FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

EarthTrends Environmental Information Portal

The World Resources Institute has launched "EarthTrends," an online database of environmental data for virtually every location in the world. Look up marine, population, water, economic, agricultural, climate and other data by country, continent, or economic level (developed vs. developing). Also access maps, country profiles and general articles. Data tables are downloadable as comma-delimited (.CSV) files.

And the Winner Is... JibJab!

Interesting fact: In July 2004, the JibJab website featuring the parody of "This Land Is Your Land" with John Kerry and George W. Bush, received 10.4 million unique visitors, according to Media Metrix. That's more than three times the number of unique visitors who visited the official websites of Bush and Kerry combined during the same period!

RNC Photoblog

The Buzznet blog has created a "photoblog" to document protest activity at the Republican National Convention this week in New York City. See pictures, view calendars of events and visitors' guides, and read newsfeeds.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Creative Uses for Camera Phones

Ever wonder what in the world you'd do with a camera phone (assuming you don't already have one)? Well, fear not... camera phone owners are finding their own creative uses for their gadgets. According to a recent New York Times report, advertisers have discovered that magazine readers are swapping photos of print ads (mostly for women's clothes) with accompanying text messages. In response, Vogue and Jane magazines are using Web-based tools to help readers interact with one another and find related products more easily.

Also, a UK poll cited on SmartMobs found that 20% of camera phone users sent photos of themselves in different outfits to their friends to get their opinions. Others (again, mainly females) use camera phones as mirrors to check their makeup, teeth and the backs of their hair. Men are also getting into the act (again while shopping), snapping photos of big-ticket items such as furniture to get their partners' opinion and approval.

Microsoft to Release Stripped-Down Longhorn in 2006

Microsoft has announced that its much touted, much delayed "Longhorn" operating system -- the successor to Windows XP -- will be released in 2006, but without several key features. Most notable among these is the Windows File System (WinFS), which, among other things, is supposed to allow for more streamlined searches. Microsoft's critics have found this puzzling, as WinFS would be the primary reason for PC users to make the upgrade. Otheres, however, believe that the true milestone for Microsoft will be 2007, when the new generation of Windows Server software is scheduled for release. Perhaps, but three years is plenty of time for competitors such as Linux to make inroads...

Gypsy Boots: 1914-2004

Earlier this month, the world marked the passing of a true futurist, a man who spoke of the importance of health and nature decades before it was fashionable to do so. Gypsy Boots (aka Robert Bootzin), 89, was a naturalist and environmentalist who advocated organic foods, yoga and exercise as far back as the 1940s (in fact, he inspired a hit song by Nat King Cole, "Nature Boy", in 1948). He became a celebrity in the 1950s and '60s not so much because people were embracing his message, but because folks found him an oddity. Gypsy cheerfully embraced that image, appearing on Steve Allen's talk show in the early '60s in a loincloth and swinging on a vine. Gypsy's lifestyle and writing influenced many who would popularize the fitness and "green" movements in later years. Learn more about Gypsy's life and work at gypsyboots.com

Friday, August 27, 2004

2024 Dreaming

The Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) has posted on its website a clever item called "2024 Dreaming," an interactive multimedia exploration of what life could be like in the year 2024. Some of the content is Australia-centric, but most of the discussion items would apply to anywhere in the developed world. A Flash-enabled browser is required for viewing.

The Net Lives to See Another Day!

Yesterday, fears spread that an "electronic jihad" would bring down parts of the Internet. Fortunately, that didn't come to pass. In fact, much of the warning was dismissed as a hoax, even though it has been reported by reputable news sources.

In these days of heightened terror warnings, one can not dismiss warnings of any sort out of hand. However, I fear we are starting to fall into a "chicken little syndrome," whereby:
  1. A warning is issued
  2. (Some) people panic
  3. Nothing happens
  4. Everyone grumbles that the warning was a load of BS, and more people ignore the next warning
  5. Rinse and repeat

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

"Astroturfing": The New Political Spam

Do the "letters to the editor" in your hometown newspaper ever sound alike, especially when the subject is the Presidential election? If so, the paper may have been "astroturfed." That's the new phenomenon of supporters of a particular candidate essentially spamming editorial desks with letters either praising their guy or trashing the other guy. Apparently, supporters are copying canned letters off of candidates' websites and mailing them en masse under their names. Both Bush and Kerry supporters are doing it, and although both campaigns disavow use of the tactic, both provide tools to make astroturfing as easy as possible.

