Author Archive for John Falcioni



01
Feb
15

THE NONFICTION OF SCIENCE FICTION

0215MEM_cover_no-boxWhen viewed through an engineering lens, science fiction deals in dubious possibilities that become conceivable when reason and know-how are applied. Science fiction emboldens the aspirations of innovators and of dreamers, and it drives the pursuit of tools that will reach the far ends of the world and beyond.

Science fiction has been coined “the literature of ideas” because it feeds the process of ideating the future. It does not predict it, however. It simply contemplates it.

Last year, two professors at the famed MIT Media Lab, who believe that current students don’t read as much science fiction as they did in the past and, therefore, have lost some of the benefits that come from it, began teaching a course called “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication.” The focus was on developing physical prototypes and code-based interpretations of technology based on classic science fiction—films, books, television, and even comics. Among other selections, the class studied urban surveillance as depicted in DC Comics’ late-1990s Transmetropolitan and also the 1974 short story, “The Day Before the Revolution,” which tackled aging, death and grief, and even sexual conduct.

As groundbreaking as it was, there are many examples of technology imitating science fiction outside of the Media Lab. In his 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, for example, Jules Verne proposed the notion of light-propelled spaceships. Not surprisingly, technologists today are actively working on solar sails. If you’re a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you felt a tinge of nostalgia when a robotic probe launched by the European Space Agency’s mission control in Germany landed on a comet last November. Consider also the symbiosis of science fiction and IBM’s recent $3 billion R&D investment in technologies like non-silicone computer chips, quantum computing research, and computers that mimic the cognitive function of the human brain.

At the rapid rate of technology innovation, some of what is considered science fiction today will become reality in the next 50 years. Soon enough, replacement organs could grow in labs, and drones might fly over our cities and towns delivering packages. To many of us, the prospect of these types of emerging technologies sounds exciting, but a recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that even while recognizing the benefits of sci-fi technologies, many in the United States do not embrace these advances.

The study shows that 59 percent of Americans are optimistic that scientific and technological changes will improve quality of life, but 30 percent are afraid the changes will make life worse. In the findings, 81 percent of respondents think that it will be possible to grow organs in labs, and 51 percent think computers will be able to create artwork just as well as humans. But fewer than 40 percent expect that teleportation will be possible in the next 50 years and only 33 percent say they expect that humans will be colonizing other planets.

In this month’s cover story, associate editor Alan Brown and contributor Brittany Logan talk with several innovators who tell us how science fiction informed their work. For them, the future represents an open canvas where they can paint their vision of reality inspired by the unrestraint of fiction.

01
Jan
15

THE EMPOWERING ELECTRIC GRID

0115MEMpcov1It’s been more than two years since Hurricane Sandy hurled its massive destructive muscle on the Atlantic coast, leaving behind wrecked lives and millions of dollars in damages. By now, most of the damage has been cleaned up, even if the nightmares persist for those whose homes and lives had to be rebuilt.

For those of us who didn’t suffer property damage, Sandy made us aware of an electrical grid that almost never fails. We had to adapt to a temporary life without television, hot showers, and the other first-world perks we’ve come to rely on. We lived through seemingly endless days in the dark, and even when things began to get better we had to huddle with strangers at communal tables in coffee shops that had access to the web. And we waited on long lines to get a ration of gasoline to power generators and feed our cars, only to be told when we got to the front of the line that there was no more fuel left.

In this issue we take a deep dive into some of the critical risks to the grid that threaten our accustomed way of life. This month’s cover story, “Pandora’s Net” is a fascinating article that reviews some of the vulnerabilities in the grid that can be exploited by savvy hackers. “All the stuff we’re doing in Western society in regards to cybersecurity is probably ten years or so behind the curve of what the bad guys are doing,” a security consultant told Brittany Logan, a journalist who spent several months researching this article for us.

In the second article, “Right-Sizing the Grid,” physics professor David Newman, says, “There is something about the grid’s very size and structure that increases the risk of cascading failures, where a single event can touch off a chain reaction of failures.”

The implications of an electrical grid shutdown are severe. Many of us have lived through blackouts, some of which have stretched into weeks. We’ve also read in both academic literature and science fiction about doomsday scenarios from the effects of electromagnetic pulses from the sun, or from atomic weapons, or from terrorists, with the potential to take down the grid for much longer periods.

But we mustn’t disregard the large portion of the world that has never been connected to a grid. In contrast to veterans of Sandy, students in the developing world regularly crowd around transportation hub parking lots to access just enough light from street lamps to do homework, and women often travel far by foot for clean water only to be turned away when the limited supply is exhausted.

