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May 10, 2011

Technologies that will Change the World -- Maybe (Part 1)

Every once in a while I run across an article that claims to reveal trends, ideas, or technologies that are going to change the world. For example, back in 2009 I wrote post [Time Magazine's Small World] about a Time Magazine article that listed "10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now." Those ideas included:

  1. Jobs Are The New Assets
  2. Recycling the Suburbs
  3. The New Calvinism
  4. Reinstating the Interstate
  5. Amortality
  6. Africa, Business Destination
  7. The Rent-A-Country
  8. Biobanks
  9. Survival Stores
  10. Ecological Intelligence

Last year I posted a blog [MIT Technology Review's Ten Technologies Predicted to Change the World] that discussed an MIT Technology Review article that listed technologies the authors believed have the potential to change the world. ["10 Emerging Technologies 2010," May/June 2010] Technologies on that list included:

  1. Real-Time Search
  2. Social TV
  3. Mobile 3-D
  4. Implantable Electronics
  5. Dual-Action Antibodies
  6. Engineered Stem Cells
  7. Green Concrete
  8. Solar Fuel
  9. Light-Trapping Photovoltaics
  10. Cloud Programming

The latest list I've run across comes from The Christian Science Monitor ["Five new technologies that will change the world (and win at Jeopardy!)," by Douglas Fox, 12 April 2011]. Fox begins his article by discussing the Jeopardy victory of IBM's Watson computer over its human challengers Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. He writes, "In an age when computers have multiplied the productivity of workers, it is tempting for millions of people with monotonous office jobs to wonder whether Watson could outright replace them." Fox then tried to ensure anxious workers by writing, "It won't happen yet." To read more about that famous conquest, read yesterday's post entitled Artificial Intelligence and the Future. Fox continues:

"Between the lines of Watson's story and the half century of history that made him possible is a parable of innovation and economics with much to say about which technologies will have a broad impact on society. The most glamorous advances often didn't have that impact (supersonic air travel, for example), whereas pedestrian inventions like the Haber-Bosch process to produce nitrogen fertilizer fundamentally altered the economics of basic human need – and changed the face of the planet."

With that introduction, Fox prepares to examine "five technologies changing the world now, or well positioned to do so in the future." He says the "litmus test" for these technologies is their ability "to stretch the dollar – or yen, or euro – into accomplishing new things." The technologies that he discusses range "from low-tech gadgets remaking livelihoods in remote villages of Niger to electronics that roll out of printing presses to spacecraft hurtling around Earth at 5 miles per second." I'll discuss the first two of these technologies today and the rest tomorrow.

Energy-saving Computer Chips

The first technology discussed by Fox is the development of computer chips that use much less energy than those commonly found in today's electronic gadgets. He writes:

"Few people realize it, but behind Watson's cool veneer of digital competence were 2,880 computer processors filling 10 racks. They devoured an estimated 100,000 watts of electricity – 80 times what an average American home used in 2008. Watson's employer would pay $100,000 a year to power him – plus $30,000 in cooling to prevent him burning the building down. This problem illustrates a little-appreciated fact, explains Rahul Sarpeshkar, an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge: 'Fundamentally, energy and information are deeply linked. You cannot process information without expending energy.' The knack for corralling electrons into an orderly dance of information has improved dramatically since transistors first appeared around 1950. The number of transistors on a chip doubled every two years – a trend called Moore's law. Those shrinking transistors cost less to manufacture and consumed less energy – making them cheaper to use. Today's transistors are smaller than a red blood cell, by a factor of 150, and consume less energy – by a factor of 50 billion per calculation – than the vacuum tubes in World War II-era computers."

