Thursday 31 July 2008

Novel power saving in electronics

Much is written about the power consumption of today's consumer electronics.  New battery technology is one approach to reducing the consumption of portable devices.  Alternatives to batteries such as fuel cells are another approach.  But the third way that I normally answer this question for the future with is to use less power by being smart, particularly in software.  

An audio equipment company has now implemented this approach in a headphone amplifier.  First they have used a trick in the hardware to halve the supply voltage used resulting in half the power consumption.  They dynamically alter the supply voltage by tracking the signal output so that efficiency is improved.  The supply is generated by a two level charge pump.  The pump is programmed a few milliseconds ahead of the time that the signal arrives in order to avoid distortion and noise.  A carefully developed algorithm is responsible for programming the correct characteristics.  The algorithm had to be 'trained' by experimenting with a wide range of music genres.  

This approach shows an excellent example of how software can provide the intelligence for something that you might otherwise assume is fixed by the hardware, while addressing the never-ending power problem. 

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Miracle material or danger?

One of the definite big technologies of the future which will revolutionise the world in a whole raft of different applications is nanotechnology.  Within that, carbon nanotubes are probably the most discussed and researched material; indeed I have written several blog entries about these already.  They are indeed a revolutionary miracle material able to be applied in so many ways to overcome limitations of existing materials in today's world.  

In the past, another material was once hailed as a miracle with applications in so many ways, particularly in respect of durability against electrical, chemical and fire damage.  That material was asbestos.  It wasn't understood at the time however that the tiny fibres it consisted of could easily get airborne and once breathed in by humans, would cause devastating suffering including cancers of the lung and mesothelioma for example.  Over 100,000 people died as a result of this and since then the use of asbestos has now been prohibited or very carefully limited in most of the developed world.

Carbon nanotubes share much of the promise that asbestos did way back, but also share some of the dangers.   Already there are applications in paint substances to produce durable coatings for surfaces which are self-cleaning, and they are being woven into fabrics and used to create smart clothing.  The market is estimated to reach $2 billion by 2014.   The nanotubes' needle characteristics also resemble the asbestos fibres and so now research is being carried out to see if people exposed to large amounts of them might be susceptible to similar lung diseases such as cancer.  Let us hope that this revolutionary material does not become the asbestos story all over again.  

Monday 28 July 2008

Using what comes naturally?

So there are more signs that the world is taking steps along the direction highlighted by my device prediction of many years ago now that different types of gadgets would co-operate more together in the future and that people would use whatever means was most convenient to interact with their consumer electronics, once the technology inter-working allowed it.  One of the most popular downloads of applications from the iPhone AppStore since its launch is "remote", the free Apple control app that allows an iPhone or iPod touch user to control their computer streamed music over wifi in their home.  My wife is using it right now to change the music she is listening to as I type this.  It also works with the AppleTV set-top box, providing a very convenient way to interact with the television.  Entering a search term to find a YouTube video is much simpler using a pop-up onscreen keyboard on these devices, than either the simple hardware remote that Apple supply or indeed any other typical multi-button TV remote would be.  

You don't have to look far for more examples either.  The Wii games console wand has been adopted as another means to control other devices rather than the purpose for which it was designed.  Several people (Lee, Renevo, etc.) have publicised how they are using the remote to enable all sorts of capabilities.  And there are already tens of millions of these devices out there.  I have been using and demonstrating Salling Clicker for a few years now, as a way that many different devices from different manufacturers can work together.  

If we make interaction with machines more natural and easy for people, and if people see a benefit from taking the time to bother with the technology, it is clear that the future is one of co-operating devices with increasingly seamless user interface paradigms.  This may in turn lead to new software applications which encourage people to take part in activities using connected devices that they otherwise might not have done (e.g. voting, betting etc.).  Such activities may never in their own right result in a custom device being manufactured that will be mass-market.  If existing devices such as phones, TVs, and games consoles can combine to provide a desirable experience, then these types of activities may be sampled by more people sooner.  

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Future social exclusion?

More and more services have become available online in the past few years.  Increasingly we are seeing some services that can only be used online.  In the future this will be more common.  In a few decades, it will be very unusual for many services to be offered in any way except online.  By then, the newer generations will have grown up with the online phenomena and so the mainstream of society will not only be 'connected' but also very comfortable with the online experience.  In fact many will feel less comfortable doing things any other way.  

However there will always be those for whom the new technology is a struggle, or indeed something they have some personal fear or dislike of, to the extent that they abstain or otherwise exclude themselves from the services that others just use and take for granted.  This is not unlike the situation that sometimes happens today.  It is a minority, and sometimes they are in a disadvantaged position through little or no fault of their own, but nethertheless they are in that position.  In those cases today, in western society, we usually expect the government to step in with some sort of 'safety net' provision.  In future decades, when key services will be out of reach of the 'unconnected', an equivalent safety net (excuse the pun) will be required.  It may be as well for governments to begin thinking about this scenario now, rather than waiting until it actually happens.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Harnessing "hidden" processing

So the big processor chip manufacturers will show us impressive roadmaps for more cycles for less consumed power into the future.  And this together with multiple cores will significantly enhance the experience users get from future devices.  But for those gadgets with high definition displays, there is another strategy which will also add to the processing power equation.

