Rene Tan asks:

Hello, My question: When is it possible to buy such artificial brains, for example in a technology store? Or when is it possible for consumers to use those artificial brains?! Can I be the first to use these artificial brains?! Yours sincerely, Rene Tan

Richard Wheeler of Starlab replies: In many ways artificial brains are already available in some common household items - any object that learns and makes even simple decisions that would otherwise require human intervention is in some way artificially intelligent. In this way you can see AI now in many appliances, electronic gadgets, and of course in computers and the wider internet. Real artificial brains (of mammalian scale) will probably not be available in a non-research sense for at least ten years, and even then may well be very expensive and specialized in use. The day may come, however, when you will be able to train, teach, and use your own artificial pet, decision making system, or memory enhancement device. Have a look at Aibo or Creatures for a glimpse of what the future might hold. To get a more hands-on experience of what creating AI is like, try downloading some of the available shareware environments and experimenting yourself - it will give you a good idea of what a monumental task brain building is. Good luck!

Keith Bellamy asks:

I was wondering whether you could point me in the right direction to get some help on the subject of low dimensional matter? I accompanied my son the Warwick university a couple of weeks ago, and before the tour started, one of the professors there gave a brief lecture on the research his team was undertaking on two, one and zero dimensional silicon (I think the latter was called a quantum dot). It sounded absolutely fascinating, and its consequences seem to be much further reaching than this professor could see. Do you have anybody in Starlab working in this area who could give me a very high level introduction into what is involved and the science behind this research? I am currently in the process of setting up an organisation called "The Lifestyle network" that is trying to understand how personal choices are going to influence business behaviours in the future all resulting from technology development. It just strikes me that developments like this have the potential to change society in a profound way. So if you have any pointers, I'd be most appreciative. Keith

Dr. Sorin Lazarescu of Starlab replies: A Quantum Dot (QD) is usually a 1D structure formed (theoretically) by only one particle that ocupy a well-defined, discrete quantum state. That's might be the definition of a theoretician guy. QDs are small metal or semiconductor boxes that hold a well-defined number of electrons (from 0 to hundreds). This number may be adjusted by changing the dot's shape or electrostatic environment. Quantum dots are often referred to as 'artificial atoms' and provide useful models for studying the behaviour of electrons in atoms, but in a more convenient experimental setting. These QDs are in fact crystals made up of only a few hundred atoms.

Compared to their size, they hide behind a long and exciting history. Once upon a time, computer guys and microelectronics scientists, both desperately in need for miniaturization started to thing how small could they make memory and circuits. The answer that came stated that these devices could be squeezed until the limit of the matter, where they would behave acording quantum lows (1). In practice, the situation appeared to be more complicated because creating QDs is not so straightforward. Atoms have the nasty habit to mix each-one and therefore to dimerize on surfaces or to diffuse in bulk. That's similar with our own human behaviour, cute isn't it ?

Who's reminding now the philosopher Karl Popper, claming few decades ago that the future of science will trigger an important cross-linkage of all the scientific disciplines? This is actually the situation with everything related to QDs, either. Nanoscience, physics, material science, for numbering only these, have now bio- as prefix.

Because the QDs measure only a few nanometers (billionths of a meter) across, about the same size as a protein molecule or a short sequence of DNA, QDs could be used as near-perfect beacons for lighting up biological events. Remember that their status depends on theirshape and/or their electrostatic environment? By tuning these parameters, one can make sharply colored dots simply by varying the size of these nanoparticles and make a rainbow of these colors fluoresce with white light or a single-color laser. QDs could then come in a nearly unlimited palette of colors and can be linked to biomolecules to form sensitive probes to identify specific compounds and track biological events. Furthermore, the nanoparticles will allow scientists to simultaneously tag various biological components-say different proteins or various sequences of DNA-with specific colored nanodots.

On the other hand, the technology to be used iseems not to be so complicated. In a research project, dealing with solar cells, it turned out that tightly focused femtosecond (10 exp-15 sec) laser pulses in bulk dielectrics create nanometer-scale nano-features with applications in data storage, optical communication, and laser surgery. Such laser flashes that induced chemical etching of silicon surface created microstructured cells. By combining surface science techniques with femtosecond lasers a new science was born. Femtosecond surface science provides now a direct view of chemical reactions at surfaces.

