Archive for the ‘Engineering’ Category

I am a cyborg. Don’t look so shocked—you’re probably one too.

I have the following technological enhancements:

  • a removable device for improving visual acuity
  • an assortment of removable artificial skins for temperature control and decoration
  • a prosthetic time sense, significantly better than any natural ability
  • a prosthetic memory that not only allows me to store large amounts of information far more accurately than my natural memory, but allows me to access—and add to—other people’s similarly stored memories

Psychologists and philosophers suggest that humans are natural cyborgs. We are hard-wired not only to create and use tools, but to make them a part of ourselves. Your brain, for example, represents the space around you in different ways depending on what is and isn’t in arm’s reach. That makes sense, because you can directly affect things in arm’s reach—the more distant world, you can merely observe. If you pick up a stick, or get in the driver’s seat of a car, your representation of “arm’s reach” expands along with your influence. I leave it to your imagination what that representation does when you log into Twitter.

Tools change us, but we can’t function without them. Tool use, of course, is not limited to humans. Octopuses use coconut shells for camouflage, crows bend wires into hooks, and chimpanzees make spears. But we make more complex tools, and use them more easily, than any other species. And they’re absolutely necessary for our survival—we have little in the way of truly natural protection or food-gathering ability.

We’ve been worrying about the dangers of new technological enhancements for as long as we’ve been making them. Plato believed that writing would lead to forgetfulness (he was right), and cause people to “entertain the delusion that they have wide knowledge, while they are, in fact, for the most part incapable of real judgment.” Meanwhile, in the 21st century, Malcolm Gladwell believes that social media will undermine revolutionary activism—or at least, he believed it last October. Those who look ahead worry about the dehumanizing effects of nanotechnology and bioengineering. There are certainly many dangerous potential uses for these new technologies. But they can’t “dehumanize” us. Tools are one of the things that make us human.

Read Full Post »

Post by Minna Krejci

A few weeks ago, Discover’s Science Not Fiction blog explored the hidden message in Pixar’s films:

“The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.” –Kyle Munkittrick on Science Not Fiction

One of the Pixar examples given as evidence was The Incredibles, which shows how human enhancement to beyond the human norm can lead to revulsion and alienation reactions.  The lesson, according to Munkittrick: “…human enhancement does not make you inhuman – the choices you make and the way you treat others determines how human you really are.”

We’ve always been interested in ways to improve our minds, bodies, or abilities.  But what happens as new technologies increasingly allow us to push the limits of our abilities to beyond what is “normal” for our species?  Do we limit human enhancement for fear of “enhanced” individuals acquiring an unfair advantage (in work, school, politics, athetics, etc.)?  Do we avoid regulation to retain our personal freedoms and rights to improve our own minds, bodies, and lives?

In a report funded by the National Science Foundation, the Human Enhancement Ethics Group discussed these kinds of issues in the form of 25 questions and answers regarding the ethics of human enhancement.  I recommend taking a look — it’s an interesting and relevant read, considering that we are already seeing these kinds of debates with respect to cognitive-enhancing and performance-enhancing drugs.  Is it ok for students diagnosed with ADHD to take stimulants to correct the “attention deficit,” but not ok for otherwise-normal students to take stimulants to help them focus better when studying for exams?  Where do you draw the line between what supplements/drugs athletes can and can’t take to improve their performance?

It sounds like we’ve got a lot of “why does he get one and I don’t” and “why can’t I use it just because she doesn’t have one” to look forward to…

Read Full Post »

Post by Henderson

Engineering mixes many disciplines, from mathematics to art to economics, to respond to the needs of growing societies.  As populations grow, needs of infrastructures change, and new ideas bring forth new challenges, engineers work in large or small teams to find solutions to these problems.

The idea of human engineering starts with the idea that the body is a machine.  A machine that can be understood, repaired, and if need-be, parts replaced.  This is not a new idea and has existed in greater or smaller ways since Rene Descartes wrote about the mind-body duality.  Separating the body into an automatic as a machine in his description of the human body.  But what Descartes contemporaries did not have were the tools needed to understand how the body works.

