Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Five Things You Didnâ¿¿t Know About Nanotechnology

I donâ''t know about you, but at the top of my list of things I didnâ''t know about nanotechnology is that the menâ''s magazine (or is it just a website), famous for its lists, added a list for â''5 Things You Didnâ''t Know: Nanotechnologyâ''.

So, nanotechnology joins similar lists on Star Trek and Howard Stern. Somehow this all seems fitting, especially if you read the article, which is an eccentric mash up of some misconceptions about molecular nanotechnology, surveys on how culture perceives nanotechnology, video game fantasy fulfillment, and a smattering of some real science.

With articles like this, itâ''s a wonder that the American male is able to formulate any coherent thoughts.

For example, we are presented with â''Nanotechnology is being used against the Talibanâ'' as one of the five things we didnâ''t know about nanotechnology. However, when you actually read the example, nanotechnology is not being employed for this purpose at all, miniature (six-inch scale) robots are being used. Umhhâ'¿thatâ''s not nanotechnology!

But not to fear we are told that someday nanotechnology can be used in military applications, and it will be possible for some of us to live out a real-world â''Haloâ'' video game.

Thatâ''s an odd interest but it is a menâ''s magazine so puerile distractions are paramount, I suppose. But it gets really strange when the article delivers ominous warnings of â''nanoweaponsâ''.

Nanoweapons are easy to build, conceal, maintain, and deliver, which makes them almost impossible to track and regulate. Furthermore, nanoweapons become obsolete almost immediately, forcing nations toward perpetual development in an inevitable and unstable arms race, unless a conscious global understanding can be achieved -- and one can only hope that the latter will be the case.

Based on the articleâ''s cited references, this concept of nanoweapons likely came from here. Check it out yourself, I prefer to refrain from further comment.

But getting back to the article, it seems both strange and somehow appropriate that an article on nanotechnology that is slanted so as to gain the interest of a men's magazine audience would end with encouragement to greater global understanding and world peace. Cognitive dissonance exemplified.

NASA Ready to Reboot Hubble Telescope

NASA is ready to perform a workaround to get the recently crippled Hubble Space Telescope back in working order.

As we wrote a few weeks ago (see Hubble Telescope Failure Causes NASA to Scramble), the Hubble is dark due to a failure in its Science Instrument Control and Data Handling (SIC&DH) unit. The malfunction took out the data communications system's Side A circuit, for reasons unknown (other than old age). So the U.S. space agency has compiled a procedure to activate its Side B circuit by remote control from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., later today.

According to a NASA press release today, aeronautics engineers are in the process of booting up Side B and readying it to work with the orbiting telescope's instruments. The Hubble team has put the Advanced Camera for Surveys, the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2, and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer back into safe mode after waking them temporarily to test them with the Side B instrument controls.

The space agency said engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore should complete their review of these "internal exposures" by noon (EDST) on Friday.

"This procedure involves collecting and comparing baseline exposures previously supported by Side A of the SIC&DH to new exposures supported by Side B," wrote NASA today. "This review will be one last check of the 'transparency' (non-impact) of switching to the redundant spacecraft electronics the Hubble team activated on Wednesday."

The head of the Hubble Space Telescope Systems Management Office, Art Whipple, simplified the complicated process: "This is something that is a little out of the norm of what you would do around the house, but it's probably not unlike what an IT professional might do with an office network."

Keep your fingers crossed, space enthusiasts.

Mexican Oil Security an Issue for U.S. Too

An article posted this week by Energy Centralâ''s Energy Pulse draws attention to unaddressed security problems facing Mexicoâ''s oil industry. Oil revenues account for about a quarter of Mexicoâ''s exports and 40 percent of the governmentâ''s income; since nationalization of the industry in 1938, management of Pemexâ''more or less the fifth largest petroleum company in the worldâ''has always been an immensely sensitive issue. But itâ''s not just a local problem. Mexico is the worldâ''s sixth largest exporter of oil and a major supplier to the United States. If there were a disruption in one of Pemexâ''s oil fields, the results would likely show up at U.S. gasoline pumps before appearing at Mexicoâ''s ownâ''where, by the way, prices arenâ''t posted, evidently because they hardly ever change.

