Archive for the 'science' Category

small thoughts on big data

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Big dbanksy-mural-blogata continues to create a buzz while it promises to solve a lot of society’s contemporary problems and more. There are useful websites for companies and people wanting to cash in on big data, like The Guardian’s Data Store weblog, but it is harder to find critical accounts of big data. Big data is often thought to enable us answering big questions, but it raises big questions too. So what are some of the implications of big data for society? What decisive choices, for example about our privacy, does big data evoke?

In a Dutch radio interview the scope and implications of big data for society were addressed by a few experts on the topic. Some dazzling numbers were coined. According to Wil van der Aalst, professor of informatics at the Eindhoven University of Technology, we’ve collected more data worldwide than from prehistorical times up till 2003 in the past ten minutes. Mankind has produced 90% of the available data worldwide in just the last two years. So that’s how big data is these days.


zooming in on (in)equality in the Netherlands

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

InequalityEarlier we discussed the rather depressing effects large income inequality can have on modern day societies. The yearly WRR-lecture raised some interesting questions on the topic of (in)equality. While for years the Dutch have been praised as a textbook example of equality in articles and reports, when we take a closer look at domestic (in)equalities in income, wealth and health a different picture arises. Increasingly the Dutch aura of equality is becoming a subject of analysis, for example by Ewald Engelen and the WRR itself, considering the report the WRR will issue in 2014 about how much (in)equality societies can sustain.



Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Like many technologies, (visually) augmented reality is moving from the environment, into the hands, on- & into the bodies of end-users. From pilots’ head-up displays, to BMW’s augmented reality windshield and Corning’s augmented windows and glass surfaces, to smartphone apps such as Layar, future envisionings of the technology become increasingly intimate.

Researchers at Washington State University (USA) and Aalto University in Helsinki (Finland) are making headway with the development of active contact lenses with embedded LED microarrays that allow pixels to be superimposed on natural vision. The lenses are powered by gigahertz-range radio-frequency energy from a transmitter nearby.
First experiments with rabbit’s eyes, showed apparently no side-effects. While current models of the lenses been limited to a few pixels, they might not immediately give you “contact lens TV” or Terminator vision, but they could already be used for example to warn the hearing-impaired of certain obstacles. Other possible uses for active lenses include biosensing (e.g. Swiss Sensimed uses them to monitor fluctuations in intraoccular pressure) and drug delivery … perhaps even a fake biometric ID of course.

Browsing the world around you like an IKEA catalog might be a vintage design groupie’s wet dream, but fast-forward and we might just as well see today’s streets filled with individuals texting away at their mobilephones replaced by streetviews of people apathically staring into the void or smiling as they see the ugliness of their surroundings superimposed by surrogate imagery (your own personal visual antidepressives).

A more direct approach, bypassing lenses altogether, is to plug into one’s visual cortex directly. More information passes there than meets the eye. Just imagine …

“And I don’t want the world to see me
‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand”
     – “Iris”, Goo Goo Dolls

Image via Prof. Baba Parvik’s Research Lab, Washington State U

neuro-electronics and cognitive computing

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

In 2001 researchers from the Max Planck Institute made a breakthrough in so-called neuro-electronics by “Interfacing a silicon chip to pairs of snail neurons connected by electrical synapses“. In the meantime we have seen progress in brain gate experiments, in implants to provide relief for a people with Parkinson’s disease, neuro-prosthetics to help memory function in Alzheimer patient, neuro-engineers over at Stanford University are trying to create a silicon version of the human cortex through neuromorphing (transistor-based neurons & neural circuits), the Human Brain Project brings together 13 universities, research institutes and hospital with the aim of building a European research facility that will simulate the human brain and exploit the results etc.

Recently, IBM researchers unveiled “a new generation of experimental computer chips designed to emulate the brain’s abilities for perception, action and cognition.”  The so-called ‘cognitive computing chips’ have been developed within the context of the DARPA funded SyNAPSE project.

“Making sense of real-time input flowing in at a dizzying rate is a Herculean task for today’s computers, but would be natural for a brain-inspired system. Using advanced algorithms and silicon circuitry, cognitive computers learn through experiences, find correlations, create hypotheses, and remember—and learn from—the outcomes.

For example, a cognitive computing system monitoring the world’s water supply could contain a network of sensors and actuators that constantly record and report metrics such as temperature, pressure, wave height, acoustics and ocean tide, and issue tsunami warnings based on its decision making.”

See also IBM’s Dharmendra S. Modha’s keynote video on cognitive computing.

