Science, technology & design

Affective computing is coming

Currently, much of the hype around computing centres on artificial intelligence, social robotics and virtual reality. However, there’s another rapidly developing area that could eclipse all of these, although all four are connected.

Affective computing refers to devices, or more specifically, computers that can recognise a range of human expressions, especially facial expressions, and respond accordingly.

An example is Affective, an emotion-sensing app spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. Another example is Pepper, a Japanese robot that can identify feelings such as joy, anger and sadness. If you add biometric data - heart rate, voice pitch, body language and even electro-dermal activity on the skin, pupil dilation - the future could get interesting or scary, depending on your point of view.

Perhaps more prosaic, Facebook recently introduced a series of ‘empathy’ buttons that take the idea of the iconic Emojis to another level.

So what’s next? Expect to see facial and emotional recognition technology applied to a whole range of sensing devices. Big companies will introduce these technologies to theme park rides, television programmes, movies, advertisements, restaurant dishes and airport security, to judge customer reaction.

More interesting, we may see the integration of affective technologies into wearable healthcare devices. For example, cars could work out if a driver is distracted, angry or falling asleep and adjust its capabilities to keep the driver safe. Or people suffering from autism (arguably created by using too much technology!) could be helped by these devices to better understand the emotions or desires of others.

This crosses over fairly easily into science fiction, with whole environments potentially changing according to the needs of individuals. In this case, nobody would ever quite know who or what was ‘real’ or how others emotionally experience the world.

Ref: Telegraph magazine (UK), 15 January 2016, ‘The age of emotional machines is coming’ by M. Murgia.
Search words: computing, affective computing, emotionally aware devices
Trend tags: AI

Digital doom?

Computing technology increases in both power and scope every day, and the trend shows no sign of slowing. The latest iPhone is as powerful as a MacBook laptop, while self-driving cars will hit our roads in as little as 2-3 years, according to Tesla boss Elon Musk. As technology becomes ever more pervasive, there are growing concerns about the negative impacts of these devices on our lives.

A recent University of Birmingham study claims that our habit of looking up information on the web — rather than recalling it from memory — may be harming our ability to store long-term memories. The theory goes that, each time you recall a memory, you strengthen it. By looking up facts and figures instead of recalling them, we don’t form strong memories.

Meanwhile, clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle — author of Alone Together — has written a new book. Reclaiming Conversation looks at how digital technology may be causing a drop in our empathy and self-reflection skills.

We communicate with our friends on Facebook all the time, but shy away from face-to-face conversations and deep connection. Is all this recent doom and gloom about technology warranted, or is it just another in a long line of tech-related moral panics?

The following technologies have all, at some point, been charged with ruining society as we knew it: the telephone, electricity, travelling faster than 20 mph, and the printing press. Even writing was blasted by Socrates, because it would “introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it”. Sound familiar?

Refs: Business Insider (Aus), 24 September 2015, ‘The iPhone 6S is as powerful as Apple’s new Macbook, test claims’, by L. Eadicicco, See also to-be-on-the-road-in-just-a-few-years/#.vr50mx:Tjev
Search words: Anxiety, technology, computer, phones
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Networking at the speed of light

Wi-Fi and cellular technologies have now become central to most people’s lives, allowing us to connect to the Internet with our phones from almost anywhere in the world. However, these radio-based communication tools are not without drawbacks.

First, capacity of the radio wave spectrum is limited, and we’re rapidly running out of frequencies to use for wireless communication. (This is one reason your YouTube keeps stuttering when you’re on a cellular connection.)

Wireless technologies are also energy-inefficient, running at about 5 percent efficiency. In fact, most of the electricity used to power cellular towers goes into cooling the electronics. That’s a lot of wasted energy.

Availability is another problem. While the number of cellular towers is increasing, there are still many places where you can’t use a cellular or Wi-Fi connection, such as some aircraft cabins, hospitals and nuclear power plants.

Finally, security can be a problem: while most Wi-Fi is encrypted, it’s still hackable, and radio waves can easily leak outside buildings.

An emerging technology, called Li-Fi, looks set to complement radio-based networking in the near future. Instead of using radio waves, it uses regular LED light bulbs to transmit data using visible light. This means you can safely use it in any place where there is currently lighting, including homes, offices, factories, aircraft, and even street lamps and traffic lights.

Li-Fi works by switching the light on and off millions of times a second — far too quickly to be noticed by the human eye, and fast enough to be about 100 times faster than many Wi-Fi setups. The light doesn’t even have to be noticeable; you can dim the lights so they appear to be off, but can still transmit data.

It also has other advantages over Wi-Fi and cellular technologies. First, it can save a lot of energy: LED light bulbs are very energy efficient, and they’re often already on to provide lighting. Furthermore, the visible light spectrum is 10,000 times larger than the radio wave spectrum, so we won’t run out of bandwidth in a hurry. Also, since light can’t travel through walls, it’s potentially a lot more secure than Wi-Fi.

Expect to see Li-Fi going mainstream in the next couple of years. The industry is already predicted to be worth over $US6 billion per year by 2018.

