Science, technology & design

Biomimicry and biomimetics

Ever since the industrial revolution, a common industrial model has been to ‘heat, beat and treat’. Materials created by nature were pounded, bent and smashed with heat or energy until they conformed to the ideas, or designs, of mankind. But now nature is fighting back. With rising energy costs and dwindling reserves of natural resources, we are looking to nature for inspiration about how to design and build new things. This new field, populated by biologists, engineers and designers, is biomimicry.

There are early signs that it may revolutionise how materials and designs are created in the future. For example, it is well known that spiders can create silk that is significantly stronger than steel. Another example is the abalone shell, which creates a mother-of-pearl coating considerably harder than any ceramic. Looking to nature for inspiration is nothing new (the invention of Velcro in the 1950s is perhaps the most famous) but there has been an explosion of bio-inspired patents recently.

The Biomimicry Institute is a non-profit set up by the author Janine Benyus and others after the publication of her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in 1997. It found a rise of 93% in patents filed from 1985 to 2005 that used terms such as “biomimicry”, “biomimetics” or “bio-inspired”. One such patent is for a Japanese adhesive tape that uses nanotechnology to mimic the foot of a gecko lizard.

We can expect many new bio-inspired products in the near future. One possibility is the use of small scales on boats and aircraft that mimic the way sharks glide through water. Another likely invention is some kind of new energy efficient building material or design that echoes how termites build mounds. They are remarkable because they have a constant interior temperature of 31 degrees even when the external temperature varies from 3-42 degrees!

Ref: Newsweek (US) 7 June 2010, ‘Nature is the model factory’ by M. Freedman. See also Nikkei Weekly (Japan) 22 February 2010, ‘Biomimetics yields life-inspired products’
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Search terms: biomimicry, biomimetics, bio-inspired, patents, The Biomimicry Institute, design, Velcro

Feature fatigue (or the merits of minimalism)

The GFC may have prompted a trend for austerity and frugality in the attitudes and behaviour of individuals and institutions, especially in developed nations. But there is one industry where the no-frills future is still an alien concept –consumer electronics. In everything from cars to computers, manufacturers seem to be involved in an arms race of adding sophisticated new features. This is creating ‘feature fatigue’ among ordinary consumers, who simply want things to work and have little or no need for anything fancy.

There are a handful of exceptions to this. Apple makes products that are easy to use even if they contain extra features under the surface. Nintendo and Philips are other examples where simplicity can trump complexity. So have these companies seen something that other manufacturers have not? In my view, yes, although it’s likely that corporate culture has a great deal to do with this. People are busier and more distracted than they used to be. Moreover, the major demographic shift is ageing and older people like products with big buttons that are easy to use and understand.

Expect to see more stripped down products in the future, partly for the reasons above, but also because consumers in developing regions don’t want extra features either. A good example of this is netbooks - super-cheap computers that can be used by children for simple tasks, such as email or word processing. Frugality seems to be the mother of innovation in other areas too. Tata’s Nano in India is essentially a stripped down micro-car that dispenses with many of the so-called essentials found in small cars in the West.

Ref: The Economist (UK), Technology Quarterly (UK) 12 June 2010, ‘In praise of techno-austerity’, anon.
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Search terms: technology, features, austerity, netbooks, simplicity

Computers getting into our faces

Having upset a few privacy campaigners with Street View, Google looks set to upset some more with its plans for face recognition technology. Police, border control authorities and security services have been using facial recognition technology for some time to spot suspects and to prevent people from breaking the law. Now the technology is becoming so cheap and powerful, it is about to enter mainstream use.

Two Swedish companies have created an application that allows mobile phone users to take a photograph of someone and upload the image (via the phone) to the internet where a software program hunts for similar images. Given there are 4.6 billion mobile phone accounts around the world and 800 million camera-equipped mobile phones were sold last year, this could quickly become a must-have accessory.

On the plus side, this technology allows you to hunt the internet for illegal use of your face or features or identify someone you are about to meet and then download publicly available information about them. But you could also take a photograph of someone on a crowded holiday beach, identify them, find out where they live, and pass the information to criminal gangs who rob them while they are away, so it could seriously impact people’s privacy and physical security.

Similarly, the technology could help you to identify potential friends (e.g. people with similar interests perhaps) but it could also help you to identify people you might hate and wish to harm. As always, the devil is in the user, not the technology.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 22-23 May 2010, ‘Face recognition software gaining a broader canvas’ by M. Palmer.
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Search terms: face recognition, privacy, security, mobiles

Social robots

In South Korea (a country second only to Japan in its love for robots) researchers are testing hundreds of social robots in classrooms. They are largely teaching assistants that use motion tracking software and speech recognition to give young children language skills. The robots are fairly crude, and their use is largely limited to early years education, but there are signs the experiment is working.

Anyone aged over thirty will instantly worry about children being taught by machines rather than people but, at this stage, these robots are merely an addition to human labour, not a replacement. The benefits are significant too. Robotic teachers do not get tired, have infinite patience, and can also be highly informed about specific subjects.However, according to Mitchel Resnik, head of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Media Laboratory at MIT, one risk is that children taught by robots may grow up seeing technology as the instructor, which is not far from viewing technology as master.

Social robotics is an offshoot of computer science concerned with ways to enhance communication between man and machine. One early finding is that people don’t like robots that physically resemble people. However, if a robot displays synchronous behaviour (e.g. it mimics human gestures) this builds trust between the two.

So what’s next? The next frontier is for social robots to learn more from humans and to experience more of the real world for themselves. In other words, more time and money will be spent on machine bodies rather than machine minds, although the two are closely linked. The big question here, of course, is whether or not we can capture the whole of human learning in a machine? For example, if we dispensed with human teachers altogether, we could lose something precious: human contact, empathy or affection. Think about that the next time you bypass the sales assistant in the local supermarket or post office and deal with the self-service machine instead.

Ref: New York Times (US), ‘Reading writing and robots’ by Benedict. Carey and John. Markoff (Observer, 18 July 2010).
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Search terms: social robotics, education, self-service, empathy, MIT, classrooms

Wind forecasting

There’s a new wind blowing. The European Union wants to source 20% of its electricity from renewable sources, largely wind power, by the year 2020. China has increased its wind power target to 100GW by 2020. Globally, $14 billion was invested in wind farms in the first 3 months of 2010. But without a clear idea of where and when the wind will blow, such commitments look airy. Now there is growing interest in the art and science of wind forecasting.

The production of wind is a largely local affair as the immediate topographical environment influences how much wind is created. Currently, measurement of wind conditions is dependent upon samples of wind taken at proposed wind energy sites, overlaid with wind data from the nearest official metrological site (e.g. a local airport).

But these two sampling sites can be quite far apart and, even if they are not, the specifics of a physical site create a high margin of error when predicting how much wind will blow annually. Every bit matters. For example, Denmark already gets almost 20% of its electricity from the wind, but a shift in wind speed of one metre per second can cause a 450 MW drop in electricity output. That’s roughly equivalent to the electricity produced by a coal-powered power station.

So how can we improve the art of wind forecasting? One way to reduce the margin of error (and thus create better commercial viability models) is to use sonar and laser-based measurement techniques. Laser beams can measure the amount of distortion created by tiny windborne particles, which helps to create better mathematical models. However, for wind forecasting to be turned into a proper science, wind farm developers and operators must share their data for specific sites. Of course, they prefer we don’t get wind of it.

Ref: The Economist (UK) Technology Quarterly 12 June 2010, ‘And now, the electricity forecast,
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Search terms: wind farms, wind forecasting, wind forecasting, samples, laser beams, sonar, Denmark