I Can See for Miles: Using Augmented Reality to Analyze Business Data Sets

matrix-1013612__340, Image from Pixabay

While one of The Who’s first hit singles, I Can See for Miles, was most certainly not about data visualization, it still might – – on a bit of a stretch – – find a fitting a new context in describing one of the latest dazzling new technologies in the opening stanza’s declaration “there’s magic in my eye”.  In determining Who’s who and what’s what about all this, let’s have a look at report on a new tool enabling data scientists to indeed “see for miles and miles” in an exciting new manner.

This innovative approach was recently the subject of a fascinating article by an augmented reality (AR) designer named Benjamin Resnick about his team’s work at IBM on a project called Immersive Insights, entitled Visualizing High Dimensional Data In Augmented Reality, posted on July 3, 2017 on Medium.com. (Also embedded is a very cool video of a demo of this system.) They are applying AR’s rapidly advancing technology1 to display, interpret and leverage insights gained from business data. I highly recommend reading this in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it here and then pose a few real-world questions of my own.

Immersive Insights into Where the Data-Points Point

As Resnick foresees such a system in several years, a user will start his or her workday by donning their AR glasses and viewing a “sea of gently glowing, colored orbs”, each of which visually displays their business’s big data sets2. The user will be able to “reach out select that data” which, in turn, will generate additional details on a nearby monitor. Thus, the user can efficiently track their data in an “aesthetically pleasing” and practical display.

The project team’s key objective is to provide a means to visualize and sum up the key “relationships in the data”. In the short-term, the team is aiming Immersive Insights towards data scientists who are facile coders, enabling them to visualize, using AR’s capabilities upon time series, geographical and networked data. For their long-term goals, they are planning to expand the range of Immersive Insight’s applicability to the work of business analysts.

For example, Instacart, a same-day food delivery service, maintains an open source data set on food purchases (accessible here). Every consumer represents a data-point wherein they can be expressed as a “list of purchased products” from among 50,000 possible items.

How can this sizable pool of data be better understood and the deeper relationships within it be extracted and understood? Traditionally, data scientists create a “matrix of 2D scatter plots” in their efforts to intuit connections in the information’s attributes. However, for those sets with many attributes, this methodology does not scale well.

Consequently, Resnick’s team has been using their own new approach to:

  • Lower complex data to just three dimensions in order to sum up key relationships
  • Visualize the data by applying their Immersive Insights application, and
  • Iteratively label and color-code the data” in conjunction with an “evolving understanding” of its inner workings

Their results have enable them to “validate hypotheses more quickly” and establish a sense about the relationships within the data sets. As well, their system was built to permit users to employ a number of versatile data analysis programming languages.

The types of data sets being used here are likewise deployed in training machine learning systems3. As a result, the potential exists for these three technologies to become complementary and mutually supportive in identifying and understanding relationships within the data as well as deriving any “black box predictive models”.

Analyzing the Instacart Data Set: Food for Thought

Passing over the more technical details provided on the creation of team’s demo in the video (linked above), and next turning to the results of the visualizations, their findings included:

  • A great deal of the variance in Instacart’s customers’ “purchasing patterns” was between those who bought “premium items” and those who chose less expensive “versions of similar items”. In turn, this difference has “meaningful implications” in the company’s “marketing, promotion and recommendation strategies”.
  • Among all food categories, produce was clearly the leader. Nearly all customers buy it.
  • When the users were categorized by the “most common department” they patronized, they were “not linearly separable”. This is, in terms of purchasing patterns, this “categorization” missed most of the variance in the system’s three main components (described above).

Resnick concludes that the three cornerstone technologies of Immersive Insights – – big data, augmented reality and machine learning – – are individually and in complementary combinations “disruptive” and, as such, will affect the “future of business and society”.


  • Can this system be used on a real-time basis? Can it be configured to handle changing data sets in volatile business markets where there are significant changes within short time periods that may affect time-sensitive decisions?
  • Would web metrics be a worthwhile application, perhaps as an add-on module to a service such as Google Analytics?
  • Is Immersive Insights limited only to business data or can it be adapted to less commercial or non-profit ventures to gain insights into processes that might affect high-level decision-making?
  • Is this system extensible enough so that it will likely end up finding unintended and productive uses that its designers and engineers never could have anticipated? For example, might it be helpful to juries in cases involving technically or financially complex matters such as intellectual property or antitrust?


