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Can Science Stand Up to Politics in the Nanotech and Food Debate?

Back in October there was a fair amount of uproar on the nano blogosphere about the role of nanotechnology in food. This hue and cry was in part informed by the politically charged, but scientifically challenged, screed that came from the Friends of the Earth back in March of this year Out of the laboratory and on to our plates: Nanotechnology in food and agriculture, which I discussed previously when it was originally released.

While Richard Jones over at his Soft Machines blog gave his typical reasoned and scientific, not to mention common sense, discussion of the issue, in the face of a politically astute group like the Friends of the Earth reason and science quickly get drowned out by hyperbole.

Perhaps the best way to deal with the situation is summed up over at TNTLog which suggests that maybe we should focus on the â''safetyâ'' aspect of food rather than the â''nanoâ'' aspect. This should serve as a memo to scientists when discussing this issue with the more politically agile. Sort of like Bill Clinton's campaign reminder: It's the economy, stupid!

Of course, the term â''nanotechnologyâ'' makes for a far more attractive boogey man than say â''encapsulationâ'' or â''food processingâ''. While the term â''processed foodâ'' has been thrown around like it was some disease for years, it hasnâ''t seemed to slow peopleâ''s desire to eat it.

So, when your first boogey man doesnâ''t seem to change peopleâ''s behavior, or alter government regulations on the food industry, trot out a new one: nanotechnology.

For those who would like to get a handle on the safety of food and nanotechnology, I direct you to this webcast of a lecture given by Frans Kampers who runs the BioNT labs at Wageningen University in central Holland.

There are few people who have dedicated themselves more to the subject of nanotechnology and food than Dr. Kampers, and this lecture gives you a pretty good idea of what the purpose of nanotechnology in food is all about, and how safe or dangerous it may be.

A Winner After All?

Last year about this time, as Spectrum's editors were putting the finishing touches on the annual Winners & Losers special report, we were collectively scratching our heads over whether a package of high-speed wireless networking chips designed to transfer video signals between home entertainment devices was a winning idea or a loser. Sure, getting rid of wires is indisputably a good thing. But would Si-Beam, a startup created by professors at the University of California at Berkeley, be able to solve a tremendous engineering problemâ''reliably routing data from, say, a cable box to a TV set at 4 gigabits per second over the millimeter wave frequency band which requires near-perfect alignment of antennasâ''using cheap components that would have a negligible effect on the cost of plasma screen TV or a home videogame console?

We took the bold stance ofâ'¿letting our readers decide in our online You Tell Us feature. Fast forward a year, and the picture is a little clearer. Consumer electronics giants Panasonic and Samsung are investing in Si-Beam, and the WirelessHD consortium that is working to improve and promote its technology now includes other big hitters such as Sony and Intel. These companies probably wouldnâ''t bet on Si-Beamâ''s data transfer technique as the future of wireless home networking if they didnâ''t have it on good authority that the company will get a commercial version of its chipset ready to send and receive high-definition movies and â''Gilliganâ''s Islandâ'' reruns some time in 2009. Itâ''s got the look of a winner.

Highlights from the 26th Army Science Conference

Defense contractors like theme parks. At least that's what I surmise from the fact that DARPATech was next door to Disneyland and Army Science, a four-day extravaganza at the towering Orlando Marriott, is in spitting distance of Disneyworld.

As usual, the best stuff is at the exhibition hall. Meet the BEAR.

This is what happens when you have a hotbed of MIT engineering graduates in a recession. The BEAR is a search and rescue robot for injured soldiers. They made it cute so it wouldn't look like the Terminator is coming to get you

It can get into many different poses- bend its knees backward for example, it can balance and drive around on its "tip toes" to better place a soldier on an operating table.

At the exhibit he was lifting a 70-pound sand bag like it was a styrofoam cup, but he's been engineered to lift 520 pounds. That should be enough for a soldier and his pack. 

Micro Aerial Vehicles Get 15 Seconds of Fame on "Saturday Night Live"

If you were watching "Saturday Night Live" last week, you would have seen a spoof news item on the show's Weekend Update segment focusing on work for the U.S. military to create a new generation of miniature flying vehicles.

"It's been confirmed that the government is developing tiny, insect-like robots which would be used to spy on enemies and possibly attack them," announced SNL's Seth Myers. "So, sorry for ever doubting you, Gary Busey."

