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ATPM 18.05
May 2012





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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Miraz Jordan,

Shrinking Into an Expanding World

It was probably around 1995 when I downloaded my first video clip from the Internet. On the dial-up modem of the time, it took forever—around an hour, from memory. Finally, though, the clip was on my computer, and I was able to play it in all its stuttering, jerky, postage-stamp-sized 30-second glory. I was thrilled.

But that was then, and this is now. And since I live in Wellington, New Zealand, my “now” is always the future for almost everyone else, thanks to a quirk of time zones. I’m living in tomorrow, today.

I love feeling as though I live in the future, and these days I spend a lot of time on the future’s doorstep, thanks to a column called Tech Universe that I write for the New Zealand Herald Online. Every weekday I write up interesting tech that’s being talked about online.

Sometimes those items are just reporting on the biggest, fastest, smallest doodads. Other times, they’re things I suspect will change our universes as much in the next 20 years as the World Wide Web did back in the 90s. And the key seems to be our exploration of the tiniest elements of our world.

It’s All So Small

We used to think micro stuff was small, but these days nano is in. 1 nanometre = 1 billionth of a meter. Nanoparticles are big these days.

  • Scientists at Stanford University created spherical nanoparticles from gold coated with a metal called gadolinium and a layer of silica. The nanoparticles were shown to accumulate in cancer cells during tests on mice. Heated with laser pulses, the particles can be detected with a sonogram to produce real-time images of the tumour. That means surgeons should be able to accurately remove just cancerous brain cells, leaving the rest of the brain untouched.
  • Researchers in Taiwan and the US found a way to use silicon dots only 3 nanometers in diameter for fast and efficient data storage that’s stable and long-lived.
  • Chinese chemical engineers created a self-cleaning fabric coated with nanoparticles that incorporate titanium dioxide, nitrogen ions, and silver iodide. The nanoparticles kill microbes when exposed to light.
  • US scientists created a paint that generates power when exposed to light. The paint uses nanoparticles of titanium dioxide, coated with either cadmium sulfide or cadmium selenide.

What will be most exciting, though, is when clever people start combining disparate bits of technology. Can we imagine self-cleaning and self-powering clothes that store all the data from our day, for example?

Carbon Components

Nano stuff is happening everywhere, but of special interest in this realm are carbon nanotubes. These are cylindrical carbon molecules with all kinds of interesting properties such as thermal conductivity and strength. A carbon nanotube may be only 1 nanometer in diameter, though it may be very long.

Carbon nanotubes are being explored for diverse applications, including the following:

In fact, every other article about research and development in any field seems to mention carbon nanotubes or graphene (the new wonder substance and a component of carbon nanotubes).

Graphene Is Queen

Take a chunk of carbon. Peel off a layer that’s only a single atom thick. Now you have graphene.

It sounds as if it’s no more than just a thin chunk of carbon, but this stuff is powerful.

  • Graphene paper from Australia is as thin as a sheet of paper, 6 times lighter and 6 times lower density than steel, but twice as hard and 10 times as tensile. What’s more, it’s eco-friendly. Graphene paper could be used for planes and other vehicles, with huge savings in weight, fuel use, and costs.
  • Researchers at the University of Southampton created transistors from graphene by creating sharp bends and corners in bi-layer graphene nanowires. These transistors can switch very fast and open up the possibility of using graphene in computer chips.
  • US scientists added graphene to lithium ion batteries so they charged quicker and held their charge longer.
  • Graphene foam performs better than current sensors at detecting potentially dangerous and explosive chemicals, and it works at room temperature.
  • The world’s thinnest sheet of glass comes in at just 3 atoms thick. Scientists recently made it by accident while working with graphene. The ultra-thin glass, made of silicon and oxygen, could be used in semiconductor or graphene transistors.

Will we be seeing computers made of graphene paper, using chips made of the same stuff and with batteries that charge quickly and drain slowly because of the graphene? Will they be powered by our body heat, perhaps?

Atoms, Anti-atoms, and Photons

These days, scientists are working with individual atoms and even components of atoms, anti-matter, and individual photons. Graphene is only a single atom thick, for example, but other atom-sized work is also under way. Being able to detect and work with single photons opens up potential medical applications, enhanced sensors, and, it turns out, even the ability to see around corners. Working with components of atoms leads us into a new world of quantum computing too.

