Life Imitates Art: Solar Power Paint

Looks like researchers at Notre Dame are well on their way to developing the solar-power paint we mention in In the Shadow of Ares‘Sunbelievable’ Solar Paint Could Power Home Appliances, Scientists Say:

The paint, dubbed “Sunbelievable” by developers at the University of Notre Dame, looks no different from any other paint used to coat home exteriors and other surfaces. But when hit by light, the semiconducting particles within Sunbelievable produce small amounts of electricity that researchers hope they can magnify in great enough amounts to power home appliances, Science Daily reported.

“We want to do something transformative, to move beyond current silicon-based solar technology,” research leader and Notre Dame professor Prashant Kamat said. “By incorporating power-producing nanoparticles, called quantum dots, into a spreadable compound, we’ve made a one-coat solar paint that can be applied to any conductive surface without special equipment.”

Unfortunately the paint is far from ready to be sold commercially, Kamat explained.

“The best light-to-energy conversion efficiency we’ve reached so far is 1 percent, which is well behind the usual 10 to 15 percent efficiency of commercial silicon solar cells,” Kamat said. “But this paint can be made cheaply and in large quantities. If we can improve the efficiency somewhat, we may be able to make a real difference in meeting energy needs in the future.”

The article helpfully points out that a typical household requires 285 square feet of silicon solar panels to supply its power needs at 10-15% efficiency, which means that same house would need around 3000 square feet of Sunbelievable at its current conversion efficiency. Ignoring incidence angles on painted surfaces, etc., that really isn’t an excessively large area for many American houses – especially if roof surfaces can be included.

No Need to “Fall Back” on Mars

If you remembered to set your clocks last night to “fall back” for the return to standard time, then you enjoyed an extra hour of sleep this morning.  ABC News makes some  dubious claims in a recent article, Daylight Savings Time Ends This Weekend, and It’s Healthy:

…many doctors say the return to standard time — and the extra hour of sleep you get in the morning — can be healthy.

Uh, we’re talking about one morning, right?  Or are the authors under the impression that we get an extra hour every morning that standard time is in effect?  Of course, the extra hour in the fall (and the corresponding loss of an hour in the spring) is the function of the switch from one convention to the other, and is not inherent to either.

Personally I prefer daylight savings time, as I find an hour of sunlight more useful in the evening than in the morning.  Who works in the yard or plays catch with the kids at the crack of dawn, versus after work?  My preference would be to go with DST year around.

The article did provide me with an insight for getting the perceived benefits of additional sleep every day, regardless of the timekeeping convention.  According to Steven Feinsilver, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, we have difficulty with the “spring forward” time change due to biology:

…our basic circadian rhythm (the ‘body clock’) actually seems  to be programmed for a longer than 24 hour day.  It runs a little slow.

Every day on Mars (its rotational period) is 24 hours and 37 minutes long.  Sign me up for that.

To Mars and Back…Sorta

The crew of the Mars500 simulation emerged today in Moscow from 520 days of isolation that began June 3, 2010.

Shortly after ‘landing’

The primary purpose of this simulation was to evaluate a variety of physical and mental impacts of a long-duration space exploration mission, such as the 500+ day journey that a crew would have to withstand for a round-trip mission to Mars.  Study elements included issues related to an actual mission, such as communication delays and a simulated schedule:

During the isolation period, the candidates have been simulating all elements of the Mars mission, traveling to Mars, orbiting the planet, landing and return to Earth.

Of course, not all elements; some things are difficult or impossible to simulate, such as weightlessness or cosmic radiation.  But it is interesting to note ESA chose to exclude one obvious factor that we included in the early exploration missions of In the Shadow of Ares.  Apparently ESA doesn’t believe that women should be included in a mission to Mars.

Mobile Agents Arrive on Earth

Readers of In the Shadow of Ares , when viewing commercials for the new Siri application for the iPhone 4S, will likely recognize flashes of “Laura” and “Emily”.  The artificially intelligent characters are Mobile Agents or “MAs”, not much bigger than a cell phone, that serve as much more than communication devices. 

This app brings today’s cell phones a huge step closer to what we envisioned on Mars in the not-too-distant future.  Siri is a voice recognition app that is apparently intelligent enough to not only understand what you say, but to know what you mean:

Talk to Siri as you would to a person.  Say something like “Tell my wife I’m running late.” “Remind me to call the vet.” “Any good burger joints around here?” And Siri answers you.  It does what you say and finds the information you need.  And then it hits you.  You’re actually having a conversation with your iPhone.

Like the MAs we envision, and prototypes being developed to assist in exploration activities, the Siri app recognizes location when it provides restaurant options “around here” or when you ask it to “remind me to make a dentist appointment when I get to work”.  Better yet, it also figures out what other apps to use based on what you are asking it to do.

The End of the Future?

Abandon in Place (detail)
Pay Pal co-founder and hedge fund manager Peter Thiel, whom I previously discussed in this post, asks some important questions in the cover piece “Swift Blind Horsemen” in the October 3 edition of National Review.  Specifically, is the rate of progress slowing, what are the consequences, and what can be done about it?

[T]here is no law that the exceptional rise of the West must continue.  So we could do worse than to inquire into the widely held opinion that America is on the wrong track…to wonder whether Progress is not doing as well as advertised, and perhaps to take exceptional measures to arrest and reverse any decline.

He goes on to make a strong case that progress has slowed, but why does that matter?

The technology slowdown threatens not just our financial markets, but the entire modern political order, which is predicated on easy and relentless growth.  The give-and-take of Western democracies depends on the idea that we can craft political solutions that enable most people to win most of the time.  But in a world without growth, we can expect a loser for every winner.

