Imagine a bracelet or a watch that morphs into something else when you take it off. Perhaps it becomes a phone, or perhaps a small computer screen and keyboard.
Researchers are just a few years away from bringing to life revolutionary morphing devices known as programmable matter which can change size, shape and function.
Programmable matter, or “claytronics”, involves creating devices made of millions of microscopic robots that are to 3D objects what pixels are to a screen.
These devices sound like pure science fiction, but they might be closer than anyone would have dreamed. And that includes Jason Campbell, one of the key members of the research team developing the technology at the Intel Research Centre.
“It’s a really challenging research vision, but we are making steady progress and we’re now more convinced that we are actually going to do it,” says Mr Campbell.
“My estimates of how long it is going to take have gone from 50 years down to just a couple more years. That has changed over the four years I’ve been working on the project.”
Scientists have discovered drugs which can block out memories and have the potential to radically alter human personalities. No, this isn’t the “nerd discovers beer” scene from every college movie ever – chemicals like propranolol and ZIP have already been shown to remix recollections. But if memories make the man, what happens when you mess with them?
We simply don’t know. Neuroscience Lesson #1 is “The human brain is a terrifyingly complex device, even ones which watch American Idol.” Any alteration could cause serious side-effects, with the additional problem that such symptoms are difficult to diagnose. If your kidney stops working, we have all kinds of ways of measuring that. How you eventually fall over, for one thing. But outside of the Care Bears cartoon there’s nothing to quantify imagination or confidence.
A major part of this problem is that human beings are simply crap at collecting data. Any number of reasons from forgetfulness to embarrassment can prevent patients from reporting regular symptoms for things like broken feet, never mind the nature of their own thoughts – they’re patients, not Zen philosophers. This is why some scientists think online logging might be the answer – a medical version of twitter, for example, where out-patients can report any and every odd feeling as they happen and have the data logged in real time. It’ll certainly be no worse than much of the content already up there – though putting somebody online and telling them to share personal information after erasing their memories may cause new problems. And boost the Nigerian economy.
The convergence of biology and engineering is turning health care into an information industry. That will be disruptive, says Vijay Vaitheeswaran (interviewed here), but also hugely beneficial to patients.
Innovation and medicine go together. The ancient Egyptians are thought to have performed surgery back in 2750BC, and the Romans developed medical tools such as forceps and surgical needles. In modern times medicine has been transformed by waves of discovery that have brought marvels like antibiotics, vaccines and heart stents.
Given its history of innovation, the health-care sector has been surprisingly reluctant to embrace information technology (IT). Whereas every other big industry has computerised with gusto since the 1980s, doctors in most parts of the world still work mainly with pen and paper.
But now, in fits and starts, medicine is at long last catching up. As this special report will explain, it is likely to be transformed by the introduction of electronic health records that can be turned into searchable medical databases, providing a “smart grid” for medicine that will not only improve clinical practice but also help to revive drugs research. Developing countries are already using mobile phones to put a doctor into patients’ pockets. Devices and diagnostics are also going digital, advancing such long-heralded ideas as telemedicine, personal medical devices for the home and smart pills.
The first technological revolution in modern biology started when James Watson and Francis Crick described the structure of DNA half a century ago. That established the fields of molecular and cell biology, the basis of the biotechnology industry. The sequencing of the human genome nearly a decade ago set off a second revolution which has started to illuminate the origins of diseases.
Materials researchers say rebooting soon may be a thing of the past
The ferroelectric materials found in today’s “smart cards” used in subway, ATM and fuel cards soon may eliminate the time-consuming booting and rebooting of computer operating systems by providing an “instant-on” capability as well as preventing losses from power outages.
Researchers supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) nanoscale interdisciplinary research team award and three Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers at Cornell University, Penn State University and Northwestern University recently added ferroelectric capability to material used in common computer transistors, a feat scientists tried to achieve for more than half a century. They reported their findings in the April 17 journal Science.
Ferroelectric materials provide low-power, high-efficiency electronic memory. Smart cards use the technology to instantly reveal and update stored information when waved before a reader. A computer with this capability could instantly provide information and other data to the user.
Researchers led by Cornell University materials scientist Darrell Schlom took strontium titanate, a normally non-ferroelectric variant of the ferroelectric material used in smart cards, and deposited it on silicon–the principal component of most semiconductors and integrated circuits–in such a way that the silicon squeezed it into a ferroelectric state.
“It’s great to see fundamental research on ordered layering of materials, or epitaxial growth, under strained conditions pay off in such a practical manner, particularly as it relates to ultra-thin ferroelectrics” said Lynnette Madsen, the NSF program director responsible for the Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team award.
The result could pave the way for a next-generation of memory devices that are lower power, higher speed and more convenient to use. For everyday computer users, it could mean no more waiting for the operating system to come online or to access memory slowly from the hard drive.
Within the next three to four years, most PC users will see their machines morph into personal supercomputers. This change will be enabled by the emergence of multicore CPUs and, perhaps more importantly, the arrival of massively parallel cores in the graphical processing units.
In fact, ATI (a division of Advanced Micro Devices) and Nvidia are already offering multiple programmable cores in their high-end discreet graphics processing platforms. These cores can be programmed to do many parallel processing tasks, resulting in dramatically better display features and functions for video, especially for gaming. But these platforms currently come at a hefty price and often require significant amounts of power, making them impractical in many laptop designs.
