Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies Awards 2021

BY Fast Company South Africa 2 MINUTE READ

Nominations for the 2021 Fast Company (SA) Most Innovative Companies Awards are in and have officially closed. Excitement for the event is mounting, as the team now reviews all the entrants and decides which companies are deserving of the prestigious MIC awards. 

Since 2008, Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies edition has been the definitive source for recognising the organisations that are transforming industries and shaping societies. 

In 2020, Fast Company South Africa recognised more than 30 organisations in South Africa with this prestigious honour.

This year, Fast Company has taken its Most Innovative Companies edition a giant leap forward, introducing a virtual and hybrid awards session to coincide with the publication of its Most Innovative Companies magazine.

The virtual session will bring together South African innovators and innovative companies under one virtual roof to map out how innovation can enable South Africa to build a new economy.

The conference will serve as a platform for companies to share how their innovative solutions can enable the new normal. The Fast Company community in South Africa will also get an opportunity to listen and watch some of the countries leading innovators sharing their thinking behind some of SA’s latest innovations.

The virtual awards session will celebrate the cream of the crop of companies innovating across a range of sectors. Twenty-five finalists will be chosen from the nominations and five companies will be awarded as the most innovative. 

Whether you’re a fintech institution that’s developed an easy, cashless way to pay, an app development company that’s introduced an innovative solution to a common challenge, or a start-up trying to make life a little easier for South Africans, companies from all sectors are up for the prize.

To find out more about the inaugural conference and awards gala, visit the Fast Company (SA) website here

The event will take place virtually on 14 April 2021. Keep an eye out on our website and social media for notices about speakers, judges, prizes, ticket information, and more. 


This tech startup has found a way to make peanuts less dangerous – and gluten-free bread more tasty

BY Fast Company South Africa 2 MINUTE READ

No one likes gluten-free bread. It often feels stale or is too cracker-like. People will make do with gluten-free baked goods if they must, but the springiness of wheat is sorely absent.

“It’s never as crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside as regular bread,” says Anat Binur, CEO and founder of a startup called Ukko. The company is working on non-allergenic wheat for those with wheat allergies, gluten intolerances, or celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes gluten to wreak havoc on the small intestine. It wants to create a bevy of foods that anyone can eat—and enjoy—regardless of allergies.

Ukko is also working on a line of therapeutics that will help people get over food sensitivities, including the 6.1 million Americans who are allergic to peanuts. The startup recently raised $40 million. Bayer’s venture capital arm led the round.

While celiac disease affects only 1% of the U.S. population, a growing number of people are affected by non-celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that roughly 1 in 13 kids have some kind of food allergy.

Ukko is the Finnish god of thunder. He is believed to control rainfall and good harvest. The name gives the company the crunchy flair of The Moosewood Cookbook, but the work it’s doing is very much of the future. Ukko, the company, uses artificial intelligence to figure out which proteins in gluten are triggering the immune system. Then it uses CRISPR Cas-9, a genetic editing technique, to remove the problem.

“We will end up having a gluten that is functional and wonderful, but doesn’t trigger the immune system,” says Binur.

The idea of editing out problematic proteins in foods is still new. Researchers at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands first started publishing on the concept in 2019. The scientists removed an entire family of proteins in order to prevent allergic reaction. They also laid out methods for testing whether the edited wheat truly is safe for people with celiac disease. Binur says Ukko’s approach is different in that it’s excising out a much smaller target.
The company also wants to extend this concept into the world of therapeutics. The main method for treating a peanut allergy, aside from avoidance, is to introduce tiny amounts of peanut into the diet and grow exposure over time. It essentially desensitizes the body to peanuts. Last year the Food and Drug Administration approved the first peanut allergy powder. Ukko wants to develop a similar therapeutic, but with the immune system offending protein edited out. The result would be a peanut allergy pill that has much lower risk of causing an allergic reaction.
Article originally published on fastcompany.com.

WhatsApp has added a new security feature which they claim protects your messages a little more

BY Fast Company South Africa 2 MINUTE READ

The beleaguered WhatsApp has just debuted a new feature to its WhatsApp Web and Desktop apps that adds an extra layer of protection to your messages. WhatsApp Web and WhatsApp Desktop are the web-based and Mac and PC desktop apps that allow you to access your WhatsApp account on your computer instead of just your phone.