In a way – by having a chip learn ‘in situ’ in the brain or any neurological situation for that matter and transfer the learned patterns to another implantable chip – the technology can be said to point towards a wetware version of Douglas Engelbart’s notion of Intelligence Augmentation.

As it is usually the case with such breakthrough developments, people’s imagination runs wild. What if we could transfer ‘tricks’ related to how animals process sensory signals to the human? What if next-generation thieves would start stealing skills by adding something to you rather than taking something away? What if humanitarian emergency situations could benefit from these advances by ‘broadcasting skills’? What if the microchip could become fully bio-based? The past weeks we have seen everything from benevolent neuro-prosthetics to Manchurian Candidate-like scenarios pass the revue. While advanced applications might still be years off, the societal debate around the possible impacts of envisioned uses for these technologies is worth carrying out now.



Monday, June 13th, 2011

While we move from ‘touch’ to ‘gesture’, interacting with our technology directly via brainwaves seems to be up next. We have already seen games such as brainball or mindball and even wheelchairs controlled via brainwaves. Now recently, the Japanese firm Neurowear launched Necomimi (check out the video), a set of brainwave-controlled cat-ears. Concentrate and the ears stand up, relax and they lay down: a poetic way of rendering aspects of one’s state of mind visible to surrounding individuals.

It makes one wonder which cues about our state of mind, now subtly hidden below our behavioural surface, more or less beyond reach of direct sensorial detection, one would like to share with others? How would we use the information? How would it enhance the bandwidth of our communicative spectrum? Which new challenges would it pose to interpersonal relationships?

Tapping into the state of mind – e.g. being concentrated or not – is one thing, tapping into what the brainwaves are actually about another. Belgian Prof. Philippe Schyns and his team at the University of Glasgow recently succeeded in ‘reading’ brainwave information related to visual perception (see here).

On a more artistic note, do not forget to check out Christophe De Boeck’s Staalhemel, “an interactive installation with 80 steel segments suspended over the visitor’s head as he walks through the space. Tiny hammers tap rhythmical patterns on the steel plates, activated by the brainwaves of the visitor who wears a portable EEG scanner.”

big data & big cities

Monday, June 13th, 2011

The McKinsey Global Institute has recently published a report on Big Data , defined as “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage and analyze”. The authors expect that big data will play a significant role in having/letting businesses and governments operate in a more efficient and qualitative way, which, amongst others, should effectuate a more thorough relation between companies, institutions and consumers/the public, leading to innovation and economic growth. At the same time researchers emphasize the complexity of the interpretation of big data: new analytic software and specialized analysts would be needed.

One may well call Geoffrey West, physicist and former president of the SantaFe Institute such a specialist. Via reasoning inspired by metabolic processes West is developing quantitative, analytic, mathemitizable, predictive frameworks in order to understand how cities – complex social systems – work exactly. One of his findings is that, unlike other physical and biological processes cities do become more efficient: the bigger the city, the (exponentially) higher its production and wages. In cities, more patents are produced, they are more innovative …

Based on these findings the growth of cities is a positive trend. From the point of view of sustainability also major advantages of living in a city can be discerned. The impact smaller towns have on the environment are relatively high. Based on this understanding the Chinese government had hundreds of thousands of people move from the rural Ordos plains to the newly buit Ordos City. In “City vs Country: The concrete jungle is greener” Shanta Barley gives some more examples of why densification of cities should be supported:

  • The carbon footprint of inhabitants becomes lower
  • The scale of waste generation becomes substantial enough to be an efficient and economical resource for energy production
  • It helps decreasing overpopulation since urban women have better access to family planning and birth control, often have better employment opportunities and have their first child later.

How would these insights and examples contribute to the ongoing debates on sustainability? One could argue that these developments support efficiency, no substantial change. By all means they clearly stem from a belief in or the need for technology to solve sustainability issues instead of finding new ways to bring more balance in the earth’s ecosystem (Medea vs. Gaia Hypothesis).

Exaggerating, one could say that West believes that the closer one would bring people together, the better the ideas will pop up. However, West also realizes that with the pace of growth of cities, it will be hard for human kind to keep being innovative…

See also the New York Times Magazine’s article A Physicist Solves the City and a conversation with Geoffrey West on entitled Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster .

america 2049

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

April 4, 2011, was the launchdate of a new ARG (alternate reality game) entitled America 2049. The game is a 12-week episodic experience blending today’s world with a possible future world. The game fuels the debate on human rights issues linked to the thin line between the enabling aspect of certain identity-related technologies and the way in which they expose civil rights to abuse from both private and government sectors.

