Friday, August 28, 2009

Watch for big things from little particles

The buzz surrounding nanotechnology is becoming increasingly loud.

Nano-this, nano-that; it seems that every day there is a new bunch of headlines on the wires that extol a new use for nano-technology.

Even here in New Zealand we're seeing nanotech headlines making the front page. Today for example, we read that a Victoria University student, John Watt has been named the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year for his work in nanotech.

Unlike some esoteric theoretical application, Watt's work has come up with a practical way to significantly reduce the amount of Palladium needed in vehicle catalytic converters.

So what is so important about nanotech that makes it such an exciting new frontier of science and technology?

Well the answer may well be quite a bit more exciting than first meets the eye.

We live in a universe that exists on two basic scales: the Newtonian scale and the quantum scale.

The only scale we're directly aware of is the Newtonian one. This is where all those simple laws of physics apply. Mass, acceleration, action/reaction, and the concepts that we see in effect every day are easy enough to understand and we've built most of our existing technology using these basic laws of physics and chemistry.

The quantum world is a whole different kettle of fish however, and a realm into which we've only just begun to move.

Because the quantum world deals with the basic building blocks of matter (electrons, protons, neutrons, photons and the like) it's very difficult for us to control and observe what's happening. The very act of "taking a peek" at a photon will sometimes actually change its behaviour.

If you think of the quantum world like a billiard table, the only way we can tell whether there are any balls on the table, which direction they're traveling and how fast they're moving is to roll another ball across the felt and see if it is deflected by hitting another. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, when the ball we roll hits another, that ball will itself be deflected by the collision so although we know where it *was*, we no longer know where it is.

This is why physicists use terms such as "probability" when dealing with objects at a quantum level. We don't know for sure what the position and speed of a quantum object is, we only know what the probability is that it'll be in any particular place at any particular time.

But that's enough of basic quantum theory -- there are plenty of resources on the Net if you want to learn more (hint: YouTube is your friend).

The exciting thing about nanotechnology is that when you make things small enough, they stop strictly obeying Newtonian laws and start to be affected by quantum laws. Given that quantum laws can be significantly different to Newtonian ones, incredible new doors open to scientists and technologists.

Things that are impossible on a Newtonian scale become possible at a quantum scale so we are now realising a fascinating world of potential advances in technology.

While the current range of practical applications for nanotech are still limited by the technology we have for making such materials, the future is looking incredibly promising.

For example, quantum physics has been mentioned many times in respect to encryption and security but here's an interesting twist on the use of nanotech in a more traditional form of data-hiding.

Keep a watchful eye on the advances being made in the world of nanotech, you might be surprised at what pops up.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Who's controlling your electronic devices (really)?

Most of us have a range of computer-based devices these days.

A desktop PC, laptop, netbook, PDA, mobile-phone, e-Book reader -- the list seems to get longer every day.

When you lay down your hard-earned cash to buy a device like this, it's reasonable to expect that you have control over that piece of electronics. It's up to you what software you load and run on your computer. It's up to you to choose what applications your mobile phone runs. It's your choice as to which eBook titles you load into a reader and which you delete.

Well that's the way it's supposed to work but, as recent events have shown, manufacturers seem to want the final word when it comes to your right to choose what you do with the products they make.

The best example of this is the recent remotely commanded deletion of an eBook file on the Amazon Kindle eBook reader.

People who'd paid good money to load the iconic George Orwell novel 1984 onto their Kindle woke up one day and found that it had mysteriously vanished.

No, it wasn't a hardware of software fault that caused their "bought and paid for" eBook to disappear, it was Amazon's doing.

On July 17th of this year, Amazon commanded Kindle readers to delete two legitimately purchased eBook titles from any reader onto which they'd been loaded, replacing them instead with a store-credit.

Amazon claim that this was because the publisher who'd sold them the eBook version of these titles had no legal right to do so and therefore they were simply enforcing the original copyright holder's rights, through the unannounced deletions.

Tell that to the unfortunate student who'd annotated his copy as part of an assignment, only to find all that hard work effectively lost forever through no fault of his own.

And then there's the iPhone...

As demonstrated recently (and commented on right here in this column) Apple have conceded that there is the same kind of functionality built into the iPhone. They claim that it's a safety measure that will only be used in the event that some kind of malevolent or destructive application is found to be installed on the phones. By reserving the right to delete or disable any application on any or all iPhones, Apple says it's doing us all a favour.


Now, if these remotely activated "rights to delete" are not abused it's possible to argue a case for their inclusion in our modern electronic devices. But what if they're misused, solely for the commercial benefit of the company who makes those devices?

And what right do these companies really have to say what you can and can't do with your legally purchased devices?

