by Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman

Prof. Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman is the most decorated scientist of Pakistan having won four civil awards by the Government of Pakistan 

Bionic Limbs with Sensitive Skin

While bionic limbs have been known for some years, scientists at NASA and US National Institute of Aerospace have developed a synthetic skin which has fine carbon nanotubes embedded in it– tubes so fine that they are one-hundredth of the thickness of a human hair. These nanotubes impart some special electrical properties to this synthetic skin. This can allow a person fitted with an artificial limb coated with such a skin to acquire a sense of touch through transmissions of these sensations via a microchip connected to the human brain.

Time is not far when bionic parts will out - perform natural human body parts.

Ever Heard of “e-Cigarettes”?

I was sitting on a plane last month on my way back from a conference in Trieste when I noticed a passenger on my left who was smoking a battery powered “cigarette”.

The tip glowed red due to a fitted LED light every time he puffed but very little smoke came out of his mouth. The cigarette does not contain tobacco but allows the smoker to inhale a few micrograms of nicotine. Invented by a company in China the device costs about US$60 while nicotine cartridges cost about US$1.5 each. Tobacco contains certain cancer-causing nitrosamines which are largely absent in e-cigarettes (except form some minor contamination in the nicotine).


On Wireless Electricity and Intelligent Walls!

We may be at the beginning of a new era in which electricity may not require wires and electronic devices may be operated without plugging them into wall sockets. The development has come from the path breaking work of Prof. Marin Soljacic at MIT and is based on the principle of transfer of energy between two magnetic coils having the same frequency. The first coil is contained in a box embedded in a wall, and is connected to the home’s electricity mains which supplies the power. The second “recipient coil” is attached to the electronic  devices such as television, laptop computer etc. The frequency of the two coils is matched which allows the transfer of energy from the first “supplier coil” in the wall to the second one on the device being used. The technology is perfectly safe as it is based on magnetic fields which have no negative effects on the human body. Indeed the same principle has been employed in Magnetic Resonance Imaging  (MRI) body scanning machines for decades  in which the resonance frequency of the oscillator coils in the MRI machine is matched with that of the dancing (“precessing”) hydrogen atoms inside the human body, thereby allowing these atoms to absorb energy and become visible. . A US company “WiTricity”, using the work of Prof. Soljacic has now demonstrated that it is possible to transport  electricity wirelessly through the air, so that a light bulb can be switched on or a computer operated without any wiring or batteries !

There are some 40 billion disposable batteries built every year, and millions of miles of wiring required in our homes annually - all this huge expenditure may soon be a thing of the past because our homes will have intelligent walls with in-built devices to supply invisible power through the air to various home gadgets !


Cars Running on Compressed Air!

A French company (MDI, near Nice) has built a novel car which runs on compressed air in fiber tanks which pushes the pistons to create movement. It has a glued (not welded) tubular chassis, a fiber glass body and is the ultimate in electronic gadgets with voice recognition, internet connectivity, GSM telephone, GPS guidance system and a whole host of entertainment systems. It has a wireless control system with one tiny transmitter controlling lights, indicators etc. The car requires no keys but reads an access card from your pocket! Its cost of running is one-tenth that of a petrol engine, a top speed of 68 mph and a range of up to 300 km before requiring a fresh charge of compressed air. The car can be refilled at adapted petrol stations within 2-3 minutes with compressed air. It also carries its own air compressor for emergencies or overnight refilling from the mains (takes 3-4 hours).It has zero pollution and requires I liter of vegetable oil every 50,000 km for oil change. The temperature of the air expelled from the car is 0 to 15 degrees below zero, which can be used for an internal air conditioning system, without needing any refrigerant gases or power for cooling. It took 10 years for the French company to develop this car and it has been licensed out to Tata Motors in India for mass production. The car will be launched in USA in 2010.


A Car that Goes 2487 Miles per Gallon!

A prototype car built by students at Laval University in Quebec, Canada won the first prize at the 2010 Shell Eco-Marathon in 1st week of April 2010 by achieving an astonishing 2487 mpg! The car was built with special lightweight materials and had an aerodynamic design with a very special type of combustion engine. The present world record is held by a hydrogen-powered car manufactured by the Swiss institute ETH in Zurich that reached 5385 kilometres with hydrogen equivalent to 1 litre of petrol.


