Date:27 February 2014
What people in the know will be talking about this year. By Alex Hutchinson
1. Farm drones
That sound you hear is a swarm of drones, revving their tiny engines as they wait for the Federal Aviation Administration to update its rules on commercial UAV flight. The biggest beneficiaries may be farmers who hope to use cheap UAVs armed with cameras to monitor the health of their crops, employing aerial photography – digital and infrared – to fine-tune delivery of water, fertiliser and other chemicals. To tap that hungry market, companies such as PrecisionHawk have developed simple plug-and-play sensors and data-processing software for use with their 1,5-kg GPS-guided Lancaster UAV. For now, the FAA rules governing farm use are vague (no one has got into trouble yet), but the agency is expected to clarify things this year and issue final rules in 2015.
2. In-memory computing
In traditional computer architecture, there’s memory (the 6 GB of RAM in your laptop that provides lightning-quick access to the data required to run your applications), and then there’s storage (a 1 TB hard drive, slow and inefficient to access but spacious enough to archive your many files).
The same dichotomy holds true for massive-data centres, which makes it hard to analyse big-data sets without the delays inherent in retrieving each piece of data from the clunky spinning disc where it’s stored. But now that ash memory is relatively inexpensive and getting cheaper by the year, companies such as SAP and Oracle are experimenting with a radical alternative: stowing all your data right in memory.
This in-memory computing offers dramatic increases in speed, and by some estimates, energy savings of up to 50 per cent for big data centres. With the release of Violin Memory’s inexpensive in-memory storage cards, individual servers can now take advantage of those benefits, too.
In February 2011, the internet officially ran out of IP addresses. You probably didn’t notice, because new devices continue to connect to the Web via address-sharing work-arounds. But those are stopgap measures. It’s time for a wholesale shift from the 32-bit, 4,3 billion-address IPv4 system developed in the 1970s to the 128-bit IPv6 and its mind-boggling 340 trillion trillion trillion addresses. To complete the change, every Web site and Internet provider has to buy in, updating equipment when necessary.
At the moment only about 2 per cent of Google’s traffic arrives via IPv6. Will the world get its act together in time to avoid missed connections? Many holdouts are looking to Washington for the answer: the White House has mandated that all US Government servers switch to IPv6 by October.
4. Muon tomography
Though very similar to computed tomography (better known as CT scanning), muon tomography offers one key advantage: instead of assembling images with radioactive X-rays, it uses particles created naturally in the upper atmosphere by the cosmic rays that constantly bombard Earth. These particles , known as muons, penetrate much more deeply than X-rays, which means they can pass through shielding materials such as lead – and that makes them perfect for detecting nuclear material hidden in shipping containers.
Decision Sciences, working with Los Alamos National Lab, has developed the Multi-Mode Passive Detection System, which can scan a 12-metre shipping container in 30 seconds, looking for the tell-tale ways in which muons are detected by uranium and plutonium. And before year’s end, the company plans to introduce a software upgrade that will enable the device to detect conventional electronics and other contraband. It comes as no surprise that the US departments of Defence and Homeland Security have already signed up to use the technology.
5. Organ on a chip
Drugs that work well in a petri dish – or even in a mouse – often turn out to be ineffective or dangerous in humans. That’s why researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering set out to create computer chips capable of simulating the functions of real organs. The lung-on-a-chip has a membrane lined with human lung cells on one side and blood-vessel cells on the other. Air flows across the lung-cell side and a blood-like liquid flows across the other. The device even expands and contracts as it “breathes”.
Scientists are currently working with the US Food and Drug Administration to test counter-radiation drugs on bone marrow, gut and lung chips. The next step is bolder yet: a R380 million DARPA funded plan to link various chips in what amounts to a whole-human-body-on-a-chip.
6. Personal data-auctions
In 2000, a public outcry forced Yahoo and eBay to cancel their plans to auction personal data collected from 200 000 people by a marketing company. Today that data is more accessible and more valuable than ever, but people still strive to protect it. Public sentiment may be changing, though.
Last year a New York University student served up two months’ worth of private data mined from his digital devices in a Kickstarter campaign. The stunt raised $2 733 (about R28 000) from 213 amused backers.
Now startups such as Washington DC-based Personal are betting that others will follow suit, lumping their online accounts together in one place for convenience and for profit. Once their data is collected, they can choose whether to part with chunks of it – in exchange for special deals and other enticements, that is.
7. 3D counterfeiting
In February, a series of 3D printer patents will expire, clearing the way for a flood of cheap professional machines. That’s good news for small manufacturing shops, but bad news for companies that make highly desirable – and easily copied – objects such as jewellery and sunglasses. Rogue websites like thepiratebay.sx have already added sections to distribute the printing specs, pulled from pirated blueprints or 3D scans of the originals, for such objects.
While designers wrestle with how to insert digital rights management codes in 3D-printer ‑les, some experts predict that, by 2018, companies will be losing a trillion rand a year in intellectual property. The more immediate issue for everyone, though, is figuring out exactly what is protected by copyright (for creative work) and patent (for useful devices). A screw? No big deal. A replacement part for your car? That’s trickler.
8. Semi-autonomous driving
We still have a way to go before cars pilot themselves to the office but, little by little, technology is now assisting us with the driving. Manufacturers including Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Audi and Volvo have designed vehicles that can park themselves. GM’s hands-free Super Cruise control will adjust the steering and the brakes to keep your car at a safe remove from the SUV ahead. The Direct Adaptive Steering system in Nissan’s Infiniti Q50 uses circuits to sidestep the rack-and-pinion system, speeding up the response time between steering wheel and tyres, maybe even paving the way for vehicles operated by joysticks. Cool? You bet, but advances like these also have the potential to make for safer roads, fewer bottlenecks and, yes, hands idle enough for you to enjoy a doughnut with your coffee.
Imagine taking an inkjet printer, filling it with bio-ink made from stem cells, and printing a new kidney for anyone who needs a transplant.
The process is a little more complicated than that, of course, particularly when working with multiple cell types or tubular structures, but after years of research that incredible scenario is almost within our reach.
Organovo, which unveiled the first commercial 3D bioprinter in 2009, expects to release functional human liver tissue in 2014 that drug companies can use for medical research. Scientists are also working on printable bone and wound-healing materials. It’s still a big leap from there to a fully transplantable organ, but take heart: now you don’t have to be a science fiction fan to believe it’s possible.
10. Active cyber defence
Even classified military networks are vulnerable to hackers. So, in 2012, DARPA launched an Active Cyber Defence programme. Think pre-emptive strikes. Proponents aim to identify and disarm would-be attackers with, say, fake data. The startup CrowdStrike is bringing the same aggressive approach to the private sector, promising to use big-data analytics to monitor real-time activity in client networks. Some advocates are even pushing for changes in privacy laws for permission to hack into an adversary’s network to retrieve or destroy stolen data.