Thoughts

Technology

Dental Procrastination On-track to Pay Off

January 7th, 2009

This is actually a technology story, but it has a personal aspect for me so I thought I'd start with that. Like many people, by the natural order I should have exceptionally crooked teeth. I blame the part of my heritage that stems from the British Isles, but whatever the cause I endured the common childhood trauma of braces to correct them for nearly six years. Surgery, extra teeth, a "palate expander" that can only be described as a glued in medieval torture device, regular orthodontist visits, and more all resulted in a fairly straight set of teeth by the time I hit my teens. I was given a permanent retainer, a wire glued to the back of the teeth in front, top and bottom.

After several years, either the cement wore down or the stress of my teeth attempting to return to their original position overpowered the retainer and it popped out. I, of course, never saw fit to replace it. Later, as my wisdom teeth came in, my teeth began an alarming shift out of their expensive and time-consuming line. Now, most people get their wisdom teeth pulled because unlike our ancestors we've figured out how to keep our adult teeth from rotting away, making these backup teeth unnecessary. However, I didn't go to the detist for about seven years, by which time they had come in fully, albeit in some slightly odd angles.

I got a retainer from the dentist to "hold the line" on my teeth so they don't further shift, but I of course am not particularly good about wearing it. There is the realization that if I had gotten my wisdom teeth out like most people, I probably wouldn't need it. However, I read a story in the Washington Post on the future of dentistry that in some small way vindicates my procrastination, as it has been discovered that wisdom teeth are a source of a variety of adult stem cells, and these will in the not-too-distant future, be used to grow new teeth, so that as we age into that part of life historically blighted with dentures, those of us with the, err, foresight to let our mouths grow free and wild will be able to get our rotten roots re-grown, replaced, and thus renewed. Now, if we can just find a way to keep them straight and white as well, I'll be set.

Real Home Robots

December 21st, 2008

Basil the robot

The Denver Westword has a great article about a couple that are working to develop robots that actgually understand their environment and recognize things within it. Currently their robot Basil has no arms and has to be controlled by wireless keyboard, but he uses a technology they've developed called "reification" that takes basic objects in our environment and converts them to a symbolic understanding, so that Basil, through his sonar sensors, can recognize people as people and chairs as chairs, even though he hasn't seen them before.

By looking at the images his sonar produces, they have identified the commonalities in different objects and allow Basil to understand not just a solid object should be avoided, but to discern a folding chair from a wooden chair and act intelligently based on that understanding. Their hope is to build the kind of robots that we've been promised for a half century: the Rosie the robot type servicebots that can bring us a beer or a cup of tea, that can help the elderly avoid nursing homes, do the chores that busy people have little time to do, and move beyond the simple Roombas and Aibos that have been the extent of our personal robots to date.

While this isn't a flying car, and they clearly have a long road ahead of them before this technology matures to a reliable, usable level, it's the kind of work that is more foundational than just robots that can walk or climb stairs and little else. Of course, those are important pieces of the puzzle too, but by putting it together with this kind of understanding and reasoning, we may actually get there.

Large Hadron Collider in Pictures

September 5th, 2008

lhc1
As most science followers know by now, construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is nearly complete. I'm eagerly awaiting its failure to detect the Higgs Boson so that they can vindicate Heim and get to work on my starship.

I was really impressed when I came across a Boston.com page of beautiful pictures of the LHC that look like something out of a science fiction movie or a video game. Also, if you're feeling really nerdy, check out the LHC Rap Video.

Researchers See Memory Happen

September 5th, 2008

I'm going to do a link and run on this, but I thought it was really fascinating. The New York Times has an article about researchers for the first time watching the brain in action as memories are first created and then recalled.

For the Brain, Remembering is Like Reliving

New LED development leads to cheaper, better light

July 22nd, 2008

Purdue University researchers have developed a new method of producing LEDs that lowers costs, increases brightness, and reduces heat. The advance could allow commercial LED lighting with costs comparable to CFLs or traditional incandescents. In addition, the new LEDs will last longer than currently available methods. The technique eliminates the need for expensive sapphire by using a protective layer that prevents reaction between the silicon wafer and the zirconium nitride used to reflect the light away from the chip.

Unlike some advances you hear about which are 3-5 years out, the scientists believe this can be in commercial products within two years. This has the potential to begin filtering quickly into lighting products that could lower energy costs and usher in a whole new array of new lighting styles and techniques. If onyl they could unveil a new industry standard home light bulb socket. The current one is from about 1909.

Purdue University news release: Advance brings low-cost, bright LED lighting closer to reality

Speeding Bullets

May 27th, 2008

Following a series of links I got to planetary.org with an image of the Phoenix lander as it descended, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The image itself is just black with two blobs of white from the lander and its parachute as they scream through the Martian atmosphere. The MRO also took a good shot of the lander after it landed successfully and deployed its solar panels.

