Science, technology & design

Virtual fences

From the end of 2005 it will be a legal requirement that every cell (mobile) phone in the US is equipped with GPS to pin point the owner's precise location. The name and address of all cell-phone owners is already known to the authorities. There is of course an upside to this technology. If you own a phone you'll never get lost and you always know where your kids and relatives are. You can also turn your phone off or refuse to have one in the first place. Unfortunately, some people don't have a choice. Workers at some companies in the US are already being given GPS phones linked to a product called Worktrack. The system allows employers to monitor employees, pinpoint their exact location and even monitor how fast they are walking or driving. Information can then be loaded into databases and movements recorded forever. Is this the end of locational privacy, 'geoslavery' or just a short-term reaction to events like 9/11? Time will tell.

Ref: Newsweek (US), 7-14 June 2004.

Wire-free recharging

Imagine if you could place you mobile phone, iPod and digital camera on an A4 sized 'plate' that recharged them without having to plug any of them in. So-called wire free recharging is around the corner but it may never see the light of day for two reasons. The first reason is getting equipment makers like Nokia and Sony to agree on a common standard and having them incorporate the relevant technology into products. The second reason is that the idea might be a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Is it really that much trouble to plug in a couple of products and what happens when you travel? Two companies, MobileWise in California (US) and SplashPower in Cambridge (UK) are working on similar ideas.

Ref: The Economist 12 June 2004.

US Patent number 6,754,472

Ten years ago MITs Media Lab, together with IBM, came up with the idea of using the human body as a computer network. Now Microsoft has been granted a patent on the idea. The conductive properties of human skin can be used as a way of linking various electronic devices such as phones and PDAs. The advantage of doing this is that once devices are networked you can do away with things like multiple keyboards. Power can then be provided by a single source such as the kinetic energy from walking.

Ref: Ananova (UK) 4 July 2004.

Me myself and I

The convergence of several trends like identity theft and TMI (Too Much Information) together with events like 9/11 are creating a bonanza for companies involved in security and identity authorisation (products that prove you are who you say you are). Fingerprints, palm prints, ear prints, face recognition and iris scanning are already widely used. Future ideas include body odour scanning (people tend to have distinctive smells), pictorial passwords and implanted identity chips.

Ref: Wired (US), May 2004.

Hot robots

The shape of things to come may well be mowing your lawn or vacuuming your carpet as you read this. Robotic assistants are slowly making their way out of factories and into living rooms and offices. The cutting edge of robotics is probably military applications but such uses create a number of ethical dimensions. Do machines need a conscience and if so which societal code do you choose? Autonomous weapons create autonomous war crimes. More friendly robotic frontiers include human augmentations. Japan's elderly population may benefit from bionic arms, legs, ears and eyes. In the future there may even be robotic nurses and caregivers but this brings us back to machine understanding, decision making, caring and ultimately ethics. Possibly the most interesting (and least ethically demanding) area of robotics research is biomimetics - scientists who are creating machines inspired by animals. Examples include snakebots that can slither down pipes; robotic lobsters than can operate in shallow water looking for mines and robotic cockroaches and mountain goats that can look for disaster victims in piles of rubble.

Ref: Wired (US) May 2004, New York Times (US) 16 September 2004, Icon/SMH 26-27 June 2004

Not for profit drug discovery

One of the problems with traditional research (and pharmaceutical research in particular) is that the patent system effectively closes down outside thinking and enhancements to a particular idea. It also means that there is little incentive to develop drugs for people with no money (malaria in Africa for example). The 'open source' movement (aka distributed Internet based innovation) has been successfully used in biotechnology (on the human genome project for instance) but the model may be applicable to other areas. Obvious contenders include non-patentable drugs and diseases that affect relatively small numbers of people. There are some parallels between open source software development and pharmaceuticals research too. Both industries tend to employ graduate researchers who are keen to be involved because of enhanced professional status. Both types also react well to grand projects that make a difference to the world. How could this work in practice? Individuals could register their interest (on the Internet) to work on a specific problem or area. Data could then be discussed in chat rooms and would be fully transparent and in the public domain. Initial funding would probably have to come from government or a medical foundation (e.g. the Wellcome Trust).

Ref: The Economist (UK), 12 June 2004. See also 'The Rise of Open Source Innovation' (Science sector - this issue).