A Smoother Future

(Photos and stories from my trip to Madrid will be up soon!)

Every time I wander around a lab, I’m always amazed at how anything ever gets accomplished, what with the innumerable racks of chemicals and samples crowded into fridges and shelves, bits of paper scattered all over the place and various out-of-date printouts and forms tacked to walls. Yet research still gets done, somehow.

Being the automation-obsessed person that I am, I immediately began to think about how labs could improve their organisation. I’m not talking about putting up alphabetised shelves or anything like that, since they never last and people are intrinsically messy, I’m talking about using technologies that are available now or in the next year to improve the research experience. Two technologies would do the job.

1) Put RFID tags on everything. At first this will just be bottles from commercial suppliers, but will eventually expand to lab samples and chemicals. Scanners would then be able to locate the position of any object immediately, if the tags were hooked up to a searchable database.

2) Flexible, wireless displays on everything. Initially these will be expensive but will hit mass production soon enough. At that point you’ll be able to have dynamic displays that could, say, display a map of the fridge with the location of every bottle, along with its age, owner, origin and contents. They could display news of upcoming lab events, recently delivered chemicals, notes and messages for other lab workers. The dynamic information is the important bit, as is the ubiquity.

As usual, these developments will seep into universities and labs slowly until we wonder how we ever did anything without them, just like how we wonder how we ever did without mobile phones. How did people arrange to meet up without them, anyway?..

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