In America 2049, the former land of the free has degenerated into the Divided States of America, where sexuality, religion, speech and culture are all controlled and restricted. On the upside: the entire population is on a drug  that inhibits aggressive behavior called SerennAide, administered automatically through the water supply. This has led to a decrease in crime rates, an increase in the population’s happiness, and has purportedly helped people to rise above their worst impulses.

Depending on where you stand, this is either a Utopian dream or an Orwellian nightmare. And it is up to you to decide where you stand: alongside the Council for American Heritage (CAH), or with Divided We Fall (DWF).”

Behind the game stands Fuel | We power change , a creative agency focussing on the non-profit sector.

A great way to render the future tangible and use an immersive experience to explore and trigger debate on certain societal issues. Fascinating also that different cultural perspectives are embedded in the devised storylines.


a touch of glass

Friday, April 8th, 2011

High-end glass (and ceramics) producer Corning recently created a nice video showing a day in the life of a family in a world of … glass. The video basically shows the world as one big touch screen (without greasy fingers). Obviously, from today’s perspective, the success of touchscreens are one big pointer to a future of ‘more’. Yet, there are also various elements equally present in today’s world that point in other directions.

One the one hand, while there is plenty of room for innovative and more natural interaction patterns – touch definitely being one of them, but also gesture of course – there are also plenty of worries abound that the increasing amounts of information, presented visually in our daily environments, are leading to situations of sensorial and cognitive overload on the user end. On the other hand, glass is not the only material able to render surfaces and the world around us interactive. Just think about all the advances in smart textiles (check out also Ryan and Francesca’s inspiring work over at CuteCircuit as well as that of Marina over at by-wire) or the skin as an interface (see also CMU’s Chris Harrison’s Skinput and a previous blogpost on “skinterfaces“).

The future of touch also goes beyond the ‘one-way’ touch that we are currently used to. Bayer Material Science and its subsidiary Artificial Muscle for example, developed electroactive polymers that enable devices and screens to provide tactile feedback. In other words, the surface might be smooth, but you feel texture.

On a sidenote … While many still associate the advent of touch screens with the launch of the iPhone and derivatives or Jeff Han‘s large-format interactive screens, the history of many of the interaction patterns involved goes back to the nineties. In 1999, for example, the former GMD-IPSI’s (now Frauenhofer-IPSI) Ambiente Lab – active in CSCW and other areas – presented their vision of workplaces of the future entitled i-LAND. Already, one could tap, swipe, even push documents from an interactive table to an interactive wall.

Image is still from the Corning video

a 100 year starship

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Spotted some time ago … NASA and DARPA have freed up some budget ($1.1 million) to envision what a 100 year starship could be like (see article). According to NASA Ames director Simon P. Worden we could be on the moons of Mars by 2030. Check out his conversation with Peter Schwartz over at the Long Now Foundation.

Considering distance and travel-time, first missions will most likely be one-way only. Transporting first settlers, implies the need to turn our destination into somewhat of an inhabitable context for human and terrestrial life. According to Prof. dr. Dave Wilkinson, we might learn from the way in which Darwin succeeded in ‘terraforming’ Ascension island in the middle of the Atlantic about 160 years ago.

From a ‘what if?’ perspective, a 100 year voyage raises interesting questions, especially when they extend beyond the technological realm: How will ‘grandchildren’ born in space, who have never seen their ‘home planet’, think about ‘their mission’? How will they relate to ‘Mother(planet) Earth’? What would be needed to keep people focussed on a multigenerational mission and live peacefully and in good physical and mental health within a confined space? How could/would their society develop? Which plants, animals and terraforming equipment would be sent along? The challenges are manifold (see ‘Mars is hard’).

Image courtesy of NASA

bionic handling assistant

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

The 2010 German Future Prize – aka the Deutscher Zukunftspreis, a true prize with 250.000 euros for the winner(s) – went to Festo and Fraunhofer IPA for their Bionic Handling Assistant. Festo has a long history in biomimetic systems and also this time nature provides inspiration for their innovative design: the elephant’s trunk. Robust yet gentle, flexible yet precise.

“The plastic trunk is made of bellows structures arrayed in series, a movable hand axis and a grabber with three fingers,” explains Dr. Post, who heads up the research and development project at Festo. The structural elements are flexible and can be manipulated using compressed air. If air is pumped into the trunk, the bellows structures extend as an accordion would. This is how the high-tech trunk can be extended from 70 to 110 centimeters in length.

