Your next (reconfigurable/modular) Cell Phone… and other science wonders

Here is one of many reasons that I’ve been trying to get in touch with former DARPA Director Regina Dugan, who now heads the Advanced Technology & Projects (ATAP) group at Motorola Mobility.  One of ATAP’s endeavors, called Project Ara aims to make your smartphone modular. It is described as an “open hardware platform” where developers create smartphones with interchangeable parts users can easily swap out. This could empower the user to attach a superior video module, or one equipped with heat or toxins sensors, or devices to boost range… or even the bits and pieces of a Star Trek medical tricorder.

ara1blogpostWe already have modularity in software (aps), why not in hardware? I have long awaited this design approach being taken up by some above-average company, ever since I portrayed it in fiction, way back in 1989… and especially since leading a 48 hour “CTO Challenge”  team that reached the same general design conclusion about ten years ago, at a Future In Review Conference.  The advantages to consumers of this modular approach will be tremendous, allowing us to adapt and reconfigure our phone-centered pocket assistants for a wide variety of purposes.  After all, modularity of software apps is already taken for granted.  Why not hardware?

Heck, there might even be times when you’ll choose to leave out the “phone” sub module!

Indeed, this is just one of several cool avenues that I’d recommend, if I ever had access to Dr. Dugan’s (fellow Caltech grad) ear.  Those other concepts (some of which I push annually at agencies in DC) include citizen communication enhancements that would make the pocket cell phone vastly more effective in disasters and emergencies, plus some possible alternative form-factor design concepts… but ah, well.  It’s a familiar tragedy. I fizz with more ideas that I could ever use.

Anyway, here are a few early harbingers of this approach. Already seen widely are plug in credit card readers.  Now, with just a $10 augmentation a smart phone can become a 175x digital microscope.

How about tacking this onto our cell phones?  A small holographic projection system with a lensless zoom function offers promise of a new generation of ultra-small projectors, cheaper and smaller than other  systems. See something a lot like this in Existence.

== Science Under Siege ==

ScienceUnderSiegeScience is under threat always.  Sometimes from without (the “war on science”) and sometimes within. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times describes how the sheer volume of scientific studies in biology has overwhelmed the normal process of peer review and post-publication replication of results.

“A few years ago, scientists at the Thousand Oaks biotech firm Amgen set out to double-check the results of 53 landmark papers in their fields of cancer research and blood biology. The idea was to make sure that research on which Amgen was spending millions of development dollars still held up. They figured that a few of the studies would fail the test — that the original results couldn’t be reproduced because the findings were especially novel or described fresh therapeutic approaches. But what they found was startling: Of the 53 landmark papers, only six could be proved valid.”

Hiltzik goes on to offer a fascinating look at the inherent contradictions of current — and some new — models for publishing scientific results.  This is constructive criticism that must be heeded… just as we should reject the “aha, gotcha!” cries of left-and-right foes of science, who would interpret this as an excuse to dismiss the best and only reliable method human beings have ever found for penetrating delusions and gradually discovering what’s true.

Will “open source” be part of the solution? Gapminder World Offline lets you explore the world from your own computer, comparing statistical metrics for different regions, nations, states etc with X-Y axes of your own choosing, from average income to divorce rates to agriculture, housing… pick your correlation and watch it evolve across year-by-year changes!  I saw very early versions of this fifteen years ago at the Rand Corp.  Now you can play with it yourself.  These are just the beginnings of the savvy analytics tools we’ll all have at-fingertips in the coming era of agile “smart mobs.”  And just in time, too!

== Science under open attack ==

Science-IsOf course, all of this feeds into (alas) the ongoing War on Science.  Take this symptom of how bad it has become, at one end of the political spectrum, where every single Republican member of the House of Representatives Science Committee seems more than eager to bray misinformed lunacy.

The “High Quality Research Act,” sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), would eliminate the peer-review requirement from the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant process, replacing it with new criteria that are significantly less transparent. Smith was a sponsor of the highly controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that threatened to fundamentally change how the Internet works. In Roll Call, Rep. Smith described his vision of science funding — based not upon the impacts new research may have on the scientific community, but solely whether that research will “create jobs.” He boasted about how much of the House science committee’s $39 billion budget goes to nuclear, fracking and “clean coal” projects. Smith has no background in science.  But then, neither do any of the members of the majority party on the House Science Committee.

Elsewhere I talk about how federally funded scientific and technological research was already responsible for 50% of job growth across the years since 1945. How I’d love to see a second “National Debt Clock” showing where we’d be now, if we (the citizens) had charged just a 5% royalty on the fruits of U.S. federal research, from jets, satellites and telecom to pharma and… um… the Internet. We’d be in the black!

Of course the recent government shut-down was a calamity to science — a fact that I believe was not seen by GOP lawmakers as a “regrettable side effect” to their lemming cliff-run, but a core and desired “feature.”  Scientific American put it succinctly: “In many ways the federal government shutdown was a huge, unplanned experiment in what happens when we give up on science for two weeks. The experiment is now over and the results are still incomplete. But so far, they are ugly.” Have a look at the latest, disastrous blow in the War on Science. Then know that this is not about “left” or “right.” It’s about sanity.