Electric Cars - Lean and Mean!

Electric vehicles have been in commercial use for a long time. The milk delivery vans in use since the 50s in the UK were battery powered, to avoid the irritating noise of combustion engines early in the morning. One imagines electric powered vehicles to be quiet but slow moving dull vehicles. Not true anymore. A German company, e-Wolf, has been developing mean looking electric sports cars for some years. Its latest model, which looks like a Ferrari or a Maserati, is claimed to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds with a top speed of 155 mph. It has an ultra-light carbon-aluminum chassis and weighs about 900 kg. Each of its 4 wheels is powered by 134 powered electric motors using flat Lithium ion batteries which allow the car to travel 186 miles without recharging. 


Electric Vehicle Sets World Record

Rapid improvements in battery technologies combined with light weight materials for car construction are making electric-powered cars the vehicles of the future. Now the US manufacturer of Tesla electric sports cars has set a world record at the Global Green Challenge race in Australia, when the vehicle managed to travel a formidable 501 km on a single battery charge. Its design resembles that of the Lotus Elan. Honda achieved a distance of 360 kilometers on a single charge in the same race, but was more efficient in terms of distance travelled per watt hour of battery power. It achieved an efficiency of 85 watt hours per kilometer, which is claimed to make it the most energy efficient vehicle in the world.

The electric cars are coming!


A Leaning Vehicle!

The Japanese car maker Nissan has recently developed a tilting, half-width, two-seater, light weight motor car which works with lithium ion batteries. The ability of the vehicle, known as “Land Glider” to tilt by up to 17 degrees when going round corners provides the exhilarating feeling of riding a motor cycle. The car batteries can be recharged wirelessly at super markets or wherever facilities for charging exist. The car is fitted with a robotic crash avoidance system which detects nearby vehicles and automatically avoids collisions.


Talking Cars!

Hundreds of people die each day in car accidents, and the cost of these accidents in US alone is over $ 230 billion. Now technology is beginning to come to the rescue. New devices installed in the vehicles will allow vehicles to electronically communicate with one another and alert you of another invisible approaching vehicle which is round the corner. The system will even put on your brakes if you do not respond in time. Such systems will be available on most cars before long and they will constantly track the speed and direction of other approaching vehicles. The communication networks between cars and with the main traffic control systems will considerably reduce the danger of surprise collisions.


Cars that drive themselves

About 100,000 people die in car accidents each year. Can we have cars that will sense an impending accident and come to a screeching halt before the impact occurs? Well, you will be pleased to learn that one such car, Volvo S 60, will be launched next month, and other manufacturers are likely to follow. The car is equipped with camera and radar devices that monitor approaching objects and laser systems that accurately determine distances and transmit these to on-board computers. When all cars on roads are equipped in this manner, we will enter in a new era that will be free of road accidents.

In Japan a new smart highway system has already been developed that alerts drivers if they get too near a car in front of them, if there are vehicles converging on to the road from a side road, or if the road in front is congested. Known as ‘Smartway’, the system is expected to dramatically reduce road accidents.

The most exciting of such projects under development is aimed to make the car drivers redundant, at least for most of the journey! Known as SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment), the system is being developed by seven car manufacturers and some European universities. Cars will travel at high speeds in a convoy of eight cars, only one metre apart, with a lead car controlling the convoy’s movements by an onboard computer. This will allow drivers to read, sleep, or play games as long as their car is within such a convoy. The drivers will be able to resume control when they wish to exit the highway. Cars joining the highway will be able to book their place within one of many such convoys travelling on the highway. It is expected that fuel consumption and emissions will also be cut by 40 per cent by this system.


Cars that Drive Themselves!

Have you ever played chess against a computer, and felt dazed at how clever the machine was? Intelligent chess sets have been around for more than two decades. In the meanwhile machine intelligence has progressed at a phenomenal rate.

This was demonstrated dramatically when a Toyota Prius fitted with an electronic brain developed by Google and with hundreds of sensors drove itself across highways and busy roads in California without human intervention, deftly dodging approaching vehicles. This heralds a new era of automated driverless vehicles that will carry you wherever you want after a simple voice command informing the robotic vehicle of the destination.

