used to confirm the terrorist’s identity. Check out the full story here.

Next up: Earlier this week, a British startup by the name of Plume Labs launched a strange new program that aims to fight air pollution with pigeons. Sounds weird, but here’s how it works: The company basically rounds up a bunch of pigeons and equips each bird with a little backpack that’s stuffed with GPS, air quality sensors, and wireless network connectivity. As the birds fly around the city, the sensors in the backpacks take readings on nitrogen dioxide levels in the air, and then post that information on Twitter along with the GPS coordinates that show where the sample was taken. The idea is that over time, this data will help the company create a map of London’s most polluted areas, and help city officials more effectively address the problem. Find out more in our full article.

And last but not least: In a groundbreaking and potentially revolutionary paper published this week in the journal Science, Japanese biologists announced that they have discovered a new strain of bacteria that can eat and metabolize plastic. Through some sort of evolutionary miracle, the bacterium, which is named Ideonella sakaiensis, is able to break down and digest the chemical polyethylene terephthalate — which is found in everything from plastic bottles, to polyester clothing. This is a huge breakthrough because it means that in the not-so-distant future, we’ll very likely be able to use this bacteria for industrial purposes, and potentially even use it to break down plastic and create energy.

Emerging Tech

Google’s radar-sensing tech could make any object smart

Computer scientists have shown how Google’s Soli sensor can be used to make dumb objects smart. Here's why radar-powered computing could finally make the dream of smart homes a reality.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: camera with A.I. director, robot arm assistant

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Computing

Stop dragging windows on your Mac. Here's how to use Split View to multitask

The latest iterations of MacOS offer a native Split View feature that can automatically divide screen space between two applications. Here's how to use Split View on a Mac, adjust it as needed, and how it can help out.
Computing

Keep your laptop battery in tip-top condition with these handy tips

Learn how to care for your laptop's battery, how it works, and what you can do to make sure yours last for years and retains its charge. Check out our handy guide for valuable tips, no matter what type of laptop you have.
Emerging Tech

How long is a day on Saturn? Scientists finally have an answer

The length of Saturn's day has always been a challenge to calculate because of the planet's non-solid surface and magnetic field. But now scientists have tracked vibrations in the rings to pin down a final answer.
Emerging Tech

Tiny microbots fold like origami to travel through the human body

Tiny robots modeled after bacteria could be used to deliver drugs to hard to reach areas of the human body. Scientists have developed elastic microbots that can change their shape depending on their environment.
Emerging Tech

Dinosaurs never stood a chance after asteroid impacts doubled 290M years ago

The number of asteroids pummeling Earth jumped dramatically around 290 million years ago. By looking at Moon craters, scientists discovered that d the number of asteroid impacts on both Earth and the Moon increased by two to three times.
Emerging Tech

Saturn didn’t always have rings, according to new analysis of Cassini data

Saturn's rings are younger than previously believed, according to new data gathered from the Cassini mission. The rings are certainly less than 100 million years old and perhaps as young as 10 million years old.
Emerging Tech

Water-based fuel cell converts carbon emissions to electricity

Scientists from Korea's Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology have developed a system which can continuously produce electrical energy and hydrogen by dissolving carbon dioxide in an aqueous solution.
Emerging Tech

Scientists investigate how massive stars die in dramatic hypernova events

Our Sun will gradually fade before expanding into a red giant at the end of its life. But larger mass stars undergo extreme explosive events called hypernovas when they die which outshine their entire galaxies.
Emerging Tech

Pilotless planes are on their way, but would you fly in one?

Airbus says advancements in artificial intelligence can help it toward its goal of building a plane capable of fully autonomous flight, though whether passengers can be persuaded to travel in one is another matter entirely.
Emerging Tech

‘Tech vest’ prevents Amazon workers from colliding with robot co-workers

Amazon workers at its fulfillment centers are using "tech vests" to help protect them from collisions with their robot co-workers. The robots already have obstacle avoidance sensors, but the belt offers another layer of safety.
Emerging Tech

3D printers are finally affordable. Here are the best models under $500

3D printer prices have dropped dramatically over the past few years, but just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s worth buying. Here, we’ve rounded up all the cheap 3D printers that are actually worth spending your money on.
Mobile

T-Mobile 5G rollout: Here is everything you need to know

2019 will be a huge year for T-Mobile. Not only is a merger with Sprint likely, but T-Mobile is also in the midst of building out its next-generation mobile service. Here's everything you need to know about the T-Mobile 5G rollout.