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Sunday
Nov112007

Build better fairy dust, suffer fewer bad actors

Scientific advances today are accomplished at the intersections of various fields, according to Frans Johansson's brilliant book, "The Medici Effect." Breakthroughs come when disparate disciplines collide in new ways. This innovation is readily seen in nanotechnology, or the creation and use of materials - even machines - at the atomic or molecular scale.

While the sexiest nanotechnology focuses on new applications, many possibilities exist to vastly improve existing techniques and procedures.

I got a lesson on one such potential use recently at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which - by design - is sort of a Medici effect all its own, meaning the lab steers scientists from various fields into multidisciplinary efforts to solve vexing problems.

Being a strategy consultant to Oak Ridge, I'm like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to receiving briefings from lab scientists because - no matter the project - it's easy to imagine real-world applications ranging far beyond the subject at hand.

As an expert on globalization, I focus a lot on transparency, with my analytic mantra being, "connectivity drives code." By that I mean, the more you engage the larger world (connectivity), the more you become subject to rules (code).

Want to live all by yourself in a shack in the woods? That means fewer rules for you, because your code is simply shutting yourself off from the outside world.

Want to travel all over this planet and engage in all sorts of commerce?

That's going to mean a whole lot more rules apply, and with all those rules comes an abundance of transparency. You will be increasingly tracked, tagged and located by networks.

But what if you're someone who believes in that more primitive, isolated life and you're willing to fight and kill and die to impose that choice on others?

If that's your chosen ideology, then you will destroy other people's connectivity to keep that integrating world at bay.

You'll live largely off the grid and engage global networks for the twin purposes of winning converts and sowing chaos.

In short, you'll leave no traces, just destruction, so tracking you will be no mean trick. You're like a criminal who doesn't want to leave any fingerprints behind.

Police have detected fingerprints at crime scenes for over a century to identify culprits. In the old days, the primary method involved spreading "fairy dust" (i.e., various powders) over surfaces suspected of containing fingerprints - hence "dusting for prints."

If the suspect left behind oily enough prints, the dust would stick to them and reveal identifying information. Your fingers get oily, for example, when you touch oily body parts like your face or hair.

But say our suspect is more careful, washing his hands or using gloves or leaving prints solely on harder-to-dust surfaces, like certain metals or plastic bags or a victim's skin.

By the late 1980s the new gold standard in lifting "cleaner" prints involved superheating special glue until it vaporized and could bond with the targeted fingerprint, creating a sort of protected cast visible to the naked eye.

This technology was superior to dusting because it could reveal prints based on less residual material, interacting with base components such as amino acids and glucose.

But this technology still suffered a time limit: the longer a print dried out, the fewer chemical components were left behind to react to the super glue.

So today's cutting edge in fingerprinting involves boosting the signal, so to speak. You want to be able to compile an identifying print from the slimmest amount of biological residue left behind.

Enter nanotechnology.

By constructing new forms of dust employing nano-engineered shapes (e.g., rods, cubes, spheres, pyramids), scientists are figuring out how to enhance the most difficult-to-obtain fingerprints.

These particles are used to shift the wavelength of light that is directed against targeted surfaces, resulting in an identifiable scattering signal.

Where can this go?

How about a rape kit that lifts the perpetrator's prints off the victim's body? Or international inspectors scanning mass graves to gather evidence for a war crimes prosecution? Or - you get the idea.

In this increasingly connected world, it's our inability to finger bad actors that - in the end - allows them to create the most terror. Make better fairy dust, crack tougher codes, connect more dots, create more transparency, and you've got fewer bad actors.

In this global war, the smallest things will matter most.

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