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Smart dust for making smarter decisions

Imagine if you didn’t have a nervous system.  Your body would have no way of regulating any of its other systems.  It wouldn’t know if it was too hot or too cold.  It couldn’t register dangers and harmful conditions.  Every aspect of the environment would be shut off to it.  In short, without a nervous system, you wouldn’t survive very long.

The fact is, in order to know how to respond to conditions you need to know what those conditions are.  This is some of the thinking behind “smart dust” – very small, very cheap networked sensors for measuring all kinds of different aspects of our environment. It’s also the idea behind HP’s “Central Nervous System for the Earth” project or CeNSE.  By developing sensors that can detect motion, vibration, light, temperature, air pressure, air flow and humidity, HP hopes to see them deployed throughout the environment.  These will be able to keep watch over the structural integrity of buildings, bridges and other infrastructure.  Chemical sensors will be able to detect dangerous conditions in our air, food and water.  They’ll eventually be capable of alerting us in the event of a terrorist attack using biological agents.  In short, they’ll be our eyes, ears, noses and much more.  They’ll become a new kind of nervous system.

This would be tremendously useful for monitoring manmade structures.  A US DOT 2008 survey of over 600,00 bridges found nearly 27% to be structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.  There is simply no way we have a sufficient number of trained people to adequately monitor all of these.  And that’s only the bridges.  A system of inexpensive sensors that can watch for excessive vibration levels and structural deformity in order to avoid catastrophic collapse will be money very well spent.

Obviously, the environment already has its own kind of feedback loops through which it adapts to changing conditions.  But humanity has imposed itself so thoroughly onto the environment that we need better ways of gauging our effect on it.  Hopefully, this kind of data will allow us to make better, more informed decisions about mitigating environmental impact.  Certainly, this would be preferable to making knee-jerk, expensive, politically feel-good decisions that often do more harm than good.  (e.g., subsidizing the conversion of food crops to ethanol crops and thereby exacerbating food shortages in parts of the world.)

Obviously, there will be downsides to this kind of technology, most notably in terms of its potential use in surveillance.  As with most technological developments, the answer is not in trying to prohibit it but to adapt our laws and institutions to deal with our changing world.  A world we will be knowing much more about, very shortly.

Printable electronics

Xerox silver ink is a breakthrough for printable electronics
Xerox silver ink is a breakthrough for printable electronics

Xerox announced this week they’ve developed several breakthroughs in the printing of low-cost electronic circuits. Most notably, this includes their development of a silver-based conductor ink and significant improvements to their previously-developed semi-conductor ink. These advances will make circuits possible on a wide range of materials, including plastics, film and textiles. The process is scalable so it could be used to create everything from low-cost miniature circuits to large video displays. Because the new silver ink can be delivered at sufficiently low temperatures (140°C), it won’t melt plastics, which was a previous obstacle. Finally, the process uses ink-jet technology and doesn’t require clean room facilities such as those needed for silicon chip manufacturing.

Xerox has already begun aggressively marketing the new technology which I believe will make a significant impact, both in established industries and in entirely new uses. The ability to print on fabrics should make wearable electronics really start to take off. Custom large-scale, flexible video screens and signage will become feasible. Sensors capable of detecting all manner of airborne pathogens and toxins will eventually become widespread.

Given the relatively inexpensive setup costs this will bring about in time, I’d expect a significant open source movement to build around printable electronics. Not only will this yield all sorts of innovations, but it will eventually make many consumer devices more affordable. Think RepRap for electronics.

But to me, by far and away the most exciting aspect of this breakthrough is the promise of low-cost RFID tags and sensors. Once these are in widespread use, every item in a warehouse, every book in a store, every piece of furniture in a home will be able to convey information about its location and state. Your refrigerator will be able to poll its contents, generating a shopping list or identifying items past their use-by-date. The possessions in your house could be easily inventoried and recorded for insurance purposes, in case of theft or fire. Misplaced items could be located in an instant.