Like negative campaign ads, astroturfing is one more example of how elections are being dumbed down. We won't know how effective they'll be until after the election. And if they do work, expect to see lots of them in the future.

To Young People, News is Funny Business

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press surveyed young people on their preferred news sources for election coverage. The results were surprising. Only 23% of 18-30 year-olds get their news from network news programs, down from 39% in 2000. This can be attributable to more young people getting news from cable and the Web, of course. But the real surprise came when 21% said that their primary source for election news were satirical and comedy sources... beating out many other traditional news sources such as newspapers.

"Satirical and comedy sources" would include the nightly monologues of Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien; Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment; and Jon Stewart's Daily Show. A newer phenomenon has been the rise of comedians who put a serious spin on the news, including Dennis Miller, Bill Maher and Al Franken. MSNBC's wonderful Countdown with Keith Olbermann is a "serious" news show, yet its quick and irreverent take on the day's events suggests it might portend the future of news broadcasting, especially once the stalwarts of network news opt to retire (as Tom Brokaw plans to do after this year's election).

So what does this all mean for the future of news? One can glean several insights from it, as well as from other journalistic trends:

  • Younger viewers want to be entertained as much as to be informed (hence, the increase in celebrity and entertainment news)
  • Viewers of all ages like the ability to watch news on their own schedules. When I was growing up, if you weren't free to watch the news at six or 11, you missed out. Today, cable and the Internet provide us news whenever.
  • The Internet makes possible the delivery of niche news sources, and alternative journalists such as Matt Drudge. Tired of the "liberal media"? Watch Fox News Channel or visit NewsMax.
  • The Net also fosters the "viral" spreading of "news," which may or may not be truthful (a good future research project for Pew would be to see how many people take blogs, discussion forums and forwarded e-mails as seriously or more seriously than conventional news outlets).
  • Comedians are more interested in getting laughs than in presenting objective information. Therefore, they use stereotypes as building blocks for jokes (George W. Bush as dumb, John Kerry as dull, Howard Dean as crazy, Bill Clinton as a pervert, etc.). Fact is, we find these funny because they have led us to agree with them, whether or no they're true.
  • Comedians also usually have biases and agendas. Most are liberal, though Dennis Miller is a standout conservative and Bush supporter.
All these options compete for our attention, and as a result our attention spans shorten. We have very little patience for something that doesn't immediately "grab" or amuse us. So it's little wonder that today's young people would rather laugh along with Jay, Dave, Conan or Jon than be bored by Dan, Peter and Tom.

Is an "Electronic Jihad" Imminent?

eWeek has posted an article about growing concerns over a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack against Web servers in the very near future. In fact, some people wonder if tomorrow (8/26) will be "D-Day."

The article cites a patten of recent, severe DDoS attacks, and speculates they could be a warm-up to a larger assault. It also notes the recent cracking of two security algorithms.

Threats of a widespread cyberattack have been circulating for years. In fact, I recall hearing such warnings as far back as 1995, when I first starting working the Web. But with the Republican National Convention a week away, anything is possible.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Life in 2014

Backbone, a Canadian e-business magazine, has published an assessment of life 10 years hence by science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer. It's a very positive piece, filled with much of the gadgetry and predictions of pervasive computing that are familiar to emerging technologists. Certainly it'd be nice if much of what the article states works out...

Back to the Future with 22 Pop

When I first heard about the 22 Pop, an old-fashioned Olivetti typewriter with a built-in modem that can send typed messages as e-mails, I quickly figured it was an easy candidate for "world's nost useless invention." But then I gave it some more thought and realized how practical this could actually be. I also read the justification for it on its website. No, the typewriter won't be making a comeback, but this product addresses a population segment that lacks either the skills or the inclination to use more modern technology, yet wants to take advantage of the Internet. The 22 Pop's inventor cites her mother, who wanted to e-mail her friends and family yet was intimidated by computers, as the inspiration. She also suggests it could find a niche in developing countries that have not yet embraced the PC revolution. However, is the stripped-down technology in the 22 Pop really simplified enough for its user base?

The 22 Pop remains in the experimental stage... so don't expect to find it at your local department store anytime soon.

RFID Tags: Big Advantage or Big Brother?

