Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Aug 03 2021

Where’s My Self-Driving Car?

Published by under Technology

A lot of people have noticed that the self-driving car revolution has been…delayed. For the last decade predictions of when the technology would be ready for mass adoption were converging on the 2020s, beginning early in the decade. In this 2010 article, the prediction was – at least 8 years. Also, “US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx declared in 2016 that we’d have fully autonomous cars everywhere by 2021.” Since then the technology has advanced tremendously, but has not quite crossed the threshold of fully autonomous vehicles. We are stuck in the “driver-assist” stage. Right now you can get a Tesla with the driver-assist package which you can use to summon your car from its parking space, and to assist during driving to help avoid accidents. But the driver must always be attentive and at the wheel. Fully autonomous driving is not yet a reality. What happened?

In retrospect it all seems completely predictable, because we have been here so many times before. This pattern does not necessarily happen with every technology, but it is extremely common, especially for new and complex technology. We have seen this with fusion reactors, artificial general intelligence, gene therapy, stem-cell therapy, the hydrogen economy, and flying cars. There are some common themes that keep cropping up. One is the tendency to overestimate short term progress, while underestimating long term progress. This pattern, in turn, results from some underlying tendencies and cognitive biases.

I think one of the most important is that we tend to default to extrapolating linearly into the future. So we think – if we have made this much progress between 2000 and 2010, then we should make similar progress between 2010 and 2020, and that’s when we will cross the finish line. The problem is, technological progress is not always linear. There is a more complex relationship, which can make net progress both faster and slower than we predict. This is because technological progress can be geometric, rather than linear. But at the same time, challenges can be geometrically difficult, so there is diminishing returns. These are competing geometric issues, and how they sort out can be difficult to extrapolate.

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Jul 29 2021

Engineered Synthetic Fiber – Stronger than Steel

Published by under Technology

One of the goals of material science is to create a super-strong fiber which can be easily mass produced at arbitrary length. Such fibers would be incredibly useful – for rugged clothing and gear, armor, strong cables, and manufacturing. The ultimate threshold is a cable with enough tensile strength to make a space elevator on Earth feasible. Right now we do not have a material that can do this (whether or not we would want to is a separate question).

For decades some researchers have been chasing synthetic spider silk. Some spider silks have incredible strength and toughness, but it has been challenging to duplicate the proteins with the proper structure. Now a team has produced what is perhaps a viable product – a Microbially Synthesized Polymeric Amyloid Fiber. The fibers are produced by a genetically engineered bacterium. Spider silk proteins form a large number of β-nanocrystal structures, which are largely responsible for their strength. Prior attempts at creating synthetic spider silk resulted in lower numbers of β-nanocrystals, and therefore inferior properties.

The new strategy in this current study was to create a hybrid protein, adding in amyloid protein sequences. Amyloid is a protein that likes to form similar structures, and the combination proved to be useful. The resulting protein formed large numbers of β-nanocrystals, creating a fiber that is stronger than some spider silks. How strong?

There are two main properties of interest. The first is tensile strength, which is the ability to resist being pulled apart, and described usually as the “ultimate tensile strength” which is the force necessary to essentially snap a fiber by being pulled apart. Because steel is so ubiquitous and is iconic for its strength, materials are often compared to steel. Of course, there are thousands of alloys of steel, but generally those used in cables have an ultimate tensile strength somewhere between 400-550 megapascals (MPa). The new synthetic fiber has a tensile strength of “0.98 ± 0.08 GPa” – or about 1,000 MPa, about twice the tensile strength of steel.

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Jul 26 2021

Facebook Plans VR Metaverse

Published by under Technology

Mark Zuckerberg has revealed that he plans to transition Facebook from a social media company to one that build and manages an immersive virtual reality “metaverse”. The idea sounds a lot like Oasis from Ready Player One. The term itself was coined in the 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. The basic idea is of a joining of physical, virtual, and augmented reality into one seamless experience.

It’s an ambitious goal, but given that Facebook is worth about $280 billion, with income of about $29 billion a year, it’s probably more than an empty boast. Facebook has already acquired Oculus, a popular brand of VR headsets, and has been building the infrastructure necessary for such a project. Zuckerberg seems serious. I think something like the metaverse was inevitable, but the question is – is the technology ready?

Right now the VR (virtual reality) market is about $5 billion per year, but projected to grow to $12 billion by 2024. We are still in the early adopter phase (meaning mostly gaming), but transitioning fairly quickly to more mainstream adoption. The Metaverse might be the killer app that pushes VR over the line. Or it make spectacularly fail, indicating that VR is not ready yet. Zuckerberg, however, is wisely hedging his bets. He indicates that the metaverse will exist in VR, AR (augmented reality), and existing desktop and portable platforms. So you won’t need a VR headset to access the metaverse, you can do it over your phone or sitting at your laptop. But if you have VR you will have a much more immersive experience, and perhaps be able to access unique VR features.