1.  See the Subway Fold category Virtual and Augmented Reality for other posts on emerging AR and VR applications.

2.  See the Subway Fold category of Big Data and Analytics for other posts covering a range of applications in this field.

3.  See the Subway Fold category of Smart Systems for other posts on developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning and expert systems.

4.  For a highly informative and insightful examination of this phenomenon where data scientists on occasion are not exactly sure about how AI and machine learning systems produce their results, I suggest a click-through and reading of The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI,  by Will Knight, which was published in the May/June 2017 issue of MIT Technology Review.

Hacking Matter Really Matters: A New Programmable Material Has Been Developed

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

The sales receipt from The Strand Bookstore in New York is dated April 5, 2003. It still remains tucked into one of the most brain-bendingly different books I have ever bought and read called Hacking Matter: Levitating Chairs, Quantum Mirages, and the Infinite Weirdness of Programmable Atoms (Basic Books, 2003), by Wil McCarthy. It was a fascinating deep dive into what was then the nascent nanotechnology research on creating a form of “programmable atoms” called quantum dots. This technology has since found applications in the production of semiconductors.

Fast forward thirteen years to a recent article entitled Exoskin: A Programmable Hybrid Shape-Changing Material, by Evan Ackerman, posted on IEEE Spectrum on June 3, 2016. This is about an all-new and entirely different development, quite separate from quantum dots, but nonetheless a current variation on the concept that matter can be programmed for new applications. While we always think of programming as involving systems and software, this new story takes and literally stretches this long-established process into some entirely new directions.

I highly recommend reading this most interesting report in its entirety and viewing the two short video demos embedded within it. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose several questions of my own on this, well, matter. I also think it fits in well with these 10 Subway Fold posts on other recent developments in material science including, among others, such way cool stuff as Q-Carbon, self-healing concrete and metamaterials.

Matter of Fact

The science of programmable matter is still in its formative stages. The Tangible Media Group at MIT Media Lab is currently working on this challenge included in its scores of imaginative projects. A student pursuing his Master’s Degree in this group is Basheer Tome. Among his current research projects, he is working on a type of programmable material he calls “Exoskin” which he describes as “membrane-backed rigid material”. It is composed of “tessellated triangles of firm silicone mounted on top of a stack of flexible silicone bladders”. By inflating these bladders in specific ways, Exoskin can change its shape in reaction to the user’s touch. This activity can, in turn, be used to relay information and “change functionality”.

Although this might sound a bit abstract, the two accompanying videos make the Exoskin’s operations quite clear. For example, it can be applied to a steering wheel which, through “tactile feedback”, can inform the driver about direction-finding using GPS navigation and other relevant driving data. This is intended to lower driver distractions and “simplify previously complex multitasking” behind the wheel.

The Exoskin, in part, by its very nature makes use of haptics (using touch as a form of interface). One of the advantages of this approach is that it enables “fast reflexive motor responses to stimuli”. Moreover, the Exoskin actually involves inputs that “are both highly tactily perceptible and visually interpretable”.

Fabrication Issues

A gap still exists between the current prototype and a commercially viable product in the future in terms of the user’s degree of “granular control” over the Exoskin. The number of “bladders” underneath the rigid top materials will play a key role in this. Under existing fabrication methods, multiple bladders in certain configurations are “not practical” at this time.

However, this restriction might be changing. Soon it may be possible to produce bladders for each “individual Exoskin element” rather than a single bladder for all of them. (Again, the videos present this.) This would involve a system of “reversible electrolysis” that alternatively separates water into hydrogen and oxygen and then back again into water. Other options to solve this fabrication issue are also under consideration.

Mt. Tome hopes this line of research disrupts the distinction between what is “rigid and soft” as well as “animate and inanimate” to inspire Human-Computer Interaction researchers at MIT to create “more interfaces using physical materials”.

