Sunday, January 30, 2011

State of the Union: The Takeaway

The State of the Union is typically an opportunity for both sides of the political spectrum to propose their legislative agenda and also position themselves for the next election. This of course has an impact on technology as their is a strong interaction between government and technology.
President Obama decided to frame his legislative agenda on restoring America's competitiveness. I thought this was a rather refreshing speech compared to the usual listing of programs that fit either the Democratic or Republican agenda. I will just go through a few of the items that were brought up.
One of the major initiatives that President Obama mentioned was the on going research into clean energy. This is a topic that I have not discussed on this blog, but just from the companies and countries investing in this business it should be a major growth area in the next five to ten years. He specifically mentioned biofuels created using algae. This is one of the areas where government interest will help spur on more research and investment into a new technology.
The other area that the president highlighted was infrastructure. It is fairly well known that America's roads, bridges, tunnels, and railroads are in bad shape. The ASCE, American Society of Civil Engineers, has routinely in the last few years rated the status of the infrastructure mentioned above at a D rating. This means that much of it must be repaired and in many cases replaced. He specifically mentioned high speed rail as an initiative that was necessary to maintain America's competitiveness. This area has tremendous engineering challenges on all fronts, but opens up the possibility of some amazing innovations. I hope in the future to write a post about this topic.
There was also the general discussion of legislative issues that indirectly impact technology. Those are education and regulations. Educating scientists and engineers is essential to maintaining the United States as a leader in the innovation economy. Regulations sometimes act as a hinderence to new markets and other times are challenges that even engineers are willing to innovate around. I don't plan to look into these in more depth.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Reviewing Yesterday's results

In an ideal world technological development is not affected by elections for new representatives. Sadly the influence of government on the growth of certain technology markets has been historically been significant. Thus I think that it is important that this blog look at the results of yesterday's midterm elections and try to understand what impact it will have on technology for the next two years.
Yesterday's results were a massive change in the make up of congress. In both chambers of the U.S. Congress the Democrats took significant losses to their membership. The house of Representatives saw a shift of 60 votes and the Republicans regaining control. In the Senate the Democrats have a razor thin majority with no clear way to defeat a filibuster on their major issues. The key question is what will happen to major political issues that effect technology.
Some issues that I have written about will be completely unchanged because the key decision makers are presidentially nominated and already in place. Net neutrality and Broadband policies of the Obama presidency are not about to change. The broadband iniative may be slowed down due to the necessity of federal legislation that Republicans may oppose and any government spending that is proposed to implement the plan. I think that while there will be initial skepticism this concept will be eventually supported by both parties as it will lead to job creation and many other unintended benefits.
I wrote about the need for spectrum for new and growing technologies a while ago. This is an area where the FCC will be making decisions independent and insulated from congressional interference. This is good since sensible and complicated decisions have to be made in the near future to allow for more growth in the wireless device industry and prevent interference. We can chalk up this essential protection of decisionmaking in the people's best interest to lawmakers with plenty of foresight into the possible battles in the halls of congress.
Climate change legislation in the US Congress is dead for all intensive purposes. The combination of more Republicans and Conservative Democrats from fossil fuel producing states have made politically impossible. This is too bad since the technology sector with the greatest growth is in renewable energy and associated synergistic technologies. This means that technologies like biofuels, solar electricity, wind energy, and smart grid technologies will be delayed in their implementation in the United States economy. The good news is that some significant players which are major industrial multi-nationals will not change their game plan with the changing political landscape. The good news is that California's landmark climate change legislation survived an initiative that would have effectively repealed it for years or more likely permanently. Clearly the voters saw this as an important issue as did both gubernatorial candidates.
The real loser from the outcome of the election was the national laboratories and engineering institutions. There funding is heavily dependent on allocations from the federal budget which is decided in congress. With Republicans in charge of the house spending will be reduced for scientific studies. This is too bad as NASA and several of the national laboratories have led to the development of many technologies we take for granted today. Republicans have promised limited government and reductions in spending so we can expect that too happen.
There are several things that we don't know about the next congress which may change what I am prognosticating. Will innovation be a central theme for the US recovery? Will Republicans see technology as a way to strengthen American national security directly and indirectly? We have two years to find out the answers to these questions.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

An update on Net Neutrality

I wrote about net neutrality two months ago, but new developments have been occurring recently. Verizon and Google have apparently been negotiating a plan to define the page load speeds and the costs. I for one am not to pleased as this is an indirect act of censorship to small out of the mainstream websites like this one. To find out more check this link out.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Smart Grids part 1: The distribution grid

Smart grids are a hot topic in technology, policy, and political circles. Smart grid technology is a rather complicated set of technologies. Smart grids are the general concept of changing the way we treat the distribution of electricity. The electricity provided to your house currently, 60 Hertz Alternating current, will not change with the implementation of smart grids. The key new technologies will give the grid operators a better understanding and control of the electric distribution grid that provide electricity from the power plant to the consumer.
Among the key parts of this new infrastructure is equipment that would measure the strength of transmission lines. If a transmission line shows instability this could be a sign that either their is insufficient supply or that a fault is about to occur. Both of these situations have devastating effects for consumers in the way of brownouts and service interruptions. The idea being proposed is that the electric grid operators could monitor for dangerous situations similar to those that created the Blackout of 2003. This continuous monitoring could allow system operators to allocate resources to avoid brownouts and to protect expensive transmission equipment like transformers and substations.
This system for one thing will allow companies to know information about use of electricity. The next step might be that electric companies would be able to control what appliances are on in households. The other possible impact is what technology will be used to communicate this data to the control centers. There are two possibilities broadband over power line or wireless using 4G or WiMax. Both of these would require some sacrifices by citizens. In one case power lines could cause interference to other wireless systems because they are not shielded. The later solution would require allocating some of the radio spectrum that is highly sought after in general and more importantly by cellphone providers. The biggest risk is hacking by foreign governments or terrorists. All the most recent studies done by the US military have shown that they can hack into electric grid control centers. If we add technology that can allow better management, we should be worried about the possibility of the equipment being hacked and used against us in some way.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New Technologies

