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Nanotechnology by Any Other Name...Is Something Else Entirely

One of the issues I discussed in my very first post on Tech Talk was how advocates for Eric Drexlerâ''s vision for molecular nanotechnology (MNT) were trying to wrestle back ownership of the term â''nanotechnologyâ''. And in my most recent post, I bemoaned the seemingly endless parade of wrong-headed definitions of nanotechnology.

It appears that definition is just an insurmountable problem for nanotechnology. The latest example of this is a response on the Foresight Instituteâ''s Nanodot blog that takes issue with Richard Jonesâ'' recent blog entry that was first published in Natureâ''s Nanotechnology publication, entitled â''The Economy of Promisesâ''.

The point of Jonesâ'' pieceâ''at least to my readingâ''is that over hyping the near-term potential of nanotechnology does more harm than good, not only to investors who believe the malarkey but also to nanoscientists, whoâ''although they should know betterâ''are drawn into believing the hype themselves.

In broadening his point, Jonesâ'' refers to Alfred Nordmannâ''s contention in If and then: a critique of speculative nanoethics that â''speculations on the ethical and societal implications of the more extreme extrapolations of nanotechnology serve implicitly to give credibility to such visions.â'' To illustrate this phenomenon Jones uses the Foresight Institute and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology as examples.

The Foresight Institute was not going to take this perceived attack lying down and claim that the real problem is that material scientists co-opted their term â''nanotechnologyâ''.

As the argument seems to go, Drexler popularized the term nanotechnology in his book Engines of Creation, and so when the general public heard that thousands of scientists were working on â''nanotechnologyâ'' of course they thought that table-top factories and nanobots were just around the corner. This is why nanotechnology has failed in its promise.

If I follow that logic, all would be well with the world if material scientists described their work at engineering and manipulating materials on the nanoscale to bring about novel properties as anything but â''nanotechnologyâ''.

And no doubt if this had held true, all the funding that now gets funneled into national nanotechnology initiatives around the world would either not exist at all or be aimed at quite different purposes.

One result of these different purposes might have been that today we would have much better computer-generated animation of how a table-top factory might work someday.

I swarm, you swarm, we all swarm for millimeter-sized autonomous robots

If you thought the cyborg moth had cargo problems, consider the millimeter-sized I-SWARM microbot presented at ISSCC by researchers from the University of Barcelona, a ladybug-sized piece of machinery that has to lug around its own control electronics, communication electronics, capacitors and little tiny solar panels. It weighs 70 mg which is about the weight of a standard multivitamin.

First, an important question: why are we making fake ants?

Many applications would be good for tiny robot swarms, some of which were enumerated back in October on our sister blog, Automaton.

First, if you send a swarm of ten thousand to do some task, and one thousand die, chances are your project will be unaffected, so the system is inured from failure by redundancy.

Second, you can do things that are possible only through teamwork. Astrobiologists love the idea of swarming robots because ideally, they could build themselves into a bridge, or build themselves into a ladder or a pile, anything the task required.

Finally, if you can make them on the cheap and out of silicon, you'll be able to fab them like microchips, which means that you might end up with similarly small per-unit costs. Pretty good for an autonomous robot.

But you can't build one of these little suckers with commercial off the shelf electronics, which is why Raimon Casanova Mohr created the first system-on-chip specifically for an autonomous mobile microbot. The microbot can be optically programmed kind of the way you would beam a business card to a Blackberry. It includes all necessary electronics except for 3 capacitors: Essentially, like tiny ants, these I-SWARMS can move autonomously, process limited "sensory" data, make decisions based upon that data, and then communicate amongst themselves to do whatever it is that they are programmed to do. Their programmable behavior can be changed on the fly.

This is part of an EU-funded project though it's unclear which. Automaton has it as one of two sister projects, both funded under EU's Seventh Framework Programme spanning from January 2008 to 2013. An article from the UK Register reports that it was funded earlier by the EU Information Society Technologies (IST) Sixth Framework Programme (starting in 2003).

Mohr showed pictures of the setup in his lab: the swarm's "work area" is a space about the size of a piece of letter paper enclosed in plexiglass like a penalty box. It's uniformly illuminated by a high intensity lamp, which powers a 3.9 square millimeter solar cell array on the I-SWARM, which in turn generates 1 mW for the system-on-chip and half of that for its "body:" 3 piezoelectric legs driven by square waveforms at its resonance frequency, 32.86 kHz. The legs can go forward, backward or spin. The system on chip is 2.6 mm by 2.6 mm, about the size of a sunflower seed. Most of these components, including two little capacitors, are assembled on a flexible printed circuit board that does double duty as the bug's backbone. But the leftovers that are stored in the capacitors aren't even enough to retain the bug's programming, so it has to be reprogrammed every time it starts. The process takes around 45 minutes.

