December 2, 2013
When you clicked on the link to read this article, your computer, tablet or phone sent a request that traveled hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles at the speed of light. After leaving your house or office, likely via a fiber optic cable, it traversed the continent, crossing through a handful of Internet exchanges along the way. Ultimately, it reached a data center in Chicago where Smithsonian.com stores its data—the “cloud,” of course, isn’t really a cloud—and triggered a packet of data to be sent back in the opposite direction, bringing the text, images, and links in this article to your screen.
Soon, though, the packers of data your computer requests when you browse the web might make a slight detour as part of its journey to a data center and back to your house. Much like how, when you call for tech support, you’re likely to speak to someone in India, we might be on the verge of an age where we routinely outsource much of our data to the frigid island of Iceland.
“There is no reason why Iceland shouldn’t have a major market share in international data hosting in the next ten years,” Isaac Kato, a CFO at Verne Global—the company that’s currently expanding their year-old data center near the capital of Reykjavik—told me last month when the company brought me to Iceland to see their new facilities. As he courts customers, his company’s selling point is simple: Iceland is a perfect mix of fire (as in geothermal energy) water (hydropower) and ice (cold air, to cool racks of servers without AC). In the data storage industry where the biggest cost is electricity, Verne Global claims they can provide enough cheap, 100 percent carbon-neutral power to make the trip more than worthwhile.
Their idea isn’t entirely new—Facebook is building data centers in northern Sweden, near the Arctic Circle, to similarly take advantage of natural air conditioning, and the company Advania operates a smaller data center in Iceland as well. But Verne could be a harbinger of a much bigger trend: Hosting the data of international companies that have nothing to do with Iceland, thousands of miles away from their operation.
What make all this possible are the undersea fiber optic cable lines that connect Iceland to Europe and North America. Because fiber optic data travels at the speed of light, a trip from New York to Iceland and back takes about 80 milliseconds. But plenty of countries are wired with fiber optics. Given the immense power consumption of data centers—Google’s suite of data centers, spread all around the world use enough electricity to power a city of 750,000 people—Iceland’s uniquely attractive attribute is the fact that it is literally overflowing with carbon-free energy.
Iceland built its first hydroelectric plant in 1937 as part of an effort to supply many of Reykjavik’s houses with electricity for the first time. One of the first places I visited upon arriving to the country was Irafross hydropower plant on the River Sog, built a few miles downstream from the first plant in 1953 and now one of 13 hydropower stations operated by the state-owned power company Landsvirkjun. Given that Iceland is trying to brand itself as a waypoint for the digital information that keeps the world connected, it felt ironic that the 45-minute drive to the power plant from Reykjavik was strikingly sparse and remote. Craggy, windswept lava flows run underneath high-voltage transmission lines, and grazing sheep dot the landscape.
After entering the building, we donned hardhats and descended a four-story concrete spiral staircase, walking past whirling turbines and through a moss-covered access tunnel. “Be careful to watch your head,” said Rikardur Rikadsson, a genial company representative, shouting over the gushing of nearly 40,000 gallons of water per second, discharged back into the river after spinning a series of turbines that can produce up to 48 megawatts of electricity at any given time. In the scheme power plants as a whole, this output, which can power somewhere on the order of 15,000 homes, is a fairly small number; a typical coal plant can produce 600 megawatts of electricity.
In the U.S. and most other countries, renewable electricity is a boutique industry. In Iceland, it’s the only game in town. Currently, 26 percent of the country’s electricity comes from geothermal energy and 74 percent comes from hydropower. When you plug your television into a wall outlet in Iceland, the juice coming out is entirely carbon-neutral.
But for a sparsely populated country of about 320,000 (a bit larger than the population of Corpus Christi, Texas), this is actually too much power. The nation produces almost twice as much electricity per capita as any other country and is actively trying to figure out what to do with it. Sources of renewable energy, unfortunately, can’t be shipped in barges like coal. Plants can’t send waterfalls or geothermal heat across an ocean. Plans to build an electricity transmission line to Europe are occasionally discussed, but it’s estimated that producers would lose 7 percent of the electricity during transmission and the necessary infrastructure would be excessively expensive.
