WANT TO BUILD THE PERFECT SMARTPHONE?
TAKE A LESSON FROM YOUR CELLS
Dropped calls, frozen screens, disappearing contacts: it can make you want to throw your smartphone in the bath. Doctor John Ankers looks to alternative sources for inspiration to solve mobile frustrations.
The race for gadget supremacy never stops: Apple, Samsung and HTC have all launched new smartphones in recent months. But could the next generation of this evolving technology find inspiration in a not-so-unlikely place? John Ankers finds out.
Today’s smartphones could do better. Yes, they send texts; make video calls; talk to satellites; take, edit and share your pictures; play games and music... one even makes a whipping noise if you waggle it a bit. And some of them can even make phone calls, too. But surely there’s so much more that could be crammed in? Smartphones are still evolving. They’re getting smaller, lighter and more streamlined. At the same time we’re always wanting more – ‘more connectivity!’, ‘more integration!’, ‘more features!’ We want apps that talk to other apps; Facebook statuses that automatically log GPS positions; whips that crack by themselves. May- be we’re spoilt – or perhaps this is all part of the evolution: people expect more because the technology promises so much. Yet increasing the ‘smartness’ of your next phone will probably require a balance between reliability and functionality. A microchip’s capacity will only stretch so far: apps must share the phone’s limited resources. In order for you to multitask, so must your phone. Intriguingly, smartphone developers could learn a thing or two by taking a look inside a mammalian cell. The human cell is multifaceted enough to put any smartphone to shame. The secret, as new research investigates, lies in learning how to multitask. The circuitry inside your cells is very different from what you’d expect in the average phone: microchips and computer code are replaced by networks of genes and proteins that work together to transfer information and carry out app-like tasks. Your cellular circuitry has evolved over millions of years to co-ordinate life’s essential processes.
But in research published in PLoS Computational Biology1, Jeffrey Wong and colleagues found that, surprisingly, trying to do everything at once isn’t always the best option. The team from Duke University, North Carolina, investigated the wiring of one cellular circuit – the E2-Factor (E2F) network. This network of proteins and genes is the program for controlling how our cells grow and proliferate – and when they must die. The team asked a simple question: what happens when you increase the demand on E2F’s wiring? After all, unreasonable demands on your phone might cause it to crash (normally just as you’ve finished writing a text message). So how do our cells’ cirucuitry fare when pushed to the limit? Wong and colleagues built a precise computer simulation of E2F’s wiring, using algebra in place of genes and proteins. (Similar techniques are used to accurately predict everything from air traffic to climate change to volcanic ash clouds. They’ve been used in biology for almost 100 years.) The model was used to simulate the cellular equivalent of an app overload - starting a pair of tasks at the same time to pull E2F in opposite directions. The virtual proteins might have dealt with this by attempting the two tasks simultaneously. But the team found that this didn’t happen. As the strain or ‘tension’ in the network increased, it would become less ‘robust’ and more liable to break or crash – with disastrous consequences for the cell. Instead, the team found that the E2F network copes by hopping between competing tasks – or even by duplicating part of its wiring temporarily to cope with the tug-o-war. And these findings reflect real life: the real E2F network does dynamically change as cells grow, divide, and ultimately die. Dr Wong believes E2F (and other circuits in our cells) evolved to minimise the tension in our cells’ wiring. He suggests that multitasking in this way is an “evolutionary feasible” way of “reusing a common set of components... to accomplish multiple biological goals.” Of course, today’s smartphones also juggle tasks, giving priority to important apps and keeping others ‘frozen’ or running in the background. And yet there are still problems: internet forums are plagued with complaints, customer service hotlines glow in fury. Phones are unreliable: sometimes they just crash. You see, today’s smartphone developers have a problem: demands keep changing. Tearing their hair out behind easels and blueprints, developers are forced to second-guess us, the fickle consumers. Is it really possible to design a phone for everyone – the teenage tweeter, the young professional, and the ageless cynic who doesn’t care about Angry Birds but would quite like to finish a phone call without the battery running out? The evolving cell discovered – as phone developers are now realising – that there is often a balance between functionality and reliability. Even so, our cells still manage to co-ordinate and control hundreds of processes – even while communicating with their surroundings and defending themselves against attack from the viruses in the world around them. Given the similarities, perhaps the truly smart smartphone developer will be keeping an eye on cell biology research. They might just save themselves millions of years’ worth of trial and error.
Wong, J. V., Li, B. & You, L. (2012) Tension and robustness in multitasking cellular networks.