The programming is done by an IR projector that sits next to the HI-lamp.

The I-SWARM has an optical chip for short-range IR communication with 4 pairs of LEDs/photodiodes, one for each side of the chip. The information is

sent by LED, and received by photodiode. This is how it positions itself relative to its herd, and to the projector. The IR projector also confirms the exact position of each robot over the working area.

The robots are very cute--after the ISSCC presentation, I overheard one engineer referring to them as "little animals" which I found telling. Sadly, there was no video, because apparently the solar PV panels were on the fritz. But it's not the end of these guys. We're one year into the second phase, and I'm interested to see what awaits us in 2013. Meanwhile, check out Automaton for the old videos.

When Satellites Collide, Confusion Follows

The unprecedented crash of two major satellites had aeronautics experts around the world scratching their heads today.

Yesterday, an operational U.S. Iridium communications satellite plowed into a defunct Russian military communications satellite some 800 kilometers (500 miles) above the skies over Siberia, smashing both into pieces. The impact has left a debris field traveling at 200 meters per second in an elliptical orbit 500 to 1300 kilometers overhead, according to an article from the Associated Press.

The AP account states that Iridium Satellite LLC, based in Bethesda, Md., claims that it was not responsible for the high-altitude collision; but a prominent Russian space expert said that he did not understand how Iridium and its government space partners, such as NASA, could have missed the presence of the slower satellite in its direct path--and taken action to prevent the accident.

"It could have been a computer failure or a human error," Igor Lisov told the AP. "It also could be that they only were paying attention to smaller debris and ignoring the defunct satellites." Lisov noted the debris could threaten a significant number of earth-tracking and weather satellites in similar orbits. "The other 65 Iridium satellites in similar orbits will face the most serious risk, and there are numerous earth-tracking and weather satellites in nearby orbits," he added.

In a press release posted to its website today, Iridium said that it "expects to move one of its in-orbit spare satellites into the network constellation to permanently replace the lost satellite."

A NASA spokesperson said the agency will need weeks to study the crash before it could render a threat assessment on the new debris field. However, NASA told the AP that it poses little risk to the International Space Station and its three-member crew, who are in a much lower orbit.

It looks like someone seriously dropped the ball on this one.

Mark Shepherd Jr., Former CEO of Texas Instruments (1923-2009)

The man who led Texas Instruments (TI) through one of its most productive eras has died. Mark Shepherd Jr., who worked at TI for 37 years, rising from an assistant chief engineer to chief executive officer, passed away February 4 at his ranch in Quitman, Tex., at age 86. He was also a former member of the board of directors of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Shepherd helped to guide TI from a small firm catering to the needs of oil and gas companies into an electronics pioneer, producing semiconductor products for both businesses and consumers, according to an obituary in The New York Times. The paper stated: "As a hard-charging engineer, Mr. Shepherd was given the task of building Texas Instruments' first transistors and semiconductor products, which soon found their way into calculators, computers and toys. Later, as chief executive and chairman of the company, Mr. Shepherd fought to expand the semiconductor business overseas, while also fending off budding electronics giants in Asia."

Shepherd was born in Dallas, Tex., on 18 January 1923. A precocious youth, he reportedly built a vacuum tube at the age of 6. He graduated from high school at 14 and earned an undergraduate degree with honors from Southern Methodist University in 1942 and a master's degree from the University of Illinois in 1947, both in electrical engineering. Between his university days (and a short stint at General Electric), Shepherd served in the Navy during World War II as a lieutenant aboard the USS Tucson, specializing in radar and electronics systems.

The young Shepherd began his engineering career at the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation and Geophysical Service Inc. (GSI) before joining TI in 1951, according to an online entry from the Dallas-based firm. Two years later, he was named chief engineer of TI's new semiconductor design division.

Shepherd then rose through the company's ranks as the semiconductor revolution began to explode in importance. He served as a vice president and a general manager in the 1950s and as the chief operating officer and a member of the board of directors for TI in the 1960s. He was named president and chief executive of the electronics powerhouse in 1969.

During his tenure as CEO, Shepherd steered TI's global expansion, turning the company into one of the first to open semiconductor facilities abroad, including a factory in Japan, according to the Times.

In 1976, TI tapped Shepherd as its chairman, a post he held until his retirement in 1988.

A technology author contacted by the Times, Michael Malone, called Shepherd's years at the helm of the company "TI's golden age."

Shepherd served as a member of several corporate boards, as well as professional and civic organizations, such as the National Academy of Engineering, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

He was made a fellow of the IEEE in 1964; the next year he was named to the board of the institute.

