FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, February 28, 2005

Global "Digital Divide" Narrows

A study by the World Bank has found that the digital capabilities of the developing world are rapidly catching up to those of the developed world. Half the world now has access to land-based phone lines, and 77% have access to mobile networks. This surpasses a UN goal of 50% access by 2015. Africa in particular has become a booming mobile phone market, leapfrogging over traditional fixed-line telecommunications.

This is good news not only for people in developing countries, but the tech industry in general, as rapid growth in these regions will fuel the telecom business and offset more mature markets where growth is plateauing.

Source: Reuters (Yahoo!)

Paper from Elephant Dung

If you can get past the "yuck factor," you must admit that making paper out of elephant dung -- or any other type of excrement -- has its upsides. The raw material, after all, is plentiful. Harvesting it is inexpensive and doesn't harm the environment, and it needs to be disposed of anyway. The end products, from stationery to notebooks to boxes, are even attractive:

This is true "thinking outside the box" (pun partially intended), and shows that not all future technology has to be "high tech."

Source: Core 77, Future Feeder

When Mobile Becomes Essential

How would you feel if you lost your mobile device? Of course you'd be upset or irritated, but would you feel that a part of your life were missing? Increasingly, many mobile users would feel that a part of their world would be gone if they didn't have access to their devices.

Says researcher Michael Hulme, "If we go back five years, [mobile devices] used to be fairly functional. Today we're moving towards a real time of dependency, where if we lose our mobile we begin to feel cut off from our network of friends, cut off from our contacts, and absolutely disabled. The other thing is that the mobile is very much a device of control. We are using it to control our relationships with others, how others contact us, and increasingly to control information."

A sign of a maturing technology is a certain level of dependence on it. It becomes so deeply ingrained in the way we function that losing it is incredibly disruptive. It also speaks to the growing functionality of mobile devices. As cell phones and PDAs converge, they become exponentially useful -- and, obeying Metcalfe's Law of expanding networks, the more people we know with mobile devices, the more empowering the network becomes.

Another sign that mobile devices are maturing is the arrival of second-generation mobile applications. As with the early Internet, much of the early mobile technology was experimental or "gee whiz" in nature, and not well thought through. Now, though, developers are applying lessons learned to applications that meet real user needs.

Yet one more sign that mobile devices have moved from the realm of elective to essential: the Australian government is lending cell phones to the homeless to help them find jobs.

Sources: BBC, Smart Mobs

Gangs Going Global

Gangs are back in the news now that First Lady Laura Bush has made combatting them a personal priority. They are also attracting the attention of the FBI, which is taking a new look at gang dynamics, even though gang numbers are declining in the US.

A growing concern among law enforcement is not gangs' raw membership, but the nature of their reach. The Internet is providing gangs with a tool for worldwide networking, recruitment and international alliances. One extremely violent gang in particular, Mara Salvatrucha (MS), has roots in El Salvador but has spread stateside from the Salvadoran community in Los Angeles to Virginia. Even more concerning to the FBI, some MS members reportedly have links to al-Qaeda. As a result, gangs are becoming a focus of counterterrorism as well as anti-crime measures.

Sources: The Economist, Futurismic

Pervasive Patient Monitoring

For at-risk patients who need their care monitored round-the-clock yet aren't sick enough to require hospitalization, pervasive monitoring is a solution to help both patients and doctors. Pervasive monitoring goes beyond traditional telemedicine to provide clinicians with a real-time portrait of patients' conditions.

IBM is developing a "mobile health toolkit" that links a variety of monitoring devices via Bluetooth and Java-based middleware.

The system can monitor a variety of conditions, including blood pressure, weight, glucose, and whether a patient takes his or her medications on time. The system uses open architecture, so that new devices can be added easily as they become available.

Source: ERCIM News

Talking Drug Labels

A Thailand firm has developed a system that allows patients to listen to medicine labels to learn prescribed doses, interactions and warnings. The device can also "speak" the information in multiple languages.

The system combines an RFID chip on the label with a listening device that correlates the medicine with an information database. The system has promising applications for visually impaired patients and for those who do not read the language in which the medicine label is printed.

Source: we make money not art

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Future, Past Tense

For a fun Friday afternoon diversion, visit David Szondy's Tales of Future Past, an archive of "future" visions of past eras, complete with vintage artwork and insightful commentary (much of it noting the practical reasons why these futures never came to pass). If you're wondering what happened to the flying car, robot servant, domed city or condo on Venus you were promised way back when, this is the place to look.

