Archive for the ‘Technology’ 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.

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If you could get one technological enhancement–real or imagined–what would it be?  And are there any that would worry you if other people got them?

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Post by Henderson

At MASI, we believe that the point of starting a science organization is to benefit people.  To give them information that they, otherwise, wouldn’t have.  To help them to look at and interact with the world just a little differently.

Well, it should be.

Though many of these organizations begin with altruistic intentions, many just aren’t as effective as they could be.

Whether their methods or mission don’t fit or the competition for providing similar services is too overwhelming, a number of startups find themselves at a severe disadvantage on the road to success.

Based in Chicago, The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) is one organization that has beat these odds.  Operating since 1978, CNT uses rigorous research to bring about practical changes in a myriad of disciplines from climate change to energy to community development.  A self-proclaimed “innovation center for urban sustainability,” CNT is all about using science to benefit the community and make it more cost-effective and efficient.

Never heard of them, you say?

Well, I know you’ve heard of I-GO, the non-profit car sharing initiative started by CNT in 2002.  The whole point of the enterprise is to create a seamless and integrated transportation system that reduces transportation congestion and greenhouse gases in the city.

Cool, huh?

But they do much more than that.  Check out this video of Governor Quinn signing a bill supported by CNT’s transportation research.

They are, after all, a think-and-do tank.  Just last year, they were integral players in many initiatives, and here’s the short list:


Designing Usable Data

  • Abogo – helps would-be homeowners determine the true cost of transportation.
  • H + T Index – just expanded to 337 communities and helps determine household affordability when paired with transportation costs.

Greening Policy

  • Helped to ensure funding for green projects in an existing Illinois EPA bill.

Solution Oriented

  • Assisting coordination of a $25 million dollar federal grant that will fund regional energy efficiency retrofits, leverage local investments, and create more than 2,000 jobs.
In the end, The Center for Neighborhood Technology is a cool organization because it uses science and technology to make the region better for all of us.
Check them out.
Who are your favorite science or art organizations making a difference?  Go ahead and share them.  Let’s see if we can get a great list going.

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Post by Henderson


There is so much science and technology news out there, it is literally making my head spin.

In recent news, AT&T is buying T-Mobile USA (good news for iPhone devotees, bad news for relatively cheap service), the NRDC found 42 disease clusters in 13 states, and the Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill to teach creationism alongside evolution.

While each of these stories is monumental in its own right, the two biggest stories may have been buried with all the coverage of the impending government shutdown.  FYI, it didn’t shut down — but the next two stories were major reasons why there was so much contention about the budget in the first place.


On Thursday, in a 255 to 172 vote, the House of Representatives decided that the E.P.A. does not have the right to regulate emissions coming from industrial facilities.  A slap in the faces of the Supreme Court and the Obama Administration in one vote.


2007: In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found that carbon dioxide and other emissions are “air pollutants” as defined by the Clean Air Act.  Therefore, the regulation of these emissions falls under the jurisdiction of the E.P.A.
: Congress passed the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill.
: The E.P.A. released new rules requiring that new or upgraded facilities use the best technologies for controlling the release of CO2 into the environment.

Central to the Obama Administration’s environmental policy is the curbing of greenhouse gas emissions and moving the US in a more “green friendly” direction.

Sources have said that the legislation won’t pass.  Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has done his best to block this in the Senate, and President Obama has stated that he would veto any such legislation that passed his desk.

What is most important is the rhetoric coming from opponents of greenhouse gas regulation.  Texas Republican Ted Poe defended the bill by saying that the “E.P.A. is on a mission to destroy American industry.”  Really?


On Friday, the House of Representatives voted to overturn the F.C.C.’s net neutrality rules passed last year.

The rules prohibit phone and cable companies from favoring or discriminating against Internet content and services, including online calling services such as Skype and Web video services such as Netflix that could compete with their core operations. They require broadband providers to let subscribers access all legal online content.”

At issue is one question: who has the right to regulate the internet?

Furthermore, with regulation, what does it mean to sustain an open and free internet?

