BTA Panel: The Power of Tiny SensorsTuesday, October 22nd, 2013
Four great minds gather at the 2013 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards to tell us the big things you can learn from measuring very small things.
“If you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it.” So said this year’s Breakthrough Leadership Award winner and founder of X Prize Foundation Peter Diamandis. “And I believe that this next decade will have fundamental breakthroughs in the ubiquity and capability of sensors. In the future everybody will be wired and we’ll be dribbling bits—bits about blood chemistry, cardiovascular status, neural status—and those bits will be analyzed by AI and you’ll be told if anything is in deviation.”
For the 2013 Breakthrough Awards, PopMech assembled a panel of four of the top minds in sensor technology to discus their breakthroughs and what the future holds. Here are some of the top quotes from that conversation.
“Your decisions of what to do are only as good as your capability of sensing.”—Michale Goldfarb, co-inventor of the Indego Exoskeleton
“There is a whole other class of sensing, and it’s sensing that’s done in real time with systems that are actually interacting with the world at the time, and tactile sensing is one. It is a particularly compelling problem because you actually don’t get any tactile information until you do something. It’s the physical interaction with the environment which your machine or robot initiates that causes a mechanical interaction. And it’s the information that you get during that mechanical interaction that both tells you something about the world and gives you direct, immediate control of the movements that you’re making and therefore the sensory information that you’re getting. And that loop, that very intimate loop which is one that our brains are doing all the time which we take for granted, is now the loop that we have to embed in silicon if we’re going to have all these wonderful sensors doing the kinds of things that humans do in real times with their bodies.
We decided to pick a problem that was well defined but challenging. We said, Well, how do you judge textures? You can get large number of textured objects and people run fingers over them. Well, exactly what are they doing when they run their fingers over them? You make decisions about how hard or how fast to press, and you do that several times, and your mind filters through what amounts to a lifetime of experience about how things should feel and how things you’ve experienced would feel. And it wasn’t until we came up with an algorithm that behaves in a way like how you think, in a way brains makes decisions, that we could give our machine a background for texture discrimination.”—Gerald Loeb, co-inventor of the SynTouch biomimetric fingertip
“What we want we to incentivize with this $2-million competition are breakthroughs in accuracy in the ability to access the pH of the ocean at various levels in a way that is affordable, so that it doesn’t cost $20,000 per sensor, which is the current going rate. And we want something that is easy to use so that it’s not just a research scientist on a $40,000-a-day cruise in the middle of the ocean. All of that means it’s not just a device that may have nanotechnology basis or may have electrochemical basis for detecting pH, but one that can actually be integrated into a system that allows an entire globe to start to asses and monitor the actual state of ocean chemistry. Because without that data we’re lost. That’s step one. As a biologist, I come from environmental background, and there’s lots of data out there. But being able to analyze it in any meaningful way has been difficult for a very long time. So that sort of big data and computing power issue has come up and it’s time for us to actually build in automated sensors that can allow us to analyze that data.”—Paul Bunje, executive director of UCLA Center for Climate Change Solutions
“What we do with the nanosensors is really harnessing nanomachines that already occur in nature, in living systems. Instead of trying to recreate that in silicon, we have tried to harness those nanomachines and put them to work by controlling the environment in such a way that we can predictably make them start, stop, run backwards, forwards on the ground—not by recreating them but just by harnessing what’s already created by thousands of millions of years of natural evolution and putting them to work by understanding how to control them on the nanoscale. So that’s point number one.
Point number two is, now that these nanomachines are sensing the environment, they’re processing information and they’re acting all in real time. These machines are about 10 nanometers wide, so we have harnessed them, put them to work in various ways and embedded them into engineering platforms that allow a form factor for the delivery of this underlying physics capability to more engineering applications. And that’s sort of what’s brought into our gene radar platform, which is a mobile DNA-RNA-based real-time diagnosis system.
Now what that does is it replaces a gold standard that has really been dominated for the past 20 years in a field called molecular diagnostics by a Nobel Prize-winning technology called PCR. And that paradigm has been the basis for today’s multibillion-dollar molecular diagnostics industry. And the way that works is, you ship in your blood and they’ll take days to weeks to run, and then you’ll get your answer back. So one of the first apps that we’ve developed on the gene radar system is for the developing world, in Africa. For example, we’ve developed an app for point-of-care HIV viral load monitoring. The gold standard in the United States for that will take two weeks and $200. And in Rwanda, they have one machine for viral load reference lab that will take up to six months to get an answer. And by the time the patient gets the answer back, the disease is spread or somebody’s died. We’ve shrunk that gold-standard diagnosis outside of a big centralized lab and into a mobile device that will give you an answer in real time at a price point that eventually will be a hundred times cheaper than what currently is available on the market.” —Anita Goel, Chair and CEO of Nanobiosym and winner of the Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE