Petrolheads and pistonheads, make way for electrode-heads

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Pop the bonnet on a Nissan Leaf, a Renault Zoe or a Tesla Model S, and you wont find any carburettors, plugs, sumps or turbochargers. No, these are fully electric cars without a piston in sight.

You can still talk torque and effuse efficiency, but you can’t discuss displacement or exclaim over chrome exhaust manifolds. But the electric vehicle industry is certainly breeding equally enthusiastic proponents who will wax lyrical about range, cost of ownership, and electric charging networks.

Oddly enough, the UK used to have fleets of electric vehicles roaming the streets early each morning almost half a century ago. These were milk floats, whispering around neighbourhoods on defined rounds before breakfast, returning to be plugged in each day ahead of the next trip. Their Achilles’ heal was the lead acid car battery that was needed in sizeable arrays that added weight, cost and range anxiety.

Today, the new breed of electric vehicle have replaced lead for lithium; a considerable weight saving, an improved energy density, and a better form factor. But still electric vehicles take time to charge, have a limited range, and come at a price.

Yet the advantages are also plain to see. The mechanics are much simpler with motors on each axle or wheel hub, thus dispensing with gearboxes, engines, differentials and exhaust systems. No more engine oil changes, no more oil filter changes, and significantly reduced brake disk wear as much of the stopping can be done regeneratively using the motor as a dynamo with its integral resistance to rotation.

Having recently attended the unveiling of the Tesla Model X in Birmingham, and travelled there as a passenger in a Model S, I have to say the real excitement with electric cars is the paradigm shift in how new arrivals in the automotive industry are turning the concept of motoring on its head. The idea that your car is an extension of your world of mobile apps, basically another Thing of the Internet, is intriguing. We’re starting to see integrated navigation with your calendar of meeting appointments, the ability to have a defrosted and warmed car autonomously prepped at your front door as you step out to leave, and the a system that receives updates, tweaks, improvements on your driveway without the need for costly product recalls.

Eventually it may only be fanatics that own cars; the rest of us will simply treat them as rentable pods that arrive on demand, drop us at out destination, and disappear off to recharge and transport someone else.  Of course, cars don’t need to be electric to do this, but the change of mindset around range, charging and cost models is driving innovation in how we will own and use vehicles. Tesla may be the vanguard at the moment, but expect Apple, Google and Microsoft to be in this space soon too; electric cars will just be hardware accessories built around software applications rather like an office printer or mouse.

In the future, the electric vehicle power plant may well be a lithium battery, a hydrogen fuel cell, or a biofuel jet generator. Pop the bonnet and you might catch sight of a gold plated cathode or a silver coated anode. Polished and pimped, this will herald the age of the electrode heads…

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

 

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Jumping from silicon to carbon

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The artificial technology-based world that we have created around us contains a lot of silicon. Our computers, smart phones, cars, planes, medical devices, power stations, and infrastructure networks all rely on silicon chips to process o’s and 1’s, and transistor-adorned central processing units are at the nucleus of every electronic device we deploy.

But this may be about to change. Our natural world is based on an element one level above in the periodic table; carbon. Life is built not on silicon wafers, but around carbon chains. DNA molecules define the form and function of organisms large and small, and this is a very different approach to the electronic technology we invented and developed over the last few decades.

Our silicon-based computational tools have been allowing us to analyse and decode carbon-based life for years, but only now are we starting to understand what might be needed, as a minimum, to create an autonomous organic device we term life. A recent news report outlined progress with creating a synthetic bug using what seems to be a minimum number of genes; 473 to be precise.

This is a leap beyond genetic modification because it is about creating a life form from the ground up rather than simply adjusting something that already exists. We still don’t understand the full function and scope of each of the genes, but it wont be long before we do.  And then it will be possible to create libraries of building-block genes rather like we create libraries of computer code modules, so that before long we’ll have a programming language, compiler system and developer kits to create and prescribe forms of life itself.

