The Harrow Technology Report

  http://www.TheHarrowGroup.com

Insight, analysis, and commentary on the 
innovations and trends of contemporary computing, 
and on its growing number of related technologies.

An ongoing journey towards understanding, 
and profiting from, a world of exponential 
technological growth!

Copyright © 2001-2005, Jeffrey R. Harrow.  All rights reserved.
Email: Jeff@TheHarrowGroup.com

 

"Why Should *I* Be Interested In This?"

Oct. 27, 2003
  

  • Schedule Note.

  • Listen to this Issue.
    Give those eyes a rest.

  • Quote of the Week.
       Medical Perspective?

  • "In The Dark, We Cannot See The Road Ahead."
       Ostriches don't really hid their heads
       in the sand -- should we?

  • Picture of the Week.
       Tiny GPS.

  • Our "Tagged" Future?
       Wal-Mart and others recently cancelled individually-
       RFID-tagged product tests in the U.S.  But...!

  • Simply Doing "The Impossible."
       Suppose you were POSITIVE it could be done...?

  • A Picture Worth Many, Many Words...
       How is gasoline like sugar?

  • About "The Harrow Technology Report."

  •  

    Back to Table of Contents


    Schedule Note.

     

    The next issue of The Harrow Technology Report will publish on Nov. 24, 2003.

     

    Back to Table of Contents


    Listen to this Issue.

    Do you prefer to let your ears do the work of keeping you in-touch with, and thinking about where technology is taking us?  If so, "The Harrow Technology Report" is also available in an audio-on-demand, M-P-3 version. 

    If you have an M-P-3 player on your system (and most do, such as Window's Media Player, RealPlayer, etc.), the link below will either stream the file to you, or, depending on how your system is configured, it might download the file before playing it.  Alternatively, if you specifically want to download the file, simply use the right-hand mouse button on the link, and choose "Save Target As..."

    Also, find out how you can listen at whatever speed is most comfortable for you through the FAQ at http://www.theharrowgroup.com/help.htm .

    Here's where to listen to this week's issue!  http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/20031027/20031027.mp3

     

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    Quote of the Week.

     

    "Am I living in the last generation to die of cancer, or the first generation to be saved by nanotechnology?"

    Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley
    Director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology,
     Rice University, Houston.
    (From the Oct. 10 Forbes/Wolfe nanotech Weekly Insider)

    Back to Table of Contents


    "In The Dark, We Cannot See The Road Ahead."

     

    In the last issue (http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/
    20031006/20031006.htm#_Toc52943266)
    and in others before it, we've explored some of the advances in biotechnology that may, eventually, bring doctoral level bioengineering techniques into the home and elementary school. This could *perhaps* culminate in kids being able to create their own life form (as they already simulate in some games).  But the difference will be, then, that they can actually 'make it so!' 

    I'm not implying that this would necessarily be a good thing (it could be very bad!), but biotechnology seems to be following the computing field's exponential growth curve. 

    Do you remember when Desktop Publishing hit the market?  That's an example of how crossing a computing threshold "impossibly" changed industries (consider that few "printers" at that time knew about the individual developments of the laser printer, the Macintosh, and PageMaker software -- and even those who did hardly conceived of how that combination would change their world). 

    Now -- get ready for biotechnology to eventually, similarly, cross its own "impossible" thresholds...)

     

    De Curve!  De Curve!

    Serendipitously, reader Steve Pitcher has just brought our attention to some expansion on this theme in an Oct. 9 "Silicon Insider" commentary (http://abcnews.go.com/sections/business/
    SiliconInsider/SiliconInsider.html)
    , which further supports the idea of biotech following in silicon's exponential-curve shoes:

    "It was just three years ago, at an industry conference in San Francisco, that a venture capitalist noted that for the very first time, biotech — in particular, the field of bioinformatics — was beginning to exhibit the kind of technological acceleration until now only found in electronics. And now, when almost no one is looking, here we are: the biotech train is starting to roar down the [exponential] tracks."