Both apps are handy as, if you’re having a long WhatsApp text conversation, it’s generally much easier to type it out using your computer’s keyboard than your smartphone’s touch screen. In order for a user to link their WhatsApp account from their mobile app to the web or desktop apps, they have previously only had to scan a QR code via the WhatsApp mobile app.

The drawback to this has always been that anyone with access to your mobile phone (such as someone in your house or workplace) could sync all your WhatsApp messages to the WhatsApp Web and Desktop apps on their own computer. But not anymore. That’s because WhatsApp has announced it’s added a new security feature that will require biometric authentication from the user when setting up a new web or desktop sync.

Now when you sync your WhatsApp mobile app with the desktop or web app you’ll be asked to authenticate with the biometrics built into your smartphone (such as Face ID on an iPhone or a fingerprint on your Android device) before being allowed to scan the QR code linking your device. As WhatsApp notes, “this will limit the chance that a housemate or officemate (when we have those again) can link devices to your WhatsApp account without you.”

While not a major new feature, it’s a nice extra layer of security to keep your messages that much safer. If you’ve never used WhatsApp desktop sync capabilities before, you can follow WhatsApp’s full instructions to set the feature up.

Article originally published on fastcompany.com.


Researchers have found these 5 expressions make your email sound whiny

BY Fast Company South Africa 3 MINUTE READ

No one likes a downer–especially not by email, a format that makes people feel disconnected from each other to begin with. Whether you’re communicating with a boss, a colleague, or a customer, it’s always wise to be positive. Most people know that. But our heads are often full of thoughts, worries, and concerns at work, which makes it easy to inadvertently express those things, particularly when you’re dashing off an email on the fly.

In fact, researchers have found that we’re actually primed to read emails more negatively than they’re meant, so chances are yours sound whinier than you intended. The good news? All it takes is pruning out these five expressions to instantly improve the tone of your emails.

Avoid this phrase at all costs. There are times when it’s tempting to write, “I’m afraid we have chosen another candidate for the job,” or, “I’m afraid your work has not been at the level I’ve expected.” After all, you’re just trying to warn the other person before you give unpleasant news. But those words have an emotional undercurrent. Instead of softening the blow, they actually make it sound worse.

It’s always better to present the facts in a straightforward way. Simply write, “We have chosen another candidate” or, “Your work has not been at the level I would have expected.” The person you’re writing to will be less likely to react emotionally and more likely to discuss the situation objectively.

This word signals a sense of regret or apology. For example: “Unfortunately, I cannot be your keynote speaker,” or, “Unfortunately, our meeting has to be rescheduled since I have another commitment.” Just like “I’m afraid,” this phrase injects an unnecessary negative emotion that makes the situation appear worse than it really is.

Why not use a positive? In the first example, you might write, “I’m delighted that you invited me to be your keynote speaker. I’ll be in Mexico that month but would love to speak another time.” Or in the second example, say, “I’ll need to change the timing of our meeting. If 2 p.m. works for you, that would be great for me as well.” These responses are reinforcing, rather than filled with regret.

This is the “cover your butt” response to a problem. It’s defensive, suggesting that the writer takes no responsibility for what’s happened. You can bet that your recipient will react irritably.

Never write an email phrased to prove you didn’t do anything wrong; prove you can get it right. This means showing the recipient what you’ll do for them, how you can solve a problem, when they can expect things to be fixed. Remember: It’s not about you; it’s about the person receiving your message.

This expression is like a rap on the knuckles for an infraction. A manager might tell a staff member, “It concerns me that you can’t get along with your teammates.” Worse, it actually conveys two layers of criticism: Not only is the employee’s action wrong, but the boss is upset by it.

It’s always better to avoid this emotional overload–especially by email. Instead, just write, “I’ve observed that you have some challenges interacting with your teammates.” This is an open-ended message that invites a discussion, rather than a conflict.

Many people use this expression at the end of their emails. I’ve asked people why, and most of the time their answer is, “It sounds polite.” The problem is that it smacks of uncertainty. When I read an email that concludes with, “if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me,” I immediately think, “What question do I have?” or, “What question should I have?” Not only do I wonder if something is missing, but it makes me think that the writer isn’t sure of themselves, either.

Instead, close with the more positive, “I suggest we proceed with the project,” “I’ll look forward to your agreement,” or “I’ll set up the schedule for our work together.” These “presumptive closings” clear the way for your views to be well-received and the recipient to follow your recommendations.