Refs: Computer World (Aus) 12 March 2015, ‘Fresh air cools Telstra, Optus mobile sites’ by A. Bender.
See also
Search words: Wi-Fi, Li-Fi, cellular networks, mobiles
Trend tags: Global connectivity

Nanotechnology: the now and the next

Nanotechnology — the manipulation of matter at the billionth-of-a-metre scale — has been with us since the late 1980s, and consumer products using nanotech started emerging in the early 2000s. Today, nanotechnology is proving itself to be a game-changer across a wide variety of fields.

For example, in medicine, nanoparticles are used to target specific cells in the body for cancer drug delivery, resulting in more efficient treatment. Nanoparticles can also help with imaging, allowing oncologists to pinpoint tumours more effectively.

Nanotechnology is also finding its way into our clothes. By adding titanium dioxide nanoparticles to textiles, manufacturers can now create clothes that block UV light to protect your skin in sunny climates. The same nanoparticles can also reduce static build-up on clothes made from polyester and nylon. Meanwhile, silver nanoparticles are used to kill bacteria in clothes, cutting down on nasty odours. Clothes makers are also adding silica nanoparticles to fabrics to produce water- and stain-repelling garments.

Nanoparticles are increasingly being added to your toothpaste to reduce sensitivity in teeth, protect teeth from decay, kill bacteria, and make your teeth whiter than white.

There are many other emerging uses of nanotechnology. Canada-based Nanotech Security is adding hard-to-copy security devices to bank notes to prevent counterfeiting — an idea inspired by the iridescent Blue Morpho butterfly. Another company, Cima NanoTech, is using self-assembling nanoparticles to create enormous, highly interactive touchscreens and whiteboards.

And how about a nanotech toilet? Cranfield University in the UK is developing the toilet in response to the "Reinvent the Toilet" challenge launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It uses no water: in fact, it produces reasonably clean water from human waste and has no smell. It’s being designed for people in developing countries who don’t have access to adequate toilets.

So where might nanotechnology go in the future? One exciting area of research is molecular manufacturing, where tiny machines called “assemblers” are programmed to create any object you desire, much like the “replicators” in the Star Trek TV series.

Nanotech will continue to improve medicine. In the future, nano-robots may be able to attack and alter cancer cells and viruses, as well as perform precision surgery. There may also be environmental benefits to nanotech, such as using nano-robots to clean up oil spills or improving solar cell efficiency with nanoparticles.

A lot of this is still science fiction at the moment, but the nanotech industry is predicted to grow rapidly over the next few years at least. Market research company BCC Research valued the nanotech market at $US26 billion in 2014, and predicts it will reach about $US64 billion in 2019.

Refs: ABC (Aus), 7 January 2016, ‘Nanotechnological waterless toilet being developed by scientists’ (Reuters). See also The Guardian (UK), 13 January 2016, ‘The nanotechnology in your toothpaste’ by H. Cave.
Search words: Nanotechnology, medicine, toilet, clothes
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Virtually reality

Virtual reality (VR) systems have been around since the late 1960s, but the technology has now reached a tipping point.

In 1991, a complete Virtuality headsets-and-gloves VR system would set you back up to $US73,000. In contrast, when it launches in 2016, the highly anticipated, Facebook-owned Oculus Rift VR headset is likely to cost around $US1,500 for a complete system, including the PC. Not to be outdone, Sony’s Playstation VR headset — also due out in 2016 — is slated to cost around $US400.

Moving further down the price scale, by the time you read this you should be able to pick up a Samsung Gear VR headset for just $US99 (though you’ll need a high-end Samsung phone to power it). But for a ‘cheaper than chips’ option, you can’t beat Google Cardboard: a cardboard box headset into which you slot your smartphone. You can buy pre-made ones for less than $US20, or even make your own out of some card, a couple of lenses and magnets, some strips of Velcro and a rubber band.

Now that virtual reality is affordable for anyone, it just needs some killer apps for it to take off. Games are the obvious one, but they may just be scratching the surface of VR’s potential.

Coming next year, The Martian VR Experience is a tie-in with Ridley Scott’s hit movie, The Martian. The 20-minute VR adventure puts you in the lead character’s shoes as you try to survive solo on the Martian surface. Movie fans will also be excited by 20th Century Fox’s plans to bring over 100 movies to the Oculus Rift and Gear VR headsets. Titles so far include Alien (if you dare), Die Hard and Office Space.

Another exciting development is Jaunt, a Silicon Valley startup that provides an end-to-end cinematic VR system for filmmakers from a custom 3D camera and editing tools and apps that run on Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift platforms. They already have some pretty impressive demos you can try today, from immersive news reports and sporting events to rock concerts and documentaries.

Other future boom areas for VR include education and training, urban design, and even therapy for anxiety disorders and phobias.

At this point, VR still has some drawbacks and challenges to overcome, including motion sickness, balance problems and possibly even, addiction. But as VR is now becoming affordable for almost everyone, and VR applications are starting to take off, the technology’s future over the next few years looks very bright indeed.

Ref: New York Times (US), 19 November 2015, ‘A virtual-reality revolution, coming to a headset near you’ by L. Manly. See also martian-vr-experience/
Search words: Virtual reality, augmented reality
Trend tags: Virtual reality, VR