    "...Exponential growth is all-but beyond the capacity of human beings to cope with. For example, it will take generations for us to fully assimilate just what happened in the PC Age from 1984 to 1998. The change Moore's Law produces is so fast, and so sweeping, that it quickly escapes any attempt to control it. Just look at the Internet.

    Ultimately, the greatest lesson to be learned from the electronics revolution [as applied now to biotech] is that if you hope to have any impact on Moore's Law you'd better do it early, in the first few generations, before the doubling grains of rice on the chessboard mount up so high that they engulf you. After that, it takes everything you've got just to keep from being buried alive."

     

    The Home Molecular Biology Laboratory...

    Of course today, the concept of exponential biotechnology growth and all that it implies is a bit hard to swallow on the surface.  After all, the thought of a "Home DNA Kit" or similar seems improbable, and more than a little outrageous -- and rather scary.  Yet reader Kenneth LaCrosse points us to the Molecular Sciences Institute, who's mission, in part, is that "...by enabling a more predictive biological understanding, work at MSI should enable a design-based engineering of biological systems..."

    Think CAD (Computer Aided Design) systems for "life?"  And remember that it didn't take long for CAD technology to migrate from the very expensive dedicated corporate computers to the home PC (actually, in many cases, the "home PC" replaced those expensive dedicated CAD workstations in the workplace!)

    A paper by MSI researcher Dr. Rob Carlson (http://www.molsci.org/~rcarlson/) titled "The Pace and Proliferation of Biological Technologies" (http://www.molsci.org/~rcarlson/Carlson_Pace_and_Prolif.pdf) published in the Biosecurity and Bioterrorism journal, explores these issues in further detail, beginning:

    "The advent of the home molecular biology laboratory is not far off. While there is no Star Trek “Tricorder” in sight, the physical infrastructure of molecular biology is becoming more sophisticated and less expensive every day. Automated commercial instrumentation handles an increasing fraction of laboratory tasks that were once the sole province of doctoral level researchers, reducing labor costs and increasing productivity. This technology is gradually moving into the broader marketplace as laboratories upgrade to new equipment. Older, still very powerful instruments are finding their way into wide distribution, as any cursory tour of eBay will reveal.

    These factors are contributing to a proliferation that will soon put highly capable tools in the hands of both professionals and amateurs worldwide. There are obvious short term risks from increased access to DNA synthesis and sequencing technologies, and the general improvement of technologies used in measuring and manipulating molecules will soon enable a broad and distributed enhancement in the ability to alter biological systems. The resulting potential for mischief or mistake causes understandable concern—there are already public calls by scientists and politicians alike to restrict access to certain technologies, to regulate the direction of biological research, and to censor publication of some new techniques and data.

    It is questionable, however, whether such efforts will increase security or benefit the public good. Proscription of information and artifacts generally leads directly to a black market that is difficult to monitor and therefore difficult to police. A superior alternative is the deliberate creation of an open and expansive research community, which may be better able to respond to crises and better able to keep track of research whether in the university or in the garage."

     

    Dangers?  Yes.  But Also Great Good. 
    RESEARCH, Rather Than 'Ostrich' Behavior,
    Is The Answer!

    The paper concludes, in part:

    "Our ability to manipulate biological systems is rapidly improving and this naturally raises concerns both about how relevant technology will be applied and about potential consequent dangers. The straightforward answer is that those dangers are real and considerable. We may view this as a threat or an opportunity.

    The common response to a perceived threat is to reduce the likelihood of it coming to fruition, an effort that often takes the form of regulation. However, the argument for strict regulation of biological technologies is misleading and therefore dangerous. Fear of potential hazards should be met with INCREASED [emphasis added] research and education rather than closing the door on the profound positive impacts of biological technology.

    We could err disastrously in the short term by restricting the development of science and technology, thereby stunting our ability to respond to natural or artificial threats. Restriction of research could leave us woefully unprepared to deal with mistakes or mischief. I am not suggesting that all regulation is without merit, but rather that rules and restrictions will not eliminate problems; they never have. Given the power of biological technologies, the only way to ensure safety in the long run is to push research and development as fast as possible.