Such automated cars are fitted with video cameras, laser range finders and radar sensors to instantaneously avoid collisions with other moving or stationary objects and to follow the road signals accurately. They use GPS systems for constant guidance. The cars can be programmed to drive in ‘aggressive’ or ‘cautious’ modes according to the different personalities that may be travelling in it. The car was conceived by Thrun, director of Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a Google engineer.

Cars with built-in artificial intelligence, capable of driving themselves may soon solve the problem of deaths due to traffic accidents.


Electric Cars - Fast and Furious

Electric cars have been generally considered as slow moving, expensive vehicles with little to cheer about. This is not true any longer. At the Paris motor show a large number of manufacturers exhibited new hybrid and electric cars, but one bound to create much excitement was that displayed by a little known French company Exagon. The car can go from zero to 100 kilometers per hour in 3.5 seconds, has a range of 500miles, and a top speed of 155mph. It has two Siemens 168hp electric motors that generate a total of 336 horsepower. Its range when travelling on electric motors is 400 kilometers (250 miles), and then the petrol engine takes over to double the range.

While electric cars are presently more expensive than those using combustion engines, mass production is likely to bring their cost down.


Improving Car Performance - with Batteries!

Hybrid cars that run on petrol and battery powers are under intensive development. Nickel-metal-hydride batteries are being used in some hybrid cars, while Mercedes have recently announced the use of lithium-ion batteries on its S400 BlueHybrid which will be connected to a 20-horsepower electric motor to provide additional power to the main 3.5 liter V6 engine, thereby improving its performance to that of a V8 engine, and allowing the car to achieve a fuel economy of 30 miles per gallon. The engine is switched off when the car slows to speeds below 9 mph, and the electric motor restarts the engine at higher speeds. Some other manufacturers such as BMW, Mazda and Porsche are also using this engine “off-on” method to improve fuel economy.


Most Fuel Efficient Car in the World?

A number of car manufacturers are trying hard to develop fuel efficient cars by using a combination of batteries and fuel (hybrids), reducing the weight of the vehicles and making them more aerodynamic. Volkswagen has announced that it will start manufacturing a vehicle by next year powered by a tiny single cylinder engine which will be able to go up to 100km with only one liter of petrol (235 miles per gallon). Fitted with such safety features as air bags, deformable front end etc., the outer body is made of carbon fiber composites while magnesium instead of aluminum has been used in the frame to reduce weight. The result is the most fuel efficient car in the world which weighs only 639 pounds !


Optical, DNA and Quantum Computers

Present day computers use electric current in transistors, with the electrons moving in-and-out of transistors to create binary logic. New types of computers are under development based on optical computing, DNA computing and quantum computing. With optical computers, employing optical transistors, photons in infra-red or visible light beams are employed to carry out the digital computing process resulting in higher processing speed, since photons (light particles) travel much faster than electrons. Another advantage is that unlike the passage of an electric current which produces heat and can damage the hardware, the passage of light does not produce heat.

DNA computers can carry out parallel processing, i.e.  multi-tasking, like the human brain, unlike most modern electronic computers which carry out tasks sequentially. This is expected to make DNA computers much faster than conventional machines. Biochips, involving the use of DNA molecules integrated on computer chips, are presently under development. Once developed, it is expected that DNA computers will be incredibly powerful, and able to carry out complex tasks and calculations far more efficiently than today’s electronic machines.

Quantum computers under development will operate at speeds a billion times faster than today’s computers and the information transferred will be ultra-dense. As quantum computing is reversible, theoretically there will be no net energy consumption. Japan and US defense agencies are allocating huge research funds in the development of quantum computers because they will be utterly secure, as they rely on the principle of “quantum teleportation” (seen Star Trek ?) of information without any signal path !


Cool Computers!

“Spintronics” is a fast evolving field which relies on the spin of electrons rather than variation in voltages used in modern electronics to store and transport information. A material, bismuth telluride, has been found to possess a highly desirable property - it offers almost zero resistance to the flow of electrons. It is more attractive than conventional superconducting materials (which require cooling to about -150ºC) as it exhibits the near zero resistance at room temperature and no heat is produced, thereby allowing power transmission to occur without losses. Spintronic materials are likely to find wide applications by improving memory density in hard drives, and improve speed in Magnetic RAMs.

