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While technique would likely destroy starships, researchers envision using the technique on cells

Dr. Tomas Cizmar, a research fellow in School of Medicine at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, is hopeful that one day tiny tractor beams could be used to sort certain kinds of cells (say separate white blood cells from the blood stream) or arrange tiny circuit components.

Today a technique called optical tweezers, which relies on the electromagnetic characteristics of laser beams, is commonly used to position cells and other small microscopic or nanoscopic objects.  Other similar techniques billed as "tractor beams" commonly use heating of a gas or other phenomena to shuffle particles.  By contrast, the new "tractor beam" techniques directly rely on the momentum transfer of photons hitting an object to either "push" or "pull" it through space.

The momentum transfer, also known as "optical forces", was first observed by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1619, who observed that comet tails always pointed away from the sun and hypothesized that sunlight must confirm some force onto the particles in the comet wake.

Such forces typically pushed objects in the direction of the photon stream.  But recently theoretical studies hypothesized that under highly specific conditions objects could actually be pulled against the photon stream using a combination of two or more lasers.

Tractor BeamFiber optic needle
The two laser tractoring mechanism (left) could one day be used to sort cells, which Dr. Cizmar's group is currently performing micro-needle waveguide experiments on (right).
[Image Source: St. Andrews]

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently announced $100,000 USD in funding to study the phenomenon, which they hoped could be used to gather samples in space.

In the latest study, which is potentially the first to experimentally demonstrate a purely photonic tractoring technique, Dr. Cizmar's team paired with Prof. Pavel Zemánek at the Institute of Scientific Instruments (ISI) in the Czech Republic.  The authors use a two-laser setup to manipulate a series of spherical nanoparticles of various sizes.  A variety of kinds of motion range from attraction to 2D motion to 1D sorting are achieved, using different beam techniques.

Dr. Cizmar says that the ability to pull objects against the photon stream may seem particularly odd to the layman, remarking to BBC News, "It's surprising.  Only when we looked in detail at the process did we see the reversal. It's quite a narrow field it occurs at."

The new technique bears advantages over other kinds of "tractoring" in the sense that it could work both in liquids and in vacuum.  It also is highly selective, perhaps more so than the other forms of tractoring.  Dr. Cizmar warns that tractoring large objects would be undesirable, even if the approach could somehow be scaled up.  The beams transfer a small amount of energy to the object, which is in turn converted into heat.  On a microscopic scale, the amount transferred is very small, but for a person -- let alone a starship -- the heating would likely be very destructive.

It's possible such an approach could be weaponized, though, offering up another popular science fiction staple -- the "phaser".

But in the near term, researchers remain focused on smaller, more practical applications.  Their recent work was published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature Photonics.  They hope to follow the work with more sophisticated sorting demonstrations, possibly on cells.

Skylark of SpaceStar Trek tractor
While Star Trek (Right) popularized the tractor beam, it was first presented in EE Smith's 1920s "Skylark" space opera. [Image Source: Google Images]

For science fiction fans, note that while it was Star Trek who popularized the notion of the "tractor beam", the fictional device was first dreamt up by American science fiction serialist EE Smith.  Mr. Smith called the device an "attractor beam" and used it in his 1928 story The Skylark of Space.  Dubbed the "father of the space opera" by man, perhaps Mr. Smith knew something his peers at the time didn't -- he did have a Ph.D in Chemical Engineering, after all.

Sources: Nature Photonics, BBC News



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RE: Nice but...
By JediJeb on 1/26/2013 7:18:47 PM , Rating: 3
So within ten years we can have even intricate brain surgery completely automated with no human interaction? Computers will be capable of making the judgments needed to accurately identify criminal versus innocent activities with limited information going into an emergency situation?

Autodriving cars are just beginning to be able to be put on the roads, I don't think we are ready to automate 75% of everything people do in the world.


RE: Nice but...
By deksman2 on 1/27/2013 6:02:52 PM , Rating: 2
Computers have surpassed humans in specialized tasks over a decade ago.
You do not require 'general AI' to do it... merely specialized algorithms/programs... and that we are already doing with relative ease.
There are millions of algorithms right now running on thousands of servers that do work which Humans have been doing - and in only a fraction of the time - not to mention they are doing the work that most people don't know even exists yet.

Autodriving for cars is an old technology that just recently came to realization because it became CHEAP enough to do it (otherwise, we had more than enough resources/technology to do it for some time now).

As for the rest... as I already stated... with the technology we have in circulation, we can easily automate 75% of the global workforce tomorrow.
Most of the production industry is already automated.
Majority of people work on jobs completely unproductive to society and only exist for the purpose of moving money around.
The only viable sector after the first great depression was the service industry (and that is increasingly being challenged by automation as we speak, and the next decade will be decimating).

Look at the recession happening today.
I find it laughable that people claim new jobs/sectors will emerge just because that was how it happened in the past.
That was valid for the past, but not anymore.
Technology/automation is dropping in monetary cost very fast, so companies implement it that much faster.
It is already easier, faster and cheaper to automate a machine to do a job/task, than to wait for a human to train for it (who will require breaks, sick-days, can only work for a specified amount of time, and with limited productivity - oh and humans also require health care).
Job growth will be minimal to non-existent (and that's actually a good thing, because the mentality of 'working for a living' is an idiotic notion that should have died out when the first economic crash in 1931 took place.

Educating oneself of what our technology is capable of and how fast its actually being adopted would be a step forward - and most of those technologies are decades old... none of which are in line with our latest scientific knowledge.
The amount of what already can be automated/done on a global scale is excessively large (huge even), in ALL fields for that matter.
Now think of what kinds of possibilities are there if we actually made our technology, materials, methods of production, etc. to reflect our latest scientific knowledge (which is possible to do in less than a decade).
We'd basically look at this period (10 years earlier) in our history and say:
'We were playing with toys'.

Social awareness needs to be brought in line with what we know if we expect to move forward.
Because, by the time the economy collapses (which I give roughly a decade, maybe 15 years - but probably less), people will find themselves completely lost, and unable to gain access to anything because we live in a system that requires of people to have the purchasing power to afford basic necessities of life (let alone anything else), all of which we were making in abundance for over 100 years, and today have the ability to give each person on the planet a life standard 3x better than what the richest person currently 'enjoys'.

Molecular manufacturing is being introduced as we speak.
Nanorobots were invented 20 years ago, they are already READY to be implemented in practice in a wide variety of areas (and we already use certain aspects of nanotechnology in practice and have been for at least 10 years).


RE: Nice but...
By deksman2 on 1/27/2013 6:07:23 PM , Rating: 2
P.S. The DaVinci is a medical robot (currently in use) that reduces need for extra people in the surgery and increases recovery time by 70% (margin for error is actually radically REDUCED compared to when humans are operating on people because this robot doesn't have a problem with shaky hands or misplacing instruments in a persons body).

So tell me... why is it that one must expose others to the realities of our technology on a site dedicated to it?

Oh wait... maybe because these websites focus (in large amount) on profit margins and similar monetary reports (which incidentally have nothing to do with technology), not to mention little tidbits that concern 'consumer technology' (which seems to be in the mobile sector all the time these days).


"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov














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