Guru Magazine - - CONTENTS - JOHN ANKERS

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.

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