The human body is an efficient collection of complex systems.  As an example, something as simple as taking a walk requires the coordination of, at least, the skeletal, muscular, nervous, and cardiovascular systems.

When something goes awry in those systems, when the body is not responding the way it should given normal conditions, changes can be made to improve the way it works.  Sometimes this improvement can be made by physical training or changes to the diet of the individual.  But failing these, more invasive methods are employed to correct the problem.

Today’s engineers are faced with more than the idea that the body is a machine.  They are faced with a growing body of knowledge that gives them the tools to transplant hearts, implant electrodes into the brain, and even manipulate the genome to create favorable outcomes.

One of the biggest stories to hit the news in the last few years are surprisingly small.

The J. Craig Venter Institute announced last year the creation of a synthetic and self-replicating bacterial cell.  The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

In this example, Venter’s lab has proven that we can mechanize the process of problem-solving on a cellular level.  Their work is adding to the public sphere a body of knowledge that will enhance the understanding of basic chemical and biological concepts and be integral to the production of new vaccines and medicines, amongst other things.

If there is a promise that could come from advances such as this, it is that we can treat the body and its most basic properties in a machine-like way.  In the end making it possible to provide basic research that enhances the human experience.

Read Full Post »

We so far have seen how the technology that we created influences our daily life. Applied science has brought in revolution in electronic industry. The electronic appliances that we stumble upon everyday has seen significant reduction in physical size. We like everything to be small, compact and lightweight so that it is portable.  It is also interesting to learn how the technology impacts the life of scientists who invented and developed it.

Scientists use a variety of instruments in the laboratory for their experiments. The life of a scientist to a large extent is dependent on the working condition of the instruments in his laboratory. Oftentimes there are multiple users for the same instrument. As the components are delicate, the instruments must be well protected, should be long lasting and should be unaffected by mechanical force. So, the instruments started coming in smaller sizes to reduce lab space and in enclosed boxes to reduce damage caused by mishandlings or mishap.

Spectrometers are type of instruments that are widely used to analyze for example, amount of protein in meat, water in grain and iron in blood. What is all needed to learn about the sample is that the collected sample must be inserted into the enclosed instrument and the measurement is made without touching any its components while any control in parameters are achieved by the computer interface. This is all nice as long as the spectrometers work. But what if any of the components fail? The most affected are the research students who are supposed to be learning their instruments . But when the students have not seen the instruments inside out how are the problems going to be solved? Science is learnt through our senses by touching, feeling, smelling and seeing. Students fail to learn the analytical principles as they can’t understand the context or think critically if the components are hidden. My research life also is entirely dependent on the instruments. If any of the components in my instruments failed, my former supervisor used to say, this would the perfect opportunity to see how the component looks like inside.

Considering the shortcomings that the technology posed, Professor Scheeline at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign developed a spectrometer few months ago using cellphones reports Sciencedaily. In an optical spectrometer, white light shines on the sample solution. The sample absorbs certain wavelength and the remaining light is passed through a diffraction grating to spread out the light into different colors like a prism. The missing wavelengths are the ones absorbed by the sample and the sample properties can then be interpreted.

Prof. Scheeline used a LED operated by a 3V battery, the kind used by key fobes to remotely unlock a car as the light source. Diffraction gratings, cuvettes and sample repositories to hold the samples can be obtained from suppliers for a few cents each. The best part is that the cellphone camera that almost everystudent has, serves the purpose of detector to capture the image. The whole set up cost only about $3 if you already own a cellphone with a camera. He also wrote a program to transfer the images to a computer.

Now, the cellphones are not just meant for texting, talking and browsing but also to learn basic science. When the technology poses limitations we need to work back and use it to our advantage.



– Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman 

Read Full Post »

Where is technology driving us? On the one hand it is helping us talk to each other. Or perhaps it is taking over the world.

With the advent of wireless technology and remote controllers, our everyday life has been transformed in an amazing way. You can operate almost all electronics, anything from your television to your thermostat, remotely.  Now, integration of Artificial Intelligence with electronics means that you can drive your car without even touching it.