Worst of all, what happens when these "back doors" are compromised by some clever hacker?

How can we be sure that important information or applications won't be deleted at will or at random by some hacker group, who then demands huge sums to confer immunity only to those who are willing to pay-up when blackmailed in this way?

Food for thought.

Should manufacturers have a right to over-ride a consumer's choices and actions when they purchase a hi-tech electronic device or should laws be passed that protect the individual's right to ultimate control?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dummies search for intelligent life

Sometimes it's hard enough finding intelligent life right here on earth, let alone somewhere in the vast expanse of the universe.

Despite early hopes, we've pretty much come to the conclusion that earth is the only inhabited planet in our own solar system, so now we have to look even further afield to seek out aliens who might want a chat.

While programmes like SETI quietly turn an ear to the skies and churn through almost unimaginable amounts of data for signs of intelligence, most of us just sit and wait.

Well now you don't have to wait.

If you've got a few spare moments you can redirect your web-browser to and send an interplanetary SMS to Gliese 581d, a "super-earth" planet orbiting the low-mass red dwarf star Gliese 581, from which it clearly gets its name.

This planet is some 194 trillion km from earth so if you get annoyed with the fact that Vodafone and Telecom sometimes don't deliver your SMS messages until hours after you send them, perhaps this isn't for you. The delay between when you send your message and it finally arrives at its destination will be a rather significant 20 years.

This is of course, little more than a publicity stunt, but a good one.

The odds that this distant planet is home to intelligent life would seem remarkably slim and even if it were, how do we know they'd be listening.

Even if they were listening, how do we know they'd understand us?

Even if they did understand us, would you even remember what you'd originally said when the reply finally came back, another 20 years later?

Never the less, those who have organised this little communications exercise seem to think that only messages in English (and suitably vetted for offensive language) should qualify for transmission.

Of course there are those who are strongly opposed to the trivialisation of the search for alien life. There are also those who fear that this kind of exercise may be the equivalent of ringing a dinner-bell, inviting malevolent hungry aliens to descend and devour earth's inhabitants.

Alas, the reality is almost certainly that, long before your SMS reaches any distant planet, it will have withered and faded until it is no longer discernable above the hiss that is the background noise of the universe itself.

You some how have to wonder whether there might be a better and more immediate use for this technology, don't you?

I also wonder why it is that I can send an SMS to a planet 20 light-years away for free but I still have to pay Vodafone or Telecom 20 cents to send one across the room to my other mobile. What's more, some of those terrestrial TXTs simply vanish, never actually making it across the shagpile at all. Who knows, perhaps they've been abducted by aliens.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

From Star Trek to your living room, replicators are nearly here

One of the most exciting and practical applications of computer technology in the 21st century is that of three-dimensional printing.

Almost any shape or design that can be conceptualised then converted into a suitable CAD file is now able to be printed out by the amazing devices that are 3D printers.

Right now, these printers are practical but incredibly expensive, not only to purchase but also to run and, as far as I'm aware, there aren't any third-party 3D printer refill operations around to reduce those costs.

Another drawback of today's 3D printers is that the resulting product is generally formed from a kind of plastic. In many cases this plastic may well be strong and durable enough but all too often, the items being printed really need to be made from someting with different physical, electrical and thermal properties.

In such cases, it's normal to use the printed item as a "plug" used to make casting molds from which the final product will be created. Unfortunately this means extra work, time and expense.

There are a growing number of "bureau" printers appearing on the market however, and some of these effectively allow you to print your 3D item in whatever material you choose.

By simply submitting the CAD file and material specifications, you end up with exactly what you asked for, usually just a few days later. Of course, as is always the case with computers -- what you ask for may not be what you want.

Streamlining this whole process is a new version of 3D printing which actually prints using metal instead of plastic. This system progressively deposits layers of sintered steel that, once the printing process is complete, are fused together with heat to create a solid metal object. This is an important step in the development of 3D printing technology.

Intricate metal assemblies that may previously have taken many hours of machine-time and work by skilled engineers to create, can now be printed out in a few short minutes.

Could it be that the computer is about to replace the blacksmith yet again?

Once we have truly affordable multi-material 3D printing, the "replicator" devices of Star Trek fame may become more fact than fiction.

If you examine just how quickly advancing technology brings down prices, it's not at all unreasonable to expect 3D printers will become as ubiquitous as the home-PC within a decade or so.

Such machines could also change the online shopping experience forever. Instead of consigning factory-made items to the postal service for delivery, your online purchase could consist of little more than a download that was sent to your very own 3D printer. Within minutes of ordering, the item would be spat from your printer -- bright, shiny and ready to use, each and every component having been "printed" to precise specifications and in-situ.

Isn't technology wonderful?