Well, I am late.
I was supposed to post this article on April 1st (yes, it is almost a joke).
Then, last week-end- but then I found more appropriate to post something else.
Few (hundreds of) words about the title
I wrote few articles about Google (use the “search” button on the cover of this blog).
Because Google, along with few other online tools (Wikipedia, of course- but also online newspapers and institutional websites), allows to do in few minutes what in the past required boring days waiting in a library.
The main activity? When I find a source about something that I do not know, I look for at least a second, independent source.
In a library: find a book, stand in line to receive it, then find a second source for something inside that book, stand in line to maybe receive it- or to be told that somebody else already borrowed it.
Online: hyperlink, search, click on further links, double check that it is not a circular link (i.e. A referring to B, referring to C, referring to A: somebody counts this as “double sources”, I call it self-fulfilling bias).
Also if you are not interested in technology, you heard about “cloud computing”- a way to generate revenue from available resources.
If you want: it is a distant relative of 1960s/1970s “time-sharing”, but using the Internet to access the resources you need when you need it, instead of having a fixed connection with a specific supplier.
I give you an example from my own experience in late 1980s.
At the time, some large Italian banks were providing each other “disaster recovery facilities”, so that, in the event of something like a flood or a terrorist attack (Italy was plagued with both), a major player in the financial market could keep operating- courtesy of another major bank.
This, of course, required keeping some spare resources available.
But this has always been a common planning activity in any business- you buy the computing power you need for a certain time, so that, if you need more, you have time to procure more resources.
Personal computers brought computing power to your desktop- but you barely use it.
So, a project like SETI was giving away a screen saver to use the spare time of your computer to do some number crunching, and deliver the results back to the central processing facilities.
Oversimplifying- this is how the “cloud computing” started.
Companies like Google need massive computers to run millions of search requests, but they need to keep spare facilities, just in case something happens and everybody tries to do a search on Google.
But large computing centres are huge electricity users- and, with the market liberalization, companies such as Amazon or Google learned the hard way to build not just computing centres, but also to procure power to supply their machines.
Again: you now added power production- but what do you do with power that you do not use?
Enter some interesting patents that Google applied for (again- search in my blog for “energy”), such as one to derive electricity from tidal waves (I wrote also a short “format” for a series of stories, called “memories of the cloud”, in Spring 2009).
Why? My idea- if you are Google, and your business concept is to make knowledge accessible to anybody, and claim to be “the Switzerland on the Net”, then the next logical step is imitating Sealand, i.e. achieving an extraterritorial status.
But with the financial resources of Google, it would be easier and safer than a simple abandoned sea fort, and well into international waters.
And, recently, Google has been authorized to act as a public utility, and sell electricity.
Beside that- you probably read about the Google mobile phone, Android, and their operating system for the next generation of netbooks.
But few know that they are also delivering Internet services as a provider in their own community, and experimenting with becoming a full utility.
I mean: anything that flows- from data, to electricity, to voice, to financial resources (yes, like PayPal, but closer to a virtual bank, thanks to the integration of all their technologies).
And, of course, they are becoming a de-facto almost monopoly in the digitalization of existing books, also for national libraries.
So, the April 1st joke was: there is one flow that they cannot (yet) manage- and that is the flow coming from each one of you.
Look at it. Your body consumes food, and dissipates heat.
Some proposed cumbersome implements have been presented, such a tool to add to your trousers, so that whenever you move, you are recharging batteries.
But, frankly, it is bulky- it is heavy- it is complex.
Nokia recently announced something similar, to avoid having to recharge your phone- but it is, again, bulky- more or less as a bigger version of an automatic wristwatch.
Let’s move now to the real subject of this article.
99% perspiration, 1% inspiration
I got my inspiration from something different: my preparation last year for the series of articles on Genetic Mapping (search for “GMN2009”).
The idea? Moving to the almost molecular level, what is called “nanotechnology”.
No, not the nanorobots that you can see in SciFi movies.
Albeit I must confess that the original idea comes from something that I saw as a kid, the movie “Fantastic Voyage” (1966; see here).
There are some annoying details (such as- shrinking a structure to that size while retaining its structural properties- akin to force an 800-pound gorilla to sit inside a Smart car :D)
So, indulge me- I will move from reality to plausible reality.