In the past, I have noted that economic development relies on the generation and availability of electrical power. The information age has dramatically increased the global economy's appetite for power and analysts have made dire predictions about the power generation gap that is coming if more powerplants aren't built or consumption of electricity dramatically reduced. Stephen Furber, a chip designer at the University of Manchester in England, told Fox during an interview, "All of this consumer electronics has only become possible because we've made these spectacular strides in energy efficiency." According to Fox, however, these spectacular strides aren't keeping up. "An impasse is near," he writes. "Transistors are now crowded so tightly onto chips that their heat threatens to cook the computer: They emanate up to 300 watts of heat per square inch – five times more than an electric burner on high." Fortunately, he reports, tinier chips that demand less energy are on the way. They will be so efficient that a cellphone using them would only to charge its battery once a month. ["Small is big: a cellphone chip that allows monthly battery charge," The Christian Science Monitor, 12 April 2011] Fox continues:

"If less energy-hungry chips are developed, cellphones could fully replace laptop computers. It could allow users to charge those cellphones once a month on a saucer-sized solar panel. But if Professor Furber is right, the most profound result of more-efficient computers will be increasingly intelligent devices that the average person can afford. Imagine a computer with a tiny camera mounted on your eyeglasses so that it sees what you see: As you look down the street it reads the name of every restaurant and store; it pulls up information on menus, sales, and specials, and displays it on a tiny liquid-crystal display in your eyeglasses. The computer-vision technology that [Microsoft's] Kinect uses could, in theory, be used in this kind of augmented reality – or it could allow a bipedal robot to navigate a cluttered house and do chores. But that comes at a price."

That "price," Fox reports, is still high energy consumption even with more efficient chips. Will chips ever be efficient enough to bring supercomputing home to the masses? Maybe. Fox continues:

"People are working on more efficient computers that could nudge technology in that direction. 'Reducing the power by a factor of 100 to 1,000 is not impossible,' says Eric Pop, a nanotechnologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. 'We don't know how to do it today, but it's not impossible.' Professor Pop is working on one possible approach: Fabricate chips with new materials that conduct electricity more effectively. Better conductivity means less electricity is converted into heat – so less is needed to power the chip. One material, called graphene, consists of a sheet of carbon atoms connected in a hexagonal, chicken-wire pattern. Graphene transistors might consume a tenth to a hundredth the power that current transistors use. Pop is also investigating a second option for building transistors, called carbon nanotubes, in which the carbon sheet is rolled into a tube a thousandth as wide as a red blood cell. He has built simple chips containing 100 to 1,000 graphene or nanotube transistors. He can induce the nanotubes to emit different wavelengths of light – suggesting that they could also form low-power computer screens or electronic billboards. ... Graphene and nanotubes are just two of a number of technologies being explored in order to reduce the power needs of computers."

To learn more about graphene and nanotubes, read my post entitled Nanotechnology: It's a Small World After All. Fox concludes, "Some observers estimate that developing a replacement for today's chips will take 30 years – and cost $100 billion." Intel, however, recently announced a step in that direction ["Intel's 3-D transistors to keep pace with Moore's Law," by Noel McKeegan, Gizmag, 6 May 2011]. McKeegan reports:

"Intel has announced that it is putting its revolutionary Tri-Gate 3-D transistor into mass production. The first 22nm microprocessor (codenamed Ivy Bridge) to use the transistors will be rolled-out later this year, delivering huge gains in performance and efficiency compared with chips that use current 2-D planar transistors and helping keep pace with Moore's Law. ... 'The performance gains and power savings of Intel's unique 3-D Tri-Gate transistors are like nothing we've seen before,' said Mark Bohr, Intel Senior Fellow. 'This milestone is going further than simply keeping up with Moore's Law. The low-voltage and low-power benefits far exceed what we typically see from one process generation to the next. It will give product designers the flexibility to make current devices smarter and wholly new ones possible.'"

To give you some idea about the strides that have been made in computer chip technology, McKeegan reminds us that "Intel's first processor – the 4004 – which was introduced in 1971, ran 4000 times slower and used 5000 times more energy" than the just-announced Tri-Gate 3-D transistor. The next technology examined by Fox is one "that helps in maintaining human rights around the world."

Remote Monitoring of Human Rights

Fox reports that while the Sri Lankan army was cornering the last of the Tamil Tigers last May, Lars Bromley, sitting some 9,000 miles away, "was pulling 15-hour days as he watched the conflict unfold from a different perspective: that of satellites peering down from 450 miles above." ["Human rights: Use satellite "spy" camera for proof and prevention," The Christian Science Monitor, 13 April 2011]. Fox goes on to explains how "human rights can be served by a satellite 'spy' camera [looking] for proof and prevention of atrocities." He writes:

"Private satellites have carried telecommunications for decades. But since 1999, nearly a dozen commercial imaging satellites with photographic resolutions between 6 feet and 20 inches have launched into orbit. Companies using the satellites sell imagery to governments; private companies in agriculture, urban planning, and telecommunications; and – most recently – to environmental and human rights organizations. ... 'It's really been exceptionally valuable,' says Scott Edwards, director of the Science for Human Rights Program at Amnesty International."

