Main | November 2003 »

October 2003 Archives

October 2, 2003

Earth Simulator -- tool for better climate prediction

The BBC reports that the Earth Simulator -- a massive multi-computer array in Japan designed to model natural processes including weather and earthquakes -- is now producing "very exciting" results.

Professor Julia Slingo, director of the NCAS Centre for Global Atmospheric Modelling, said: "These results are very exciting.

"They show that, for the first time, our climate models can be run at resolutions capable of capturing severe weather events such as intense depressions, hurricanes and major rainstorms.

"This means that we potentially have the capability to predict whether storms like Hurricane Isabel will be on the increase in future.

"Importantly for the UK, we will be able to predict with more confidence increases in damaging storms and extremes of temperature, and what their regional impacts will be.


"They will help us to prioritise our investment in devising strategies to adapt to climate change, for example the specification of railway lines to deal with the extreme heat experienced this summer, or storm drains to cope with extreme rainfall such as we experienced in the autumn of 2000."

Cheap Solar

According to CNN, Europe's largest semiconductor manufacturer, STMicroelectronics, has developed a new form of solar cells which could cut the price of solar-generated electricity to half of the average price for fossil fuel-generated electrical power.

The French-Italian company expects cheaper organic materials such as plastics to bring down the price of producing energy. Over a typical 20-year life span of a solar cell, a single produced watt should cost as little as $0.20, compared with the current $4.

The new solar cells would even be able to compete with electricity generated by burning fossil fuels such as oil and gas, which costs about $0.40 per watt, said Salvo Coffa, who heads ST's research group that is developing the technology.

Interestingly, the trick is to focus not on extremely efficient materials, but on relatively inefficient base materials which are also very inexpensive.

October 6, 2003

Bacterial Fuel Cells

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, have figured out how to use a particular kind of bacteria to convert sugar (glucose) to electricity with 80% efficiency. Technology Review has the write-up.

This research is still in the early stages, but suggests (along with ongoing research in the use of pond scum to make hydrogen) that the next energy revolution could well have a strong biotech component.

October 10, 2003

SETI@Home Source Released As "BOINC"

A refinement of the code underlying the popular SETI@Home distributed computing application is now available under the name BOINC -- Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. This will allow anyone (well, anyone with sufficient programming chops and an available server) to run distributed computing experiments. In effect, it will make supercomputing power available to the masses.

But BOINC is more than the server source code. It's also a client-side program, making it possible for a single user to participate in a variety of distributed computing projects with a single application. It's currently in beta.

This makes me really happy. Not only was SETI@Home the most well-known of the various distributed computing projects, it ran on a wide variety of platforms, including some not normally included in other projects, such as the Mac and SPARC. BOINC continues this tradition, running on Windows 95 and up, Linux/x86 (possibly others to come), Solaris/SPARC, and Mac OS X.

Once BOINC is out of beta, we could see a flowering of interesting distributed computing projects. What can be handled with this method? Anything that requires mathematical analysis of lots and lots of components. Current non-SETI distributed computing projects include protein folding and climate prediction.

October 14, 2003

Public Library of Science

The Public Library of Science -- PLoS -- is a new organization focusing on making scientific literature open and available to the public. Using the Creative Commons license, PLoS journals allow anyone on the Internet to read and reproduce articles for free. PLoS currently publishes two journals, PLoS Biology and (soon) PLoS Medicine.

All very cool, but if reputable scientists and interesting research teams don't use the journals to publish their results, it might take awhile for PLoS to build up any steam. Fortunately, the second issue of PLoS Biology contains an article that has received abundant attention: monkey mind control (warning: 3MB PDF). Researchers at Duke University implanted computer connections into the brains of monkeys, allowing the team to learn the brain signals corresponding to the monkeys using a joystick to control a remote robotic arm. They then disconnected the joystick; the monkeys continued to control the robotic arm via the brain-computer connection. The monkeys quickly realized that they didn't need to move their arms to control the robots. This has obvious implications for adaptive technology for the disabled, and opens the way for more advanced mind-machine interfaces.

The article has received quite a bit of attention in the mainstream media (I mean, how could you not want to learn more about monkey mind control?!?), in turn giving an important boost to the status of open biology movement, and the Public Library of Science.

October 28, 2003

Linux Warriors

Linux -- the open source poster child -- is becoming increasingly popular in the American military. The notorious insecurity and relative instability of Windows can be somewhat more than an annoyance on the battlefield. Linux holds up better under adverse conditions, and can be found embedded in a growing number of small devices. The latest application of Linux on the battlefield is the Army's "Land Warrior" project, intended to define the capabilities, equipment and tactics of the 21st century soldier. Linux will be the OS of choice for the "Commander's Digital Assistant" package, which allows the field commander to coordinate troops, movement, and intelligence. According to an article in the National Defense Magazine, this is part of a larger move to Linux in the Army. CDA Program Manager Lt. Col. Dave Gallop is quoted as saying, “Evidence shows that Linux is more stable. We are moving in general to where the Army is going, to Linux-based OS."

Peer-to-peer, distributed systems aren't just the tools of protesters and activists. The American military has been aggressively pursuing emerging collaborative technologies to help soldiers make flexible, well-informed judgments about battlespace conditions and goals. Each soldier is conceived of as part of a system of units, real-time intelligence sources (such as unmanned aerial vehicles and "smart dust"), both relying on and contributing to "operational topsight." It's useful to recognize that, whatever advantage swarming protesters have at the moment, the military and police forces are also beginning to go emergent, too.

