Thursday, September 13, 2007

What If the iPod Nano Really Were Nano

What if Apple's MP3 player dubbed "Nano" really had dimensions on the scale of nanometers (billionths of a meter)? That question, coming to me on my bicycle ride to class, made for the best day of teaching I have yet to experience. The students in my nanotechnology class had so much to say that I shelved my planned lecture, giving almost two hours to the wide-ranging discussion. Although my students had not yet seen ICE-9, their points followed its form. Here is some of what came up...

  • You could not hold it, so it would to be implanted.
  • What kind of interface would it have? You could not push buttons or see a screen on something smaller than the wavelength of visible light.
  • How many songs could you store? What's the fewest number of atoms you need to store information?
  • How would you power it? You couldn't put batteries in it, but maybe it could parasitize energy...mechanical motion or temperature differentials.
  • How would you transfer information into it? Cables would not work. How about Bluetooth or another wireless system?
  • Infrastructure would have to all change. Accessories like earbuds would have to change.
  • What if it breaks? If it's implanted, it could cause nerve damage. You'd need an emergency eject function.
  • Why should it last forever? It should be flushed from the body periodically, just in case it breaks. Then you can buy another. Apple would love that. You'd buy a subscription and get a new, disposable iPod Nano every year. Or every month, like contact lenses.
  • You could use contact lenses with a heads-up display instead of a screen. Your song list would appear to float in front of whatever you're looking at.
  • To listen, you could use a tooth implant. Can't you hear vibrations through your teeth?
  • The book Digital Fortress by Dan Brown has a character controlling something by tapping a finger. You could use that with the contact lens display to start, stop, select songs, change volume, etc.
  • It would have to learn your finger tapping. There'd have to be an easy way to say, "No, mistake, undo." Then it would compare that mistaken finger tap with all the previous ones for that function that you accepted. It could figure out, over time, how to get it right every time.
  • Apple's Newton PDA tried to learn handwriting that way.
  • You could use thought control instead of finger tapping. What about distraction? Would you have to discipline your thoughts?
  • Listen with wireless earbuds. Or with a direct nerve connection.
  • If you do not upgrade to the next version, it could disintegrate. That's like what we said about a periodic emergency eject.
  • Would the manufacturer give you subliminal messages?
  • In the book Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, a character with an implanted heads-up display, not on removable contact lenses, get a computer virus or something in it. He sees a vacuum cleaner commercial in the Hindi language 24 hours a day, even when he tries to sleep. He committed suicide.
  • The iPod Nano should not do that.
  • Would your immune system react to an implant?
  • What are the ethics of implanting? Would this make you a cyborg? Would it distract you in the classroom? Continuous partial attention, like using your laptop during lecture. Could it give you an unfair advantage in a test?
  • Education is just information retrieval, so this implant could replace education [Note: this was the opinion of only one student!].
  • Schools have value. You can't learn everything by just getting information.
  • With Google and Wikipedia, education is less about memorizing stuff and more about learning where to get information and how to evaluate it. [Yay! Critical thinking!]
  • Social stratification: at first only the rich would be able to implant.
  • That's the way technology always works.
  • Devolution: medicine keeps the weak alive. Would storing information in an implant cause our skills to atrophy?
Much more escaped my limited note-taking speed. I will continue to use this question to open classes on nanotechnology. Next, I will figure out how to build on it by introducing the ICE-9 questions with references back to quotes from students.