Archives for posts with tag: technology

It’s been 3 years since I last went to California and one of the big changes I’ve noticed in that time is the increase in electric cars there. It’s still a tiny minority of cars on the road and most electric cars are selling at a loss, but it’s now beginning to become a realistic option.

Electric car charging stations are being set up in many big workplaces, an early sign that the era of petrol stations may be coming to an end.

Electric Cars

The car making the most waves is the Tesla Model S, a smashing looking vehicle retailing for over 60,000 dollars. I saw quite a few of them on the road when I was there.

Tesla1

 

It’s odd to see a gaping void where the engine is supposed to be.

Tesla2

Ireland is a long way behind with electrics. They are invisible on Irish roads, although I am reliably informed that there are  already quite a few charging points around the country. We’re still a few years from a tipping point.

Apparently, Google self-drive cars are frequently seen around Silicon Valley. Who knows what we might see in 3 years time?

 

Jet Trails over Canberra-1

And yet, planes fly.

This is a phrase that often comes to mind when people question the value and utility of science, or diminish its importance in the world today.

It cuts through the objections: that science can be biased, or imperfect, or financially driven, or chaotic, or fraudulent, or philosophically unsound, or just one idea among many.

Sometimes, these criticisms are valid. There are many instances where science has been hampered by fraudulent and unethical behaviour, where scientists have taken appalling short cuts and or adjusted data because it didn’t fit preconceived notions, where bullying and a dogmatic over-reliance on unsound theories has hampered progress. You could write a book on it.

And yet, planes fly.

Big ones too. Gigantic 300 tonne planes, travelling at 900 kilometres per hour, at 40,000 feet above the ground. Right now, a few of them are routinely ploughing their way through the stratosphere en route to various destinations across the planet.

All this would not have been possible if it were not for the efforts of generations of scientists and engineers. These people sought to understand and exploit the physical properties of this world, using rational thought, experimentation and argument to allow us to leave the ground and do something that would have been unimaginable to countless generations.

When I say “yet planes fly”, I am only tipping a snowflake on the tip of an enormous iceberg. And yet, computers work. Washing machines work. Mobile phones work. We’ve put men on the Moon. Cured and treated cancers. Eradicated ancient diseases. Increased food supply. People now live longer. Babies are born that otherwise wouldn’t be. Most children survive to adulthood. Mothers can better plan their families and their futures. We can peer back to the beginnings of time and examine the most fundamental components of the Universe. All this, and much more, because of science. All this, despite the problems inherent within the scientific process.

It may seem trivial to point to aeroplanes and these other examples and point them out as astonishing products of the scientific process. Even the most ardent pseudoscience devotee is likely to accept that science has yielded huge discoveries and benefits. The point, however, is that, faults and all, it remains the most successful mode of understanding the world and dealing with problems that humans have ever concocted. It has succeeded where mysticism, homeopathy, religion and new age doctrines have not. Indeed, they seem to occupy the ever-decreasing areas where significant progress is still limited.

Such an outlook could be dismissed as scientism: a view that science, on its own, can explain anything and solve any problem. This may not be true, or even possible; but science still remains the most powerful intellectual tool in our arsenal. When it comes to the pressing issues of the day, from global warming and climate change, disease management and genetic disorders, sanitation and overpopulation, I would prefer to have a bunch of scientists and engineers looking at these challenges than anyone else.

So when I see airplanes in the sky, it shows that, limited and all though are species are, and no matter how faulty our processes of discovery, we have nevertheless learned a lot about how the universe works and how we bring those insights to bear on real-life challenges. The problems of the coming century will be very different to those of the last one. They are likely to need the efforts of our best technical brains to tackle and solve. It’s time more people started to wake up to this.

If I were to make a speculative prediction, it would be that we are heading towards an all-seeing future. Every event of our lives will be recorded and available to us (and possibly others) for instantaneous playback. The Cloud will become the repository of all information, recorded in high-definition video, possibly from multiple angles, for us all to dip into as we see fit.  Maps, street views and the insides of many buildings will be available to us in real time. An army of cameras, satellites and other sensors will provide continuous streaming information to those that can afford it.

Allied to data, there will be a whole chain of semantic processes working in the background, making sense of this data: a bit like the way tags work on YouTube videos or blogs. Through this approach, recall can work correctly.

We won’t need to type in information. We can talk to the Cloud whenever we want. Perhaps it will even be able to anticipate our needs, as it takes control over areas of our lives, such as driving to work.

There would be no need for eyewitness testimony. We’ll see things as they happened. There would be no need for memory: you just set the pointer at a particular date and time, and press play. Perhaps contracts, even money, will be obsolete: since we can play back agreements as they happen.