The graphics chip (GPU) in such devices is extremely powerful in terms of processing specific types of data, painting billions of pixels per second on to computer screens.  But there is spare capacity in this task and so providing the data fed to it is suitable and techniques for sharing the processing within the program code are adopted, the GPU could become the accelerator for these devices.  Indeed Apple has announced its "Open-CL" initiative aimed at supporting this type of programming through future versions of its OSX operating system.  Given that GPUs can be ten times more power efficient than general purpose CPU chips, the impact on device performance could be highly significant. 

Monday 21 July 2008

Intelligent advertising?

Is anyone else out there fed up of TV adverts that just say ridiculous things or is it just me?   While I was considering what to write in this blog entry, a TV advertisement stated that a stain removing soap powder has "intelligence" built in.  They even showed some meaningless animation of some dumb stain cells on a garment being attacked by the more intelligent ones in their product.  I'm not sure that any such nanotechnology is employed in this cleaning fluid that could be reasonably explained as intelligent?  In fact if that is the level of the latest hi-tech intelligence, then perhaps we should be worried about other things!  

Then there are those other adverts that use some made up techno-sounding word to describe what is in the particular perfume or antiperspirant or other product and supposedly gives it the edge over rivals.  Often there is a get-out clause at the bottom of the screen for a very short time in a size of font that can barely be read.  

In the UK at least, we have plenty of advertising standards and regulations; yet we still allow these products to bamboozle the non-scientific audience.  I want my mum, and all the others like her, to be more protected from possibly believing such claims.   In the future, businesses that have a trusted brand will be even more important than today.  I hope that striving for this trust may show up the frauds that try to trick customers into buying their products.  And that devices which customers have to hand will help them see through the bogus language that some companies are using. 

Friday 18 July 2008

Future multi-core processors?

So we know that the trend in microprocessor chips is multi-core; indeed Intel recently announced the release of their first quad core processors aimed specifically at mobile devices, and practically every PC that ships today contains dual core chips.  Well how about 116,640 cores?  The Los Alamos lab in the USA, birthplace of the atom bomb, has just announced experiments done on such a processor.  This machine (called Roadrunner) has allowed a new record of 1.144 petaFlops per second; even the unit of specification has had to change to make the numbers manageable!  Soon we will be measuring in exaFlops!  

The applications of Roadrunner disclosed so far (apart from the obvious military use because of where it originates from) have centred around modelling how the human brain processes complex visual scenes, that's more than a billion visual neurons.  However it is believed that the Roadrunner weighs over 220 tonnes and consumes more than three megawatts of power!   Not exactly ready for mobile devices as yet!   But it is clear about the trend.  The real challenge will be to educate and train the programmers (and build automated coding tools) to take advantage of such parallel processors.  Little current software is actually optimised for dual and quad core processors; when the hardware becomes available (as it will real fast), the software needs to be ready to take advantage of it.

Thursday 17 July 2008

Blending virtual and real

The virtual worlds such as Second Life figure in the technology news fairly regularly.   When I do surveys on stage during futures presentations, more and more senior executives in big companies raise their hands when I ask who has an avatar in a virtual space.  For those people who think that virtual worlds are simply play things then think again.  For some they are, but there are also many blue chip corporations actively using and exploiting virtual spaces for business benefit.  

There are interesting debates we can have about where the money is in the virtual world and how the virtual economy operates.  It is also pertinent to consider the motives and decision making of the world's future movers and shakers in a few decades time when they will have grown up never not having had a virtual world presence.  But the potential augmented reality world opportunities are really exciting.  As wearable device technology develops to conveniently present the virtual and real worlds at the same time, then services to exploit this will really come into their own. 

Wednesday 16 July 2008

iPhone 3G launch

So the new iPhone 3G has launched...  It has virtually sold out in Europe before some parts of the USA put it on sale.  The scale of the purchases seems to have taken the carriers by surprise on launch day and the systems both at Apple and the carriers were suffering badly under the excess load of device activations and software update downloads.   I managed to update my wife's original iPhone successfully in one attempt on the day after the update was made available.  

At the same time, I was trying out some of the mobileMe web applications which were also launched on that day.  They were very unresponsive.  The transition from to mobileMe was certainly not as smooth as Apple would have liked.  Today existing members of the service such as me were sent an apology email from Apple and compensation in the form of an extra month added to the renewal date.  This is typical of the customer service I have noticed before, and something a number of organisations could learn from.  