For every negative expression, there’s a positive one that will do a better job. So do one final check to make sure that these whiny phrases are nowhere to be found before hitting “send.”


Article originally fastcompany.com

Scientists have figured out a way to produce lab-grown furniture and help reduce deforestation

BY Fast Company South Africa 2 MINUTE READ

Scientists have already figured out how to grow meat in a lab, nurturing animal cells to multiply into chicken cutlets and burger patties. Now, MIT researchers are hoping to do the same with wood, to quickly produce in a lab what would take decades to grow in nature. From there, they could even coax wood tissue to grow into fully-formed shapes—like, say, a table—in order to mitigate the environmental harm of the logging and construction industries

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the researchers detail how they grew wood-like plant tissue from cells extracted from the leaves of a zinnia plant, without soil or sunlight. “The plant cells are similar to stem cells,” says Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a principal scientist in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories and co-author of the paper. “They have the potential to be many things.”

With the ability to “tune” the plant cells into whatever shape they decide, Ashley Beckwith, mechanical engineering PhD student and the paper’s lead author, says they could use this process to grow more efficient materials. “Trees grow in tall cylindrical poles, and we rarely use tall cylindrical poles in industrial applications,” she says. “So you end up shaving off a bunch of material that you spent 20 years growing and that ends up being a waste product.” Instead, their idea is to grow structures that are more practical, like rectangular boards or eventually an entire table that doesn’t need to be assembled, which would reduce waste and potentially let land currently used for logging instead be preserved as forest.

The idea is similar to lab-grown meat (which is also called cell-cultured meat) in that the researchers are producing isolated tissues without having to grow the whole plant, just like cell-cultured meat eliminates the need to raise an entire animal. But plant cell cultures are easier to grow than animal cell cultures, Beckwith says, meaning lab-grown wood or wood products could become cost-competitive more quickly. Velásquez-García doesn’t see this process being used to grow food crops, which could also make its commercial adoption quicker since it won’t need to undergo as strict quality controls. Instead, he sees it as a solution to manufacturing everything from furniture to fibers for clothing.

The work is still in its very early stages, the researchers say. No one’s yet looking to buy a table made of zinnia. But by successfully growing those cells, they say they’ve provided a starting point to a new way of producing biomaterials. It’s a process that eventually could help accelerate our shift away from plastics and other materials that end up in landfill toward materials that can biodegrade. Velásquez-García points to a Japanese startup building satellites from wood as an example. “Any product should really contemplate how it’s going to go back to the Earth,” he says. “All these technologies, like the one we’re reporting in our paper, are a step in the right direction.”


Article originally published on fastcompany.com


What’s the deal with social media app Clubhouse? And why is there so much secrecy around it?

BY Fast Company South Africa 5 MINUTE READ

When Clubhouse, a private social app, debuted in March of last year, it was hard for most people to score an invitation. Over the summer, that sense of exclusivity fueled intrigue and chatter, especially as big names in music, entertainment and tech created accounts. Even Oprah made an appearance. On the app, users hosted off-the-cuff, informal conversations where they would talk to hundreds of listeners-like a large conference call, but more fun.

A Clubhouse spokeswoman said the company never excluded journalists, but many users said the service’s rules-and its name-created a culture of exclusivity and secrecy. For the most part, people found out about particularly controversial or heated conversations after users shared audio clips from Clubhouse rooms on Twitter and elsewhere. But Clubhouse’s terms of service made it clear: Sharing what happened on Clubhouse outside of Clubhouse was against the rules.

It was a chummy sense of privacy that led to fun and whimsical moments on the app, like lullaby sessions or a Lion King reenactment. But that feeling also fostered darker conversations that have dabbled in homophobia or taken anti-Semitic turns.

Those two opposing dynamics-bringing people together, but also driving them apart-have been amplified in recent months as Clubhouse’s growth had exploded. Its founders said Sunday that the app had 2 million users, huge growth from just a few months before. This week, investors including Andreessen Horowitz valued the not-yet-one-year-old service at $1 billion. The startup raised $100 million in the round, according to Axios.

Meanwhile, it has played host to hot-topic conversations with newsmakers: The San Francisco district attorney joined a heated chat about urban crime earlier this month. And a few days later, the mayors of Miami, San Francisco and Austin, Texas all took part in a digital Clubhouse panel to talk up their cities-and pitch them as candidates for techie pandemic relocations-to thousands of assembled listeners.

