Accessibility links

Our World — 8 March 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... revolutionary emerging technologies ... the true value of a placebo ... and the "criminogenic" attributes of iPods ...

ROMAN: "This is an object...that sends a signal to would-be robbers that I'm carrying something very expensive. It is something that if they take from your person is very easy for them to reuse or resell. And you are tuned out."

iPods and crime ... and a clock that'll be right on time, 200 million years from now. I'm Rob Sivak, sitting in for Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Technology Review, the magazine published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — M.I.T — is out with its March–April issue and their annual review of 10 emerging technologies we should keep our eyes on. Our World's regular host Art Chimes reached senior editor Erika Jonietz on the phone to talk about the review, starting with the meaning of the term "emerging technologies."

JONIETZ: "When we say emerging technologies, we mean those fields and applications that are still mainly in research labs but are making their way out of the labs and into the marketplace and into our lives."

CHIMES: We don't have time to do all 10, but let's start with a few of them anyway. Where do you want to start?

JONIETZ: "I think a really good place to start would be talking about a new technology called reality mining."

CHIMES: What is that?

JONIETZ: "Well, cell phones are pretty ubiquitous these days. And these days they also have positioning sensors in them. A lot of them increasingly have little sensors called accelerometers that tell you when you're moving, how you're moving. And using all these new sensors, scientists can collect a great deal of data and then analyze that to learn a lot about not only how we use the phone, but even things like our health status. For instance, if your phone stays still for several days in a row, that may mean that you're at home, sick."

CHIMES: Does this have a lot of privacy considerations as well?

JONIETZ: "Absolutely, it does have privacy implications. And the researchers that are working on it — at least the researchers that we've chose to highlight, Sandy Pentland at MIT's Media Lab — is very concerned about this issue. And his take on it is that because the technology is moving so quickly, we need to start talking about those kinds of issues now."

CHIMES: You mentioned earlier that there was some research being done along these lines at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. Can you tell me about that?

JONIETZ: "Yes. A former student of Professor Pentland's named Nathan Eagle recently completed a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Nairobi. He was working with a lot of his students there on reality mining. They demonstrated in particular a pretty cool security application. They discovered when the usage patterns of a particular phone changed drastically, it indicates that the phone has either been lost or stolen. And his students at the University of Nairobi were able to develop algorithms that could determine within 24 hours whether a phone was being used by someone other than its owner."

Erika Jonietz also told Art about a promising new way of developing enzymes that can make ethanol by breaking down the plant material known as cellulose. It could lead the way to using a variety of non-food plants to make fuel that can replace petroleum.

JONIETZ: "Cellulose is basically the starchy component in any plant. If you're looking at the stalk or the leaf of a plant, most of that is comprised of cellulose. And that's just a big, complicated polymer of sugar molecules, but there's not a really good way right now to break those sugar molecules free so that we can make ethanol out of them. Frances Arnold at Caltech is doing some really cool work in creating enzymes that can do that a lot more efficiently. She is using a technique that she pioneered, directed evolution, where she mutates enzymes randomly and then tests them to see which ones are the most effective. And then she takes those more effective enzymes and mutates them again and again and again in order to create something that works hopefully several hundred-fold better than the original enzyme."

CHIMES: So it's sort of using a natural approach but giving nature a little helping hand?

JONIETZ: "Exactly. She's giving nature an excellent boost."

CHIMES: Well, let's go on to probabilistic chips. Now I have to admit, when I read this, this sounded totally wrong and counterintuitive. If I've got the basics, it's better computing through less accurate processors.

JONIETZ: "When you think about it, we do use a lot of software compression technology already in order to transmit video over the Internet, in our iPods. So Krishna Palem at Rice University thinks that by trading off a little bit of accuracy, by figuring out the probability of a specific size of error, we can save a lot of power in a chip. The way computer chips basically work is that these little, tiny switches — the transistors in them — flip back and forth between 1s and 0s. In order to get a transistor to accurately register a 1 or a 0 takes quite a lot of voltage. If you let a transistor occasionally register a 0 instead of a 1, you can use a much lower voltage to run the chip. You could increase battery life in, say, your cell phone or your laptop computer by up to ten times."

CHIMES: That's a pretty dramatic increase.

JONIETZ: "One example that he gave me is a researcher working in India on cervical cancer screening. He has to use a laptop to do this, and in a lot of these villages there are no electrical power supplies. To do the screening he's actually using pattern-matching algorithms, and these algorithms by definition are probabilistic. So the software, right now, runs these probabilistic algorithms that introduce little bits of error into it in order to run the program very quickly. That could be done in hardware with Palem's technology, and this guy could potentially stay out, driving around in India for a month as opposed to just a week."

Technology Review magazine senior editor Erika Jonietz. You can learn more about these and the other emerging technologies we didn't have time to discuss — things like wireless power transmission and microscopic radios — at TechnologyReview.com, or get the link from our site, VOANews.com/ourworld.

