Friday, August 24, 2007

Science and Technology #5

Almost every day I come across something that reminds me that I am living in what Bruce Sterling from the 1980s would consider to be a distant and exotic future. This screed is intended to address some of the areas in which the future is now, but just not evenly distributed.

A common research theme in robotics at the moment is the creation of small, flying devices that imitate biological life. A prime example is this ingenious robotic insect being developed at Harvard University.

A related area of research is the creation of software that models a planned robotic swallow. This article seems to indicate that two cameras mounted on the wings would allows the planned robot to be piloted remotely (read Sterling's Heavy Weather for a reference to a similar remote-controlled surveillance ornithopter).

I should also mention how impressive the work of Robert Wood and his team at Harvard actually is - they have essentially had to develop the process for manufacturing the device from scratch, from Technology Review:

"Using laser micromachining, researchers cut thin sheets of carbon fiber into two-dimensional patterns that are accurate to a couple of micrometers. Sheets of polymer are cut using the same process. By carefully arranging the sheets of carbon fiber and polymer, the researchers are able to create functional parts."

Both the robotic insect and the robotic swallow have in common an aim to observe discretely. It is reasonable to expect the technology in the labs now to be on the battlefield within two decades. Once mature it would then seep into the wider market. Then we would have our participatory panopticon, and there would be very little anyone could do about it.

I expect that if and when I reach my 50th birthday privacy will probably be a luxury, and one that most people can't afford. Widespread and ubiquitous observation from various sources will result in everything that ever happens being observed and recorded. I can even begin to empathise with the generation for which this will be normal, and loss of privacy will be seen as just another (minor) personal sacrifice to the comforts offered by states and other authorities.

Once this information is recorded we can assume that it will be stored in a large, communal location, like a virtual library of all types of media.

Just such a construct is already in development. This story describes the Open Library. Although at present the central goal is to create a virtual card catalogue, rather than record all the information in all the books ever written, let alone all information.

It will be interesting to watch which of the various similar services is most generally used, out of Good Book Search, the Open Library, or Project Gutenburg.

There is currently something unsatisfying about the provision for ebooks generally. They seem to be occupying the same technological cul-de-sac as videophones and flying cars. A mixture of consumer disinterest and technical difficulties (exacerbated in the case of ebooks by the usual tiresome issues of copyright and content control).

Charles Stross wrote a thorough analysis of what was wrong with the electronic book industry a few months ago, and (now that I check his blog) has also written an update concerning an experiment whereby The Atrocity Archives (which is very good - like Len Deighton with computers, magic, demons and Nazis [at least more Nazis than in most Deighton books, see SS-GB for the exception]) will be available in ebook format for £3.00, less than half the price for the wood-pulp version.

I feel that it will only be the development of true epaper that will allow the development of cheap ebooks and ebook technology. News of developments in the area of ePaper is common (1, 2, 3, 4). But what I want is something functionally equivalent to real wood-pulp, only with memory storing and wiping capabilities. I'd like it to have the same feel and texture as normal paper.

I can already see that this is a pretty tall order from a technical perspective. Apart from wanting to avoid the standard plasticky feel of most displays and touch-screens, I associate electrical technology with a different sort of entertainment to printed books. In as much as a technology can be perfected, books are perfect. Electrical and mechanical technology still has a wide space to grow and occupy before it becomes ideal.

However, it is entirely possible that all this research into epaper will be superseded by HUD displays - rendering all energy-intensive and space-intensive visual displays obsolete. I suspect that books as a cultural artifact will remain with us for a long time though.

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