New Technologies, June 2017

Following are some interesting new technologies I’ve run across recently.

WiFi Imaging. Cognitive Systems has a product they call Aura that can detect motion inside of a home using WiFi. The technology was developed a few years ago at MIT. The technology used is called Radio Frequency (RF) Capture. The device can sense subtle changes in wireless signals to determine if something is moving in the home. It can be set to different sensitivities to be able to detect people, but not animals. It can also be set to track specific cellphones so that you’ll know when a known person has entered or left the home. For now the device does not connect to external security services but sends a message to a smartphone.

Some German researchers at the University of Munich have already taken this same idea a lot farther. In a paper published in the Physical Review of Letters they describe a technique where they can use WiFi to create 3D holographic images through walls. The lab unit they have built can detect objects down to about 4 centimeters in size. They scan ten times per second and can see outlines of people or pets moving inside of another room. This technology is eerily reminiscent of the surveillance machine in The Dark Knight that Bruce Wayne destroys at the end of the movie since it was a scary invasion of privacy.

Eliminating IoT Batteries. One of the scariest things about the exploding number of devices used for IoT is the need to power them, and the potential huge waste, cost and hassle of needing batteries for tons of devices. Tryst Energy from the Netherlands has developed an extremely efficient solar device that only needs 200 lux of light for four hours per day to operate a small sensor that communicates with Bluetooth or WiFi. That is the amount of light normally found under a desk. The device also ought to last for 75 – 100 years, opening the ability to place small IoT sensors in all sorts of places to monitor things. When you consider the expected billions of devices that are expected over the next decade this could provide a huge boost to the IoT industry and also provide a green solution for powering tiny devices. The device is just starting to go into production.

Bots Have Created Their Own Language. A team at OpenAI, the artificial intelligence lab founded by Elon Musk and Sam Altman, has published a paper describing how bots have created their own language to communicate with each other. They accomplished this by presenting simple challenges that require collaboration to bots, which are computer programs that are taught to accomplish tasks. Bots are mostly being used these days to learn to communicate with people. But the OpenAI team instead challenged the bots to solve spatial challenges such as devising a way to move together to a specific location inside of a simulated world. Rather than tell the bots how to accomplish this they simply required that the bots collaborate with other bots to accomplish the assigned tasks. What they found was that the bots created their own ‘language’ to communicate with each other and that the language got more efficient over time. This starts sounding a bit like bad Sci-Fi world where computers can talk to each in languages we can’t decipher.

Recycling CO2. Liang-shi Li at Indiana University has found a way to recycle CO2 for the production of power. He has created a molecule that, with the addition of sunlight, can turn CO2 from the atmosphere into carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide can then be burnt to create power, with the byproduct being CO2. If scaled this would provide for a method to produce power that would add no net CO2 to the atmosphere (since it recycles the CO2). Li uses a nanographene molecule that has a dark color and that absorbs large amounts of sunlight. The molecule also includes rhenium which is then used as a catalyst to turn nearby CO2 into carbon dioxide. He’s hoping to be able to accomplish this instead with more easily obtained magnesium.

Liquid Light. It’s common knowledge that light usually acts like a wave, expanding outward until it’s reflected or absorbed by an object. But in recent years scientists have also discovered that under extreme conditions near absolute zero that light can also act like a liquid and flow around objects and join back together on the other side. The materials and processes used to produce the liquid light are referred to as Einstein-Bose condensates.

Scientists from CNR Nanotec in Italy, Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal in Canada, and Aalto University in Finland just published an article in Nature Physics that shows that light can also exist in a ‘superliquid’ state where light flows around objects with no friction. Of most interest is that this phenomenon can be produced at normal room temperature and air pressure. The scientists created this effect by sandwiching organic molecules between two highly-reflective mirrors. The scientists believe that interaction of light with the molecules induces the photons in the light to take on characteristics of electrons in the molecules.

The potential uses for this technique, if perfected, are huge. It would mean that light could be made to pass through computer chips with no friction, meaning no creation of the heat that is the bane of data centers.