This will almost certainly have much in common with how the silicon-based computer industry developed. There will be organic devices that perform new functions rather like the calculator and digital watch did in the early days of silicon. These will grow in complexity and value as we develop our knowledge around the systems. And our present day silicon devices will start to look as outdated as thermionic valve technology did when silicon wafers started to emerge. But don’t expect equivalent devices; an organic timepiece is not an appropriate use of this new carbon-based technology, whereas a swarm of bee-like reconnaissance drones may well be.

A major difference, however, is around self-replication. Silicon chips do not reproduce, but life has a habit of being able to do so. On the right substrate, simple organisms like bacteria can quickly generate a colony, and more complicated life creates seeds, spores, and eggs. It is a key requisite of life that it should be able to create younger selves.  So expect our drones, our algae-based batteries, and our leafy photosynthetic solar cell roof tiles to grow, replicate and die; and more interestingly to adapt in Darwinian fashion. No longer will we have centralised factories or vast landfills. Instead, our devices will grow in-situ and we’ll throw them on the compost heap when they have completed their life cycle. And we’ll use their children and their children’s children to provide an on-going service.

This really is going to be a dramatic change to the way we live. It will throw us enormous challenges and probably provide serendipitous solutions. We will need to be careful that we don’t create a species of a device that acts as a predictor on something else we value, as they will almost certainly need to feed on something. Then again, one company may adopt this approach as a way to see off competition! But, equally something like our reconnaissance drones could also provide a pollination service as they go about their surveillance work. Honey may even be a by-product!  These carbon-based devices may also photosynthesise and help capture carbon, reducing global warming as a by product of their use. We may even legislate it as a prerequisite for any new such device on the market.

Our landscape around us will change. Life that has taken millennia to evolve on our planet will co-habit with life we seed in the laboratory. Oaks will stand alongside trees designed to behave as wind harnessing ‘turbines’, fields of pasture will butt up against plantations of device seedlings, and oceans will have shoals of fish that we designed to seek out mineral deposits for the few remaining electronic devices we still need.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

 

 

 

 

 

Cyborg Security & Embeddables

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Perhaps surprisingly, we as humans haven’t gone down the road of embedding much technology in ourselves yet. Where we do, it tends to be for medical reasons, with many of these applications being passive technologies like hip replacements, stents, traction pins, etc.

Artificial hearts and pacemakers are good examples of embedded active technologies, and these are certainly becoming more sophisticated as they can be monitored and controlled externally. And this has just started to raise people’s fears about the security of Medtech; could someone hack the implant and control the device independently?  Can people read my health data and violate my privacy?

A few high profile research cases have embedded other non-medical objects in humans. Like pets with RFID identity tags implanted, so too have humans tried this out.  Professor Kevin Warwick’s team at Reading University investigated this, with Kevin having an RFID chip embedded under his skin that allowed him to open his laboratory door without the need of a separate keycard. He and his team did a lot more since.

Well over a decade ago a pioneering nightclub in Barcelona allowed partygoers to pay for their drinks with an embedded microchip in their arm.  But there haven’t been many cases of this approach being adopted.  You don’t see Londoners using embedded Oyster Cards to travel the Tube.  You don’t see people with Contactless credit cards embedded in their fingertip to pay for their M&S goods. You don’t see skiers with their ski pass embedded in a limb.

Indeed, wearables or WearableTech are the current fashion.  People have Fitbits and GoPros strapped to their body parts; Google Glass was a relatively short lived accessory which may come round again as some kind of contact lens, and the mobile phone and smart watches are the ubiquitous tech about our bodies.

Bodyhacking or biohacking is the term given to hobby cyborgs that are experimenting at the in vivo technology frontier. People have embedded magnets in their fingertips and gained a ‘sixth sense’ in which they can feel the vibrations from a nearby electromagnetic field. The aforementioned Kevin Warwick has had microneedle chip arrays embedded in his arm to provide an interface with his nervous system. And Neil Harbisson embedded an antenna-like sensor through his skull and into his brain to help him overcome his colourblindness and ‘hear’ colours.

