Monthly Archives: May 2006

Towards 2020 Science

A good while ago, Microsoft assembled several dozens of respected scientists into the Towards 2020 Science Research Team to come up with a realistic vision of our scientific future.

Their findings have been put in a report (Adobe Acrobat Reader required).

From the report:

This report contains the initial findings and conclusions of a group of internationally distinguished scientists who met over an intense three days in July 2005 to debate and consider the role and future of science over the next 14 years towards 2020, and in particular the importance and impact of computing and computer science on science towards 2020.

A scientific revolution is just beginning. It has the potential to create an era of science-based innovation that could completely eclipse the last half century of technology-based innovation; and with it, a new wave of global social, technological and economic growth.

From our analysis and findings, we draw three conclusions about science towards 2020:

First, a new revolution is just beginning in science. The building blocks of this revolution are concepts, tools and theorems in computer science which are being transformed into revolutionary new conceptual and technological tools with wide-ranging applications in the sciences, especially sciences investigating complex systems, most notably the natural sciences and in particular the biological sciences. Some of us argue that this represents nothing less than the emergence of ‘new kinds’ of science.

Second, that this is a starting point for fundamental advances in biology, biotechnology, medicine, and understanding the life-support systems of the Earth upon which the planet’s biota, including our own species, depends. In other words, that the scientific innovation already taking place at the intersection of computer science and other sciences ranging from molecular biology, organic, physical and artificial chemistry and neuroscience to earth sciences, ecosystems science and astrobiology has profound implications for society and for life on Earth. Additionally, such advances may also have significant economic implications. The new conceptual and technological tools we outline here have the potential to accelerate a new era of ‘science-based innovation’ and a consequent new wave of economic growth that could eclipse the last 50 years of ‘technology-based innovation’ characterising the ‘IT revolution’. Economic growth from new health, medical, energy, environmental management, computing and engineering sectors, some of which are unimaginable today is not only entirely plausible, it is happening already. It is occurring as a consequence of the first stages of the scientific revolution now under way, a good example of which is the mapping of the human genome and the technological and economic innovation that has emerged from it.

Third, the importance and potentially profound impact of what is occurring already at the intersection of computing, computer science and the other sciences – the basics of which we summarise in this report – is such that we simply cannot afford to ignore or dismiss it.We need to act upon it. It is worth restating that our efforts have not been that of ‘forecasting’ or ‘predicting’. We have simply summarised the developments actually occurring now, together with what we expect to occur as a consequence of emerging advances in computing and science, and what needs to occur in order to address the global challenges and opportunities we are already presented with as we move towards 2020. Government leaders, the science community and policy makers cannot afford to simply ‘wait and see’ or just continue ‘business as usual’.

The report describes enabling tools for the upcoming scientific revolution, such as molecular machines and artificial scientists. That last one means: smarter computers and robots to do (part of) our research for us.

The report also touches on global challenges such as understanding biology, revolutionising medicine, understanding the universe and future energy.

If you check out the roadmap that accompanies the report, you will see several interesting goals such as in-vivo molecular computer diagnosis, individual (personalized) medicine, full model of a single cell, full model of a multi-cellular tissue/organ/organism, drug development in-silico, personalized in-situ molecular-computer smart-drug, understanding complex biological systems and understanding the make-up of the universe.

See also Computing the Future, another article on the 2020 Science Team and their findings.

If you are thinking all this stuff will take centuries as opposed to a decade-and-a-half, read The Law Of Accelerating Returns. Obtaining an understanding of the fact that our technological progress is accelerating exponentially will help you in understanding why everything will be going extremely fast in the years to come.

I myself have been doing research into our future for a long time. After all these years, I am convinced that we are headed towards a world in which we will have plenty of cheap energy, good health, more wealth and possibly eternal life.

Plug-In Hybrids Are On The Way

Plug-In Hybrids Are on the Way

Last week in Washington, DC — even as top executives from Ford, Chrysler, and GM asked lawmakers to subsidize the installation of more ethanol pumps at filling stations — makers of new battery systems were letting U.S. senators test-drive prototype cars that get over 100 miles per gallon, but don’t require any new infrastructure.

