Science, technology & design

The next industrial revolution?

The information technology revolution is well under way and while many of the scientific implications of nanotechnology have been well documented and debated the societal and business consequences have been less thought through. For example, the miniscule size of nanotechnology materials could radically reshape modern manufacturing and will impact on distribution, retailing and environmental concerns too. Indeed, nanotech could be as important as the steam engine, the transistor and the Internet. Modern manufacturing (and to some extent global capitalism) is founded on the belief that large inputs are required and that economies of scale produce economic benefit. This won't necessarily be the case in the distant future. Products will in theory be assembled using nanotechnology 'factories' which will be exceedingly small. So small in fact that they will be built inside peoples' homes. Moreover, thanks to nanotechnology, products could be created only for the period in which they are needed and could effectively be reverse manufactured to get rid of them. No idea what I'm talking about? OK. Consider this scenario. Personal Manufacturing Units (PMUs) will be able to assemble anything people want, much like a 3D printer. Only difference is the inputs are atoms not physical materials. So if you want a new set of plates for a dinner party they could be assembled in your own PMU. All you'd need would be some software and a design blueprint chosen using a keyboard, screen or some other user interface.Thus raw materials, transport, logistics, inventory, waste disposal and retail all disappear right in front of your eyes. Put another way, user generated content or customer co-creation would be subject to a paradigm shift and consumers would literally become creators of everything they consume making individuals pretty much self-sufficient. Competitive advantage would then simply lie in customer knowledge and designing the blueprints for manufacturing. This also of course solves many environmental issues (e.g. waste) and ushers in a whole new economic system that is less reliant on physical resources and labour.
Ref: Harvard Business Review (US) 'Breakthrough Ideas for 2007: Business in the Nanocosm' R. Glazer.
See also Red Herring (US) 15 January 2007, 'Nanotech will heat up',
Search words: manufacturing, nanotechnology
Trend tags: nanotechnology, personalisation
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The end of free will?

Most developed societies are based on the notion of free will and most criminal law (at least in the West) is based upon the idea that individuals make choices. If you remove free will - or free choice - then everything involving the idea of individual responsibility falls around your ears. Indeed, the concept of freedom is utterly meaningless without the concept of free will. The removal of free will isn't about to happen quite yet but over the past fifteen years modern neuroscience has started to challenge the idea of free will by discovering various cause and effect mechanisms in the human brain. For example, about ten years ago an American man began to proposition children and was suspected of being a paedophile. He was arrested but on the day before his sentence was due to be passed it was found that he had a brain tumour. The tumour was removed and so too were his paedophilic tendencies and ideas. Who then was the criminal? This all sounds like yet another futuristic tale or flight of science fiction fantasy but it's not. In the UK the government is already attempting to change the law so that individuals with personality disorders can be locked up - potentially forever - to prevent them from committing future crimes.In other words, there is an attempt to create a department of future crime that will monitor and potentially lock-up people for crimes that they haven't committed yet but probably will based upon known personality disorders. More worryingly, a National DNA database (of which I've written previously) is perfectly capable of adding potential future offenders to the 'watch list' based not on personality disorders but DNA profiles or hereditary traits.
Ref: The Economist (UK) 23 December 2006 'Free to choose'.
Search words: neuroscience, free will, freedom, DNA, crime, choice
Trend tags: neuroscience, DNA
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The future of voice recognition technology

Your call is important to us, please stay on the line. Please select from one of the following ten options. You are in a queue; your queue number is sixty-nine. Feeling annoyed yet? In the future the machine at the end of the telephone will realise this and adjust its voice and behaviour accordingly, which could usher in a new era of virtual salespeople and customer service representatives. The idea of creating artificial voices goes way back to the 1780s although not much really happened until 1978 when Texas Instruments developed the famous 'Speak 'n' Spell' toy that converted words typed into a keyboard into the spoken word - sort of. Most early attempts at voice replication tried to invent human sounds from scratch but latterly attention has shifted to using real voice recordings, or more specifically breaking down recorded speech into its component parts and then rebuilding them to create words and sentences. However, there remains a problem. Artificial speech is almost entirely devoid of emotion and people know it because our ears and brains are very sensitive not only to words but how they are spoken. That's why recorded voices are so annoying. Moreover, research has shown that people respond best to voices that are similar to their own. This means that men prefer speaking to artificial male rather than artificial female voices and personality and emotion should ideally be matched too. For instance, extroverts like the sound of extrovert voices while introverts prefer the opposite. Last but not least people seem to respond best when the emotional state of an artificial voice matches their own emotional state. But delivering this isn't easy.
In theory spotting when someone is stressed or annoyed is quite easy but we all get angry and respond in different ways and so far machines are way behind in terms of realising this. Getting a voice or mood wrong is of course a problem as BMW found out a few years ago when they put the wrong kind of artificial voice (a woman) into their top-end 7-Series range that is largely driven by men. So what happens next?The likelihood is that artificial voice recognition will develop in leaps and bounds adding, for example, regional accents, but trying to detect moods will flounder for many years to come. There's a problem on the philosophical level too as Jaron Lanier at the University of California at Berkeley points out. Apart from the obvious discomfort about computers - and the organizations behind them - manipulating our moods there is the possibility that we will act dumb so as to make the machines look smart. It's enough to drive you back into the arms of a real life, grumpy, disinterested human customer services representative.
Ref: New Scientist (UK) 10 February 2007, 'A little more conversation', T. Logan.
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Links: robotics
Trend tags: artificial intelligence
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The future of robotics