Neuromarketing for fun and profit. Well, okay, just profit.

According to an article in last Sunday's New York Times (free sub required, but you knew that already), technologies such as MRIs, which allow the scanning of brain function, are increasingly being used to understand why people are moved by advertising, how consumerism shapes (and is shaped by) identity, and what marketers can do to take advantage of this.

The article refers to this as "neuromarketing," and suggests that it might be the next revolution in consumer culture. Some ads result in stimulation of pleasure centers, some in the stimulation of identity centers, and others in the stimulation of cognitive centers. The tricky part is that which sections of the brain get the most stimulation varies from person to person. Presumably, this stimulation will also shift over time, as consumers develop brand loyalties and react to shifting styles.

This hits close to home for me, not because I'm in marketing or have access to a home MRI kit, but because I just finished a science fiction game book called Toxic Memes which spends quite a bit of time discussing the implications of a world where brain functions have been fully mapped and many people wear devices that tap directly into cognitive functions. I figured something like this would happen soon, but not this soon.

We still understand only a small fraction of how the brain works, but neuroscience is learning more every day. The development of vision systems for the blind that tap directly into the brain and implants that allow a primate brain to control remote devices would have been considered fanciful science fiction a decade ago, and will seem primitive and clumsy a decade from now. What will the world look like when we can send instant messages to each other not through thumb-driven handheld devices, but simply by thinking? Or when we can tap into each other's cognitive abilities in order to make big decisions? What will "grid" neurosystem networks look like?

You think things are weird now? Just wait.

October 29, 2003

Information Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder, at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, have just released an interesting essay on the intersection of models of ethics and molecular nanotechnology. Although the piece focuses on a specifically on nanotech, the ideas presented apply to a broad range of distributed systems. I don't entirely agree with their conclusions, but I do think that they've put forward a solid argument.

The essay explores three different forms of organizational ethics: "Guardian Ethics," which focus on security; "Commercial Ethics," which focus on trade; and "Information Ethics," which focus on creation. In a world where new bio-, nano-, or info- technologies can bring both tremendous social good and frightening devastation, how can a global society responsibly manage their development and distribution? Each of the three ethical forms provides a different answer to that question.

Ultimately, Phoenix and Treder argue for a combination of Information Ethics and a bit of Guardian Ethics, where distribution of (and access to) the technology is largely unrestricted, but the uses of the tech itself are controlled. This is probably the most reasonable approach in the near-term, but (for reasons I'll explore here soon), would lead to longer-term problems of security and stability.

October 30, 2003

Opening up the Open Source concept

It's no secret that we here at have an affection for the "open source" concept*. The idea of making the inner workings of a technology or process not just visible, but accessible, is deliriously seductive to those of us who think that collaborative, democratic approaches can change the world. And, although "open source" is commonly understood to be a software-writing practice, it's clearly meant for bigger and even better things.

To wit: Thomas Goetz's piece in the November issue of Wired, Open Source Everywhere. This is one of the better articulations of just how broadly the idea of open, collaborative, distributed innovation can be used. It begins with a good, solid example of how open source works outside of the software realm, and builds a powerful case for the use of the technique across a wide spectrum of applications. Unlike many relatively mainstream articles about open source, he manages to explain the concept clearly enough for beginners without being patronizing, while still providing sufficient new material for veterans to chew on.

The sidebars to the piece are well worth reading, as well. One of the first, "The Ideals of Open Source," includes this tidbit which, to me, sums up precisely why the open source concept can be revolutionary:

Open source etiquette mandates that the code be available for anyone to tweak and that improvements to the code be shared with all. Substitute creation for code and the same goes outside of software. Think of it as the triumph of participation by the many over ownership by the few.

* Note: By using "open source," we're not taking philosophical sides in the battle between the Open Source supporters and the Free Software movement; if anything, we have a leaning towards the Free Software perspective. Unfortunately, the term "Free Software" is a bit too (a) ambiguous (hence the need for "free like beer" vs. "free like speech" distinctions) and (b) narrow ("free software biotech" doesn't really make sense, for example, and "free biotech" runs into the free vs. free ambiguity). The term "open source" packs more of a semiotic punch.

Countering the Misuse of Biotechnology

Rob Carlson knows biotech. He should - he's a research fellow at the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, and a research scientist at the Microscale Life Sciences Center at the University of Washington. When he talks about just how emerging biotechnologies could be misused, and what we can do about it, pay attention.

Now, the traditional view among many scientists and science-enthusiasts is that the dangers of people with bad intent getting their hands on powerful biotechnologies are so great that we must clamp down, censoring the public release of research which could be used by bioterrorists.

Carlson disagrees. In the most recent issue of the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, he argues that, instead, our best defense is openness. Closing research, he says, would lead directly to black markets, driving much research underground, making it all the more difficult to monitor and respond to unsanctioned and irresponsible work.

I've advocated this position for quite a while. Locking down research and information doesn't keep us safe, it just makes it harder to recognize when a problem has occurred, inhibits effective response, and pushes those responsible for controlling the information to under-report violations in order to protect their own jobs. It's good to see this argument made by a respected scientist in a reputable journal.

About October 2003

This page contains all entries posted to WC Archive in October 2003. They are listed from oldest to newest.

November 2003 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.34