“For years, the power companies here thought, ‘How do we get the power from Iceland to Europe?’” says Jeff Monroe, Verne’s CEO. “We believe we’ve found the most efficient way to do that. We’re shipping power out of Iceland and around the world in the form of bits and bytes over fiber optic cables.”
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“For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelessness of our new digital age, when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was,” writes Andrew Blum in his book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Verne’s new data center, built on a decommissioned NATO base outside of Reykjavik, is one of these real, physical places.
The company was founded in 2007 by Isaac Kato and others who hoped to capitalize on the world’s rapidly growing data streams and Iceland’s unique energy situation. But shortly after they announced their plans, they were abruptly halted. “I came on board in September 2008—a week or so before the crash,” says Monroe, referring to the crippling financial crisis that caused the country’s GDP to fall by 5.5 percent in a six-month span. “No matter what you were doing in Iceland, you were impacted.” By the end of 2009, though, when the undersea fiber optic links to Europe and North America were completed, the situation had improved, and Verne decided to press forward. In 2011, the company purchased an existing warehouse from NATO, repurposed it with their own infrastructure and opened for business, though it is still expanding and filling the space with more servers and machines.
Given how open, in many ways, our new digital age seems to be, there’s something surprising about the back-end places where our bits originate; they’re intensely secretive. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside the area of the data center with the actual server racks, and getting our tour group into the facility necessitated an elaborate security procedure that involved fingerprint-activated locks.
Once inside the aluminium-walled warehouse, we strolled through a frigid industrial hall filled with enormous machines. This was what one of the center’s “cold aisles,” filled with the devices that ensure the servers stay powered, cooled to the right temperature and kept at the correct humidity at all times. “I want to remind everyone that this is an active facility, so hands in pockets at all times,” Tate Cantrell, Verne’s technology officer and our tour guide, told us. At the end of the building, a freezing draft blew in through a two story-tall wall made up mostly of air filters. “The wind outside? That’s our free air-cooling,” he said. On average, half of a conventional data center’s energy goes toward cooling down the servers as they heat up, the same way your laptop’s fan starts whirring when you run a bunch of programs at once. Instead, at this facility, they simply piped in the wind and funneled it towards the backs of the machines.
Even so, when we entered the locked aisle that gave access to the front of the servers, the temperature felt like it immediately jumped up 20 degrees or so. Crunching data generates a ton of heat. Cantrell provided cryptic, jargon-filled descriptions of the hardware, but the sci-fi-styled server cage, I was told, looked more or less like all data centers: racks upon racks of servers strung with snaking cables, silently running lines of code and served bytes of data to users far, far away.
It’s impossible to say exactly what their purpose was at that very moment—a few companies (BMW and RMS, a catastrophic risk modeling company) have publicly announced their use of the Verne facility, but most are reluctant to for security reasons. But the basic idea is this: Of a company’s digital activities, there are some that need to be close to a geographical center—financial trading software, for instance, needs to be able to capitalize on the split-second response times that putting infrastructure in Manhattan allows—but for the vast majority, an extra 80 milliseconds of lag time won’t make a big difference. Companies that want to take advantage of this can either rent space in Verne’s server racks for their own hardware or buy computing capability as they need it.
Given all the benefits Verne claims to offer, why aren’t thousands of companies moving their data to Iceland right now? One reason is the perception of Iceland as a volatile place to do business. Apart from the financial crisis—from which the country finally seems to be recovering—there are natural disasters. The island itself is a volcano, formed by the continual spreading of the Mid-Atlantic ridge, and a 2010 eruption spewed ash that shut down air travel throughout Europe for an entire week. Associated earthquake activity, though rare, is also a concern. Due to the use of natural air cooling, some worry that volcanic ash could infiltrate the center and interrupt operations, while earthquakes could damage infrastructure.