Another interesting development is that of “excitons”. These are electrons bound to a hole in an insulator material. Integrated circuits have been successfully built, operating at -148 ºC, based on exciton technology, thereby opening up possibilities of much faster computers.


Robots: Learning like Children!

At the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova, robots have been created with the ability to learn from their surroundings, just as children do when they are growing up. The robot has the size of a toddler, and its brain has been designed so that it learns by interacting with its surroundings. Scientists hope to understand from the robot, named “iCub”, how human beings think and learn. iCub can recognize human faces and detect specific objects against a background. It has fingers which can clasp objects and it is learning how to catch a ball in mid-air. In time, it is hoped that iCub will also learn to recognize difference sounds and finally learn to speak.

Eleven European Universities and research institutes have joined together in this Robot-Cub project with a US 12 million grant from the European Union. Twenty iCubs are being manufactured of which eight have already been sent to selected laboratories in Europe and Turkey, where they will be subjected to various training programmes. Other robots previously developed are the wheeled robot Khepera, built by a Swiss consortium, and the Japanese humanoid robots HRP-2, PINO and ASIMO which can play music or walk on uneven surfaces. Robots have a huge potential in both industrial and military areas, and countries with the most advanced robotic armies may one day rule the world.

Once robots become super intelligent and learn to replicate themselves, there may no longer be any need for those frail and volatile biological earthlings called “humans”!


World’s Fastest Computer to Explore Dark Matter,

Dark Energy Mysteries

The world’s fastest computer “Roadrunner” has been developed through collaboration between IBM and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It is able to perform 1000 trillion operations per second! It is being employed for the US nuclear programme, as well as for exploring the secrets of the universe, genomics and climate change. The machine is a giant - it occupies 6,000 square feet of space, has 10,000 connections which use 57 km of optical fiber and its 80 terabytes memory weighs 500,000 pounds!

Only 4.6% of the mass of the universe is accounted for by the “ordinary” visible matter made of atoms. About 23% of the matter is “dark matter” that is invisible but its presence can be deduced from the motion of galaxies. The remaining 73% of the universe is an even stranger component, “dark energy”. This is a huge unsolved mystery. Although dark matter cannot be seen directly, its presence can be indirectly sensed from the grasp on clusters of galaxies, holding them together. Dark energy also accounts for the manner in which the universe continues to expand at an accelerating pace. 

The base unit used for calculations by the “Roadrunner” is a particle with a mass of a billion suns. Such a large unit was necessary as the galaxies being modeled have masses of about a trillion suns. The computer employs some 64 billion or more of these “billion sun” particles to simulate the dimensions of the universe.  The scale of the calculations involved is truly mind boggling.


Artificial Intelligence – the Dark Side

Will intelligent machines one day threaten our very existence?  Self- evolving machines that have the capability of making other machines better than themselves are very much a possibility in the future. You may have been surprised how intelligent an electronic chess player is and how it can foresee your moves, preempt them, and plan its own strategic approach to defeat you. Robots currently available can only perform mundane tasks such as cleaning floors or obeying simple commands. However more sophisticated systems are being employed to help lifeguards to detect when a person is drowning in a swimming pool or assist drivers to pick the best road to their destination after analyzing traffic flows.  Researchers are concerned that the day is not far when an Artificial Intelligence “singularity” will be created, an out-of-control chain reaction in which machines start building other improved machines.


Controlling Robots - by Thought Alone!

Honda has developed a special hat which when worn can control the movements of robots just by thought! The hat is in the form of a skullcap that has highly sensitive electrodes fitted in it which detect the electrical signals from the brain as well as the blood flow. The information is transmitted to a robot, which recognizes the intention of the person wearing the hat and acts accordingly. This mind reading hat uses remote sensing sensors so that no surgical implants are needed.


Robots - that Sense Your Emotions!

Prof. Peter Robinson and colleagues at the University of Cambridge have developed a robot that can sense your emotions and make appropriate responses. It reacts with feelings of empathy, joy, anger or frustration, depending on the situation and the mood of the person interacting with it.