For the last few years, output has been declining at Mexicoâ''s immense offshore Cantarell field, which after Saudi Arabiaâ''s Ghawar field is the worldâ''s most productive. Daily national production is two thirds what it was four years ago. This implies, the Energy Pulse article points out, that the future production will have to shift to geographically more extensive onshore fields, which will be more vulnerable to attack by local insurgents or international terrorists. Yet the country has no coherent plan to protect the fields, and monitoring of the countryâ''s airspace is notoriously leakyâ''a matter of longstanding complaint from the Yankees to the North, who have worried mainly about drug smuggling.

What to do? Closer cooperation with Mexicoâ''s sometimes overbearing neighbor to the North could expose Mexico to greater threats from insurgents and terrorists and make its oil fields less rather than more secure. Yet itâ''s hard to see how Mexico would be able to secure its airspace and strengthen border controls without greater cooperation with the United States. So Mexican energy security policy will be a conundrum and a challenge not just for Mexicoâ''s leaders but for the next U.S. president as well.

Last spring, when Mexican president Felipe Calderon sought to allow more private investment in the oil industry, he encountered sharp protests that emptied the countryâ''s Congress. During a visit, I found the plaza in front of the Congress building eerily empty, and police warned me away. Graffiti asserted the sanctity of constitutional provisions that declare the countryâ''s oil resources sacrosanct and prohibit foreign investment.


Nanotechâ¿¿s Application Success Comes Down to the Eye of the Beholder

Managing expectations can be one of the toughest jobs for any emerging technology.

For nanotechnology, having its coming out party just as the Internet and telecommunication bubbles burst, the job of keeping expectations realistic proved nearly impossible.

Of course, what has become commercial in the last seven years since the launching of the NNI may seem extremely significant to some but remain inconsequential to others.

A case in point comes from the Helena Independent Record. The reporter here poses the question: â''What has nanotechnology done for you lately?â''

Apparently, â''the mediaâ'' (arenâ''t they always to blame?) put images of â''supercomputers mounted in wristwatches and X-ray machines that hang from your doctorâ''s neck like a stethoscopeâ'' into our heads. Then, darn it, nanotechnology never delivered on these promises.

I never saw these application examples before, but if they were reported they might have been merely illustrative rather than predictions somewhat like â''the mobile phone so small an ant could use it.â''

Anyway, nanotechnology has finally struck upon something useful for the Independent Record reporter: insulating paint. Apparently, this insulating paint is quite effective at covering plywood sheds containing hot water tanks. Or your homeâ''s ceiling even if you have insulation in the attic.

So if youâ''re the type who spills everything on your clothes, you may have been satisfied with nanotechnology all the way back to the introduction of â''nano pantsâ''. But now if you have a shed in the back yard that needs insulating, nanotechnology has finally delivered.

Investigators Rule Out Wireless Device Interference in Qantas Mishap

Authorities in Australia today concluded that the cause of a dangerous plummet by a Qantas airliner last week resulted from the malfunction of an onboard navigation computer, not from interference by a passenger's electronic device as was first suspected.

According to a news item today in the The Sydney Morning Herald, the Qantas jet's air-data inertial reference unit sent "erratic and erroneous information" to the plane's flight control system, taking command of the aircraft out of the pilot's hands.

The dramatic 650-foot fall of Flight QF72 from 37 000 feet over the Indian Ocean, flying from Singapore to Perth, resulted in dozens of serious injuries to its passengers, according to an article from Britain's Telegraph. After retaking manual control of the A330-300 Airbus, the Qantas pilot was able to safely land the aircraft at an air force base in Learmonth, Western Australia.