In a word, everything in our environment would become more intelligent. And that’s only the beginning. Wireless communication to a central server or internet services could allow a failing device to arrange it’s own repair. (Obviously, with over-ride options by the owner.) Sensors along roads and buildings could assist in everything from collision avoidance to giving directions to tourists. Gradually, additional features and processing would be added to each device, creating an ecosystem of interacting, inter-communicating electronics.

Of course, there will no doubt be considerable privacy and security issues to contend with, not to mention all kinds of new scams involving counterfeit RFID tags, false information, misdirection and so forth. But to be honest, I don’t see us foregoing the functional and marketable benefits because of such concerns. We’ll just have to build methods and measures and legislation to deal with the possible downsides of the technology. Because in the end, smarter really is better.

Science literacy

I’m not the first to say it, but we could certainly stand to have a little more science literacy in this country.  In almost all countries, actually.  It’s not that everyone needs to understand thermodynamics or be able to calculate a Fibonacci sequence.  But as our world and our devices grow in complexity, there are certain basic tools we could all use to make our lives better, safer and more financially secure.

Vaccinations save lives
Vaccinations save lives

The recent death of a teenage girl in Coventry, England following her vaccination for human papillomavirus (HPV) is an prime example of this.  Immediately following the girl’s death, the media jumped on the story, reporting it in such a way that it created a considerable and unnecessary scare.  Though the cause of death was in fact an unrelated tumor, it was days before this information was available to the public.  While the young girl’s death was tragic, it would be so much more tragic if hundreds of others lost their lives because they didn’t receive this vaccination.  HPV is recognized as the major cause of cervical cancer.  Worldwide, there are over half a million new cases of cervical cancer annually resulting in over a quarter million deaths each year.  Yet it only takes a small number of serious adverse reactions to sway a large portion of the public because they don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation.

In the US, 24 million doses of HPV vaccine have been given in the last four years with a little under a thousand reports of serious adverse reactions.  While some people may see this as a large number of reactions, this amounts to four thousandths of a percent!  Given any sufficiently large group, it’s inevitable that something will occur to a small subset – they’ll get a cold or be in an auto accident or win the lottery that day.  It’s only correlation.  The two events are not linked.

Our minds are structured to want to spot patterns in the world around us.  But as the world grows more complex, it’s getting harder to simply intuit those patterns correctly.  That’s one reason why people believe in wild conspiracies or that a particular number or color or talisman is lucky for them.  But with a little better grounding in science, people could make much better decisions.  A little introductory physics will convince you that tailgating is a really bad idea, no matter how advanced your braking system.  A quick cost-benefit analysis will show that three seconds of seatbelt-fastening every single car trip beats taking the chance of being one of the twenty thousand that die each year because they didn’t.  Exposure to basic probability will show why those trips to the casino are a lousy investment.  Knowing something about how polls, surveys and studies are performed will show that the methodology used greatly affects their accuracy and usefulness.  (Unless your idea of usefulness is misinformation.)

As technological progress accelerates, it’s only going to become increasingly difficult to navigate through life successfully without these basic tools of science.  Without them, many of us will increase our chances of being exposed to preventable health risks, of being needlessly scammed and taken advantage of, and even of dying an unnecessary death.  And that’s a tragedy.

Future of intelligence article

“Get Smart”, my new article about the future of intelligence is out in this month’s Mensa Bulletin

The domain of sapient entities may one day encompass not only humans, but transhumans, machine intelligences, augmented animals, distributed networks, group minds, even uploaded personalities.  If so, our definition of what is intelligent and sentient would need to change, along with the legal and social institutions under which we’d coexist.  There can be little doubt that it would be a very strange and different world – a world in which new forms of intelligence appear much more rapidly than has ever occurred in the past.

Originally titled “Evolution, Technology and the Future of Intelligence”, the Bulletin decided to go with the snappier “Get Smart”, presumably unaware of Jamais Cascio’s Atlantic Monthly article of the same name from two months before.  I’ll try to include a link to the full article in the near future.

WorldFuture looks ahead

Mark Twain once wrote “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The same might be said about the future – with one significant exception: I don’t think people are talking about it nearly enough.