“The plastic trunk is made of bellows structures arrayed in series, a movable hand axis and a grabber with three fingers,” explains Dr. Post, who heads up the research and development project at Festo. The structural elements are flexible and can be manipulated using compressed air. If air is pumped into the trunk, the bellows structures extend as an accordion would. This is how the high-tech trunk can be extended from 70 to 110 centimeters in length.

The three fingers fitted to the trunk are also designed with a biological model in mind – the tail fin of a trout. The special feature: if you press these “FinGrippers” lightly with your finger, rather than retract in the direction of the pressure, they respond by moving toward the source of pressure.

The individual structural elements of the flexible arm are produced in additive manufacturing.

Via Research in Germany


Friday, September 10th, 2010

BaR2D2 serves drinks, Asimo walks the planet as man’s new best friend, NASA’s Robonaut 2 takes to space and loves to twitter. Robots continue to inspire. Several exhibitions currently on show give a glimpse of some highly creative – even poetic – robotic tinkering by artists.

Hangar311 in Mechelen (B), puts the inspiring work of Stéphane Halleux on show. Tinguely meets ToyStory in a steampunk version.

Our friends over at the Maison d’Ailleurs in Yverdon-les-Bains (CH) focus on the work of new media artist, author and theorist Ken Rinaldo in their exhibition entitled “Do robots dream of spring?”.

Ken Rinaldo’s art promotes communication between species. By creating immersive environments, the artist presents works to be experienced. He puts human beings in our rightful place, one that is integrated into vast systems, of which we are simultaneously the architects, the prisoners and the custodians. He shows us that our environment is an immense meeting place where worlds collide, a place of shifting borders, which he encourages us to explore.

The Tinguely Museum (in cooperation with Kunsthaus Graz) takes a closer look at artificial intelligence and robotics in their 1000m2 exhibition Robot Dreams.


personal aviation vehicles

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Which better way to jumpstart the year than to have another look at personal aviation initiatives (see also earlier posts here and here). The online buzz seems to prove that not even a crisis can silence those dreaming about personal aviation vehicles (PAV’s): e.g. Mirror Image Aerospace’s Skywalker VTOL, the PAL-V. Urban Aeronautics‘ X-Hawk does away with the external propellors, after all a much lamented nuisance for VTOL PAV’s in crowded urban environments.

A lot of effort seems to go into VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) configurations, as can be seen in for example the video of this Buzz Lightyear-like low-noise electric VTOL PAV. Yet, there is also the Spiral Duct ESTOL Concept. NASA apparently also took inspiration from Transformers and shows how a car can be turned into a personal air vehicle (see video).  For more PAV-videos, check out NASAPav.

Although a few years old,  the article entitled “These legs are made for walking” (Discover Magazine) presents a concise overview of five visionaries and how they see beyond vehicles as we know them, first of all by questioning the assumptions underlying them today. James Kuffner (Head of Planning and Autonomy Lab at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University) for example asks “why wheels?”, his lab colleague Chris Urmson asks “why a driver?”. Brian Seeley (eye surgeon and founder of the CAFE (Comparative Aircraft Flying Efficiency) Foundation, check out their blog here) shares thoughts on flying cars, while Robert Thompson (director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University) questions the US’ infatuation with gas-guzzling cars and conjures ecochic pint-size autos with moss roofs. Peter ‘X-Prize‘ Diamandis thinks about truly personalized cars, i.e. shape your own carbon-nanotube impregnated composite bodies.

Image: still from NASAPav’s video

peak lithium?

Monday, September 21st, 2009

lithium-tinyAs car manufacturers shift away from oil and towards electricity to power our future vehicles, a new race is on. The target this time: lithium, basis for the lithium-ion batteries to be found in everything from electric vehicles, to mobile phones, cellphones, laptops, anti-depressives etc.  The place: Chile (for now), Bolivia (next) … The salt lakes near Uyuni in Bolivia are believed to contain an estimated 28 millions tons of lithium, or 90% of the world’s reserve according to experts. The car industry currently runs on 16.000 tons per year. As the production and demand of electric cars ramp up, the demand for lithium is expected to be anywhere between 54.000 and 500.000 tons per year. At such rates, estimates of shortages starting from as early as 2015 are no exception as automobile, pharma, ICT and many other industries will be fishing in the same pond for the same type of fish.