None of these events were open to the public. But they also weren’t exactly private. Over the past few months, as Clubhouse’s profile has grown, more reporters and editors have found their way onto the app. Some of them have chronicled the increasingly high-stakes discussions on the platform-as well as the young company’s controversies over harassment and content moderation.

So far, Szalavitz said, she and her friends have brought several hundred journalists onto Clubhouse, who in turn have helped sign up hundreds more. At the beginning of this year, she estimated that at least 1,800 have joined the app, up from around 275, by her count, in October.

Szalavitz, who also spent time teaching social design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, said she had seen that Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. tended to punish bad actors “with enough attention from the media.” Her thinking about Clubhouse was simple: “The way to make changes was to bring public attention to them,” she said.

At first, Szalavitz had resisted joining Clubhouse. She’d read that New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz, who had written about the company in May and was one of the few reporters on the platform, had been harassed on the app after VCs complained about critical news coverage. But as the pandemic wore on, Szalavitz and her fiancé Sonaar Luthra started to feel more lonely at their home in Los Angeles. Their friends were joining Clubhouse. So in the fall, they gave it a try.

Immediately, Szalavitz said, she felt more connected to her friends and was also striking up conversations with people in her extended network. Hearing someone’s voice without seeing their face was more fun and less awkward than a Zoom gathering. She and Luthra started hosting daily rooms on Clubhouse for people who were phone banking for then U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden-people could drop in and ask questions about how to get involved or share their experiences.

But Szalavitz also noticed that the app seemed designed to limit the spread of conversations outside its digital walls. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, the app leaves no record of what’s said. Clubhouse’s terms of service forbid recording the audio of a room unless everyone there agrees to it-nearly impossible with chatrooms that can hold thousands of people. And in order to get invitations to give out to friends, users have to share their contact list with the company, something many journalists, wary of exposing their sources, won’t do. “This is a platform that was designed to evade accountability,” Szalavitz said.

As she spent more time on the app, she saw that some divisive figures were active on Clubhouse, such as Curtis Yarvin, a blogger whose ideas have inspired alt-right leaders. And she was frustrated when the company didn’t follow up with decisive action after she and others brought up their concerns about moderation during Clubhouse’s virtual “town halls” with its founders.

A Clubhouse spokeswoman said racism, hate speech and abuse are prohibited on the app, and that moderation has always been a top priority. She cited moderation features including blocking specific users and the ability to flag rooms for further investigation.

At first, Szalavitz was willing to wait to see what policies Clubhouse’s team might add on their own. But her attitude changed after Yom Kippur, just a few weeks after she joined the app. That day, she hosted an all-day chatroom about atonement. Later that night, another discussion room sprang up called “Anti-Semitism and Black Culture,” in which the speakers trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes. Jewish listeners pointed out that some of the speakers’ claims were extra painful given the conversation was taking place on the holiest day of the year. Bloomberg News and other outlets reported on the details of the conversation, but Szalavitz knew that it could have easily slipped by without being discussed publicly. She believed the app needed more accountability, and she felt she couldn’t count on it coming from Clubhouse itself.

So she started sending reporters direct messages on Twitter, offering them Clubhouse invitations, and-with her fiancé Luthra’s help-explaining the app over the phone to the new recruits, one or two at a time. One of the reporters Szalavitz brought in, Tatiana Walk-Morris, wrote a well-read article in Vanity Fair about how the app’s design allowed racist and Islamophobic ideas to proliferate, even from well-known users.

The media attention has raised a question over how much privacy it’s reasonable to expect on an invitation-only app, especially when speakers are prominent. “I get that [Clubhouse’s founders] want it to be more intimate and for people to speak more freely and honestly,” Walk-Morris said. “But it seems to be creating confusion between who is a public figure and who isn’t.”

Szalavitz isn’t sure whether her invitations will actually lead to tangible results beyond the occasional news story about Clubhouse. She wonders whether she’s achieving her goal or the opposite of it. “Can journalism address this, or is it compounding it?” she said. “Did I serve as their unpaid person bringing them more PR?”