My Questions

  • In what other fields might this technology find viable applications? What about medicine, architecture, education and online gaming just to begin?
  • Might Exoskin present new opportunities to enhance users’ experience with the current and future releases virtual reality and augmented reality systems? (These 15 Subway Fold posts cover a sampling of trends and developments in VR and AR.)
  • How might such an Exoskin-embedded steering wheel possibly improve drivers’ and riders’ experiences with Uber and other ride-sharing services?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities in design, engineering, programming and manufacturing might present themselves if Exoskin becomes commercialized?

Pushing the Envelopes: New US Postal Service Report Assesses Possible Blockchain Applications

"Vibrant US Air Mail Stamp", Image by Nicolas Raymond

“Vibrant US Air Mail Stamp”, Image by Nicolas Raymond

Way before the advent of email, when people exclusively wrote letters on paper and mailed them to each other (yes, this really did happen once upon a time), there was a long-running scam known as the “chain letter“. Recipients who received such a letter were asked, often through manipulative language, to copy it and send it on to as many other people as possible. In effect, these were structured as fraudulent pyramid schemes that ultimately would collapse in on themselves.

Sometimes chain letters involved illegal financial dealings and other hoaxes, also producing unwanted emotional effects on who mistakenly fell for them. Variations of the chain letter still survive today online and operate using email, texting and social media.

However, an emerging new form of virtual chain, in conjunction with the mail service, might soon appear – – namely using the blockchain – – within the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). However, this combination could potentially produce four very positive improvements in services. These exciting prospects were the subject of a most interesting new post on Quartz.com on May 24, 2016 entitled Even the US Postal Service Wants to Start Using Blockchain Tech, by Ian Kar. I recommend reading this article in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and pose some questions of my own (but without any additional postage due).

While blockchain technology has been getting a great deal of press coverage recently involving innovative new development initiatives in, among other fields, finance, law, government and the arts, this story illustrates how it also might affect something as routine and mundane as mail service with possibly dramatic results. Such changes could produce significant economic and logistical advances that would affect just about anyone who checks their real world mailbox every day.

(These six Subway Fold posts cover just a small sampling of blochchain projects.)

Better Letters

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Traditionally, the USPS has never really distinguished itself as a leader in innovation. Rather, it has a long reputation for its inefficient operations. This could possibly be significantly changed by this series of a series of blockchain proposals. Because this technology is decentralized, widely accessible, and secured by encryption, it is highly resistant to tampering.

On May 23, 2016, the USPS Office of the Inspector General and a consulting firm called Swiss Economics, published a new report entitled Blockchain Technology: Possibilities for the U.S. Postal Service. It analyzed the following four possible future implementations:

1.  Financial Services:  US post offices currently offers a limited number of financial services such as international money transfers. The IOG report speculated that the USPS “could benefit from developing its own bitcoin-like digital currency”.  Perhaps it could be called “Postcoin”. This would permit the expansion into other financial services such as a “global payment service” for people without traditional bank accounts.

2.  Identity:  An individual’s identity could be verified for the USPS using a blockchain. Essentially, they already do this when they deliver your mail to you each day. By using a blockchain for this, the USPS could provide you with assistance to help you manage both your online and offline identities “by storing it on an immutable ledger”.

3.  Logistics Support:  Applying the blochchain to support the Internet of Things (IoT) could enhance the USPS logistics management operations. The IGO report imagine a system where “vehicles and sorting equipment could manage their own tracking, monitoring, and maintenance”. This could include items such as autonomously, efficiently and economically monitoring brake pad performance including:

  • Assessing when one will need to be replaced
  • Determining whether its warranty is still in effect
  • Creating a smart contract with a vendor to replace it
  • Paying for the part and its installation

4.  Mail Tracking:  On a daily basis, the USPS delivers 509 million pieces of mail. As stated in the OIG report, the blockchain can be deployed to uniquely identify each piece of it. This could be done with “a small sensor” on each piece in order to use the blockchain to “manage the chain of custody between different USPS partners, like UPS and Fedex”. As well, the blockchain could be put to the additional uses of:

  • Expediting customs clearance
  • Integrating payments
  • Shipping upon one unified platform

[All of these components form the very convenient anagram FILM, thus making it easier to, well, picture.]

For now, the USPS intends to keep studying blockchain technology. The OIG report states that the agency “could benefit from experimenting” with it on new financial products and then eventually progress on toward “more complex uses”.