The use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to tag products is controversial enough -- Wal-Mart is mandating that its largest suppliers begin tagging large shipments by 2006 to expedite tracking and inventory control. But the discussion has now shifted to the wisdom of tagging individuals. Proponents say that implantable RFID tags can help track missing children, identify disaster victims, and alert healthcare professionals to patients with special medical needs. Tagging people is currently being done in prisons, as well as in some Central American countries where the fear of kidnapping is high. For pets, the American Kennel Club sponsors the Companion Animal Recovery initiative to insert tags into pets so they can be identified if lost or stolen.

C|Net has posted a comprehensive article on the issue, discussing the pros and cons of personal RFID tagging. The primary argument against tagging is potential invasion of privacy and identity theft. Others point out that the technology could become obsolete so quickly as to make tags useless within a few years. Objections on religious grounds ("the mark of the beast") are also anticipated.

RFID tagging is an intriguing and potentially disruptive technology that offers as many benefits as it does risks. But it's still in its early stages, and it's too early to talk seriously about widespread tagging initiatives (we're still arguing about the merits of tagging packages, so how can we even begin to tackle humans??). RFID is a rapidly advancing technology, so emerging technologists will be watching developments in the field very carefully.

Update to Top Future Trends

I've updated the list of top future trends on Futurewire.net... basically expanding the format. You can see it here.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Vote For the Future at timeline+25

A new website allows users to post and vote on future predictions. At timeline+25, users can post brief predictions on any topic, for years ranging from 2005 to 2029+. Others can then vote on their favorites.

Some of the entries are funny and just plain silly, but others show some solid insight. The site is a project of the ARS Electronica Festival being held in Austria this September; after Sept. 7, timeline+25 will be read-only. timeline+25 still has some rough edges; there's no criteria for voting, for instance, and predictions can't be viewed by category.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Google IPO: The Dotcom Economy Lives!

One of the biggest business stories this past week has been the pending initial public offering (IPO) of Google. As a short-term investment move, Google would seem to be a no-brainer; it's effectively the Web's search engine of record... and to boot, it's profitable. You know you've made an indelible impact when your company or product's name becomes a generic verb ("I did some googling and found the answer to your question.").

(Until a couple of years ago, if someone were to tell you they were "googling," you'd likely consider calling 911. For either an ambulance or the cops.)

The latest news is that the IPO is off to a bumpy start. But an even larger question seems to loom. Unless the IPO turns out to be a huge bust, Google stands to make a ton of money... and its founders very rich. To that end, does this signal the rebirth of the "dotcom economy" of the late '90's?

Instead of a simple yes or no, I would argue that the "dotcom economy" never went away. The fact that you're reading this blog is a testament to that. Sure, the giddy excitement over the Web we had in the mid-'90's is long gone, but that's not because it failed. Quite the opposite -- it's precisely because it succeeded so well that we no longer think of the Web as anything special. The Internet has become an ordinary technical fact of life, like the telephone or electricity. Just because it's not exciting or sexy doesn't mean it's not important (remember that the next time you lose power or phone service...).

Sure, there were a lot of flameouts and bad ideas in the late '90's, and we'll be talking about Boo.com and that sock puppet for years to come. But that's normal with any disruptive technology! When the automobile first hit the mass market in the early 1900's, hundreds of car manufacturers got in on the boom. A few years later, only a few were left. Yet the auto industry was just getting started, and much of that boom-bust cycle happened before Henry Ford revolutionized the industry with the Model T.

No, we're not looking at a second bubble with the Google IPO. Both the techies and the investors are too smart to let that happen. But the "dotcom economy" keeps marching on... twisting and turning a bit along the way. The dumb ideas, get-rich-quick schemes and unrealistic expectations (most, at least) have been weeded out. Google just reminds us that as a business, the Web is in it for the long haul, and that the best is yet to come.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Read Manifestos at ChangeThis

A new site is being launched that allows thought leaders (and those who aspire to be thought leaders) to post their manifestos on whatever topic fires their passion. It's called ChangeThis, and it's essentially a collection of PDF files on pretty much any topic you can imagine. It hasn't been up long so the content is still slim, but it's likely to grow quickly. Bloggers are invited to post manifestos on their blogs and be referenced in return.

For a new manifesto to earn a place on ChangeThis, abstracts are posted and voted on by site visitors. Abstracts with the most votes are chosen for further development and inclusion.