Such change will not come overnight. Privacy, security, copyright, evidence, equality, democracy: all will need massive in the face of ever improving technology and visibility into our daily lives. Heated arguments about the State’s rights to our information will continue to rage.

It might sound crazy, if we were not three-quarters of the way there already.

Here’s some delightful news to wake up to on a gloomy Monday morning.

Minister of State for Enterprise Seán Sherlock is to publish an order early in the new year that is expected to allow music publishers, film producers and other parties to go to court to prevent internet service providers from allowing their customers access to pirate websites. (Irish Times)

It’s being done because of a court case involving record company EMI, where they took out an injunction against the cable company UPC, ordering it to block access to websites that allowed illegal downloading. They failed in their injunction, and now the Irish Government is helping them push it through with supportive legislation.

Let’s think about that for a second. Along with the usual suspects, there are other companies that in their own way, “allow illegal downloading”. They go by the name of Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. In other words, the companies that add the most value to the Internet may well be in the firing line. This legislation does not target users or accounts, it goes after whole websites. If the record companies get their way, they have carte blanche to gut the Internet to protect their failed business model.

And here’s another problem. Now, let me make this clear: I’m not into file sharing in any way. I don’t know the first thing about setting up torrents and peer-to-peer networks. It’s not that I have any sense of superiority about it, just because I’m simply not that big into music and movies. Blogs and reading seem to be more my kind of thing. In principle, I’m quite happy to pay the producers for the content that they produce. If they have gone to all that effort to create something of value, I think they should be rewarded for it. But paying companies whose sole purpose in life is to limit distribution through copyright laws? Not so much.

EMI are a dinosaur. They made money when CD’s and DVD’s were in vogue. They are suffering now, because a far more open and efficient system – the Internet – has displaced them. Gutenberg II has arrived and the likes of EMI are trying to burn the pamphlets. Unless they adapt, the EMI’s current business will be dead in ten years. The law might not be dead, though.  So, it’s quite feasible that we might have a draconian off-switch on the Internet, whose current use does not match the original intended purpose. How good is that?

Which gets me to my third problem with this. Ireland is a country whose growth prospects depend greatly on its attractiveness towards large and emerging technology companies – companies that have thrived because of Internet freedoms. We have the highest percentage of tech workers in Europe. A huge proportion of our GDP (and consequently, tax revenue) is tied up with the fortunes of the technology and Internet industry. These companies want to do business with governments that understand the dynamics of the Internet. By bowing to the dubious demands of the likes of EMI, our government will be demonstrating, in a very unambiguous way, that they don’t understand it at all. Instead of towing EMI’s line, we should be listening to what the technology companies are saying about this. They seem to be very angered about the US’s SOPA law. Why would it be different here? Do we really have such bad lawyers in this country, that they are not prepared to stand up to the record industry on such a crucial matter?

Dear Sean Sherlock TD, the proposed legislation is bad legislation. You are going to punish legitimate users of the Internet and you playing with the growth prospects of our country, all in an attempt to appease a pack of dinosaurs whose day has come.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

– Arthur C. Clarke

A few days ago, I watched the Harry Potter finale with my kids in the cinema. After the film, one of my children asked me if I believed in magic; being a sceptical sort of person I admitted I didn’t. Magic is a relatively loosely defined term, but my bottom line is that “supernatural” phenomena have never been conclusively demonstrated or proven. Unless a compelling argument can be made, it appears that all objects in this universe act in accordance with natural laws.

Image by Don Solo (Flickr - CC Licensed)

The wizards and witches in Harry Potter have powers that certainly seem magical to us. They can “apparate” instantaneously from one place to another. They perceive memories from far-off times. They are armed with a variety of spells to disable opponents. Everything seems to have some sort of sentience. The magic in JK Rowling’s world is particularly appealing to us 21st Century folks. It is device based, utilitarian, networked. It mixes the physical universe with the virtual world of the Internet and gaming; strong reasons, in my mind, for the astonishing success of the books and movies.

Perhaps I am being a bit too harsh in not believing in magic, because to a medieval person, or a person who lived in Roman times, we live in truly extraordinary times. To them, we would all be wizards and witches. We can watch events and interact with people in other parts of the world. We move in metal carriages that require no oxen or horses. The greatest of these carriages fly above us and can even sail at incredible speeds above the sky itself. We have at our disposal wonderful materials – plastics, composites, semiconductors – that would be unimaginable by the medieval mind. Simple pills can be taken to cure what would have once been common ailments. We have created weapons of unimaginable strength and brutality. I could go on.