But Verne officials say these concerns are overblown. “No matter where you put a data center, there’s risk,” said Monroe, the CEO. “Northern New Jersey, for instance—there are a ton of data centers there, and we saw during Sandy how risky that was.” Gawker.com, for instance, was knocked offline during the storm due to power failures at its New York-area facility. To minimize their risk, Verne put its facility on the former NATO base, which sits on secure bedrock, far away from the island’s seismic activity and upwind from the volcanic activity, and have measures in place to shut down the outdoor air intake in the event of an eruption.
But for some customers, there may be one problem that persists no matter how many precautions Verne takes: latency. 80 milliseconds—the length of time it takes a piece of data to fly from New York to Iceland and back, under ideal conditions—might not sound like much, but for some companies, it might be a deal breaker. In the past, Google has found that merely increasing the time a search takes from 400 to 900 milliseconds causes a 20 per cent drop in traffic. Given the unavoidable delays already present (computing time, the time it takes for data to cross the continental U.S., etc.), tacking on an extra 80 milliseconds could be undesirable. And while Google might be able to build multiple data centers—those in remote, inexpensive places with abundant energy, like Iceland, and those near users specifically built for time-sensitive tasks—smaller companies might not have this luxury, and are forced to put all their eggs in one basket, says James Hamilton, an engineer with Amazon Web Services.
For larger companies with flexibility, it may be that getting used to the idea of outsourcing data is the biggest hurdle to overcome—the same way outsourcing call centers was a strange idea, until it became normal. “It’s hard to go be the first person to move your data there,” says Rich Miller, the editor-in-chief of Data Center Knowledge. “No one wants to take a risk and have it backfire.”
But it seems that Verne might indeed be at the forefront of a trend. In addition to leasing space in Verne’s facility, BMW has discussed building their own data center nearby, in anticipation of all the data that’ll be used by their increasingly connected cars, equipped with their new ConnectedDrive technology, which provides drivers with cloud-based voice control and real-time traffic information over a wireless connection.
Given the negative publicity companies like Facebook and Apple have received from Greenpeace campaigns protesting their heavy dependence on coal power, the eventual possibility of carbon emission regulations and the resulting increases in energy costs, and the fact that Icelandic utilities offer 20-year fixed-price contracts on carbon-neutral energy for industrial users like power centers, figuring out a way to power data with clean energy in the long term makes a lot of sense. Right now, the data running through your computer or tablet probably didn’t come from Iceland, but wait a year, five years, or a decade. Eventually, there’s a good chance that the cloud will have relocated to a frigid island nation across the Atlantic.
November 22, 2013
In a world where we’re being conditioned to touch screens, a team of MIT researchers is trying to get consumers to, ironically, think different. Imagine a computing system where users located in one location could gesture and these motions would generate various designs, shapes and messages in physical form in a completely different location. It would almost be like reaching into a screen and touching what you see on the other side.
Dubbed inFORM, the interface is comprised of 900 motorized rectangular pegs that can be manipulated using a kinetic-based motion sensor, like Microsoft Kinect. In the demonstration video, you can see how the pegs systematically rise up and take the form of a pair of fabricated hands to play with toys, like a ball, or page through a book. Much like those pinscreen animation office toys, with inFORM, entire physical representations of towns and landscapes can instantly emerge and evolve before your eyes.
“We’re just happy getting people to think about interfacing using their sense of touch in addition to touch screens, which are nothing but pixels and purely visual information,” says Leithinger. “You can now see it can be a lot more than that.”
Envisioned as a kind of “digital clay,” the PhD students originally developed the technology for practical applications, such as architectural modeling. While 3D printers can produce miniature replicas that take as long 10 hours to fully layer and dry, inFORM’s moldable flatbed can instantly model entire urban layouts and modify them on the fly. Geographers and urban planners could similarly produce maps and terrain models. There are potential uses in the medical field as well. A doctor, for instance, might review a 3D version of a CT scan with a patient.