It’s hard to know how to pressure a fledgling startup like Clubhouse to make changes, said Leigh Honeywell, the chief executive officer of Tall Poppy, a firm that helps employers protect their workers from online harassment. “They don’t have advertisers, they haven’t started monetizing yet, they have a giant pile of money,” she said. But Honeywell, who is also a friend of Szalavitz, said that regardless of whether the growing presence of reporters on Clubhouse brings about policy changes, it should give people a better sense of the conversations happening on a platform frequented by some of the biggest names in tech, and increasingly, politics and media.

“The more journalists that are there to see this, the less likely they are to be able to allow it,” Szalavitz said of the app’s most controversial speech. “I’ve never encountered a more addictive or more radicalizing app-or one that fosters more instant intimacy.”

Author: Bloomberg. Article originally published on iol.co.za.

Here’s how to let your intuition guide you in the workplace

BY Fast Company South Africa 3 MINUTE READ

In an age of information overload and overwhelm, intuition is the key to discernment. Intuition is our sense of deep knowing and our natural ability to see reality in a clear, uncompromised way.

Intuitive listening helps us process everyday information. Whether we’re chatting with colleagues, skimming news reports, reviewing job applications, or listening to presentations, intuitive listening is a filter that extracts the signals from the noise.

Many of us use it without even recognizing that we are accessing our intuition. We don’t need tools or complex processes to activate our intuitive abilities, nor do we need to enter altered states of consciousness. Instead, we need more awareness about how intuition is already manifesting in the body, as well as the capacity to see past the distorted lenses of our personal opinions and feelings.

We can essentially breeze through cumbersome messages by devoting more attention to the subtle visceral reactions that take place in the body—the physical “first impressions” that arise when we encounter nuggets of meaningful and substantive information:

  • It awakens us. Meaningful and substantive information causes us to perk up with excitement. Our eyes widen and we take in a sudden deep breath as if wanting to inhale something that feels nourishing.
  • It has a palpable richness. Meaningful and substantive information seems to carry more weight. It feels yummy. We may find ourselves wanting to highlight it, repeat it, or commit it to memory.
  • It unblocks us. Meaningful and substantive information causes us to rethink a stale problem in a new light and helps us move forward where we were previously stuck.
  • It elicits an urge to move. Meaningful and substantive information energizes us and ignites our creative impulse. It feels like a building block for a new perspective, idea, or project.

Even though intuitive listening is a natural ability, it still requires practice to fully activate within us. This means spending more time being focused on the body and unlearning a few dysfunctional listening habits.

A hyperactive mental state interferes with intuitive listening. Busy brains are programmed to hear mounds of blah, whereas intuitive ears can catch what is small but valuable. Watch out for the tendency to overconsume information, which happens by:

  • Spending lots of energy trying to understand every detail in a message
  • Attempting to store the entirety of a message

When we believe that intelligence is a function of how much knowledge we hold in our minds, information acquisition becomes a game of quantity over quality. We form the impossible expectation that we need to know everything to do our job well.

It’s perfectly okay, if not highly desirable, to let our visceral cues guide us toward the information that best serves us in the moment. The more we commit to listening viscerally, the more we realize that what we’ve been needing to learn all along has been hiding in plain sight.

Also, for the many of us who struggle with finding our professional passion, intuitive listening can reveal a trail of clues about what we truly want to express in this world. Over time, small nuggets morph into patterns, and then stories, about what genuinely excites us and what makes our creative voice unique.

Information overload isn’t generated only from the outside. It also comes from within. Most of us have been programmed to listen reactively, which means using our noisy emotions to guide our understanding of a message. Emotional listening happens when we:

  • Focus on the bits of information that we wish to protest
  • Form premature expectations and conclusions about a message

Often, we feel defensive when we are in listening mode. We block out aspects of a message that trigger our conscious or unconscious fears to protect the beliefs that drive those fears.

In addition to being visceral, intuitive listening is also vulnerable. When we listen vulnerably, we witness our emotional reactions to others’ words while inviting the possibility for those words to change our beliefs.

Imagine creating a mental waiting room—a space where we greet our emotions and let them be—while we allow ourselves to process new information before owning it. Does it align with our best understanding of our inner truth? Does it challenge a belief that we need to part with?

In this waiting room, we also separate our neutral observations (what was actually said or what actually occurred) from our interpretive evaluations (how we feel about our observations). When we mix our observations with our personal reactions, we form opinions. These static and conclusive judgments about the way things are can be mistaken as fact or absolute truth.

