Archive for February, 2012

Let’s learn from butterflies

Sunday, February 19th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

I have already noted in these posts the particular characteristics of butterflies wings: their scales are made with nanostructure that are able to reflect light creating iridescent colors.

Now, GE is taking inspiration from those nano structures to create advanced thermal detectors.

The butterfly wing nano structures are particularly good to intercept mid-wave infrared light and convert it into a full color palette. Basically it can amplify the difference in wavelength and make them visible.

This amplification would significantly improve the sensitivity of detectors.

GE researchers say that by mimicking these nano structures they have been able to take infrared detection to a new level of sensitivity.

Infrared detection is useful in many areas: in the medical field it is used to detect inflammation and several associated pathologies, in the environment can help detecting changes in vegetation, firefighters can use it to spot critical situations in a fire and so on.

It is just another field where nanotechnologies can contribute to the evolution of technology capabilities and yet another area where learning from nature is the way to go.

According to Dr. Radislav Potyrailo, principal scientist at GE Global Research who leads the GE bio-inspired photonics programs:

“The iridescence of Morpho butterflies has inspired our team for yet another technological opportunity. This time we see the potential to develop the next generation of thermal imaging sensors that deliver higher sensitivity and faster response times in a more simplified, cost-effective design. This new class of thermal imaging sensors promises significant improvements over existing detectors in their image quality, speed, sensitivity, size, power requirements, and cost. GE’s bio-inspired design also promises exciting new thermal imaging applications such as in advanced medical diagnostics to detect changes in a person’s health or in thermal vision goggles for the military to allow soldiers to see things during the dayand at night with much greater specificity and detail.”

Solar panels to substitute diesel generators

Saturday, February 18th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

The problem with solar panel, beyond the obvious need of Sun to work, is their low efficiency (only 15-18% of the solar energy is converted in electricity) and therefore the higher cost per KWh in comparison to more efficient transformation procedures, such as the one of diesel based generators.

Solar panel production in India

The efficiency of solar panel has not increased significantly (although some new technology based on nano tech seems to yield a much better transformation ratio but, alas, it cost much more).

What is happening, though, is that the cost for manufacturing solar panels is decreasing and therefore it is making them competitive although their conversion efficiency is still low. Since the cost of solar light is 0, the efficiency of transformation may be neglected.

This is what this news from India manufacturing is about.

The price of solar panel manufacturing has decreased by about 50% in 2011 and they cost now just one quarter of what they cost in 2008. At this manufacturing price the cost per KWh in India is 8.78 rupees, half of that (17 rupees) required by diesel power engines.

The innovation coming from India is not surprising since India still has one quarter of its population that do not have access to electricity from a grid (that is a larger population than the one of all of Europe!). That is why local generators are so common, and these are diesel based. Now the possibility to use solar panel at a low KWh cost may change the situation.

Of course you can switch on a diesel engine in the night, and that is when you are most likely to need electrical power for illumination (!), whilst solar panel are on only when there is sunlight. Hence you’ll need batteries and that adds on to the cost. However, most manufacturing takes place during the day and the power provided by solar panel can be used.

Would you trust me as a surgeon?

Friday, February 17th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

Actually, would you trust any friend of yours to perform surgery on you, knowing that would be his very first surgery and that he has no medical background?

I bet you won’t!

And yet, this is what the CAMDASS project is all about. Developing tools that would allow anybody (almost anybody) to perform surgery in case of emergency when no other option is viable. Such as in a interplanetary trip if a member of the spacecraft needs surgery. Coming back home would not be an option and Mars may be few months away…

And this is exactly what ESA, the European Space Agency that funded the research, has in mind.

The application, however, can be much more practical and down to Earth. It is easy to imagine that this system can be useful for remote areas as a telemedicine support. May be the surgery part may still leave you uneasy but the diagnostic part would be ok.

The person that “pretends” to be a doctor wears a special set of glasses and use a wand to inspect the body of the patient. The wand is a ultrasound probe whose signals are processed by a computer and whose result are sent to the glasses creating an overlapping image letting the person to see what the problem might be.