Here, at Starlab, we are on the point of starting an ambitious project that I initiated and which will be related to CdSe quantum dots made by hot precursor injection into surfactant solutions. It has been prooven that rod-like CdSe (semiconductor) nanocrystals can emit multiple colors of light depending upon their size.This propertiy is very interesting in a wider area of aplications, as nano-size electronic devices, biological fluorescence labeling experimentsand as chromophores in light-emitting diodes (LED). The short-term applications of this project could result in high-efficiency, portable, miniaturized displays of interest to I-wear, for example.

Reference: (1) Turton, R. The Quantum Dot: A Journey into the Future of Microelectronics. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Dear Shebang/Starlab
Why do we die?
Alexandra Delamere, Vancouver Canada

The short answer is: There are differing theories as to why we die. Moreover there were Starlab researchers who felt that death is so big an event in our lives because of our intelligence and our egos. Animals do not write spiritual tracts, philosophical treatises or poems in the subject of death.

According to one theory, death is a strategy. Once multi-cell creatures evolved there came to be a distinction between germ cells and body cells. As long as the germ cells are passed on, with as few errors as possible, through the process of reproduction, then after procreation, the body cells just have to be good enough to bring a new creature to adulthood. And then the body cells are irrelevant.

The response from Starlab researchers also mentioned the fact that, if we didn't die then we would eventually run out of food to eat and space to live in. What is known scientifically is that, basically, your body is programmed--a bit like a computer programme that tells the computer what to do. (Only your programme is much more complicated). All the things that happen from when you grow from a single cell all the way through until you die is organised by a programme that tells your body what to do next and how things should go. That's inherited information. It comes in your genes. Events in your programme from the first tooth to the first grey hair are affected by factors like having access to good food and other considerations which affect your health As you get older you accumulate various bits of damage - and waste.

Also, cells start to die and the new ones that replace them don't do their job quite as well or they're not as strong as the earlier ones Some parts of the body get stiffer and work less efficiently because myriad extra tiny connections are made where damage has occurred. We observe similar things happening in every part of the body. Put simply, we just wear out. Some people's bodies wear out much more quickly than others, because of all sorts of damage - sun damage, sickness, internal emotional and hormonal environment - or a genetic programme. When you die (a natural death) you just stop. Something that is fundamental to your body continuing on has stopped working well enough.

Your body needs a lot of you to keep going--to be healthy. Almost any organ that you can think of can be a cause of death. One of your organs is bound to go sooner or later and then you've had it. Many organs stop working properly because the mitochondria in the cells don't provide as much energy as they used to. With some very old people we don't really know why they die. They just seem to dwindle away. Perhaps sometimes people just decide that it's time.

Although in the future we may be able to radically change our genetic programming to delay death of certain types of cells and promote reproduction of certain others (i.e. avoid genetic aging), external factors and fatigue of materials cannot be totally avoided. In other words, even if we were able to avoid cancer, viral infections and genetic disorders, our bone structure would still suffer from decalcification and loss of flexibility, our arteries could still get constricted, our lungs would lose breathing capacity over time due to accumulation of microparticles. It may be possible in the future to genetically alter the human program to live much longer, however experts believe that after some 150-200 years the human skeleton would just be unable to support itself or breathing would become impossible due to the irreversible reduction of lung capacity.

As a side note, we may not need to do the genetic reprogramming to live longer ourselves. Nature may take care of it in due time. You have to consider that the human species has had very little time to evolve. In other words, we are still a very young species. Only 5 or 6 thousand years ago, if an individual suffered a back injury, his own brain would send a signal to the neurons in the vicinity of the injury to commit suicide, eventually leaving him/her paralyzed. This would almost certainly result in death due to the individual's inability to provide food for him or herself. This cell suicide still happens today. When someone suffers a spinal injury the human body still responds by sending the "suicide message" to spinal neurons. The human body (the human species or genome) has not had time to "learn" or adapt to the fact that today survival of the human does not depend of its ability to hunt. This is true for a variety of other areas of human evolution. It is also true that the life expectancy continues to increase. Not only we are able to live longer now, but we are able to live better and be more productive for longer (which may be another reason to die: [one] may want to live forever, but [one] certainly doesn't want to WORK forever).

