What happens when science fiction crosses into science fact?

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Cloaking devices are the stuff of magic realms and deep-space exploration, not real life. Think again! Making photonic chips invisible to one another could pave the way to computing at the speed of light.

A beamsplitter for silicon photonics chips that is ne-fiftieth the width of a human hair. Image: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

A beamsplitter for silicon photonics chips that is ne-fiftieth the width of a human hair. Image: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

Thursday 24 November 2016

Researchers at the University of Utah have developed a cloaking device for truly tiny photonic integrated devices — the building blocks of photonic computer chips that run on light instead of electrical current. While that still sounds fairly fantastical and fanciful, it’s a huge breakthrough for the computer industry, data centres and mobile device-makers, not to mention the environment.

It paves the way for efficient photonic chips which shuttle data around as light photons instead of electrons. This breakthrough in nanophotonic cloaking, making neighbouring devices invisible to one another, was published in the latest edition of the science journal, Nature Communications.

Photonic chips will wind up being much faster, consume less power and give off less heat than today’s silicon-based chips. Think of the possibilities for foresighted entrepreneurs.

Potentially billions of photonic devices could be stuffed inside a chip, each with a specific function in much the same way as transistors work in today’s microchips. One set of devices could perform powerful calculations or programmed simulations while another group processes requests and others maintain everyday functions and updates.

Back-chatting chips

But light is no-one’s slave and cramming so many of these microscopic photonic devices too close together causes leakage. When light leaks the resulting back-chat or cross-talk acts like radio interference. Not good.

Spacing them further apart solves the problem, but this makes the chips too large, especially for mobile devices. The lab guys worked out that using a special nanopatterned, silicon-based coating between photonic devices acts like a “cloak”.

The principle is similar to the Harry Potter invisibility cloak, says Utah’s Rajesh Menon who led the research. It’s like a barrier it pushes the light back into the original device. It is being fooled into thinking there is nothing on the other side.”

10 to 100 times less power

One of the obvious benefits of chips using light photons instead of electrons to transfer data is the energy savings, anywhere from 10 to 100 times less power consumed, according to the Utah team.

Data centres like Google and Facebook will no doubt like the sound of this, but the afterglow of nano-sized photonic devices could light up a range of sectors, from app-makers to serious games to green tech.

In the United States alone, data centres consume around 70 billion kilowatt hours (2014 figures), which is some 1.8% of total electricity consumption, according to research by the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. With the growth in cloud computing and other rapid IT developments, that power usage is expected to rise another 4% by 2020.

By going from electronics to photonics we can make computers much more efficient and ultimately make a big impact on carbon emissions and energy usage for all kinds of things,” concludes Menon.

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Smashing different planets

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

The Scientists shouted they would get “smashed in a different world”. But do the words of this punk band reveal something profound about human nature?

7 September 2010

Look at it this way: our species is a master at taking what’s available and abusing the hell out it. People get smashed on the brews, opiates, or whatever, that nature offers up. People also cut up our Earth-ball, as my son calls it, in search of nature’s other bounties, from precious stones for adornment and tropical forests for cheap furniture, to coltan for mobile phones.

I’m under no illusions that if we do find other planets to colonise for their wealth, we’d ‘smash’ them as thoroughly as we do ourselves, and our planet. I’ll substantiate with another lazy cultural simile – because life imitates art and all that.

First, you’ve got the avidly fictitious, but rather entertaining Avatar whose indigenous population resists the rapacious multinationals’ hunt for (wait for it) ‘unobtanium’, an unelaborated mineral with the name to match. Around the same time Avatar came out, the BAFTA-winning sci-fi film Moon was released, starring Sam Rockwell in pretty much all roles bar the ‘Sarang’ lunar-base’s affable computer, Gerty,  played by Kevin Spacey.

Rockwell’s character (also Sam) is a contractor employed to extract helium-3 from moon dust – used in the production of fusion energy, according to the movie. Most of this is pure fiction, of course, except that fusion bit, which is a very real science. Actually, the world’s nuclear research community have been pumping billions of euros into the ITER project to develop an experimental fusion reactor which, simply put, unlocks the power of the sun.

“If you haven’t heard about ITER, chances are you will soon,” boasts the ITER website. “The scale and scope of the ITER project rank it among the most ambitious science endeavors of our time… scientists are now poised to begin construction on the buildings that will house the ITER fusion experiments.”

This is a serious research programme backed by the international scientific community from China, India, Russia, Korea, Japan, the US and the EU. There’s been political rows during the formative years of the project – over where to site ITER’s tokamak reactor and, naturally, over who will stump up the billions to pay for it – but the seriousness of the Earth’s energy woes seems to trump all such concerns.

Disturbingly real

So, in many ways, the fact that the film Moon strays so easily into factual territory makes it that much more disturbing when the plot unfolds. The movie delivers what we did wrong as a eulogy delivered at the start, a bit like in Mad Max except more polished, documenting the depletion of fossil fuels and the quest for clean technology.