    ... Regulation or proscription of either science or technology is unlikely to ease the way forward.

    In the dark we cannot see the road ahead, navigate, or avoid collisions with either natural or artificial hazards. Regardless of the outcome of the debate explored above, the stage is set for remarkable change."

    Indeed. 

     

    It's Moore's Law-Like Growth -- Again.

    Between these "front and back covers," Dr. Carlson offers a detailed explanation of how elements of biotechnology, such as DNA Synthesis, are being driven by Moore's Law, and so are growing at those exponential rates of improvement that we've come to expect from the semiconductor field. 

    In fact, he demonstrates the point that while semiconductor fabs are getting dramatically more expensive with each increment in semiconductor technology (billions of dollars apiece, even now), biotech techniques and equipment that are increasingly making use of new technologies and new equipment resulting from semiconductor research, are getting ever-less expensive:

    "...there is good reason to expect that the cost of biological manufacturing and sequencing will only decrease. Indeed, the continuing costs of sequencing (expendables such as reagents) have fallen exponentially over ... time ... by 2000 the total costs of sequencing had fallen by a factor of 100 in ten years, with costs falling by a factor of 2 approximately every eighteen months. 

    With the caveat that there are only limited data to date, it does appear that the total cost of sequencing and synthesis are falling exponentially."

    ...

    "While it is still early in the development of [DNA sequencing and DNA synthesis] platforms, they promise to be another important shift in technology...

    If those trends are born out, within a decade a single person at the lab bench could sequence or synthesize all the DNA describing all the people on the planet many times over in an eight-hour day, even given profligate human reproduction. Alternatively, one person could sequence his or her own DNA within seconds.  [Emphasis added.]

    Despite the fantastic nature of these numbers, there is no physical reason why sequencing an individual human genome should take longer than a few minutes. Sequencing a billion bases in a thousand seconds would require querying each base for only a microsecond, which is well within the measurement capability of many physical systems. Inexpensive disk drives, for example, already read the state of magnetic domains at upwards of a billion times a second. Although storage media is an example of a mature technology, it is also an indication of the sort of interaction that will be possible with biological systems."

     

    Just The TIP Of This Iceberg.

    This revolution has certainly begun, as evidenced by DARPA (remember them - they were responsible for the original development of the Internet!) whose 2005 budget request includes $120 million,

    "...for exploring and developing technological breakthroughs 'that exist at the intersection of biology, information technology and micro/physical sciences.'"  (http://www.eet.com/at/n/news/OEG20031021S0041 , per reader Carl Taylor.)

    And this is just ONE example of how the many synergistic elements within NBIC (the coming together of the previously disparate fields of Nanotechnology, Biology and medicine, Information sciences, and Cognitive sciences) WILL, with or without our "concurrence," change our world. 

    Imagine the possibilities...!

     

    Déjà-vu.

    But, "Hey!" you might be thinking, "why should *I* be interested in this -- this isn't the traditional 'computing' that interests me?"

    The answer is that The Harrow Technology Report has always, intentionally, remained flexible and agile -- able to bend in the first gentle breezes of new directions -- in order to meet its goal of keeping us all aware of important emerging technological trends.  For example, way back when, when "Internet" was a word only spoken by serious geeks; when finding one of the very few ISPs was a daunting task; and long before the Web was even a glimmer in Tim Berners-Lee's mind -- this publication began adding the Internet to its focus to educate its readers on what I felt would grow into a dramatic force that would change our world (and change the computers that dominated readers' interests at the time). 

    Today, the components of NBIC feel like déjà-vu.

    Biotech isn't directly related to traditional "computing," but it is being heavily driven by it.  And its impact, directly on each of us and on our societies in general, is likely to be FAR more powerful then the previous computer revolution that's driving it.  Besides, the day may come when our computers become part biological, as NBIC research is blurring the lines between things "living" and "dead."

    That's why it's far better that NOW, early-on, we each educate ourselves in these (and other) emerging areas of science and research -- only that way will we be able to help direct these next revolutions in a positive and safe manner.  It's up to US to define our own 'world of near tomorrows!'

