5 more tech breakthroughs in access, power, control

Powercast isn't the only company developing RF-to-DC power technology. Nihon Dengyo Kosaku of Japan, for instance, has been working on a similar system that relies on a special rectifying antenna. Powercast, however, claims to have a head start on its competitors, saying it has chips ready to be integrated into products.

By 2012, Powercast hopes to have a household sensor product available to power smoke detectors that will never need to have their batteries changed. The company has also been working on shrinking its transmitters for home use. Ostaffe envisions a miniaturized transmitter "the size of a child's night light that would be powerful enough to power the smoke alarms in a modest-size home."

Nevertheless, distributing power over the air remains a tantalizing step or two away from mainstream availability. Although Powercast has the designs and chips ready, it needs a manufacturer to make and sell the actual products for consumers or businesses.

Self-healing batteries: Just-in-time repair

We all know the drill: You use your mobile device -- phone, tablet, laptop -- for a few years, then the battery dies and you have to replace it. Or you drop the device, the battery shorts out and you have to replace it even sooner.

And if a device isn't designed to allow the user to replace the battery himself (iPhones and iPads and other tablets are notorious for this), there's the extra hassle and expense of shipping the whole thing back to the manufacturer to swap out the battery.

But scientists at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have a better idea. Researchers led by professor Scott White are looking to extend the useful life of batteries in mobile devices, and they've figured out a way for the battery to fix itself, probably without the user ever knowing there was a problem.

Whether it's in a mobile phone or a notebook, a lithium-ion battery releases electricity by moving electrons from the lithium-based cathode to the cell's anode. The flow is reversed when you plug the device into a power source to charge the cells up for another cycle.

The problem is that over time, or if the battery is subject to a sudden shock, the battery's cells can be damaged, resulting in a power-killing short. At this point, all you can do is get a new battery.

White's team has tackled this problem by coating the battery's cathode with billions of microspheres filled with gooey gallium-indium. The key is that the spheres have been designed to break open when stressed (like when the device is dropped) or heated up (as when the battery shorts).

"We can trigger the microcapsules through mechanical force, temperature or pH," explains White from his lab at the university. "The capsules release their contents when damage occurs and a healing reaction takes place."

The gallium-indium quickly can flow in to fill in the gaps to fix the short, and the battery can be restored in as little as 40 microseconds. In most cases, that's not even enough time for the battery's control electronics to shut it down. "We get restoration of conductivity," adds White. "It is immediate."

For now, the microcapsule method works just once; if you drop your device a second time, you're out of luck. But White told me his team is working on ways to incorporate several different materials to make it possible to fix a battery several times.

The typical notebook battery gets about 100 to 150 charge cycles per year and lasts about three years before degrading to the point where it needs to be replaced. Using the Beckman Institute's techniques, five or six years is doable, and eventually we might see a 10-year computer battery.

"This is kind of cool, and very needed today," says Stanley Williams, senior researcher and head of the Quantum Science Research (QSR) group at HP Labs. "Batteries are the weak link in many of the products we use every day."

When might a self-healing battery be available? White, who was preparing a paper on the topic when we launched this story, is cautious, saying that the microcapsule method is still in the lab. Still, he says that adding microcapsules to a battery shouldn't interfere with the way they are made and shouldn't add too much to the cost of a cell.

Long term, he adds, the process could be used to fix all sorts of electronics, even an electric car's battery, effectively repairing it before we even know it's broken. Next on White's list are the power transformers and capacitors that make our electrical power grid work. If his group succeeds, someday we could conceivably see an end to power failures.

Neural computer control: Thoughtful computing

Despite losing to IBM's Watson computer on Jeopardy, the human brain remains the most powerful, flexible and complex information processor on Earth. But it has to interact with computers through our error-prone bodies. Click on the wrong icon or hit the wrong key and work can grind to a halt -- or worse, an afternoon of effort can be lost.

That's why scientists and other visionaries have long dreamed of interacting with computers through pure thought, using the brain to directly input, edit and manipulate ideas.

Like a scenario straight out of science fiction, using the brain as a computer interface is easily the weirdest and most speculative idea of the 10 breakthroughs we've covered in this two-part series. The reward is potentially huge, however. This capability could free us from the most inefficient part of the computing chain: the interface.

"It sounds crazy," says Dean Pomerleau, an Intel Labs researcher in Pittsburgh, "but you'd put on a cap that scans your brain and sit in front of your computer screen to check your calendar, reply to annoying emails and work on that big spreadsheet from work -- all without typing or moving a mouse."

Starting at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1970s, a long line of researchers around the world has experimented with brain-computer interfaces (BCI), first using animals and later humans as well. Many of these efforts have involved implanting electrodes inside the brain or on its surface. One problem with that approach is that scar tissue tends to develop around such implants and it interferes with the signal. Other projects have attached electrodes to the subject's scalp, but the skull can block or distort the brain's signals.

Despite these limitations, scientists continue to move BCIs forward. Pomerleau, for example, is working with researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University on a project known as NeuroSys.

For this group, efforts to turn thought into computing action began with observations of people's brains using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Subjects were told to think about specific words like "search" or "dog," and the machine created an image of the neural activity, lighting up the areas of the brain that were creating the thought.

Working with many test subjects (English speakers only for now), the NeuroSys researchers started with nouns and moved on to verbs, amassing brain scans and noting similarities among them until clear patterns emerged. All this data has been incorporated into a computer program that can translate neural activity patterns to words.

The program has built up a vocabulary of 1,000 words and can parse simple sentences from subjects' brain patterns. Of course, the project needs to deal with the frustrating nuances and ambiguities of language, but it's been surprisingly successful. So far, the program is 90% accurate in predicting what subjects are thinking, according to Pomerleau.

The problem is that there are few computer users who have the desire, or the financial wherewithal, to sit in a $2 million brain scanner to compose a memo to the boss about a new marketing campaign. "A big leap is needed in the sensing technology, to a point where it can be miniaturized," says Pomerleau.

That leap may be at hand. Small electroencephalograph (EEG) sensors that track and interpret brain activity can be built into a headset or cap and may prove be a good stand-in for interpreting fMRI readings.

Primarily used in medical research, such devices are also appearing in everything from "neuromarketing" aids (wireless headsets that register test subjects' responses to marketing and branding) to crude toys that, for instance, let you pretend you're a Jedi knight by controlling a ball's height with mental power. Recently, a group of German engineers operated a specially modified car with one.

[ Related reading with cool videos: A mind-blowing look at today's mind-controlled, mind-reading technologies ]

On the computer interface front, Austria-based G.tec showed its Intendix system at this year's CeBit show in Germany. It uses an EEG cap studded with electrodes in conjunction with software you load on a Windows PC. The interface is laid out like a typical qwerty keyboard, with a few additional symbols for things like printing and sending email. After training the system, all you do is stare at the Intendix screen and think about the letters, numbers or symbols to spell out your message.

At the moment, the system can recognize about five characters a minute -- not exactly speed typing, but it's a start. Because of the system's $12,000 price tag, brain-powered computing will probably first be used for people with limited voluntary muscular control or "locked-in syndrome" diseases including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease.

A neural interface would open a new world for them, and eventually for the rest of us. But it could be decades before the technologies become advanced enough -- and inexpensive enough -- to make sophisticated brain-computer interfaces mainstream.

"The payoff here could be huge," says Supratik Guha, director of the physical sciences department at IBM. "But there's a lot of work that needs to be done to make this type of interface work."

Read Part 1 of this series: 5 tech breakthroughs: Chip-level advances that may change computing

This story, "5 more tech breakthroughs in access, power, control" was originally published by Computerworld.

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