We don’t call this magic. We call it science. We call it engineering. We call it technology. It’s not magic because it is simply the laws of physics, chemistry and (increasingly) biology, applied in interesting ways to different challenges. The tools of the trade are not incantations but experimentation, imagination, analysis, criticism and frequent failure. The magical language is mathematics. Chemistry is our Potions class, Biology replaces Herbology and Computer Science supplants Divination.

Perhaps, in 500 years time, Harry Potter will be more akin to a documentary than to a fictional work. It may be possible to render oneself invisible, to flit in an instant through time and space or to backup one’s consciousness into safer, more robust objects; thereby achieving a kind of immortality. The people of that era would seem breathtakingly magical to us. That’s the wonder of science. The hard work of scientists today will pave the way to the magic of tomorrow.

Oh, and WordPress informs me that this is my 300th post since I began blogging in 2007. How did I ever manage that?

Art credit – Don Solo (Flickr, CC Licensed)

Friday 10, 2020. Many people will wake up to the alarm clock, listen to the latest news as they get their breakfast ready, drive to work and put in a good 8 to 10 hours in either front of their computer, serving customers or in long, drawn out meetings. They will then drive home to their families, have dinner, get their kids ready for bed, surf the Net, and relax in front of the TV. Later on, a few brave souls may head down to the pub for a drink before they finally call it a day.

This is likely to be the most accurate prediction you can make about life ten years from now. In other words, 2020 will be pretty much the same as it is today*. If we look back to the turn of the Millennium, many of us had mobile phones, Internet access, TV dinners, recycling bins and telephone conferencing. The world is as it was then, with the addition of a few new gadgets, a better Internet experience, text messaging and wireless broadband. The world today is 2000 with more toys, in other words. Most change, when it comes to the inexorable rise of technology in our lifestyles, comes along slowly. When making predictions about everyday life in the next 10 years, it is imperative that we keep this glacially slow pace of technology adoption in mind. Many of the changes that will made the difference in ten year time are probably already around us in one form or another, but it will take most of the decade to make them widespread.

But life will not stay still, so here are my guesses as to the big changes over the next ten years.

-:-

Internet everywhere.

By 2020 most gadgets you will buy – TV’s, radios, music centres, cars, cameras, domestic appliances and many children’s toys – will be Internet enabled in one form or another. Bandwidth will have improved greatly and most content will be in the “cloud”, i.e. stored and managed remotely.  Connectivity will be wireless and largely invisible to the user. Most of the stuff we watch and listen to: videos, music, TV programmes, etc. will be downloaded digitally and instantaneously.

It’s likely that the Internet will also have changed. While it will more ubiquitous, it will also be more subtle. The central access point to the Internet – the web browser – will still be there, but there will be multiple other ways of interacting with the Net. The Internet will be centrally involved in feeding multiple different applications and devices, presenting information relevant to the experience expected from those technologies. Doing business on the Internet will not be as simple as getting a web-page together, as customers will expect information in a variety of different ways.

A new way to shop.

I think RFID – Radio Frequency ID tags – will come into their own in the next decade. Bar codes will disappear, to be replaced by tags that will identify themselves wirelessly at the checkout. With this, supermarkets will change dramatically. You simply pick what you want, put it into a trolley, pass a radio scanner and instantly collect the receipt. No more checkouts, no more queues. Just pick, pay and pack. This technology has been around for ages, but it remains expensive for widespread retail use. We should expect this barrier to be overcome in the next few years, resulting in a transformation of the shopping experience.

The rise and rise of Touch

One of the coolest technologies to gain prominence in the last decade has been touch sensitive surfaces. So far, the smartphone is the greatest beneficiary of this technology but we should expect it to expand rapidly beyond these bounds before the decade is out. The real benefit of touch technology is that it makes more use of limited or wasted “real estate” within any hardware product. With Touch, the keyboard becomes a writing or drawing pad, while enclosures begin to resemble skin (think of the applications for kids toys).

Electric cars

I expect that the next decade will be a big one for green technology generally and for electric cars in particular. There will be a noticeable transition from petrol to electricity, probably towards the end of the decade once the infrastructure becomes more commonplace. Some governments (Israel and Denmark, for example) have already committed funds to a suitable infrastructure, carbon credits already in force in many countries will make electric cars an increasingly attractive proposition and car manufacturers are beginning to roll out new electric cars. This could be the most noticeable achievement of the Teen decade.