Wal-Mart Sells Laptop for Under $600

The I4U technology blog is reporting that Wal-Mart is offering a bargain-priced 14" laptop for $598... no rebates, no hassles. With an Althon XP-M CPU, built-in wireless, 40GB HD, DVD-ROM, 128MB RAM and Windows XP Home, the unit looks ideal for students headed back to school, and a solid bargain as well. Especially considering that just a couple of years ago, entry-level laptops were going for over $2,000. Next year, I wouldn't be surprised to see Wal-Mart and other discounters selling laptops for half this price.

As a sidenote, according to the Engadget blog, Wal-Mart is making a mere $3.75 profit per machine. If these laptops take off--and if Wal-Mart ends up making money--they could dramatically change the way computers are priced and sold.

Dying to Shop at Costco

This week, bulk retailer Costco is introducing a new item: caskets! For $800, you can choose from five models. But you have to ask... is this the kind of thing you really want to buy in bulk??? And if buying a coffin is on your mind while you're shopping for diapers and bottled water, perhaps you have bigger problems than trying to find the best bargains...

But seriously, this move has spawned some much needed discussion about the wisdom of funeral pre-planning and the high cost of death in this country. Costco's coffins cost about a tenth of what you might pay at the average funeral home. Plus, by planning ahead, we can spare our loved ones the stress and headaches of making major purchasing decisions at the worst possible time.

When Will You Watch Your First Movie on Info Mica?

The PSFK blog has noted the latest wonder from NTT -- a clear plastic sliver called Info Mica that stores data holographically. Announced this past February, a sliver the size of a postage stamp can hold 1GB of data. Aside from its small size, the touted advantages of Info Mica are greater security (better copy protection) and easy disposability. One early application for Info Mica is one-way data distribution, such as music or video. Therefore, Info Mica might not replace flash memory so readily as it might replace CDs and DVDs. Info Mica could also server as rich RFID tags.

Friday, August 13, 2004

TxtMob: The latest political tool

"Smart mobbing" is the latest wave of social computing, using the power of text messaging and other types of instant communication to organize and mobilize "mobs" at a moment's notice. TxtMob is the latest tool to enter this arena. Developed for use by protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, TxtMob allows users to sign up for lists, then blast text messages to mobile phones of anyone on a given list. An article in Wired states that protesters found TxtMob invaluable in helping them stay one step ahead of the police in Boston. Says Emily Turrettini, of the Textually.org blog, "It's very useful, because most people always have their mobile phones on them and can be reached wherever they are. Any news, schedule change (or) meeting point can be organized and changed on the fly."

Needless to say, protesters planning to attend the Republican National Convention in NYC will be using TxtMob heavily. Since protest activity there is expected to be much higher than it was in Boston, TxtMob will truly be put to the test.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

The Net is a Big Part of Our Lives

From the Knock-Us-Over-With-A-Feather Department...

MSNBC has posted an interesting article about Internet use citing research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Pew's survey discovered that of the Internet users they surveyed, 88 percent said it played a role in their daily lives, and a third said it played a "major" role. More than half said that being online helps them participate in certain activities, and two thirds said that their lives would be affected if they could not log on.

Among the activities Pew found more people are doing online are:

  • Getting maps and directions
  • Communicating with friends and family
  • Buying tickets
  • Banking
  • Paying bills
  • Gathering information (wow!)
Pew found, however, that we're not doing everything online. Some of the activities that remain offline include:

  • Reading for fun
  • Making everyday purchases, such as groceries
  • Watching videos
  • Meeting new people (interesting, given the proliferation of online dating services and the like)

Not surprising, the Pew study also found that users with broadband connections use the Internet more than those with dialup.

FCC Opens Buildings' Wireless Networks

As noted in the WorldChanging blog, the FCC ruled back in June that building owners can no longer block the wireless spectrum in their buildings. The ruling, prompted by airlines who want to establish their own networks within airports, means that individual building tenants are free to install their own wireless networks. This ruling is significant because it encourages the proliferation of smaller wireless networks... and with them, greater access and lower costs. Computerworld has a more detailed article.

More on Political Upheaval

Read Howard Rheingold's thoughts on how technology is changing the political landscape, both on his blog and in an article in Business Week. BW also published this handy chart back in March that illustrates the "old way" and "new way" in politics.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Tamagotchi: Take Two

Some of you older folks out there might remember the Tamagotchi craze from the mid-1990s. Tamagotchis were little electronic "pets" that you had to "feed" and "play with" and "clean up after." Well, the Engadget blog is reporting the release of a second-generation Tamagotchi!