While the goal is not to disable our inclinations to have feelings or form opinions, we do want to disentangle ourselves from them. We want to achieve detachment, which is not the same as disconnection. Detachment is about loosening the semi-paralyzing grip of our emotions so that we can intuitively hear the essence of the matter.

Let’s be pickier information eaters. Intuitive listening limits our consumption of “empty data calories” that fill us up without nourishing our creative minds and hearts. By lending an ear to our intuition, we may find ourselves being more informed than ever.

Article originally published on fastcompany.com


Scientists have found a way to hack your nerves to make artificial limbs feel lighter

BY Fast Company South Africa 3 MINUTE READ

Weight is an objective measurement. If you want an object to weigh less, you need to construct it from fewer, lighter materials. It’s one of many reasons why MacBooks are made of lighter aluminum instead of more durable steel. But weight is, in part, a subjective sensation. Our expectations of how heavy something should be actually affects our perception of its weight.

Scientists studying artificial limbs at ETH Zurich have figured out an incredible method to alter a human’s perception of weight, in research just published in Current Biology. By using specific electrical impulses, fed into the residual leg nerves of an amputee, researchers were able to make a prosthesis feel nearly 25% lighter to its wearer. As a result, the amputee was more comfortable and confident wearing the prosthesis, all while being less distracted by it.

Stanisa Raspopovic, a professor at ETH Zurich, has been working on smart, nerve-connecting devices for a decade. By connecting a sensor-loaded prosthesis through two tiny electrodes under someone’s skin, scientists made it possible for amputees to actually feel their own footfalls striking the ground.

Such nerve-connected interfaces have been improving quickly in the last few years. Scientists have begun to master connections between hardware and the human nervous system, allowing them to speak the language of our own internal wiring via carefully honed algorithms. Today, mind-controlled artificial limbs with sensations the wearer can feel are increasingly part of everyday life.

“When I started as a grad student, it was trial and error. . . . Now we actually have quite a bit of knowledge of the physics behind these things and how we can feed this information into computational models for better understanding of the nerve electrode interface—from animals to more targeted simulations in humans,” Raspopovic says. “Recently it stopped being trial and error.” Linking an amputee with a nerve-connected prosthetic device used to take four days of adjustments. Now it takes about four hours.

In this newest research, Raspopovic’s team focused its efforts on one sensation in particular: the weight of the prosthesis. Even though modern prostheses are incredible, weighing as little as half a biological limb, 70% of amputees report them feeling heavier. And as a result, it can be harder for someone to accept an artificial limb as part of their body.In turn, the team developed what it calls a sensory feedback loop. What it really means is that whenever someone moved their prosthesis, researchers automatically sent a certain electrical impulse. And that impulse made the prosthesis feel lighter.

How much lighter? As much as 23% in testing. That number doesn’t just look big; it made a world of difference to how people felt while wearing the prosthesis. Some 36% of subjects reported feeling more confident, and more than half reported that the prosthesis felt more like it was actually part of their body.

But perhaps the most impressive test was when the subject was asked to walk while spelling words backward, which is a test of cognitive load (or how mentally distracting the prosthesis is). With the feedback loop in place, the subject wasn’t forced to slow down walking, and was 82% accurate in spelling words backward (as opposed to just 58% without the special feedback).

“That [result] is quite reasonable because . . . you feel more confident and less stressed,” Raspopovic says. Are there any adverse effects for the user? In a previous study, Raspopovic found no such evidence. And especially since the prosthesis is lighter than a biological limb, the sensory feedback shouldn’t lead to overexertion.

Raspopovic plans to further develop and commercialize the technology, which requires investment in more permanent, titanium implants that can live under the skin long term. “It’s a long and expensive job,” he says. “The technology is there, but we need to make a drive for funding.”

Article originally published on fastcompany.com.

Twitter launches new program asking users to fact-check Tweets

BY Fast Company South Africa < 1 MINUTE READ

Twitter has launched a new community-based pilot program called Birdwatch that allows people to identify information in Tweets they believe are misleading, and write notes that provide informative context.

In this first phase of the pilot, notes will only be visible on a separate Birdwatch site.

On this site, pilot participants can also rate the helpfulness of notes added by other contributors.

“These notes are being intentionally kept separate from Twitter for now, while we build Birdwatch and gain confidence that it produces context people find helpful and appropriate,” Twitter said in a statement late on Monday.