  • Scientists at CERN managed to trap and hold 309 antihydrogen atoms for up to 16 minutes.
  • The European X-ray Free-electron Laser will emit X-ray flashes a billion times brighter than those from conventional X-ray sources. That will mean 3D X-ray images of single molecules or the atomic details of viruses. 27,000 X-rays per second will be generated by a 3-km-long superconducting accelerator.
  • A team at Columbia University has created single-photon avalanche diodes that detect individual photons. One application is specialised camera chips to measure fluorescence for medical purposes.
  • When we look at the ocean, we see the sea, not the individual drops of water that make it up. In the same way, we see light all around us, but not photons. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created a camera that does see individual photons, as it captures 1 trillion exposures per second, but only in 1 dimension. It can see a burst of light travel the length of a soft drink bottle and back again.
  • Take a very special camera that can fire pulses of laser light and then record with extreme accuracy how long the photons take to bounce back. By applying an algorithm to those time differences, the software can reconstruct items that are hidden by intervening objects from the camera’s view. Scientists at MIT have used this technique to see around corners. The camera fires 60 laser pulses, each to a slightly different position and each only 50 quadrillionths of a second long. The reconstruction algorithm then takes all the data and creates an image of what the camera can’t see. The camera can record images every 2 picoseconds, the time it takes light to travel just 0.6 mm.
  • Silicon wires, just 4 atoms wide and 1 atom tall, can carry as much electrical current as copper wires, according to researchers from Australia and the US. The wires are made from chains of phosphorus atoms within a silicon crystal. This could be very useful for creating actual quantum computers.
  • Random numbers are used for all sorts of purposes, such as air traffic control, electronic gaming, and encryption. But numbers generated electronically aren’t usually truly random. Researchers at The Australian National University believe they’ve found a source of truly random numbers by using the noise in the vacuum of space. Vacuum is not completely empty, dark, and silent. Instead, sub-atomic particles spontaneously appear and disappear in it, creating random noise. The researchers are using that noise to generate their random numbers. Quantum theory apparently guarantees that such numbers will be unpredictable.

Quantum Weirdness

OK, I have to admit that quantum mechanics overheats my brain, but scientists are starting to use it to find new ways of doing things such as storing and moving information. This video may enlighten or further baffle you.

The thing is that quantum mechanics is starting to open up new worlds of possibility. At the level of the quantum tiny, physics is just different: things can be in two places at once, or “entangled,” or in a state of potential, not settled until an observer gets involved.

This stuff is so new, so strange, so advanced that most of us can’t even begin to imagine how it might be used in real life. One thing seems sure though: the silicon chip introduced a new era of computing; quantum mechanics and the work with photons will likewise utterly transform computing.

  • The University of New South Wales is working on quantum teleportation—moving a complex set of quantum information from one point to another quickly and reliably. Researchers have now succeeded and maintained the integrity of transmission. This brings us another step closer to quantum computing.
  • If you put a single molecule in a junction between a pair of gold electrodes to form a simple circuit and stretch it, conductance goes down. But if you stretch it enough, conductance rockets up, making it 10 times more conductive than if not stretched at all. It’s all to do with quantum mechanics and reduced barriers to electrons tunneling through the molecule. This finding could allow new types of electronic devices.
  • The Rainier processor in the D-Wave One computer system is designed to perform a single mathematical operation called discrete optimization. It does so alongside your normal computing platform running its usual operations. The superconducting 128-qubit processor chip is housed inside a cryogenics system within a 10-square-meter shielded room. To program the processor, you just need some basic quantum physics and machine learning skills.
  • Quantum Locking is a new term to learn. It describes a phenomenon that will astonish you once you see its effects. Scientists at Tel Aviv University in Israel wrapped a thin superconductor around a crystal sapphire wafer and then froze it. Tiny imperfections allowed some magnetic forces through the superconductor in magnetic channels called flux tubes. The flux tubes lock the magnetic field in all three dimensions. That all sounds pretty dry, but what it means is that a disc that can levitate in a locked orientation. Tilt it and send it on a journey floating above a magnetic disc, and it will fly around without wobbling. Still sounds dull? Watch the video and you’ll see why it’s so amazing.

All Well and Good

The human body isn’t really terribly large. When computers or sensors such as MRI machines fill whole rooms, we have to go inside the machine for diagnosis or treatment. But now everything’s becoming so small that many devices can go inside us. Sensors to detect changes in body functions, targeted drug delivery devices, body-powered gadgets, and chips wired directly into our brains mean we can blend with the machine.

There are infinite exciting things happening in the world of medicine, but let’s take a look at just a handful.

  • A new technology takes stem cells from the healthy skin of burn victims, and, in the space of an hour or two, is able to spray the treated cells on the burned areas using a “skin gun.” New skin grows in just a few days.
  • US engineers are developing a tiny solar-powered sensor to be implanted inside the eye. It will monitor pressure to warn of glaucoma and wirelessly send data once a day to an external receiver.
  • Researchers in the USA have created contact lenses—corrective or not—that a person can wear continuously for up to 30 days. The lenses release a controlled amount of a drug through a memory effect in the lens structure.
  • Stanford University scientists can watch nerve cells and blood vessels inside the brains of living animals. They use a new endoscope—a needle only 500 to 1,000 microns in diameter at the tip and containing a carefully shaped lens. The needle can be inserted and removed as needed through a glass tube that stays embedded in the brain.
  • The Implantable Neuro Sensing and Stimulation chip is a medical device about the size of the head of a match. Implanted in the spinal cord, it measures the properties of nerves carrying pain signals to the brain and can block pain signals with electric pulses.
  • Surgeons sometimes like to take a look around inside your body before they cut you open. A new disposable camera is the size of a coarse grain of salt. The 1-mm-cubed microcamera fits on the tip of an endoscope. It has a resolution of 250×250 pixels and transmits data through the endoscope via an electrical cable. Because the camera’s disposable, it doesn’t need careful and expensive cleaning after use, reducing costs.

