Science, technology & design

Out of this world elevators

Imagine an electrical Jack on a beanstalk about 10,000 kms long extending into space to a counterweight about 36,000 kms high and you have what is known as a “space elevator”. It may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but researchers are already working on it. The end of it could be used as a launching pad or slingshot, so that anything leaving it would have a strong enough force to be hurled into space, saving on fuel. Cool. The Japanese held a competition in early August 2009 to see who could hoist their climbers the fastest – the German machine climbed the 150 metres in 52 seconds. In America, a US foundation will hold its fifth annual competition to win a $1US million dollar prize from NASA, where the climber has to pull itself up 1 km.

Until recently, no material has been strong enough to withstand the length, but the discovery of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) in 1991 changed that. Scientists said they still needed a mass production system for carbon materials and a rapid-speed propulsion system. This may now be solved, following the breakthrough development of graphene, which contains carbon atoms in hexagons that are almost as tough as CNTs. US researchers say that the elevator could be built around 2030 as long as someone is willing to spend $US10 billion needed for the project. It certainly puts a new spin on Jack and his beanstalk.
Ref: The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 3 August 2009, New material takes space elevators out of science fiction. Shinichiro Tanaka.
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Search words: space elevator, climbers, competition, Japan, carbon nanotubes, graphene.
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Invisibility cloaks

To be invisible may sound like a blessing or a curse, but there are certainly times when it would be useful. Japanese scientists are working on creating the illusion of invisibility via optical camouflage. This technology “tricks” the eye into believing that something is invisible because it interferes with the process of light entering our eyes after first passing through or around the object.
One experiment had a student stand in front of a poster wearing a special jacket, or wearable screen, so that observers could see right through him to the poster. The jacket is made of tiny glass beads that only reflect light back in the same direction from which it came. Another form of optical camouflage, currently being explored, is a wearable cloak made of nanoscopic rings of metal attached to the clothing fibres. These so-called “metamaterials” are able to make light waves of all types bend round the body. The applications for this include car-mounted cameras that make the doors in cars seem invisible, increasing visibility all round, or unobstructed views at the theatre for people in areas blocked by columns. There may also be other valuable applications that nobody wants to talk about.
Ref: The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 10 August 2009, Invisibility cloaks may not be as far off as you imagine. Takashi Kurokawa.
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Search words: optical camouflage, transparency, special project, metamaterials, invisibility.
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Biocriminology – are you born bad?

Crime has always fascinated people, and the reasons that criminals commit crimes, even more so. Now a nascent science – biocriminology – is starting to threaten the strongholds of criminology using new techniques like brain imaging and neuroendocrinology. Biocriminology posits that a person’s genes or hormones predispose them towards criminal behaviour. This upsets the traditional criminologists who believe that environment, particularly poverty, is a more credible reason.
As with any new science, opponents are quick to identify any extreme examples, such as eugenics, or Cesare Lombroso’s claims in the late 1800s that criminals tended to have beaked noses, fleshy lips and shifty eyes. But even if people commit crimes because of their social or cultural environment, there is no doubt that people are biologically inclined in the first place to be social and cultural.

There are currently less than two dozen people publishing biocriminology articles, in part because the traditional outlets are so wary about them, but also because these studies still lack the required rigour. It is very challenging to identify more than links between biology and behaviour because of the difficulty of separating them from environmental variables, such as drugs and alcohol or poor diet. Given the recent fashion for forensic psychology, encouraged by certain detective series on TV, it is likely that biocriminology will also come to excite minds with its potential for explaining the inexplicable. The detractors from this line of thinking, who think it will lead to all sorts of questionable practices, will simply make it more attractive to explore.
Ref: The Australian (Aus), 10 June 2009, Genetic links in criminal chain. Peter Monaghan.
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Search words: criminology, biocriminology, genetics, psychopathology, statistical significance.
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Wireless re-charging