Ingredients: after reviewing technologies in 2009 (my science vocabulary is mainly dating from 1980s/1990s, and in Italian), I started thinking about practical micro-machines.
Using something really simple, such as the design of the 1960s (i.e. pre-integrated circuits) memories- but using current nanotechnology.
From that, I started looking what was around me, also using a 1913 German book that I bought by chance in Zurich few years ago, while I was working there.
The book? An early XX century compilation describing how all the technologies of the time worked, from electricity, to electricity production, steam power, and so on.
If you want: starting from Lego bricks, before thinking about the Lego Technic.
But I have to add another bit of inspiration: a training video on paragliding, that I found while wandering online.
Why did I download it? Because when I walked on the Alps with an Italian friend, more than once we met paragliders, and, being more technical than I am, he gave me a full lecture on how it works and so on.
In the video I saw it in detail- and I had the final inspiration.
Because a repeated instruction was to get into the “stream” of hot air to tag along and rise, using the mountain surface as a “sling” to keep ascending.
So, my sci-fi idea was shrinking it all down, create de-facto nano-turbines moved by our dissipated heat, and use induction charging to store the energy created, while setting all this in a layer embedded within “smart textiles”.
Also, have nano turbines added wherever you have a flow- yes, including the tap water, or any textile that you move around (such as towels, etc), or inside your shoes.
Then, have the stored energy used either to power, as in RFID, devices, or to return the energy when back at home.
Why? I like to follow Arthur Clarke dictum about making technology so advanced, that it looks as magic.
Incidentally: I decided eventually to post this article today because tonight I will attend a conference on… “the magic of nanotechnology”- and I prefer to post my own sci-fi mistakes, followed by a report and links to the real state-of-the-art technology.
But describing technology is boring- and, again, I follow the guidelines given to Star Trek scriptwriters: technology that is part of a culture does not need to be described.
If you drive a car, you use a car. You do not need to explain how a combustion engine works while driving!
And now, a short story (few years from now)
Carbon neutrality. A nice early XXI century fad, if you remember.
Pity that we forgot a small detail: too many understood “neutrality” as “off-setting”.
So, they kept doing as they did before, simply transferring to their customers the cost of planting trees somewhere else, or buying the carbon credits of some over-polluting plant somewhere else.
Of course- those polluters were supposed to use the money derived from their credits to invest in technology to reduce their pollution.
In the end, with some not-so-gentle worldwide tax disincentives approved by the WTO, the market developed- but it developed so well that, in relatively few years, there were no more carbon credits to go around.
And we were back to square one: avoiding to waste energy, while running against time to give the same level of affluence to 10 billion people that was afforded in the late XX century by slightly more than 1 billion people.
Luckily, it happened at the same time when nanotechnology started entering the market- moving from experiments to products, and our technology was able to do self-maintenance and self-building.
It is nice to visit the Moon, but living there? It is like living in Antarctica in the XX century.
Remembering the old time is quite funny, sometimes.
But who would have expected that, instead of dissipating heat, we would able to wear clothes that recycled the heat into energy, and reloaded our individual supply, so that we could actually offset part of our utility bill.
I remember changing the batteries of my alarm clock every few months- so, sometimes I keep waving at the intelligent wall to make its internal “smart” circuits recharge: it is still fascinating.
Moving from the old power-hungry computers to the new power-savvy ones implied something more than adding a “recharge arm” at the side of the computer or radio.
I really do not understand those who complain about the low efficiency of our way to recover the kinetic energy, e.g. so that each key pushed actually recharges the computers’ batteries, or that every step you walk sets some energy aside.
I do not know you- but I walk so much, that I am always amazed, when I get back home, to see the amount of energy my suit transfers to the home storage.
Our current efficiency is on a par with 1990s solar cells- but it would be cumbersome to extend it beyond that level.
Anyway- with the final activation of the microwave energy transmission from space, and the new tidal wave energy world wide network, our energy saving attitude is more an habit than a real need.
But last year the few remaining fossil fuel and Earth-based nuclear power stations were closed down.
Eventually, the new smart textiles announced for the next decade will simply be connected with the world wide energy network, and if it works correctly…
…some politicians are proposing to add “free energy for personal uses” within the charter of basic rights.
It costs nothing, and now that we are used to consume it wisely, why not?
Anyway, the energy companies already merged long ago with other flow-based companies, so no job will be lost- only few more computers will join the global cloud.