Science, technology & design

Why the very small may inherit the earth

Evolution is generally thought of as a very slow process in comparison to human life spans. Consequently we, as humans, make no difference to the evolution of life on earth. However, from a purely biological perspective this is far from true. Approximately 95% of the terrestrial world is now actively managed for the benefit of the human species and as a result the new epicentre of evolution is mankind and man-made environments. These new environments consist of our crops, our waste, and us, with human pathogens sitting at the very top of the food chain. Over 50% of all species on earth are now parasites and for a growing number of these parasites we humans represent the ultimate gourmet experience. In other words, as we expand our environments and numbers, the evolutionary possibilities for microbes also grow. Hence new pathogens like HIV emerge. We are already seeing weeds evolve to mimic the chemical properties of agricultural crops so as to avoid man-made pesticides. Similarly, insect pests are developing resistence to avoid new pesticides.The most immediate issue arising from such developments is antibiotic resistance, whereby parasites evolve in ever more virulent forms to resist our best efforts to kill them. So what then does the future hold? One scenario is that we will take a whole host of new pests and pathogens into the future with us and, ultimately, it will be the smallest species that survive simply because big species like humans will be unable to evolve fast enough to cope. In other words, from an evolutionary point of view, the future belongs to pathogens, pests and their invited guests.
Ref: Seed magazine (Canada) December 2006, ‘We’ve seen the future and it is us’,
R. Dunn.
Search words: evolution, parasites, pathogens, risks
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Links: dinosaur extinction?

Machine-to-machine communication

Rentokil (the building services company) has built a digital mousetrap with a small sensor and wireless transmitter. The technology allows individual mousetraps to communicate with a central hub connected to the Internet, thus alerting human operatives to the existence of an ex-pest. This is a good early example of the shape of things to come in terms of machine-to-machine communications – or what is sometimes called the pervasive Internet, ubiquitous computing, embedded networking or the Internet of things. The idea is that previously devices were separate and unconnected. However, developments within computing and wireless communications (a blending of microprocessors and radio technology) and, in particular the plummeting cost of such technologies, means that it is now increasingly possible to link machines, sensors and things. In other words, we are giving previously inert objects the power of thought and talk. The significance of this should not be underestimated. We are already seeing bridges and buildings being linked to networks and, in the UK, insurance companies are embedding devices into private cars so that they can sell car insurance on a mile-by-mile basis (on the basis that they know precisely where the car is and what it’s doing). In the future there will also be coffee makers linked to mobile phones and even the vital signs of our own bodies will be networked. The main benefit is obviously distance monitoring and control. For example, products will be able to be serviced from afar or parts will be monitored for safety and replaced before they fail. Tiny Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags will also provide information about anything anywhere so authenticity will be instantly verified on everything from wine and water to medicines and machinery. At the moment this nirvana is still some way off, thanks to a lack of agreed common standards, and governments have also yet to work out what needs to be regulated and what doesn’t. Clearly being able to unlock your own front door or gain access to your office with a wireless device embedded in your shoe, wallet or even your jaw has some benefits in terms of convenience and safety, but what are the implications in terms of privacy risks given that locational and usage information will be widely shared? Secondly, there are still unknown electromagnetic risks associated with this technology and if the recent GMO experience is anything to go by, new technologies like this will have to gain public acceptance before they are rolled out.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 28 April 2007, ‘A world of connections’ (special report on telecommunications). See also ‘When everything connects’ (same issue date).
Search words: RFID, connectivity, risk, wireless, M2M communication, pervasive Internet, ubiquitous computing, embedded networking. the Internet of things.
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Wireless energy transmission

