Science, technology & design


Genes in your garage

Just as many successful tech companies started in a garage, in America, at least, there are DIY scientists experimenting at home with genes. In Britain regulations are much tighter, and it is harder to carry out experiments at home, especially with GMOs. Gingko Bioworks is one US company aiming to encourage this kind of work, and help scientists bypass the usual pathway of PhD and venture capital. It doesn’t cost much to buy off-the-shelf genetic parts from them and, with increasing ability to share knowledge about genetic engineering, many home scientists are looking for the next discovery.

Ginkgo has created genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that release a banana smell, turn red, or glow in the dark. The challenge is to engineer genes for positive outcomes, and not create harmful pathogens (smallpox genes, for example, are hard to get). Another company, DIYbio, has spawned a large-scale collaborative science project called FlashLabs. For their latest initative, BioWeatherMaps, amateur scientists are encouraged to explore the microbes living on cross-walk buttons in Boston, compared to San Francisco or Manhattan!

It is science for everybody and the Internet makes it possible for amateurs of all persuasions to pursue their passion in collaboration with others. Calling it “biohacking” or “flash lab” gives it the kudos of Web2.0, but upsets the mainstream community of scientists who might think they are better qualified to pursue such important tasks. While it was scientists who invented the internet, they seem to be less interested in using the useful features of the internet (35% in one survey). Also, see the story, The DNA Testing Controversy (issue 22), for similar skepticism.

Ref: The Guardian Weekly, 10 April 2009, Do-it-yourself genetics takes off. James Bloom.,
Search words: citizen scientists, genes, laboratories, biohacking, GMOs, “Flash Lab”, regulations, DIY biotechnology.
Trend tags: Biotechnology, GRIN
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“Good enough” for less cash

Moore’s Law said the amount of processing power available at a certain price doubles every 18 months (or the cost of that power falls by half). The question is whether people will keep wanting to pay the same price to get more power, and for a host of features they might not really need (“feature bloat”). The success of netbooks (small, cheap laptops) suggests they are happy to pay less for limited storage and processing power. While netbooks are similar to laptops 2-3 years ago, they sell for as little as $US250 in America and 21 million units will sell this year, according to IDC. They make computing simple and “good enough”.

The same is true for software, which has become progressively memory-hungry and more complicated to learn. The next version of Windows, following Vista, will be the first version to run more quickly but use fewer resources. Part of the success of “good enough” software services, like or NetSuite, is that they offer less sophisticated software that does the same job, with less power. While it looks like a financial decision – in this climate at least – we think people are just taking control over the technology after feeling, for too long, that it had control of them.

Ref: The Economist, 17 January 2009, Less is Moore. Anon.
Search words: Moore’s Law, processing power, netbook, cheaper, “good enough”.
Trend tags: Simplicity
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Highway mobility

The trendwatchers agree on three computing topics at least – computers are getting cheaper, wireless access will be everywhere, and memory is going solid state. Meanwhile, other trends in batteries, and connectivity, make it easier than ever to work on the road.

Solid state memory might not mean much to the everyday computer user, but in practice it means no moving parts, fewer storage errors, and faster speeds. Having wireless access everywhere also might seem underwhelming if you are not a computer geek but, if 4G allows your TV to download your favourite TV shows and your phone to automatically update its address book from Facebook, you might find it useful. Meanwhile, cheaper computing is everyone’s wish, and netbooks are popular also because they’re easier to use.

When manufacturers add new features to computers (like graphics on netbooks), they increase the need for battery power. As for car manufacturers, better batteries are needed to take the next technological step. Nobody wants to spend too much time charging batteries, nor do they want to run out at the crucial moment. Mobile power may not even need a battery by 2010, because computers could be running on fuel cells, which convert hydrogen-containing fuel into electricity and leave only water and CO2.

The last trend, cloud computing, describes how content can be stored anywhere, not necessarily on your own computer. It reduces the need for storage and power, but the main advantage is connectivity. Now anyone can see and add to your documents or photos or spreadsheets, and it makes collaboration easier. We see examples of this in the story, Genes in Your Garage, but in the internet age, people from all over the world can work on anything, even on the road.

