3 July 2008

Nanoscience and the mobile device: hopes and fears

Filed under: Morph, nanotechnology, Nokia, risks — David Wood @ 10:56 am

Nokia’s concept video of a future morphing mobile phone, released back in February, has apparently already been viewed more than two million times on YouTube. It’s a clever piece of work, simultaneously showing an appealing vision of future mobile devices and giving hints about how the underlying technology could work. No wonder it’s been popular.

So what are the next steps? I see that the office of Nokia’s CTO has now released a 5 page white paper that gives more of the background to the technologies involved, which are collectively known as nanotechnology. It’s available on Bob Iannucci’s blog, and it’s a fine read. Here’s a short extract:

After a blustery decade of hopes and fears (the fountain of youth or a tool for terrorists?), nanotechnology has hit its stride. More than 600 companies claim to use nanotechnologies in products currently on the market. A few interesting examples:

  • Stain-repellant textiles. A finely structured surface of embedded “nanowhiskers” keeps liquids from soaking into clothing—in the same way that some plant leaves keep themselves clean.
  • UV-absorbing sunscreen. Using nanoparticulate zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, these products spread easily and are fully transparent —while absorbing ultraviolet rays to prevent sunburn.
  • Purifying water filters. Aluminum oxide nanofibers with unusual bioadhesive properties are formulated into filters that attract and retain electronegative particles such as bacteria and viruses.
  • Windshield defoggers. A transparent lacquer of carbon nanotubes connects to the vehicle’s electrical source to evenly warm up the entire surface of the glass.

Even more interesting, to my mind, than the explanation of what’s already been accomplished (and what’s likely to be just around the corner), is a set of questions listed in the white paper. (In my view, the quality of someone’s intelligence is often shown more in the quality of the questions they ask than in the quality of the answers they give to questions raised by other people.) Here’s what the white paper says on this score:

As Nokia looks toward the mobile device of 2015 and beyond, our research teams, our partner academic institutions, and other industry innovators are finding answers to the following questions:

  1. What will be the form factors, functionalities, and interaction paradigms preferred by users in the future?
  2. How can the device sense the user’s behavior, physiological state, physical context, and local environment?
  3. How can we integrate energy-efficient sensing, computing, actuation, and communication solutions?
  4. How can we create a library of reliable and durable surface materials that enable a multitude of functions?
  5. How can we develop efficient power solutions that are also lightweight and wearable?
  6. How can we manufacture functional electronics and optics that are transparent and compliant?
  7. How can we move the functionality and intelligence of the device closer to the physical user interface?
  8. As we pursue these questions, how can we assess—and mitigate— possible risks, so that we introduce new technologies in a globally responsible manner?

That’s lots to think about! In response to the final question, one site that has many promising answers is the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, founded by Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix. As he explains in his recent article “Nano Catastrophes“, Mike’s coming to Oxford later this month to attend a Conference on Global Catastrophic Risks, where he’ll be addressing these issues. I’ll be popping down that weekend to join the conference, and I look forward to reporting back what I find.

This is a topic that’s likely to run and run. Both the potential upsides and the potential downsides of nanotechnology are enormous. It’s well worth lots more serious research.

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