Fox reports that "people are still learning new ways to use the data"; but, even more important than the data is the change that satellite monitoring has on potential human rights violators and victims on the ground. Fox claims that "the growing realization that people on the ground may well know someone is watching" is changing behavior. He gives the example of "SOS" distress signals "painted on roads and fields in more than 100 places in letters up to 60 feet tall" during ethnic unrest in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, last July. Those signals were meant to be seen by satellites. The shortfall, of course, is that when a satellite does capture proof of atrocities it can do nothing to stop them. Fox continues:

"Their orbits take them over a given location at fixed times, permitting a snapshot of the same spot only every couple of days – assuming no clouds. In effect, people must make do with photographing crime scenes rather than watching or intervening in events as they unfold. Patrick Meier, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, in California, who cofounded the global network Crisis Mappers, would like to do more: 'You're not just documenting human rights abuses so you can bring someone to justice in The Hague three years later.' The question, he says, is: 'Can you provide tactical data for people to act on and get out of harm's way?'"

Fox goes on to report that there are other ways that satellites can help people in developing countries. He writes:

"Human rights isn't the only area in which satellites have unforeseen impact. Satellites launched to study basic science questions have also located natural resources that could help poor countries. Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, has used orbiting radar to find lakes hidden beneath the sands of North Africa. 'The radar waves penetrate sand as though it does not exist,' explains Dr. Baz. 'It gives us an image of the solid rock beneath the sand, and that shows us the courses of former rivers.' He first found a buried lake beneath southern Egypt in the 1980s; since then it has been tapped by 1,000 wells, allowing wheat cultivation in a formerly dry area."

Last February I posted a blog that discussed how satellites are being used to promote "precision farming" and boost crop yields [Precision Agriculture]. In that post, I quoted from an article in The Economist that stated:

"For farmers, working out the optimal amount of seed, fertiliser, pesticide and water to scatter on a field can make, or break, the subsequent harvest. Regular laboratory analyses of soil and plant samples from various parts of the field can help—but such expertise is costly, and often unavailable. A new and cheaper method of doing this analysis, though, is now on offer. Precise prescriptions for growing crops can be obtained quickly, and less expensively, by measuring electromagnetic radiation reflected from farmland. The data are collected by orbiting satellites." ["Harvest moon," 7 November 2009 print issue]

The article notes that utilizing data collected from such analyses can increase yields by as much as 10%. French growers are the leaders in using "precision farming using satellite-based intelligence"; but, precision farming "is in its infancy." The article notes that satellite agricultural data collection "is valuable to governments, too." The article indicates that satellite-collected data can "help forecast harvests" and can assist farmers boost their productivity by allowing them to manage individual fields (or sections of fields) differently. Although use of satellite-collected data sounds expensive, the article indicates that it is affordable even for some developing countries.

"In Africa, where many soils have become badly depleted of nutrients, better fertiliser management would go a long way. As a consequence, the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi has begun cataloguing the radiation signature—and thus agricultural potential—of about 100,000 samples of African soils. It is giving this detailed information to the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, based in Colombia, so that it can build a database called the Digital Soil Map. When ready, this will provide farmers with free forecasts, developed with regularly updated satellite imagery, across farmland in 42 African countries. For a hunger-ravaged continent, that is good news indeed."

The ability to match crops with climate and soil conditions is what makes precision farming a revolutionary step forward. But satellites can be used for even more mundane things, like helping tractors drive in a straight line ["Rewards of precision farming," by Clive Cookson, Financial Times, 27 January 2010]. Cookson reports:

"The most straightforward form of precision farming is to use satellite navigation to guide a tractor. When signals from GPS satellites are combined with a farm base station, the tractor can drive itself with an accuracy of 2cm – better than the most skilled human operator – avoiding overlapping applications of seeds, for example, and saving fuel."

Tomorrow I'll discuss the final three technologies that Fox believes will change the world: mobile money and biometrics; e-fabric; and artificial photosynthesis.

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