Science, technology & design

Technology Changes How You Think

Technology has crept gradually into every aspect of our lives so no wonder it appears to change the way we think. With stimulation coming from so many screens, and diverse information available simultaneously, our brains are rapidly evolving to cope. For digital natives – young people who grew up with computers – technology is just natural. For digital immigrants - those born with paper and slide rules – their brains must learn to adapt.

A 2005 Kaiser Foundation study found children 8-18 spent 8.5 hours with digital and video stimulation each day (this must surely have increased today). Most exposure is passive (4 hours watching TV or videos and 1.45 hours listening to music) but they actively played video games (50 mins daily) and used the computer (1 hour). No wonder their brains are already so accustomed to technology.

An American study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain scans of digital natives with older people who were unaccustomed to technology, as they carried out Google searches. After only one hour each day for five days, there was no difference between the brain activity of each group, in spite of a marked difference when they first began. Note their scans were identical when reading a book.

The effect of all this technological stimulation is two-fold: it develops certain cognitive abilities, but it also leads to “techno-brain burnout” where the brain becomes exhausted by being constantly alert for new information and having to respond. This inability to fully respond to all stimuli has been dubbed “continuous partial attention” and over time creates agitation, distraction and fatigue. On the other hand, we are much more able to sift through vast amounts of information and find what we need, and to notice what is on the periphery.

Many people are concerned that too much time in front of screens diminishes the ability to communicate face to face with people, and to learn the nuances of body language. This is particularly so for digital natives. Just as we have the ability to use technology in a way that suits us, it can also take hold of us. The fact our brains are so adaptive is an evolutionary miracle, but we should also be cautious about what they are adapting to.
Ref: Scientific American Mind (US), October/November 2008, 'Meet your iBrain'. G. Small and G. Vorgan.
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Search words: Blackberry, PowerPoint, laptop, digital natives, stimulation, Kaiser Family Foundation, Google search, fMRI scanner, continuous partial attention, brain strain, cognitive abilities.

Measuring Intentions

Imagine what it would be like if you were rushing through an airport, feeling very anxious about catching a plane, and surveillance cameras thought your facial expressions looked suspicious. Even so, technology is being developed in America as part of Project Hostile Intent to measure intention to commit criminal acts, before they happen.

These security systems can track gait (terrorists wearing an explosives belt walk a certain way), loitering in unusual places, micro-expressions on the face (40 have been identified), and rigid body movements. Another program uses sensors to track, a couple of metres away, skin temperature, blood flow patterns, perspiration, and heart and breathing rates. It could be argued that, while these systems are not racially based, they might pick up on behaviour that is cultural, rather than indicating hostile intent. As in our previous article about the use of dogs for sniffing drugs, detractors believe they infringe civil liberties.

Surveillance always alarms people and the incidence of false positives and upsetting the innocent, is an unfortunate side effect. Moreover, we are often concerned about the way machines are being used to “decide” who is stopped and who is not. While human security agents are still the final judges, that would be cold comfort to someone who is merely anxious because their relationship just broke up, a parent just died, and they are rushing to catch a plane.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 5 October 2008, 'If looks could kill'.
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Search words: surveillance cameras, gait, terrorists, security, micro-expressions, culture, body movements, sensors, travellers.
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The Third Wave of Computing

The first wave of computing was the internet and that is already old hat. The second wave is ubiquitous computing, which means you can access information wherever you like using a computer. The third wave has not broken yet and that is the ambient information environment, where computers literally access you and provide services as you go about your life, without you doing anything.

Imagine a world where computers sense exactly what you need and your mood, whether it is adjusting the air conditioning, making tea, or turning off the lights after you leave the room. In Japan, researchers are studying the principles of biological dynamics to work out how living organisms adjust to changes in the environment and then applying those to computing. For example, cells respond to environmental changes through fluctuating gene expression and this “noise” helps the organism discover the random state most suited to the new conditions.