== From the Climate Front ==

Climate-FrontFrom LiveScience: “Plenty of studies have shown that the Arctic is warming and that the ice caps are melting, but how does it compare to the past, and how serious is it? New research shows that average summer temperatures in the Canadian Arctic over the last century are the highest in the last 44,000 years, and perhaps the highest in 120,000 years.”

Yes but can we do anything? Here’s a topic we’ve covered before and will cover again; what if we just can’t control climate change from the supply side? Can geoengineering help moderate the disruptions from wreaking havoc on our planet and civilization?  This article from NPR moves the conversation a bit and tells more about that “rogue experiment” off the west coast of Canada, last year.

== Science Wonders! ==

Elon’s next project, make the James Bond’s car-that-becomes-a-submarine come true!

Erik Viirre M.D. Ph.D, of the UCSD Department of Neurosciences, discusses “the Return of Virtual Reality” as the new generation of 3D immersive headsets finally deliver the real thing to gamers, this year.

Researchers have found the first solid evidence that a specific brain region is activated in everyday conversation when people use numbers (or even imprecise quantitative terms, such as “more than”).

Computer vision is the cutting edge now of the advances toward artificial intelligence and robotics.  Read the latest amazements.

collation of interesting predictions from not-the-usual-suspects… architects and social activists and so on. I wish I had more context for this isolated paragraph from Thom Mayne, Pritzker Prize-winning architect, U.C.L.A. professor of architecture and urban design. It is thought-provoking, but with a splash of deliberately obscure postmodernism that I find irksome:

“I would challenge the whole idea of the future as a topic of interest. We’re completely involved in the present. When you’re looking at cities today, at metropolises like São Paulo, Beijing, Tokyo, we can’t grasp the complexity of issues that form these huge aggregates of humanity. The notion of the future in an intellectual and philosophical way would connect to some sort of optimism; I would locate that in the 1950s and 60s, when in the United States there was enormous optimism for the future. We live at a time when, if it’s not pessimistic, it’s not optimistic. The present takes up so much space and oxygen there isn’t a lot of energy left over to deal with future or past. What next? We’re going to internalize this information technology, so we have more space, so we can control this over-investment in the present.”

Beauty-of-MathematicsGorgeous video shows mathematical formulae behind everyday life.

The European Space Agency (ESA) and the EU, together with industrial and educational partners, are developing the first large-scale production methods to 3D-print complex parts made of metal that can withstand temperatures at 1000°C — fit for space and the most demanding applications on Earth.

== And more wonders! ==

Cool. (Literally!) The WISE infrared explorer satellite has found the first confirmed “Trojan” asteroid orbiting firmly in Earth’s L4 point, according to the Bad Astronomer — Phil Plait.

Satellites Titan and Dione, with Saturn’s rings in the background. This stunning photo is worth the price, alone.  But interesting facts accompany.

The Walker Library of The History of Human Imagination features multilevel tiers, “floating” platforms, connecting stairways, glass-paneled bridges (inspired by MC Escher), dynamic lighting and music, and specially commissioned artworks that celebrate major achievements in the history of human invention.  The 4 minute video tour is spectacularly worthwhile.  Here’s a guy who loves being human.

Does eating chocolate help you to lose weight?  I command that some of you follow this and report back here!

Remember those potato-powered clocks?  Well, they underplayed the potential. Hebrew University researchers have found that a single potato hooked up to a couple of cheap metal plates can power enough LED lamps for a room for 40 days. Apparently, it works even better if the potato is boiled — and if potatoes are not available, boiled plantain stems work as well.

A cool graphic shows how close various destinations would be to each other, if we fully bbuilt-out Elon Musk’s “hyper-loop” mass transit system. Look it over.  Enjoy the dream.  Then consider, it could cost one tenth what other forms of people moving transport cost.

Astronauts return to Earth with atrophied muscles, weakened bones, cardiovascular problems, and some immune deficiencies. And it seems we also age faster in space, too.  We should be building space stations that spin!  And we would, if civilization got its priorities straight… or curved.

Uplift-ArrowAre dolphins friendly? You ask me that? Well, well. I am as openminded as anyone.  But there is this news:

India Declares Dolphins & Whales As ‘Non-Human Persons’. Okay.

Researcher asks: Is there any reason to think dolphins and humans have a special relationship? Sure, but it might not be a friendly one.

Geez how much more will it take?   “Higher global temperatures increase humidity, which makes wet areas wetter and dry ones dryer. And, increased greenhouse gases and ozone depletion affect atmospheric circulation patterns, pushing storms toward the poles,” say scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Finally, the Future has arrived…Advances in materials and computer control mean that the era of the jetpack could finally be upon us. Jetpack users could soon be fighting fires, responding to emergencies, and even saving your life.

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