"Stamped Mail to be Posted", Image by Steven Depolo

“Stamped Mail to be Posted”, Image by Steven Depolo

My Questions

  • Would these blochchain apps have a negative impact on USPS revenues as this massive government agency has been running at a budget deficit for many years? If so, would this have unintended negative consequences for consumers and/or the USPS?
  • Conversely, can the USPS use blockchain innovations to create new sources of revenue and employment? What new sorts of job descriptions and titles might emerge?
  • Would the blockchain do away with the traditional services of certified, registered, priority and insured mail? If so, what forms of proof of delivery or non-delivery could be provided to consumers?
  • Would any of these proposed new apps possibly create new privacy issues for consumers and policy concerns for the US government?
  • What type of opportunities might arise for entrepreneurs to create new mail apps built on the blockchain?

Ethical Issues and Considerations Arising in Big Data Research

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

In 48 of 50 states in the US, new attorneys are required to pass a 60 multiple-choice question exam on legal ethics in addition to passing their state’s bar exam. This is known as the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). I well recall taking this test myself.

The subject matter of this test is the professional ethical roles and responsibilities a lawyer must abide by as an advocate and counselor to clients, courts and the legal profession. It is founded upon a series of ethical considerations and disciplinary rules that are strictly enforced by the bars of each state. Violations can potentially lead to a series of professional sanctions and, in severe cases depending upon the facts, disbarment from practice for a term of years or even permanently.

In other professions including, among others, medicine and accounting, similar codes of ethics exist and are expected to be scrupulously followed. They are defined efforts to ensure honesty, quality, transparency and integrity in their industries’ dealings with the public, and to address certain defined breaches. Many professional trade organizations also have formal codes of ethics but often do not have much, if any, sanction authority.

Should some comparable forms of guidelines and boards likewise be put into place to oversee the work of big data researchers? This was the subject of a very compelling article posted on Wired.com on May 20, 2016, entitled Scientists Are Just as Confused About the Ethics of Big-Data Research as You by Sharon Zhang. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate and add some further context to this, as well as pose a few questions of my own.

Two Recent Data Research Incidents

Last month. an independent researcher released, without permission, the profiles with very personal information of 70,000 users of the online dating site OKCupid. These users were quite angered by this. OKCupid is pursuing a legal claim to remove this data.

Earlier in 2014, researchers at Facebook manipulated items in users’ News Feeds for a study on “mood contagion“.¹ Many users were likewise upset when they found out. The journal that published this study released an “expression of concern”.

Users’ reactions over such incidents can have an effect upon subsequent “ethical boundaries”.

Nonetheless, the researchers involved in both of these cases had “never anticipated” the significant negative responses to their work. The OKCupid study was not scrutinized by any “ethical review process”, while a review board at Cornell had concluded that the Facebook study did not require a full review because the Cornell researchers only had a limited role in it.

Both of these incidents illustrate how “untested the ethics” are of these big data research. Only now are the review boards that oversee the work of these researchers starting to pay attention to emerging ethical concerns. This is in high contrast to the controls and guidelines upon medical research in clinical trials.

The Applicability of The Common Rule and Institutional Research Boards

In the US, under the The Common Rule, which governs ethics for federally funded biomedical and behavioral research where humans are involved, studies are required to undergo an ethical review.  However, such review does not apply a “unified system”, but rather, each university maintains its own institutional review board (IRB). These are composed of other (mostly medical) researchers at each university. Only a few of them “are professional ethicists“.

To a lesser extent, do they have experience in computer technology. This deficit may be affecting the protection of subjects who participate in data science research projects. In the US, there are hundreds of IRBs but they are each dealing with “research efforts in the digital age” in their own ways.

Both the Common Rule and the IRB system came into being following the revelation in the 1970s that the U.S. Public Health Service had, between 1932 and 1972, engaged in a terrible and shameful secret program that came to be known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. This involved leaving African Americans living in rural Alabama with untreated syphilis in order to study the disease. As a result of this outrage, the US Department of Health and Human Services created new regulations concerning any research on human subjects they conducted. All other federal agencies likewise adopted such regulations. Currently, “any institution that gets federal funding has to set up an IRB to oversee research involving humans”.