Space travel

For some, this might be the lost decade for space travel. The Space Shuttles are to be moth-balled later this year and the world will need to wait five to seven years before NASA is ready to launch replacement craft. However more countries than the USA are capable of throwing large payloads into space, so progress will continue steadily throughout the next ten years with the Chinese and Indians joining the space race in earnest. An area to watch closely is private space travel. I don’t foresee mass transportation on private space vehicles this decade, but the 2020’s are a different story. It’s entirely feasible that people will routinely travel from London to Beijing in less than an hour aboard hypersonic jets skimming above the atmosphere. As for the Moon and Mars? We need a few decades more.

Geno and Nano

I’m going to stick my head well inside my shell and opine that the next decade will not be the decade where we see designer babies,  gray goo or a clone slave underclass appear. There will be progress – lots and lots of progress – but regulatory issues and public pressure might significantly delay mainstream adoption. Where I do see progress is in medicine. I think that there are going to be some big breakthroughs in the treatment of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We should also see big advances in the growing and transplanting of replacement tissues from stem cells and some modest yet important improvements in cancer therapies.

The black swans

In 1960, few would have predicted that men would be walking on the Moon by the end of the decade. In 1990, mention of the Internet would have been met with blank stares from most people. It’s likely that, sometime during the next ten years, new inventions that none of us are thinking about will capture our imagination and dominate public discourse. Like any new technology, the hype will greatly exceed any immediate benefits, but whatever the effect, it is likely that we will be much more concerned about these in 2020 in the same way that Twitter and Facebook are today.

-:-

So, these are a sample of my predictions for the next decade. Will they come true? Well, at the very least, it will be fun to open up my Internet reader on Friday 10th 2020 and guffaw at my naive speculations from ten years before. What do you think? Am I missing something obvious that you believe will be huge in the next decade?

* Apocalyptic predictions not withstanding..

(Photo by SanFranAnnie)

In the last few years, some delightful technologies have become available to consumers, driving a new boom in electronics sales. These technologies include touch-screen, wireless Internet, accelerometers and global positioning systems to mention the key ones. I happen to be writing this blog entry on a device that has all of these and more.

But what is next? Have we reached some sort of technological pinnacle now? I think not.

I’m eagerly awaiting one big technology to arrive soon. Proximity sensing.

I’m slightly myopic, but most people don’t realize this. They never see me with glasses on. The mundane reason is that I have an amazing propensity to lose glasses. Most glasses I have ever had take their leave from me after a few months, with the last set disappearing forever on a plane back from the US. What I would love is a device that monitors their position and alerts me if they are no longer in my immediate viscinity.

I can conceive of other applications immediately. Finding golf-balls when they get lost in the rough. Keeping tags on errant toddlers or pets. Finding the car in the car park. Maybe even finding partners to all the odd socks in the house..

The key to such a technology is a thingy known as a RFID tag. It’s a small transmitter that can be attached to any object, so that its location can be determined by an appropriate detection device.

RFID’s are still somewhat expensive, which explains why we don’t see them in the shops just yet. They are already being used in certain specialist industries and their size and cost is reducing yearly. I can concieve a time, however, when rolls of tiny, machine washable or transparent RFIDs will be bought in shops for just a few pence each, or that they will already be embedded in most items bought in the shops.

The detection devices are also relatively straightforward, using simple triangulation to pinpoint objects. Indeed a small pocket device such as a mobile phone should be more than adequate to find missing things quicky.

Add in some some software to determine specific rules, associate items to the tags and enable specific applications and those missing socks will be a thing of the past.

singularity

Evidence has come to light over the past few decades that the ancestors of modern man spent, not a few years, but hundreds of millennia fashioning very primitive tools out of stone in the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya. Throughout that time almost no change in style took place. Sons and daughers simply learned the craft from their parents without, it seems, adding or enhancing the technology. Technological development had reached a plateau.

Now let’s move the clock forward to 200,000 years ago, to the beginning of anatomically modern humans. The tools had changed and social organisation had advanced to the point that humans were able to spread around the world, dominating and sometimes defeating those species that stood in our way. But nevertheless, the technologies throughout this time remained relatively primitive. For much of the last 200,000 years, people lived in small hunter-gatherer communities, surviving from day to day. No great works. No monuments. Despite our slow spread around the globe, change was severely limited by the scarcity of important resources such as food.

Then, only 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, we discovered agriculture. Towns, cities, kings and queens came into existence. Professions and trades were born. Laws and religions developed. Writing was discovered and men went to war in large numbers. Great monuments grew out of the deserts and the jungles. But nevertheless, there was a lot we did not understand. We didn’t have the tools or technology to allow us to fly, or understand the universe, or even to cure the simplest of diseases. It was as if again we had reached a limit in terms of our understanding of the world.