And this really is just the beginning because the next (un?!)natural step must surely be to take all our wearable tech and turn it into embeddable tech. The advantages will be many; the body could ‘feed’ the device with energy (heat if nothing else) and obviate the need for a battery. The nervous system could be used to interface with our visual cortex and dispense with the LCD display. The same approach could connect to the cochlear nerve and we’d hear the phone ring or the iTunes track without the need of a loud speaker or headphones; and no one else would be disturbed either.

Get this embedded interface right with our existing nervous system, and there will be many more ways to exploit sensors to help us navigate and communicate. We’ll have embedded GPS, embedded Wifi, embedded 4G, and our bodies will join the Internet of Things; think Internet of Beings.

I wrote an earlier piece about Cerebral Security highlighting that all we know about the issues of cyber security will multiply once we start directly interfacing with our brain.  But if our entire body starts to accommodate embeddables, then we’re going to need to think about Cyborg Security.

People’s appendages could start to house very valuable devices that generate even more valuable data.  Its not just the ability to pay with a finger, or know where someone is because the chip is now within their arm, but it is also about health and status information being generated.  Your internal systems will be streaming data like the telemetry from a rocket ship, and people around you may try to intercept it.  If they knew you were hungry, they could sell you a snack.  Feeling thirsty; can I sell you a drink?  Feeling tired? then you might be a target worth abducting because you wouldn’t have the energy to defend yourself.

Given this you’ll also need to invest in other cyborg accessories; radar and infrared devices that can detect stalkers sneaking up behind you, bionic muscle-boosting devices that pack a heavier punch for improved defence, and exoskeletons that enable you to flee quicker.

As you can see, this will be disruptive technology that will make many of today’s must-have devices obsolete and open up vast new markets where we’ll feel compelled to spend money and keep an even closer eye on our security and privacy.  Perhaps someone will create a third eye embeddable just for that task.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Cerebral Security & Big Big Data

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Not a day goes by without news of a compromised website, a leakage of passwords, a loss of credit-card data, or a concern that someone has taken control of an online account. Cyber security and the associated issue of personal privacy are a scourge of modern times brought on by us humans relying on the connected world to live our lives; whether that’s to manage our finances, do the shopping, communicate with friends, or grow a business. Pretty much everything we do, and even more so for the younger generation, involves digital data that can be leaked, eaves-dropped, harvested, or sold.

I suspect, however, things may be about to get a whole lot worse over the next decade! At the moment our brains are off-limits; they host our private memories, thoughts and intentions without others being able to interfere. The only clues are what we display with our emotions and choose to disseminate with our words and actions. And within each of our brains is a lot of data; this is big big data, typically a memory of about a million gigabytes each!

How different the world will be when we can interface directly with our brain, controlling things telepathically by merely thinking of the action. As with all innovations, there will be plenty of benefits; people with disabilities and illness will gain more control over their lives and daily tasks could be completed hands-free and efficiently from a distance. There is plenty of research going on at the moment to this end; already it is possible to control external objects with brainwaves, its just that that the range of commands is rather limited and requires a fair bit of training and concentration to do repeatedly and accurately.

This will change, and one day it will be possible to download memories as both stills (like photographs) and sequences (like videos). It will be possible to back-up our personal memory bank so that learned facts, figures and insights are not forgotten over time, and then eventually it will be possible to upload data to augment your memory with new catalogues of information.

Soon we’ll be into the realms of cerebral security. People around you may try to access your brain to see what you are really thinking about them, the police and security services will want to monitor your past actions and future intentions, criminals will want to know things with which to blackmail you or second-guess you, and terrorists may try to gain control of you so that you can perform actions on their behalf. Suddenly, the brain will be susceptible to new forms of viruses; hybrids of the biological and the computational.

Somehow we’ll have to rush to develop the equivalent of passwords, firewalls and anti-virus scans for our brain. There will be a need for memory back-up and data recovery (read personality recovery). This will be a whole new and exciting industry bridging the gap between biochemistry, neurology and the IT industry.