The elaborate system is designed so that each peg is connected to a motor controlled by a laptop. But, the inFORM technology isn’t meant to be a consumer product—not yet at least. “What you’re seeing is the early stages of a completely different kind of technology,” says Leithinger. “So the way we put this interface together wouldn’t be cost-effective enough for the mass market, but there are lessons that can be learned to make something based on the idea of 3D interfacing.”
The creators also don’t want anyone to confuse inFORM with a similar nascent technology called telepresence, where a person’s movements can be transmitted remotely to a different location. Even though telepresence robots like the popular prototype Monty can be controlled from afar to pick up objects, they’re limited to limb movements and other attributes of the human form.
“Our system allows for a lot more improv than these other technologies, like generating an object that interacts with another in real time” says Follmer. “A telepresence robot may be able to pick up a ball, but it’s not as good at using a bucket to pick up a ball.”
As the pair explores the technology’s wide range of potential applications, they’re also aware of the current limitations. For now, the inForm interfacing only works as a one-way system, meaning two people in separate continents won’t be able to use their own 3D surfaces to simultaneously hold hands. It also can’t create complex overhangs where a portion of the formation juts out horizontally (think: the diagram in the game Hangman). For that, you’ll still need a 3D printer.
“It’s possible to make the interactivity touchable and real on both ends and so we’re definitely exploring going in that direction,” says Leithinger “We’re constantly getting emails from people telling us how the interface can be used to help blind people communicate better or for musicians, stuff even we’ve never thought about.”
October 25, 2013
As if struggling actors didn’t already have it hard enough. In Japan, changing times have given rise to a new breed of mercilessly efficient automated restaurants that can easily service an entire busy day’s worth of hungry patrons without the need for a staff of waiters, chefs or even dishwashers.
The most popular of these is Kura, where a sushi plate will run you only 100 yen, the equivalent of $1.00. Such low prices are made possible by gutting as much of the “human touch” element that has long been ingrained in how eateries are typically run out of the dining experience. For instance, whereas new customers would traditionally be seated and given a menu by a friendly host, visitors to Kura seat themselves and are greeted by an interactive touchscreen menu positioned next to the table, which allows them to browse various food items and make selections or to input special requests. Below that is a winding conveyer belt system that carries several covered dishes of different types of sushi and main courses while a separate conveyer right above delivers specific orders. To maintain freshness, each plate has a scannable label that enables the computerized system to keep track of how long a particular sushi item has been kept on the rotation and automatically disposes of it after a certain amount of time.
Behind the curtain, orders are put together by employees whose duties, not surprisingly, resemble those of an assembly line factory worker more than a trained chef. With the assistance of a robot programmed to spit out clumps of rice, the assembler tops off each piece with cuts of fish and other varieties of seafood that had been prepared earlier, to exact specifications, at a local plant. Once it’s time for the check, customers dispose of the plates though a small table-side chute that sends them to another area to be counted, machine-washed and then back to the assembly line for reuse.
Reviews of automated restaurants, as you might suspect, are mixed. ”It’s another art for eating. I like it!” a diner at Baggers, an automated joint in Nuremberg, Germany, told BBC News reporter Steve Rosenberg. Another said, ”It’s more for young people than old people. My mother was here yesterday and she needs my son’s help to order.”
A report in the New York Times re-tells the story of how such restaurants emerged and successfully took shape, mainly as a response to a dwindling customer base, due to the country’s ongoing economic struggles and an aging population that prefers not to eat out. Kura’s founder, Kunihiko Tanaka started the company in 1995 on the premise that, as efficient as Japanese restaurants had become over the years, there were still plenty of ways to cut costs without compromising the quality of the dining experience. With this in mind, he took the already established practice of serving food on conveyer belts, which started in the late 1950s, mixed in more advanced automation technologies and threw in a dash of IT. His goal was to trim down the somewhat bloated way food establishments conduct day-to-day operations. At Kura, the only humans deemed necessary are the assemblers and a handful of managers who’s main responsibility was to ensure that customers left satisfied and that everything went swimmingly.
