Science, technology & design

A glimmer of hope

Malaria kills between 1 million to 3 million people every year, mainly in developing countries and affects a further 300 million annually. According to the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), global warming will increase this number to around 260-320 million by the year 2080. Traditional approaches to eradicating this problem have included spraying DDT and other pesticides in affected areas but this has major risks. A new Japanese solution is to destroy the red blood cells in mosquitoes that carry the malarial parasite by implanting a protein known as CELIII, found in sea cucumbers. No red blood cells, no parasites – so the theory goes. The experiment, carried out at the Jichi Medical School, ultimately aims to release gene-engineered mosquitoes into wild populations, thus riding the world of malaria, but obviously a degree of prudence is required. Adding genes that do not naturally occur could potentially have catastrophic consequences – such as increased fertility. However, one interesting by-product of adding the protein is that the mosquitoes glow in the dark, which is quite useful if you want to kill them.
Ref: Nikkei Weekly (Japan) 20 February 2006 , ‘Glowing mosquito may prove panacea to conquer malaria’, M. Kitamatsu
Search words: malaria, mosquitoes

Digital vacuum cleaners

One of the good (or bad) things about digital data is that collecting and holding data is relatively cheap. It is also becoming increasingly easy for computer systems to cross-reference data (and databases) to reveal apparently unrelated bits of information.This activity is sometimes called data mining and is used by everyone from your local supermarket to the CIA. And thanks to the Internet, ‘digital vacuuming’ is now commonplace too. This term refers to the practice of scooping up vast amounts of data and then using mathematical and statistical models to determine content and possible linkages. The data itself can be anything from phone calls in historical or real time (US company AT&T, for example, holds the records of 1.9 trillion telephone calls) to financial transactions, e-mails and Internet site visits. Commercial applications could include the prevention of credit card fraud or the prediction of future health risks (for insurance companies) to crime investigation or counter-terrorism. Intelligence agencies spend US $40 billion each year and some of this expenditure is now going into database surveillance and data mining, and especially on tools that can analyse the social networks of suspected criminals and terrorists or determine the content (and intent) of seemingly innocent conversations, movements and transactions. And if you think that sounds like a scene from the movie The Matrix, how about a website that allows you to find images of yourself on the Internet? Riya is a new search engine (still in Beta – aren’t they all these days?) that allows you to do just this.
Ref; New York Times (US) 25 February 2006, ‘Taking spying to a higher level, agencies look for more ways to mine data’, J. Markoff See also Trendcentral (US) 3 February 2006, ‘New software makes cyberstalking even scarier’
Search words: datamining, surveillance, data, privacy, spying

Unintended consequences

The term ‘hacker’ is usually associated with criminal activity whereby computer geeks break into computer systems and websites or generally cause trouble. However, the term also refers to anyone that is a technological tinkerer or fiddler. This has been going on for hundreds of years but the technological content of everything from engine management systems to toys and consumer electronics means that there is now a real renaissance of amateur tinkerers. Publications like Make magazine suggest specific projects and the Internet links people together and offers advice (and products) for hacking into everything from iPods to TiVos. For example, a company called TurboXS offers a product called DTEC that can be connected to a Nintendo Game Boy Advance console to tune your car engine (the console becomes a tuning tool and diagnostic display). There’s also a company called eDrive that allows Toyota Prius owners to hack into their vehicle to extend the battery-only use of their automobile. Best of all perhaps is a little modification to the TiVo video recorder that allows users to operate their recorder from work over the Internet. Virtually all of these ‘upgrades’ or modifications do not meet with the approval of the products original makers but some enlightened companies are starting to realise that this is the shape of things to come. IRobot, for example, has built a data port into its Roomba robot to allow for ‘personalisation’ of their device. You could even say that What’s Next is a hack – we’re just improving the original to make it work the way we want. But, of course, if enough people hack into something they can destroy a company’s business model. For example, in the US you can buy a cheap disposable camera that is intended to be used just once and then taken back to the store for processing (thus creating two revenue streams). But of course some users have hacked the camera to remove the one-use only feature.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 11 March 2006, ‘Hackers go home’
Links: Open-source innovation, amateurs, personalisation, customisation
Search words: personalisation, hacking, hackers, amateur, open-source

Reinventing the future

If you built the Internet again how would it operate? This question is being addressed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US partly to conceptually plan for the future of the Internet. While the Internet encourages innovation and the free exchange of ideas it is also open to abuse from spammers and more serious criminal activity. Moreover, while most Internet traffic is currently driven by human activity (e-mails and downloads, for example) this won’t necessarily be the case in the future. Within the next few decades communication and intelligence capabilities will be built into everyday objects (from shoes to cereal packets) and this will generate hundreds of billions of ‘conversations’ and nearly all of this traffic will be machine-to-machine. It’s still early days but one idea proposed by the NSF is an Internet that is ‘trust-modulated’. In other words, packets of data will no longer be blindly sent from one place to another. Instead the data will be analysed for trustworthiness based on known information about the sender and the receiver. Data that fails this test will be put aside for further screening. Another interesting idea is the creation of a metanet – a series of parallel Internets each tailored to a specific use.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 11 March 2006 ‘Reinventing the Internet’
Search words: Internet, trust, data

Electronic noses

Of the five senses, smell could be described as the ‘Cinderella’. We have hyper-realistic delivery of sight and sound but technologies to deliver smell, or to smell smells, have not caught up – until now. Scientists at the University of California (Berkeley) have now developed an electronic nose from a series of transistors made from numerous organic semiconductor materials. This is a novel way to build a nose but from a commercial point of view it is intriguing because organic semiconductors can be literally printed using special inkjet printers. This means that the cost of a ‘nose’ could fall to under US$1 in 5 to 10 years which would allow e-noses to be added to everyday items like food packaging (to smell whether a product has gone off). Meanwhile, other developments in smelly technology include noses to smell for explosives and a breathalyser that can smell lung cancer. There is even a company called Digiscent whose stated mission is to ‘Odorise the Internet’. On a more serious level, smell is closely linked to memory so devices that produce specific smells could have therapeutic uses. There is even a gel called Odorscreen that is used by disaster-recovery teams and crime-scene investigators to hide unpleasant smells.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 11 March 2006, ‘What the nose knows’
Search words: small, nose, odour