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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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Fall 2004
The Next Wave
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Atomic-force Microscope

Image by Andrew Pelling

The atomic-force microscope, modeled here, is fast becoming a valuable PC-driven R&D tool used in everything from metallurgy and nanoengineering to the physical and life sciences. It works by measuring atomic-scale forces between the ultra-sensitive tip of its cantilevered probe and the object being studied.

The beginnings of how this personal and spatial computer interface is being reshaped can be seen in the proliferation of wireless ports for PCs at cafes; the extensive public surveillance systems dotting metropolises like New York and London; and the growing use of wireless “Blackberry” devices that can send out beacons in a crowded area, allowing people to find each other. But the most visible examples come from the household domain: smart homes that have refrigerators and washing machines with remote Internet connections for maintenance access; microwave ovens with integrated Web-pads; even instrumented coffee pots and clothes.

PerC will revolutionize our lives in a number of ways. Think of the millions of baby-boomers, many of them ailing or living on their own — PerC devices will make it possible for relatives to monitor whether they’ve taken their medications or, indeed, eaten their breakfast.

Or think of a crisis such as the one following 9/11, when emergency-response systems in Los Angeles were overloaded and campus e-mail badly jammed. With PerC, information about evacuation and safety could be available to anyone with basic wireless access.

But PerC isn’t without serious ethical issues, such as the use of biometric scanning to ascertain people’s identities and then matching the data to relevant financial, marketing or criminal databases. Whether or not PerC eventually comes to be seen in a positive light will be the subject of great intellectual interest over the coming decade, predicts Cuff, who is also a professor in the Department of Architecture and Urban Design. Meanwhile, she and her colleagues have the challenging task of acting as a bridge between what Cuff describes as “privacy activists wary of every new technology and technologists who rarely recognize the ethical issues their work embodies from the very outset.”

Ajay Singh is a senior writer for UCLA Magazine.

 

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