The vehicles in this road show, which are called plug-in hybrids, were Toyota Priuses retrofitted with large advanced battery packs that can be charged overnight and used to power the cars electrically for short trips. “If you look at how people typically drive cars, about half of the driving that you use gasoline for you could be using the electricity that comes out of your wall,” says Martin Klein, CEO of Electro Energy of Danbury, CT, which developed the battery pack and control system for one of the cars on display in Washington. What’s more, he says, the existing power grid means that “the infrastructure is all in place.”

Ordinary hybrids get all their energy from gasoline, but they are much more efficient than conventional cars because extra energy from the engine and braking is stored in a battery pack, which powers an electric motor to boost acceleration and even fuel the car completely for short distances at low speeds. The boost allows hybrid automakers to use a smaller, more efficient internal-combustion engine without sacrificing performance. And hybrids also save gas by turning off their engines when stopped in traffic or at a stoplight. Overall, the fuel economy of a conventional Prius is around 50 miles per gallon.

Plug-in hybrids have a larger battery pack, which allows them to run on the electric motor much longer — for 20-25 miles in the case of the Electro Energy car. The battery is charged from an ordinary electrical outlet. Thus, a commuter who drives 10 or 15 miles to work on city streets could recharge the battery at night and make the commute entirely on electricity. Others would need the gasoline engine at highway speeds, but could rely on the battery while driving in the city. When the energy stored up overnight runs out, the car slips into conventional hybrid mode until the next charge. This gives the vehicle an advantage over all-electric vehicles, which have been hampered by limited range due to limited battery storage capacity.

Let’s calculate this back to liters and kilometers so I can get an idea about the mileage.

One US gallon is about 3.8 liters. One US mile is about 1.6 kilometers.

This car uses 3.8 liters to travel 160 kilometers. Then the mileage is 1 in (160 / 3.8) = 42.1.

Not too shabby. Cars that I know of get 1 in 18 at best.

Robots, Robots, Robots Galore

Android Science – Hiroshi Ishiguro makes perhaps the most humanlike robots around–not particularly to serve as societal helpers but to tell us something about ourselves.

Babybot takes first steps – BabyBot, a robot modelled on the torso of a two year-old child, is helping researchers take the first, tottering steps towards understanding human perception, and could lead to the development of machines that can perceive and interact with their environment.

Korean Scientists Develop Female Android – Standing 1.6 meters tall and weighing about 50 kilograms, she can understand others, speak, blink with her eyes and makes several facial expressions.

She’s a robot – Movieclip of female android.

Robotic tentacles get to grips with tricky objects – Robotic “tentacles” that can grasp and grapple with a wide variety of objects have been developed by US researchers.

Robotic Action Painter – RAP (Robotic Action Painter), designed by Leonel Moura (with IdMind) for Museum or long exhibition displays, is completely autonomous painting robot that need very little assistance and maintenance.

Korea Unveils World’s Second Android – Korea has developed its own android capable of facial expressions on its humanoid face, the second such machine to be developed after one from Japan.

October to See Venture Into Space-Age Robot Utopia – The government has its eye on a 15 percent global market share in robotics, industry production of $30 billion, $20 billion in exports, and the creation of 100,000 jobs in the industry by 2013, which would place the country third in robotics in the world. Currently, with a volume of $350 million, the country is in sixth place. In 2004 some 6,000 cleaning robots were sold, a number that jumped to a promising 30,000 last year. As the New York Times said, Korea is moving fast towards a science fiction lifestyle where each household has its own robotic helper.

Flying robot attack ‘unstoppable’ – It may sound like science fiction, but the prospect that suicide bombers and hijackers could be made redundant by flying robots is a real one, according to experts.

The Robotic Giraffe – It walks, it blinks, it seats six, and it blasts Kraftwerk: Meet one man’s 17-foot-tall pet project

Robot Carries Out Operation By Itself

Robot carries out operation by itself

For the first time, a robot surgeon in Italy has carried out a long-distance heart operation by itself.

“This operation has enabled us to cross a new frontier,” said Carlo Pappone, who initiated and monitored the surgery on a PC in Boston, ANSA reported. Pappone is head of Arrhythmia and Cardiac Electrophysiology at Milan’s San Raffaele University.