For those old enough to remember the '60s TV show Thunderbirds, the site also contains some great images.

Source: Future Feeder

Deliberative Democracy

The rise of blogs and Internet-based fundraising during the 2004 Presidential campaign may only be the beginning of a new approach to democracy that is potentially transforming. Called deliberative democracy, it emphasizes shared knowledge and collaborative decision-making above traditional top-down politics. Technology plays a role, to be sure, but the emphasis is on the personal connections, consensus decision making, and free exchange of resources.

Perhaps, in our current contentious political environment, deliberative democracy may offer some solutions. Exactly how we would reconcile deliberative democratic principles in representative forms of government -- in which elected officials deliberate (theoretically) on the behalf of their constituents -- remains to be seen. Are there areas in which deliberative democracy would work better than in others? How, for instance, would deliberative democracy respond to a national emergency or a military action, where deliberation could cause costly delays? The Co-Intelligence Institute and the website Innovations in Democracy has links to dozens of resources and deliberative democracy experiments.

Source: WorldChanging

Turn On, Tune In, Get Healthy

Most people don't consider possible medical benefits of LSD, peyote, MDMA (aka "ecstasy") and other hallucinogenic drugs. However, before advocating the recreational benefits of psychedelics, Dr. Timothy Leary first experimented with them as a way to treat alcoholism. Now, a new generation of scientists is studying how psychedelic drugs could be used to treat everything from substance abuse to severe migraine headaches.

Research into the health benefits of psychedelics, of course, largely dried up when the substances were criminalized in the late 1960s. Since then, research groups advocating study of the health benefits of psychoactive drugs have been petitioning governments around the world for changes to the law.

A study of peyote use among residents of a Navajo reservation (who are permitted by US law to use the drug for religious purposes) found that peyote is safer than previously believed. It also showed promise in preventing recovering alcoholics on the reservation from relapsing. Similar studies have been conducted in Russia, where access to some psychedelic drugs was legal until recently.

Source: New Scientist

U.S. House Approves Electronic ID Card Standard

Earlier this month, and with relatively little fanfare, the US House of Representatives approved the Real ID Act of 2005, which would set a national standard for issuing identification cards such as driver's licenses. To comply, all cards would have to include a digital photo, anticounterfeiting measures, and "machine-readable technology" that could be either a magnetic strip, barcode or RFID chip. The Department of Homeland Security will draft the specific requirements later.

The bill also requires that state DMVs link their databases to create a searchable national record. States failing to comply could lose highway funds.

Compliant cards would be required for entry into airports, courthouses, national parks and any other facility to which the federal government controls access. Such cards will invariably become the "gold standard" for personal identification, meaning that having a vaild card will be essential for conducting a host of activities, regardless of whether they involve the federal government.

The Bush White House strongly supports the Real ID Act, making it a near certainty that President Bush will sign the act into law once it passes the Senate.

Needless to say, the bill has evoked strong opposition among civil libertarians, gun activists and states-rights advocates. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted numerous resources and arguments against such a national ID initiaitive.

Sources: C|Net, Futurismic

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Chillin' for 30,000 Years

Life is at once a delicate and a remarkably resilient thing. Take, for instance, Carnobacterium pleistocenium, a bacterium from the age of wooly mammoths. Recently, US scientists published a paper describing how they thawed out a sample of this organism that had been frozen for 30,000 years in Alaska permafrost -- and how it began swimming around as if it had been born yesterday!

Such tolerance to deep freezing raises the possibility that life could be preserved in extremely harsh climates -- most notably, Mars, where frozen oceans were recently discovered. Could primitive life forms lie frozen just under the Martian surface, waiting for an eventual thaw? Could the same be said of other worlds, such as Jupiter's moon Europa? If nothing else, this chilled-out bacterium may be able to teach us something about how life could be preserved at very low temperatures over long periods.

Source: CNN.com

Doctors Use Camera Phones for Telemedicine

Physicians in Switzerland are studying the use of camera phones for diagnosing serious wounds in patients in remote locations. A nurse, for instance, could take a picture and send it to a doctor who otherwise could not reach the patient.

In experiments, the diagnoses from doctors who viewed injuries via camera phone agreed with those from doctors who saw the injuries in person. Before being used in the US, HIPAA and other electronic privacy issues would have to be addressed, but the potential exists for making "virtual house calls."