While voice recognition software has been around for quite a while, mood recognition software is a new development.  The robot is fitted with a camera that detects the changes in the facial movements, body gestures, and pitch of the voice of the person, thereby enabling an assessment to be made of the overall mood of the person. The robot then responds accordingly with its own remarks.


Robotic Fighter Aircraft - A New Era Begins!

The tremendous advances in machine intelligence are heralding a new era in which machines will be able to assess the situation on ground in a battle environment and work out the best strategy to destroy the enemy. Such robotic soldiers are under intensive development at a number of defense related establishments, particularly in USA. On Friday 4th February a historic step was taken when an unmanned aircraft, which is capable of taking off from an aircraft carrier, engaging enemy aircraft or neutralizing other threats and then returning back to base, made its first successful flight test from Edwards Air Base in California.

The aircraft has a high level of machine intelligence incorporated in it and makes its own decisions in various situations. The U.S. Navy X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) aircraft has been developed by Northrop Grumman and can operate as a completely autonomous system without human intervention.


Robots - that See Through Walls!

The US army has funded a programme under which a robot has been developed that is so sensitive that it can actually see through walls by detecting reflected radio-waves. The robot contains an extremely sensitive RF scanner that can send wide band signals that can penetrate through concrete walls and reveal the sights and sounds that occur behind. The robot can be controlled remotely and can be used for spying what is going on in hotel rooms or in the office or home of the President or Prime Minister of a country. Even the sound of breathing of a person can be detected by this robot remotely, as it is fitted with a fine beam ultra-wide band multi-Gigahertz radio-frequency sensor arrays. This “sense-though-the-wall” (STTW) technology will expose many politicians and leaders to intruding electronic ears and eyes. Named Cougar 20H, the robot has been developed by TiaLinx.

Meanwhile the space shuttle Discovery blasted off to space recently with the first humanoid robot (Robonaut 2) on board. It will learn to perform various tasks that are normally performed by astronauts and will eventually replace astronauts for certain chores once it is properly trained. It will also be useful in emergencies to perform repairs and other tasks in space.


Carnivorous Robots!

Ever heard of carnivorous robots? James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau at the Royal College of Art London have designed a number of domestic robots that will lure and then eat up flies and other small moving insects. They will also benefit from the process by deriving energy from the swallowed insects. This is because they are powered by an internal microbial fuel cell installed within the robots which runs by this process. The idea of using vermin as fuel was first proposed by a UK based company, Bristol Robotics Lab, who had developed the first fly-powered robot in 2004, and proposed that similar marine robots could be developed which could “survive” on plankton.


Moving Wheel Chairs - by Mind Control!

Is it possible to control the movement of wheel chairs by thought? Indeed it is! Paralysed patients can now move around unaided across rooms on battery powered wheel chairs the direction of which can be controlled by focusing thoughts while they concentrate on a screen fitted on the chair which has a 3D map of their surroundings. The 3D map is constantly created and updated by a laser mounted in the front of the chair. The users need to wear a special skull cap which has a number of electrodes fitted around their scalp. The electrodes detect brain activity. If the brain activity lasts longer than a millisecond, which happens when the user is looking at the point on the map to which he wishes to travel, this triggers the movement of the wheel chair in that direction.

The chair has been developed by Javier Minguez and his colleagues at the University of Zaragova in Spain. The invention was presented at the International Robotics and Automation conference earlier this summer. A person can learn to navigate around obstacles, avoid collisions and drive around freely in the chair by mind control in less than an hour.


Seeing with the Tongue!

A company “Wicab” based in Wisconsin, USA has developed a device which allows completely blind persons to partly see with their tongues! A small digital video camera is built into sunglasses worn by the blind person and the digital signals from the camera are transmitted in to a small base unit about the size of a mobile phone which converts these signals into electrical pulses. The pulses are then transmitted into a “lollipop”-like device which lies on the tongue. The tingling sensations felt by the tongue allow the blind person to sense his surroundings after some training so that he can navigate his way through doors and corridors, identify lift buttons, distinguish a knife from a fork on the dinner table, distinguish letters and perform other such tasks. The device has been developed in association with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and is expected to be marketed by the end of this year.