At first blush they look just like the old ones, but these contain IR ports that allow pets to be swapped. "Tamagotchi Connection" is already available in NYC and San Francisco, and should be available nationwide by the end of the month.

Robot to Rescue Hubble?

NASA is reportedly planning to send a robot into orbit to repair the Hubble space telescope. Plans won't be finalized until next summer, but the leading robot candidate is "Dextre," developed by the Canadian Space Agency. Hubble needs its batteries and gyroscopes replaced; once a repair is complete, Hubble should be good for another five years.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Killing the Golden Goose... Over and Over

An interesting post in the Manyworlds business blog discusses what could be called the "golden goose" paradox in talent management. When an organization experiences a downturn, it's usually the most creative people, as well as those most comfortable with risk and ambugiuty, who are the first ones out the door. The post states that these are the people must vulnerable to layoffs, which is true. But in my experience, these folks are also the ones most likely to leave voluntarily. An organization's "best and brightest" typically have the most career options, the most marketable skills, and the best connections. They are also politically savvy enough to see trouble coming early and take action. They are often the highest paid people, and know they are the most vulnerable to cuts due to sheer bean-counting. Or, they simply get bored once all the cool projects get cancelled.

The paradox is that, when the time comes for a turnaround, the people an organization needs to have on board the most are the people most likely to be long gone. These are the visionaries, the ones most likely to see and "get" future trends. The history of business is filled with these kinds of stories, and too many businesses have declined because they failed to view their people as a long-term investment. Yet it happens over and over...

Monday, August 09, 2004

X Prize contestant suffers setback

A team that had developed a low-cost suborbital rocket suffered a setback Sunday when a test vehicle exploded 1,000 feet in the air. The rocket, Rubicon 1, was built by Seattle-based Space Transport Corp. at a cost of $20,000.

Space Transport Corp. is a contestant for the X Prize, which will be awarded to "the first organization to successfully launch a privately financed, reusable craft that makes a suborbital flight 62 miles high twice within two weeks while carrying a pilot and weight equivalent to two other people." SpaceShipOne became the first private manned craft to make a suborbital flight this past June.

See a discussion on Slashdot for more information...

New life for phone booths

With seemingly everyone owning a cell phone these days, what's to become of the old phone booths? One is hard-pressed to find an old-fashioned phone booth today, and those that still exist are often vandalized or victims of neglect.

British Telecom (BT) has at least one solution for revitalizing its phone booth investment. In North Wales, BT is converting many phone booths into broadband Internet kiosks. If the effort is successful, we may see similar initiatives Stateside. Read more here...

Also, Australian-based Telstra is looking to retrofit 33,000 pay phones with WiFi hardware, as a cost-effective way to create WiFi hotspots in metropolitan areas. Telstra is part of an international telecom alliance that includes BT and T-Mobile.

Metal Rubber

Blacksburg, VA-based NanoSonic has its hands full with its newest innovation, Metal Rubber. Seems that, according to Popular Science, all kinds of companies are querying them asking about how to possibly use Metal Rubber in their products.

What's Metal Rubber, and what's so great about it? The substance is a film-like polymer that can withstand extremely high temperatures and all sorts of physical abuse. It even conducts electricity, which makes it a candidate for flexible circuitry and even "smart" clothes.

Metal Rubber won't be ready for the marketplace for another year at least, and before then, NanoSonic needs to develop a better way to mass-product it. Currently, manufacturing it is a painstaking task; making a one-foot-square piece takes up to three days.

Read the article in Popular Science here...

Friday, August 06, 2004

Are we approaching a major political shift?

Much has been made of how the upcoming U.S. presidential election portends a major shift in U.S. politics. Some have predicted a fundamental realignment on the magnitude of 1980 (which ushered in the "Reagan Revolution") or even 1932 (the year FDR took office). Although I think a lot of these predictions are exaggerated, mainly because of the unique nature of this election season, major change is on the horizon... perhaps even greater than mere party realignment.

