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Hands-free eating with Japanese robot

Here's why you should never bet against Japanese innovation.

At right, Japanese Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe feeds himself with the assistance of "My Spoon" during a demonstration of healthcare robots in Tokyo on Nov. 10. People with disabilities can operate a joystick with their jaw, hands, or feet to direct My Spoon to their mouth.

My Spoon has undergone rigorous research and development, which seems to have paid off. It won a Robot of the Year award in 2006.

Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

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Bravo, a malaria vaccine (maybe)

After hundreds of millions of dollars and years of work, the first malaria vaccine is ready to test. Sixteen thousand children are set to be vaccinated in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania -- African countries where malaria is a serious problem

Preliminary tests have shown that this particular vaccine -- one of several candidates funded partly through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- is 30 to 50 percent effective. Some worry those rates are too low to make a big impact.

But there is a strong case to make for any amount of effectiveness at all. Malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, is no small matter in countries where the disease is prevalent. Many experts argue that the economic impact in endemic countries contributes greatly to underdevelopment -- taking workers out of the workplace and reducing childrens' attentiveness in school.

And although malaria is a treatable condition, the best medicines are sometimes too expensive for poor victims of the disease. There is also a problem of quality: A recent study found that medicines in six African countries are either diluted or inneffective. And since there are multiple, constantly adapting strains of the disease, resistance to drugs is common. Quinine and chloroquine, used to treat malaria throughout colonial times, now have virtually no impact on the disease.

So, even if it's not 100 percent effective, a vaccine is a dream for public-health experts struggling to keep up with the changing disease that kills more than a million people every year and leaves many more sick. Here's hoping it works.

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images