Joanie January 3rd, 2008
SIX IDEAS THAT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD
November 20, 2007
BREAKING DOWN THE FIREWALL
By Meryl Rothstein
Internet censorship is the book burning of the modern age, denying as much
as a third of the world’s population access to news and information.
But a new brand of activists — or “hacktivists” — are using their computer
expertise to help people stranded in Web-censored countries abroad (and
corporate offices and military bases at home) jump the firewall. The key
innovation, developed by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, is a
software program called Psiphon. In the latest version (due out this
winter), prospective users, or aid groups, contact the Citizen Lab to
receive passwords and Web links. Once signed in, users are then patched
directly into the Psiphon network of servers. A search bar pops up on their
own screen, and they can surf the Web freely. All censors see is an
unfamiliar IP address, which could be for anything from a bank transaction
to an eBay sale.
According to Ronald Deibert, the lab’s director, the biggest threat to the
system is censors who might sign up for the service to learn Psiphon’s IP
addresses and block them. But the lab has developed a high-tech shell game
to counter this measure. As soon as one address is blocked, Psiphon assigns
it to another region and puts in a new one. When the next one gets
discovered, Psiphon again swaps in a new one. The process can go on
indefinitely, until the censors grow tired or the firewalls come down.
By Meryl Rothstein
As fast and small as our electronics and computers are today, there is one
major drawback. They are hard and rigid and fragile. Completely the opposite
of what Stéphanie Lacour is making: bendable, stretchable circuits that will
one day be used to make electronic skin and malleable computers.
In 2002, as a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton, Lacour found a way to
make metal stretch by embedding it in rubbery silicone. Doing so allowed it
to expand to twice its original length without breaking. The next step was
building a flexible circuit. Lacour, now heading her own lab at Cambridge
University, did this by consolidating all the hard microcomponents of the
circuit into tiny rigid “safe zones,” which are networked to one another by
stretchable metal. The final product is a silicone patch the size of a stick
of gum that bends and twists like a rubber band.
The most obvious application is for prostheses. Imagine a computerized hand
that can feel heat from a stove or a lover. Lacour hopes to develop the
first such prosthetic glove in two to five years. Initially, it will need to
be hooked up to a tiny computer to alert the wearer to various sensations.
The next step is a system that mimics the shape of neurons and relays
signals directly to the brain, enabling the wearer to process tactile
information in real time.
But those without prostheses will benefit from Lacour’s innovation as well.
She envisions T-shirts embedded with electronics that can detect if a baby
has stopped breathing and a foldable GPS-enabled map. Then there are the
crazier, more fun ideas Lacour dreams up on a daily basis — things like
interactive tattoos that might change from a lion to a tiger to a skull,
depending upon your mood or outfit.
THE POLLUTION MAGNET
By Christine Ajudua
Eighty-two thousand people die from cancer in Bangladesh every year, many
due to arsenic poisoning. But building upon her discovery of a way to get
rust nanoparticles to bind to arsenic, Vicki Colvin has invented a new,
astonishingly easy way to clean the water supply: Sauté a teaspoon of rust
in a mixture of oil and lye, which breaks down the rust into nano-sized
pieces. Retrieve the rust particles with a household magnet. Then immerse
the rust-covered magnet into a pot of contaminated water. Pull out the
arsenic. The system is up to a hundred times more efficient than existing
methods, and requires no electricity or manufacturing infrastructure, so
even the poorest of villagers can use it.
Depending upon government regulations, Colvin’s extraction system should go
global in as few as five years. Yet ultimately, Colvin, a professor of
chemistry and chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice University, has
bigger plans. She sees her method as just the first step toward developing
an easy point-of-use water-purification system that would cover virtually
every pollutant. The filter would have a dipstick to tell you what’s in the
water and a reader to tell you what you need to add to pull it out –
perhaps silver nanoparticles to kill bacteria or a protein to capture
MACHINES THAT FIX THEMSELVES
By Doug Cantor
There will come a time when computers and robots don’t need humans to
program them. For mechanical engineer Hod Lipson, that time is now. And it
all starts with his four-legged starfish robot.
Beginning with no idea of what it looks like, the starfish makes random
motions and measures how it tilts. It then generates about a hundred
different hypotheses about what its structure might be, moves itself again,
collects more data to determine which models are potentially correct, and
behaves accordingly. It continues this process of weeding out less-useful
models until an accurate one is found and takes hold, a process inspired by
Darwinian evolution. And if anything happens to it — for example, it loses
one of its legs or falls from a table — it can then generate a new model to
adapt to different circumstances, with no human assistance.
Well beyond smart robots, this self-adapting technology could one day be
used to erect buildings that can repair themselves, airplanes that
anticipate mechanical problems, and bridges that sense and readjust for
potential structural pitfalls.
In the shorter term, a self-modeling robot could be used to explore the
planets, repairing and reprogramming itself depending upon conditions on the
BURYING OUR CO2
By Christine Ajudua
Kurt Zenz House isn¹t the first scientist to suggest sequestering carbon
dioxide in the ocean. But he is the first to come up with a solution that
might actually work.
The key is depth. Whereas other plans to sequester carbon in the ocean were
plagued by fears that the CO2 would escape, House advocates going much
deeper — at least three thousand meters, or two miles below sea level into
the seabed. At that depth, House hypothesizes that the extreme water
pressure and low temperature will turn the carbon into a liquid denser than
the surrounding water, forming a layer that will prevent it from rising back
up into the ocean. “We can store all the CO2 from humanity for centuries,
and it wouldn’t change sea levels by a centimeter,” says House, a Harvard
Ph.D. candidate in earth and planetary sciences. “And there isn’t any major
life at that depth, so the footprint is very light.”
Estimated costs are about forty dollars to capture and store a ton of the
gas, about the amount of CO2 produced by a car every 500 to 1,500 miles,
depending on the make. House is currently in talks with a major oil company
to start field tests while a group of developers from New Jersey wants to
build the first power plant that would use his system.
THE NEXT PLASTIC
By Doug Cantor
Plastic has changed little since its heyday in the 1960s. It’s still
ubiquitous, oil based, and dirty as hell for the environment. Makes you
wonder what we’ve been doing all these years.
For one thing, not listening enough to chemist Geoffrey Coates. In his lab
at Cornell University, he’s been reinventing plastic. Making it
environmentally friendly and biodegradable — with orange peels.
The key is limonene, a citrusy-smelling chemical compound made from orange
rinds that when oxidized and mixed with carbon dioxide and a catalyst can be
turned into a solid plastic. The final product can be made into anything
from Saran wrap to medical packaging to beer bottles and naturally
biodegrades in just a few months. And because it can be produced using
recycled CO2 from carbon-spewing factories, simply making Coates’s plastic
can help the environment.
Since 1999, when Coates and his colleagues first began experimenting with
limonene, they’ve discovered a number of other natural materials, such as
pine trees and soybeans, that can be manipulated into biodegradable polymers
as well. And more recently, they’ve been experimenting with artificially
creating polyhydroxybutyrate, a polypropylene-like plastic that is naturally
produced by bacteria.
While Coates’s natural polymers are more expensive to produce than most
current plastics, he stresses that this isn’t just another radical
innovation that will never make it out of the lab. Novomer
<http://www.novomer.com/>, a company he cofounded in 2004, will see its
green plastics used in high-end electronics in the next couple of years.
Once production is scaled up, less-expensive mainstream consumer products
such as food containers will follow soon after.
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Published by David Sunfellow
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