On Mind Control

The ability to control thought processes has been a research target for many research establishments and government  agencies. The Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) employed sodium pentothal, a truth drug, to obtain information regarding the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. CIA and KGB have used this technique widely in their operations and a number of drugs are known which can extract the truth from the unwilling.

Drugs have also been developed that will diffuse your will to fight. A nasal squirt of the hormone oxytocin reduces aggression and increases trust, with the potential to transform hostile armies into a friendly state of mind! Another agent BZ causes delirium by acting on the brain, making it difficult to think or speak coherently. In October 2002, a Fentanyl derivative was employed against Chechen rebel fighters who had held 750 people as hostage in a Moscow theater.

Biotechnology is a double edged sword, with the capability of producing beneficial drugs and industrial materials on the one hand and potent biological weapons on the other.


UFO-Like “Flying Saucers” are here!

Circular flying space ships carrying aliens to earth have been sighted occasionally since the 1950’s. Now they have been actually invented!

A UK based company (AESIR) has developed circular flying vehicles of various sizes which can take off vertically, and use the “Coanda effect” for generating power from a central fan for hovering and flying. This effect represents the tendency of fluid jets to follow a circular path aligned with the surface of a curved body instead of remaining on their original straight path. It can be simply illustrated by placing a burning candle behind a circular can and blowing air at the can. The flame will be extinguished, even though it lies concealed behind the can, because the air stream will follow the circular path defined by the shape of the can. The various aircrafts developed by the company range in sizes from 30cm in diameter capable of carrying 100 grams of pay load to larger aircraft  capable of carrying over a ton of material. The exotic looking “flying saucers” were displayed recently at the Defense Systems & Equipment International Exhibition in London.

So if you see flying saucer, don’t run screaming - it is likely to be an AESIR circular aircraft!


Flying Human Jets!

In September last year, Yves Rossy donned a special suit fitted with four small jet engines on foldable wings and jumped off a plane above France. He flew about 22 miles across the English Channel, thus becoming the first “bird man” to fly a jet powered personal wing across the Channel. Does this mark the beginning a new era in personal transportation?

 Imagine that you have to take your children to school. All of you don these personal jet powered wings and fly away like birds, soaring high above the city, before descending minutes later in the school compound.


Perpetual Planes - that Fly without Refuelling!

Can we build planes that will fly forever, and never need refueling? Yes! Pentagon’s advanced–research organization Darpa has announced a competitionunder the “Vulture” programme, to build aircrafts that will fly continuously for years without refueling. These will be unmanned surveillance and communications aircrafts that will fly over targets perpetually and transmit information without any interruption. The first entry of an aircraft called Odysseus has a Z-wing configuration with solar cells on the wings designed to capture maximum sunlight that will power it during day and night.



Peer Fischer and colleagues at Harvard University have developed a tiny device with the thickness of a hair and with a length about a fifth of a millimeter. It has a tiny glass bead, barely visible to the naked eye, at one end and a cork screw-like tail. One end of the device is coated with cobalt. Since cobalt is magnetic, its movement through fluid can be accurately controlled by an external magnetic field. The sperm-like device fitted with cork-screw shaped tail behaves like a small propeller which can swim though blood vessels, and may thus carry the “load” of a drug about a thousand times its own weight to the site of the infection. The device mimics the cork-screw motion of flagella to move through the liquid.


World’s First Self-Powered Nanosensors!


Scientists working at the Georgia Institute of Technology in USA have developed the world’s first self-powered nanosensors. The electricity generators comprise thousands of embedded zinc oxide nanowires that convert mechanical power into electrical power (employing the piezoelectric effect) when the wires are subjected to mechanical stresses. The piezoelectric effect already finds wide applications in many devices, such as the ignition source for cigarette lighters and for igniting propane-barbecues though the push-start process, as well as in several types of scientific instruments. The mechanical stress results in the production of a voltage across the material. The nanosensors are completely enclosed on a flexible surface and do not require contact with metal electrodes. The flexible devices in which the nanosensors are implanted do not require batteries and they can be embedded in running shoes, in microphones (to use the mechanical vibrations produced by sound to power them), or  use the mechanical energy from sea waves to produce energy.