However, many social scientists today believe these regulations are not accurate or appropriate for their types of research involving areas where the risks involved “are usually more subtle than life or death”. For example, if you are seeking volunteers to take a survey on test-taking behaviors, the IRB language requirements on physical risks does not fit the needs of the participants in such a study.

Social scientist organizations have expressed their concern about this situation. As a result, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has recommended:

  • Adding more social scientists to IRBs, or
  • Creating new and separate review boards to assess social science research

In 2013, AAUP issued a report entitled Regulation of Research on Human Subjects: Academic Freedom and the Institutional Review Board, recommending that the researchers themselves should decide if “their minimal risk work needs IRB approval or not”. In turn, this would make more time available to IRBs for “biomedical research with life-or-death stakes”.

This does not, however, imply that all social science research, including big data studies, are entirely risk-free.

Ethical Issues and Risk Analyses When Data Sources Are Comingled

Dr. Elizabeth A. Buchanan who works as an ethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, believes that the Internet is now entering its “third phase” where researchers can, for example, purchase several years’ worth of Twitter data and then integrate it “with other publicly available data”.² This mixture results in issues involving “ethics and privacy”.

Recently, while serving on an IRB, she took part in evaluated a project proposal involving merging mentions of a drug by its street name appearing on social media with public crime data. As a result, people involved in crimes could potentially become identified. The IRB still gave its approval. According to Dr. Buchanan, the social value of this undertaking must be weighed against its risk. As well, the risk should be minimized by removing any possible “idenifiers” in any public release of this information.

As technology continues to advance, such risk evaluation can become more challenging. For instance, in 2013, MIT researchers found out that they were able to match up “publicly available DNA sequences” by using data about the participants that the “original researchers” had uploaded online.³ Consequently, in such cases, Dr. Buchanan believes it is crucial for IRBs “to have either a data scientist, computer scientist or IT security individual” involved.

Likewise, other types of research organizations such as, among others, open science repositories, could perhaps “pick up the slack” and handle more of these ethical questions. According to Michelle Meyer, a bioethicist at Mount Sinai, oversight must be assumed by someone but the best means is not likely to be an IRB because they do not have the necessary “expertise in de-identification and re-identification techniques”.

Different Perspectives on Big Data Research

A technology researcher at the University of Maryland 4 named Dr. Katie Shilton recently conducted interviews of “20 online data researchers”. She discovered “significant disagreement” among them on matters such as the “ethics of ignoring Terms of Service and obtaining informed consent“. The group also reported that the ethical review boards they dealt with never questioned the ethics of the researchers, while peer reviewers and their professional colleagues had done so.

Professional groups such as the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) and the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) have created and posted their own guidelines:

However, IRBs who “actually have power” are only now “catching up”.

Beyond universities, tech companies such as Microsoft have begun to establish in-house “ethical review processes”. As well, in December 2015, the Future of Privacy Forum held a gathering called Beyond IRBs to evaluate “processes for ethical review outside of federally funded research”.

In conclusion., companies continually “experiment on us” with data studies. Just to name to name two, among numerous others, they focus on A/B testing 5 of news headings and supermarket checkout lines. As they hire increasing numbers of data scientists from universities’ Ph.D. programs, these schools are sensing an opportunity to close the gap in terms of using “data to contribute to public knowledge”.

My Questions

  • Would the companies, universities and professional organizations who issue and administer ethical guidelines for big data studies be taken more seriously if they had the power to assess and issue public notices for violations? How could this be made binding and what sort of appeals processes might be necessary?
  • At what point should the legal system become involved? When do these matters begin to involve civil and/or criminal investigations and allegations? How would big data research experts be certified for hearings and trials?
  • Should teaching ethics become a mandatory part of curriculum in data science programs at universities? If so, should the instructors only be selected from the technology industry or would it be helpful to invite them from other industries?
  • How should researchers and their employers ideally handle unintended security and privacy breaches as a result of their work? Should they make timely disclosures and treat all inquiries with a high level of transparency?
  • Should researchers experiment with open source methods online to conduct certain IRB functions for more immediate feedback?


1.  For a detailed report on this story, see Facebook Tinkers With Users’ Emotions in News Feed Experiment, Stirring Outcry, by Vindu Goel, in the June 29, 2014 edition of The New York Times.