According to Bill Gates, robotics is the next big thing in technology. At the moment the robotics industry is heavily fragmented with a plethora of standards and platforms and not much in the way of practical industry or domestic applications. Much like the computer industry in the early 1970s then. Most robotic products are also currently low volume niche products, ranging from bomb disposal and surveillance robots used by the military to domestic robots that cut the lawn or sweep the floor. So why hasn't robotics really taken off? The answer is that many of the basic tasks required of the ideal all-round robot still can't be done or cost too much to do. For example, orientation and the visual recognition of objects are still very tricky and getting a robot to tell the difference between an open door and an open window is practically impossible. However, until robots can quickly sense and react to an environment they will not become ubiquitous devices and their uses will be limited. However, this is all about to change due to the convergence of a handful of trends. First the cost of computing power (processing and storage) is dropping fast. Second distributed computing, voice and visual recognition technologies and wireless broadband connectivity are similarly dropping in price and increasing in availability.For instance, a couple of years ago hardware such as a laser range finder would have cost around US $10,000. Today the price is generally under US $2,000. Similarly, one Meg of processing power would have cost over US$7,000 thirty years ago but today costs just a few cents. As a result robots could soon start to multiply. According to the International Federation of Robotics around two million robots were in domestic service in 2004 and this figure is predicted to rise to 9 million by next year (2008). Meanwhile in South Korea the government aims to put a robot in every home by the year 2013. Personal robots could be cleaning floors, dispensing medicine, folding laundry and keeping an eye open for intruders while industrial applications will almost certainly include the operation of dangerous machinery and the handling of dangerous materials. All of this is well predicted. However, there could be some less obvious uses for robots in the future, especially in service roles. For instance, robots could carry your bags in a supermarket or up to your room in a hotel. They could replace guide dogs for the visually impaired or replace care-workers in hospitals or nursing homes. Whether a machine will ever fully replace human or animal contact is a big question and most people say no. However, attitudes may shift. We are already seeing children accepting robots in ways that their parents never would.
Ref: Scientific American (US) January 2007, 'A robot in every home', B. Gates. Nikkei Weekly (Japan) 18 December 2006, 'Robots in social roles'
Search words: automation, robots, robotics, intelligence
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Some big bets for 2007

Rather than listing a series of technology trends, US technology and venture capital magazine Red Herring this year made some specific predictions about future developments and events. The best bets, in my opinion, are as follows:
1. Smart implants - about fifty individuals around the world have electrical devices implanted in their brains to control behaviour but this number is predicted to explode, especially if the US FDA approves the mainstream use of such devices. Leading companies include Medtronics and Intelligent Medical Implants and the devices - so called brain-pacemakers - are used to treat serious cases of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
2. Mobile phone viruses - computer viruses are well known but to date there has only ever been one cell-phone virus - Cabir.A - that was created purely as an experiment.In theory multiple operating systems should protect mobile phone users from a future attack but according to many experts a mobile virus is a dead certainty in 2007.
3. Nanotech - US$10 billion is already spent annually (2005) on nanotech R&D and the area is forecast to hot up in 2007 especially in the area of cancer treatment.
4. Sarbanes-Oxley - the Act will get relaxed, at least for small-cap companies.
5. Private equity - Private equity firms will buy up technology giants such as Dell and Yahoo.
6. DVDs - HD-DVD and Blu-Ray die an instant death in the face of download competition
Ref: Red Herring (US) 15 January 2007, 'Predictions for 2007'
Search words: tech trends, technology, predictions
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