Looking back at 2017 (2/2)

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© 2017 EPFL
© 2017 EPFL

A dazzling victory at the Solar Decathlon, artificial intelligence generating melodies, virtual reality to reduce phantom pain, a robot-fish spy, 12 million francs for a Center of Artificial Muscles... Some of the EPFL’s research and milestones that marked the year 2017.

Artificial musician builds new melodies without music theory

A deep-learning algorithm developed by the Computational Neuroscience Laboratory scientists can generate melodies that imitate a given style of music. The "Deep Artificial Composer" could one day generate convincing music for multiple instruments in real time, with applications ranging from video games to helping composers in the creative process. What’s new with the DAC is that the artificial intelligence learns to compose complete melodies without any music theory from start to finish, solely based on a large database of existing music. No human postproduction is necessary.

Smart walk assist improves rehabilitation

 Scientists from NCCR Robotics at EPFL and at the Lausanne University Hospital developed an algorithm that adjusts how a mobile harness, suspended from the ceiling, assists patients suffering from spinal cord injury or stroke. In a clinical study with over 30 patients, the scientists showed that the patients wearing the smart walking assist immediately improved their locomotor abilities, enabling them to perform activities of daily living that would not be possible without the support.

Cell senescence is regulated by innate DNA sensing

Scientists at the Lab of Andrea Ablasser have now discovered that a DNA-sensing mechanism of the innate immune system -- which is pivotal for the immediate defense against pathogens - controls cellular senescence. The work highlights potential novel anti-tumor and perhaps anti-ageing strategies.

Using compost to preserve forests in Madagascar

 A researcher at the Ecological Systems Laboratory discovered a sustainable method for improving the slash-and-burn farming practices traditionally used in Madagascar, whereby a wooded area is burned to create a field for growing crops. Slash-and-burn farming also plays a role in the island’s deforestation. The environmental engineering student spent two years conducting tests in two villages in the southwest of the country. The fruit of her labors is a socially responsible and environmentally friendly system that involves generating compost and refurbishing water wells.

First-ever EPFL Drone Days a runaway success

More than 5,000 visitors came on EPFL’s campus for three days to attend the EPFL Drone Days. Drones races certainly, but research and innovation were also in the spotlight with booths presenting the drones of the future, an exhibition of robotics, conferences, demonstrations and workshops for young and old. Switzerland’s fastest drone pilot was crowned following a spectacular race.

A drone for last-centimeter delivery

A new drone, developed at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems with funding of NCCR Robotics, uses cutting-edge technology to deliver parcels weighing up to 500 grams. The device will never get stuck in traffic, it’s programmed to avoid obstacles, and it can reach destinations on steep or uneven terrain. Its protective cage and foldable design mean that it can be carried around in a backpack and used in total safety.

Vessels that help cancers spread can also boost cancer immunotherapy

 Many cancers are known to metastasize and spread by expanding nearby lymphatic vessels. This process, lymphangiogenesis, also helps the tumor evade the patient’s own immune system, and it would be expected that inhibiting lymphangiogenesis, could enhance the efficacy of cancer immunotherapies, which are only effective in a minority of patients. But scientists from EPFL and the US found the opposite: lymphangiogenesis actually enhances the effectiveness of immunotherapy against melanoma. The study has significant implications for new types of cancer therapies.

The Swiss Team wins the Solar Decathlon competition

The Swiss team and their solar house, the NeighborHub, has won the prestigious Solar Decathlon 2017 competition in the Unites States. The Swiss Living Challenge and its multidisciplinary team - 4 schools, 250 students (44 in Denver), 150 supervisors from the professional and academic sectors, and close to 50 sponsors - received the highest award. This unique experience is not only an important victory, but also an unforgettable and educational human adventure. The Swiss team made the audacious bet of coming up with a different concept, proposing a house at the service of a community, rather than a family home. 

Defying the limits of streaming

Given the growing number of users and the widening range of devices, streaming is no longer viable in its current form owing to the substantial amount of power and storage capacity it requires. But researchers at EPFL’s Embedded Systems Laboratory have found a way to reduce those requirements without impacting the quality of the video itself. 

Virtual reality reduces phantom pain in paraplegics

Paraplegics suffer from no longer feeling their legs, but the condition is often accompanied by neuropathic pain due to the spinal cord lesion. The patient feels pain originating from the legs, even though nothing else can be felt below the lesion. Now, virtual reality may be the key to providing pain relief for this type of pain, and the solution comes from restoring a sense of touch. In breakthrough research the scientists of the Foundation Bertarelli Chair in Cognitive Neuroprosthetics show that phantom body pain can be reduced in paraplegics by creating a bodily illusion with the help of virtual reality. 

A robotic spy among the fish

 Researchers at EPFL’s Robotic Systems Laboratory have developed a miniature robot that can integrate perfectly into schools of zebrafish. It can swim with fish, learn how they communicate with each other and make them change direction or come together. Their work was carried out as part of an EU research program among six partner institutions.

Enrollment now open at the EPFL Extension School

 The EPFL Extension School is offering people with no prior university degree the chance to get an EPFL qualification. The EPFL Extension School is particularly well suited to professionals looking to study in an innovative field without having to give up their day job. It offers courses on concrete topics that are directly linked to the job market. The school’s first continuing education course, Applied Data Science - Machine Learning, offers students who successfully complete the course a Certificate of Open Studies, a new type of academic qualification for the moment offered only by EPFL.

The key to chemical transformations

Professor Xile Hu, an expert in catalysis, has been awarded the 2017 National Latsis Prize. Hu, who was born in China and came to Switzerland in 2007, founded the Laboratory of Inorganic Synthesis and Catalysis at EPFL. He is known for his innovative approach, which consists of combining the concepts and methods associated with three different types of catalysis (homogeneous, heterogeneous and enzymatic), which traditionally have remained separate. This approach has led to unprecedented understanding of fundamental catalysis and enabled the discovery of new catalysts with properties superior to those of previous materials.

How can humans keep the upper hand on artificial intelligence?

 In artificial intelligence (AI), machines carry out specific actions, observe the outcome, adapt their behavior accordingly, observe the new outcome, adapt their behavior once again, and so on, learning from this iterative process. But could this process spin out of control? Possibly. AI will always seek to avoid human intervention and create a situation where it can’t be stopped. EPFL’s Distributed Programming Laboratory researchers studying this problem have discovered a way for human operators to keep control of a group of AI robots. Their work makes a major contribution to the development of autonomous vehicles and drones, for example, so that they will be able to operate safely in numbers.

A 12 million franc donation to create a Center for Artificial Muscles

Thanks to a donation from the Werner Siemens-Foundation, EPFL will set up a Center for Artificial Muscles, collaborating initially with the University Hospital of Bern (Inselspital) and then with the University Hospital of Zurich. The first project, slated to span the next four years, will focus on developing a less invasive cardiac assistance system for treating heart failure. This prosthetic device - a ring around the aorta - will avoid the complications of hemorrhaging and thrombosis because it will not be in contact with blood. A facial-reconstruction project aimed at restoring patients’ ability to create facial expressions will follow.

EPFL teams up with partner organizations to build "digital trust"

EPFL President Martin Vetterli has unveiled plans to create the EPFL Center for Digital Trust. Eight institutional and industrial partners are already willing to join. This new research platform will aim to be a center of excellence for IT security and personal data protection in the digital era. These partner organizations will strive to identify their needs and concerns related to the digital revolution. The organizations will also contribute their own experts to the research being done at EPFL in order to develop solutions to concrete problems.