Science, technology & design

Emotionally aware machines

A Cambridge (UK) scientist has developed a prototype computer that can ‘read’ users’ minds by capturing and then interpreting facial expressions – such as concentration, anger or confusion. In experiments using actors the computer was accurate 85% of the time although this dropped to 65% with others. The technology raises a number of privacy-related issues, not least the collection of highly-sensitive personal data. Toyota is allegedly already working with Professor Peter Robertson, the inventor, to link the emotional state of drivers with various safety controls and mood sensitive features in cars. Other customers might include insurance companies wanting to crack down on dishonest claims, banks targeting identity fraud, teachers trying to teach (does the student really understand?) or governments wanting to identify terrorists or social security cheats. In the future, car companies or local councils could even tailor road maps or directional signage to the level of aggression of individual drivers. What intrigues me most, however, is whether you could link mood sensitivity to products like radios and televisions so that they tune into ‘happy’ music or programs. There is also the fascinating possibility of online retailers tailoring their home pages, product offerings and even product descriptions to the emotional state of their customers.
Ref: Business Week (US), 13 July 2006, ‘This computer may be too smart’, M. Scott.

Prescient market research

How do you get people to think about future inventions or imagine new types of technology when neither actually exists? This was a problem facing the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto based think-tank and strategic research consultancy who found that their clients simply weren’t reading the forecasts and reports that they’d paid the institute to produce. The solution was to invent the future in two-dimensional and sometimes three-dimensional form. In other words, rather than talking about what a newspaper might look like in 20 years, they decided to actually make one. Specifically, the organisation created a series of ‘artefacts from the future’ – items that were intended to stimulate discussion and open up debate about what people might want or what could be invented in the future. Items have included Pharma Fruit (apples with added anxiety medication), RFID blockers (to render RFID-tagged products inert), monthly reputation statements (an account of positive online contributions) and social network movie tickets (a ticket that tells you who you might know or might like to know in the cinema). Do such concepts have any practical value? According to Procter & Gamble, a long-time client, the answer is yes. Artefacts have inspired real products with real revenue streams – only they won’t divulge which.
Ref: Business 2.0 (US), June 2006, ‘Hot products for the future’, C. Null.
See also

Silver linings

In the Middle Ages aristocratic and other wealthy families gave their children silver spoons to suck on as a way of keeping disease at bay – hence the expression ‘born with a silver spoon in your mouth’. Last month, at the MicroNano Breakthrough Conference in the US, a company called AcryMed unveiled some research into the use of silver nanoparticle technology in the treatment of hospital-transmitted infections. In the US there are two million cases of hospital-created infections annually and more than 90,000 of these cases result in a fatality. Meanwhile, also in the US, Elastoplast has developed a sticking plaster called Elastoplast Silver Healing based on the antiseptic properties of silver.
Ref: Baltimore Sun (US), 19 March 2006, ‘Silver-coated instruments maybe infectious’, F. Roylance.  Also Saab magazine (Sweden) issue 01/2006,  ‘Precious metals preserve precious lives’, G. Mead.
Links: See Williams Inference file on silver

The IT revolution of 2006 (and other predictions)

Which are the hot technology trends for 2006 and beyond? According to a flock of future-thinkers, answers include simplicity, mobile socialisation, the death of the internal combustion engine, going green and the IT revolution of 2006. Or at least that’s what they said at the end of last year, so perhaps it’s time to re-visit some of their predictions a second time. Simplicity does seem to be on the money in terms of a consumer need but there are precious few examples of technology companies actually responding to the demand. The best example of someone doing it right is Apple, but companies like Microsoft still persist in making new versions of products more complicated than the last. How about mobile socialisation? This is essentially the practice of accessing locational information about friends through mobile phones and other devices. Sounds silly and indeed it is. If you want to know where someone is just ask him or her – no real need for a map. However, the idea of tagging bits of information with their physical location or meshing data with maps looks like it could be more interesting. Watch this space. Combustion engines RIP? Good call but still too early despite the record oil prices. People are still in love with the convenience of oil and aren’t ready to switch to hybrid fuels or vehicles in any real numbers just yet. Conversely, sustainability, the reduction of materials, recycling and emissions control is really bubbling as an issue. Finally what about 2006 being an ‘inflection point’ technology wise? Still too early to say because this prediction requires hindsight, but it could be correct.
Ref; Wired (US), 25 October 2005, ‘Futurists pick top tech trends’, J. Glasner

RFID tags

Four years ago experts were forecasting that RFID tags were about to take the world by storm. They were going to be everywhere and Wal-Mart insisted that all of their major suppliers would have to include RFID identification on all goods sold by Wal-Mart.
And then they disappeared. What’s actually been going on since 2002 is that the RFID industry has been busy developing ever-smaller tags and segmenting the market into distinct segments based on use. The key segments are inventory control at factories, inventory control in retail environments and e-money applications (smart cards) with the latter being the dominant application. Depending on the application, tags vary in size, thickness, cost, frequency and range. Hitachi recently unveiled the world’s smallest RFID chip, which is just 0.15 mm square, and 7.5 microns think – about the size of a full stop.
Ref: Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 10 April 2006, ‘RFID tags specialising by function’, T. Hoshino.