Source: CNN.com

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Consumers Want Cell Phones With Style

It's no longer enough to have a cell phone with the latest technology or the most features. A recent poll conducted by IDC found that the majority of those surveyed believe that status and style are the most important considerations when choosing cell phones.

Sleek design, fashion labels like Baby Phat and Escada, and celebrity endorsements all help to give cell phones a "cool" cachet. Advertising -- both direct and indirect -- also sways opinion, as the image of talking on a cell phone is replacing cigarette smoking as a way to imply coolness. Maybe the American Lung Association ought to market a line of designer phones...

Sources: Wired, Techdirt

Robots that Truly Walk Like Humans

One of the toughest challenges in robotics is building humanoid forms that can walk upright on two legs like humans. Now, researchers at Delft University in the Netherlands, Cornell University and MIT may have solved the problem.

The key is a line of technology called passive-dynamic walking, which uses gravity to drive a bipedal device down a slope. Passive-dynamic technology does not attempt to control all joints in the movement, but allows most of the joints to hang free.

The robots developed by the three universities solve a variety of other problems related to balance, stride, foot size, stopping, steering, shock absorption and even walking backward. In addition to use in humanoid robotics, the research shows promise in helping to develop better prosthetic legs and feet. However, practical applications are likely at least 20 years out.

Source: Technology Research News

UN Releases Latest World Demographic Trends

The United Nations has released its latest "World Demographic Trends" report, current up through 2004. Among the more interesting statistics:

  • The current world population stands at about 6.5 billion people, will likely reach 7 billion by 2012, and should peak at 8.9 billion by 2050, assuming birth and mortality rates remain on track.
  • The vast majority of the world's population in 2050 will live in the developing world.
  • Ten percent of the world's population is aged 60 or older this year. This demographic will more than double by 2050.
  • By 2030, 60% of the world's population will live in cities.
  • Tokyo, currently the world's most populous city, will remain so in 2015. Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi in India will surpass Mexico City in size to become the second and third largest cities, respectively. The New York-Newark metro area -- America's most populated city -- will be the world's sixth most populated city in 2015.
  • Of the 22 most populated cities in 2015, only four will be in North America or Europe.

Source: WorldChanging

Satellite Work Centers Ease Commutes

Organizations that want to give their employees more commuting flexibility are considering opening satellite offices that give workers office space while lessening their commuting time. Many of these offices are designed for telecommuters who mainly work at home or on the road, and who use them only when needed. The offices contain full Internet, video conferencing and electronic whiteboard technology, and offer a variety of office setups, from traditional closed-door offices to "hoteling" arrangements for those who need only a place to sit temporarily. The Canadian firm SuiteWorks is one company specializing in constructing satellite office space for teleworkers.

Source: Herman Trend Alert

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Japanese Smart Phones, Payment Systems Converge

Early next year, Japanese commuters will be able to pay for their train fare by cell phone, when the Suica electronic payment system for trains starts supporting Sony IC chips embedded in DoCoMo phones.

Suica, a widespread smart-card system for paying train fare, was rolled out by the East Japan Railway Co. three years ago. By making Suica compatible with Sony's FeliCa IC chip, the system links two important e-payment systems, and could lead to more ways to pay for products and services via cell phone. Testing of the system will begin this March.

Source: CNN.com

SMS Disrupts the Greeting Card Business

When you care enough to send the very best... text it!

The continued popularity of SMS and text messaging in India appears to be threatening the greeting card business in that country. After stagnating for the last few years, greet card sales saw a 10% decline last year. Meanwhile, an estimated one billion text messages were exchanged among Indian mobile phone users between Christmas and New Year's last year.

Observers speculate that young people in India are simply foregoing greeting cards in favor of SMS greetings. Plus, a recent hike in postage rates there has made SMS more attractive. It's likely that this trend will spread to other countries where SMS is catching on. In the US, where SMS is not as popular as it is elsewhere, web- and IM-based greetings could similarly cut into greeting card sales, especially among young people.

Sources: Textually.org, Techdirt

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Like many technology-oriented blogs and websites, we've mentioned the risk of cellphone hacking before. Now it's finally happened in a way that's made national news.

By now you've surely heard about Paris Hilton's T-Mobile Sidekick cell phone being hacked, and the numbers of her celebrity friends being posted on the Internet for all to see... and dial. Some of the victimized celebritites reported receiving hundreds of calls.