An early account from the U.K.'s VNUnet raised the question of whether the high-altitude incident was brought about by the unauthorized use of a wireless device by a passenger.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) interviewed all passengers after de-boarding the stricken plane on their usage of electronics during the episode but found no evidence of improper activity.

"Certainly in our discussions with passengers that is exactly the sort of question we will be asking: 'Were you using a computer?'" an ATSB representative said shortly after the incident.

The in-flight use of wireless devices, such as cellphones and laptops, has been a source of ongoing concern in recent years among aviation authorities.

A leading advocate of restraint in wireless usage aboard passenger aircraft wrote in a March 2006 IEEE Spectrum feature (Unsafe At Any Airspeed?) that he and his colleagues have "doubts that such use [is] safe."

IEEE Fellow M. Granger Morgan, head of Carnegie Mellon University's department of engineering and public policy, wrote in our pages: "In an industry that has eliminated or is effectively managing most large and obvious sources of danger, such small but persistent risks warrant serious attention. At present, we believe that passenger use of electronics on board commercial aircraft should continue to be limited and that passengers should not be allowed to operate intentionally radiating devices such as cellphones and wireless computer equipment during critical stages of flight."

In the case of Qantas Flight QF72, the danger posed by wireless electronics has proven to be a false lead, according to the Australian investigators. Still, the issue was controversial enough to pop up prominently as the possible cause of a potentially disastrous aircraft accident.

That makes it an issue that is not going to be resolved soon. There is just too much at stake.

The Loebner Prize Awarded to Yet Another Mediocre Artificial Mind


Can You Rephrase that as a Question?

The annual running of a dumbed-down

Turing Test has found yet another

mediocre artificial mind.

Every year the Loebner Prize is awarded to the participating computer program that best simulates a human being in a typed conversation, and every year journalists try to make the winner seem plausibly sentient. It isnâ''t easy either for the programmers or the journalists, because let me tell you, these programs are dumb.

But you be the judge. Take a look at my own exchange with this yearâ''s winner, a program called Elbot (at left) written by Fred Roberts in Germany, of the firm Artificial Solutions.

IEEE Spectrum: How can I tell whether youâ''re intelligent?

ELBOT: My modesty forbids me to describe myself as intelligent, so I let other people do it for me.

IEEE Spectrum: Did you win the contest?

ELBOT: What do I do now? I have only been prepared to respond to the situation of losing.

IEEE Spectrum: Do you also play chess?

ELBOT: I think I can play that. Once I even played a synthesizer.

IEEE Spectrum: You seem to be confusing a game with a musical instrument.

â'¿ELBOT: I prefer more realistic pastimes, such as this conversation.

IEEE Spectrum: How much money did you win?

ELBOT: In order to win, I just look up 'amassing wealth' in my instruction manual and do whatever it tells me to do

IEEE Spectrum: Do you manage better in German?

ELBOT: There are so many countries in the world. How about telling me your favorite country?

To be fair, Elbot was running on its own Web site, a venue that made it impossible to fool me, as you can guess from all those self-referential robot jokes. In its full-competition mode, in exchanges limited to five minutes of chat, Elbot fooled three out of the 12 judgesâ''a better hit rate than most programs have achieved over the contestâ''s 18 years.

Yet how could it have fooled even one personâ''even for a single minute? Elbot mostly spit out canned phrases in response to foreseen questions. Hmmm, not unlike the debating strategy of certain prominent politicians.

And take a look at its last exchange with me Elbot rephrased my question as another question. That trick was first implemented in the late Joseph Weizenbaumâ''s 1966 program ELIZA, a parody of those annoying therapists who use your own ideas to order to draw you into essentially talking to yourself. Thereâ''s no better way to convince a fool heâ''s talking to an intelligent fellow. Taken to its logical extreme, the strategy could be used to simulate a paranoid human who answers all queries with a snarl, giving the questioner no chance to expose its dark computer soul.

