Monday, August 07, 2006

Recent technology news, 8/6/06

If your main source of information is the traditional media, then "technology news" is all about PCs, large-screen TVs, high-density DVDs, digital cameras, cell phones, MP3 players, and other electronic gadgets.

Stuff for consumers to gorge themselves on, in other words. Buy, buy, buy. Then buy some more, when the new models come out next year. Gotta keep the economy wheezing along, y'know.


In fact, there's plenty of interesting technology news that comes out every week. Only it's about stuff that won't be available on the shelves at Best Buy or Circuit City for maybe 10 years, or not oriented towards consumers at all. Stuff that may affect our lives just as significantly as cell phones, if only indirectly -- in much better health care and medicine, for example.

The following is just one week's worth of such technology news. I wish I had time to report on this kind of thing every week, but at least this is a sample.

Bayesian Mathematics Breathes Perception Into Robots
Robots have been around for decades. But you still can't buy one to prepare and serve dinner or help Grandma clean her house and do her wash, because existing robots are too stupid. They can "see" just fine, like a digital camera. But they have only the barest understanding of what they see. Robotic vision is a big problem. It's an "artificial intelligence" problem in which progress is slow, in spite of orders of magnitude improvement in computer speeds over the past several decades. What's holding things back isn't speed, but lack of adequate algorithms -- understanding of how humans comprehend their sensory inputs. The research discussed in the present article concerns a mathematical technique called "Bayesian reasoning" -- "a model for rational judgment when only uncertain and incomplete information is available."

AI Reaches the Golden Years
Here's another perspective on the AI problem. The occasion for the article is the 50th anniversary of a famous workshop at Dartmouth where the term "artificial intelligence" was coined. You'd think that there should have been a significant amount of progress in 50 years, something commensurate with the progress in computers that makes the comparison between 1950s computers and contemporary ones like the relation of cuneiform tablets to high-density DVDs. Sadly, no. One of the main participants in the Dartmouth workshop, Marvin Minsky, said in 2003, "AI has been brain-dead since the 1970s." (I took an intoductory course in AI from Minsky a mere 40 years ago.) Perhaps that's too harsh a judgment, but the main problem is still "commonsense reasoning". However, we may be closer to the advent of "real" AI than to the founding of the subject. Stanley, the self-driving "autonomous vehicle" developed at the Stanford AI Lab which won the Darpa Challenge in 2005, may indicate that vehicles with at least some such capabilities may be on our roads in, oh, just another decade or two.

The Quest for the $1,000 Human Genome
AI will arrive eventually, but a bet I'd be a lot more confident making for the nearer term is the "$1000 genome" described in this article. The idea is that for the (arbitrarily chosen) price of a mere $1000 the genome of any particular individual could be sequenced. This means, in particular, that all of the potential disease-related genes of the individual would be known, along with genes that affect (for better or worse) individual reactions to therapeutic drugs. The first complete human genome sequence was produced by the government's Human Genome Project at the cost of only $3 billion (and almost simultaneously by the Celera Genomics company for only $300 million). This was essentially complete just 3 years ago, in 2003. Now it is estimated a complete sequence would cost only $10 million -- a factor of 30 improvement over the Celera work in only 3 years. But a cost reduction by a factor of 10,000 is still needed. How long will that take? 15 years, maybe, 20 at most? Together with the evolving knowledge of what genes make us more susceptible to cancer, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, etc., this will make a really significant difference in our lives. Heck, it might be worth the price even at $10,000. After all, if you're diagnosed with cancer, you're probably talking medical bills above $100,000 or more. Knowing your actual genome might help dodge the cancer entirely. How much is your life worth?

Team Invents Fast, Flexible Computer Chips On Plastic
The range of small, hand-held electronic devices now available, like MP3 players, advanced cell phones, and digital cameras, is certainly impressive. Such devices now have the computational ability and memory capacity of computers that occupied entire rooms only 30 years ago -- a thousand times the memory capacity in some cases. This is an aspect of "ubiquitous computing", where computers disappear into the innards of common objects like coffee makers or telephones. But this trend has a lot farther to go, and it is due to be accelerated when electronic circuits no longer need to be fabricated on silicon chips but instead can be "printed" onto more convenient materials such as glass, plastic, or other flexible substances. The research described in this article is aimed at this goal.

A New BEC Magnetometer
A Bose-Einstein condensate is a state of matter that exists only at temperatures very near absolute zero. It forms when a large number of individual atoms (which must be "bosons") all fall to the lowest quantum state. BECs have been created in the laboratory only since 1995, and have remained largely of theoretical interest -- until now. The article reports on "the first application for Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) outside the realm of atomic physics." In this case, the measurement of very small magnetic fields. There will certainly be other applications, such as in nanoscale optics and, quite possibly, in quantum computing.

Rice Scientists Unveil 'Nanoegg'
The article is about "asymmetric specks of matter whose striking optical properties can be harnessed for molecular imaging, medical diagnostics, chemical sensing and more." This is just one of a very large number of recent developments in the field of nanotechnology. Traditional media have carried many alarmist articles about the potential health dangers of nanoparticles that come in contact with human bodies. Much of that alarmism is rather beside the point, since (as here) the potential applications use nanotechnology safely encapsulated within high-tech medical or industrial devices that the pubic has no actual interaction with.

Connect the Quantum Dots
A quantum dot is another product of nanotechnology which already has significant applications, such as biomedical sensing devices and the blue lasers used in high-density DVD recording. They may very well be used, also, in quantum computing. A quantum dot is an aggregate of 100 to 100,000 atoms confined to a region with a diameter of 2 to 10 nanometers. Such an aggregate behaves like a single atom, which can assume discrete energy levels. This means that, among other things, quantum dots can absorb and emit distinct wavelengths of light, and hence are capable of flourescing with specific colors. The article here is about the use of quantum dots to replace conventional organic dyes in biomedical applications.

Add Nanotubes And Stir
Yet another, and well-publicized, product of nanotechnology is found in carbon nanotubes. A vast amount of research and development work is going on in this area. One application is nanoelectronics, where nanotubes are used to construct electronic devices at nanometer scales. They are also being used to make composite materials by mixing them with organic polymers. Such composites can have exceptional strength, toughness and electrical conductivity. The problem is that the composites have to be made with great care. The research here is about using just the right amount of force in mixing the composite in order to achieve the desired properties.


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