There will be about 1,000 users in the US to start with the Birdwatch program.

“Eventually we aim to make notes visible directly on Tweets for the global Twitter audience, when there is consensus from a broad and diverse set of contributors,” Twitter said.

“We believe this approach has the potential to respond quickly when misleading information spreads, adding context that people trust and find valuable”.

To date, Twitter has conducted more than 100 qualitative interviews with individuals across the political spectrum who use Twitter, and received broad general support for Birdwatch.

All data contributed to Birdwatch will be publicly available and downloadable.

“As we develop algorithms that power Birdwatch — such as reputation and consensus systems — we aim to publish that code publicly in the Birdwatch Guide,” the company informed.

Additionally, notes will not have an effect on the way people see Tweets or Twitter’s system recommendations.


Author: IANS


Will we be able to update the Covid vaccine if the virus mutates too much?

BY Fast Company South Africa 3 MINUTE READ

After a much more contagious coronavirus variant was discovered in the U.K. in December, scientists at Pfizer and Moderna started to study whether their newly approved vaccines would still work against it. So far, it seems likely that the vaccines will still be effective. But new variants continue to be discovered, including one in California linked to large outbreaks and one in South Africa that initial studies show may be resistant to the antibodies created by earlier strains.

The virus will continue to change. At some point, if new mutations make it possible for the virus to render the existing vaccines less effective, what would it take to bring new vaccines to market?

The first vaccines approved in the U.S., from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, both use a new vaccine technology involving messenger RNA (mRNA). The good news: It’s something that could easily be adapted if necessary.

“With an RNA vaccine, it’s very easy to switch,” says Drew Weissman, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania whose early research helped make mRNA vaccines possible. The vaccines contain the genetic instructions for cells in the body to make the spike protein, the part of the virus that invades human cells, helping trigger an immune response so the body is ready to respond if it encounters the actual virus. (Other vaccines, like the one from Johnson & Johnson that is likely to be approved soon, would also be fairly simple to update, though the process would take a few more steps—and thus more time—than the new shots that use mRNA.)

To design the COVID-19 vaccine, scientists started with the genetic sequence of the virus; changing to a new variant just means plugging in new genetic code. In January 2020, researchers at Moderna were able to finalize a new vaccine days after getting the sequence. Something similar could happen now, and manufacturing it could take around six weeks.

“The only unknown is what the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and other regulatory agencies would say,” Weissman says. Regulators might say that it’s similar to the flu vaccine, which has to change each year but doesn’t need to go through large trials again. At a recent healthcare conference, Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said that he would expect a reformulated vaccine to work without needing trials. Still, it’s also possible that regulators might require additional months of testing.

So far, new variants of the virus have shown relatively few mutations, so the original vaccines should continue to work. “The spike protein is very big—it’s like 350 amino acids, so that’s big for a protein, and what that means is that there are many, many different sites that antibodies can recognize,” Weissman says. The variant in the U.K. had only a handful of mutations.

But the number of mutations will increase as more people become infected and the virus improves its “immune evasion”—its ability to avoid the immune response. Right now, “the virus has plenty of uninfected people to grow in, so it doesn’t need to learn how to reinfect an infected person,” Weissman says.

The same is true with vaccines; few people have been vaccinated so far, so the virus hasn’t had to learn to mutate to avoid the vaccines. But that could change. The disease will be difficult to wipe out because the vaccines are being distributed slowly, particularly in the developing world.

“It’s probably going to be years before we get vaccines into sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia and South America and in other regions,” Weissman says. “What can happen is that since in those areas the virus is growing freely, it’s going to keep mutating. It’s possible that someday a series of mutations might occur that the vaccine doesn’t work well [against]. And then we have to go back and we have to re-immunize the entire world.”

It’s critical to track how the virus is changing. The U.K. variant was discovered there because the country was doing more genetic screening of the virus in patients; it turns out that the variant was also already in the U.S., but officials here didn’t realize it. “We obviously missed it,” Weissman says. “We weren’t screening for it, and we should be.”

The U.S. doesn’t have a nationwide system to track coronavirus mutations. As of early January, out of the 1.4 million positive COVID-19 tests recorded each week, only around 3,000 went through genomic sequencing. Weissman says: “We need to have people dedicated to sequencing coronavirus all over the United States to see what’s developing.”


Article originally published on fastcompany.com.