2These ten Subway Fold posts cover a variety of applications in analyzing Twitter usage data.

3.  For coverage on this story see an article published in The New York Times on January 17, 2013, entitled Web Hunt for DNA Sequences Leaves Privacy Compromised, by Gina Kolata.

4.  For another highly interesting but unrelated research initiative at the University of Maryland, see the December 27, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Virtual Reality Universe-ity: The Immersive “Augmentarium” Lab at the U. of Maryland.

5.  For a detailed report on this methodology, see the September 30, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Google’s A/B Testing Method is Being Applied to Improve Government Operations.

Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends Presentation

"Blue Marble - 2002", Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Blue Marble – 2002”, Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

On June 1, 2016, at the 2016 Code Conference held this week in California, Mary Meeker, a world-renowned Internet expert and partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, presented her fifteenth annual in-depth and highly analytical presentation on current Internet trends. It is an absolutely remarkable accomplishment that is highly respected throughout the global technology industry and economy. The video of her speech is available here on Recode.com

Her 2016 Internet Trends presentation file is divided into a series of eight main sections covering, among many other things: Internet user and financial growth rates, online advertising, generational market segments and technological preferences, new products and vendors, mobile screens for nearly everything, e-commerce, big data, privacy issues, video growth on social media platforms, messaging systems , smartphone growth,  voice interfaces, consumer spending, online security, connectivity, Facebook’s v. Google’s growth rates, and massive consumer markets in China and India. That is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg in this 213-slide file.

Ms. Meeker’s assessments and predictions here form an extraordinarily comprehensive and insightful piece of work. There is much here for anyone and everyone to learn and consider in the current and trending states nearly anything and everything online. Moreover, there are likely many potential opportunities for new and established businesses, as well as other institutions, within this file.

I very highly recommend that you set aside some time to thoroughly read through Ms. Meeker’s full presentation. You will be richly rewarded with knowledge and insight that can potentially yield a world of informative and practical dividends.

Bye-Bye Wash and Dry: Scientists are Developing Self-Cleaning Fabrics

"Autumn Laundry", Image by Walter A. Aue

“Autumn Laundry”, Image by Walter A. Aue

It is likely – – or if it isn’t, it should be – – a universal truth that everyone loves clean clothes but no one likes doing the laundry. I have arrived at this conclusion through many years of my own thoroughly unscientific observations in the laundry room in my apartment building. (My other research project is focused upon discovering the origin of the rift in the time and space continuum where stray socks always seem to disappear into in the washers and dryers.)

This ages old situation might be about to change based upon an interesting new development. This story is neither made from whole cloth nor a fabric-ation.

A group of scientists in Australia claim to have discovered a means to keep clothes clean by treating them with nano-size particles of two common metals and then exposing the fabric to sunlight. This could perhaps one day mean an end to washing clothes in the traditional soap and water manner. This research was reported in an article in the April 25, 2016 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled An End to Laundry? The Promise of Self-Cleaning Fabric, by Rachel Pannett. I will summarize and annotate this story, and then pose several of my own questions about this, well, material.

Dry Cleaning

Rajesh Ramanathan, a postdoctoral fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, explained the basic principal being tested: Minute flecks of copper and silver (called nanostructures), are embedded into cotton fabrics that, when exposed to sunlight, generate small amounts of energy “that degrade organic matter ” on the cloth in about six minutes. He and his team are conducting their work at the Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility, within RMIT.

The results of their research were recently published in Advanced Materials Interfaces in a paper entitled Surface Plasmon Resonance: Robust Nanostructured Silver and Copper Fabrics with Localized Surface Plasmon Resonance Property for Effective Visible Light Induced Reductive Catalysis (Volume 3, Issue 6, March 23, 2016). The authors, including Dr. Ramanathan, are Samuel R. Anderson, Mahsa Mohammadtaheri, Dipesh Kumar, Anthony P. O’Mullane, Matthew R. Field, and Vipul Bansal.

Dr. Ramanathan characterized the team’s work as being in its early stages and involving “nano-enhanced fabrics” with the “ability to clean themselves”.  The silver and copper do not alter the fabric in any way and remain embedded even when rinsed in water. As a result, their self-cleaning abilities will persist in successive multiple cleanings.