A library of images is used to see what the issue is and that can be further pushed to guide the “doctor” through the surgery.

Well, you really need to trust technology a lot to feel confident in being the patient.

PageRank in the Science of Links

Thursday, February 16th, 2012 by Antonio Manzalini

Imagine a library containing billions of books without any centralized organization and librarians. Anyone may add a document at any time. How would you access a piece of information in a few seconds ? It looks like the search on the WWW.

Search engines, like Google, have computer programs retrieving pages from the web, indexing the words in each document, and storing this information in an efficient format. This means that, for most searches, the result will be a huge number of pages. What is needed is a means of ranking the importance of the pages so that the pages can be sorted. One way to determine the importance of pages is to use a human-generated ranking. This is what “PageRank” does.

“PageRank” is a link analysis algorithm used by the Google that assigns a numerical weighting to each element of a hyperlinked set of documents with the purpose of “measuring” its relative importance within the set (source,

Amazingly PageRank can be used also in Computational Chemistry.

Researchers at Washington State University have realized that the interactions between molecules are similar to links between Web pages. They have adapted Google’s PageRank to understand how molecules interact. PageRank algorithm is particularly efficient and capable of looking at a massive amount of Web pages at once; similarly, it has been used to characterize quickly the interactions of millions of molecules and help Researchers predict how various chemicals will react with one another.

PageRank adapted for Computational Chemistry

This is a nice example of Industrial Mathematics cross-fertilization: an algorithm, invented for search on the Web, is adapted and used by Computational Chemistry.

Any further cross-applications ? Well, Chemistry (loosely speaking) is studying the dynamics of atomic units, self-aggregating by attractions and bonds, in a constant flurry of motion and change. Replace the atomic units with nodes (devices, smart objects, sensors, machines,…) of future networks and think about their self-aggregation for fleeting into networks in a highly dynamical environment…

How much energy does that building use?

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

A team of researchers at Columbia University in New York have published a study where they visualize the map of the greater New York area showing the energy use of single building. Play with the figure below to get a feeling of it.

These kinds of visualization are interesting since they provide an intuitive way of appreciating the phenomena. We will be able to have more and more representations of a variety of phenomena leveraging on the huge quantity and variety of data that are made available. Power utilities are installing digital meters and they can provide an amazing quantity of information. You can actually sort out the various use of the energy at the level of the appliance, since each one has its own digital signature.

Here again, as everywhere we are dealing with Big Data, privacy issues surface and they need to be addressed.

I have 500TB on my laptop

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

Few months ago I downloaded (by invitation) a beta version of BitCasa, an application that promises to solve the issue of storage capacity on my laptop once and for all. And, I should say, it did it!

BitCasa is offering a infinite storage (although on my Mac the BitCasa disk indicates “only 500 TB” of space but I guess I can live with it at least for the time being).

The service so far is free but there is rumor that they will charge 10$ a month for infinite storage space whilst it may remain free for a limited storage space (how much limited is not known).

How does it work?

After having registered and downloaded the program you are asked to indicate what of your disk you want to “cloudify”, that is being managed by BitCasa in their cloud. That’s it.

You keep using your files as you did before reading them and updating/creating them on your disk. Once the disk gets filled up some files (BitCase decides which ones..) are moved in the cloud to keep your disk viable. These files remain visible in your Finder (they are marked with an icon showing that they are actually stored in the cloud) and when you access them you better have access to the Internet since they will need to be downloaded from the cloud onto your disk.

BitCasa has developed an algorithm that, they claim, guesses what is your usage pattern so that once it perceive you may be about using a file it will proactively transfer that file to your disk so that, ideally, you are always accessing files from your disk.

So far it has worked fine for me, but I really do not have that much need for huge storage space so I am not in a position to say if it really works as it is promised.