To 1.3 billion people in developing countries the path to global development is based on access to energy. The economic and quality-of-life benefits that emerge when poor communities have access to affordable electricity are transformative. Without it, obtaining clean water, refrigeration, and proper sanitation is jeopardized, as is the ability to access the Web and all of the world’s knowledge.

This is why the topic of energy poverty shouldn’t be ignored in conversations about the electric grid. The threats to our energy infrastructure are serious, as this month’s articles detail, but so are the dangers to society if we overlook the people who have no energy infrastructure to rely on.

 

23
Dec
14

PLANNING YESTERDAY FOR TOMORROW

1214_cov_no-boxMy friend Gary used to come over to my house almost daily when we were kids, but I secretly prized the times he invited me over to his parent’s place. I had more board games than he did and had gained a bit of a reputation for being a killer table-hockey player, so Gary and a lot of other kids always wanted to test me out. But Gary’s house had gadgets—lots of gadgets. By today’s jargon, I’d call Gary’s mom and dad early adopters.

For example, Gary was among the first kids in school to brag about owning a color TV; he was the first to get a cassette player and a movie camera. I also remember that his folks had kitchen appliances that shined—maybe because they went out to eat a lot. Oh, and they had a car, not that this was necessarily a big deal, except for families like mine that didn’t. For me, entering Gary’s house was like walking into Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress.

Both figuratively and literally Disney has been on the vanguard of innovation since the iconic movie maker opened Disneyland in 1955. Our cover story this month, “What the House of Tomorrow Can Teach Us Today,” opens with a photo spread, across pages 30 and 31, showcasing the Monsanto House of the Future, a popular Disneyland attraction from 1957 to 1967. But the Monsanto house was more than a simple attraction, it was a presumed beacon for how we would live in the future—a future, 1986, that has long passed us. You can see the kitschy promotional video for the house at http://bit.ly/1vC9Cxt.

One of the takeaways from the House of the Future is that, in some ways, technology has far outpaced even the imagination of what the future would hold. But we also see some accurate projections.

The paradox of any archetype that looks ahead in time—a house, a car, a [fill in the blank] of the future—is either that the prototypes are built too many years ago to be considered futuristic today, or those created today are too fundamentally ill-informed to provide realistic projections of tomorrow. Still, they’re valuable as benchmarks of innovation.

Earlier this year, Samsung introduced its own house of the future, the Samsung Smart House. It features a home environment containing technology that’s available today to you and me. You can see Samsung’s promotional video on the house at http://bit.ly/1A29EXl.

Samsung’s and other visions of the house of the future are a showpiece for connectivity. They’re defined by the burgeoning buzz phrase, the Internet of Things (IoT), which delivers the backbone for interconnectivity, be it household devices or industrial chains. In a home environment, the IoT is represented by appliances controlled through voice recognition, or from outside the home through cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices.

Even as I admired the gadgets in his home, Gary and I preferred to debate the trades of our favorite baseball team more than the future of technology. Not that we didn’t daydream about space stations, visits to Mars, oversize televisions, and wristwatch phones. We didn’t think then that these things would really exist one day. Much like we don’t know today what 2015 will bring, let alone what the home might look like in 2045.

23
Dec
14

making life better through innovation

MEM1114FINALE.inddThe Unisphere at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in New York City—a park not too distant from where I grew up—was built as the icon of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. It was dedicated to celebrate “man’s achievements on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that World’s Fair and the Unisphere remains a part of the city’s recognizable landscape. Many people now probably identify it mostly as a symbol for the annual U.S. Open Tennis Championships, which is held at the park. After a few years of neglect, the Unisphere again shines brightly above the glow of spotlights and, like the old days, water flows from the fountain.

Fittingly, the statement about a “shrinking globe” that defined the Unisphere when it was dedicated keeps getting more relevant by the day. Technologies far more advanced than those showcased in the pavilions of the World’s Fair continue to transform communication, transportation, education, and other areas.

It was nice to visit the park again in September for this year’s Maker Faire, a collection of engineers, tinkerers, and garage inventors who were showcasing and celebrating innovation. It was a fitting location given the park’s legacy with innovation. The maker culture represents a technology-based extension of the do-it-yourself movement. Makers like to tinker in electronics, robotics, and 3-D printing as much as woodworking and metalworking.

I’ve met few mechanical engineers who didn’t work on gadgets in their basements or car engines in their garages growing up, or even now. But the maker movement also has a more serious subtext. The developing world—where resources are often scarce and access to the technology that we take for granted here is limited—is full of makers. Some have become renowned, but others work silently to help build better, safer environments for themselves, their families, and their villages. We might consider some of the things that they create tools or gadgets rather than technology, but to millions of people these locally sourced innovations represent vital instruments of everyday life.