“But what about the energy crisis?”, comes the imagined reply. “What about global warming? What about the water shortages that are impacting significant parts of the world? Surely that shows we’re looking ahead to the future?”

No, it doesn’t.

Each of these examples cites a present-day response to a problem that could have been anticipated and acted upon decades ago. The information was available, the technology was feasible. What was lacking was the will to look beyond present-day motivations and the very immediate future in order to alter the way our actions affect the world.

WorldFuture 2008 conference
WorldFuture 2008 conference

Of course, there are some people who do want to look ahead. In July, over 1,000 futurists from nearly forty countries attended WorldFuture 2008 in Washington, DC. During this annual five-day conference of the World Future Society, attendees took part in courses, presentations, debates and discussions addressing future economic, educational, political, social and technological trends. It was an exciting event, full of ideas, inspiration and hope.

These futurists recognize the importance of foresight and planning in a world that is changing in profound and increasingly rapid ways. They’ll be the first to tell you that the future can’t be predicted – not in specific terms anyway. But they also know there are methods and tools to point the way. Trends can be analyzed and extrapolated; scenarios can be created to anticipate best, worst and preferred possibilities; roadmaps and models can be built; systems-wide thinking can be applied. All so that we can be better prepared for the changes and challenges that lie ahead.

If there’s one thing we can learn from this, it’s that we should all be talking more about the future. Our future. Perhaps then, and only then, we can start to do something about it.

Space elevator needs a boost

2008 Space Elevator Conference
2008 Space Elevator Conference

I’ve been attending the 2008 Space Elevator Conference being held at Microsoft’s Redmond campus this weekend.  The many talks and papers given there clearly demonstrate the tremendous dedication and creative engineering that can be found in this nascent field.

For those of you who are fuzzy on the concept, the general idea of the space elevator involves running a tether from the surface of the earth to geosynchronous orbit and beyond.  A mechanical “climber” then ascends and descends the tether, delivering payloads into orbit.  If this sounds like science fiction, that’s because until recently, it was.  Independently conceived by a Russian (Artsutanov) and an American (Pearson), the space elevator concept was popularized by the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in his 1979 novel, “The Fountains of Paradise”.  At that time, no material was light enough and strong enough to make it possible.  But with the developing field of nanotechnology and the discovery of carbon nanotubes (CNTs), a number of people have begun to take the idea more seriously.  (For the record, Clarke is also credited with originating the idea of using geosynchronous satellites as telecommunications relays back in 1945, a concept that completely revolutionized communications.)

Now while the general concepts behind the space elevator are simple, the implementation is anything but.  There are numerous technical issues to be worked out and an enormous initial investment to be made.  But the potential payoff is huge.  Currently, payloads to geosynchronous orbit constitute only about 3.5% of total launch weight and cost on the order of $5-10,000 per pound of payload.  Payload efficiency on the space elevator could be as much as 90% or more depending on the method used.  Payload envelopes wouldn’t be limited to the size and shape of cylindrical payload bays and nose cones.  Pollution from rockets would be eliminated.  Most importantly though, the cost per pound would plummet.  As a result, a new space era would be born.

Why is this important?  New materials and manufacturing methods could be developed which can only be achieved in zero-gravity.  Off-world mining would allow us to supplement our diminishing resources.  Solar power beamed from space could meet the needs of our increasingly energy-hungry world.  Whether the space elevator is built by one country or becomes a multi-national effort, it will be a huge stimulus for the world economy, particularly for the key players involved.

But it’s not going to happen without support and financial commitment.  True, NASA currently offers as much as four million dollars in prizes for the Spaceward Games, a competition designed to stimulate progress in the field.  But the planning, the engineering analyses, the proof-of-concept work is all being done on a shoestring as thin as the carbon nanotubes themselves.  Uncounted hours are being volunteered by engineers and enthusiasts the world over, people who know this will one day become a reality.  But such dedication can take the space elevator only so far.  The day is quickly coming when we’ll have to make a greater commitment if we want to participate in what will surely be one of the greatest engineering feats humankind has ever seen.

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