Bitcasa is not the only one providing a free storage service. Dropbox is being used by millions although the model is more related to sharing files than storing them. Google is also rumored to be about to release an eDrive service providing free storage to all.

Clearly, services like these make the perception of storage limitation vanish. The real enabler here is the network that has to guarantee the access to the cloud. Should it be really fast? Well, it depends on the effectiveness of the algorithm. If it really can foresee my usage pattern and swap files from the cloud and my local disk before I even need that file, than real high speed link is not essential. It will also depend on the kind of use I have for the file and the type of file. Clearly, if I am storing a zillion of photos real high speed is not essential, since I will be accessing one photo (a few MB) at a time and even an ADSL line can sustain a photo transfer in under a second, if I am storing movies, again, it is not essential since I can start streaming a movie and the network link just need to sustain some 5-10 Mbps.

I would really need a high speed connection (over 100 Mbps) for some data intensive processing, such as climate evolution, particle detection in  fog chambers, protein folding and other scientific tasks. But that’s not my case, nor, I guess, the one of 99.9999% of the users.

Free textbooks will change the education biz…

Monday, February 13th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

Rice University has just unveiled a plan to provide free on-line quality textbook, thus disrupting a 4 billion$ business (in the USA).

The books will be available on the Connexions platform in the initiative called Openstax.

What is interesting is that they claim to “transform” the eduction biz, not to destroy it. With the availability of high quality free books for college the market will have to evolve and today’s publishers will need to create a higher value offer. No longer is information on paper sufficient to win the market. You need to provide education help based on the information that is already available for free,

It remains to be seen if indeed there is space for “added value” on textbooks (in the sense of willingness to pay for it). We have seen in other markets, like telecommunications, that it has been very difficult to create a sellable value proposition.

It is however true, that being a student today is very exciting, at least, this is what it looks to me. There is an unlimited amount of information, available in many forms, that can be explored through the web. Initiatives like Openstax ensure the quality of the information and provide an open ecosystem for many players to build on it.

Microrockets designed to wander in your stomach

Sunday, February 12th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

Rendering of the micro rocket moving by ejecting hydrogen bubbles

Researchers at the University of California, dept. of Nanotechnology, in San Diego, have managed to create a micro rocket that is able to propel itself in an acidic environment, such as the one of our stomach, by producing bubbles of hydrogen. It can move a 100 times its length in a second, and that is pretty fast (a car moving at that speed would travel at 1,440 km/h, faster than the speed of sound!).

There are several interesting aspects related to this announcement.

First, it is the potential application.  They mention semiconductor process monitoring and drug delivery to targeted area of the stomach. Indeed, they say to be able to steer the direction by applying a magnetic field anch tracking its movement inside the stomach.

Second, they have been able to create a micro rocket that makes use of the available energy in the environment for its propulsion and does not need any extra energy supply. This is yet another way of scavenging energy, that is basically what all life is doing, at different levels. The smaller you are, the less energy you need and the more you can find energy in your surrounding.

In this decade we are going to see a tremendous increase of artificial life (like sensors) in the environment and one of the bigger stumbling block is the provisioning of energy to have it “working” (or living….). By miniaturizing the components we decrease their energy requirement and by finding new ways to scavenge the environment we can solve this issue.

Flipped Classrooms

Saturday, February 11th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

New technologies are changing the way we learn, we are much more engaged and the education infrastructure should take advantage of it.

The new Peer Instruction Network for Flipped Classrooms

What if you are no longer going to school to learn but to discuss what you already know, and you learnt on the Web? That would flip our present model of education. Would it work? Actually, it is already working in places like the USA as well as Ethiopia, Singapore, Israel, Vietnam, Finland, Germany, Greece, South Africa.
Clearly, not all schools are using this approach but a few are and the measures indicate that students learn better using this approach.

Basically,  the idea is that you start following an on line course on the web, and study it. Once you feel you got the gist, then you go to the classroom to discuss what you have learnt with the teacher and the other students.

Harvard researchers have just launched a social network to better support this way of learning.