At a forum on engineering for global development at this month’s ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition, a group of influential thinkers, who are most familiar with the nuances of the technology, economics, and politics of the developing world, will debate the ways in which those of us in the First World can help makers in the Third World usher in more sustainable technologies to local areas. The program will be streamed live on asme.org on Nov. 17.

This movement is one push toward the democratization of technology, where greater access to better technology for more people leads to a better life.

Since its formation in 1880, ASME’s mission has been to advance technology and safety. So besides noting the Unisphere’s anniversary, in this issue we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, which was first published in 1914. The Code is updated regularly to focus on new challenges and extend its growing influence around the world.

The Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code represents one way in which the achievement of men and women—hundreds of ASME volunteers—impact a shrinking world in an expanding universe. Finding more creative solutions to make people’s lives easier is another.

 

 

06
Oct
14

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a new flying machine

1014MEM_Cover.inddBy the year 2154, humans will have severely depleted Earth’s natural resources.

This isn’t a prognostication or a personal political proclamation, it’s the premise on which the hugely successful 2009 film Avatar is based.

If the notion of Earth’s depleted natural resources weren’t enough, the plot gets unimaginably more intriguing from there. Those who saw the movie know what I’m talking about, but even if you didn’t see it, you might remember watching some of the spectacular footage from the film in ads showing aerial battles waged in futuristic helicopters over the varied, extraterrestrial terrains. The film’s creative team was rewarded for its imagination and imagery by winning Oscars for best art direction, best cinematography, and best visual effects.

These images stirred the imagination. Blog posts following the movie’s release marveled at the mighty looking mechanical systems that lift vertically and whip around with power and might. Some bloggers speculated whether elements of these helicopters already existed and wondered whether such high-powered vehicles could ever be manufactured.

The U.S. Army wondered the same thing, but its concerns are, obviously, much more serious than those of bloggers or movie producers. Current military helicopters are based on designs of the 1970s and 1980s, while faster and durable civilian rotorcraft have been ushered by advances in engines and other technologies.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense began defining the scope of a project to replace the legacy helicopter fleet with next generation vertical lift aircraft. The initiative, called Future Vertical Lift (FVL), represents a family of platforms across all of the U.S. defense departments. The DOD brass believes that some of the technology developed under FVL will also help civilian industry in the form of advances in rotating machinery and operating efficiencies.

Two years ago, the Army funded a program called Joint Multi-Role (JMR) Technology Demonstration “to inform future acquisition programs that fulfill the FVL initiative,” said retired Lt. Col. Dan Bailey at a keynote session a few weeks ago during ASME’s Design and Manufacturing Impact Forum. Bailey is the program director for JMR and FVL and, having logged more than 325 hours of combat duty in Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, certainly knows a thing or two about the topic. He said the goals of the program are air vehicle demonstration and mission systems architecture demonstration.

Around the same time as Bailey’s speech, the Army selected two industry teams to develop this new type of helicopter. The Bell unit of Textron Co. in partnership with Lockheed Martin Corp. represents one team; the other is a team of Boeing Co. and Sikorsky Aircraft Co. Analysts say that, by creating a competition, the Pentagon is testing a new way to develop and purchase weapon systems.

If development of these advanced aircraft ultimately gets the green light, we won’t have to wait until the Avatar year of 2154 before they’re flying around, but it won’t be before the mid-2030s either. By then, Earth’s natural resources won’t likely be depleted (this month’s power and energy articles provide some insight on that), but there’s no word yet from the DOD if the Avatar brain link project will have gotten the go-ahead.

 

 

03
Sep
14

SETTING THE STAGE for a leading role

0914MEM_CoverFBRosie the robot had a mind of her own. She held a prominent role in The Jetsons, the futuristic and animated family television sitcom. She spent her days being part-time housekeeper, part-time babysitter and—more often than not—a prominent family sage. The Jetsons was set in the Space Age world of 2062, when robots serve as servants, flight is the preferred means of transportation, and people use video chatting to communicate. Imagine that.

Some said the show, which first aired in 1962, was ahead of its time. It went off the air after one season but returned to a more successful run from 1984 to 1987. Hollywood’s fascination with robots, however, predates Rosie and the Jetsons. Since the early days of B movies there has been an allure in giving mechanical objects the ability to think for themselves and act autonomously. In most of these obscure and often dark films, chaos occurs, predictably, when the machine, armed with the power to act under its own volition, wreaks havoc, turns on humans, and occasionally kills innocent women and children. In essence, it gets ugly.