Takeshi Hattori, a company spokesperson, told the New York Times that a small staff was enough to service a restaurant that seated a maximum of 196 people.
With 262 locations nationwide, Kura’s strategy has been a profitable one, to say the least. And who knows? These robo-eateries may soon make their way across the Pacific and open up in our neighborhoods, what with our growing preoccupation with constantly being plugged showing that our deepening love affair with technology is only deepening. Smartphones, for instance, have increasingly become a kind of mental sanctuary, a way for people to happily disengage from those around them. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center (PDF) reveals that thirty percent of young adults (18-29 years old) surveyed said they’ve pretended to be using their phone in order to avoid interacting with others. A Japanese design firm has even created the “Anti-Loneliness Ramen Bowl,” a soup bowl into which you can dock your iPhone.
However, I personally wouldn’t expect automated restaurants to catch on the U.S., considering that such an extreme approach to automation can make having a meal feel a bit too impersonal for most. Dining out in the U.S. is still considered primarily a social activity and though Kura customers can easily refill their beer mug themselves at one of the self-service machines, we Americans still love our bartenders. But then again, robots won’t ever get fussy over the tip.
More from Smithsonian.com
October 17, 2013
If there were ever a Michael Jordan of the inventor’s world, it would be Sir James Dyson. The billionaire founder of Dyson Industries, best known as the father of the Dyson bagless vacuum cleaner, has also over the years introduced a 10-second instant hand dryer and a bladeless fan. In many ways, he brings a sleek and innovative Steve Jobs-esque design sensibility to common appliances.
Not too long ago, Sir James started the annual Dyson awards, an international competition that “celebrates, encourages and inspires the next generation of design engineers.” Along with a smaller competition on the national level in Britain, aspiring inventors can also submit entries for a chance to win nearly $48,000. The winner will be announced on November 7, 2013.
Here are a few notable ideas that have been shortlisted as finalists for this year’s honors:
Titan Arm (USA)
This entry from the United States will appeal to fans of Iron Man. The Titan Arm is the end result of impressive efforts by students at the University of Pennsylvania to piece together an inter-working system of motors, cables, sensors and other inexpensive parts to produce an upper-body exoskeleton that enables the wearer to lift an extra 40 pounds beyond what natural strength can achieve. The team hopes the device can be used to prevent injuries to workers required to do heavy lifting as well as assist those undergoing physical therapy. Titan Arm has already claimed top prize in the Cornell Cup USA engineering competition, sponsored by Intel.
OLTU Fruit Ripening Unit (Spain)
Sure you have your banana hangers, but the art of ripening fruit will take a lot more ingenuity in order to be perfected. That’s where the OLTU comes in. The ripening storage unit siphons power from your refrigerator to help create the ideal atmospheric conditions for various fruits and vegetables to uniformly reach this peak state. The container features four sections, each with different settings, such as cold dry, cold wet, fresh wet and dry warm, tailored to specific varieties.
So you can’t stand waking up to the roar of your neighbor’s lawnmower but would still appreciate hearing the song of a chirping bird during the early mornings? The Sono is a simple device that attaches to windows and works as a lounge bouncer of sorts for sounds that pass through from outside. The ring design enables the system to detect the tone of various kinds of sounds, and using Wi-Fi, lets users set the SONO to block certain frequencies while allowing others.
