Science, technology & design

All in one and one for all?

As any tech wizard will tell you, products are converging with the result that devices offer a plethora of different functions. A good example is the mobile (cell) phone from which you can take photographs, watch videos, send emails, listen to music and play games. (Some people even use phones to make calls!) However, a Cyberposium with a group of experts at Harvard Business School earlier this year concluded that single digital devices are not the shapes of things to come. The obstacles to making such a dream come true are partly technical (e.g. battery life is a big problem in the short term), but the biggest barrier is human physiology. People have varied needs and prefer specialised devices where the use dictates the architecture and the form. Phones will never replace laptops simply because the keyboards are too small. What people do want is 'place-shifting' - the ability to move stuff around from one device to another. For example, if you're listening to some music on your i-Pod you may wish to carry on listening to the same track on your computer and then in your car.

Ref: Harvard Business School /Working Knowledge (US), 14 February 2005. 'The World in Your Palm?', S.Silverstone.

The other power crisis

A report by Boston Consulting (BCG) has found that the amount of power that a battery can hold is growing at 8% a year. However, the energy required by portable devices such as phones, music players and gaming devices is increasing at 24% a year. The global battery market is worth about GB £25 billion with most sales being traditional alkaline batteries. But this is about to change in about 18 months with the launch of the first fuel cell batteries. These batteries are currently about the size of a cigarette lighter and do not run down as long as there is a readily available supply of hydrogen - a fact that has not escaped the attention of Bic which has realised that its knowledge of gas powered lighters could position the company to make fuel cells.

Ref: The Times (UK) 22 January 2005. 'Scientists charge up weapons for final assault on batteries', L.Lewis.

They know you want it

Marketers have always wanted to look inside customers' brains and now they can. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is basically a modified version of an ordinary hospital MRI scanner which can help companies to understand what turns potential customers on and off about products. The technology works on the principle that when people see something they like blood flows to certain areas in their pre-frontal cortex. By showing people images of products, ads or logos and then monitoring this flow of blood researchers can in theory make some safe bets about what people will want and what they won't. Of course, in reality things are a bit more complicated and various real world factors impinge on the journey from desire to action. Nevertheless, the technology has impressed Ford enough for them to conduct a test in Europe and a number of Hollywood studios have expressed interest in the idea.

Ref: Fortune (US) 24 January 2005. '10 Tech Trends To Watch in 2005', J.Schlosser/ A.Lashinsky.

Are robots a dead end?

This year the US military will start to deploy armed robots in Iraq. The robots, which look like small radio controlled tanks, are operated by human soldiers up to a mile away. Each robot 'soldier' is equipped with cameras, laser sights, thermal vision and night vision and either a machine gun or rocket launcher. The Pentagon has been dreaming about the use of robot soldiers for 30 years and has just budgeted US $127 billion (yes, that's BILLION) to create what it euphemistically calls Future Combat Systems. This is the biggest military contract in US history. Meanwhile, the use of domestic robots is expected to triple by 2010 although some sceptics like Steven Skaar say that the technology pin-up of the 20th century is a dead end. Skaar, who is a robotics professor at Notre Dame University, says that the future belongs to dumb robots that do repetitive tasks well. This could include mowing the lawn but it could also mean performing eye surgery. Anything else (like true artificial intelligence) is at least half a century away.

Ref: Various including Fortune (US) 24 January 2005, 'Iraq's Robot Invasion', New York Times 12 December 2004 'Dumb Robots Are Better' , D.T.Max The Sydney Morning Herald (AUS) 19-20 February 2005 'Killing machines prepare to do warfare's dirty work', K.Weiner