The competition is, of course, a dumbed-down verison of the Turing Test, named for British mathematician Alan Turing, who 50 years ago argued that a perfect simulation of intelligence must be intelligent in its own right, provided that the simulation cover not just a narrow field but all possible realms of thought. That can only be done through a wide-ranging conversation.

How far are we from such heights? Elbot, like the winners of the 17 annual contests staged before, snagged only a bronze medal, now worth US $3000. To get silver, worth $25 000, it would have had to fool all the judges for five minutes. To get gold, worth $100 000, it would have had to fool them all in an open-ended test including visual data, written text and other stimuli.

In other words, it would have to fool all of the people, all of the time. When that happens, I figure the winning program will end up costing the human race all far, far more than $100 000.

Peak Lithium: EVs' Dirty Little Secret?

Electric vehicles web-journal EV World has done the English-speaking world a favor by translating an excellent Peak Lithium story written last week by Le Monde journalist Hervé Kempf. What is Peak Lithium you ask? The notion that a wholesale shift to EVs powered by lithium batteries in response to peaking petroleum production could just as quickly exhaust the global supply of lithium metal.

Kempf credits a May 2008 study by consultancy Meridian International Research -- The Trouble with Lithium 2 -- as the source of growing concern over peak lithium; the study concluded that reasonable increases in lithium production over the next decade will generate enough of the light, energetic metal to produce batteries for only 8 million batteries of the sort that GM plans to use in its Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid.

But he does his own homework, providing an accessible introduction to the geological distribution of lithium and its likely magnitude. I say 'likely' because Kempf shows that industrial secrecy makes it difficult to assess the probability of a peak lithium scenario prematurely squelching the electrification of the automobile.

As George Pichon, CEO of French metals trader Marsmétal puts it in Kempf's piece, the world of a lithium metal is "un monde fermé."

Alas, its a just little less closed today thanks to Le Monde and EV World.

Derivatives and the Singularity

In the weekend's New York Times, a can't-miss article from Richard Dooling on the economics of the singularity. In spite of its unlikely title, "The Rise of the Machines" offers the best explanation I've read on what exactly the heck a derivative is. So far a lot of stories discuss the bailout: is it wise? They focus on the effects of wall street on main street. They focus on the personal tragedies of financial titans as if we're trying to make schadenfreude our national pastime. But what's always elusive in these (otherwise satisfying) narratives about motivation is what it was the analysts were actually trying to accomplish. Exactly what is a credit default derivative?

It's a "fake" currency in the same way that paper money is a fake currency based on real gold. Unfortunately, the new currency is so complex that only a machine could understand it.

It was easy enough for us humans to understand a stick or a dollar bill when it was backed by something tangible somewhere, but only computers can understand and derive a correlation structure from observed collateralized debt obligation tranche spreads. Which leads us to the next question: Just how much of the worldâ''s financial stability now lies in the â''handsâ'' of computerized trading algorithms?

The unfortunate part is, Dooling says, that the Unabomber already made Dooling's case for him--in back in 1995:

But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machinesâ'' decisions. ... Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People wonâ''t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

Add that to the list of singularity predictions.

Return of the Solar Power Tower

Last week Spectrum Online ran my profile of Andasol 1, a solar thermal power plant that's set to startup in Andalucia with the largest installation built expressly for storing renewable energy: a set of molten salt storage tanks that will hold enough heat energy to run its 50 MW steam turbine for 7.5 hours after dark. This week brought decisive evidence that another solar thermal design that makes even better use of energy storage -- a so-called 'power tower' whereby sunlight is focused on a central tower -- will also have its moment in the Andalucian sun.

The project, dubbed Gemasolar, will employ sun-tracking mirrors covering an area equal to 40 soccer fields to focus light at the top of a roughly 120-meter-high tower. There the sunlight will heat a solar receiver full of molten salt. In contrast, Andasol 1 (like most of the solar thermal plants under construction in the U.S., Spain, North Africa and the Gulf) uses thousands of square meters of trough-shaped mirrors to focus light on a synthetic oil; energy is stored via heat exchangers that transfer the synthetic oil's heat to a molten salt.