Check out FCC Chairman’s Julius Genachowski’s discussion of a free and open internet:

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Post by Henderson

You know what data visualization is.  Don’t you?

Literally, it is taking data (little bits of information) and placing this into an agreeable format (picture, graph, etc…) that is supposed to provide meaningful information, quickly.

If you’re on LinkedIn or Facebook or some other social networking site, chances are that you’re connected to at least 10 – 15 people.  Family, friends, co-workers, contact, etc… you name it.  They, also, are connected to 10-15 people, and so on.  Hence the word network.

Each one of these people are… you guessed it, data; who, what, when, where, how, and why are all there.  It’s even combined into a nice, standardized, profile page for you to view and interact with.  No muss, no fuss.

More importantly, though, this collection of networks says something meaningful about you.  It gives someone an informative snapshot as to who you are and what associations you keep.  Good for employers and the like.

But say you have just a few moments to get your point across in one picture.  How can you convey meaning to a potential viewer in seconds?  Make a map.

LinkedIn has a really cool tool for you to map your networks.  Here’s mine:

This is my data, visualized.  If this is all filled out, you can see that I have contacts in the science, art, and political fields.  I’ve volunteered for political campaigns and worked for a women’s shelter.  And so on…

So, from this, what does data visualization mean?  Far from my personal networks, it means that people can get necessary information faster and more effectively through the growing mound of supporting data.

This isn’t just good in personal networks, it’s also good when presenting data on which budgets, policy, and livelihoods are based.  Tracking CO2 emissions, tracking the path of the Gulf Oil leak, and recording confirmations of the H1N1 virus.

Now this doesn’t mean that all the data is correct.  You’d still have to do the homework on that, but it does ensure that your message can be understood by most anyone and your idea can be acted upon.

Check out a few of these sites and see some of the great thing people are doing to present data.  Do you have any favorite sites?

Genome visualization

Leisure and poverty


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Post by Minna Krejci

Art, or vandalism?

Or maybe a platform to show off some crazy cool technology?

Amidst continuing efforts by public officials to crack down on graffiti in most cities, the graffiti culture continues to evolve.  In Chicago, no-nonsense “graffiti blasters” erase the work of writers within days or even hours, which has led to the emergence of a new, more competitive breed of artists.  In Tucson, new anti-graffiti coatings that allow paint to be washed off with a garden hose threaten to shorten the lifetime of graffiti art even further.  In Bridgeport, past and current street artists are working to legitimize the craft, by holding graffiti-inspired art shows and working with the city to create a “legal wall” for live art.

And in this age of technology, some tech-savvy artists are turning to media other than spray paint and stencils, with the help of groups such as the Graffiti Research Lab.  GRL, which was originally supported by the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York City and is now part of the internet-based Free Art and Technology (F.A.T.) Lab, proclaims to be “dedicated to outfitting graffiti artists and activists with open source tools for urban communication.”

So what does this mean?  See below:

GRL's Laser Tag projecting onto a building in Rotterdam (via http://muonics.net/blog/index.php?postid=15)

With their L.A.S.E.R. (“light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”, apparently) Tagging System, the GRL team writes on buildings from hundreds of feet away.  With lasers.  Over and over again.  Complete with the illusion of dripping paint.

Here’s how GRL explains the technology: “In its simplest form the Laser Tag system is a camera and laptop setup, tracking a green laser point across the face of a building and generating graphics based on the laser’s position which then get projected back onto the building with a high power projector.”

And if demonstrating their Laser Tag setup wasn’t enough, GRL offers do-it-yourself instructions and the open source code.

Here are a few other geek graffiti inventions by the graffiti engineers at GRL:

LED throwies – LED’s taped to a battery and a strong magnet that can be stuck onto any ferromagnetic surface:

Electro-Grafs – graffiti using magnetic and conductive paint to embed LED display electronics:

Members of GRL, Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks, and The Ebeling Group have also teamed up with a legendary graffiti writer named TEMPTONE, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2003, to develop the The Eyewriter – an eye-tracking system to allow ALS patients to draw using only their eyes:

The Eyewriter (via http://www.eyewriter.org/)

And again, GRL offers DIY instructions for each of their inventions.