The difference between a neurone and a silicon transistor will be greyed, the keyboard and mouse will be no more, and things like smart phones, monitors and televisions will be replaced by direct interfaces to the retinal receptors of our brains.  You will be both a source and a sink for direct data transfer. Google will collect street views from your own eyes, Amazon will ship on one-blink orders, and Facebook will become Brainbook as your timeline is thought-after-thought-after thought…

Deep breath.

On Friday 9th October 2015 we discuss cyber security and big data at the Malvern Festival of Innovation. Will we be considering cerebral security and big big data at the same Festival in October 2025? Probably, and there will be no need for you to attend; we’ll just beam it all straight to you whilst you are sleeping and extract a quick user survey to see what you thought of it all afterwards!

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Social Media or Social Tedia?

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As we race towards the next edition of the Malvern Festival of Innovation, we are stepping up our social media engagement to help market the event as widely as possible. Today this activity is a necessary part any campaign, and as all business owners will know, the spectrum of platforms available is daunting. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Blogger, What’s App, Instagram, Flickr, MailChimp, to name but a few of the more well known ones.  Each has its nuances, each its own demographic, and each its own acceptable (n)etiquette.

Moreover, campaigns are no longer the monologue of a billboard or flier. They are two-way conversations in which the target audience responds, interacts and engages.  This is a 24-7 activity requiring the stamina of a marathon runner to stay the course, the agility of a sprinter to respond quickly, and frankly the skills of a decathlete to navigate across all the platforms.

Just last week Facebook reported that it had over 1 billion users on line in a single day.  That’s a significant proportion of the world’s population; especially when you remember that the global population must include some people who are very young, some who are very old, and some who are living in really quite remote and undeveloped areas of our planet.

Is it therefore all getting too much? Has innovation in this space finally surpassed the human brain’s ability to cope with all this activity? And as was indicated in a BBC news piece this week, its not so much that we are just overloaded, but rather that we are addicted to all the stimulation and won’t switch off.

The good news is that at some point someone will come up with a new idea that eases the situation again for us all. Until that happens, your sanity may only be saved by pressing the off button and relishing the short-lived silence before switching it all back on again so you don’t miss something important.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Innovation can sometimes cause a stir…

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The last few weeks have seen residents of Malvern, the home of the Festival of Innovation, gripped by a divisive proposal; that of building a cable car from the town of Great Malvern up the steep slopes of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to the highest point in Worcestershire.

Those for the scheme cite the economic benefits that such an infrastructure project would bring to the town. It might provide a new activity for tourists, it would facilitate access for all onto the Hills, and it would create jobs and spin-off opportunities. Those against fear a ruining of unspoilt vistas, damage to wildlife and the creep of other buildings onto the Hills, an area protected by a unique historic Act of the UK Parliament.

Not to be drawn one way or another, this debate highlights one key aspect of innovation: that of change. Change is always met with resistance as it upsets the status quo. People have things to gain and to lose; the balance of power shifts, and the real outcome is generally unpredictable. Disruptive innovation, be it an idea, a concept, a device or a process, creates antagonism and concern. It also creates opportunities.

Sometimes, proposed solutions to problems can lead to other more compelling ideas.  To me the idea of a cable car per se is not particularly creative, as it has been done before in many places, and the aerial structures they require can be rather ugly. As an example, one alternative suggestion has been made from residents to reintroduce donkey rides up the Hills; these are a green form of transport and have a quirkiness about them that sits well in the town!  A bit retrograde, however.

So I think we can do better still. What about trialling a fleet of green all-electric (or hydrogen fuel cell) autonomous vehicle that does not require a cable in the first place? Despite the wilderness, the Malvern Hills are unusual because there is actually a narrow tarmac track via a shallower inclined route to the summit. It would make a great rural testbed for the technology that is now being trialled in some of our major cities.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

BBC reports the plans for a cable car in Malvern, and then shortly afterwards their dismissal!