Have you ever noticed how your expectations can change the way you experience the world? If you think it will be a good day, you might see everything that happens to be good. But if you expect a bad day — everything might seem terrible. Could your expectations affect how well a medication works, as well? Rose Hoban has the answer:

HOBAN: Economist Dan Ariely's a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Years ago, he was seriously burned, and spent months in the hospital getting treatment. He says he knows that on occasion, he and the other patients received placebos — or fake medications — to relieve their pain.

Ariely says scientists know something about how placebo pain medications work.

ARIELY: "When you expect to get pain relief from an injection from a physician, we secrete substance within ourselves, which is basically like morphine. So, we have these substances inside of us, we just can't close our eyes and say 'please, please, can I have some morphine?' But the moment that the physician gives you an injection, and you think it's a pain relief, you secrete these substances. So you actually get pain relief, it just doesn't come from the injection, it comes from our own minds."

HOBAN: Ariely wanted to see if knowledge about price might affect how well a placebo would work. He recruited about 90 subjects for a study, and told them they would be testing a new pain medication. He gave the subjects small electric shocks on the wrist and asked them about their pain. Then Ariely gave them a pill he said was a new pain medication, along with information about how much it supposedly cost.

ARIELY: "Some people they got the brochure that described the pill as being 'full priced,' $2.50, and to other people, we described it as 'deeply discounted,' being ten cents per pill. And what we wanted to measure was whether this discount actually modulated people's expectations and whether these expectations actually made the pill less effective."

HOBAN: And that's what Ariely found. When people got the supposedly expensive pill, they described getting more relief than when they got the cheap one.

ARIELY: "We also found, by the way, we took some individual pain history and we found that this effect was particularly strong for people who had more experience with recent pain, [who] actually experienced more pain recently."

HOBAN: Ariely says the next thing he wants to study is whether price affects how often patients take their medications. He says economists already know that patients scrimp on taking expensive medicines, so it lasts longer. But he wonders if patients also skip medications that are too cheap.

Ariely's research is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. I'm Rose Hoban.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

WILHELM: "Instructables is a place where people share the things they do and how they do it. We call it the world's biggest show-and-tell. Users share and show off the projects that they've built, the things that they've created, and they build a community around that and discuss things and inspire each other."

Eric Wilhelm is the founder of Instructables.com, a website where thousands of contributors have posted instructions on doing an unimaginably wide range of tasks.

WILHELM: "There's around 10,000 projects. There's art and craft and food and photography, tech projects, ride — which is bikes and cars — home projects, green projects for making your life greener, offbeat projects. All sorts of things from home repair to taxidermy."

The projects recently featured on Instructables' homepage include making earrings out of old bits of electronic circuit board, ferment-it-yourself Kombucha tea, and a home-built burglar alarm system using lasers that looks like it came out of a Hollywood movie.

But Wilhelm says Instructables is about more than just making things ...

WILHELM: "The thing that I love is when someone puts a project up and they then make connections with other people that they would otherwise have not made. So, for example, you show how to make a chair or some specific woodworking tutorial. And then, a local college or something connects with you and says, 'Hey, would you like to come teach a class on this technique in our design school or something?' Those types of connections are happening all the time to people who post stuff on Instructables. and that's really what I want to have happening. I want to have people sharing what they do and then impacting others and making connections. They're all just in the community building things and helping each other out. So it's really a great place."

Become part of the "instructables community" and learn how to create almost anything imaginable — or unimaginable, at instructables.com — or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

It's VOA's home-built science and technology program, Our World. I'm Rob Sivak in Washington.

After years of decline, violent crime in the U.S. started moving upward again around 2005, and some experts think they know at least part of the reason why.

Several factors are probably at work, including a shift in policing toward anti-terrorism, but researcher John Roman says it's not a coincidence that crime rates rose just as Apple's iPod portable audio player surged in popularity, going from around four million to 90 million in use in just a couple of years — the same years that the number of robberies rose.

ROMAN: "And so this really neatly explains the pattern of facts. It's ubiquitous enough that it could explain a large increase in mugging. The timing is right. And the characteristics of the iPod really makes sense to explain mugging in particular because this is an object that you wear, that sends a signal to would-be robbers that I'm carrying something very expensive. It is something that if they take from your person is very easy for them to reuse or resell. And you are tuned out. You don't know they're coming."

John Roman studies criminal justice matters at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, which sponsored a forum this week on the link between violent crime and personal technology. In a paper set to be published in the American Criminal Law Review he labels the iPod and similar portable audio players as "criminogenic" — actually prompting crime, the way expensive, high-status basketball sneakers were a decade or two ago.

WEXLER: "I read his article and I thought to myself, you know this is a very plausible explanation."

Chuck Wexler heads the Police Executive Research Forum, whose members include the heads of law enforcement agencies and departments in the United States and around the world.

WEXLER: "And interestingly, it's not simply the device that is so valuable, it's the songs on the device. You can have a device that's worth $4,000 or $5,000 because you have — I should ask my son this. He knows more about this than me."

So what can be done to protect iPods and other 'hot' personal technology? Steve Wildstrom, author of Business Week's Technology and You column, says manufacturers are not going to change their products to make them less desirable for criminals.

