Monday, March 30, 2009

Dubai: possibilities or probabilities?

There is an exciting energy that emanates from Dubai and the UAE, an aura of possibility and momentum that is refreshing and reduced but not fully hijabed by the global economic crisis and local market bubble burst (gulf area GDP growth of 1% expected in 2009 vs. average worldwide contraction). Things can happen very quickly in the UAE because it is a managed economy with greenfield opportunities;

socially, economically and politically, everything is architected;
if the right person can be reached, decisions can be made quickly, world-class talent can be recruited and economic incentives, funding and operational support can be provided. However, just because things can happen quickly does not mean they do or will.

Strategic plan for the UAE
What would have to happen to make Dubai and the UAE have a higher probability of being a long-term world-leading society, to shift into being an ideas and innovation-driven economy?

First, there would need to be a wide-spread awareness and interest in really being a leading society of the future, moving beyond energy, cargo, financial services, construction and tourism.

Second would be building a culture of ideas and innovation, having world-class scientists based onsite in a large scale conducting research and development. This could be executed by either building research labs or more fundamentally, by establishing one or more externally-recognized world-class accredited universities with scientists and technologists focusing the majority of their time on research.

Third would be creating a broad culture for entrepreneurship including standard financing entry, expansion and exit mechanisms, liberalization of visas, business licensing and facilities requirements (e.g.; legality of home-based software programming businesses; visas automatically issued to those with computer science degrees) and the establishment or improvement of bankruptcy laws.

Example: Masdar City

Status as of March 24, 2009 and in Designer Mockup

Masdar, city of the future, is an interesting experiment that if executed correctly could be a pilot project for a larger effort, expanding from energy and materials to infotech and biotech. Masdar could benefit from a research focus at the MIST university and a tight linkage between university tech transfer, tech incubation and entrepreneurial efforts in Masdar City.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Integration of life and technology

Life and technology are thought of as discrete but they are starting to converge (a detailed explanation is here) and could continue to become increasingly integrated, unified as is sought with the physical laws. Life sciences have evolved from being an art to a science to now an engineering problem. Life is complex but finite and it is quite possible that all biological processes, human and otherwise, will be understood and managed, including disease and death. All matter, including life, could be designed to spec in the future; the aims of synthetic biology, building genetically-precise organisms from the bottom up, programmable matter and molecular nanotechnology are early examples. In the future, form factor and embodiment could be temporary and determined by purpose.

The above graphic represents the evolution of human and machine intelligence. Given the faster pace of technology advancement, a crossover point, sometimes called the technological singularity is inevitable. Futurist Ray Kurzweil expects this point of machine intelligence surpassing [current] human intelligence in 2029. The two curves could merge (the Human’ line above), with humans reengineering themselves into technology that can learn and evolve as fast as information technology. In actuality, there may be many forms of biological life integrating with technology and more ‘human’ diversity than has ever existed.

Future of intelligence
It is not clear that there is anything special or inherently undesignable or unreplicable about intelligence. Intelligence may be nothing more than the manipulation of patterns of information, and presumably could be substrate agnostic and executor agnostic.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Future of physics

The future of physics and cosmology was discussed at length at a recent conference held by the foundational physics research institute FQXi, particularly considering what may be ultimately possible and impossible for physics.

Theoretical physics has been progressing in many areas but there is still a strong need for observational evidence and/or alternative theories to support or disprove the existing ones. Luckily, much anticipated experimental evidence may be available in the next few years from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), Planck Satellite, Pierre Auger Observatory and other observational astrophysics projects. For example, the Planck Satellite aims to look farther back in time than has been seen so far with the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), earlier than the 400,000 year old universe. It is theorized that B-modes, primordial gravitational waves from inflation, may be visible in the very early universe, which would provide additional proof of the inflationary phase occurring directly after the big bang.

Composition of dark energy to be known soon?
Another specific example for which observational evidence may be obtained in the next few years is regarding the composition of dark energy, whether it is vacuum energy made up of axion particles as one multiverse theory predicts or quintessence made up of supersymmetric WIMPs.