A team of research scientists led by Prof. Raul Rojas at the AutoNOMOS innovations lab of Freie University Berlin have developed an autonomous driving system called the “braindriver”. The car is controlled by the brain signals of the driver. The Electroencephalogram (EEG) was used to collect brain waves corresponding to normal driving functions, such as acceleration, braking, and turning. This information was fed into the software. The software then matches the real-time signals from the driver, as they think about where they want to go, with those stored from the software. It then executes the commands accordingly, with a slight time delay. You can see a video of the test drive at the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin.

The car is equipped with cameras, lasers and sensors so that the software can work with a 360o view of its sorroundings.

While braindriver is far from ready for real life driving, advances are coming. With sufficient improvements, the braindriver will be a boon for those who aren’t physically capable of normal driving.

The real challenge is that the driver must have the utmost focus. Don’t be distracted by the attractive driver in the next car over, or by planning dinner! And texting while driving would be even more dangerous than it is already. If you get angry at a car that almost collided with yours, you may be the next dangerous driver.  I found this video very interesting that shows how the car can deal with you when you get angry while driving (sorry, you got ot listen to the commercial first, if you like to watch the video!). But then how big is the difference in signals between being angry and wanting to accelerate?

If the car gets into an accident, liability is a real issue. Who is responsible? Is it the software, the sensor, the driver or the car manufacturer? A lot of work will be needed to solve these puzzles. If nothing else, it will increase our understanding of the brain itself.

The same research group has previously tested I-phone as well as eye-gaze controlled driving. In a podcast recorded a few months ago, Professor Rojas and the Italian researcher Alberto Broggi, who is also working on autonomous driving, talk about their innovations and their future plans.

An autonomous taxi is another concept that the scientists have tested. With the touch of an I-phone, your car can pick you up, drive you home and park itself in its garage.  This could, theoretically, eliminate the need for personal cars. One technical barrier that still needs to be overcome is facilitating communication and coordination between the autonomous cars.

As a scientist, I am very excited by the technological breakthroughs that my fellow scientists have brought in through autonomous car and the braindriver . But I fear that the mankind will increasingly lead a solo life as the human interaction reduces.

– Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

Read Full Post »

As we continue our focus on new technologies this week, it’s hard to overlook IBM’s Watson, the supercomputer that stepped into the spotlight last week when it (or he?) defeated two of Jeopardy’s all-time winners (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter) in a three-day battle.

Not surprisingly, Watson’s feat has stirred up a storm of emotions and strong opinions – while many people seem to be excited about the possibilities, others are still unimpressed or skeptical, or even terrified by false implications that machines are taking over (a la Skynet).

While having Watson compete on Jeopardy did serve as a great way to demonstrate his ability to comprehend natural human speech and word play, quickly search for and retrieve information, and make correct decisions based on confidence levels, the participation of a machine on a traditionally very human game show does make the whole thing a little creepy.  By giving a supercomputer a name such as “Watson,” an almost-human voice, and an avatar that constantly changes in a way analogous to human body language, IBM has forced us to pit man vs. machine.  In reality, shouldn’t we be thinking man plus machine?

Maybe this was his way of coming to terms with competing with a computer, but Brad Rutter seems to have the right mentality.  According to ABC News, Rutter’s view was that “Ken and I are representing humanity in this thing but, at the same time, Watson was developed, built, programmed by human beings.  So I think humanity wins no matter what happens.”

Jennings takes a slightly different approach, according to the Washington Post:  “Even when machines are doing more of our thinking and remembering for us, it’ll be more useful to have the wealth of information,” he said.  “To make informed decisions about anything in life, you need to have knowledge.  If you need a Google search, you’re still at a disadvantage.”

Although I think that Jennings may just have been a little bitter (he also expressed concern at having his “one real talent” stolen away by a machine), his comment makes some good sense.  I remember reading an article a few months ago about the dangers of externalizing knowledge, and how it’s becoming easier and easier to acquire knowledge these days, but at the expense of insight.  Might be something to think about.

My hope for Watson is that his “skills” are kept in the correct context.  Arguments such as “he has an advantage because he can buzz in faster” are really absurd, considering that the point is not the fact that Watson won on Jeopardy – it’s the fact that he could compete at a human level at all.  (I definitely missed this point at first – thanks to Alan Maas for that insight, among others!)