Stack Printer (Switzerland)
With productivity devices these days, portable and mobile has become the way to go. Meanwhile, printers seem to be stuck at the office. Mugi Yamamoto doesn’t think this necessarily needs to be the case and has taken the minimalist approach as far as he it can go in developing the Stack printer. The industrial designer’s version of a slimmed-down inkjet removes the standard plastic paper tray and keeps the product to its bare essentials like the ink cartridge, the print head and frame for alignment. It works simply by placing it on top of a stack of papers and letting it run its course. Judging by the latest prototype, the Stack still wouldn’t fit into a briefcase. A backpack though? Now we’re talking.
The Xarius can aptly be described as wind power that fits in your pocket. And just as fitting, it’s designed to re-charge and power portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. The internal power generator relies on a cleverly designed three-winged mini wind turbine that efficiently captures energy in remote places off the grid, such as camping grounds; it is also perfect for getaways off the coast. The generator is even efficient enough to capture energy at low wind speeds.
Check out the complete list of finalists!
October 16, 2013
There’s now a watch that reminds us of the one appointment that we won’t be able to cancel. It’s called the Tikker. And it counts down the minutes, and even seconds, we have before we will likely meet our demise.
Currently being sold on the crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter, the concept for a so-called “death watch” isn’t as morbidly depressing as it may appear on the surface. In fact, the watch’s creator, Fredrik Colting, believes his invention does exactly the opposite by inspiring and motivating people to “live better.”
For Colting, the cold finality of death had only fully set in when his grandfather passed away several years ago. Tikker was born out of his desire to figure out a way to use this acceptance to spur positive changes in one’s life. “It’s my belief that if we are aware of death, and our own expiration,” says Colting, “that we will have a greater appreciation for life.”
To arrive at an estimation of how much longer someone has to live, users fill out a questionnaire that’s designed to add or subtract years based on current age, exercise habits and other health related factors. That exact time can then be programmed into the watch, at which point the final countdown begins.
However, the method in which Tikker calculates each person’s individualized expiration date is superficially scientific at best. Though the use of so-called longevity calculators have gained some credibility among researchers, some experts, such as actuary Steve Vernon of the Stanford Center on Longevity, have warned that people shouldn’t rely too much on these kind of approximations since there’s a “50 percent chance you’ll live beyond this estimate.” As an example of how inexact these kind of formulas are, Vernon tested popular online calculators from the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, livingto100.com and bluezones.com. His results were 95, 101 and 95.6 years, respectively. In any case, it’s probably best not to view this generated date as a hard deadline.
Instead, Colting says, the notion of a “use by” time stamp is supposed to have more of a symbolic meaning and can serve as a practical reminder to pay heed to some of the often-echoed existential epiphanies such as”Carpe Diem!” and “You only live once!”
“Everyone can relate to this, it’s universal,” says Colting. “We also live in more stressful times, with constant connection to our office emails, and Tikker can be a reminder for us to stay grounded and remember what is important in our lives.”
At the same time, the idea can also be seen as nothing more than a clever gimmick to sell a fairly basic digital wristwatch for $39 (it also displays local time). Reactions from the perusing media have ranged from slightly patronizing to wholehearted ridicule. TechCrunch blogger Jordan Crook comments that Tikker’s appeal is derived from being simply “a constant reminder to go out and live life well and happily” and in doing so “automatically tugs on the heart strings of consumers.” And Time magazine’s tech reporter Doug Aamoth may have encapsulated the collective chuckle of those who’d rather not feel like a walking time bomb when he mockingly declared he’ll set his timer “for every Tuesday and then cackle manically as I repeatedly cheat death.”
Some of you may recall the late Steve Jobs’ famous, widely-circulated 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, where he mentioned how every morning he would look into the mirror and ask himself what he would do if that day was his last. He certainly didn’t need some gadget to constantly remind him that precious seconds of his life were ticking away in order to make the most of it or to keep things in perspective.
But then again, some of us do.
“It’s part of our lives, no matter if we like it or not, and if we can just learn to use Tikker, and the fact of death to our advantage while we are alive, to become happier, more loving, and better people,” Colting says. “I can’t see how that can be a bad thing to anyone.”