While encouraging no one to get rid of their washing machines just yet, he does believe that his team’s work “lays a strong foundation” for additional advancements in creating “fully self-cleaning textiles”.

Other current research is investigating whether such nano-enhanced fabrics are capable of affecting germs and even whether they can eradicate “superbugs” that resist today’s antibacterials.

To date, the research team has been testing their fabrics with organic dyes and artificial light. Next they are planning experiments with “real world stains” such as ketsup and wine in an effort to measure how long it will take them to “degrade in natural sunlight”. Additional planed testing will be to see how the nanostructures affect odors in the fabrics.

Spin Cycle

However, another scientist named Christopher Sumby, an associate professor in chemistry and physics at the University of Adelaide, expressed his reluctance at talking about self-cleaning fabrics “at this stage”.

Nonetheless, this experimental new process that use silver and copper, are two “commonly used” chemical catalysts and are “relatively cheap”. Two of the challenges currently facing the research team are how to scale up production of these nanostructures and “how to permanently attach them to textiles”. They are using cotton in their work because it has “a natural three-dimensional structure” that enables the nanostructures to embed themselves and absorb light. They have also found that this works well in removing organic stains from polyester and nylon.

Dr. Ramanathan said that a variety of industries, including textile manufacturers, have expressed their interest to his team. He believes that to enable them to commercialize their process, they would need to make sure the nanostructures can “comply with industry standards for clothing and textiles”.

My Questions

  • What would be the measurable benefits to the environment and energy savings if the needs for electric washers and dryers was significantly reduced by self-cleaning fabrics? Should the researchers use this prospect to their advantage in seeking regulatory approval and additional financing?
  • Although using sunlight, which is free and abundant across the entire world, would be the most renewable and environmentally sound source of energy for this, could the process also be extended for use with artificial light (as is currently being used in the team), for instances where sufficient sunlight becomes unavailable due to weather conditions or other environmental factors?
  • Could this process also be adapted to other forms of porous materials such as wood, paper, and plastics? For example, if people go outside for a picnic, could they could theoretically clean up the table, food containers and paper plates just by leaving them in the sun and then reusing them later? This might further cut down on the volumes of these materials being thrown in the trash or else being sent for recycling.
  • What other entrepreneurial opportunities might arise if this process becomes commercialized?

Book Review of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”

"Toolbox_LRG", Image by Limor

“Toolbox_LRG”, Image by Limor.

My father loved to tell this story: One of his classmates while he attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine was named Robert Schattner. Several years after they graduated, he went on to invent the over-the-counter sore throat lozenge and spray called Chloraseptic. This remedy has been on the market for decades ever since then.

Schattner first devised this product entirely on his own after someone who had just had some teeth pulled asked him for an antiseptic to relieve the pain. He later sold the formula and the rights to a pharmaceutical company for $4M. (Given the rate of inflation since then, this sum today would have been magnitudes more and certainly nothing to sneeze or cough at.)

Thereafter he left the practice of dentistry and went on became a successful businessman and philanthropist. He also contributed for the construction of a new building for the U Penn dental school named the Robert Schattner Center. A brief summary of his invention and contributions can be found in an article entitled Capital Buzz: Chloraseptic Inventor Offers Remedy for School, by Thomas Heath, which appeared in The Washington Post on October 23, 2011.

Mapping the Inventive Process

This is a classic example of how inventors find their ideas and inspiration. There are many other circumstances, methodologies, environments, personality traits, events, technologies and chances occurrences that can also precipitate new inventions. All of them are expertly explained and explored in Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), by Pagan Kennedy.

The book’s five sections distinctly map out the steps in the inception and realization of things so entirely new. In doing so, the author transports the reader to center of this creative process. She deftly uses highly engaging stories, exposition and analyses to illuminate the resourcefulness and persistence of inventors leading to their breakthroughs.

Some of these tales may be familiar but they are skillfully recounted and placed into new contexts. For example, in 1968, an engineer and inventor named Douglas Englebart demonstrated a working computer for the first time with a heretofore unseen “mouse” and “graphical user interface”. (This story has gone on to become a tech legend known as The Mother of All Demos.) Others are presented who are less well-known but brought to life in highly compelling narratives. Together they provide valuable new lessons on the incubation of inventions along a wide spectrum ranging from sippy cups and water toys to mobile phones and medical devices.