But preliminary steps are being taken to make these high-end multicore and programmable components available to virtually any machine. Vendors are moving to create integrated multicore platforms, with 64 or more specialty cores that can be used in conjunction with the various multicore CPUs now taking hold in the market. Using the most advanced semiconductor processes and geometries (32nm and soon 22nm and beyond), these new classes of devices will achieve incredible processing capability. They will also morph from the primarily graphics-oriented tasks they currently perform to include many more tasks associated with business and personal productivity.
The researchers have created components that could one day be used to develop quantum computers – devices based on molecular scale technology instead of silicon chips and which would be much faster than conventional computers.
The study, by scientists at the Universities of Manchester and Edinburgh and published in the journal Nature, was funded by the European Commission.
Scientists have achieved the breakthrough by combining tiny magnets with molecular machines that can shuttle between two locations without the use of external force. These manoeuvrable magnets could one day be used as the basic component in quantum computers.
Conventional computers work by storing information in the form of bits, which can represent information in binary code – either as zero or one.
Quantum computers will use quantum binary digits, or qubits, which are far more sophisticated – they are capable of representing not only zero and one, but a range of values simultaneously. Their complexity will enable quantum computers to perform intricate calculations much more quickly than conventional computers.
Professor David Leigh, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry, said: “This development brings super-fast, non-silicon based computing a step closer.
The ultimate electronic energy-storage device would store plenty of energy but also charge up rapidly and provide powerful bursts when needed. Sadly, today’s devices can only do one or the other: capacitors provide high power, while batteries offer high storage.
Now researchers at the University of Maryland have developed a kind of capacitor that brings these qualities together. The research is in its early stages, and the device will have to be scaled up to be practical, but initial results show that it can store 100 times more energy than previous devices of its kind. Ultimately, such devices could store surges of energy from renewable sources, like wind, and feed that energy to the electrical grid when needed. They could also power electric cars that recharge in the amount of time that it takes to fill a gas tank, instead of the six to eight hours that it takes them to recharge today.
There are many different kinds of batteries and capacitors, but in general, batteries can store large amounts of energy yet tend to charge up slowly and wear out quickly. Capacitors, meanwhile, have longer lifetimes and can rapidly discharge, but they store far less total energy. Electrochemists and engineers have been working to solve this energy-storage problem by boosting batteries’ power and increasing capacitors’ storage capacity.
In a study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson and colleagues used a new type of brain-imaging scanner to show that intelligence is strongly influenced by the quality of the brain’s axons, or wiring that sends signals throughout the brain. The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes information. And since the integrity of the brain’s wiring is influenced by genes, the genes we inherit play a far greater role in intelligence than was previously thought.
Genes appear to influence intelligence by determining how well nerve axons are encased in myelin — the fatty sheath of “insulation” that coats our axons and allows for fast signaling bursts in our brains. The thicker the myelin, the faster the nerve impulses.
Thompson and his colleagues scanned the brains of 23 sets of identical twins and 23 sets of fraternal twins. Since identical twins share the same genes while fraternal twins share about half their genes, the researchers were able to compare each group to show that myelin integrity was determined genetically in many parts of the brain that are key for intelligence. These include the parietal lobes, which are responsible for spatial reasoning, visual processing and logic, and the corpus callosum, which pulls together information from both sides of the body.
For those of you who want the world at your fingertips, the wait is almost over.
The future PC promises to put nearly everything you could need or want right in your palm.
Think of a souped-up version of today’s smartphone, with a monitor that unrolls into a larger screen and a biometric security system that lets you access everything in your professional and personal life from anywhere, with all the data residing in the cloud. Wave it at your car to unlock the door. Order and pay for your morning coffee with a touch of a button. Plug it into a docking station and project that big presentation to your clients. Book a weekend getaway with just a few clicks.
“PCs are going from engines or tools to portals and enablers. The vision of what they’ll be in the future is a partner. They’ll be participating in the higher cognitive tasks of what people do to get their jobs done,” says Andrew Chien, director of research at Intel Corp.
The personal computer has been a corporate workhorse for decades. And while it has evolved, becoming slimmer and more mobile, in many ways it still resembles those old terminals tethered to the mainframe. But the next decade will bring dramatic changes, as the PC evolves past the standard desktop and laptop units to amalgamations of computing devices and their peripherals.
This future PC will be smarter, too. It could discreetly remind you of the name of an acquaintance and alert you when it’s time to take your medicine. It will be your colleague, your butler — and possibly your friend.
Researchers say their device, which oxygenates blood outside the body before it goes through the lungs, could be an alternative to transplants.
The Swansea University scientists say it could take many years before the device, the size of a spectacles case, is available.
Lung patients, who have seen how it would work, have welcomed the research.
According to the British Lung Foundation, there are more than 40 conditions which affect the lungs and airways and impact on a person’s ability to breathe.
They include lung cancer, tuberculosis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, sleep apnoea, avian flu, bronchiolitis and many others.
Its research suggests that one person in every seven in the UK is affected by lung disease – this equates to approximately 8m people.
As of 6 March 2009, 217 people were on the waiting list for a lung transplant according to figures by NHS Blood and Transplant.
Now scientists in Swansea are developing a portable artificial lung which could transform the lives of patients.