A few weeks ago I attended the International Microwave Symposium to see and hear the latest cutting edge technology that is being discussed. This conference is about technologies ranging from the high frequencies of the tens of megahertz to greater than one terahertz.
I was able to listen in on some pretty interesting ideas and presentations of technology. Since many radio frequency waves need to be amplified among the many topics discussed was improvement in amplifier efficiencies. Several of the papers presented dealt with microwave amplifiers being used in the tens of gigahertz range. This is good since the more efficient an amplifier is the less energy that will be consumed. This can only help us achieve further energy consumption reduction.
A whole session was devoted to radar techniques and from the topics discussed it seems like a lot of innovative radar applications are being researched and developed. This should bode well for certain commercial applications of radar that can benefit human safety. This also means that there may be more defense research applied to more evasive munitions.
Another major area of discussion was Terahertz technology and projects that might be possible. A Terahertz signal has a wavelength on the order of the thickness of human hair. Light is in this frequency range but is treated differently. Several space projects were discussed as possibilities as this may provide more insight in to the cosmos. This projects are multi-million dollar multi-year efforts that rely solely on a willing government for funding. This is currently very difficult to do as the political climate is very stormy when it comes to government expenditure. The real difficult with terahertz technology is low efficiency components that are hard to produce. This is because we have only begun to start research in this area from an engineering perspective.
The new technology that is supposed to revolutionize many commercial products ar radio frequency minature electrical machines, otherwise known as RF MEMS. MEMS have been discussed as a future breakthrough nanotechnology that could alter medicine and other areas of life. I will discuss these technologies in a blog posting at some point in the near future. RF MEMS show promise since they will be able to allow filtering that can adapt to the demands required from the signal. This technology has the potential to alter much of our wireless life in the connected domain, but some of these designs require materials which are rare. It is only reasonable that any company that wants to commercialize this technology will think about the cost of the resource they are using.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Net Neutrality

The Internet has by far been the most revolutionary technology of the last twenty years. I remember the first time I interacted with it. It was a time when websites were fairly basic and the Internet was primarily existing at research institutions and universities. Flash forward to today and the Internets is a bustling place with commerce, press, individual spaces, social networks, and even streaming video. All of this has brought us together in many ways that people never thought of.
The problem is that with the increasing amount of applications, websites, blogs, and social networks there is more information that has to be transferred between servers and computers. More information means that more bandwidth is desired per user and when this is coupled with the increasing amount of users there is a problem for the Internet service providers (ISP). They are limited in the amount of bandwidth they can support and are unlikely to upgrade equipment at frequent intervals to increase their bandwidth. All the ISPs must maintain decent speeds in order to maintain their customer base. In order to balance all these factors the ISPs must make some tough decisions.
In the early years of the Internet content didn't need to be filtered as the amount of data was not great. Congress at some point in the 90's passed a law which would lapse in the 2000's. Our reliance on the internet as a forum for information dispersal and communication of ideas has significantly altered our society. Every major institution of politics has a website that displays plenty of information related to their business. In the next election cycle I would expect every candidate to have a facebook page and a twitter account as a requirement and not a luxury. With this increased usage the networks that we use are unable to supply the demand. The ISPs have indicated their interest in seperating the speed at which content would be delivered to the viewer and charging for the faster rate. Some of these companies have conflicts of interest in that they are parts of conglomerates with magazine, film, and television production divisions. These companies may be involved in political activities that they could effectively squash the opposition by drastically slowing their data rate. Comcast which has been caught altering the download rates of peer to peer sharing networks claims that this was done to stop illegal downloading of copyrighted material. The practical elimination of illegal activities is a benefit of the new system providers are proposing.
In my opinion it is generally better to require unfettered and unaltered access to the internet. This is what made it a tool that led to such dynamic growth of technology. Any benefits from the elimination of illegal downloading of copyrighted material and/or the banning of child pornography websites would come at a huge cost to the free and democratic society we live in. We should definitely stay away from any censorship like Australia is proposing as this sets a bad precedent for authoritarian dictatorships.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Cell Phones: The perfect connection of Technology and Politics

On Thursday I was traveling and saw a roadside billboard advertising making your car a cell free zone. I didn't quite understand the billboard completely as I was driving and needed to pay attention to the road. It was only on Friday that I saw that Oprah was supporting a project to get everyone to agree to not use cell phones in their car, including texting. I strongly support this cause as driving and being on the phone is extremely dangerous. I encourage everyone to sign this pledge.
I am writing about this issue as this is at the nexus of politics and technology. Cell phones originally were big enough to be used as police batons and were very rare. By the early 2000's they were ubiquitous and small enough to be in the palm of your hand. The problem is that more drivers were distracted by cell phone calls which is a safety hazard. New York was the first state to ban cell phone use while driving. The technological capabilities only increased after the law was passed and texting became a very important communication form for many people. Now people are getting into accidents when they are driving and texting. States have had to adjust their laws to deal with the advances in the capabilities of cellphones.
Technology is always progressing forward unless it is explicitly banned. In an ideal world the engineers and designers would consider and warn the consumers as to dangerous or potentially dangerous uses of the new product. The truth is that in the situation of cell phones it takes legislators to decide the issue is a matter of public interest. Sadly this takes longer than it should because a majority of the legislators must be convinced to vote in favor.