Any networking systems must be able to co-exist to work effectively with others. An indicator of this comes from symbiotic systems, for example, the way E.coli and slime mould can learn to co-exist over time though they are not normally found together. One big concern for researchers is what happens when there is a system crash because each wave of computing makes us more dependent than ever. They have observed the ability of ants to find the shortest way back to the nest, even when the pheromones they secrete have already dissipated, or if the original trail is disrupted.

One metaphor for how man and machine may work together is the “parasitic humanoid”, a robot-human interface that can, for example, make pedestrians avoid approaching cars even when they are not aware of them, by sending a mild electric current behind the ear. Another is giving doctors the ability to plan organ surgery by allowing them to view the same 3D image from preferred perspectives while wearing special glasses.Perhaps the best way to view ambient computing is to see it as something that you no longer “do” but something that simply “is”. When computers seem to cease to exist, but simply make life easier, then perhaps that is the best wave of all. However, some of us might still want to go surfing, just for fun.
Ref: The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 22 September 2008, 'Lessons from life feed ambient info future'. A. Hasegawa.
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Search words: ubiquitous computing, ambient information environment, biological dynamics, symbiotic networks, randomness, parasitic humanoid.
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Why Scientists Don’t Blog

While it was scientists who invented the internet, they seem to be less interested in using the useful features of the internet. One of those is blogging (one survey found 35% of scientists used them). Perhaps it’s not surprising that it doesn’t yet compete with the trusty method of publishing research in scientific journals and passing through the slow and steady process of peer review. But the Seed Media Group in New York has just launched a website for scientists to discuss peer-reviewed science.

One potential problem with this is that rivals may observe someone else’s work and steal their ideas and, worse, publish them first. The website allows users to tag their posts with data about themselves and their history so it is clear who has publishing priority. A more pressing problem may be the reticence of scientists about using blogging at all because it lacks respect. However, if leading academics were to start blogging, it would soon gain respect. We think if it were renamed “online intellectual discourse”, it could become more attractive.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 20 September 2008, 'User-generated science'.
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Search words: peer-reviewed journals, scientific progress, Research Blogging, Web 2.0, scientific publishing.
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Social Development or Death - By Mobile

China overtook America this year as the country with the most internet users – over 250 million. Yet 600 million are already mobile phone subscribers, suggesting a massive new market for the mobile internet in developing countries. Research by Opera Software suggests the fastest growth in mobile computing is in Russia, Indonesia, India, and South Africa. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) calls this using the web for social development and wants to encourage it.

So far, many people are able to do mobile banking by using simple text messages, for example, in Kenya, Tanzania, and Afghanistan. But if they had access to the full mobile web, they would achieve a lot more. (Nokia describes how a group of university students in a remote region of China had got together to share a smart phone so they could use the web for their studies.) Unfortunately, many countries are developing identical services from scratch when it would be far more useful to develop one single, compatible method. In focusing on social development, the W3C hopes to become more involved with business, and to encourage regulators to keep mobile access cheap.

While developing countries scramble for new mobile technologies, developed countries continue to struggle with the fear that mobile phones cause tumours. Even the latest Interphone study of 14,000 people in 13 countries, costing $30 million and using 50 scientists, failed to come to a definitive conclusion. One problem was selection bias – the control group were more likely than average to be regular mobile phone users. Second, the definition of regular use was anyone who had used a phone just once a week, which seems unusually low, and must reduce cancer incidence to nothing. Third, asking people about past use leads to recall bias. Last, the crossover from analogue to digital may or may not mean something.

Follow-up studies will use prospective as well as retrospective data and will pick out people at random, which means it will take much longer to come to a conclusion. It seems the jury is still out on mobile phones. This means that the W3C, or anyone else for that matter, can continue to promote the mobile web for social development with a clear conscience and low interference.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 27 September 2008, 'Mobile madness'.
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The Economist Technology Quarterly, 6 September 2008, The meek shall inherit the web. Anon.
Search words: mobile internet, tumours, cancer, selection bias, recall bias, digital, analogue, international, World Wide Web Consortium, China, text messages, mobile banking, smart phones, social development.
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