The Coming "Glass Age," Where Transparency Is Everywhere

The so-called Silicon Age of IT may soon give way to an era of see-through clarity to help usher in ever more wearable technology and the Internet of Things.

Ubiquitous Energy's Transparent Luminescent Solar Concentrator (TLSC)
Ubiquitous Energy's Transparent Luminescent Solar Concentrator (TLSC)
Nimrod Zook

TEL AVIV â€" Historians tend to associate human epochs with the dominant raw materials of these eras: the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

Accordingly, our contemporary times are often characterized as the Silicon Age â€" not as a tribute to Silicon Valley, but to silica, the foundation stone of the Information Technology industry.

And yet a few months ago, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, hosts of the popular American TV show MythBusters, coined a new name for the current era: the Glass Age. It is an era where more and more materials become transparent, and technological advances enable using these materials in more sophisticated instruments: mirrors and glass sheets that can serve as computer screens, windows that are also solar panels, daily devices that, with a thin film, are made into intuitive touchscreens, and even materials that, after a complex process, would make them look transparent even though they aren't.

These materials and technologies already exist, or are at least in advanced stages of development. For armies they could offer solutions for old battlefield problems, and they open up new possibilities in the world of architecture. They join the growing trends of minimization, wearable technologies, and the so-called "Internet Of Things."

If we are indeed on the verge of the Glass Age, this would be a natural evolution from the Silicon Age. The high-tech industry's formal objective is to create advanced, comfortable and light applications that upgrade our daily routines so that even technology becomes invisible.

Fold your iPad

Last year Cambridge University researchers presented a prototype of a flexible screen. It is a thin and transparent display that heralds the near future of folding tablets and wearable multimedia. This screen is made of one of the world's most revolutionary materials: graphene.

Graphene was discovered by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, earning them the 2010 Noble prize in physics. It is a hard sheet of graphite, the same material used in pencils, and is one-atom thick. This microscopic thickness and complete transparency are astonishingly coupled with conduction and rare stiffness.

Nevertheless, a number of technology companies, primarily LG and Samsung, have already begun developing flexible LCD and OLED screens that can be bent or even rolled. Other companies have presented preliminary concepts for fully transparent TV and computer displays.

Rethinking recharging

Imagine you could cover pretty much anything with a thin transparent film that would convert sunlight into energy. Light bulbs could recharge through their own glass, mobile phones would be charged on café tables, and apartments would be powered by their own windows.

Such technology has been developed at Michigan State University and now serves American startup Ubiquitous Energy. The university researchers discovered a material called Transparent Luminescent Solar Concentrator (TLSC), and Ubiquitous hopes to use it to usher in the boldest of energy revolutions. In the meantime, the main hurdle is its low efficiency â€" 1% utilization, seven times less than standard solar panels.

Ubiquitous stress that the technology is still young. In fact, the very existence of a transparent solar panel is in itself remarkable.

Thin walls

A glass-like concrete might still be far away, but translucent concrete is already on the market. Until recently it was primarily found in design exhibitions, but it has already started appearing in cities. Lucem, one of the producers of this material, has used it for the façade of its headquarters in Aachen, Germany. In February, award-winning Belgian architect Gianni Botsford designed a garden pavilion made of translucent concrete that allows, at certain times of the day, the landscape around it to be seen through the walls as if they were made of a milky glass.

Creating this material is rather simple â€" the concrete mix includes 5% glass or plastic shreds that have been grounded to powder. Another technique weaves tiny optic fibers into the concrete blocks creating a pattern of "light tunnels."

For now, the main obstacle standing between this new material and the market is the related cost.

Killing the blind spot

It might still be a bit too early for fully transparent cars, but some researchers and car producers have recently been toying with various concepts of standard cars that would seem transparent for their passengers.

Scientists in the media design department of Japan's Keio University and automakers such as Jaguar Land Rover are exploring new video technologies, cameras and thin, flexible displays that would substitute those parts of the vehicle that block drivers' field of vision, thus creating an optical illusion of a completely transparent vehicle.

A few months ago Samsung tested a different version of the new gimmick. A truck was fitted with special cameras at its front and a large flat screen on its rear, showing the road ahead of the truck. Such screens, Samsung says, could help prevent accidents during passing.

Researchers from Keio University went even further last year when they presented an experimental system that includes sensors that track eye movements and allows every passenger in the car to enjoy a realistic optical illusion of transparency.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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