Glasss bright future

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: May 23 2014, 02:17am hrs
Kevin Ashton, one of the originators of the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology and proposer of the Internet of Things, has expressed bafflement over the fact that while the world has become intimately connected by always-on internet, jetliners can still vanish into the blue. Writing in the New York Times, he suggested that this is because the aviation industry is still using Cold War technology. The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) was created in the 1970s. Black boxes are like very rugged thumb drives which can transmit a beacon, and were designed using hardware from before streaming data, which reports in real time.

The tragedy is positively an outrage when seen through the lens of technology. But, perplexingly, the biggest technology news was the second public sale of Google Glass, which fractionally increased the population of Explorers who are pioneering this flavour of wearable computing. Glass is being hailed as the most disruptive technology ever, generally by people who do not appreciate the disruptiveness of, say, steam power. The beam engine and the locomotive had not only disrupted but also forcefully reorganised the politics and economics of the world, to a degree that a visual, always-visible, location-aware internetwhich is what wearable computing will initially buildmay not do.

But last month there was news (yet again) of another technology which is theoretically simple but could be as disruptive as Glassa weapons delivery system straight out of science fiction. From 2012, gun-crazies on the internet have been periodically going ape over a BAE railgun being tested by the US Navy. They just love the specs of the prototype, which hurls a projectile over 100 miles at Mach 7. It transfers 34 megajoules of kinetic energy to the target, producing a powerful explosion without the need for high explosive. Redneck lips are being smacked in anticipation of the battlefield model, which may pack double the punch over twice the distance, and will be tested on board ship for the first time in 2016.

The railgun made news recently because the US Navys Surface Warfare Division at Dahlgren, Virginia, which started testing in 2007, shared a rather dramatic video of the railgun being fired. Never mind the excitement of the maniacs, the gun is actually a remarkable product. It is the first real progress in conventional weapons technology since the invention of gunpowder during the reign of Song dynasty in China. In the intervening period, every delivery system, from the country-made pistol to the Swedish-made Bofors howitzer, has been built out of the same componentsa chemical propellant charge and a projectile, either metallic or containing high explosive.

The railgun generates an electromagnetic field to accelerate a solid projectile made of heavy material. Depleted uranium would be a natural choice in the field; it is currently used in armour-piercing slugs for antitank platforms like the A-10 Warthog. This would significantly reduce the amount of high explosive that warships carry, the cost per round fired and the cost of maintaining stockpiles. The railgun would be the weapon of choice for missile defence, being far more accurate than conventional unguided weapons. It could also be used against slow-moving and stationary targets like ships and military installations. However, since it does not use smart circuits, it would be useless against targets like aircraft which can take evasive action.

So, the railgun does not attract the question that Google Glass Explorers are frequently asked: Whats it for Currently, the wearable computer can do mail and web, get directions and use a few appsstuff that you do with your smartphone anyway. But this is only the first iteration of the device. When the first smartphones came out, it was not immediately clear what advantage they offered over the combination of legacy cellphones and PCs. There was no indication that phones, tablets and phablets could completely take over some of the functions once served exclusively by PCs, such as email and note-taking. The tectonic shift in social media, which has practically jettisoned the desktop, was barely suspected.

The first iteration of Glass is a bit like the first generation smartphone: we are yet unsure what it is for, and if it is as irreplaceable as its makers suggest. But, already, extraordinary future uses can be guessed. For instance, it could intermesh real-world gaming with elements of internet gaming in a way that would make both paintball and Doom 3 look boring. In public welfare, it could play a role in telemedicine that returns the general practitioner to a pivotal role in clinical practice, without reducing the patients access to specialist care. A GP wearing a Glass could be the patients first interface with the medical system, but video streamed from the Glass could connect both doctor and patient to a speciality hospital during the consultation, reducing the need for physical referral and speeding up treatment. And, come to think of it, if something like Glass was standard issue for pilots, traffic controllers would know exactly where a jetliner went off the air, and what the pilot was seeing when it happened.