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Scientists develop artificial womb to help premature babies

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LONDON —  Scientists in the United States have developed a fluid-filled womb-like bag known as an extra-uterine support device that could transform care for extremely premature babies, significantly improving chances of survival.

In pre-clinical studies with lambs, the researchers were able to mimic the womb environment and the functions of the placenta, giving premature offspring a crucial opportunity to develop their lungs and other organs.

Around 30,000 babies in the United States alone are born critically early – at between 23 and 26 weeks of gestation, the researchers told reporters in a telephone briefing.

At that age, a human baby weighs little more than 500 grams, its lungs are not able to cope with air and its chances of survival are low. Death rates are up to 70 percent and those who do survive face life-long disability.

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“These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world,” said Alan Flake, a specialist surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who led the development of the new device.

His team’s aim, he said, was to develop an extra-uterine system where extremely premature babies can be suspended in fluid-filled chambers for a vital few weeks to bring them over the 28-week threshold, when their life chances are dramatically improved.

It could take up to another 10 years, but by then he hopes to have a licensed device in which babies born very prematurely are given the chance to develop in fluid-filled chambers, rather than lying in incubators being artificially ventilated.

“This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can currently do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability,” Flake said.

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“This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants.”

The team spent three years evolving their system through a series of four prototypes — beginning with a glass incubator tank and progressing to the current fluid-filled bag.

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Google to open artificial intelligence center in China

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BEIJING — Google announced Wednesday that it will open a new artificial intelligence research centre in Beijing, tapping China’s talent pool in the promising technology despite the US search giant’s exclusion from the country’s internet.

Artificial intelligence, especially machine learning, has been an area of intense focus for American tech stalwarts Google, Microsoft and Facebook, and their Chinese competitors Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu as they bid to master what many consider is the future of computing.

AI research has the potential to boost developments in self-driving cars and automated factories, translation products and facial recognition software, among others.

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Google’s move to open a Beijing office focused on fundamental research is an indication of China’s AI talent, widely seen as being neck-and-neck with the United States in research capability.

“Chinese authors contributed 43 per cent of all content in the top 100 AI journals in 2015,” Li Feifei, a researcher leading the new centre, wrote in a blog post on Google’s website.

“We’ve already hired some top experts, and will be working to build the team in the months ahead.”

Li noted that Chinese engineers formed the backbones of the winning teams in the past three ImageNet Challenges, an international AI competition to test which computing technology is better at recognising and categorising pictures.

Chinese search engine Baidu’s team was banned for a year for breaking the rules during the 2015 competition.

The country’s large population and strong mathematics and sciences education has nurtured a slew of engineering talent.

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Google operates two offices in China, with roughly half of its 600 employees working on global products, said company spokesman Taj Meadows.

Its job board in China shows about a dozen openings in the AI field. The China centre will join Google’s other research facilities outside of its Silicon Valley hub, including in New York, Toronto, London and Zurich.

Google’s search engine and many of its services are blocked by China’s Great Firewall, but internet regulators have recently allowed access to its translation product, one that has made leaps and bounds in accuracy by incorporating the company’s AI research.

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