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Jul 22 2021

Hydrogen Aircraft

Published by under Technology

When it comes to cars, the technology competition between batteries and hydrogen has been won. The future of cars appears to be battery technology. There are some hydrogen-fueled cars, but they are a tiny slice of the market. The bottom line is that batteries are more efficient than hydrogen, and they are only going to get better. Volkwagen pretty much declared a victor with this statement:

 “The conclusion is clear” said the company. “In the case of the passenger car, everything speaks in favour of the battery and practically nothing speaks in favour of hydrogen.”

But the key phrase there is “in the case of the passenger car.” Hydrogen may still find a niche when it comes to other types of vehicles, such as trucks or trains. White battery technology has the advantage in efficiency (the total percentage of energy that get transferred to momentum), hydrogen has other advantages. One is that hydrogen (being the lightest element) has a very high specific energy (energy per mass). The specific energy for hydrogen is three times that of jet fuel, and more than 200 times that of current lithium-ion batteries.

In fact, hydrogen has the highest specific energy of any practical fuel. The two recent commercial suborbital flights, by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, both used hydrogen fuel, which combines with oxygen to form water, and no CO2. Hydrogen is likely to be the fuel of spaceflight for the foreseeable future (until we perfect nuclear engines, but that’s another article). So for anything that needs to fly, where weight is the primary concern, hydrogen is a great fuel.

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Jul 19 2021

Teaching AI Imagination

Published by under Technology

Artificial intelligence (AI) has made tremendous strides in the last few decades. Every time someone comes up with something an AI can’t do, someone builds a system that can do it (eventually). At first experts believed that no AI could beat a chess master in chess, now no human has any chance against the best chess algorithms. The skepticism then moved onto the game “Go” which was thought to require too much creativity and flexibility. In a typical chess match a player may have 20 moves available to them, while in a Go match the number of available moves is more like 200. However, South Korean Go master Lee De-Sol recently retired from competition because the AI AlphaGo “cannot be defeated”.

The primary reason AI capability has been so underestimated is because we naively assumed that any AI would need to accomplish a task is a manner similar to humans. So if we use a conscious thought process, an AI would have to use a similar process. And without human-level sentience things like playing chess or Go would simply not be possible. But this assumption was wrong. Programmers were able to leverage the strength of modern computers and software to duplicate and even surpass these high-level cognitive tasks, while bypassing the need for human-like sentience. It’s possible, therefore, that we may never need to develop self-aware AI. It can do what we need without it.

However, there are still some cognitive abilities that AIs lack that defenders of biological superiority may still point to, such as imagination. AIs typically needs to be trained on lots of data. Humans are particularly good as categorizing and extrapolating using imagination. For example, a child may experience a couple of dog breeds, and when confronting a new and very different dog breed seem to have no difficulty understanding that it’s still a dog. Whereas if they encounter a cat they know it’s not a dog.

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Jul 16 2021

Taking the Heat

Published by under Technology

About 70% of all energy produced in the world is wasted as heat. That’s a pretty startling figure. This heat largely just dissipates into the environment, without doing anything useful. If we could reduce that waste to 40% then we could reduce our energy production needs by half. Imagine removing the least efficient and dirtiest half of our energy production from the system. Of course, this is easier said than done. Waste heat comes with the territory, and is lost all long the system.

There are lots of ways to reduce waste heat. Many are low tech, in that we can do them now with existing technology. Others are high tech, and would likely require some research and development. Let’s talk about some of the low tech methods first.

One method is to reduce waste heat in the first place, and part of this is simply proper insulation. Adequately insulating building is obvious, and the focus of a lot of attention recently, but this could also mean insulating engines that produce energy so that more of that energy goes to making electricity and less is dissipated to the environment as waste. Another method has even greater potential to recapture waste heat, by diverting it to a useful purpose – heating water or heating homes and other buildings. In regions experiencing cold weather electricity is often produced distantly, producing a lot of waste heat that is just shunted into the environment. That electricity is then sent to buildings that use it to produce more heat. But what if waste heat from electricity production could be used to directly heat buildings? That could be a massive savings.

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Jul 12 2021

The Dawn of Space Tourism

Published by under Astronomy,Technology

A common theme that emerges when writing about science and technology is that often the most important factor in determining if and how a technology is adapted is not the tech itself. Economics is often the overriding factor. People will tend to take the most efficient and least expensive route to any goal. We don’t usually do things just because we can. This is why it is so important that the market places a fair and proper price on goods and services without significant distortion. Distorted market forces (like allowing companies to externalize real costs of their business) will produce distorted outcomes. (Government regulation is used when efficiency is not the only desired outcome. We also want a clean environment, justice, and protection of minors, for example.)

This is why recent developments have been exciting for space enthusiasts, who have long accepted that the route to a robust space infrastructure requires commercialization of space. Big government programs will pave the way, bootstrapping the technology, but will likely not be able to sustain a space industry. The moment going to space becomes profitable, we will truly enter the space age. And one industry well positioned to be on the leading edge of commercialization is tourism.