He wraps it up with musings on what can be done, including the ability of government to jump start innovation, as has been done in the past.  Of course, that’s what we hope to inspire through In the Shadow of Ares, and the forthcoming sequels, and it seems it is needed now more than ever:

Science fiction has collapsed as a literary genre.  Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost.

Mr. Thiel proposes that the Progressive Left is incapable of recognizing that things are getting worse.  Personally, I think it’s more serious than that, in that many in that grouping would openly celebrate a tech slowdown as a good thing.

Finding E-Readers in Unexpected Places

The first time I ever saw an e-reader with my own eyes was in the gatehouse at O’Hare around Thanksgiving 2009. I attended a friend’s wedding a couple weeks ago, and was surprised and amused that the minister was conducting the ceremony using her Kindle DX:

Technology evolves quickly, and sometimes even the most traditional institutions evolve right along with it. You can almost imagine the minister’s grandchild someday using a (sacred?) scroll screen linked to her MA…

The End, or a New Beginning?

NASA has posted the following image of the return of the Space Shuttle Atlantis to Earth earlier this week:

Taken from the International Space Station, it’s a unique view of the craft’s fiery re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere.  Soon thereafter, Texas Governor (and likely presidential candidate) Rick Perry issued a strong statement that included the following:

Unfortunately, with the final landing of the Shuttle Atlantis and no indication of plans for future missions, this administration has set a significantly different milestone by shutting down our nation’s legacy of leadership in human spaceflight and exploration, leaving American astronauts with no alternative but to hitchhike into space.

Though it’s not just the Obama Administration.  There has been a lack of leadership in space policy since the end of the Apollo era.  The next few years will reveal the success (or failure) of efforts to shift the emphasis to the private sector.  While I do see the merits of such a move, I don’t foresee the economic incentives necessary for the private sector to reach Mars in my lifetime.  That’s profoundly disappointing.

On the other hand, I don’t trust NASA to manage such an effort within the austere limits the US Government will have to abide by for the foreseeable future.  So is there an alternative?  How about financial incentives for (American) private companies to meet milestones that get us progressively closer to the red planet?  Think a scaled-up version of the Ansari X Prize.  It’s not a new idea, but maybe one whose time has come.  Lots of private money going to work, with much lower risk and cost to the taxpayer.  What’s not to like?

Inspiration From Real-Life Experience

Somehow, somewhere, I lost my Blackberry yesterday.

Yes, of course, I did all the usual things to try to find it: searched high and low, called it using the land line, rooted around under the seat in the car. But it was no use, it went missing somewhere between Conifer and Five Points (north of downtown Denver) and isn’t coming back. When I mentioned this to Carl, it prompted us to wonder what would happen if someone similarly misplaced their MA? How might we use this as a story element, if a character had a habit of doing so?

In our fictional universe, MAs are vital pieces of personal equipment. More important than a mere cellphone and more powerful than even today’s smartphones, they serve a number of communications, information access, computation, organization, navigation, and safety functions. To someone who had grown up using an MA and had woven instant access to these functions into his daily routine, losing his MA would be akin to losing a part of his brain. It would be much more disruptive than what we experience today when (as also happened to me about two weeks ago) we lose internet service for a few days – in such instances we find other things to do, or other ways to accomplish what we would have done on the internet. But forty years from now, when our lives will be still more integrated with our information systems, this may be difficult or impossible. Loss of connectivity will be much more disruptive.

And not only disruptive, but potentially dangerous. If one loses his MA entirely (not merely its connection to information infrastructure), he loses the safety features built into it. On our Mars of 2051, this means that he may have no knowledge of current air composition or radiation conditions, for example, information which could have life-or-death importance at any time. As we showed in In the Shadow of Ares, this isn’t an idle concern. Amber and Grantham face the inconveniences and dangers associated with losing connectivity and with losing their MAs at different points in the story.

This is an issue you may see arise in the sequels…

Life Imitates Art: Smart Goggles

Something akin to what we use in In the Shadow of Ares as part of the telepresence control system made its appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show this past week:

The Android-powered micro-LED screen in these goggles turns average skiers into cyborgs, displaying everything from GPS-enabled trail maps to your current speed and altitude. If that’s not cool enough, it can sync with Bluetooth compatible devices, creating an in-goggle viewfinder for a camera, or display songs or incoming calls.

No word yet on whether they’ll be useful in controlling swarms of semi-autonomous mining robots.

Life Imitates Art: Portable DNA Sequencers

FuturePundit points to a NYT article describing something very similar to a piece of technology readers might recognize from the Oasis scene of In the Shadow of AresTaking DNA Sequencing to the Masses:

Dr. Rothberg is the founder of Ion Torrent, which last month began selling a sequencer it calls the Personal Genome Machine. While most sequencers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are at least the size of small refrigerators, this machine sells for just under $50,000 and is the size of a largish desktop printer.

While not intended for the general public, the machine could expand the use of DNA sequencing from specialized centers to smaller university and industrial labs, and into hospitals and doctors’ offices, helping make DNA sequencing a standard part of medical practice…

Rather than culturing a bug to identify what is infecting a patient, for instance, a hospital might determine its DNA sequence. Massachusetts General Hospital is already sequencing 130 genes from patient tumor samples, looking for mutations that might predict which drugs will work best. It has won an Ion Torrent machine in a contest and hopes to put it to that use…

While most experts agree that sequencing will become commonplace in medicine, some say they think Dr. Rothberg is overselling his machine. Like the early Apple II of Mr. Jobs, it is too puny for many tasks, including sequencing the entire genome of a person…

Dr. Rothberg acknowledged that the existing model was good for sequencing a virus or bacterium or a handful of genes, and indicated that future models would be more powerful.

Indeed. Just imagine what forty more years of technological evolution might do to this device, in terms of cost, power, speed, and size.