Shepherd is survived by his wife of 63 years, Mary Alice, as well as daughters Marykay Shepherd and Debra Shepherd Robinson.

Moratorium on Definitions of Nanotechnology

One of the unfortunate side-effects of writing on the subject of nanotechnology is you come in contact with far too many definitions of what it is.

The latest one that simultaneously really annoyed me and gave me a chuckle was from some website called Micronanotronics. With a name like that I should have been forewarned.

But here is the classic bit: â''Nanotechnology is the science and art of constructing functional and sometimes powerful devices by manipulating single atoms until they are molecularly sized.â''

Oh, where to begin? I guess the part that really struck me was that nanotechnology could make a single atom into the size of a molecule. But reading it again, I think the part that may be overlooked for its sheer wackiness is that nanotechnology will make devices that are not only functional, but sometimes powerful. I have no idea what they mean, but thereâ''s a certain poetry to it.

Certain NGOs in the past have called for a moratorium on nanotechnology, but I would like to call for a moratorium on any new definitions of nanotechnology. For the sake of humanity, just cut and paste a definition from the NNI. Stop trying to think one up yourselfâ'¿itâ''s painful.

International Solid State Circuits Conference Gone Wild

The theme of this year's ISSCC is adaptive circuits. What are we adapting to? In the case of the semiconductor industry, we are adapting to a tanking industry. One recently laid-off Texas Instruments engineer--one of the 3600 victims of the carnage two weeks ago--told me he was given a couple of days to pack up his desk and go find himself. He was part of the wireless division in Dallas that TI had been planning to sell. But when there were no good buyers, they just laid everyone off.

But wireless is going to be about much more than just phones, and if the papers here are any indication, that research is building to critical mass. One of the most promising applications for the kind of work engineers once only did for cell phones is in medical implants and body area networks.

The ex-TI engineer pointed to a talk Sunday night by Ali Hajimiri, a high-speed and RF integrated circuits luminary at Caltech. Hajimiri enjoys long, moonlit walks on the beach, high-speed and RF, and low-frequency high-precision circuits. In 1993, he worked on BiCMOS chipset for GSM and cellular units. In 1997, he investigated low-phase-noise integrated oscillators for Lucent Technologies (that's Bell Labs to you). Turn-offs: mean people.

But on Sunday night, our protagonist from TI said Hajimiri was explaining biology to the audience. "DNA, RNA," our frustrated engineer said, "I didn't know what I was doing there."

Wireless transmission and wireless power are adapting to burgeoning medical applications: eye implants like the artificial retina at December's International Electron Devices Meeting; brain implants, and little implanted reservoirs that keep the blood evenly doped with drugs such as insulin. One acronym you can expect to hear a lot more of is MICS -- the medical implants communications standard.

The MICS band operates at 402-405 MHz. So there have been a lot of papers about how to transmit at that wavelength from a tiny, featherweight chip. Jeremy Holleman at the University of Washington created a 500-microwatt neural tag for our favorite cyborg moth with an analog front end frequency multiplying transmitter: a low noise amplifier core built on an op-amp core.

He multiplied an initial 45Hz frequency by a series of dense circuit diagrams that I didn't understand, and before I could drift off into sweet oblivion, the nine-fold multiplier had worked its magic. The interesting thing about this is that Holleman's transmitter can also operate in the 433 MHz ISM (industrial, scientific and medical) band. That's good for the moth--ok, maybe less for the moth than for the moth researchers--and good for all the poor little medical rats who run around with giant cables extending out of their craniums. Hopefully that grisly tether can be replaced before too long with a chip that lets them run around unimpeded. You know, except for the chip digging into their brain.

But back to our protagonist from Texas Instruments: he says that after a couple of days at ISSCC, he's looking at getting into biomedical applications. It's clear from the research presented so far that for medical implants to become a reality--whether they are retinal implants, brain implants, or brain-machine interfaces--the first thing you need to be able to do with those things is communicate with them. The second is to power them indefinitely.

The best practice case for energy harvesting and tiny radios seems to be the DARPA moth. That project is a test bed for coming up with a lot of the next-generation power storage, energy scavenging, and wireless communication devices that will be crucial for next-generation biomedical applications.

Next post: energy harvesting and wireless power. Can it be done? Can it be done without burning your house down?

Geeks Are All Over the Entertainment Pages This Week

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When I open my local newspapers (the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News) to the arts and leisure pages in the morning, itâ''s all about starting my day off slowly, a little light reading with those first few sips of coffee. Itâ''s not where Iâ''m looking for news about the engineers that I usually write about.

