Spectrum first began publishing an online edition in 1996. And in the quarter century since, our website has tried to serve IEEE members as well as the larger worldwide base of tech-savvy readers across the Internet. In 2020, four of Spectrum's top 10 blog posts were about COVID-19; another four were about robots. (One was about both.) Two discussed programming languages, another popular item on our site. Here we revisit five of those favorite postings from the past year, updating readers on new developments, among them promising COVID-19 tests and therapeutics, no-code programming, and an incredibly versatile robotic third leg. All of which, if the tremendous challenges of the past year offer any guidance, could be a useful survival kit for enduring whatever 2021 has in store.
COVID-19 Study: Quell the “Bradykinin Storm"
Precisely how the novel coronavirus causes COVID-19 may still be a mystery. But one year into the pandemic, it's no longer quite a mystery wrapped inside an enigma. This was the upshot of a landmark coronavirus study from July conducted by a team of American scientists using the Summit supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee. Their genetic-data mining paper, published in the journal eLife, concluded that one lesser-studied biomolecule arguably lies at the heart of how the SARS-CoV-2 virus causes COVID-19. Bradykinin is a peptide that regulates blood pressure and causes blood vessels to become permeable. The Oak Ridge study concluded that the novel coronavirus effectively hacks the body's bradykinin system, leading to a sort of molecular landslide. In so many words, a “bradykinin storm" overdilates blood vessels in the lungs, leading to fluid buildup, congestion, and difficulty breathing. And because an overabundance of bradykinin can trigger heart, kidney, neurological, and circulatory problems, the bradykinin hypothesis may lead to yet more coronavirus treatments. Daniel Jacobson, Oak Ridge chief scientist for computational systems biology, says his team's eLife study has been partly vindicated in the months since publication. Their paper highlighted a dozen compounds they said could be effective for some COVID-19 patients. Three of those drugs in particular have since proved, in early clinical trials, to show significant promise: Icatibant (a bradykinin blocker), calcifediol (a vitamin D analogue that targets a pathway related to bradykinin), and dexamethasone (a steroid that blocks signaling from bradykinin receptors). “Our focus is on getting the work out in ways that are going to help people," Jacobson says. “We're excited about these other data points that keep confirming the model." The above is an update to a blog post (2020's second most popular) that originally appeared on 2 August at spectrum.ieee.org/covidcode-aug2020
Third Leg Lends a Hand
Need an extra hand? How about an extra foot? Roboticists in Canada, from the Université de Sherbrooke, in Quebec, have been developing supernumerary robotic limbs that are designed to explore what humans can do with three arms, or even three legs. The robotic limbs are similar in weight to human limbs, and are strong and fast thanks to magnetorheological clutches that feed pressurized water through a hydrostatic transmission system. This system, coupled to a power source inside a backpack, keeps the limb's inertia low while also providing high torque. Mounted at a user's hips, a supernumerary robotic arm can do things like hold tools, pick apples, play badminton, and even smash through a wall, all while under the remote control of a nearby human. The supernumerary robotic leg is more autonomous, able to assist with several different human gaits at a brisk walk and add as much as 84 watts of power. The leg could also be used to assist with balance, acting as a sort of hands-free cane. It can even move quickly enough to prevent a fall— far more quickly than a biological leg. Adding a second robotic leg opposite the first suggests even more possibilities, including a human-robot quadruped gait, which would be a completely new kind of motion. Eventually, the researchers hope to generalize these extra robotic limbs so that a single limb could function as either an arm, a leg, or perhaps even a tail, depending on what you need it to do. Their latest work was presented in October at the 2020 International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), cosponsored by IEEE and the Robotics Society of Japan. The above is an update to a blog post (2020's fifth most popular ) that originally appeared on 4 June at spectrum.ieee.org/thirdarm-jun2020
The Hello Robot Arm Offers a Leg Up
Last summer was a challenging time to launch a new robotics company. But Hello Robot, which announced its new mobile manipulator this past July, has been working hard to provide its robot (called Stretch) to everyone who wants one. Over the last six months, Hello Robot, based in Martinez, Calif., has shipped dozens of the US $17,950 robots to customers, which have included an even mix of academia and industry. One of these early adopters of Stretch is Microsoft, which used the robot as part of a company-wide hackathon last summer. A Microsoft developer, Sidh, has cerebral palsy, and while Sidh has no trouble writing code with his toes, there are some everyday tasks—like getting a drink of water—that he regularly needs help with. Sidh started a hackathon team with Microsoft employees and interns to solve this problem with Stretch. Although most of the team knew very little about robotics, over just three days of remote work they were able to program Stretch to operate semiautonomously through voice control. Now Stretch can manipulate objects (including cups of water) at Sidh's request. It's still just a prototype, but Microsoft has already made the code open source, so that others can benefit from the work. Sidh is still working with Stretch to teach it to be even more useful. In the past, Hello Robot cofounder Charlie Kemp's robot of choice has been a $400,000, 227-kilogram robot called PR2. Stretch offers many of the same mobile manipulation capabilities. But its friendly size and much lower cost mean that people who before might not have considered buying a robot are now giving Stretch a serious look. The above is an update to a blog post (2020's sixth most popular) that originally appeared on 14 July at spectrum.ieee.org/hellorobot-jul2020
At-Home COVID-19 Test Hits Snags
When last we heard from the maverick biotech entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, he'd just invented a rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19 that was as accurate as today's best lab tests but easy enough for regular people to use in their own homes. Rothberg had pivoted one of his companies, the synthetic biology startup Homodeus, to develop a home test kit. During the first months of the pandemic, he worked with academic and clinical collaborators to test his team's designs. In March, he optimistically projected a ready date of “weeks to months." By late August, when The New Yorker published an article about his crash project, he spoke of getting the tests “out there by Thanksgiving." Unfortunately, the so-called Detect kits haven't yet made it to doctors' offices or drugstore shelves. As of press time, Rothberg hoped to receive emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late December, which would enable Homodeus to distribute the kits to health professionals. The kit could then be approved for consumers early in 2021. The Homodeus team got slowed down by their insistence on simplicity and scalability, Rothberg tells IEEE Spectrum. As they finalized the prototype, they also secured their supply chains. Once they receive FDA approval they'll be able to “deliver upwards of 10 million tests per month," Rothberg says. The above is an update to a blog post (2020's eighth most popular) that originally appeared on 13 March at spectrum.ieee.org/covidtest-mar2020
Toward a World Without Code
No-code development—building software without writing code—gained momentum in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments and organizations needed swift action for a fast-moving crisis. They turned to no-code platforms to rapidly develop and deploy essential software, including a COVID-19 management hub that allowed New York City and Washington, D.C., to deliver critical services to residents; a loan-processing system for a bank so it could receive Paycheck Protection Program applications from small businesses; and a workforce safety solution to aid the return of employees to their workplaces. Tech companies capitalized on this trend too. In June 2020, Amazon Web Services released its no-code tool, Honeycode, in beta. A month later, Microsoft launched Project Oakdale, a built-in low-code data platform for Microsoft Teams. With Project Oakdale, users can create custom data tables, apps, and bots within the chat and videoconferencing platform using Power Apps, Microsoft's no-code software. The no-code movement is also reaching the frontiers of artificial intelligence. Popular no-code machine-learning platforms include Apple's Create ML, Google's AutoML, Obviously AI, and Teachable Machine. These platforms make it easier for those with little to no coding expertise to train and deploy machine-learning models, as well as quickly categorize, extract, and analyze data. No-code development is set to go mainstream over the coming years, with the market research company Forrester predicting the emergence of hybrid teams of business users and software developers building apps together using no-code platforms. As the trends noted above take root in both the public and private sectors, there is little doubt today that—to modify an old programmer's maxim—the future increasingly will be written in no-code. The above is an update to a blog post (2020's most popular) that originally appeared on 11 March at spectrum.ieee.org/nocode-mar2020
This article appears in the January 2021 print issue as “2020's Most Popular Blog Posts."
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.
Margo Anderson is the news manager at IEEE Spectrum. She has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in astrophysics.
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.
Rina Diane Caballar is a journalist and former software engineer based in Wellington, New Zealand.