And on the topic of health, how about those robots?

I Am the Robot

Robot drones are being used for law enforcement, military purposes, and exploration. But robots are also being used to more directly help people when it comes to health. From exoskeletons to chips in the brain, it’s all happening in health care.

  • The Ekso Bionics exoskeleton could help people with paraplegia to walk on their own. Exoskeletons are popular: there are half a dozen or more being developed and brought to market. This is just one of many.
  • An Austrian man who lost the ability to move his right hand had it amputated. It will be replaced by a bionic hand controlled by signals from his brain. Sensors on his arm detect the signals and send them on to the hand. A similar operation last year helped a man who lost the use of one hand after being struck by lightning.
  • The BioBolt is an implant that goes into a human brain. Unlike other such implants it doesn’t penetrate the cortex and is covered over with skin. It’s about the size of a coin and has a small film of microcircuits attached. The microcircuits detect patterns of firing neurons, amplify and filter the signals, then transmit them through the skin to a computer. Researchers hope to be able to send signals through the skin to a smaller device worn like jewellery, rather than a computer. Eventually they hope the BioBolt will be able to help paralysed people control their limbs through their thoughts.
  • A proof of concept experiment at the Free University of Berlin had a driver control a car’s travel simply by thinking of which direction to go. The driver first wore a special cap with sensors to detect brain patterns while training software to recognise specific thoughts. On a test-drive he was able to control the car’s direction by thought alone.
  • Back in 2005, a tetraplegic woman in the US had a tiny silicon electrode array implanted in her brain. It was part of a BrainGate system—hardware and software that senses signals from the brain connected with body movements. The system allows people to control computers, wheelchairs, or bionic limbs by thought alone. 1,000 days later, the electrode array was still working, though not perfectly. The woman and her electrode are still participating in trials even today.
  • Researchers from Israel and the USA collaborated to create a robot that will be able to swim through the intestines and send back images. The microswimmer is the size of a large pill. This is different from current similar devices because its movements can be controlled so it can be directed to where it’s most useful. Its copper and flexible polymer tail vibrates in response to the magnetic field created by an MRI scan and propels the device.
  • Scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, created a sensor patch filled with circuits. It can be applied like a temporary tattoo but doesn’t need adhesives. Applied to the throat, it can detect spoken words and control a computer game. On other parts of the body it can record heartbeats, brain activity, or muscle contractions. The flexible and stretchy patch is powered by embedded solar cells or inductive coils; it is no thicker than a human hair. The patch falls off after a few days as the body naturally sheds skin cells.
  • In Australia, the Monash Vision Group is working on a bionic eye to improve vision. A biologically inert chip is inserted into the brain but can be tuned up by doctors without further surgery. The chip receives wireless signals from a special pair of glasses that detect which way your eyes are looking and then turn a digital camera in that direction. The glasses process the camera signal and send it to the brain as electrical signals via the implanted chip. The chip directly stimulates the visual cortex and the wearer’s brain eventually learns to interpret these signals as sight. Researchers hope to do their first patient tests by 2014.

A New Era

As I write my daily Tech Universe column, I see thousands of discrete items of information such as those listed above. Hundreds of thousands of people are working on tiny pieces of research. One finds a way to produce electricity by body heat. Another finds a way to make a camera small enough to fit in a grain of salt.

Others find that nanoparticles of gold will seek out a brain tumour, and others work out how to make it possible for a robot to walk up steps.

And from all those tiny discoveries—each in itself a huge piece of work, of course—creative folk will find ways to combine them to build devices that make our lives easier, better, or maybe just more fun.

Their discoveries will ease suffering, replace or augment our failing human abilities, allow us to explore new worlds—literally—or even just entertain us.

The silicon chip brought us computers. In the last 20 years, those computers have shrunk from filling a desk to falling out of our pockets. They’ve gone from standalone devices to connecting us full-time to those we do and don’t know in person.

I believe the time of the now-familiar computer is almost gone. I can’t imagine what will replace the Macs, iPhones, and iPads we now enjoy and how the new devices will change our lives.

But I can say that the new devices will be using nanoparticles and quantum effects to do their work. They’ll rely on our new knowledge about how molecules, atoms, and photons work. They’ll draw power from light, heat, and motion, and not just from a socket in the wall.

In times to come, the gadgets we use may move from our pockets to inside our bodies, perhaps even inside our brains, or perhaps just to a pair of glasses that tell us all we need to know.

We’re on the threshold of a new computing age. What an exciting time to be alive!

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