Although lithium is no fuel (it is not consumed through usage) and lithium-ion batteries ‘can be recycled’ (note: they do contain substances harmful to the environment in case they should end up in landfills and pollute water reserves) other worries arise concerning the socio-economic impact of lithium mining activities in the aforementioned countries.

On a more fundamental level – a more philosophical one if you wish – nature and history teach us that monoculture is generally a bad idea (cf. resilience). So whether we like it or not, we need to (re)learn to think in terms of a mix, of diversity once again.

Image courtesy of

WFS: 20 forecasts for 2010-2050

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

In a special report The World Future Society shares 20 trends and breakthroughs – recent forecasts from WFS members and its magazine, The Futurist – which they consider “likely to affect your work, your investments and your family” between 2010 and 2050.

  • The Race for Genetic Enhancements Will Be What the Space Race Was in the 20th Century
  • Water Becomes the New Oil
  • WiMAX Networks Will Soon Create Country-Wide Wireless Internet Access
  • By 2025, the Worldwide Average Life-Span Will Be Extended by One year Per Year
  • Bioviolence Becomes a Greater Threat
  • Invention Becomes Automated
  • Japan Dominates the Race for Personal Robots
  • Holographic 3-D TV
  • The Holy Grail of Computers Becomes a Reality
  • Electric Cars Become Fully Practical by 2020
  • Religion Growing in China while Secularism Grows in the Middle East
  • New Oil from Old Wells
  • Green Gold: Algae’s Huge Potential as Biofuel
  • Nanotechnology May Alter the Value of Diamonds and Other Precious Commodities
  • The Millennial Generation Will Have Major Impacts on Society
  • Quantum Computers Revolutionalize Information Around 2021
  • Breakthrough DOUBLES Solar Energy Output
  • Consumers Will Take Active Roles in Inventing New Products and Services
  • Virtual Education to Enter the Mainstream by 2015
  • Genetic Research May Soon Conquer Most Inherited Diseases

    future senses

    Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

    eagle-tinyMedicine and technology companies are working hard to restore people’s vision, hearing or other senses or provide artificial aids and prosthetics to replace them. Yet what about new or enhanced senses? The animal world is full of examples of how nature has endowed them with the most amazing ways of perceiving the world around them. Ants can see polarized light, starfish have their arms covered with light sensitive cells, pigeons can detect sounds as low as 0.1hz, some fish can detect L-serine (skin chemical in mammals) dilluted to 1 part per billion, a silkworm moth can detect pheromones up to 11km away and in concentrations as low as 1 molecule of pheromone per 1017 molecules of air, the platypus has electric sensors in its bill able to detect 0.05 microvolts, etc. (hungry for more? see here)

    Several years ago Osnabrück cognitive scientist Peter König developed the feelSpace belt, a compass like buzzing belt (since then a hit amongst the DIY crowd), equiping people with a ‘sense of direction’ much like birds have one. Users of the belt felt like the prosthetic became a part of their normal sensory apparatus. The trick lies in synesthesia (check out Terri Timely’s masterful video on the phenomenon). By making ‘the new sense’ talk to the old ones, the latter can translate its ‘feelings’ to the brain in a language the brain already understands; in the case of the feelSpace belt: touch.

    The latest issue of the wonderful Good features David Pescovitz, BoingBoing editor and fellow futuregazer over at the Institute for the Future, explains the growing amount of research and development in digital synesthesia :

    my colleagues and I have spent the last few months exploring the notion that “everything is programmable,” or will be soon. The idea is that emerging technologies—from pervasive computers to synthetic biology—are making it possible to program our bodies and our worlds to desired specifications. Increasingly, we are looking at the entire world through a computational lens.

    Pescovitz pays homage to Paul Bach-y-Rita, the Mexico-born professor in neurobiology and rehabilitation who was a pioneer in the field of sensory substitution, who once said “We see with our brains, not with our eyes.” Pescovitz mentions several examples of digital synesthesia projects, such as: Wicab (founded by Bach-y-Rita) did amazing work on BrainPort, an attempt to create a vision prosthetic that translates images from a video camera into tactile responses on the tongue. “Users often report the sensation as pictures that are painted on the tongue with champagne bubbles.” In Tel Aviv is investigating ways in which cells in plants respond to light as a way to design “seeing skin”. Hello biomimicry!

    Imagine a world of bodyshops filled with plugins and wearables to extend our sensory apparatus. To some a transhumanist’s wet dream, to others a mere natural evolution in the sense of media as extensions of man (McLuhan), to yet others yet another digital divide.

    Via Wired and Good