Energy: Bacteria powered solar cells

What: Researchers at the University of British Columbia have developed a solar panel made out of bacteria instead of photo-electric materials (the way solar cells work today). Bacteria convert sunlight into energy using the process of photosynthesis. The researchers bred E. coli bacteria and coated them with semiconducting material to produce electricity. The cells are not as efficient as conventional photovoltaic (PV) cells but they have a big advantage in that they can generate electricity in lower light so they would work on cloudy days [1].

Implications: If these cells are cheaper than PV cells, which is what the researchers anticipate, they could have a big impact but at this stage they are some way off being ready for market.

[1] Popular Mechanics

Energy: Another battery breakthrough claim

What: It is well known that if you could replace the graphite anode of a lithium-ion battery with silicon, the energy density of the battery would increase by an order of magnitude. Instead of charging your phone daily you would only need to do it every 10 days. However, the problem is that when a lithium-ion battery with a silicon anode is charged, the anode expands 400% and then contracts while the battery is discharging, which causes the anode to break after a small number of charging cycles. However, researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Energy Technology have constructed an anode out of silicon nanoparticles and a material they won’t disclose until they have patent protection which they say overcomes the expansion/contraction problem and allows a normal number of charging cycles. While they do not achieve a full 10-fold increase in energy density they say that batteries made out of their anode material (which they call SiliconX) will still have 3 to 5 times the energy density of today’s lithium-ion batteries [1].

Implications: There is still a long way to go before this technology becomes a reality. For example, issues such as materials and manufacturing costs still need to be addressed.

[1] New Atlas

Computing: Quantum supremacy is 10 more qubits away

What: Quantum Computing researchers are in a race to demonstrate ‘quantum supremacy’ which will occur when a quantum computer can perform a calculation that is not feasible for a classical computer. This was widely anticipated to occur when quantum computers of 50 qubits were constructed, which happened last year. However, a research group at the University of Melbourne has now been able to simulate a 60 qubit quantum computer on a classical computer. There is a catch, however – it was not a general-purpose simulation but a simulation of specific algorithm (Shor’s algorithm which factorises a number which is the product of two primes). It also simulated perfect (logical) qubits whereas the 50 qubit machines have noisy qubits [1].

Implications: While this would imply that it would take a quantum computer bigger than 60 qubits to achieve quantum supremacy this would only be true for the particular algorithm they simulated. However, no quantum supremacy experiments have been reported yet even for other algorithms.

[1] Futurity

Employment: The gig economy is good if you have tech skills

What: The so-called ‘gig economy’, where workers are freelance instead of working as employees, has now grown to the point where more than one third of the US workforce are in temporary roles [1]. This works well for people with tech skills as the top 10 freelance job categories are all in technology. The top 5 (in order from best paid) are AI programming skills, blockchain architecture, robotics, ethical hacking, cryptocurrency [2].

Implications: While the gig economy is great if you have in-demand technical skills, it must not be forgotten that most freelancers are forced into that situation by the casualisation of the workforce, leading to a much more insecure society.

[1] IEEE

[2] Tech Republic

Automation: Robotic Process Automation takes off

What: While it is not as high profile as machine learning, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is transforming business by automating routine processes such as order entry, logistics management, fulfillment, etc. Indian startup Automation Anywhere has just raised $250m in a Series A round from marquee investors such as NEA and Goldman Sachs for a total valuation of $1.8bn. Automation Anywhere has 1,100 enterprise customers including the likes Google, Siemens and Cisco. Automation Anywhere simplifies the task of constructing automated processes by providing a range of ‘bots’ in an app store and these interoperate with each other to allow customers to flexibly configure their processes [1]

Implications: Backroom automation such as RPA is a quiet achiever as it allows businesses to not only cut costs but also to improve customer satisfaction through quicker and more consistent process implementation.

[1] Economic Times

Entrepreneurship: Young people are not the best entrepreneurs

What: While the conventional wisdom would have you believe that the most successful entrepreneurs are 20-something whizz kids, the data shows that this is simply not the case. A new study shows that the average age of the founders of the fastest growing tech start-ups is 45. Furthermore a 50-year-old founder is twice as likely to have a successful start-up compared to a 30-year-old [1].

Implications: Given that the founders feature heavily in the funding decisions of venture capitalists, these results could make it harder for young entrepreneurs to raise capital for a start-up.

[1] KellogInsight

Professor Hugh Bradlow is President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. He is recognised as a global leader in telecommunications technology, including being named by Global Telecom’s Business in the top 100 most powerful executives in the global telecoms Industry two years in a row, and by Smart Company as one of the 12 most influential people in Australian ICT.


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