It’s Coming your way – Technology that will change the world

Social indexing

It’s a given that the websites you visit will remember your preferences so they can keep you coming back and make recommendations that fit your specific interests.

Social indexing takes that monitoring to the next level.

Bret Taylor, Facebook’s chief technology officer, plans to create the social index by amassing information from the “like” buttons that now appear on most websites and using that data determine the most frequently visited areas of the Internet. Every time you click that “like” button, the information comes back to Taylor’s Social Index.

According to Technology Review, “that’s how the Wall Street Journal highlights articles that a person’s friends enjoyed on its site. This is what lets Microsoft’s Bing search engine promote pages liked by a person’s friends. And it’s how Pandora creates playlists based on songs or bands a person has appreciated on other sites.”

Thanks to social indexing, websites can get a sense of what is likely to interest you even if you’ve never visited them before.

Smart transformers

Pretty much everyone is concerned with energy efficiency and saving money through “green” projects.

That is why Alex Huang, a professor of electrical engineering at North Carolina State University, is developing a transformer that would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by making it easier for small-scale sources of cleaner energy to contribute to the power grid. Huang’s transformers would make connecting a solar panel or electric car to the grid as simple as connecting a digital camera or printer to a computer.

Conventional transformers handle only AC power and require manual adjustment or bulky electromechanical switches to redirect energy. Huang hopes to build a compact transformer that can handle DC and AC power, which could be electronically controlled so that it would respond to fluctuations in supply and demand. If one neighbor plugged an electric car into an AC charger, for example, it could respond by tapping otherwise unneeded DC power from another neighbor’s solar panels.

In addition, this system would help balance supply and demand, so that fewer power plants would be needed to guarantee the electricity supply.

Gestural interface

Alexander Shpunt of Tel Aviv’s Prime Sense has designed a 3-D vision system that lets anyone control a computer just by gesturing in the air. By getting the computer to see the world in three dimensions, rather than the two captured by normal cameras, he was able to get the computer to sense depth. So the computer could easily distinguish, say, an arm from the room’s furniture and then track the arm’s movement.

Microsoft co-opted Shpunt’s system for use in its Xbox Kinect, but the Kinect is only the beginning.

“A small army of hackers is already retooling the controller to other ends,” Technology Review says. “Researchers at Louisiana State University have rigged a helmetless, gloveless virtual-reality system out of a Kinect unit and an off-the-shelf 3-D TV set. In Australia, a logistics software firm quickly put together a gesture-controlled system for monitoring air traffic.”

Cancer genomics

Cancer develops when cells accumulate genetic mistakes that allow them to grow and divide faster than healthy cells. Identifying the mutations that underlie this transformation can help predict a patient’s prognosis and identify which drugs are most likely to work.

That research is being carried out at the Genome Institute at Washington University, which has a machine that enables it to read DNA at a faster rate than ever before. Elaine Mardis, the center’s co-director, has been using it to sequence cancer tissues, scouring their DNA for mutations.

She and her colleagues have tissue from hundreds of patients and have used the information to identify tens of thousands of mutations. Their findings have led to new approaches to treating cancer and opened new avenues of research.

Homomorphic encryption

As more and more information gets stored in remote cloud servers, companies and private individuals have come to worry about the security of having all their data eggs in one digital basket. The inability of cloud computers to keep their data encrypted once it arrives on the server has proved particularly scary and vexing.

Craig Gentry of IBM is using homomorphic encryptions to solve that problem. According to Technology Review, “he has shown that it is possible to analyze data without decrypting it. The key is to encrypt the data in such a way that performing a mathematical operation on that information and then decrypting the result produces the same answer as performing a similar operation on the unencrypted data.”

Say you wanted to add 1 and 2, for example: The data would be encrypted so that 1 becomes 33 and 2 becomes 54. Then that encrypted data is sent to the cloud and processed: The result (87) can be downloaded from the cloud and decrypted to provide the final answer of 3.

Right now, Gentry’s system runs too slowly for practical use, but he is working on optimizing it for specific applications such as searching databases for records. He imagines the system could be ready for the market in five to 10 years.

Cloud streaming

Thanks to the marriage of cloud computing and video games, the physical PlayStation or Xbox DVD will soon seem as obsolete as a Nintendo cartridge. OnLive CEO Steve Perlman has created a way to compress a video stream that overcomes the problems that occur when someone attempts to use remote terminals for graphics-intensive applications.

The company’s technology allows mobile devices to access movie-editing software, architectural-design tools and other powerful graphical applications being run in data centers. With this technology, streaming movies could be fast-forwarded and rewound in real time, and schools anywhere could gain easy access to software. “The long-term vision is actually to move all computing out to the cloud,” Perlman told Technology Review.

Synthetic cells

Last year biologists were finally able to make large enough pieces of DNA to create an entire genome. Since then they have been working to create the first living creatures with a completely artificial genome.

Daniel Gibson of Craig Venter Institute and his colleagues used yeast cells to stitch together thousands of fragments of DNA made by a machine, pooled the longer pieces, and repeated the process until the genome was complete. He then inserted that DNA into bacteria. Now he has microbes whose entire collection of genes was edited on a computer and assembled by machines.

In the time since, Gibson has also developed a faster, yeast-free way to assemble large pieces of DNA in a bottle. He and his colleagues believe that in the future, synthetic biologists could use this minimal cell as the basis for cells that efficiently produce biofuels, drugs and other industrial products.