UPDATE: While the Hilton hack remains under investigation, speculation abounds about how it might have been pulled off (Hint: It's deceptively simple, and offers some lessons in personal online security).

Gaining less attention was a similar story of much greater consequence to average people. The data aggregator ChoicePoint had said that some of its confidential data had been compromised, affecting as many as 500,000 people in all 50 states. Among the information types at risk are Social Security numbers, birth dates and drivers license numbers, putting them at risk of identity theft. ChoicePoint has said that it will notify all affected individuals by mail.

Sources: MSNBC, Computerworld

Monday, February 21, 2005

Will "Smart Carts" Lead to Smarter Shopping?

Imagine a shopping cart -- an actual, not a virtual one -- that can memorize your grocery list, send orders to the pharmacy and the deli, and alert you to other offers. If this appeals to you, then you might be in luck.

Fujitsu is piloting a new shopping cart technology called the U-Scan Shopper, which allows shoppers to download their shopping lists from their Bluetooth-enabled PDAs to the "smart cart." The carts will cost about $1,200 each.

The concept has promise, but anyone familiar with grocery stores can already spot the downsides. Stolen carts are a perennial problem for retailers, who aren't going to appreciate losing $1,200 every time a U-Scan disappears. Secondly, there's usability. From the description, one must be fairly tech savvy to make use of the U-Scans. Grandma simply won't be bothered. And since the system relies on Bluetooth-enabled PDAs, only stores in relatively affluent communities will be interested.

Third, my sense is that the U-Scan is trying to latch on to an existing process (shopping) rather than redesigning the process altogether. As a result, it only adds a layer ot complexity to the process. Perhaps something like U-Scan will make more sense once more grocery items are tagged with RFID tags. Or, skip the U-Scan altogether and make the grocer's system work with shoppers' PDAs. Stores could give away free software that would allow shoppers to maintain their grocery lists; it will be cheaper for the stores and just as easy for the customers. And store clerks won't have to fish $1,200 shopping carts out of drainage ditches.

Sources: eWeek, Smart Mobs

Peggy Noonan on Blogging

An excellent summary of the current state of blogging from Wall Street Journal contributor Peggy Noonan, which at the very least shows that she gets it. Noonan also offers some predictions about the future of blogging (some of which we've mentioned here already).

Is UMA the Missing Link in Wireless Connectivity?

Mobile phone manufacturers are beginning to experiment with a new protocol called Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA), which allows smart phones and other devices to switch between WiFi and cellular networks. Most of the big players in the cellular space (Nokia, Motorola, Cingular, T-Mobile, etc.) are working to make UMA an industry standard.

If this happens, and if UMA works as advertised, it could have a revolutionary impact on mobile devices of all sorts. Enterprises, for instance, could create "voice over WiFi" networks that could lower costs while allowing smart devices to live up to their potential. It also could allow laptops to go online even when no wireless hotspots are available. The handoff between the WiFi and cellular networks, however, would have to be seamless.

Incidentally, the "unlicensed" in the UMA name refers to the portion of the wireless spectrum for which the FCC does not require a broadcast license.

Source: Russell Beattie Notebook, Phonescoop.com

America Through the Eyes of Others

One of the dramatic effects of the Internet is how it has shrunken our world and made a reality of Marshall McLuhan's theorized "global village." No website illustrates this better than WatchingAmerica.com, which aggregates news stories about the US from non-US news sources around the world. Many stories focus on topics that have largely been ignored by both the US mainstream media and blogs, while others provide a surprising perspective on how the world perceives America. Most articles have English translations.

Source: Futurismic

Random House Embraces M-Learning

Publishing giant Random House has acquired a minority share in a start-up company called Vocel, which offers educational content to cell phone users. Random House will license two of its product lines to Vocel for cell-phone distribution this summer.

One, Living Language, is a foreign language self-study program. The other, Prima Games, features strategy guides to popular video games. Though most of the content will be text, Living Language will allow users to listen to the correct pronunciation of words. Vocel already offers SAT preparation guides via cell phone.

The services will be available for a monthly fee and will initially be available to Verizon customers, though Vocel is negotiating with other carriers to adopt the service. It will be interesting to see how quickly these services are combined with phone-based video such as VCAST, or whether corporate e-learning developers will take notice.

Sources: New York Times, Smart Mobs

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Age of Creativity

Hugh MacLeod argues that we are entering a new age of creativity, demanding more from both ourselves and our work:

We are turning off the TV. We are using the internet, reading books, attending museums, buying paint, taking night classes and purchasing art in unprecedented numbers. We suddenly feel alive and excited about life in a way that would have seemed crazy a generation ago.

