It’s a digital world. Or is it?
NASA technologist Jonathan Pellish isn’t convinced. In fact, he believes a computing technology of yesteryear could potentially revolutionize everything from autonomous rendezvous and docking to remotely correcting wavefront errors on large, deployable space telescope mirrors like those to fly on the James Webb Space Telescope.
“It’s fast forward to the past,” Pellish said, referring to an emerging processing technology developed by a Cambridge, Mass.-based company, Analog Devices Lyric Labs.
So convinced is he of its potential, Pellish is meeting with scientists and engineers to explain the technology’s capabilities and is using fiscal year 2013 NASA Center Innovation Fund resources to build printed circuit boards that researchers can use to test the technology’s performance for a range of scientific applications. Pellish works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. He also has carried out preliminary radiation-effects studies to see how the technology’s architecture holds up under the extreme environment encountered in space.
“I wouldn’t do it unless I really believed in it,” Pellish added. “This is one of the few things I’ve seen that is really different than what others are trying to do. I think this technology could fundamentally change the way we carry out onboard processing.”
The new technology is an analog-based microchip developed with significant support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Instead of relying on tiny switches or transistors that turn on and off, producing streams of ones and zeroes that computing systems then translate into something meaningful to users, the company’s new microchip is more like a dimmer switch. It can accept inputs and calculate outputs that are between zero and one, directly representing probabilities, or levels of certainty.
“The technology is fundamentally different from standard digital-signal processing, recognizing values between zero and one to accomplish what would otherwise be cost prohibitive or impossible with traditional digital circuits,” Pellish said.
Apple founder Steve Jobs, the Bay Area-bred Buddhist, tech mogul and non-conformist who died yesterday, may not be the first person you associate with the military — he even issued the famous quote “it’s more fun to be a pirate than join the navy” — his inventions have indeed helped transform the military.
First off, it was largely Jobs who brought the easy to use graphical user interface and mouse to the masses with the Macintosh computer. The Mac and other Jobs’ creations ushered in the spirit of the modern Internet long before it existed by allowing average people to use computers to produce and share information. In the decade and a half after the Mac’s release we’d see the major computer companies producing personal computers — inspired by the Mac — that ran easy to use software flooding average consumers’ houses — and these computers were soon connected to one another by the World Wide Web. This has led to an unbelievable and ongoing explosion of creativity, for both good and bad, around the globe. In other words, his actions helped kick off the democratization of technology that now allows millions of hackers around the globe to harness knowledge and digital destructive power that keeps Pentagon planners up at night. Just browse DT’s cyber security section for more information on how much of a threat these hackers can be.
Meanwhile, the iPhone that I’ve posted articles onto this blog from basically ushered in the modern smartphone only four years ago. Yes, Blackberry brought the smartphone to the masses, but Jobs’ iPhone completely changed the game by making a device that was (in my opinion) the epitome of almost everything a smartphone should be, and then some. Heck, the iPhone makes Captain Kirk’s communicator, envisioned by Star Trek’s 1960s writers as the pinnacle of 23rd Century technology, look downright hokey. The iPhone and all the copycat’s that have come since also made a lot of very expensive and very cumbersome military technology look downright hokey.
How many times have we heard of Army generals complaining that they want their troops to have the mobile computing and communications power of an iPhone? Well, as sister site Kit Up! is reporting, the Army is looking to swap its bulky Nett Warrior radio designs for an Android smartphone connected to a secure Joint Tactical Radio System terminal. This makes sense, a modern smartphone, loaded with the right aps can do just about all the things that Nett Warrior’s “17-pound GPS” was supposed to do.
The links between the military and Apple sometimes go in the opposite direction — the new iPhone 4S’ Siri personnal assistant has its origins in a Pentagon translation project.
As computing technology gets smaller, more powerful, easier to use and more universally distributed you can expect it to have a continuing impact on the way wars are waged. All of these things that are now cornerstones of the global tech revolution were also hallmarks of Steve Jobs’ designs — designs that helped usher in that revolution.