Sans all the death and destruction, the fascination to give robots something akin to cognitive aptitude has not been lost on a long list of researchers throughout the years. They’ve been at work trying to promote robots from the assembly line and into useful aides that can interact with humans in positive and helpful ways. One of the many intriguing examples we have written about in the past is the work to turn robots into caregivers to help the elderly.

Because much of yesterday’s science fiction has become today’s technology, our editors have relied on the likes of technologists such as Ahmed Noor to keep us honest about the line between science fiction and reality. In his articles over the past decade or so, Noor has taken us inside technologies that are burgeoning and others so advanced you wouldn’t be surprised to see them on The Jetsons. We’ve closely monitored Noor’s work and we’ve kept a keen eye on the Center for Advanced Engineering Environments that he runs at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

“Game Changers,” the article Noor penned for us this month (plus a related article, “Robot See, Robot Do,” written by a group from the University of Maryland) leads us on a path showing that machines are approaching the age of reason. Noor tells us about some serious explorations conducted here at home in places such as the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly known as DARPA, and others farther away, such as the Neurorobotics Research Lab of Humboldt University in Germany, where an early generation cognitive robot called Myon is learning to respond to human emotion. Myon is so advanced, in fact, that it will play the lead in Berlin’s Komische Oper production of “My Square Lady,” a take on Frederick Loewe’s musical, My Fair Lady. (No, I’m not kidding.)

The unique production will probe the question of what makes a person a person, and whether an object such as a robot can be transformed into one.

In spirit—figuratively speaking of course—Myon is more Rosie the robot than its distant relatives who play the menacing machines of modern warfare in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Just the same, I’m glad we’ve got the likes of Ahmed Noor to tell us just how long we have until technology fully catches up with science fiction.

15
Aug
14

ADVANCED MATERIALS FOR GAMES OF ALL SIZES

0814MEM_CoverNot too distant from the collection of smiley, sad, angry, and other round-faced emoticons on your smartphone or IM dashboard is an image of the iconic black-and-white-patched soccer ball. But even if you’re one to use these hackneyed little critters in e-mails and texts, chances are you probably never even realized the soccer ball was there, let alone think to use it.

I admit to inserting the ball into text messages a few times in the past weeks as my team, the Albiceleste, kept me on the edge of my seat during the quadrennial FIFA World Cup that ended last month. As it turns out, the real black-and-white soccer ball, with its 32 panels comprising 12 black pentagons and 20 white hexagons stitched together, isn’t as ubiquitous as one might think, at least not in international competition.

The German company Adidas, maker of the official ball of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) sanctioned tournaments, has designed five different soccer balls for international play—none of them had black pentagons and white hexagons. Remarkably, the traditional soccer ball has not been used in the World Cup since the tournament was played in West Germany in 1974. The search for the optimal soccer ball for use in the highly fêted World Cup has included the Tango, the Azteca, the Questra, and the much maligned Jabulani, which was used four years ago in South Africa. This year, for the World Cup in Brazil, Adidas created Brazuca.

Each new ball is engineered with material advances to make the sphere more aerodynamic, more waterproof, and easier to control. If the goal (no pun intended) of ball technology is to make play more competitive, then the Brazuca can lay claim to being a huge success. Pundits (yours truly included) say this year’s World Cup was one of the best in recent history.

The Brazuca, along with many other soccer balls, it turns out, is made in Sialkot, a town in the northeast region of Pakistan recognized as the soccer ball capital of the world. Before China got involved a few years ago, seven out of 10 soccer balls in the world were made in Sialkot and factories there produced more than 60 million soccer balls a year. Now it’s down to about 40 million. The Brazuca is produced at an Adidas factory where 40 percent of the workforce is comprised of women—no small feat in Pakistan. The ball has six patches that are glued together, not stitched. This makes these soccer balls, according to Adidas, the most aerodynamic ever made.

Testing included smashing it against a wall at 45 mph, dredging it in water to ensure it wouldn’t absorb moisture, and baking it at 130 °F for seven days so that it stood up to the heat of the Amazon, where some of the games were played this year. Wind tunnel tests showed that unlike the Jabulani, which was made in China and tended to change directions in flight when it was kicked, the Brazuca remained stable.

Our cover story this month focuses on advances in material design for different types of applications—nano, meso, micro, and macro scale manufacturing processes. The work is being conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Multiscale Systems Engineering Research Group.

I’m wondering whether the researchers from Georgia Tech will manufacture a high-end soccer ball for those exciting nano foosball games I like to watch.




The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

September 2015
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