Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In Rememberance...

One of the themes I explored with my short story collection, Corridors, is the idea of expanding upon human abilities with technology.

In one particular story, In Remembrance of Simplicity, a scientist attaches a memory-boosting chip to his brain. The outcome, however, is not quite what he expects. As told through a series of letters, here is the audio version of the story.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


In my last post I discussed some of the significant advancements being made in 3D printing. Yet there is another technology that is being developed which may not even been visible at all: nanotech.

Nanotech is everywhere...if you consider some of the amazing machinery in nature and the human body as falling under that classification. Manmade nanotech, however, is making some major strides as of late. For starters, here are some interesting videos discussing the topic here, here, here, and here. Although I have disagreements with the videos in terms of the origin of nanotech in nature, you can generally see where things are headed.

Now, one particular technique for building nano-sized devices or objects is nano dip pen lithography. This involves moving atoms into place one by one and so far, it has been used to build some very basic devices, along with creating tiny signatures made at the atomic level. Due to the cost of the equipment, this may not be a feasable long-term method of building devices, but it is a starting point.

Other work being done at the nano level involves grinding things into ultrafine powder as well as developing coatings. Some peculiar properties emerge at this level, though. For example, gold changes color when broken down into smaller and smaller particles. At a certain point, it even becomes transparent. Silicon, too, changes in color from a charcoal-colored metal to red and even to blue when the particle size is continually reduced. Strange properties also develop with carbon (research carbon nanotubes to see what I mean). There are lots of implications to size reduction as well as newfound hope for older technology such as solar cell coatings.

Beyond coatings, solar cell improvements, and dip pen lithography, however, there lurks a potential development that is both fascinating and unsettling at the same time. Work is also being done in various labs and universities on molecular assemblers. These would represent an amazing miniaturization of their larger robotic counterparts, yet the implications might be drastically different for these "nanofactories".

A future nanofactory may use nanomachines (or molecular assemblers) to assemble other nanomachines. There may also come a day when a desktop-sized device will be developed that can encapsulate such functionality. I'll cover issues with replication (and self-replication) in a future post, but you can probably imagine what types of doors this kind of technology will open up...both good and bad. Another lurking danger in any new technology is the ever-present potential for bugs...especially in devices with extensive amounts of software code. In the coming days, I'll cover the implications for that, too.

P.S.: In prior posts, I've made mention of some interesting sites that feature nano-related news, most notably this one. Recently, I found another one to add to that list: azonano.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Desktop Factory

There is a tremendous wave of innovation coming soon. By the time it fully arrives, it could alter the landscape of manufacturing forever. Once the price drops and the technology is "just right", it will empower the average household with the ability to make almost anything.

That wave is 3D printing.

The technology of 3D printers is evolving at a steady rate. Sites have also appeared that allow you to download designs and print them out on your desktop. For example, over at Thingiverse and Shapeways, you can upload your ideas to exchange with others. If you go through their gallery of items, you can find a diverse set of items available.

At first glance, this technology may seem to be somewhere between novelty and something only an engineer would use. Yet imagine a world where you could replace a broken part (on a toy, appliance, or whatever) just by downloading the design into your printer. Right now, low end printers still run around one thousand dollars, but in time the technology will improve and the prices will drop.

A while back, there was even a company that wanted to bring this tech to kids...almost like an Easy Bake oven for 3D printers. I'm not sure what happened to the site, but as of this posting, it still exists.

Other websites such as TinkerCAD are appearing that allow you to do CAD design in your browser.

Why is this significant? It's impressive because it effectively shifts design control to the end user, much like the desktop publishing revolution did years ago. In terms of art, some of the designs out on Thingiverse (and elsewhere) are quite creative.

I've also read that work is being done on creating low-cost plastic shredders that would allow a home user to recycle their plastic bottles for use in their printers. Here are a couple videos here and here that illustrate the state of the industry today and here is a printer production company in case you are interested in acquiring one of these machines.

An intriguing twist on all of this is to have 3D printers replicate themselves. Some of this work can be seen at the RepRap site. I'll cover more about self-replication in a future post, since it applies to several areas at once. In these videos here and here, they give examples of 3-D printers that can replicate their own parts. I have not seen one that can actually assemble itself, however, but progress is being made in that area.

So where will this wave take us? Will large scale manufacturing facilities suddenly disappear? It's doubtful, but this technology will be disruptive in many ways, and there will always be a need for engineers. What may change, however, is the way those needed parts are delivered.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fractal Factories

In my recent research adventures, I've been looking closer at nanotech, fractals, and, as I mentioned a while back, Mars. I'll cover more nano issues in a future post, and I covered some Mars information in a prior entry. On to fractals...

If you are as interested in this field as I am, there are quite a few tutorials and a handful of books out there. There are also some great, well-presented, basic videos here, here, here, and here. Another good starting point is the Nova presentation, "Fractals: Hunting the Hidden Dimension" if you can find it.

The amazing thing about fractal math is that at it's most elemental level, the formulas are relatively simple and based on concept of self-similarity. Where it gets complicated quickly is when those formulas are repeatedly applied.

Fractals have applications in numerous fields and the list is growing everyday. The connections they are finding between this type of math and natural systems is even more impressive. Fractals have been discovered in organ structures (such as the lungs) and in the structure of the circulatory system. Fractals also exist widely in nature, such as in the head of a cauliflower.

One of the interesting applications of all this has been to computer gaming, where mountains, clouds, landscapes, forests, and even planets can be rendered with fractal formulas. The results are often as convincing as the real thing.

So why did I title this post "Fractal Factories"?

Well, one of the more unusual aspects of fractals is the existence of iterated functions and iterated function systems. Essentially, the output of the initial function is fed back into the function. This can go on indefinitely, and some of the results can be visually strange and often stunning. If you have the right software, you could theoretically keep zooming into on a portion of the rendered fractal and it would endlessly reproduce itself. In other words, even if you focused in on a tiny part, it would still resemble the larger whole (self similarity).

Talk about the efficient packaging of information! Like a factory, it can keep on churning out things. Yet, unlike a real world factory, with these types of functions those "things" are copies of itself.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


As promised, here is the first short story from the upcoming collection, "Corridors" in audio form.