The joke was lame, but the news was exciting, especially for the intelligence community.

Suppose you're a potential terrorist in the future. You attend a meeting of your fellow fanatics at a safe house. So you talk freely, because you're absolutely sure that nothing but a fly on the wall could overhear your conversation. Then you're overheard, by a thing that looks like a fly on the wall. That's what you have to look forward to, spies that look like flies.

The thing that looks like a fly will be a micro aerial vehicle (MAV), a tiny version of the autonomous flying devices heard about so much in the war on terrorism, particularly in Afghanistan. The full-size unmanned aerial vehicles are capable of firing missiles at targets in remote regions where conventional delivery platforms are impractical.

The MAVs envisioned for the future will use their size to upset the potential actions of enemies. A recent report from the Associated Press outlines the status of research on the small robots.

"If we could get inside the buildings and inside the rooms where their activities are unfolding, we would be able to get the kind of intelligence we need to shut them down," Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., told the AP.

Here at IEEE Spectrum, we hardly needed SNL or the AP to deliver the news about MAVs. We've known about them for years. For example, Associate Editor Sandra Upson filed this video report on the tiny flying vehicles.

And we have filed full background reports on the technology here and here.

We don't know what Gary Busey has to do with any of this, but we do know an interesting technology story when we see one.

Working on the Nanoscale Could Slow the Shrinking of Transistors

Back in May of this year, I commented on this blog about Sally Adeeâ''s article here on Spectrum about â''The Mysterious Memristorâ''. It was a thrilling read about how R. Stanley Williams and his team of researchers at Hewlett Packard had demonstrated the existence of a postulated but never found â''fourth elementâ'' of fundamental electronic components.

Now on Spectrumâ''s website and available in the December issue of the magazine, Stanley Williams himself relates how he and his team found the missing memristor.

While I imagine Williams would probably object to this analogy, to me this article reads like getting the first-hand account from Einstein on how he came up with the Theory of Relativityâ''not years later, but within the same year.

Itâ''s moments such as these that make laymen, such as myself, so interested and excited by science.

One of the promises that the memristor makes possible is combining a number of transistors into one memristor. With fewer transistors on the chip, the need to make the transistors smaller to fit on the chip decreases.

This leaves us with the appealing paradox that our ability to work on smaller and smaller scales may make us able to keep things bigger. There is far greater potential available to us through the memristor as the article shows, but I kind of liked the symmetry of that paradox.

Nanotech Innovation for the Automobile...Just not those made in Detroit

While last week I offered little hope that Detroitâ''s Big Three automakers could turn around their poor business sensibilities through nanotech or any other technological innovation, I do believe that nanotech will make it possible for other, letâ''s say more foresighted, automakers to improve their profits, and maybe even their revenues.

I came across this year-old video below from the CNET website that describes how Nanostellar is improving catalytic converters for diesel engines to the point where automakers could save $30 per vehicle by eliminating the need to use expensive platinum.

Letâ''s see, multiply the number of cars produced by $30â'¿and well, itâ''s a significant number.

I thought the telling line in the interview with Pankaj Dhingra, the CEO of Nanostellar, was when he says the automaker with whom they are in discussion to adopt their technology is a European one.

DARPA's SyNAPSE: Seat Of Your Pants-On-A-Chip

By now it's been all over the news that IBM has received DARPA funding to create "cognitive" computers-- "systems that simulate the human brain's abilities for sensation, perception, action, interaction and cognition."

DARPA's brain-on-a-chip venture, called Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics ("SyNAPSE"), seeks to "develop a brain-inspired electronic 'chip' that mimics that function, size, and power consumption of a biological cortex."

To what end? They want something that can quickly analyze massive amounts of data. "For example," the press release explains, "bankers must make split-second decisions based on constantly changing data that flows at an ever-dizzying rate."

So... what are we building here? A brain in a shoebox that can analyze the world's financial data?

"No," mulls Jim Olds, a neuroscientist at George Mason University, where researchers are also competing for a spot on the SyNAPSE team. "But if we did, it would probably do a lot better than Hank Paulson."

What DARPA is building is easily confused with any number of other projects that trumpet their intention to "reverse engineer the brain." Misunderstandings are inevitable. The New York Times, for example, described the effort as â''the quest to engineer the mind by reverse-engineering the brain.â''

Perhaps the NYT is talking about Blue Brain, because that's not true. (But given that the lead investigator for IBM/SyNAPSE is the same person who has been involved with IBM's other Blue Gene Brain effort, the confusion is understandable.)