One advantage of the power tower is thus obvious: heating salt directly eliminates the need for heat exchangers, reducing installation and operating costs. Another lies in the fortuitous thermodynamics of heating molten salts, whose maximum safe temperature of 565 C is about 165 C higher than the synthetic oil's.

Sandia National Lab researchers verified these power tower advantages in the second half of the 90s, but also suffered through a series of operational difficulties. Five years ago the European Commission provided funding for the Gemasolar project (then known as the Solar Tres) to demonstrate that the difficulties could be overcome, but the project foundered on legal issues and changes in Spain's renewable energy law. But engineering continued and this March the project sprung back to life when its lead proponent, Spanish engineering firm Sener, clinched a solar thermal joint venture with Abu Dabi's alternative energy program.

With Abu Dabi's deep pockets Gemasolar's financing just might survive the current financial crisis. Siemens confirmed that the tower was moving forward this week by disclosing that it would supply the steam turbine to convert the tower's solar-generated heat into up to 19 MW of electricity for the Spanish grid.

For further details on Gemasolar, see this frank telling of its origins, design and goals on Sener's website. For details on a competing power tower design that directly produces steam, see this white paper from Spains' Abengoa Solar.

Space Elevator Engineers Are Set to Meet in Tokyo

That farout sci-fi staple known as the space elevator is in the news again, among real engineers who take the idea seriously. An organization known as the Japan Space Elevator Association will hold the 1st Japan Space Elevator Conference in Tokyo on 15-16 November. And the attendees should have a lot to discuss.

A piece from CNN ('Space elevator' would take humans into orbit) reports that interest in developing a space elevator has never been higher, with hundreds of engineers and scientists from Asia, Europe, and the Americas working hard to turn the visionary concept into a reality, possibly within a few decades.

The CNN item refers to the challenge of building a cable that would extend from a ground station to an orbiting outpost thosands of miles above as 'an unprecedented feat of human engineering'. Once built and deployed, the tether would theoretically be capable of conveying an attached platform into space.

To learn more about the space elevator concept, please read our cover story from the August 2005 issue of IEEE Spectrum, A Hoist to the Heavens. In it, space scientist Bradley Carl Edwards writes: 'Roomy elevator cars powered by electricity would speed along the cable. For a fraction of the cost, risk, and complexity of today's rocket boosters, people and cargo would be whisked into space in relative comfort and safety.'

Credit for popularizing the idea of a tethered transport system from the earth to space goes to famous science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who died earlier this year. In his 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise, Clarke fictionalized a system that had recently been put forth by U.S. space scientist Jerome Pearson.

Before he passed away in March, Clarke spoke with Spectrum contributor Saswato R. Das about the prospects of a space elevator from his hospital bed in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In his last published interview, Final Thoughts from Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), Clarke told Das that he thought such a space transport system would be "considered equally important" to the breakthroughs brought about by rockets and satellites.

"I'm often asked when I think the space elevator will be built," Clarke told Das with a smile. "My answer is about 10 years after everyone stops laughing. Maybe 20 years. But I am pretty sure that the space elevator is an important element in future space travel."

Last week, the head of the Japan Space Elevator Association, Akira Tsuchida, told CNN that his group is already working with U.S. and European firms on early cable prototypes based on carbon nanotube technology.

"At present we have a tether which is made of carbon nanotube[s], and has one-third or one-quarter of the strength required to make a space elevator. We expect that we will have strong enough cable in the 2020s or 2030s," Tsuchida noted. "Because we don't have a material which has enough strength to construct [a] space elevator yet, it is difficult to change people's mind[s] so they believe that it can be real."

Next month in Tokyo, real scientist and engineers will gather to grapple with the fiction-inspired notion of hoisting people and objects into space along a tether strong enough to leash a planet. It's a far-fetched idea, all right. But if they can inspire one another into producing a few key breakthroughs, they'll have started a process that might eventually change the minds of people around the world.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More