Gene genies

18 February 2010

Opening spread of Gene genies featureWild corn is sorry looking stuff. It’s hard to tell it from a weed at first glance and, as University of Cambridge plant scientist Jim Haseloff points out, that’s not a surprise. “Most crop species are weedy species that have been through selective breeding processes over the past 10,000 years,” he says.

The Earth is host to some 20,000 known edible plant species out of an estimated quarter million species in total. Of that 20,000 a mere 10 per cent are grown in any volume by farmers. And just three account for the bulk of the biomass we actually eat, says Haseloff: rice; corn; and wheat.

Genetically, there is not very much difference between wild corn and what farmers plant today, even after the revolution in yields provided by hybrid corn and other crops developed during the Green Revolution of the mid-20th Century. It may seem churlish to make this point but plants are quite inefficient at converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into the carbon skeleton needed to grow roots and leaves. RuBisCO, a protein complex that lies at the heart of the photosynthesis process, is notoriously inefficient as an enzyme, although some researchers argue that RuBisCO is about as good as it can get.

Opening spread from femtocell featureWho's keeping an eye on the kids when you're not home? If David Nowicki, vice president of marketing for Airvana, has his way, it will be their mobiles. At the Femtocells World Summit held in London last year, unveiled what he called the 'boyfriend buster' - a detector for people who protective parents don't want their daughters to take home when they are not around.

The boyfriend buster is no more than software running on a cellular basestation designed for the home. Being a basestation, this femtocell - named because it covers a smaller range than the picocells used in shopping centres and microcells in city streets - notices which phones come into range and if they are allowed to register, lets those phones make calls through it. The femtocell can, potentially, do more with that information, possibly letting the concerned dad know by text message or email that the wrong cellphone has turned up at the house or that, with 30 strong signals in the house, the family pile may be home to a Facebook party.

The boyfriend buster is just one service that people such as Nowicki think will consumers will use. There will be femtocells that synchronise users' phones as they arrive home, transferring contacts and diary appointments between their handsets and their home computers. Or the unit may turn the hallway lights on as you walk up the garden path on the way home.

How low can you go?

24 January 2010

Opening spread of silicon scaling 2020 featureLast summer, Len Jelinek, director and chief analyst at iSuppli, stuck his neck out and called the end of Moore's Law as an economic driver in 2014. Pause for a moment over that claim. It was not that Moore's Law would not necessarily end in 2014 but the economic imperative for scaling the dimensions further on silicon would come to a screeching halt. Development per se need not stop. The problem is that rising cost could so easily outweigh the advantages of going further than the 20nm or 18nm node.

It should probably be called the Moore-Noyce Law because it was Bob Noyce, Moore's colleague at Fairchild and then Intel, who came up with the pricing model that meant Moore's Law became the key to predicting a market sector driven by deflation. But if that pricing model - which has typically meant close to a halving in production cost with each generation shift - begins to fail, then the reasons for pushing ahead on scaling also break down.