Now, if you’re still a fan of the more traditional street art, never fear – classic graffiti artists like the infamous Banksy aren’t going to get swept under the carpet that easily.

Stencil by Banksy in London (via http://www.banksy.co.uk)

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Post by Justin Breaux

In the future, medical technologies will be seamlessly integrated with our bodies.  Not unlike the recent movie Repo Men, we will be able to have these implanted and increase our mobility and ability.   Though, hopefully no one will be coming to re-collect your new cybernetic heart.

But what types of technologies are available now, that can help us lead richer lives if we’re missing a limb or encountering a body part that’s not working the way it’s supposed to?

Here are just a few examples of our cybernetic future.  Watch, and imagine.

Prosthetic Arms:

Robot-Assisted Walkers:

Minimally Invasive Surgery Robots (you’ll never think about grapes the same way):

Power Knees:

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Suffice it to say, the tablet market is booming.

iPad 2: Photo courtesy of Techland

Following nearly 10 years of speculation, in April of last year, Apple unveiled its’ Magnus opus; the iPad.  This may have come as a surprise to many computer manufacturers that have been on a constant crusade to make laptops smaller, faster, and cheaper.

For sure, laptops aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, I’m typing this story on one. The  iPad, or any other tablet for that matter, just isn’t ready to replace a laptop.  Sort of like how your cell phone in the 80’s wasn’t ready to replace your house phone.  However, Apple started a virtual avalanche of competition following its April unveiling.

According to CNET reviews, there are currently 23 tablets reaching for a piece of the tablet market pie.  It’s big business, one that could be worth nearly $20 billion by 2014.  Companies from Acer to Vizio either are selling tablet devices now, or will be by the end of this year.

I’ll admit, I have drunk the proverbial kool-aid.  When a new piece of tech is scheduled to come out, it feels like I’m waiting up for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve with a plate of cookies in my hand.  Yeah.

But beyond the glitz and glam of this massive technological shift, I dream about new applications for this relatively new platform.  This newest application should be happening in education.

Sure, most people will still use a tablet only to listen to music, store pictures, watch movies, or play that awesome Angry Birds game.  But it’s bigger than just that.  In recent years, the numbers of people learning online has skyrocketed.

In a 2006-07 study, the National Center for Education Studies (NCES) found that 66% of 2-year and 4-year Title IV degree-granting post-secondary institutions offered online, hybrid/blended online, or other distance education courses.  Of the estimated 12.2 million enrollments that year, 77% of these were purely online classes.  In 2006-07 numbers, that’s well over nine million people taking online classes!  Who knows by what percentage that number has grown since?

Even Chicago’s own Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) shelled out $250,000 for new iPads for all of its incoming freshman students last year.

Even so, there remain significant roadblocks to tablets realizing their educational potential and they have to do with the system, itself.

We have known for a long time that the educational system is broken.  Thirty years ago President Reagan’s own Secretary gave the country a failing grade.  The report found that the U. S. system was ineffective and unable to prepare its students with competitive skills in the work force.  In many ways, we are still facing the same challenges in basic education that we were some 30 years ago.  But, we are also learning new techniques to engage learners.

At the AAAS meeting in Washington D.C. this year, the “Communication Outside the Box” panel listed three “must haves” in science communication.  Knowing that devices like the iPad are reshaping how content is shaped and delivered, they listed the following:

  • Dialogue – radio shows like Science Friday that engage listeners about science topics.
  • Visualization – 
  • Participation – pairing scientists with communities

Integrating all this stuff into a comprehensive educational plan seems near impossible.  Add to that a 2.0 mindset that requires us to think differently about learning.  We no longer live in a 2D world, and meaningful interaction is the Z axis.

This is precisely what is so amazing about the tablet.  It pairs the multimedia experience with an internet database.  It also allows the user to create their own programs, making the experience even more personal.  It blurs the lines between the haves and the have-nots.

It seems that any approach that claims to be serious will have to deal with learners on their own – interactive – terms.  And from the look of it, tablets like the iPad are poised to make the biggest connections.

-Justin Breaux

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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 

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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

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