All this is why the recent trip to the edge of space by Virgin Galactic is noteworthy. The ship is designed as a space plane, that takes off horizontally like a traditional jet. There is a carrier portion, named White Knight, which carries the actual ship, Spaceship 2, in the middle section (the mission itself was dubbed Unity 22). At 15 km the ships separated. Spaceship 2 then rocketed up to an altitude of 80 km. “Space” is considered to begin at 100 km (at the Kármán line), so this was technically not into space (therefore the oft-cited “edge of space”). Also, this was a suborbital flight, not capable of getting into orbit around the Earth. The maximum altitude of Spaceship 2 is about 90 km, so it is not capable of orbital flight.

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Jun 01 2021

Graphene aluminum ion batteries

Published by under Technology

Damn, I hope this one is true. Battery technology is absolutely key to our energy strategy going forward. Right now the cutting edge is lithium ion batteries, which are great, and good enough for our current purposes. They allow for cars with a range of about 350 miles, which is more than enough for most purposes. They are barely, however, energy dense and cost-effective enough to use for home backup power. This is still an expensive option, out of reach for most people. They are fine for small technology, like laptops and cellphones.

I have been following battery technology news for years. At first it seems like we are always on the cusp of a major breakthrough. Then you realize that none of these advances are breakthroughs, and the media hype always glosses over or even ignores major limitations. For a useful commercial battery you need to have several features simultaneously, and any one can be a deal-breaker. We need high energy density (energy per volume) and specific energy (energy per mass). It also needs high power density – the ability to absorb and produce energy quickly, enough to run a car. It further needs many charge-discharge cycles, enough for daily charging for years if not decades. It further needs to be stable so that it does not spontaneously catch fire. And finally it needs to be made of reasonably common materials. Not being toxic is a bonus, as is being recyclable.

Lithium-ion batteries fit this fairly well. They do have a tendency to burst into flames if they overheat, but that is improving. They do require some rare-earths and also cobalt in their construction, which will ultimately be limiting.

So far, whenever I read about a leap in battery technology, it turns out that the leap is in only one or a few features, but other features are below the water line. The media report then always says something like – all we have to do is scale up, or figure out this one little problem, and we’re good. But the one little problem is the rub, and most of the time it keeps the breakthrough from being a breakthrough.

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May 25 2021

Global Action To Prevent Climate Change

Published by under Technology

There have been many studies coming out recently looking at what it would take to mitigate climate change, and some patterns emerge from these analyses. First it is important to note that a certain amount of climate change has already happened, with 2020 being 1.2C warmer than the average year in the 19th century. More warming is also inevitable, even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today.

The famous “12 years to stop global warming” notion refers to what it would take to stay below 1.5C warming, because below that level we can avoid major outcomes from climate change. That means getting close to net zero by 2030, which is absolutely not going to happen. Failing that the next goal is to stay below 2C warming. For that we likely need to get to net zero by 2050. That is possible, but will be extremely difficult.

One point of clarification that often gets misunderstood – no one is claiming that seriously bad outcomes will happen by 2030 or 2050, just that dangerous levels of warming will become inevitable by then if we don’t drastically reduce our CO2 release. The bad outcomes, like significant ocean level rise, kick in around 2100. This misunderstanding creates the illusion that scientists keep warning about climate change with endless deadlines that keep passing, while the world seems to be doing fine. Don’t be deceived by this. This is like ignoring your health, including warning signs like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and claiming everything is fine, right up until the day you have a heart attack.

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May 21 2021

The Neuroscience of Robotic Augmentation

Imagine having an extra arm, or an extra thumb on one hand, or even a tail, and imagine that it felt like a natural part of your body and you could control it easily and dexterously. How plausible is this type of robotic augmentation? Could “Doc Oc” really exist?

I have been following the science of brain-machine interface (BMI) for years, and the research consistently shows that such augmentation is neurologically possible. There is still a lot of research to be done, and the ultimate limits of this technology will be discovered when real-world use becomes common. But the early signs are very good. Brain plasticity seems to be sufficient to allow for incorporation of robotic feedback and motor control into our existing neural networks. But there are still questions about how complete this incorporation can be, and what other neurological effects might result.

A new study further explores some of these questions. They studied 20 participants who them fitted with a “third thumb” opposite their natural thumb on one hand. Each thumb was customized and 3D printed, and could be controlled with pressure sensors under their toes. The subjects quickly learned how to control the thumb, and could soon do complex tasks, even while distracted or blindfolded. They further reports that over time the thumb felt increasingly like part of their body. They used the thumb, even at home, for 2-6 hours each day over five days. (Ten control subjects wore an inactive thumb.)

They used fMRI to scan the subjects at the beginning and end of their training. What they found was that subjects changed the way they used the muscles of their hand with the third thumb, in order to accommodate the extra digit. There were also two effects on the motor cortex representing the hand with the extra thumb. At baseline each finger moved independently would have a distinct pattern of motor cortex activation. After training, these patterns became less distinct. The researchers refer to this as a, “mild collapse of the augmented hand’s motor representation.” Second, there was a decrease in what is called “kinematic synergy.”

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