Emerging trends in technology and science will change the way we work, live, and play. DNA gives you a lowdown of some of the most modern machines, ranging from the fields of robotics to biotechnology.
Storage booster: HashCache
Throughout the developing world, scarce internet access is a more conspicuous and stubborn aspect of the digital divide than a dearth of computers. “In most places, networking is more expensive – not only in relative terms but even in absolute terms – than it is in US,” says Vivek Pai, a computer scientist at Princeton University. Often, even universities in developing nations can afford only low–bandwidth connections; individual users receive a fraction of a dial–up connection. Pai and his group created HashCache, an efficient method of caching – storing frequently access web content on a local HDD instead of using precious bandwidth to retrieve the same information repeatedly.
Cyborg organisms: Biological machines
A giant flower beetle flies about, veering up and down, left and right. But the insect isn’t a pest, and it isn’t steering its own path. An implanted receiver, microcontroller, microbattery, and six carefully placed electrodes – a payload smaller than a dime and weighing less than a stick of gum – allow an engineer to control the bug wirelessly. By remotely delivering jolts of electricity to its brain and wing muscles, the engineer can make the cyborg beetle take off, turn, or stop midflight.
Fluid science: Liquid battery
Donald Sadoway conceived of a novel battery that could allow cities to run on solar power at night. The electrodes are molten metals, and the electrolyte that conducts current between them is a molten salt. This results in a device that can quickly absorb large amounts of electricity. The electrodes can operate at electrical currents “ten times higher than any battery that’s ever been measured.
Safe power: Travelling wave reactor
Unlike today’s reactors, a travelling-wave reactor requires very little enriched uranium, reducing the risk of weapons proliferation. The reactor uses depleted-uranium fuel packed inside hundreds of hexagonal pillars (shown in black and green). In a “wave” that moves through the core at only a centimetre per year, this fuel is transformed into
plutonium, which then undergoes the process of fission.
Cheap medicines: $100 genome
In the corner of the small lab is a locked door with a colourful sign taped to the front: “$100 Genome Room–Authorised Persons Only.” BioNanomatrix, the startup that runs the lab, is pursuing what many believe to be the key to personalised medicine: sequencing technology so fast and cheap that an entire human genome can be read in eight hours for $100 or less. With the aid of such a powerful tool, medical treatment could be tailored to a patient’s distinct genetic profile.
Open flow: Software-defined networking
Frustrated by the inability to fiddle with Internet routing in real world, Stanford computer scientist Nick McKeown and colleagues developed a standard called OpenFlow that essentially opens up the Web to researchers, allowing them to define data flows using software--a sort of “software-defined networking.” Installing a small piece of OpenFlow firmware (software embedded in hardware) gives engineers access to flow tables, rules that tell switches and routers how to direct network traffic. Yet it protects the proprietary routing instructions that differentiate one company’s hardware from another.
Mini sensors: Nanopiezoelectronics
Nanoscale sensors are exquisitely sensitive, very frugal with power, and, of course, tiny. They could be useful in detecting molecular signs of disease in the blood, minute amounts of poisonous gases in the air, and trace contaminants in food. But the batteries and integrated circuits necessary to drive these devices make them difficult to fully miniaturise. The goal of Zhong Lin Wang, a materials scientist at Georgia Tech, is to bring power to the nano world with minuscule generators that take advantage of piezoelectricity. If he succeeds, biological and chemical nano sensors will be able to power themselves.
Speed circuit: Racetrack memory
When IBM sold its hard–drive business to Hitachi in April 2002, IBM fellow Stuart Parkin wondered what to do next. He had spent his career studying the fundamental physics of magnetic materials, making a series of discoveries that gave hard–disk drives thousands of times more storage capacity. So Parkin set out to develop an entirely new way to store information: a memory chip with the huge storage capacity of a magnetic hard drive, the durability of electronic flash memory, and speed superior to both. He dubbed the new technology “racetrack memory.”
Disposable devices: Paper diagnostics
Diagnostic tools that are cheap to make, simple to use, and rugged enough for rural areas could save thousands of lives in under developed parts of the world. To make such devices, Harvard University professor George Whitesides is coupling advanced microfluidics with one of humankind’s oldest technologies: paper. The result is a versatile, disposable test that can check a tiny amount of urine or blood for evidence of infectious diseases or chronic conditions.
Interactive aide: Intelligent software assistant
Search is the gateway to the web for most people; it has become second nature to distil a task into a set of keywords that will lead to the required tools and information. But Adam Cheyer, cofounder of startup Siri, envisions a new way for people to interact with services available online: a “do engine” rather than a search engine. Siri is working on virtual personal–assistant software, which would help users complete tasks rather than just collect information. Siri traces its origins to a military-funded artificial-intelligence project called CALO, (cognitive assistant that learns and organises)