     

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    Picture of the Week.

     

    Image - Motorola "GPS Mini-Module" - http://www.synergy-gps.com/FSoncore2.jpg

    This module, brought to our attention by reader David Schachter, is just 0.6 inches long.  Yet it's a complete 12-channel GPS receiver from Motorola - their "GPS Mini-Module!" 

    How far we've come in just a few years.  (And how far we have yet to go!)

    Details are at http://www.synergy-gps.com/minimodule.html and http://www.digitimes.com/NewsShow/
    Article.asp?datePublish=2003/09/15&pages=PR&seq=204 and
    http://www.synergy-gps.com/FS_Oncore_Brochure.pdf and
    http://www.synergy-gps.com/FS_Oncore_Product_%20Preview0_4dh.pdf  .

    Thanks David!

     

    Back to Table of Contents


    Our "Tagged" Future?

     

    Commenting upon our recent discussions of how the United Kingdom has been particularly aggressive in implementing surveillance technology (http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/
    20031006/20031006.htm#_Toc52943264)
    , and how tiny RFID tags (Radio Frequency IDentification tags) seem on the verge of making it very big (http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/
    20031006/20031006.htm#_Toc52943267)
    , reader Ross Brown adds fuel to this fire by pointing us to an article in the The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,3605,999866,00.html) which, in part, describes how some UK grocery stores are already putting individually-tagged items to work.

    For example, razor blades are perfect shoplifting fodder: they're small, expensive, and lots of people are apparently willing to buy stolen packs of blades at a hefty discount.  To help counter this, Gillette has packed RFID tags into each package of blades sold in these stores, and the shelf that they're on monitors when an individual package of blades has been removed from the shelf.  At that point a digital camera captures the image of the person removing the blades while the computer system remembers the RFID tag's specific (unique) number. 

    Later, if the person goes through the checkout line but doesn't pay for each package of blades he removed from the shelf, another picture is taken, the police are called, and lots of explaining will ensue.  (Apparently, the police were startled the first times that they were handed the photographic evidence from both the shelf and the checkout counter - rather good evidence.)  Of course, I'd hate to be targeted if I happened, legitimately, to decide I didn't want both of the packages of blades that I had picked off the shelf, and set one package down on a nearby (dumb and unmonitored) shelf...

    And there's more to come:

    "...The tagging industry, when engaged in conversations with itself, is still raving about the prospect of tracking customers while they are still in the store. Among the benefits of RFID, the Auto-ID Centre's website cites this:

    "Readers on the store's shelves will provide the first extensive real-time view of customer behaviour in the store. By recording how often an item is picked up, purchased or put back, retailers and their suppliers will have instant feedback on promotions... providing the means to better tailor promotions to a specific market segment."

    In an article entitled "Will RFID help win customer loyalty? We think so!", Texas Instruments, an RFID company, suggests a possible scenario if a consumer carries the tag in a purse or wallet (implying a loyalty card):

    "The technology has the potential to tell retailers exactly who's in their store at any given moment while offering full purchase histories for each shopper."

    According to "RFID Journal," plans to realise this potential are already under way. In April this year, IBM announced it would test RFID tags in bank cards, so that customers can be identified (and, you might extrapolate, treated according to their status) the minute they enter the bank."

    Reading this, the broad use of RFID tags might seem so invasive that people will shout a resounding "NO!" and vote with their dollars (or pounds, etc.), purchasing merchandise that isn't tagged or shopping at stores without readers.  But although today's 'tag-less' loyalty cards are "lower-tech," consider how they have already been accepted by many to get discounts off (some say) artificially inflated "regular" prices that are charged to the cardless. 

    True, people could drive farther to a chain that doesn't issue such cards, but how many do?  And, what happens once manufacturers generally decide to include RFID tags as globally as they print UPC codes today?

     

    Smaller Yet?