Former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippe has written a perceptive article on the subject for MSNBC.com, citing disaffection with the major parties dating at least back to Ross Perot's independent candidacy in 1992. Parties and voters are locked in a vicious cycle that is causing everyone to lose faith in the political process: candidates, in a desperate bid for funds and support, pander to the most extreme and demanding elements in their parties, disaffection mainstream voters, and forcing candidates to go even further outside the mainstream for support. Trippi's assertion is that political parties risk extinction if they continue this pattern.

An even more extreme view of the future of politics is voiced by Harvard law professor James Moore. In his essay "The Second Superpower Rears Its Beautiful Head", Moore describes the rise of "emergent democracy" that uses technology to mobilize citizens in a way that's a truer form of democracy than anything we have today. We've seen the use of the Web, e-mail, text messaging, blogging and smart mobbing during this election season, and the liberal website MoveOn.org has been highly successful in raising funds for Democrats. Moore also cites the effectiveness of the "second superpower" in organizing protests aging the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999.

Both Trippi's and Moore's points are well taken, but Moore's vision in particular seems skewed toward technology-savvy liberal activists who are educated and affluent enough to purchase and use this technology. In other words, they are typical early adopters. To me, what's more interesting is what will happen if and when the late adopters--older, more conservative, less affluent and less educated voters--start leveraging the Internet in a large way. That's when we'll see real change! And that is when we could finally see the collapse of the traditional political parties, which are failing because they're trying to sell a 19th-century model of governance to a 21st-century electorate.

Minding the Planet Channel Mob

Cloning Fluffy

A company called Genetic Savings and Clone has reportedly cloned two kittens using what it calls a safer and more reliable method than previous cloning initiatives. The company is now offering its pet cloning and "gene banking" services to the public for a mere $50,000 per pet. Time will tell how well the effort works out, but pet cloning appears to be an unstoppable trend. The question remains of how badly pet owners want their beloved animals to be cloned.

Read an article about the process in Wired, or visit the GS&C website.

Minding the Planet Channel Mob

Thursday, August 05, 2004

MIT Pilots Pervasive Computing

Researchers at MIT are exploring the possibilities of "pervasive" or "ubiquitous" computing with Project Oxygen. Partnering with IT industry leaders, MIT has developed several prototypes of pervasive computing environments, including such innovations as a real-time indoor map, improved instant messaging systems, and "smart rooms" in which devices understand spoken requests.

Pervasive computing is one of the most exciting areas of technological innovation, as it has an almost unlimited range of possibilities. At work, at home, in public places, "intelligent environments" can change the way we live and work. It probably won't work out the way we imagine it now, but the potential is there to improve all kinds of processes.

Minding the Planet Channel Mob

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Online News is a Man's World

The other day I posted a bit about the 18-to-34-year-old male demographic being so hard for advertisers to target. Perhaps these marketers need to go to news websites to find them...

According to a story in Wired, both the New York Times and the Washington Post claim that more than 60% of their registered users are male. No one seems to know why, but some leading theories are that:

  • Women are still trying to catch up to men in terms of sheer numbers online, and/or
  • Women aren't interested in online news
Perhaps... but I'd like to make a third suggestion. Many women, in order to protect themselves online, often misrepresent themselves as men. And since anyone can say whatever they like in online registrations, some women may choose to identify themselves as male.

But if it really is true that men outnumber women on news sites by nearly 2-1, these sites have some work to do in learning what interests women... or what keeps them away.

Minding the Planet Channel Mob

How Will an Aging Population Affect the Future?

Ask almost any futurist what he or she thinks will be the most important trend over the next 50 years, and he or she will likely tell you about the aging of the world's population. Falling birthrates worldwide, combined with greater longevity, means that the median age of humans is steadily becoming older.

The WorldChanging blog cites a Stanford Magazine article about the consequences of an aging world. Among the takeaways from the article are:

  • The traditional retirement age of 65 will soon become a thing of the past. It made sense back when the average life expectancy was 61 and most work involved hard, physical labor. But in an office environment, many workers can keep working well into their 70s and 80s.
  • Longer life must go hand-in-hand with better health; no one wants to see an elderly population become an infirm population. Quality-of-life issues must become the focus of future healthcare research.
  • In the U.S., aging baby boomers will continue to impact the culture, changing our long-held assumptions of what it means to be old. However, because the elderly perceive time differently than younger people (a long history behind them and not much longer to go), their priorities are different.
  • The large numbers of the elderly may make it possible for more young people to have mentors.
  • The elderly have a more nuanced view of the world, having gained the ability to appreciate differences of opinion.
The aging world population is potentially one of the most important long-term trends, with its ramifications affecting all levels of society. How will longevity affect families? Will it become typical for people--particularly men--to go through several marriages and have more than one family? The WorldChanging blog also raises the specter of assisted suicide, which in itself involved a series of complex controversies.