The author has seemingly devised a meta-invention of her own: A refreshingly new perspective on reporting the who, what, where and why of inventors, their creations and their wills to succeed. It is a richly detailed schematic of how a creative mind can conceive and execute an original idea for a new widget and, moreover, articulate the need for it and the problem it solves.

Among other methods, Ms. Pagan covers the practice of conducting thought experiments on new concepts that may or may not lend themselves to actual experimentation in the real world. This process was made well-known by Einstein’s efforts to visualize certain problems in physics that led him to his monumental achievements. I suggest trying a thought experiment here to imagine the range of the potential areas of applications for Inventology to evaluate, in an age of countless startups and rapid scientific and technological advancements, all of the populations, challenges and companies it might benefit. Indeed, this book could readily inspire nearly anyone so inclined to pick up a pencil or soldering iron in order to launch the realization of their own proverbial better mousetrap.

Resources for Inventors

Within all of the lively content packed into this book, the struggles and legacy of a previously little known and tragically persecuted figure who learned to harness and teach the inventive process, springs right off the pages. He was a fascinating figure named  Genrich Altshuller who worked as an engineer, writer and inventor in Russia. His most important contribution to the science of invention was the development of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (better known by its Russian acronym of “TRIZ”). This is a comprehensive system for analyzing and implementing inventive solutions to problems of nearly every imaginable type and scale. Altschuller was willing to share this and instruct anyone who was willing to participate in studying TRIZ. It is still widely used across the modern world. The author masterfully breaks down and clearly explains its essential components.

The true gem in the entire book is how Altshuller, while imprisoned in a brutal jail in Stalinist Russia, used only his mind to devise an ingenious solution to outwit his relentless interrogators. No spoilers here, but it is an emotional triumph that captures the heart and spirit of this remarkable man. Altshuller’s life and influence in generating thousands of inventions reads as though it might make for a dramatic biopic.

Also threaded and detailed throughout the book are the current bounty of easily accessible technological tools available to inventors. First, the web holds a virtual quantum of nearly limitless data that can be researched, processed, shared, crowdsourced (on sites such as InnoCentive) and crowdfunded (on sites such as Kickstarter and Indigogo), in search of medical advances, among many other fields.¹ Second, 3D printing² can be used to quickly and inexpensively fabricate and work on enhancing prototypes of inventions. As a result of this surfeit of resources, the lengthy timelines and prohibitive cost curves that previously discouraged and delayed inventors have now been significantly reduced.

Impossibility is Only Temporary

I live in a neighborhood where it is nearly impossible to park a car. An open parking space has a half-life on the street of about .000001 nano-seconds before it is taken. This situation often reminds me of a suggestion my father also made to me when I was very young. He told me that if I really wanted to solve an important problem when I grew up, I should try to invent a car that, at the press of a button, would fold up into the size and shape of a briefcase that could be easily carried away. At the time, I thought it was impossible and immediately put the, well, brakes on this idea.

Nonetheless, as Inventology expressly and persuasively makes its own brief case, true inventors see impossibility as merely a temporary condition that, with enough imagination and determination, can be overcome. For budding Edisons and creative problem solvers everywhere, this book adds a whole new meaning to the imperative that nothing is truly impossible if you try hard enough and long enough to solve it. This indefatigable spirit permeates all 223 pages of this wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and informative book.

Inventing your own reason to read it should be easy.

For a dozen very timely examples of inventors and their inventions further typifying much of the content and spirit of Inventology, I highly recommend reading a new feature and viewing its accompanying video posted on Quartz.com on April 26, 2016, entitled These Top Twelve Inventions Could One Day Change the World, by Mike Murphy. It covers the finalists in the 2016 European Inventors Award competition currently being run by the European Patent Office.

1.  For example, last week’s Only Human podcast on NPR included a report on how a woman with Type 1 (T1) diabetes, along with the assistance of her husband, had hacked together an artificial pancreas (called a “closed loop” system), and then shared the technical specs online with other T1s in the Seattle area. I highly recommend listening to this podcast entitled The Robot Vacuum Ate My Pancreas in its entirety.

2.  See also these six Subway Fold posts for a sampling of other trends and developments in 3D printing.