Smart Cities: Smart States: Smart Nations

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Innovating Together for the 21st Century was the subject of a UK / Singapore event today in Central London, and despite the rhetoric and back-patting from both sides about past creativity and success, this is actually likely to be a programme that will yield good results in the future.

And the reason is that Singapore is a very technologically progressive nation; and one for which I have strong affinity and a high regard. I lived and worked there for five years and was able to start, grow and exit a high technology company within that timeframe. My microcosm of activity stress-tested its research and development capability, its start-up mentality, its business support infrastructure, its logistics, its connectivity, and its resilience to global issues (SARS and economic meltdown in the western world, to name but two). And it all worked well for me. Of course there were frustrations, but there were also great rewards realised and strong friendships created.

That experience happened between 2002 and 2007, and although the term hadn’t really been coined, Singapore was a pretty smart city even back then. I travelled with an RFID card (like London’s Oyster card of today) seamlessly on both buses and the underground, traffic lights were fitted with LEDs to reduce energy consumption, the electronic road pricing (ERP) system reduced city centre traffic jams, wi-fi was free (and fast) at Changi airport, libraries and many fast food outlets, and taxis had seat-back displays giving you information as you travelled. And when SARS struck, free digital thermometers were distributed widely and body temperature was recorded and uploaded across the island.

But interestingly at the event today, a major panel discussion centred on smart cities and Singapore’s aspiration to be not just a smart city, but a smart nation; and probably the first. Of course, this is semantics, because Singapore is a city state, so by definition if its city is smart, so is its nation.

But actually there is a real challenge in this ambition, because being a smart nation needs to embrace more than just the city infrastructure. It needs to include national policy, diverse public services, education, employment, entertainment, tourism, retirement, and healthcare across the country.

And although being contained in a city has its advantages, it is also a great opportunity to reap the benefits. Today, being smart involves much more than I witnessed a decade ago. It needs energy supply, water supply, air quality, movement of people, movement of vehicles, supply of food, deployment of security, scheduling of entertainment and so on to be monitored, controlled and optimised in real-time against data models and in-field feedback.

Steve Leonard of Singapore’s Infocomm Development Agency (IDA) summed it up well: connecting everything and everyone all the time! The ramifications are enormous. Huge data, huge insights, huge efficiencies and a huge competitive edge.

And in Singapore where everyone lives on top of each other and there has arguably been a kind of “benevolent dictatorship”, privacy is not seen as such a big deal as it is to us in the west. Whether this is morally right of wrong is another debate, but the point is that culturally Singapore is primed to embrace being a truly smart nation and many of the barriers we see in the UK are not so high in Singapore. As Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise explained in her talk: Singaporeans are a very pragmatic people.

So the UK would do well to collaborate on this ambition with Singapore as it could learn a lot, test a lot, and probably bring its own cities up to speed in smartness more quickly than it would in isolation.

The challenge for the UK is actually the part of being a smart nation. Firstly, there is more to the UK than London. Secondly, there is more to the UK than a dozen or so large cities. We have huge swathes of rural countryside with small towns and villages where even broadband is absent. Living in Malvern, I know all to well how being rural can put the brakes on growth and development. But significant things do happen in Malvern and we need to be part of the smart infrastructure too. Moreover, there are lots of other rural spaces like us where tourism, agriculture, education, energy production, niche commerce, etc. are contributing to the nation and can be done better in a smart integrated way.

So my view is that in this partnership, Singapore should focus on becoming the model smart city state, and the UK should focus on becoming the model smart nation beyond cities. What we learn from Singapore can be applied to our great cities, and what we learn from the rural challenge can be exported via Singapore to its Asian neighbours where indeed rural jungles, isolated islands, and lesser-developed suburbs proliferate.

Meanwhile, we are ready here in Malvern to be the test-bed for the smart exo-city.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Postscript: As a case in point, this article would have been published more quickly had the wi-fi been working on my train home to the rural hinterland of our yet-to-be smart nation.