Archive for February, 2010

high science and low technology

February 27, 2010

Consider the word “technology”. It conjures up images of gleaming research labs, busy robotic factories, and smooth, shiny consumer goods. However, at its most fundamental, technology is simply the application of knowledge to craft[1] – something that pervades every human endeavour, from the poorest village to the International Space Station.

Science and technology go hand in hand, of course – science provides a civilisation the knowledge that drives its technology, and technology provides that civilisation the resources and the luxury to engage in science. Conversely, societies so poor that the struggle for existence consumes the major part of their energy and resources – the so-called developing world – have little opportunity to indulge in scientific research, and thereby lift themselves up the technological ramp.

Increasing globalisation has opened up a brand new way to attack this problem – applying the science of the developed world to the technology of the developing one. This is not as simple as a “technology transfer”; modern technology requires an infrastructure without which it is useless, and developing that infrastructure requires resources and technology, leading to the bootstrap problem all over again. What is needed is new research, and new innovation, targeting existing problems and implementable under existing conditions. To provide a concrete example, in many parts of Africa, people spend considerable time and energy hauling water over long distances from rivers and streams to their homes and fields. We surely know how, in pure engineering terms, to provide running water to even the remotest village – the science behind water pumps and pipelines is well known. Of course, such a project is clearly impossible in the short term; it would require resources that the local economies cannot provide. The Hippo Roller, on the other hand, simply provides a more efficient way to manually transport water – low tech, no doubt, but it is improving people’s lives here and now[2].

One of the more prominent figures in the world of high-impact low-tech is MIT Professor Amy Smith. Dr. Smith travels extensively to the world’s poorer areas, studying first-hand the problems faced by the locals, and returning to her lab to develop solutions that blend cutting-edge science with engineering and materials accessible to rural populations. Her sugarcane charcoal project is a perfect example of this marriage of high-science and low-tech. The people who need to burn charcoal for fuel would not be able to do the research required to turn waste sugarcane fibres into efficient charcoal briquettes. The people capable of doing the research, on the other hand, have no need for the charcoal (and, indeed, no sugarcane waste to dispose of). This is, in a sense, charity done right – using the resources of the first world to help the third, but extracting far more leverage out of those resources than any charitable donation could have accomplished.

Some other interesting initiatives:

[1] From Wikipedia: The word technology comes from the Greek technología (τεχνολογία) — téchnē (τέχνη), ‘craft’ and -logía (-λογία), the study of something, or the branch of knowledge of a discipline.

[2] There are several fascinating aspects to the design and development of the hippo roller; it deserves, and will get, a post of its own soon

reclaiming the desert

February 26, 2010

South Korean designer Jin-wook Hwang has come up with an intriguing proposal for large-scale deployment of self-contained “seed bombs” into arid areas. The bombs, capsules containing seeds, soil and nutrients, will act as greenhouses for the fledgling seeds, then harmlessly biodegrade once the plants have taken hold. Science fiction fans will doubtless feel right at home with the idea, reminiscent as it is of the terraforming schemes popular in the canon.

Veering even closer to full-fledged geoengineering is an ambitious plan to flood a 6000km long strip of the Sahara with bacteria that will set the dunes into sandstone, effectively forming a wall against the further spread of the desert. As the architect, Magnus Larsson admits, the plan is “fraught with many challenges”, but the basic idea seems very promising.

new bacterial water treatment process

February 11, 2010

The press release tosses the word “revolutionary” around a lot, but they may well be justified.

The United States Army has taken delivery of the first two units of a “revolutionary” waste-water treatment system that will clean putrid water within 24 hours and leave no toxic by-products, according to scientists at Sam Houston State University.

“The system is based on a proprietary consortium of bacteria – you can find them in a common handful of dirt,” said lead scientist Sabin Holland.

“In the right combination and in the right medium, they have the capability to clean polluted water with a very high efficiency very quickly. It truly is a revolutionary solution.”

Holland said the physical systems themselves – called “bio-reactors” – use little energy, are transportable, scalable, simple to set-up, simple to operate, come on-line in record time and can be monitored remotely.

distributed medical research

February 5, 2010

The age of the supercomputer has fast given way to the age of the cluster – a collection of machines, individually low-powered, that when linked together can rival, or even exceed, the power of a supercomputer at a fraction of the cost. At the heart of this move towards cluster computing is the idea of “distribution”, that is, working out an approach to a problem that lets a swarm of independent agents each attack some small subproblem in isolation.

The idea of applying these techniques to medical research is not new either – the chief bottlenecks are identifying problems that will benefit from a distributed attack, and actually working out the means of breaking them up into subproblems, after which, of course, comes the problem of gathering up and linking the required number of processors. Here are three highlights from a vast and active field:

The folding@home project is based on the premise that personal computers are, for the most part, lying idle, or at the least vastly underutilised (things like websurfing and writing documents usually take up a small fraction of your computer’s processing power). The project, run out of Stanford University, distributes a program that you can download and install, and which will then detect when your computer is idle, fetch a protein folding problem from the folding@home site, solve it and send back the result. The central site then puts together millions of individual results to attack hard problems like the causes of Alzheimer’s Disease and cancer. Folding@home thereby leverages the connectedness of the internet to vastly increase the computational power available to crunch through these problems.

At the other end of the spectrum, a single company, Google, has put some of its vast computational resources to work to partner with startup Adimab in discovering new antibody drugs. Google has, perhaps more than any other company, mastered the art of building, maintaining and distributing a problem across a vast cluster of machines, in its efforts to index more and more of the web. Adimab, in its turn, is researching more efficient ways of developing precisely-targeted antibodies. This is a venture in its early stages, but the synergy is exciting, and both partners have an excellent track record.

And finally, Harvard is harnessing a global, distributed network of both computational- and brainpower, in a crowdsourced attack on type-1 diabetes. This is in some ways the most exciting development of the lot, a distributed model in which the hard problems of how to break a problem up, attack the individual subproblems, and combine the results meaningfully, have not been solved up front, but have themselves been handed over to the distributed network to solve. Along the way, social issues of credit for the research, publication priority, and the ability of individual researchers to get funding to solve a distributed problem, will have to be tackled and overcome. As the linked article notes, the expected benefits of the project are not just a better handle on type-1 diabetes, but “shared knowledge of how to share knowledge”:

One reason the NIH is funding this crowdsourcing experiment is the hope that its findings will stretch subsequent research dollars further. “Focusing across teams on solving very specific, well-defined problems could crack the code on collaboration and improve the yield of all of this medical research,” said Spradlin


February 4, 2010

How Oil-Filled Lenses are Bringing Sight to Those in Need

Another “hey – whatever happened to those?” post. The idea of liquid-filled lenses that could be adjusted with a simple screw-based mechanism caused a lot of excitement when it first came out, with the promise of cheap but precise glasses for the poor. Gizmodo has a great writeup on the current state of the project – short version, they’re in field testing now, with around 30000 pieces being dispensed around the world, and cost $20 apiece to produce, against an ultimate goal of $1.

The writer, Joel Johnson, sums up my feelings (and the spirit of this blog!) perfectly:

It’s the sort of mixture of charity and innovation that makes my heart leap, an opportunity to use the mass production and design capabilities of the developed world to provide a life-changing solution to those who need it—without making those who receive aid dependent on someone else for continued support.