Then along came Science. In the last 400 years, human beings have begun to systematically understand ourselves and our surroundings, to put aside our magical fantasies and to discover what really works. We learned how to put things together to make better things; how to take the properties of the physical realm to beam pictures and ideas around the world; how to put people into outer space; how to cure and prevent the worst afflictions such as Typhoid and Smallpox and how to lay waste an entire nation at the press of a button.  

Even during this decade this progress has continued unabated. We have put probes on Mars, unravelled the human genome and spotted planets revolving around distant stars. You can store the entire contents of the Library of Congress in a few small boxes beside your desk. You can search for and find the information you need, from anywhere in the world, in mere seconds. Faster and faster and faster and faster. As if this progress were approaching an asymptote, a singularity.

It makes you wonder, where will all this progress lead to?

Will we reach a point where this seemingly exponential rise in technology will continue unabated, or will things level off as we reach the limits of our abilities, as yet undefined? Are we living through a short transition point between an early agricultural and an advanced technological civilisation? Will we reach a new plateau, and what might that plateau look like?

A few scenarios come to light, some bad, some good.

The gloomiest and yet more probable of scenarios suggests that our recent advances will end in tears, with humanity blowing itself apart or enacting such a huge price from the environment that the planet seeks revenge, taking us and a large section of our fellow travelling species into oblivion.

A less gloomy scenario suggests that, while not destroying our species, humanity is reset back to the dark ages, or into hunter gathering mode, perhaps to rise again in a few millennia, only to meet a similar eventual fate in due course. A periodic rise/ collapse cycle fluctuating in tune with future Ice Ages perhaps.

Or perhaps we will find some way to live sustainably, in concert with the planet, while not sacrificing our technological knowledge in the process. Could it be that we will look at technology in the same way as we look at door-knobs, napkins and salt-cellars nowadays: where there is little scope for development apart from the vagaries of modern fashions? In this scenario, generations will pass and fads will change, but the overall technology framework will remain roughly constant, just like those humanoids in the Olduvai Gorge so many years ago. 

Maybe indeed all this talk of technological progress is a mirage. Instead, the big events in human society: war, disease, over-population, ideology and catastrophe, drive technology over the longer term as opposed to the prevailing view that technology is in the driving seat.  Perhaps we are simply too close to events to note how technology will adapt to the human story over a span of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. We think we are driven by technology, but perhaps it is only a blip in a much bigger picture in the development of our species.

In an alternative rendition of our future, we are on a course for unending techological advance. Perhaps our curiousity and propensity to keep innovating will know no bounds? Perhaps we will keep on bending, breaking and redefining the limits of the possible? Maybe, as some suggest, we will pass on our propensity for innovation into robots, nano-machines and newly created biological forms, thus maintaining the acceleration indefinitely? 

Is it not too wild to suggest that the end game in all this is a journey to the stars? It may be that we are on course to developing the capabilities needed to cross the multi-trillion kilometer gulfs between our Sun and its neighbours? So in this case, as we board the ships to the sky, the acceleration might come to a sudden halt, to be replaced thousands of years hence by a new burst of activity, followed by further intense cycles of innovation as future generations disperse, ever so steadily, across the galaxy.

Oh my.

A big breakthrough was announced last month by researchers in MIT that may dramatically increase the importance of solar cells as a major source of energy. Up to now, there has been no easy way to store solar energy. The immediate availability of sunlight pretty much dictates how much power you have at any time. As soon as the sun goes down your immersion heater starts to cool down and your solar powered car grinds to a halt.

Meanwhile, nature has been busy mocking us. All around, efficient natural solar factories are at work converting the sun’s heat into chemical energy and storing this energy away for use at a later time. These conversion factories are known to the rest of us as leaves.

Taking a leaf (ouch) from nature, the MIT researchers have discovered a chemical mechanism (a catalyst) that can be used to extract oxygen from water at room temperature. Another catalyst is then used to extract hydrogen from water. All you need to trigger the reactions is electricity (from a solar cell for example). Both gases can then be safely stored away for later use. To create usable energy later on, you recombine the two gasses in a device known as a fuel cell.

Cheap, reliable, clean solar energy generated from within your home. Your house as a power station and as a refueling station. No need to wire your house to a power station. According to the scientists, we might see changes happening in as little as 10 years time. It will be interesting to see how it works out. 

Then again, this is Ireland. Now, if you could extract energy from rainclouds you might get somewhere..

Even though the multi-touch interface is now a reality in the market (what with the iPhone etc.), nevertheless I’ve been wanting to post this particular demo to my blog for some time. It took my breath away when I saw it.

It’s the future, and it’s comin’ at ya.

Vodpod videos no longer available. from www.ted.com posted with vodpod

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