Minding the Planet Channel Mob

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Army Debuts its "Future Warrior"

The Army has unveiled a prototype for its "Future Warrior" -- a high-tech, highly protected soldier unlike anything we're seeing today. Lessons learned in recent fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq played a large role in developing this technology.

The Army is preparing two outfit prototypes, to be deployed in 2010 and 2020 respectively. Both resemble spacesuits and protect the wearer with substantial body armor, and "wire" him into computers on board vehicles and aircraft. Solders equipped with Future Warrior technology will be in constant contact with each other and with bases... and in turn, their physical conditions will be monitored constantly. The Army, in fact, is viewing solders as part of an integrated "tactical network" that can corrdinate itself in real time.

The 2020 version of the Future Warrior suit will use nanotechnology to remain pliable and comfortable until the precise moment a bullet or some other projectile strikes it. At that moment, it will become rigid and deflect the object. From the waist down, the suit might include piston-driven supports that will be, in effect, robotic legs allowing the soldier to carry massive amounts of gear on his back without strain.

Being that military technology has a long and successful history of "trickling down" into the civilian sector, the possibilities here for all kinds of applications are mind-boggling.

For more technology the Army has up its sleeve, visit their Future Combat Systems website.

Minding the Planet Channel Mob

MESSENGER probe off to Mercury

Early this morning, while most of us were still asleep, NASA launched its MESSENGER probe to the planet Mercury. The craft will make several flybys of Mercury, Venus and Earth over the next few years to obtain gravity boosts, then insert itself into Mercury's orbit in March 2011. Once in orbit, MESSENGER will proceed to map the entire planet, as well as learn more about its geography and magnetic field.

This is the first mission to Mercury since Mariner 10 first explored Mercury in the 1970s. Even then, the photographic record of the planet's surface was incomplete.

Click here to see an MPEG video of MESSENGER entering Mercury's orbit.

If Terrorists Don't Talk, Their Laptops Will

It appears that much of the intelligence that led to the recent raising of the terror threat level in New York, Washington and Newark, NJ came not only from a terrorst arrested in Pakistan the week prior, but from his laptop. Turns out that his computer was a treasure trove of surveillance and other information that helped authorities fill in the blanks about al Qaeda's intentions.

This begs the question of what's more important for counterintelligence experts to target: terrorists, or their technology. People can bluff, play dumb or simply refuse to talk. On the other hand, laptops, PDAs, removable drives and the like can be unencrypted (many believe that the NSA has been able to decode even the highest levels of encryption for years), and once accessed, don't lie about their content. These devices also leave a trail, such as logs of downloaded information, websites visited, sent e-mail messages and addresses of devices that might contain backed-up content. A perceptive cyber investigator can learn a lot about a person from the devices he/she carries, even if that person is security-savvy and has taken great pains to cover his/her tracks.

Monday, August 02, 2004

A Better Approach to Homeland Security

By now you've surely heard that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has raised the terror threat levels from yellow (elevated) to orange (high), but only for New York City, Washington, and certain locations in Newark, NJ.

Yesterday, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge made the announcement, which was apparently based on much more specific data than they're worked off of in the past. In my view, this is far preferable to previous warnings, which were too broad and too vague to be of much use (remember the scrambles for plastic wrap and duct tape?). However, by announcing not only that specific cities, but also specific buildings, were at risk, law enforcement can focus their efforts on those areas most vulnerable.

Assuming the information DHS is working with is accurate (and it might not be), it also puts terrorists on notice that a) we're on to them and b) their plans are somehow being compromised. There are those who say we should keep quiet and not show our hand, but if we manage to spook terrorists enough for them to scrub their attack plans, we've saved lives.

Finally, in response to those who suggest that this announcement was politically motivated to make President Bush look good in the aftermath of the Democratic Convention, it would be very sad if that were true. But I don't think it is, as even the most partisan operative at the White House must realize that homeland security is too important to use as a political football. Plus, if they really wanted to throw the Democrats off kilter, they would have made the announcement Thursday night...