Friday, September 26, 2008

Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?

Last week, as part of the Triangle Computer Science Distinguished Lecture Series, William Swartout of Institute of Creative Technologies(ICT), USC was invited to Duke to deliver a talk on 'Toward the Holodeck: Integrating Graphics, Artificial Intelligence, Entertainment and Learning'. Inspired by the virtual worlds presented in Star Trek, William Swartout and the ICT are conducting research and developing virtual scenarios that contain a close knit connection between graphics, sounds and circumstances, so that man can react to them as if they are in the real world.

In simple words, the ultimate goal is to achieve the Holodeck.

The whole project is an extension of the concept of virtual reality, that has already achieved advanced stages. An example where such a technology can be tremendously useful is in the training of army personnel. A virtual world mimicing a real world scenario can be recreated, and the personnel can play out the whole situation in this simulated environment. This is refered to as the Mission Rehearsal Exercise (MRE), and helps in facilitation of new techniques of survival, defense or attack in the virtual environment, so that one is fully prepared incase of a similar circumstance in reality. The method to make MRE a success is called as a hybrid approach, which involves already scripted and simulated characters, an artifical intelligence with emotional model, as well as a Text-To-Speech (TTS) system. The simulated characters are programmed to be triggered by certain commands and behaviors. The AI helps the simulation to respond in real-time to the actions of the user, and the emotion part adds a tinge of humane touch to it. And the TTS system is used to act as the direct medium of communication.

Apart from the sophisticated visual, audio and character model, this simulated model also takes a content based story approach. Hence the user feels like he is living in the present, and has been allocated certain specified tasks that will enable him to proceed further in the story. This is an excellent advanced platform that will help elevate the methods of physical training, and expanded to include all sorts of social and emotional environments. For example, here is a small video of Duke University graduate student Gil Bohrer interacting with a virtual forest he created:

Another breakthrough in the field of vitual reality was the development of the omni-directional treadmill (ODT), which allows a person to move in all directions. Their creation and further development was essential as they are utilized to ensure an uninterrupted and close to real locomotive motion in virtual reality environments.

What these experiments prove is this is the age of not just innovation in a particular field or subject. It is the age of strategically integrating research conducted in varied fields and model them to meet the needs and aspiration of today's society. This kind of interdisciplinary approach will provide the answer to life,universe and everything, and the answer is definitely not as easy as 42.

Looking for the Green Piece

Trends in global climate change are painstakingly emerging from a complex puzzle being assembled by diligent scientists all over the world. There are literally countless pieces, and there's no picture on the cover of the box to help them along.

One of the puzzle-makers is Nicholas School forest ecologist Jennifer Swenson who's looking very hard at several square pieces, each 250 meters on a side, that each amount to one pixel on a satellite image of North Carolina. Specifically, Swenson wants to know precisely when and how each pixel switches from brown to green as spring arrives in April or May.

To MODIS, the NASA satellite program that provides these awesome pictures of spring as seen from space, it's just a single point of light, but Swenson knows there's actually a ton of data in that one pixel. The exact arrival of spring, as measured by a full canopy of leaves, is an important variable in the global change equation.

Swenson explained to the Visualization Friday Forum how she's taking ground-truth measurements of soil moisture, temperature, leaf development and other variables to calibrate what MODIS sees with what is really going on.

Eventually, this will add to MODIS's ability to determine whether in fact spring is arriving earlier and earlier, as already evidenced by anecdotal records such as cherry blossom dates in Washington DC and the first arrival of migrating birds, as recorded by amateur record-keepers.

Together, this is known as Phenology, the study of the timing of natural events, and that's our new word for the day.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Just when you thought the Earth was round...

Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman believes that the world is "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," as the title of his book suggests. He uses these three words to refer to global warming/climate change, the rise of resource consumption and standards of living around the world, and population explosion. As these three concerns intensify, people must increasingly consider what Friedman believes to be the world’s 5 major problems: resource supply and demand, petro-dictatorship, biodiversity loss, climate change, and energy poverty.

Friedman appeared at Duke on Monday to give a lecture and a panel discussion. The panel included Blair Sheppard (Dean of Duke's Fuqua School of Business), Jay Hamilton (Charles S. Sydnor Professor of Public Policy at Duke), Thomas Katsouleas (Dean of Duke's Pratt School of Engineering), and Richard Newell (Gendell Associate Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics at the Nicholas School).

I attended both the panel and the lecture, and I found Friedman to be incredibly engaging. Using numerous metaphors and examples, he effectively communicated what lies at stake for people of America and the world: increasing environmental degradation, if change cannot be achieved.

On the subject of biodiversity, he said that one new species goes extinct every 20 minutes. 
“We are the first generation of humans that will have to think like Noah. We have to think about how we are going to save the last two of each species,” Friedman said.

The good news is that Friedman's proposed solution to the world's 5 major problems is clean, renewable energy such as wind and solar power.

“Energy technology is going to be the next great global industry. It has to be."

For Friedman, energy technology represents an opportunity for America to get back on top of the global food chain. He asserts that America must "outgreen" its competition by investing heavily in the production and implementation of clean energy technologies. If it does, then it will create thousands of jobs and revitalize American industry. If it cannot, then young people today will not experience the same prosperity that their parents enjoyed.

“Green is obviously the new red, white, and blue. There is no state more appropriate to lead this revolution than the United States of America," Friedman said.

If the market for green energy technologies can be encouraged through effective legislation and incentives, he said, then capital will be invested and innovation will come.

“Necessity is the mother of innovation. If you have market necessity, you’ll have innovation. If you don’t, you get more Hummers,” Friedman said.

My friend Jori attended the lecture with me. Here she reacts to Friedman's argument that the world's 5 major problems can be solved through massive implementation of clean, renewable energy technology.

Mouse Lemur Glamour Shot

Not to be missed! Duke grad student Meredith Barrett continues to blog from Madagascar, where connectivity is sparse at best. If you haven't visited with Meredith, please do. The rewards are abundant. She'll be wrapping things up this week, and heading back to Durham with a lot of specimens (blood, poo and hair, that is -- not lemurs) and other data.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Global 'Active' Nitrogen Has Doubled

The Haber-Bosh industrial process, which allows the "mining" of inert nitrogen from Earth's atmosphere to make chemically active ammonia, won Nobel Prizes for its inventors and gave the world seemingly inexhaustible supplies of artificial plant fertilizers. But, on Friday, Sept. 19 , former Nicholas School Dean Bill Schlesinger tallied the down-side of this industrial age miracle in a seminar presentation at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Displaying stark "before" and "after" slides drawn in part from his own research, the biogeochemist showed his Old Chemistry Hall audience that industrial fertilizer production has essentially doubled amounts of chemically active nitrogen in our planet's air, water and soils compared to volumes nature itself provides via phenomenon like plant nitrogen fixation and lightning strikes.

Some those extra teragrams (trillions of grams) are now fomenting marine life destroying algae blooms and "dead zones" along coastlines. Others are polluting underground water supplies beneath agricultural lands, leading in extreme cases to medical problems such as the "blue baby syndrome." And a byproduct of denitification, the process whereby bacteria can convert some of that chemically active nitrogen back to the inert form, can even contribute to global warming, he said.

Schlesinger is now president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.