From Kelly McCormick

Hi. My name is Kelly McCormick and I am a sophomore at Santa Barbara High School in Santa Barbara, CA. I am doing a project where I have to write a chapter on the 1990's. One of the sections is that I have to find at least 5 inventions that have changed the ways of life, so far I have the computer or internet, the DVD player, and the digital camera. I also have to do a sections and find at least 5 ways that science presented new ideas, so far in this category the only one I have is cloning.

Dear Kelly you can find an entire section on INVENTIONS in our Shebang archive.

From a Starlab researcher

  • mobile phone
  • Viagra

Science presenting new ideas:

  • proof of Fermat's Last Theorem
  • Human Genome Project
  • detection of gravity waves
  • quantum cryptography
  • possible traces of fossil life on Mars
  • anisotropies in Cosmic Background Radiation
  • progress towards Aids vaccine (
  • photonics (using glass fiber + light instead of copper wiring +electricity)
  • new candidates for quantum gravity theories
  • molecular computers
  • nanotechnology

Another Starlab researcher responds

The 1990s saw three really important inventions that will be missed by most folks:

  • Open source and the application of "open knowledge" platforms to business and technology
  • Alternative methods of communication and dissemination (wind-up radio for example)
  • Inexpensive, high-throughput water purification and de-salinization (laser methods, etc.)

And yet another Starlab response

The GSM/Mobile Phone of course.


  • nanotechnology
  • emotional intelligence
  • zero-point energy
  • quantum computing

Mr. Francois Bellamy in Nairobi asked:
What is the so-called ‘God particle’ and what is the fuss about it?

The so-called ‘God particle’ is the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is a particle named after the British physicist Peter Higgs. Space is supposed to be filled with these particles, and the Higgs boson, theoretically, gives a mass to all particles which interact with it, and indeed it gives mass to itself.

Everybody expects that it exists because the standard model of elementary particle physics is a hugely successful theory and the Higgs boson is an essential element in its construction.

The fact that the Higgs boson appears to give a quality to other particles, and that quality is ‘mass’, some have been tempted to perceive an element of ‘creation’ in the process. Hence the name ‘God particle’, but such a literary conceit has nothing to do with science.

Millions of pounds are being spent on finding the Higgs boson. The large-scale apparatus for seeking it should be in place in Geneva in 2005. In America, the search for the Higgs boson was halted in the early 1990’s by the Clinton administration to the dismay of many of the world’s most prominent physicists.

What do you think about flying cars in the future?
Jessica Muldownie, London England, aged 10

Dear Jessica,

This has already been achieved, apparently. In mid-1999 there was a news item to the effect that the Skycar, a cross between a flying automobile and a miniature airplane, could revolutionize transportation if it lives up to its designer’s claims. Designed and built by engineers at Moller International - based in Davis, California, the Skycar is the world’s first personal vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle. It cruises between 350 and 390 miles per hour.

Looking like a small wingless airplane sitting between two jet turbines, it aims to provide "three dimensional mobility for the same price as two-dimensional mobility," the company says. The Skycar could reduce congestion on existing highways as well the need to build new roads.

Because it uses a highly efficient four-stroke engine to burn regular gasoline, the Skycar would create minimal emissions and is expected to meet California’s strict emissions standards. By using global positioning system technology, Skycars could reduce personal vehicle accident rates, the company says.

The first U.S. patent for a voluntar, or "powered lift" aircraft, was issued to the Skycar in 1992, and the vehicle is now patented worldwide. The U.S. Federal Aviation Agency is considering certification for the Skycar, as well as a new kind of pilot’s license for such craft, and the company hopes to begin manufacturing and Skycars within three months. Production model Skycars could market for around 50-60,000 pounds in your money.