Many outstanding physics questions
Some other key issues are how our universe was created in the first place (a quantum theory of creation), proof for multiverse theories and possibly detecting bubble universe collisions, more about post-big bang inflation, why there is so much more antimatter than matter (the antimatter problem), why the weak force is 1032 times stronger than gravity (vs. say a more acceptable 3-4 orders of magnitude; the hierarchy problem), the existence, size and parameters of any additional dimensions of space, not to mention the usual unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics in a quantum theory of gravity, and finally the vexing Boltzmann brain problem, that consciousness could potentially arise from nothing but quantum fluctuations.

Next-gen astrophysics tools critical
Much progress has been made with accelerators, space-based telescopes, terrestrial array telescopes, and adaptive optics but the next era of astrophysics tools could be even more revolutionary. Accelerators are an expensive $5 billion or more and take years if not decades for fundraising, permitting, building and rendering operational. One alternative could be different kinds of accelerators which are smaller, quicker and cheaper to build, notably plasma wakefield accelerators, laser accelerators, and benchtop accelerators. Another way for tools to evolve could be with computational astrophysics and simulations such as MICA's Newtonian N-body simulation (featured by UgoTrade). As computing power continues to grow, accelerator and telescope datasets could be the inputs to large-scale simulation, prediction and test. As nearly every other science has moved into informatics and rigorous math-based prediction, simulation and experimentation, so too could astrophysics, fostering much quicker cycles and a tighter linkage between theoretical and experimental physics.

The FQXi community
Curiosity-driven physics researchers, especially those investigating risky areas on the boundaries of institutional acceptance are encouraged to apply for FQXi grants, and those understanding the value of fundamental physics research funding are encouraged to participate as donors and in the FQXi website community.

NOTE: The author is an advisor to FQXi.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Foundations of bio-info tech convergence

The most important thing that became clear at last week’s 2nd annual Unither Nanomedical & Telemedical Technology Conference is that many different foundational technologies are starting to be in place for bio-info tech convergence. Ray Kurzweil and others herald the eventual re-engineering of humans into technology that can learn and evolve as fast as infotech but may not realize pathways for bio-info tech convergence are already underway.

Boundaries and definitions of organic and inorganic, natural and synthesized, biological and electronic are blurring into a variety of permutations.

It is almost becoming anachronistic to talk about bio-info convergence when the focus in some fields has already progressed to resolving the problems at hand with the available tools which may include any variety of organic, inorganic and hybrid models.

Three key areas with developments underway:

1. Nanoparticle drug delivery systems
With 5 million people receiving some sort of cancer radiation therapy worldwide each year, and cancer quickly becoming a major killer in developing as well as industrialized countries, improvements in diagnosis and treatment are sought. The nextgen standard could be nanoparticle drug delivery systems (diagnosis is still too challenging of a problem in comparison), which could be used independently or in combination with existing radiation technologies to ameliorate treatment. Many different types of nanoparticles (carbon nanotubes, calcium phosphate, gold and various magnetic nanoparticles) and related technologies such as minimally invasive nanoXrays are under development.

2. Implanted monitors and body area networking
The most obvious case of human-device integration is pacemakers (500,000 are implanted worldwide annually). The latest versions feature one-way broadcast with the devices communicating information externally to physicians for remote monitoring; wireless heart sensors currently have an installed base in the U.S. of over 150,000. Human wireless sensing is further conceptualized as body area networking, which mainly means sensors that are internal or external to the body transmitting data one-way. The IEEE working standard for this communication is 802.15.6. The next steps would be enabling two-way broadcast, bringing some light processing on-board the implanted or external body sensors and later, augmentation. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are developing in lockstep.

3. Powering implants: one idea is the ATP chip
One of the biggest challenges with devices implanted in the body is energy; providing adequate ongoing power to the device. Power trumps the other two concerns: bandwidth and biocompatibility. Many interesting methods of power generation are being investigated including thermal and vibrational energy, RF, light/PV, biochemical energy and the ATP chip, possibly getting nanodevices to produce ATP from naturally circulating glucose.

Apparently no one is yet considering the human bacterial biome as a therapeutic or augmentation platform but this could be another interesting means of bio-info tech convergence.