The PI (Peer Instruction) Network is the brainchild of Eric Mazur, the dean of Applied physics at Harvard, and its aim is to become a global social network for interactive learning.

It is interesting to notice how the schools may change because of the Internet. Wikipedia is an example of a quite different way to create an encyclopedia, rather than starting with the very best in a field and ask them to write a summary of their knowledge in their field we don’t specifically ask anyone but we provide a tool that makes it easy to share your knowledge and to update, correct, refine that knowledge through the independent  cooperation of thousands of people.

Even if the first article is very wrong, in a very little time it gets better and in a few weeks as good as it can possibly be, even better than an article on that same subject produced by an expert in the field.

The cooperation cleans up any possible mistake and creates a text that is much more readable, and hence understandable, than the one you started with.

The same goes in the flipped class model. Each student learn the lesson by following the online course but then they have to challenge what they have learnt one another, and with the help of the teacher. This is an egging activity that strengthen what they have learnt and finely tune it.

Many centuries ago school were invented as a tool for economically share the knowledge of very few. Now the knowledge is pervasive and at a click distance, and most important, it is very cheap. Each one of us can access the world knowledge but the process of digesting it remain complex and takes time. This is where the new school comes in: it is not about making knowledge accessible, it is about engaging into this shareable knowledge and challenge its value.
We used to learn to read and write in the first grade as the very first step to approach a few tens of books onto our educational path. The future that I see is one where reading will become part of our kids interactive experience with objects, and their screen like surfaces. That very same interaction will make the world knowledge accessible and the primary school will need to teach them the best ways to interact with that knowledge.
From that point on we will see them grow and learn on the web (as our ancestors did, before the school was invented at a time where the web was the world) and the schools will be social places for interaction and challenge.

New technologies, fewer jobs?

Friday, February 10th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

Technology over the last 4 centuries has gradually made irrelevant, and actually destroyed, several jobs. Agriculture has seen an amazing increase in productivity with the yield per ha multiplied several fold and the number of people needed to farm it decreasing almost to zero. Where in the 1800 80% of the population was working in agriculture now this percentage is measured in one digit.

Even a dress can be printed!

Nevertheless, the world population has grown at least three fold, there are now 4 billion people more on the Earth if we compare today’s population with the one two centuries ago and the unemployment rate is basically the same.

We are now foreseeing even better, and more effective, technologies that will further increase productivity, in other word decrease the need for human labor.

Technologies for producing products through “printing” is now able to create ever more complex products, such as the dress worn by the model in the picture that has not been weaved but simply printed, at a cost that is significantly lower than normal since it does not require the labour involved in sewing and it uses only the amount of material that is effectively required.

This, of course, is just an example along many new production processes that are ever more based on robots and in the near future on self assembling parts. Today a building that used to require years to build can be assembled out of prefabricated parts in a matter of weeks using a fraction of the labour force that was needed before.

There are even more dramatic changes ahead, as was illustrated by Thomas Frey at a recent TED conference.

He claimed that by 2030 jobs that today are employing about 2 billion people will have vanished and the new jobs that will indeed be created in other areas will not be sufficient to make up for this decrease.
Hence, this is his point, we have to start preparing for a much higher unemployment rate and in turns start to prepare for a different  economic and social infrastructure.

Some signs are already being detected in the area of ICT. Whilst in the last three decades the efficiency injected by ICT in the economy has decreased employment in certain areas but has made up for that in increase in other areas with a positive balance, in this last few years, may be also because of the credit crunch that is shrinking investment, the overall job loss has exceeded the job gains.

As we move forward an even greater (and global) competition, with stronger pressure on efficiency and the coming shift of applying ICT not to increase local processes but to change the overall processes (similarly to the process re-engineering frenzy of the 80ies) we are likely to see the negative balance between job gain and job loss increases.

This is a big challenge. It is up to all of us to translate this evolution into better quality of life for everyone, rather than in an increased inequality were jobless equals poor and at the edges of the society .