Ref: NetworkWorld, 2 April 2009, Mobile tech 2010: Trends that will change our lives. Brian Nadel.
Australian AntHill, 9 February 2009, Fast five trends for right now. Mike Walsh.
Search words: mobility, 4G, notebooks, netbooks, solid-state storage, batteries, WiMax, cloud computing, cheap, ubiquity, augmented reality.
Trend tags: Connectivity, mobility
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Bulbs and batteries

Just when you thought you wouldn’t buy anything else that needs charging, the future of cars relies on batteries. Carmakers are gathering to find the ultimate lithium ion for powering energy-conscious electric cars and hybrids. This will be a $US150 billion a year industry by 2030, not to mention a completely new way of motoring. It will also divide the big carmakers because the winner will be the one who marries power with convenience. GM has the Chevrolet Volt; Toyota, the Prius. But different types of lithium ion batteries may be used for plug-in electric hybrids, compared to petrol-based hybrids.

It’s tempting to think that only cars are heavy guzzlers of fuel. About a fifth of the world’s electricity is used for lighting so any improvements in that technology will make huge savings. Already the incandescent bulb is on the way out (already gone in Australia, Brazil and Switzerland) because only 5% actually produces light – the rest is heat. The compact fluorescent (CFL) uses up to 75% less power and lasts ten times longer, but costs more and casts a different kind of glow. Some fear they’re even a health hazard.

One enlightened alternative is the light-emitting diode (LED), forecast to cut world use of electricity in half by 2025 and reduce the need for 130 new power stations. LEDs have already been used for torches, streetlights and headlights, but Philips is promoting a range of LEDs that saves 80% energy and lasts 45,000 hours (about 5 years non-stop). Since only a quarter of lighting is domestic, companies are highly influential in reducing use of electricity. It is in their interests to use LEDs and, as researchers find cheaper ways to produce them, companies are more likely to adopt them. Consumers should aim to support companies that light up their lives in an environmentally friendly fashion.

Ref: The Economist, 21 March 2009, A brilliant new approach. Anon.
Strategy & Business, 2 March 2009, The future is lithium. William J Holstein.
Search words: lithium ion, Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt, GM, electric cars, R&D, incandescent, compact fluorescent, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), gallium nitride, silicon.
Trend tags: Batteries, electricity
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A robot into just about everything – including you

The word “robot” comes from the Czech word, meaning “servitude”. Certainly, we can accept robots taking over tasks we’d rather not do. In Japan, there are robots that can safely remove asbestos (witness the James Hardie case in Australia), one that conducts underwater research, and another that can detect mines in Cambodia and therefore prevent terrible loss of human life. There is even a robotic suit that can be worn by a disabled person to allow them to walk. These robots certainly do serve us.

Ray Kurzweil, the controversial futurologist and software engineer, claims artificial intelligence will meet the human intellect within 20 years! He foresees a time when nano-robots within our bodies will work to reduce aging and enhance our mental and physical capacity. They will also operate throughout our environments, offering amazing virtual realities and experience “beaming”, as well as high intelligence.

If this is overwhelming, take comfort in the fact that the challenge of harnessing solar energy could be met through nanotechnology. He says only one part in 10,000 of sunlight is needed to meet 100% of our energy needs. He is also in favour of carbon sequestration, gene therapy, and reverse-engineering of the brain. If there is 32 times more technical progress in the next 50 years than the last 50, as Kurzweil claims, it looks as if our brains have a lot of catching up to do. All I need is a robot to mow the lawn.

Ref: The Times 16 February 2009, Get ready for a scary new world of life-enriching robot implants. Mark Henderson.
The Nikkei Weekly, 16 February 2009, Daiwa House laying future foundations. Anon.
The Nikkei Weekly, 30 March 2009, Robots ready for hazardous duty. Anon.
Search words: asbestos removal, undersea research, mine detector, robotic suits, disabled people, nano-robots, artificial intelligence.
Trend tags: Robotics, GRIN, nanotechnology
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