What the image represents, though, is a bit more interesting when you consider that the MRO is a satellite that travelled for seven months to gets to Mars, entered orbit using aerobraking and now flies around Mars at 1900 meters per second. For comparison, a glock fires a 9mm round at about 350m/s. The Phoenix lander, having reached Mars after its own nine month journey, entered Martian atmosphere at 5800m/s. After aerobraking, the parachute was deployed as the lander slowed to about 500m/s, which is still faster than a bullet and the speed of sound (more than twice the speed of sound on Mars).

At this point, a 1900m/s robot orbiting another planet takes a photo of another robot flying through that planets atmosphere at 500m/s. Essentially, a speeding bullet took a picture of another speeding bullet. I guess it's ok that it's a bit blurry, huh?

Alligator Blood

April 19th, 2008

I thought the recent Physorg article on the potential medical benefits of alligator blood was really interesting. The idea is that alligators have a really well developed immune system, which makes sense considering they live in bacteria-filled swamps and often get into fights that expose them to it. For anything to survive in that environment it must have developed a pretty substantial immune system.

The alligator apparently has a novel compound in its white blood cells that kill a wide variety of bacteria and fungus, even those it hasn't come into contact with before. Essentially it doesn't need to develop antibodies to be effective against it. It even works against some of the antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, like the Staph variety that's been killing people in hospitals recently.

Their hope is that this substance will yield a new array of drugs aimed at not just bacterial infections but the fungal growths that lead to amputation among diabetes sufferers as well as potentially HIV.

Algae-Powered Bioreactors

December 13th, 2007

Using Algae as a source for fuel isn't anything new, but there's actually a company spooling up to do it. Valcent has been trialing their "Vertigro" technology in some giant algae tanks to get an idea of how much it will produce in terms of biodiesel. Their initial calculations suggest that with one acre of land they would generate 33,000 gallons of fuel per year. For comparison, an acre of corn produces about 328 gallons of ethanol. One of the best parts about this production is that while it is more expensive than just planting some seeds, you don't need traditional farmland to do it. That means that algae-based biodiesel production wouldn't jack up corn prices (and as a result chicken prices, beef prices, etc) because food crops aren't being displaced by it.

Looking at the bigger picture, in 2004 the University of New Hapshire estimated that the US would require 140 billion gallons of biodiesel per year to completely eliminate our need for petroleum-based gasoline and diesel. Putting these two numbers together means it would take 4 million acres of algae farms (assuming the current rate of production and current vehicle efficiency). Now that sounds like a tremendous amount until you consider that we currently lose 2 millions acres of arable farm land per year to desertification and erosion. So given that we aren't going to put up 4 million acres of algae production overnight, this is actually a feasible number.

I don't think there is going to be any single solution to our dependence on foreign oil, but intiatives like this are important to help raise awareness of which alternatives are truly viable and which are pie-in-the-sky (like ethanol). While I definitely favor an electric vehicle, that only moves the problem back to the powerplant. Biodiesel is carbon-neutral, works in existing vehicles, and doesn't depend on exotic technology developments.

Rewriting the Book on Genes

November 12th, 2007

I just read a fascinating article at the Washington post about recent developments in the understanding of how DNA and genes work. Just within the last few years, our whole understanding of how DNA is used to build proteins has been dramatically shifted and while I have no doubt that there will be more dramatic advancements in the future, it seems that it is finally starting to come together. Rather than assuming that 95% of our DNA is useless junk, scientists are now starting to grasp how different segments of DNA don't dictate what makes up a protein, but rather when, why, and how to make it. This article covers several of the discoveries made and how they are changing our understanding of our own incredible cellular construction.

How Science Is Rewriting the Book on Genes

Flame-Throwing, Laser-Wielding, Weed-Killing Robot

July 5th, 2007

Danish scientists have invented a robot that weeds fields. "Hortibot" is a compact, self-directed, GPS-equipped robot that can manually pick weeds, spray them with pesticide, or eliminate them with flames or a laser.

I see stories like this and I get giddy. Not because I'm a farmer, because I'm not. Not because I do a lot of weeding, because I don't. What I see though is progress in a number of tricky fields in robotics, and actual application of those developments leading to a product that not only reduces the use of herbicides by 75% but does it for lower upfront and ongoing costs than the system currently being used. We've all seen movies or read books where robots take on all sorts of manual labor. The challenge in bringing that vision to reality is that robots have not faired well in our analog, organic world. Visual recognition is still very primitive, but Hortibot can recognize 25 different weeds (distinguishing them from actual crops).

This story follows on the heels of a Wired story about a fruit-picking robot called "Agribot" (naming is very original in the robot world). Agribot is a two stage system where one robot scan trees and identifies the precise position of ripe fruit, and then a second robot with eight arms drives down a row plucking all of the pre-located fruit from the tree.

As these technologies develop further, costs will come down, accuracy will go up, and the applications will grow. Optical recognition from a fruit picker or weed killer will be adapted to other robots, and as the technology gets better and better, we may eventually see the robots of fiction that pick up your home, do your laundry, and wax your car.