Let’s just think of this as an exhibition match for Watson and move on – I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do in real applications, such as medicine, for example.  Jeopardy’s fun and all, but I think I’d rather watch humans compete – the thought of three spinning avatars wagering $1,246 on daily doubles is just weird.

And speaking of trivia, did you know that Sherlock Holmes never actually says “Elementary, my dear Watson” in Arthur Conan Doyle’s books?

– Minna Krejci

Read Full Post »

Every one of us enjoys playing with water, right?

Is there a “no”? I didn’t think so.

Kids especially are fond of water. They love to splash or sprinkle water on themselves, as well as on others. But elders like to splash water too! During one of the religious festivals called “Holi”, celebrated in northern parts of India, people of all ages throw colored water and colored powder on each other. Celebrated in the beginning of spring, the end of February or early March, the festival is believed to bridge social gaps and bring new relationships. Tradionally, the colored water (blue, red, green, violet, yellow and purple) is prepared by soaking various flowers in the water that would have medicinal effects. Use of giant syringes and squirt guns (Pichkari in Hindi) are used to sprinkle water. In olden days, Pichkaris were made from bamboo.

If it is “Holi” for India, it is Songkran for Thailand. Songkran is the New Year festival of Thai and is celebrated by splashing water and applying white chalk powder on others. In conventional celebration, the water captured after cleansing Buddha images was sprinkled on the elders and family and was meant to bring good fortune. Songkran is the biggest water fight to be enjoyed in April, the hottest time of the year in Thai, thus bringing down the severity of the weather.

Water splashing festivals are celebrated in many other Asian countries under different names. In other countries you will see kids enjoying the water gun based games mainly in water parks.

It must be a lot of fun splashing water on everyone! Ask any kid – they would know what a water gun is. But who invented this amazing water gun that has been an attractive toy for all the ages?  (If you are whispering the name, I can hear you!) It is Lonnie Johnson – a rocket scientist and a nuclear engineer who invented the pressurized water gun called the Super Soaker in 1989.

Lonnie was born in 1949 in Mobile, Alabama and is an African American. He was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, CA when the idea for the Super Soaker struck his mind. The Super Soaker made a revolution in the history of water warfare, beating its battery powered motorized predecessors, which were costly toys in the 1980s that also looked more like real guns. Lonnie’s model was highly dependent on the air pressure and the arm pumping for pressurizing the firing chamber that contained water. It was capable of blasting more water farther and faster than any other guns in the market.

Lonnie wanted to mass produce his water gun. As he had only limited resources, he sought licensing agreements with existing toy companies and had to move through several hurdles.  He then found Larami Corporation to contract with – the president of Larami uttered a suprised “wow” as Lonnie shot the gun across the meeting room. Larami manufactured Lonnie’s prototype and patented his invention as well. The gun was called “Power Drencher” and then renamed as “Super Soaker 50”. The Super Soaker was a top selling toy in America in the 1990s and generated over $200 million sales. In total, $40 million toys were sold. Later models of the Super Soaker have either a single chamber or separate chambers to contain water and pressured air; several other improvements and modifications were brought in for later versions.

At a young age Lonnie and his brothers, due to curiosity in science, used to try experiments at home with household items. Though one of his experiments exploded and burnt part of the kitchen at home, it is this curiosity that led him to invent the Super Soaker.

Lonnie owned about 80 patents with 20 more pending, and he is also an author of several publications in spacecraft systems. Lonnie founded Johnson Research and Development Co., as well as its spin-off companies Excellatron Solid State, Johnson Electro Mechanical Systems and Johnson Real Estate Investments, all operating in Atlanta, GA. He served on the board of directors of Georgia Alliance for Children, an organization that protects the rights of Georgia’s less fortunate children, and on the board of directors of Commonwealth National Bank. He is also a board member of the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation. In his hometown of Marietta, GA, Februrary 25, 1994 was declared “Lonnie G. Johnson’s Day” in his honor.

Got a Super Soaker with you? Save it for the upcoming “Holi” and “Songkran” celebrations!

Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: