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Smart Guns Stall

Despite a new law, technology that lets only a gun's owner fire it is suffering from anemic research funds and industry intransigence

6 min read

3 September 2003—New Jersey lawmakers can be labeled optimists, catalysts or fools when it comes to so-called ”child-proof” gun technology. Bolstered by state-funded biometrics research done at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT, Newark, N.J.), lawmakers got a popular but controversial, first-of-its-kind bill signed into law in December. The bill will make user-recognition technology for handguns mandatory once it has been developed. The state’s attorney general has been given the authority—though not yet the criteria—to decide when the technology should make the leap from the lab to the shelf. But now, eight months after it went into effect, little progress has been made toward commercializing smart guns, as research suffers from a lack of funds and an unethusiastic gun industry.

Work on user-specific or personalized gun technology began with mechanism that require users to enter a PIN code or wear a transponder (a ring or wristaband) to unlock the trigger. While some researchers are still trying to refine those techniques—especially for law enforcement use—NJIT and others are looking to design a smart gun for the common consumer with bump-in-the-night defense concerns. To make a smart gun simple to use, researchers have turned to biometrics, the science and technology of measuring and statistically analyzing biological data. A few companies have looked at fingerprint scanners for handguns, so far with limited success. Though researchers at NJIT say they are still open to all ideas, they have bypassed more established techniques in favor of an experimental biometric approach they call dynamic handgrip recognition. By measuring the pressure with which a person grips a gun in the milliseconds before firing, researchers hope to find a recognizable and unique signature.

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A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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