We are learning to sing.

We are starting to write in record number. We have discovered blogs. 40,000 of us start new ones every day. Will it make money? Who cares? This isn't about money; this is about getting our thoughts together.

Our thoughts are coming together because we are no longer asleep. We're not even sleepy.

I've thought about this as well, and it does seem we're indeed becoming more creative... mainly because it's easier than ever to be creative and share our creations with others. Creative people have all kinds of cheap, easy-to-use tools to express themselves. Writers have blogs. Want to publish that novel of yours? Just convert it to a PDF and upload it to your website. Want to be a radio commentator? Start a podcast. Give that business idea of yours a shot online; it might just be the next eBay! The musically inclined can buy sound processing and editing software at Wal-Mart, produce their own music, share their professional grade MP3s and e-mail them to P. Diddy. The same goes for budding photographers and filmmakers. As well as creative types who have no precedent, such as electronic game creators.

All this, of course, has its dark side; the thugs in Iraq who upload video of themselves murdering their victims probably think they're pretty "creative" too. But hopefully, the good will outweigh the bad, and we'll continually think up new tools to help express ourselves.

Source: Innovation Weblog

Bloggers as Paparazzi

Digital entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is not shy about speaking his mind. Most recently, he's taken on bloggers, comparing us to the paparazzi photographers who hound celebrities.

The comparison is closer than you might think; after all, as a pioneer in online media, Cuban knows a thing or two about cyberspace. His advice to those threatened by bloggers provides insight into a possible future scenario for the blogosphere:

There is... a way for the gatekeepers [mainstream media] to deal with the bloggers. A simple way.

Recognize them. Give them respect. Celebrities can’t keep photographers out of their bushes no matter how hard they try. The gatekeepers won’t be able to keep the bloggers out either. Instead they should invite them in.

Not 1. Not 2. But several from both sides. Bring in the more popular blogs that like you, and the same number of those that don’t. Give them as much access as you give the NY Times, Wash Post. Don’t muzzle them, let them write

I will tell you exactly what will happen next. The blogs you invite in will still try to trip you up, but they will quickly morph and act like traditional media. When you screw up , they will tell you when it happens and give you a chance to comment and respond. They will like being on the inside and adjust to try to stay there.

Cuban's prediction that a few big blogs will dominate the blogosphere is a logical if cynical assumption. It's only a matter of time before we see "celebrity bloggers" start showing up at movie premieres and partying at the hottest clubs -- the Barbara Walters of bloggers, whose power comes from their rich and famous connections. However, such domination will only last until the next new disruptive medium emerges. Also, the blogosphere is not like traditional media in that the big players can easily shut out the little guys. Bloggers don't need to spend millions on printing presses, distribution channels or transmitters. As long as blogging tools remain affordable or even free (thank you, Blogger!), there will always be some tenacious little guy with a big scoop or a new angle.

Source: BuzzMachine

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Undersea Luxury Hotel

OK, so you've traveled all over the world, been there, done that, and you're getting impatient waiting for your seat on SpaceShipOne. Enterpreneur and marine enthusiast Bruce Jones may just have the perfect destination for you.

Jones, who made his fortune in private submarines, is developing the Poseidon Undersea Resort, a luxury hotel in the Bahamas. What will make the Poseidon special is its peculiar location -- it will be submerged 50 feet underwater, with the most expensive rooms completely surrounded by ocean.

With rates priced at $1,500 a night, the Poseidon won't likely appeal to the Motel 6 crowd. Rooms will include hot tubs and lights for illuminating the surrounding sea.

Jones has so far put $40 million into the venture, and expects the Poseidon to open on schedule next year. Jones is at an advantage here because he has his own money to invest; similar undersea ventures over the decades have gone nowhere. A similar hotel, the Hydropolis, is being built off the cost of Dubai in the Persian Gulf, but it is reportedly stalled for lack of funds. However, if the Poseidon is a hit, expect resort builders to take notice very quickly... and consider taking the plunge themselves.

Sources: ABC News, Cool Hunting

The Power of Presence

Ever wonder if instant messaging has any real advantages over e-mail and cell phones? It does... but it's not the messaging part that gives IM an edge. It's presence awareness. In an IM client, one can see whether one's "buddies" (friends, family members, co-workers, etc.) are available. Most IM tools allow users to specify what they're doing at any given moment (out of office, on the phone, at lunch, in the bathroom, whatever), which alone gives folks on their buddy lists a lot of information.