I don’t want to spoil the film, so I’ll just say Sam learns a lot about the motivations of his employer – the mining company – as he approaches the end of his three-year contract. The spectre of cloning is tackled when his character has an accident and the company needs a replacement to operate the extractor. Trouble is,  Sam 1 doesn’t die. He reappears at the lunar station when Sam 2, his human replica, retrieves him from the wreck of the lunar rover. The two Sam’s don’t get along at first. The movie unfolds as they both discover there is a lot about their work and their so-called contracts that the company has been hiding from them.

These films give us an unusual, half-credible, glimpse of a possible future outcome if we continue to abuse the resources on this planet. And the suggestion is that it’s more than just an environmental problem. You’ve only got to watch the news every now and then to see what socio-political havoc the extraction industries are having on many communities worldwide, from tribes coping with shrinking rainforests to the wars and bloodshed fuelled by diamond and coltan mining in sub-Saharan Africa.

Where it will all lead in reality is anyone’s guess but something tells me that human nature – being the way it is – will find a way to continue smashing this planet and any other planet should these sci-fi plots prove prescient of a real future scenario.

Published here with the author’s permission. © Copyright Ray O’Reilly.

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Labour saving devices

 
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By Khaled Diab

Could pregnancy outside the womb save women the pain of labour and herald in a new level of gender equality?

13 August 2009

There is something mysterious, mystifying, magical and also menacing about pregnancy. The swelling belly, rising like a bun in the oven. The wall of tissue separating mother and father from child. The foetus’s tentative attempts to communicate pleasure, dissatisfaction, and hold conversations through the primitive Morse code of kicks and jabs.

For the expectant mother in particular, pregnancy carries a huge emotional cache. The foetus growing inside her is both a part of her and apart from her which enables the mother to bond in a way that a father can only dream of. The umbilical cord connecting them relays not only nourishment but also moods and emotions.

I witness this in my wife whose bond with our baby grows stronger every day: her regular communion with him, the unconscious way she holds her tummy, the subtle nuances conveyed by the way he shifts inside, and the meaning of the different pokes. Of course, I also have a connection with him – albeit a less direct one. I talk to him and see the surface evidence of his development, his faint taps through Katleen’s skin, the rare grainy glimpse of him during our visits to the gynaecologist.

In addition, he and the cat seem, after an initial period of distrust on the part of the cat, to have built something of a relationship: he pokes more when Kuku comes to lie on Katleen’s belly and even seems to hum when the cat purrs.

What sense does the baby have of the outside world from inside his cocoon? I know he can hear and feel and I wonder what he makes of his mama, papa and cat. I imagine what it must be like inside the womb – I know we have all been there but how many of us can remember? Is it as cosy and comfortable as we adults like to assume? Or would the little one, curled up in the proverbial foetal position, prefer more legroom and a womb with a view?

When it’s time to leave, will he miss the security of his confinement and the 24-hour womb service? Or will he let out a scream of delight as he dives head first towards the everyday light at the end of the tunnel and the official start of his life?

Understandably, Katleen does not yet want to think about the actual delivery (D-Day) – and I can’t blame her. It fills me with awe, bewilderment and panic – and my role is only a supporting one! Despite the undoubted pleasure and significance of bringing a life into this world, the process does involve an awful lot of pain.

Is it desirable for medical science to find a way to spare women the suffering of labour – create a new kind of labour-saving device? Perhaps some boffins will go beyond the initial spark in a petri dish at the core of IVF treatment and develop a complete incubation system – an artificial womb – that would host the unborn child for the entire nine months of the pregnancy, and the parents would pay regular visits to the incubator to watch their child develop.

Such a for-now SciFi possibility would enable men and women to play equal roles as prospective parents, and enable women once and for all to take full control of their bodies, and may even be healthier for the foetus as the womb would be perfectly calibrated for it.

The pill and other effective contraceptive devices helped not only to trigger the sexual revolution – transforming sex into a largely risk-free leisure activity – but they also evened the sexual playing field between men and women, helping cement ideas of equality.

Perhaps removing the last major biological distinction between men and women would herald in a new dawn of equality, but if it becomes universal enough, it would raise the profound and fundamental question of why we need men and women – and the battle of the sexes could take on a decidedly nihilistic bent. Alternatively, just as sex has evolved from procreation to recreation, perhaps nostalgia and love of diversity would lead to us holding on to our biological differences for the sheer fun of it.

On the down side, such technology may banish the pain and discrimination associated with pregnancy, but it would also rob women off its joys. Moreover, it may be bad for the child. Millions of years of evolution have made the bond formed between mother and foetus crucial to the psychological health and well-being of the baby; tampering with that could cause massive alienation and erase the loving link between them.

Moreover, is the price of the possible convenience worth paying, considering the physical and psychological deformities it could potentially cause as we feel around blindly in this largely uncharted field? In addition, even if the science one day proves sound, the associated ethical conundrums should give us pause for thought as it could affect society in ways that end up harming men, women and babies. At the end of the day, removing pain from the equation may not actually bring about a gain.

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