This week, though, geeks are dominating the entertainment pages. For days, Silicon Valley has been buzzing with the news that Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple Computer and avid Segway polo player, will be competing in the next round of reality TV show â''Dancing With the Stars,â'' premiering 9 March. The biggest question on the minds of the technoratiâ''will he be making the moves with his feet, or with a Segway?Stevewozniak.jpg

And, of course, the countdown to the Oscars is underway. This weekend, the Academy handed out its first statue for 2008, to Pixarâ''s Ed Catmull, for his lifetime of technical contributions to the industry. This was Catmullâ''s second Oscar statue; I was at the awards ceremony when he got his first, and actually got to hold it. It was surprisingly heavy. At this yearâ''s Science and Technical Awards, actress Jessica Beal also handed a special Medal of Commendation to Mark Kimball, an IEEE member who started his career as a system engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory before crossing over to the movie industry.

Photo top left: The winners of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Scientific and Technical Awards, handed out at a formal dinner on 7 February. Credit: Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

Photo center right: Uber-geek Steve Wozniak. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Congressional Stimulus Differences Bring Reduced Spending for Tech

The U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote tomorrow on an economic stimulus act worth about US $827 billion.

With compromise votes pledged from three Republican senators, the Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan is expected to pass and be sent to a joint Senate-House committee to iron out differences between the competing congressional versions of the measure. The version the House of Representatives passed calls for a package valued at $819 billion.

The differences in the lawmakers' plans include spending designed to stimulate activity in many economic sectors, and one of these is technology, of course.

An article from CNN over the weekend lays out where the compromise Senate plan pulls back on potential funding the House version would have invested in technology-related projects.

Here's what would now be partially cut:

  • $3.5 billion for energy-efficient federal buildings (original bill $7 billion)

  • $300 million from federal fleet of hybrid vehicles (original bill $600 million)

  • $200 million from Environmental Protection Agency Superfund (original bill $800 million)

  • $100 million from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (original bill $427 million)

  • $100 million from law enforcement wireless (original bill $200 million)

And here's some of what would be cut completely:

  • $2 billion for broadband infrastructure

  • $2 billion for Health Information Technology Grants

  • $1 billion for Energy Loan Guarantees

  • $200 million for National Science Foundation

  • $100 million for science

  • $100 million for National Institute of Standards and Technology

  • $100 million for distance learning

  • $100 million for NASA and aeronautics

Obviously, some of these are cutbacks in spending that are real increases in existing programs, and some eliminated funding may be restored in committee negotiations. Still, it sounds like the tech sector may have not done all it could to lobby legislators in Washington for stimulus investments in vital infrastructure areas.

There's Nanotech and Then There's Nanotech

I was struck by a comment to a recent blog entry that really had me scratching my head.

The argument was that nanotechnology was at its early stages. No disagreement there from me. Well, except maybe one.

Engineering materials at the nanoscale to create novel properties is at its early stages, but nanobots coursing through our bloodstream to fight diseases isn't even a twinkle in the eye, so to speak.

I donâ''t want to ascribe this sentiment to the recent commenter, but there seems to be a general impression that the more radical concepts of molecular nanotechnology will somehow evolve in logical progression from the work currently being done in nanomaterials. We're on the brink, whatever that means.

To use the light bulb analogy, itâ''s a bit like expecting todayâ''s computers to come out of improving the filaments of the light bulb rather than just imagining a future when thereâ''s an electric light in every room in the house.

In order for table-top factories and nanobots curing us of smoke inhalation to be realized, we will need to look at molecular nanotechnology as an independent avenue for research, with quite distinct obstacles and aims.

Senator: U.S. Stimulus Package Should Include Bigger Broadband Tax Credit

As debate over the provisions of a nearly trillion-dollar U.S. economic stimulus plan continues in Washington, one senator has called for an amendment to encourage spending on broadband service in areas of the country currently without service.

As reported today, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, will offer a measure to bring high-speed Internet connectivity to largely rural portions of the United States as a jobs incentive within the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. Rockefeller's amendment would raise an earlier proposed tax credit to 30 percent, up from 10 percent.

AT&T and Verizon are the most likely to gain from this tax credit approach, analysts told Reuters. Smaller telecom companies have been promoting an alternative proposal to offer grants to communications firms, in which broadband providers would receive up to US $9 billion to extend their reach into remote locales.

Internet service providers "have pretty much covered every place they're going to cover," where they can make money, Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation told Reuters. "I don't see how putting broadband into rural America is a waste."

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that about 60 percent of the funds would be spent from 2009 through 2011, although independent analysts Reuters spoke with expected the incentives would take longer to take effect.

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