Recharging is a necessary chore of modern life and it’s remarkable how doing it (or not doing it) can dominate the day. With this in mind, researchers are trying to make recharging easier. In 2004, a company called Splashpad tried to commercialise a wireless charging pad based on the principle of magnetic induction discovered in the 1800s, but this failed, probably because it depended on manufacturers including charging modules in their products. The right time may be right now. The Wireless Power Consortium was formed in 2008 to establish a standard for inductive charging, with companies such as Philips and Sanyo. Without universal standards, recharging will continue to be the dog’s breakfast of incompatible gadgets that it is today. This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Texas revealed a new phone called the Pre, with an optional charging pad called a Touchstone. Another product was an in-car console that can wirelessly charge any mobile devices while on the road. This concept may be applied to almost any environment, for example, charging pads in the kitchen counter for appliances.

Wireless charging need not depend on contact with the device and the pad. Long-range transmission of wireless power, using the energy in radio waves, can be used to power devices, as long as it is at low enough levels not to affect human health. One US company, Powercast, uses radio waves to power rechargeable batteries that, up to 7.5 metres away, can power wireless sensor networks. Of course, it is still in the manfacturers’ best interests to use proprietary charging cords that only work with their products and, until they have to bear the environmental cost of that, it is likely to coincide profitably with consumer wariness of any new whiz-bang product. But the days of wireless charging will come (and they will charge us to do it).
Ref: The Economist (UK) Technology Quarterly, 7 March 2009, Adaptor die. Anon.
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Search words: electromagnetic induction, wireless, recharging, induction, Wireless Power Consortium, sensors, charging pads, radio waves, adaptors.
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The singularity – Moore’s law gone mad

Moore’s Law says computers double their processing ability every two years but imagine if this sped up exponentially to every two hours. That is one potential consequence what future tech-heads call “the singularity” where computers will be able to create AGIs (artificial general intelligences) more intelligent than humans. Proponents like Ray Kurzweil say that if computers continue to advance at their current rate, the singularity is only 20-30 years away.

Intel is already reinventing the humble transistor by harnessing photons and quantum properties (spin of an electron) to increase processing power. Kurzweil has set up the so-called Singularity University, backed by Google and NASA, to educate the next generation in making the singularity possible. Even the British scientist, Stephen Hawking, believes it is possible. Whether it happens suddenly, or over time, it appears that machines will become increasingly sophisticated and able to do the work of humans. One commentator says: “As our machines become more like us, we will become more like them”.

Any true AGI would need at least four capabilities to be like us: to recognise objects, handle complex dialogue, be manually dextrous, and understand social situations from someone else’s point of view. Children come to learn each of these slowly until the age of eight, when all are present. There is no reason why robots could not be made to deal with whatever tasks they are required to do, whether it is to put groceries away or to babysit a child. But will they be able to fall in love or mourn a dead child?

Some say that the agricultural and industrial revolutions were singularities, because of the rapid pace of change compared to what had gone before. Over the past 7,000 years, output doubled every 900 years. Now output doubles about every 15 years, about 60 times as fast as in the previous seven millennia. The next radical jump will come from two shortages in our economy: human time and attention. If robots were able to take over what people do (and two-thirds of a nation’s income is paid directly for wages), then there will be a massive jump in output, freeing humans for other more satisfying forms of work. It is cheaper to build robots than it is to pay someone over a lifetime. But the value of human work would rise, and some people will prefer to be served by humans and will pay for it.Robots that do solely cognitive work may live in virtual environments, or even be tiny, while others will exist in human environments and be more lifelike. Kurzweil sees something more radical: a “merger of biological and non-biological intelligence” culminating in “immortal software-based humans”.

It is a frightening thought that computers could be more intelligent than we are. But it also assumes that it is possible to know the depths of the human mind and be able to recreate something better. Is it really conceivable to analyse every dendrite, axon and synapse of the human brain and be able to recreate it? Is this a naively reductionist approach to human life that serves us well for building computers but profoundly impossible when it comes to creating human life?
Ref: Cosmos Magazine (Aus) April 2009, Special Report: The singularity. Wilson da Silva et al.
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Search words: singularity, Moore’s law, artificial general intelligence (AGI), industrial revolution, global GDP, brain emulation, software-based human, Ray Kurzweil.
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