The 50-minute surgery, which took place in a Milan hospital, was carried out on a 34-year-old patient suffering from atrial fibrillation. Dozens of heart specialists attending an international congress on arrhythmia in Boston also watched.

Pappone has used the robot surgeon in at least 40 operations.

“It has learned to do the job thanks to experience gathered from operations on 10,000 patients,” Pappone said, pointing out that the robot carries the expertise of several human surgeons used to boost its software.

It’s already starting. Experience of several humans is being combined into one machine. One machine that will eventually be superior and take over more and more responsibility from us humans. One machine that can instantaneously share its knowledge with other machines.

We are truly headed for a robotic nation.

Can Computer Simulations Replace Animal Testing?

Can computer models replace animal testing?

As the public debate rages over the use of animals in drug development, a change is taking place in labs across the world. The first realistic software models of human and animal organs are starting to emerge – potentially replacing some of the 50 to 100 million animals used each year for scientific research.

The first models of how the heart works were built decades ago (New Scientist, 20 March 1999, p 24), but they are much more sophisticated now. The models couple mechanical contractions to electrical waves in three dimensions, for instance, to show thousands of molecular interactions and connect the heart to a virtual circulatory system. Models of other organs, including the lung, musculoskeletal system, digestive system, skin, kidney, lymphatic system and brain are also under construction.

Unfortunately, the rest of the article requires paid subscription, which I don’t have. But it sure is interesting to read that realistic software models are now entering the mainstream.

I’ve said before that simulations are the future of medicine. They give you much more power than real life creatures do. In simulations, you have control over time (rewind, fast forward, etc.) and you get to define camera’s and lightsources wherever you like. For that reason, virtual cells are much easier to study.

These simulations are a powerful tool in medicine and they will help to exponentially speed up the reverse engineering of our biology. This will in turn lead to a biotechnology revolution in the next decade.

Are you looking forward to more health, youth and cures for ailments?

I know I am.

Alzheimer Cured In Mice

Alzheimer Cured In Mice

In the study of Alzheimer’s disease, the smallest steps forward have sometimes led to the most exciting breakthroughs.

In the case of a recent study from Novato’s Buck Institute, it’s a molecular step forward — specifically, modifying a single amino acid in the brains of lab mice that could prevent the frightening memory loss and dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

While several scientists outside the Buck Institute were reluctant to call the study a true breakthrough, the results “are not a trivial step forward,” said Stephen Snyder, an Alzheimer’s disease specialist with the National Institute on Aging.

“This opens the door on a field of research. What these guys are showing, basically, is a new universe for us to look into more deeply,” Snyder said. “We don’t know much about the mechanisms. You could fault these people for rushing to print the study without knowing that, but in the Alzheimer’s field, we accept a lot of this because these little incremental things could mean a lot.”

In the Buck Institute study, a protein was altered in the brains of lab mice. The mice that received the treatment showed all the pathological signs of suffering Alzheimer’s disease — most notably, a buildup of sticky plaque that scientists believe is related to the disease — but had none of the memory-loss symptoms or brain shrinkage.

It’s too soon to say whether the genetic alteration that seems to have worked on mice will also work on humans, but the research shines new light on the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, said Dale Bredesen, chief executive of the Buck Institute.

“It gives you a completely different view of a disease you thought you understood. It points us in the direction of a new way to treat it,” Bredesen said. “Because you cure the mouse, can you cure the human? Time will tell. But since we do have such a big impact on the mouse, it does lead us to new treatments options.”

The next step for scientists is further research on the genetic alteration and, ultimately, drug therapy for humans, Bredesen said. A drug treatment is at least two years away, he said, and on average it takes 14 years for a drug to get FDA approval.

I don’t have to tell anyone why this research is a good thing. After all… nobody wants to get Alzheimer.

Eventually, we will all develop Alzheimer provided we live (and keep aging) long enough.

So Alzheimer could be a problem if you have decided that you are going to make use of future rejuvenation technologies so you can live forever.

For the immortalists among us, curing Alzheimer is a must.

Nanotubes Sending Signals To Nerve Cells

Breakthrough: Scientists used nanotubes to send signals to nerve cells.

