Introduction to TechNotes
It’s often said that “the Internet gives us access to all of human knowledge,” but that now-mundane “fact” is far from true. A lot of important knowledge and data is still only kept in institutional memory and physical books, or is technically available online but practically hard to find, hard to use, hard to understand, and/or potentially restricted by patents or copyright. In other cases, we have access to so much information, changing at such a rapid pace, that it’s an overwhelming task to make sense of it.
Consider electric batteries, such as the lithium ion battery in your phone. These batteries are a crucial technology that makes modern life possible, and are used at all scales, from tiny wireless earbud batteries to electric vehicles to massive utility-scale solar applications. Ongoing advances in battery technology have improved them year after year. Now, say you want to write a paper about battery technology, or found a startup with an innovative battery-powered consumer product, or are curious how your phone’s battery compares to the very latest cutting-edge battery technology. How can you get accurate, up-to-date information?
Wikipedia is of course a good starting point, but its nature as a wiki means that it can be inconsistent and out of date. The “electric battery” article today says things like “Newly introduced to the market (2009).” One might also read three different articles (“electric battery”, “lithium polymer battery”, and “research in lithium-ion batteries”), and get three different answers.
One can turn to research articles, but there is such a huge volume of them that placing them in context and prioritizing them by relevance can take days of work. Many are behind a paywall and even if one has access, they can be difficult to interpret. We’re all familiar with reading news articles about some breakthrough or another and then never hearing about it again.
Technical information that’s “technically” available but not well-organized is like a car without tires. It has theoretical value, but not practical value. It’s not getting you anywhere.
TechNotes is an ambitious project that aims to fill a significant gap in how technical information is organized and made available online, in order to catalyze technological and scientific innovation at an even greater pace than we have seen to date. We want to put tires on the car and see how fast it can go.
The central idea is to build an authoritative, free, collaboratively developed online library of detailed and practical information about engineering and technology. This website would be somewhat analogous to Wikipedia, but focused entirely on technology and built with different content and capabilities.
Mission statement: to accelerate and protect humanity’s technological advancement by providing a comprehensive, open, and practical library of technological knowledge.
The goals for this project are:
To accelerate the pace of technological and scientific innovation
Humanity has a lot of knowledge about how to build amazing things, but much of it is not easily accessible - available only from specialist books, obscure research papers, internal corporate documents, and in-person instruction. This is especially true of the hard-won practical advice that is necessary to go beyond theory and actually build things yourself.
To make all of its information easily discoverable, cross-referenced, in standardized formats, and as accessible as possible
Here accessible means both to humans and to machines.
To promote standardization, collaboration, and open standards
To create a single resource that contains enough in-depth engineering and technological information to build a modern technological civilization from scratch
If humans had to abandon earth and land on another habitable planet, TechNotes would provide the knowledge needed to quickly build mines, factories, power sources, habitats, and (eventually) things like smart phones. This scenario is hopefully never going to occur, but any resource which meets that aspirational goal would provide countless very real benefits here and now.
To collaboratively develop and publish open-source ready-to-use designs for important tools, devices, and technologies
If an engineer were asked to design a lightweight habitat that humans could live in on Mars, instead of having to design everything from scratch, her team could start by downloading complete plans for things like washing machines, lighting fixtures, microwaves, smoke detectors, door locks, etc., then modify them to be as simple and lightweight as possible, then print/order the components - creating a much more complete and functional habitat in a fraction of the time as would otherwise be possible. And of course, the community could continue to iterate on and improve these Mars design variants.
To preserve detailed knowledge of now-obsolete technologies
Why? For historical purposes, to avoid any loss of technological capability, to serve as inspiration for future discoveries, and to be used if needed to rebuild civilization after an apocalypse.
To achieve these goals, as TechNotes is built over the coming decade, we will:
- Provide an integrated online platform containing articles, guides, data files, design files, collaboration tools, and discussion boards
- Develop software tools to automate the process of organizing information, converting old manuals to modern formats, translating content, moderating contributions, etc.
- Invite volunteers to contribute their knowledge, like Wikipedia editors do
- Invite volunteers to collaboratively develop hardware designs
- Draw from existing sources of open content (Wikipedia, NASA Technical Reports Server, etc.) and enhance such content by expanding it, adding details, converting datasets to machine-readable formats, converting pixelated technical drawings to modern formats)
- Provide free-to-use schematics, CAD drawings, 3D printer design files, etc.
- Encourage standardization and the development of open standards (e.g. metric system, ISO 8601 date format, AV1/AVIF/Opus media formats, etc.)
The main component of TechNotes (what users see on the main website) will be the TechNotes “Database”, which contains the following types of articles and data:
- Tech Concepts: Information about any device, system, or software construct that can be designed, created, and used - e.g. “wind turbine”, “smartphone”, “solar panel”, “wing nut”, “power plant”, “transportation network”, “image compression algorithm”, “data interchange format”, “video codec”.
- Designs: Information about specific designs/plans/implementations of a Tech Concept, e.g. “555 timer IC”, “Hoover Dam”, “iPhone 12”; can include research prototypes and one-off projects in addition to commercially available products.
- Processes: Information about useful processes, e.g. “welding”, “data compression”, “chemical vapour deposition”, “digital contact tracing”.
- Patents: A database of patents like Google Patents, but integrated with the other database entries: see what products use a given patent, what patents a given product uses, how important a given patent is, what its license terms are, whether or not it’s expired, what tech concepts it relates to, etc.
- Materials: Information about materials used in engineering, e.g. “304 stainless steel”, “gallium arsenide”, “carbon fiber”, “water”.
- Datasets, Drawings & Documents - the database will include datasets related to technologies (e.g. comparison of efficiency of different photovoltaic substrates) and products (e.g. iPhone feature matrix), any available CAD drawings for products (e.g. the complete plans for the Saturn V moon rocket), and relevant case studies. As much as possible, drawings will be converted to modern vector formats and editable formats (e.g. DWG) rather than being grainy bitmaps. When documents are available to TechNotes but we don’t have permission to (re)publish them due to copyright status, the originals will be stored in the TechNotes “shadow library”, which preserves the original without publishing it, so that it can eventually be made public when its copyright expires.
The TechNotes Database will also have a Discussion section on some pages for technical community discussion and work to improve the articles/data. This is meant as a low-barrier way for people to contribute who aren’t comfortable editing articles, and to collect useful related information and tidbits. We will experiment with having the Discussion immediately following the content, not on a separate page like Wikipedia does.