Many years ago, when there was an admirable drive to provide computers to as many people as possible in the developing world, in fact huge numbers of computers and screens and keyboards were delivered to their target audiences. The initial reaction was of extreme excitement for obvious reasons. Admittedly, Internet connectivity was not available at that time. But still, children could learn from the CD-based teaching materials and could develop a level of competency in typing, writing stories, doing basic but important math on the spreadsheet and finally developing high quality presentations for others. It is hard to believe that we succeeded in getting anything done without universal communications. But one can learn a great deal about computers, and develop a great deal of computer skills, even without access to Facebook.

There were though a couple of problems that became very significant in a short period of time. The energy needs for running all of these computers was not properly taken into account in many classrooms. Such, there simply was not enough juice for every child to have their own machine. In some cases, children doubled up and were still able to learn. The other problem was the physical conditions of the areas in which the computers were kept. Many of the regions which received these computers were extremely dusty. Any computer with a fan and a hard drive, especially the old hard drives that function more like old record players, became gummed up with all of this dirt. Even the screens started malfunctioning. CD drives started to fail, and equipment started to vanish.

This really is the ultimate example of people having their hearts in the right place, but failing to consider all of the annoying, technical aspects of running a system. Perhaps, there even was an engineer around warned the benefactors of the problems associated with this approach in the developing world. I have seen equivalent situations happen in the westernized world where passion suppresses practical logic and experience. In the end, the project failed and millions of dollars were wasted.

No one predicted that the computer revolution in the Third World would come in the form factor of a mobile phone. These devices are so amazing in so many ways. Firstly, they can fully function on relatively little power, especially in comparison to a desktop computer. These devices are far more resistant to environmental stresses, and by virtue of being mobile, they truly allow people access to information and communication anywhere at any time. I am actually personally surprised that the phone makers and sellers in the developing world do not sell solar powered charging stations for relatively little profit, if not even at a loss. The simple fact is that phone companies make money when people use their phones. If energy is lacking, people use their phones less. In many developing countries, there is plenty of sunshine and this could charge up a solar battery enough to power a mobile phone around-the-clock.

Let’s take things down to the next level and talk about biotech. Biotechnology is a very hot topic today and it is recognized as being potentially groundbreaking in a way that puts all other computer technology to shame. Biotechnology projects speak to the possibility of curing cancer and ending, with a single shot, influenza. Our bodies are carbon-based but they are astonishing machines even at the microscopic level. Our human eyes can detect a single photon of light, under the right conditions. Talk about divine engineering.

When biotechnological agents are introduced into the body, one of the key issues becomes power. If you have a nano robot which must locate a tumor and then destroy it piece by piece , the power to do so must come from somewhere. One cannot hook up a iPhone battery to a single cell and inject it into a person. so the power to run these micro devices has to come from somewhere else. There is an excellent review of this topic at the following location. To quote:

“Nanotechnologies are considering both external and internal power sources. Some designs rely on the nanorobot using the patient’s own body as a way of generating power. Other designs include a small power source on board the robot itself. Finally, some designs use forces outside the patient’s body to power the robot.”

Another major biotechnology, DNA editing, works via specially designed genetic material which effectively uses the innate power systems provided by the cells. To quote:

“CRISPR is an RNA-guided gene-editing platform that makes use of a bacterially derived protein (Cas9) and a synthetic guide RNA to introduce a double strand break at a specific location within the genome”.

CRISPR is an extremely popular gene editing tool and is being used for all types of applications [some of which are even morally questionable, and would make a great storyline for a future Bond movie]. No external energy needs be attached to CRISPR to make it work. This is also one of the reasons why cellular biotechnology is already so capable.

Whether satellites in the sky, or smaller-than-cell sized devices, power is key to making things work. When designing large or very small scale technologies, one of the first things to consider from an engineering point of view is how the technology will be powered. Imagine a beautiful mobile phone that could only hold a charge for half an hour. It would have its uses, but would be by no means a popular consumer item. Even in professional situations, a half-hour of time to remotely consult on the critical case is extremely limiting. Now let’s assume the opposite: that our mobile phone never needs to be charged. Between the upcoming technology of wireless energy, and more effective use is of solar power, and with the introduction of smart surfaces everywhere in our homes and workplaces [which would be wireless charging stations as well], the mobile phone would become even more popular than it is now. In fact, battery size could be reduced in order to reduce weight and cost, and everyone would benefit.

Implanted biotechnologies that can feed off of an internal or external source of energy, would become a second thought to anyone making use of them. So a bionic pancreas that never needs to be charged with obviously have benefits over the same device that requires daily top-ups. power can make or break a technology far more than any screen resolution, amount of memory or built-in linkage to iTunes. The exciting thing is that the technology world has embraced the delivery of power and we should soon expect to see amazing solutions for keeping the lights on for ever.

Thanks for listening.