Apple have stated that they sold over a million iPhones on the launch weekend in less than two days.  By comparison it took 74 days to reach the same number of the original model, albeit in many fewer geographies that they were sold in then.  But more significant for me is the statistic of 10 million downloads of applications from the iPhone Applications Store in the same weekend.  This eco-system for apps for the iPhone is one of the more innovative features of the update iPhone firmware 2.0, not in what it provides but in the easy way it provides it for a vast number of users.  

Tuesday 15 July 2008

Machines doing more - not an option!

Last evening I had the pleasure to attend an evening lecture by an old friend and fellow futurist, Peter Cochrane, organised by the ITP.  I share many of Peter's views about the future, but enjoy his style of delivery, and so was happy to attend yet another of his lectures.  This time, Peter talked about the future of machines outnumbering and out-performing humans.  

So we know that we can program machines to develop their own evolving behaviours.  And we know that there are already more microprocessors on the planet than people.  And we know that there will be a time when these machines will do even more of the things humans currently do, better, faster and more accurately than humans.  Clearly robots, already extremely able, will be a subset of such machines.  And in the same way that Japan already embraces robots in applications which the rest of the world only thinks about, the rest of the world will need robots increasingly to do these tasks and hence will become more comfortable with the idea.

Technology isn't an option in today's world.  If computer technology was turned off, countries like the UK would be in a disaster situation within weeks, with insufficient food and other resources to sustain the population.  Technology in the future will be even more essential.  Those who lag behind will have to catch up or simply struggle to survive.   

Wednesday 9 July 2008

The future of the Web

Yesterday I was fortunate to be at a London event where Sir Tim Berners-Lee was presenting and discussing his initiative for web science (WSRI) alongside the folk that run NESTA.  Since Tim invented the Web, it has grown into an incredible successful overlay of the Internet.  It has brought the internet's reach and the information distributed across it to the masses across every continent.  It has changed the world, but is still in its infancy and has a huge potential to change much more yet.  But there is a need to understand more about the science of this thing that we have created.  The web fundamentally connects people using simple clicks across cyberspace, abstracting away from the complexity of the network and computer infrastructure that underpins it.  

One of the key aspects of the web is the varied scale of the communities that it supports.  There are an incredible number of small scale communities that have a common interest.  There are a small number of very large scale communities supported.  It is those of the middle scale that have the potential to make most impact on the way people do things, i.e. social change.  

Web science addresses not just technology issues but also social issues.  I look forward to the products of the web science research initiative that will help take our understanding of this remarkable invention to a new level in the future.

Monday 7 July 2008

Screens of the future...

Clearly displays for devices are going to develop substantially in the coming years.  While the gesture based touch screens of Apple and Microsoft have had a great deal of publicity in recent times, others are also developing ideas in this space.  The second item (SEN) in this video of Sony concepts shows how they have been exploring elegant ways to include flexible screens on any surface.  The example shown is a screen incorporated into a glass wall.

Along with this we see Konica Minolta prototyping screens built into spectacles.  It is a lightweight wearable display which could be used in applications such as providing instruction manuals to those working on equipment and also movie watching when commuting for example.  I have seen this prototype myself when at the CEATEC Japanese consumer electronics show and was very impressed with the image quality.  I suspect that such developments will spawn new regulations, just as the mobile phone has, in respect of where these devices may be used.  Watching a movie with displays built into spectacles may be acceptable when travelling by train but not when driving a car!   Such new laws may be very difficult to enforce and to prove wrong-doing.  What people do with the new technology may well be more difficult to deal with than the development of the technology itself! 

Thursday 3 July 2008

Intelligent Transport Systems

I'm sitting here today in London at an event considering Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) of the future.  It's a gathering of people from organisations that work on applications and infrastructure for ITS as well as those involved in digital communications.  

Imagine a future where your car takes account of congestion, optimises for efficiency and environmental concerns, can automatically call and help locate you to the emergency or breakdown services in specific circumstances, and provides information and entertainment for the occupants.  

And then there is the ITS impact on public transport.  Maybe a future blog entry will cover this more.

Our first discussion in groups concerned the challenges of getting ITS deployed.  The consensus was clearly that the major challenges are not technical, but social, political, institutional and regulatory.   I totally agree with this notion.   There are plenty of clever engineers around to solve the technical problems.   

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Flying cars, Sir Clive?

In the early 80's, when I was a teenager, the brainchild early computers of Sir Clive Sinclair began my interest in that technology, which so far has led to a computer science degree and my current career.  Now Sir Clive, in an interview with the BBC, has predicted flying cars in the future.  

I think he is probably right!  In due course I think we will see personal flying vehicles of some sort which will be automatically controlled and where the passenger is simply moved from one place to another through the air.  I am not sure that I concur about the power source being electric, but I would imagine some combination of power sources which doesn't rely solely on petrol.  It may well be that the vehicle is able to complete parts of its journey in other ways other than flying.  Convergence is not simply a telecommunications term.  I believe it will apply to transportation more and more.