The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Mike Sweet column [The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa :: ]
(Hawk Eye, The (Burlington, IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 17--I'm an Internet troll.
I cruise the World Wide Web or the Cloud, whatever they're calling it today, for amusement, for work and sometimes just for enlightenment.
I am a fan of many subjects and semi-literate in several of them.
Higher forms of math, unfortunately, are not one. That limits how far one can pursue an interest in the sciences. On the Web or off.
But I stumble along happily enough, gleaning medical and scientific treatises for ideas I can decipher. I am thus armed like an American abroad, possessing a few critical survival phrases and a willingness to figure things out through deductive or inductive reasoning.
I don't know what it is about British media, but they are more obsessed with technology and science than their colonial counterparts in the U.S. where news is mostly about politicians. And celebrities I've no idea what their purpose in life is.
I read the Guardian and BBC online every day. Their global news, science and technology reporting is boffo. (That's slang for excellent, one of many useful words like wanker and bollocks that can be learned by visiting British pubs or watching British dramas and comedies on public television.) The Brits are a stitch.
I collect stories about science and technology, hoping periodically to find threads of connectivity and relevance that allow a respite from writing about violent death, greed, evil, bad government, religion and the premature, demoralizing departure of lovely human beings like Robin Williams. He'd have been a grand man if he'd never told a joke.
It's amazing how far technology has come in just 20 years.
London's Science Museum is marking those advances with a technology exhibit that includes a tribute to IBM's Simon, the world's first portable (though primitive) smart phone. Simon had a calendar, took notes and did email. Weighing in at over a pound, it was no pocket rocket. Its descendant, the 10-year-old Motorola flip phone I still use, doesn't do any of those chores. It just calls people. And we're still happy with one another.
Lots of people prefer a smart phone that pays bills, surfs the Web, takes pictures and orders pizza.
But advances in technology are often of questionable value.
After studying army ants, engineers at Harvard have built a "swarm" of 1,012 tiny three-legged robots, each not much bigger than a bottle cap.
They programmed their "Kilobots" to take instructions via infrared light and talk to one another so they can build things. So far their work consists of forming into simple shapes on a table, like a malformed star or a square. It takes the swarm of kilobots 12 agonizing hours to puzzle out each shape they're asked to replicate. Which raises a fair question: "What's the point?"
Their creators foresee a day when swarms of robots will build things, drive our cars, clean environmental messes and cope with disasters. They will replace people, in other words -- the same unemployed people who will have more free time to ponder life's wonders while relaxing under the freeway overpasses where they will be living.
Other scientists have practical inventions. One company is making a cucumber-sized syringe filled with tiny sponges that are injected deep into a gunshot victim's wounds. The sponges suck up blood, swell, and the resulting pressure stops bleeding. Like a thumb in a dike. That would be useful in the world's Baghdads and Fergusons.
Another company is developing a biobattery that uses lactate in human sweat to make electricity. One day it may charge iPods, heart monitors, digital watches and even smart phones.
The biobattery requires people to exercise so they sweat profusely. It doesn't work real well yet. But because the device looks like a tattoo and affixes to the upper arm, everyone will want one.
In a curious twist, its developers learned unfit people's sweat is better at generating electricity than jocks. Finally, something good comes from all that fast food Americans eat.
Yet another lab is perfecting an electronic device that can "smell" paper currency. The idea is being developed to help Customs and the Border Patrol to find and seize laundered drug money being smuggled from the U.S. into Mexico. They seized $106 million last year, but $39 BILLION got through undetected. That would feed, clothe and educate a lot of immigrant kids.
The sniffer project leader, Joseph Stetter, said "We found that U.S. currency emits a wide range of volatile organic compounds that makes a 'fingerprint' we can identify in less than a minute." That's a polite way of saying it's a disgusting mix of fragrances emitted by humans.
There are people who selflessly use technological innovations for humanitarian causes.
People like South African Richard van As [sic].
He's been in war-torn Syria using 3D printers that turn thermoplastic polylactide and aluminum parts into inexpensive artificial limbs for the civil war's many amputees. In the U.S. an arm or a leg does cost an arm and a leg -- $6,000 to $15,000 for starters -- lots more if you want a computer-driven one. Van As has four prosthetic fingers he and a friend designed after a run-in with a saw a few years ago. He specializes in hands and arms, saw a need in Syria and decided to fill it. No limb costs more than $400, and they're free to those who can't pay.
Mick Ebeling, founder of Not Impossible Labs whose mantra is "Technology for the sake of humanity," calls Van As "the most compassionate yet crazy guy you'll ever meet."
Some would attribute that same sentiment to Ebeling, whose Daniel Project has been 3-D printing artificial hands and arms for those maimed in Sudan's civil war.
Van As and Ebeling represent the best in humanity -- a breed of innovators using technology for something noble. A cause unrelated to pride and profit, the usual motivations that drive innovation.
The people their ideas help need a hand more than a phone that orders pizza. Although a dollar bill sniffer-outer would be nice, too.
(c)2014 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)
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