    By the way, today's RFID tags are just the beginning -- what happens if we dramatically shrink their size to microscopic, make them smart, and give them the ability to communicate?  This would be "Smart Dust," as described by Dr. Richard Satava of DARPA, MIT, and Univ. of Washington pedigree, in the (VERY interesting and well worth reading) Winter 2003 issue of "Yale Medicine" (http://www.med.yale.edu/external/pubs/ym_wi03/future.html):

    "They [Smart Dust motes] will communicate with each other. So the environment is going to be smart instead of dumb. They’re going to be in the food you eat, the clothes you wear, embedded in your body, absolutely everywhere. For example, when you came into this room, this desk would know it was you and rearrange itself for you.

    Have you been able to buy anything lately that doesn’t have a bar code on it? Probably not. But it’s dumb. In the future, it will be smart. You plant the field and you spray it with the fertilizers and insecticides and smart dust—maybe a thousand different sensors per millimeter—and as the food comes up the smart dust gets incorporated into the plants. And the plants talk to the harvester: “Pick me. I’m ready. Don’t pick me. I’m not ready.” It goes into the store. You’ve got a little handheld and you talk to the artichokes. “How ripe are you? How much do you weigh?” A world that used to be dumb and unconnected now gets connected, and that information gets shared.

    We will have sensors throughout our bodies. So, as doctors, we’ll be able to continuously monitor the health of individuals."

    As I've said before, there's much to like about what pervasive RFID tags and their infrastructure (and later Smart Dust) can provide, such as easy tracking of individual packages that are out of date, recalled, etc., plus significant benefits throughout the supply chain, and more.  But at what cost to personal privacy?  Remember -- if your bank card is so-tagged (as suggested in the 'RFID Journal' reference, above) or if you've eaten Smart Dust tagged food, then effectively -- "Tagged R You."

    What might it take to unleash this RFID tag tsunami?  How about (eventual) mandates from one or a few huge purchasers like Wal-Mart, or on a vastly larger scale the U.S. Department of Defense -- which has just mandated that EVERY one of the 45 million line items that it purchases have an RFID tag on its case or pallet!  (Although not yet in each individual item within the case or pallet.  Yet.)   

    (Thanks to reader Ray Ingram for bringing this Oct. 8 Computerworld article to our attention - http://www.computerworld.com/mobiletopics/
    mobile/story/0,10801,85869,00.html
      .)

    Let's be sure that we implement new technologies in ways, and with controls, that we're comfortable (quite literally) living with.

    Don't Blink!

     

    Back to Table of Contents


    Simply Doing "The Impossible."

     

    "Antigravity" is one of those science fiction staples that just won't go away.  Wouldn't it be fascinating (not to mention useful) if we could control this particular fundamental force that surrounds us, allowing us to lighten a heavy object, anchor a light one, propel a vehicle, or waft through the air as on the tendrils of a dream. 

    But of course that's impossible.  We can't do that.  Good people have been laughed out of offices and boardrooms and probably tenure meetings for suggesting it. 

    Now, I don't have the magic answer to unifying the field theory and building my own antigravity belt (much as I'd like one -- WITH a backup built-in, please).  But I've always maintained that if a large organization (a government, a university research lab, a military contractor, etc.) were to give a team of brilliant researchers "incontrovertible proof" that "The Enemy of the Day" (pick one) had already created (for example) antigravity, and they then provided those researchers with essentially unlimited funds and (most importantly) a shield from bureaucratic controls, that the researchers would in good time figure out a way to "replicate" what they believed had already been done -- by in fact creating antigravity for the first time!

    Which is why I'm so intrigued with a July 29 report from Jane's Aerospace (http://www.janes.com/aerospace/
    civil/news/jdw/jdw020729_1_n.shtml)
    , brought to our attention by reader Bob Lee, which describes that Boeing,

    "...has now admitted it is working on experimental anti-gravity projects that could overturn a century of conventional aerospace propulsion technology, if the science underpinning them can be engineered into hardware... 

    If gravity modification is real, it will alter the entire aerospace business."

    To put it mildly.

    Unfortunately, as with most technologies, such a development could also usher in a new type of weapon -- imagine a "gravity beam" (an "impulse gravity generator") that could accelerate a target with 1,000 Gs in an instant -- most things within it, or hit by it, would turn to strawberry jam.