WILDSTROM: "The same thing that makes them attractive to criminals is what makes them attractive to the market. So in a sense they have an incentive to design products that are attractive both to legitimate buyers and to people who might want to steal them."

The best advice for consumers who want to avoid iPod crime might be the oldest advice about the market - buyer beware of those who covet your iPod!

NASA is set to launch the Space Shuttle Endeavour next week on a 16-day construction mission to the International Space Station.

The astronauts will install the first part of the Japanese Space Agency's Kibo science laboratory and test a heat shield repair technique on the shuttle itself.

On the space station they'll be installing a robot arm called DEXTRE designed to perform maintenance tasks that are now done by astronauts. Initially the device will be operated by astronauts on board the space station, though eventually it could be run by controllers on the ground.

At a briefing this week, project engineer Daniel Rey of the Canadian Space Agency, which developed the robot arm, was asked how DEXTRE's capabilities compare with those of human space workers.

REY: "There's a lot of things that a human can do that DEXTRE cannot do. It doesn't really have fingers. It has a very strong central gripper that can only deal with certain types of interfaces, so that's where the special in Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator comes from. To answer your question about what it can do better, well it's sitting out there in the harsh environment of space all the time, basically ready to go as soon as the ground crew can put it into action. It's an operational robot that is pushing the limits of what we can do in space today with robotics. It's got millimeter-level precision. I think the crew probably has that as well. So it's quite delicate. The ground can do certain operations and we're evolving towards being able to do an end-to-end task from the ground. You don't want the crew doing maintenance, even with a robot, on orbit. They have science to do. They would rather be doing that science, I believe, than changing out batteries or RPCMs."

RPCM's are Remote Power Controller Modules, another service item that they don't want to have to bother astronauts with.

Using the DEXTRE robot arm also should be safer than sending astronauts out on space walks.

Space shuttle Endeavour is set to blast off on Tuesday in one of those spectacular nighttime launches.

Music: Chicago — Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

There will be a lot of Americans who don't know what time it is this weekend, as the nation 'springs forward' one hour for Daylight Saving Time. Those who forget to change their clocks will show up for Sunday appointments one hour late ... or maybe it's one hour early...

In any case, if you like to be on time, take a minute and listen in:

Scientists at the University of Colorado in Boulder, working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, have created a clock that's accurate to within one second in 200 million years. That's twice as accurate as the current official time clock used for the United States, which in turn, contributes to the precision of official world time. Up next, Shelley Schlender visits the laboratory where the new clock is ticking.

SCHLENDER: At a shop full of grandfather clocks, each one chimes at a different time. That's because, minute by minute, week by week, most timekeeping devices become a little bit off.

But in our fast-paced world, many applications need more accuracy. And in a laboratory at the University of Colorado, physics professor Jun Ye says that his team's new experimental clock may become one of the best. That's because it ticks zillions of times faster than a grandfather clock. It's even more precise than the official U.S. standard clock — a sophisticated atomic timepiece that is accurate to within one second every 80 million years. Ye says that the new clock is more than twice as accurate because it ticks faster.

YE: "It's a general principal that when you're making a clock, you want the underlying oscillation to be as fast as you can because that allows you to check out mistakes much quicker."

SCHLENDER: How fast is an oscillation? Well, a grandfather clock goes tick-tock around once a second. The most accurate clocks in use today count the natural ticking inside an atom that comes from energy jumping back and forth … billions of times every second. Physicist Andrew Ludlow, who's working with Jun Ye, says that his team's new clock also counts on an atom.

LUDLOW: "The atom, much like a pendulum in a grandfather clock, it's swinging back and forth, the grandfather clock is counting how that swinging that happening, and that's ultimately what's keeping track of time, is that pendulum inside the grandfather clock. In the same way, the atom has a natural oscillation frequency. We're looking to count those oscillations, to see how that atom is evolving, and that ultimately is the clock."

SCHLENDER: What's different about this new clock, Ludlow says, is what it uses to count the oscillations. One of the most accurate clocks in use today is the U.S. standard clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder. It relies on bursts of microwave radiation to do the counting. But while those microwaves ripple incredibly fast, they miss a bunch of ticks. Ludlow says the new, experimental clock uses something that oscillates even faster, and catches more ticks: laser light.

To run this super-high precision clock takes an incredible amount of equipment. In the lab are four tables, each the size of a small truck, covered with wires, vacuum pumps, lasers, mirrors, metal boxes and magnifying glasses. Andrew Ludlow says that's to be expected:

LUDLOW: "We're not looking to put this on our wrist anytime soon."

SCHLENDER: But the world's first computers filled an entire room, and now some computer devices do fit on your wrist. So Ludlow says that someday, this enormous clock will be smaller… but its impact on society will be big. He predicts that more accurate clocks will improve wireless communication and navigation systems here on earth, and in spacecraft that will explore other worlds.

For Our World, I'm Shelley Schlender in Boulder, Colorado.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to to get in touch, email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Faith Lapidus edited the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. I'm Rob Sivak, sitting in for Art Chimes, and inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio each Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology ... in Our World.

XS
SM
MD
LG