Is it possible to ‘broadcast’ electricity much in the same way that we broadcast radio or television? Can you re-charge batteries without using wires? According to a start-up called Powercast, working with the Dutch electronics multinational Philips, the answer is a definite yes – electricity can be sent through the air much like anything else. It works by sending power from a transmitter plugged into a wall to a receiver that’s embedded inside whatever device needs power. The receiving device simply converts radio waves into DC power and, hey presto, wireless recharging at a distance up to 3 feet. Clearly such a technology could revolutionise how we think about power and power sources and also get rid of some of that spaghetti of wiring lying underneath our desks and throughout our homes and offices worldwide. The first commercial application should be a wireless light that will hit the shops sometime this year followed by a host of other applications including mobile phones, MP3 players and laptops.
Ref: Business 2.0 (US) April 2007, ‘What’s Next: Cutting the electric cord’,
M. Haiken.
Search words: electricity, wires, wireless, broadcasting
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Haptic technology

The term Haptic Technology refers to the science of vibration or, more specifically, the art of simulating pressure, texture and vibration or any other sensation related to touch. For example, some new phones feature a touch screen display to replace the more conventional display of buttons. However, while virtual ‘buttons’ can be changed according to the task at hand (very useful) they don’t give the user much if any tactile feedback. Enter haptic technology. The idea isn’t new. For instance, aircraft controls have been designed to shake and shudder to alert pilots to impending problems for years and video games have recently added ‘feedback’ to make gaming experiences feel more realistic. The ultimate aim of haptic technology is to recreate the feel of real life and as our world becomes ever more virtual and screen-based, haptic technology will be in great demand. For example, in theory haptic technology will be able to replicate any shape, texture or sensation that we desire and we will be unable to differentiate what’s real from what’s not. Virtual swords could be made to feel ‘sharp’ while virtual fur coats could be made to feel like real fur. We’ll be able to make things feel hot when they not and perhaps even make mobile phones feel like they are made of quality components such as high grade steel when they’re actually made of cheap plastic. In other words, the future will most probably be a touchy-feely place.
Ref: The Economist Technology quarterly (UK) 10 March 2007, ‘How touching’.
Search words: Haptic technology, virtual reality, reality, touch, texture, vibration
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The science and economics of ‘treethanol’

Treethanol is cellulosic biofuel made from trees, or more precisely, ethanol made from wood. Obviously burning wood to make power (or heat) is nothing new – indeed wood was mankind’s first fuel – but using wood to make ethanol is. Traditionally ethanol is made from maize (corn) or sugar (cane) but wood offers the potential of being much more efficient in terms of the energy required to make the energy (the ratio of energy needed to create the energy relative to the energy it yields). Another looming and important issue with traditional ethanol production techniques is that using food to make fuel creates a bit of a problem because we also need the food to eat and food stocks are running out. Maize and sugar are both important agricultural crops and if a large part of production is shifted towards energy production, everything from Coca-Cola to biscuits could suddenly become very expensive. We may also see more people starving because their only food supply will be shipped off to fuel-hungry countries. This might all sound rather boring but from a futurist perspective the idea of using trees (or grass) to partially replace oil, coal and gas throws up some delicious future scenarios. First of all, countries like Brazil and the US could be hit fairly hard if demand for sugar and maize suddenly dries up. Conversely, countries with a lot of trees, such as New Zealand and Sweden, could suddenly find themselves in quite a powerful position in terms of energy self-sufficiency and export. As for risk factors, the only one that I can foresee is the rather annoying smugness of hippie tree-huggers who will have been proved right all along.
Ref: The Economist Technology Quarterly (UK) 10 March 2007, ‘Woodstock revisited’.
Search words: energy, resources, fuel, biofuel, ethanol, treethanol, future scenarios
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And finally…Nano fabrics

A student at Cornell University in the US has designed clothing that can help prevent colds and flu. The cotton fabric is question is coated with nanoparticles. Downsides? One square metre of the fabric currently costs US $10,000.
Ref: Science Daily (US) 7 May 2007, ‘Student Creates Garment With Bacteria-trapping Nanofibers’
Search words: nanotech, fashion, clothing, materials
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