12.0044 smart materials and sensual aircraft

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 26 May 1998 20:12:01 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 44.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Mon, 25 May 1998 09:08:07 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: smart materials and sensual aircraft

Thanks to a colleague here in elecrical engineering I have in my hands a
fascinating popular account of a subfield activity in her area centering on
substances known as "smart materials". The article is Cliff Friend, "Even
aircraft have feelings", New Scientist 3 February 1996, pp. 32-35.

Smart materials are, as the name suggests, substances that narrow the gap
between inert matter and living tissue. The central research problem for her
particular material is caused by metal fatigue in aircraft, which leads to
sudden breakdown that can occur while the airplane is in the air. The
article cites a particular case in which a 6-metre section of the fuselage
broke off of a Boeing 737 at 7000 metres, leaving the first-class cabin
roofless. Detecting metal fatigue is exceedingly difficult because the areas
to be scanned are quite large and the detectors quite small. One solution
has been to embed optical fibre sensors in the material of the aircraft,
linking them to an onboard computer that can then act on information about
metal fatigue, undue vibration and other conditions. Research is in progress
toward the application of materials that can also change shape, thus leading
to metamorphic control of aircraft wings, for example.

The engineering and computer science problems involved here are complex, of
course. The amount of data to be dealt with dynamically is very large and
quick response times are essential. I have no information on what has
happened since this article was written, but I do know that there are
conferences at which the latest research results are reported. Presumably
what are called "sensual aircraft" are much closer to commercial realisation
than they were 4 years ago.

What particularly fascinates me is the active anthropomorphism, or what we
might call the physical personification of our external world. In the case
of sensual aircraft, for example, this is achieved by moving artificial
intelligence into the materials themselves. The so-called "spaghetti
syndrome" to which the size and complexity of the sensor array for an
aircraft leads has lead some researchers to propose (in 1996) that materials
themselves should be made smart enough not to need sophisticated circuits,
parts and systems external to themselves. Hiroaki Yanagida, professor of
intelligent materials at Tokyo calls these "KEN materials after the Chinese
characters meaning wisdom, structure, monitoring, integration and
benignity". Thus, for example, a material can modify its own conductivity to
express impact and fatigue damage.

I find it instructive to consider what vision of the world and of our
relationship to the entities in it is implied by this research. According to
the usual prejudice, engineers are "hard headed" and practical, i.e. not
interested in the poetics of material science, but the facts are that our
engineering colleagues work toward a better world and that the outlines of
this world, and the lineaments of human desire these reveal, can
occasionally be glimpsed. Sensual aircraft? Vehicles that understand and
care for their passengers? I dimly recall a Star Trek episode along these
lines, as silly as it may have been.

Engineering the paradisal vision gives us much to think about and to do, no?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk

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