Texas scientists have added one more trick to the amazing repertoire of carbon nanotubes — the ability to carry electrical signals to nerve cells.

Nanotubes, tiny hollow carbon filaments about one ten-thousandth the diameter of a human hair, are already famed as one of the most versatile materials ever discovered. A hundred times as strong as steel and one-sixth as dense, able to conduct electricity better than copper or to substitute for silicon in semiconductor chips, carbon nanotubes have been proposed as the basis for everything from elevator cables that could lift payloads into Earth orbit to computers smaller than human cells.

Thin films of carbon nanotubes deposited on transparent plastic can also serve as a surface on which cells can grow. And as researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) and Rice University suggest in a paper published in the May issue of the Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, these nanotube films could potentially serve as an electrical interface between living tissue and prosthetic devices or biomedical instruments.

“As far as I know, we’re the first group to show that you can have some kind of electrical communication between these two things, by stimulating cells through our transparent conductive layer,” said Todd Pappas, director of sensory and molecular neuroengineering at UTMB’s Center for Biomedical Engineering and one of the study’s senior authors. Pappas and UTMB research associate Anton Liopo collaborated on the work with James Tour, director of the Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory at Rice’s Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, Rice postdoctoral fellow Michael Stewart and Rice graduate student Jared Hudson.

This work is important because, at some point in time, we want nanotechnology to interact with our biology in attempts to cure our diseases and improve our health in general.

Internet At Light Speed

Accelerating the internet to the speed of light.

Australian scientists believe they are on the verge of a breakthrough in optical circuitry that may improve the speed of the internet by a factor of 1000.

The Centre for Ultrahigh bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems, a research consortium of five universities, is trying to create a photonic chip that processes optical signals free of slow, silicon electronics.

Optical-signal processing allows unprecedented bandwidth – one optical fibre has a capacity of hundreds of terabits a second. At this speed, a high-definition movie could be downloaded in a fraction of a second, rather than the hours it takes with current technology.

Today, our international internet links are bedevilled by unavoidable lag – the time it takes for data to travel from the US to a user’s PC in Australia.

For most of its journey, the data travels at the speed of light along optical fibres. But each time the information stream is switched, amplified, reprocessed or regenerated, it requires silicon-based electronics, which are much slower.

These bottlenecks stand in the way of a 1000-fold increase in the practical speed of the internet, the centre’s researchers say. But they could be removed with optical computing, which uses light to switch light, without electronic interference.

Trends Hint At Golden Era For Nanotechnology

Trends hint at a golden era of nanotechnology.

Another exponential process is miniaturization. We’re showing the feasibility of constructing things at the molecular level that can perform useful functions. One of the biggest applications of this, again, will be in biology, where we will be able to go inside the human body and go beyond the limitations of biology.

Rob Freitas [a senior research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing] has designed a nanorobotic red blood cell, which is a relatively simple device — it just stores oxygen and lets it out. A conservative analysis of these robotic respirocytes shows that if you were to replace 10 percent of your red blood cells with these robotic versions you could do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath or sit at the bottom of your pool for four hours. It will be interesting to see what we do with these in our Olympic contests. Presumably we’ll ban them, but then we’ll have the specter of high school students routinely outperforming Olympic athletes.

A robotic white blood cell is also being designed. A little more complicated, it downloads software from the Internet to combat specific pathogens. If it sounds very futuristic to download information to a device inside your body to perform a health function, I’ll point out that we’re already doing that. There are about a dozen neural implants either FDA-approved or approved for human testing. One implant that is FDA-approved for actual clinical use replaces the biological neurons destroyed by Parkinson’s disease. The neurons in the vicinity of this implant then receive signals from the computer that’s inside the patient’s brain. This hybrid of biological and nonbiological intelligence works perfectly well. The latest version of this device allows the patient to download new software to the neural implant in his brain from outside his body.

These are devices that today require surgery to be implanted, but when we get to the 2020s, we will ultimately have the “killer app” of nanotechnology, nanobots, which are blood cell-sized devices that can go inside the body and brain to perform therapeutic functions, as well as advance the capabilities of our bodies and brains.

A not too lengthy article which is very much worth your time if you are not familiar with Ray Kurzweil’s message to the world, which is about exponentially accelerating progress.