Three Scientific Breakthroughs That Will Blow Your Mind

Some of the nation's leading researchers and inventors gathered at this year’s Chicago Ideas Week to talk about everything from robotics to game-changing medical innovations.

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Although one or two talks at the Chicago Ideas Week’s “Scientific Breakthroughs” forum went just a tad over our heads—quantum DNA, anyone?—the session was jam-packed with cool, innovative concepts that could soon become part of our everyday lives. Here are three of our favorites.

Gadgets That “Live” In Your Body
“This is the future of electronics,” says John Rodgers, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gesturing to his arm. At first, it’s tough to see what he’s pointing at. Then, he turns his body to reveal what looks like a microchip, seamlessly integrated into his forearm, that can bend and stretch just like real skin. Sound creepy? Perhaps, but that same kind of technology—dubbed “bioelectronics”—is enabling a whole new world of medical monitoring, like the ability to detect oncoming seizures, and even help stop them from happening.

A Faster, Cheaper Way to Detect Cancer
Never mind that Jack Andraka is 15 years-old, and likes cracking jokes about “sneaking research papers into my high-school biology class.” Using nothing but Wikipedia, Google, and spare parts he bought at a Home Depot, the winner of Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair created a paper test strip that can detect harmful viruses and antigens based on changes in conductivity—a method that’s way more efficient than current models. “Compared with the 60-year-old diagnostic technique called enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (or ELISA),” Forbes reported earlier this year, “Andraka’s sensor is 168 times faster, 26,667 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive…This could save the lives of thousands of pancreatic cancer victims each year.”

Robots That Move Just Like We Do
“You’ve all seen robots like these,” says Dennis Hong, a robotics professor at Virginia Tech, gesturing at a screen playing clips of the giant, clomping machines that inevitably wreak havoc in movies and videogames. “But the way they move doesn’t make sense.” Not so with the robots he and his team are developing, which move much more like humans do—swinging legs to generate momentum, for example, instead of taking big, power-draining stomp-steps. One’s even smart enough to play soccer; another, agile enough to scale a rock wall. Fittingly, that one’s called the CLIMBeR. (“All our robots have cool acronyms,” Hong says. “I’ve learned that’s the best way to get funding.”) The endgame, of course, is to create the holy grail of robotics: an autonomous machine that can serve, play, search, and rescue just as well as any human.