The SyNAPSE project is almost exactly the opposite of engineering a mind. Instead of a neuroscience basic research effort, SyNAPSE is an applied physics endeavor that seeks to cherry-pick only the most useful elements of the brain--and that most certainly does not include the mind or consciousness--and use that to augment a machine.

DARPA has distanced itself from morally thorny projects that look into psychologically-based and neurobiology-based cognitive architectures.

But they do want to cull the the finer qualities of cognition and use them to make smarter machines.

Jim Olds was kind enough to take me through some possible applications.

Intelligent MRAPs

A lot of soldiers are getting killed in Iraq because of bombs blowing up under their trucks. "It'd be great if instead of soldiers driving the trucks, the trucks drove themselves," Olds says, "like what they were trying to do with the DARPA Grand Challenge." Sadly enough though that Grand Challenge did not work out so well, because autonomous cars kinda suck. Here's why: "Our brains have all these capabilities that digital computers and robots don't," Olds says. "Basically our brains can multitask. You can be talking to someone on the phone, eating your lunch and looking something up on wikipedia, all at the same time and without breaking a sweat. That ability to multiprocess complex data streams is nearly impossible for a computer. Well, it's possible, but only in a very specific, pre-rigged situation."

The bottom line: a computer can't deal with surprises.

In controlled situations, computers win hands down. A computer can land a plane far better than any captain-- in fact, any smooth landing you've had recently has probably been executed by the on-board computer. The problem is exemplified by the recent near-catastrophe when a British Airways 777 crash-landed at Heathrow after ice clogged its engines. 300 feet above the ground, the plane's engines cut out. This was an event that Boeing's engineers had not anticipated and therefore not programmed into the computer's frame of reference. Therefore, the computer's response was essentially, "Oh hai! I can has engine restart?" The pilots put the kibosh on that immediately. They understood that 300 feet from the ground, that would have killed everyone. Instead, their best hope was to pancake the plane down by the seat of their pants. And they did. It wasn't pretty, but no one got killed.

"Human brains can react in real time to low-likelihood events and generate a possibility of responses that computers just can't," Olds says. Those pilots saved a lot of lives-- and that's what human brains can do.

On the other hand, about once a month some cortically-challenged individual decides to drive the wrong way down into a tunnel.

So the goal is to keep the reasoned logic of a computer and cherry pick the things you like about the way the human cortex does business.


Imbuing these with some cognitive abilities would make UAVs more accurate and more useful. Taking the pilots out of the equation would reduce errors, and anecdotal evidence shows that remote pilots suffer the same amounts of post traumatic stress as people who are in theater. So there's really nothing good about having remote pilots operating these things.

(Readers of Asimov, you may stop reading here and go crawl under a desk. The rest of you, go watch Battlestar Galactica and meditate on Cylon raiders.)

Mars Rovers

The best (rad: non-creepy military autonomous things blowing up defenseless humans) application is for deep space exploration. The lag time for a radio signal between us and Mars is about 10 minutes. 10 minutes is an eternity when it lies between an earth-bound "Hey! There's a steep cliff! Should I keep rolling?" and the subsequent Mars-bound "Nooo! stopstopstopstop!"

"We want our rovers to be smart enough to decide it's probably not a good idea to get near that cliff," says Olds.

If you could create a chip that takes advantage of the kind of seat-of-your-pants multitasking humans are (generally) better at than computers, you could have a Mars Rover that does not accidentally commit hari kari. You can't really argue with that.

Though I admit I remain confused about one thing: the project's apparent goal to replicate the neural structure of a cat. According to Danger Room, which had the goods on this story about a month before it went public,

"the follow-on phases of the project will create a technology that functions like the brain of a cat, which comprises 10^8 neurons and 10^12 synapses," Dr. Narayan Srinivasa, SyNAPSE Program Manager and Senior Scientist, said. "The human brain has roughly 10^11 neurons and 10^15 synapses."

Certainly no one is counting on even a cyborg-kitteh to properly operate a HMMVW in Fallujah?

But I digress: the point is that you want a chip with the best of both worlds: a computer's inability to panic, succumb to attention deficit disorder, or fall asleep at the wheel combined with a human being's ability to deal with a completely surprising, out-of-left-field scenario. That, in a nutshell, is SyNAPSE: reverse engineering the good parts of our brains while leaving the rest, well, to us.