     

    Why Now?

    What's bringing these sci. fi. considerations to light at this time, and involving the likes of Boeing, is that Russian scientist Dr. Evgeny Podkletnov claims to have created reproducible antigravity propulsion devices, more formally called "propellentless propulsion," in both Russia and in Finland.  He is said to have demonstrated that a 4-inch diameter beam can repel an object a half-mile away, and could extend its effect out to 125 miles.  He also claims that he has reduced the weight of an object by 2%.  But -- he indicates that his work is being stymied by "officialdom." 

    NASA, it seems (to their credit), apparently took Podkletnov's work seriously enough in the mid-'90s to attempt to replicate his work.  But they failed, owing to the lack of Dr. Podkletnov's guidance.  (They're trying again, at the Marshall Space Flight Center.)  More recently, it turns out that Boeing, BAE Systems, and Lockheed Martin have each independently contacted Dr. Podkletnov, and they admit that "classified activities in gravity modification may exist."  Even CNN's MoneyLine is commenting on this as I write. 

     

    On A Separate Note, Meet "The Lifter."

    Although it seemingly has no bearing on Dr. Podkletnov's technique, in my research I did run across what is apparently a little-known hobbyist implementation of either "antigravity," or an as-yet unexplained field-effect propulsion technology that is demonstrated by devices called "lifters." 

    Image - A sample "lifter" - see http://tventura.hypermart.net/index.shtml for information.  Pix is at http://tventura.hypermart.net/graphics/Lifter4/Lifter4-1d.jpg
                               (Click on the image for a larger version.)

    These are extremely lightweight balsa and tin foil frames that (apparently) happily lift their own weight and a bit more, when energized by a high voltage, microamp power supply.  Interesting details and movies are at http://tventura.hypermart.net/

     

    Wishful Sci Fi?

    OK, this DOES seem a bit like science fiction, but remember that stranger things have sprung from garages -- like the personal computer you're reading this on (thank you, Steve and Steve of Apple, and early pre-PC companies like South West Technical Products, Altair, Atari, MSI, and the like).  If you have any personal experience with lifter technology, let me know. 

    I take no stand yet on the veracity of Dr. Podkletnov's or the "lifter" technology claims, but I am very glad that some organizations with the wherewithal to validate (or not) these claims are now taking them seriously enough to explore.  Because I for one won't be surprised when (not if) I (eventually) read that "antigravity" has been confirmed. 

    It won't necessarily come out of Dr. Podkletnov's work or from the "lifters" (although of course it might).  But because gravity is such a pervasive force in (and beyond) our world, and because history teaches us that we first learn how to identify, and later to control the forces around us, I expect gravity to (eventually) fall (or would that be rise?) at our command.

    Wouldn't it be something, if we're closer than we think?

    Again, Don't Blink!

     

    Back to Table of Contents


    A Picture Worth Many, Many Words...

     

    Finally, if you're more than a little peeved about how gas prices continue to rise (and never seem to go back to their original price, even though the "immediate reason" for an increase has since been resolved), then consider this picture:

     

     

    It does 'say it all.'

    (Come to think of it, I recall a similar situation with sugar, several decades ago.  There was a problem with one sugar crop and so the 5-cent candy bars had to 'temporarily' sell for more.  They never went back to 5-cents, and now candy bars run around ten-times as much, even though the inflation-adjusted price of a 5-cent candy bar back in 1968 would only be 27-cents today - see http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl .)

    I'd like to give well-deserved credit to "Tom" for his sign (or to the artist who rendered it into this form), but, alas, the picture is "Internet anonymous."

     

    Back to Table of Contents


    About "The Harrow Technology Report."

     

    "The Harrow Technology Report" explores the innovations and trends of many contemporary and emerging technologies, and then draws some less than obvious connections between them, to help us each survive and prosper in the Knowledge Age. 

    "The Harrow Technology Report" is brought to you by Jeffrey R. Harrow, Principal of The Harrow Group. http://www.TheHarrowGroup.com .

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