The Space Station Turns 10 Years Old Today

Where were you 10 years ago today? If you were in Kazakhstan, you could have looked up and perhaps seen a Proton launch vehicle rising through the atmosphere toward an orbit in space, carrying atop it a payload consisting of the first component of the International Space Station (ISS).

On 20 November 1998, the Russian space agency placed the 19,300-kilogram (21.3-ton) Zarya control and cargo module (also known as the Functional Cargo Block) into an orbit 400 kilometers (250 statute miles) above. According to an online statement from NASA, "The launch began an international construction project of unprecedented complexity and sophistication."

The Zarya (Russian for "dawn") was built at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center in Moscow, funded by a grant of US $220 million from the United States. It featured: three docking ports for connections to other modules and spacecraft; two solar power arrays; six nickel-cadmium batteries providing 3 kilowatts; 16 external fuel tanks filled with over 6 metric tons of propellant; and 24 large steering jets, 12 small steering jets, and two large engines for reboost and major orbital changes.

The U.S. space agency launched the second component to the ISS, the Unity Module, on 4 December 1998 aboard the shuttle Endeavour. American astronauts connected it to the Zarya three days later. Zarya was initially supposed to fly autonomously for only six to eight months, but production delays affecting the Russian Service Module, Zvezda, the third ISS module, delayed human occupancy and control of the orbital platform for nearly two years (until 26 July 2000).

A CNN article from 10 years ago observed that the launch of the Zarya represented the start of the "most complex and costly engineering project ever attempted." The same article noted that the ISS consortium expected to continue construction of the space station until 2004 at a cost of between $40 billion and $60 billion. Today that figure has reached an estimate somewhere between $35 billion and $100 billion, depending on accounting standards.

The ISS is a joint venture between NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and 11 members of the European Space Agency (ESA): Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. More than 100,000 people from space agencies and contractors throughout the world are involved in ISS-related activities, according to NASA.

Ten years later, the mass of the ISS has expanded to more than 314 tons. Since Zarya's launch as the early command, control and power module, there have been 29 additional construction flights to the station, according to NASA. Zarya passed the 50,000-orbit mark in 2007.

"The station's capability and sheer size today are truly amazing," NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini noted this week. "The tremendous technological achievement in orbit is matched only by the cooperation and perseverance of its partners on the ground. We have overcome differences in language, geography, and engineering philosophies to succeed."

We congratulate everyone involved around the world in this truly historic cooperative engineering project at the high frontier of human enterprise.

Bart Gordon retains Science and Technology Committee chair

Today Bart Gordon was re-elected to chair the Committee on Science and Technology.

Why do you care? Since he got the job in 2006, Gordon has been a pit bull for science and tech initiatives. He was the one who pushed the America COMPETES Act through congress last year, among whose provisions was the authorization to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). That resource remains underfunded and underutilized but provides an excellent infrastructure for President-elect Obama's plans to revamp U.S. energy policy.

Gordon also led the fight earlier this year against letting Italian nuclear waste collect in Utah landfills.

Gordon hasn't always been a favorite around these parts (certain National Nanotechnology Initiative shenanigans raised some hackles) but usually his staunch opposition or intense support is on the right track.

Gordon has proven himself to be a good steward of the Science and Technology committee the past two years. I have high hopes for the next four: â''I want this to be the committee of good ideas,â'' he says. We need them.

The Charlie Rose of Nanotech Talk Shows?

I was excited to see that there was a new video talk show dedicated solely to the subject of nanotechnology. The new interview series is called Nanotech Today and is available both for download and real-time viewing on

As the brief introduction to the show describes, the program brings together two 21st Century technologies (some might say, the two most over-hyped technologies of the new century): Internet TV and Nanotech.

But I knew, after my experiences with various Podcasts and other assorted multi-media venues discussing nanotech, that there would be a catch.

In this case, everyone (with the exception of one guest) that is interviewed comes from just one institution: Northwestern University.

While Dr. Chad Mirkin is a true innovator in the world nanotech, and no doubt has assembled a top-flight team of researchers, it would be nice sometimes to get a little different point of view.

Itâ''s a budget thing, I know. But maybe some of that 21st Century Internet TV technology could be applied so that an interview could be conducted with someone who was not in the studio.


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