Now, developers are looking to apply presence tools to other forms of communication. For e-mail, there's Convoq ASAP, a web conferencing tool that allows users to embed links in their e-mail messages letting recipients know if that user is available (similar to the way Yahoo! integrates its e-mail and messenger tools). Even phones will be able to apply presencing features with what is essentially beefed-up Caller ID.

Presence can be added to most forms of communications technology. With RFID tags, presence can be automatically integrated; an IM tool can tell your buddies not just that you've stepped away from your desk, but exactly where you are in the building. Coupling that with GPS tracking can take the concept to a ridiculous and unsettling (but not implausible) extreme.

The real question is going to come when we've decided we have a little too much presence in our lives. How are we going to turn off presence tools, or at least control what they say? Will we, as individuals, have the right to control our own presence, turning it on and off at will? And once we do that, will presence lose its effectiveness?

Source: C|Net

Cosmetic Surgery as a Lifestyle

Medical technology and style have converged to elevate cosmetic surgery from a procedure or series of procedures to a comprehensive state of mind. If any proof of this is necessary, consider that several new magazines are being launched dedicated to the lifestyle of cosmetic surgery.

Earlier this year, New Beauty launched with stories about how to select the best spas, how to get rid of wrinkles, "the ultimate guide to breast augmentation," and the latest on laser treatments. A similar magazine, titled Plastique, has launched in Denmark.

Magazines are a bellwether of leading cultural trends, as they live and die by what fascinates the buying public at any given moment. Remember all the Internet-business mags that flourished and folded during the dotcom bubble? At the very least, cosmetic surgery publications prove that people are fascinated with cosmetic surgery. At most, they show that surgically improving one's self has become an experience. People don't get surgery to fix a flat chest, reduce wrinkles or suck out fat. They get it to attain a new self-image, to enter a world of sexy, beautiful and glamorous people. That's certainly not a bad thing, but it indicates that body modification is changing the way we view the human body.

Source: Boing Boing

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Motherhood is Driving Moms Crazy

Author Judith Warner's new book, Perfect Madness, is the cover story in this week's Newsweek. In her book, Warner talks about the struggles that today's mothers face in trying to raise families, hold down jobs and be the "perfect" moms. She notes that, 30 years after the feminist movement, our culture still does not support working parents (who, by the way, are working by necessity, not choice):

Women today mother in the excessive, control-freakish way that they do in part because they are psychologically conditioned to do so. But they also do it because, to a large extent, they have to. Because they are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large. Because there is right now no widespread feeling of social responsibility—for children, for families, for anyone, really—and so they must take everything onto themselves. And because they can't, humanly, take everything onto themselves, they simply go nuts.

Warner also offers some solutions to help support parents... namely government- and business-driven initiatives. However -- and Warner acknowledges this -- the problem is a deep one within our culture. In the history of humanity, "working mothers" are nothing new, dating back to our hunting and gathering ancestors. But in the 20th century, we became affluent enough to allow women to stay at home full-time with their children. In a way, we've reverted back to the normal scheme of things. But the problems that Warner points out are very real, and will take a long time and a lot of work for our culture to solve.

Source: Newsweek

Monday, February 14, 2005


Most people wouldn't confuse evangelical Christians with environmentalists. However, Joel Makower suggests that a new ethic toward environmental stewardship among evangelicals may be developing.

Historically, evangelicals have been opposed to ecology issues in part because of opposition to government regulation, suspicion that the eco movement is too leftist for their tastes, and their interpretation of Scripture that the world is humanity's to control unconditionally, and that Christ's imminent coming makes concern over conservation unnecessary. But now, prominent evangelicals are embracing environmentalist positions that, in may cases, put them at odds with the Bush administration.

The National Association of Evangelicals adopted an Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility that states, in part: "We affirm that God-given dominion [over the earth] is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to exploit or abuse the creation of which we are a part. We are not the owners of creation, but its stewards, summoned by God to 'watch over and care for it." And in October 2004, the well-known and influential evangelical magazine Christianity Today published an article voicing concern over global warming, urging more proactive measures to curb greenhouse gases, and even criticizing President Bush for ignoring the issue.

If these trends continue, they will go a long way toward de-politicizing environmental issues and getting everyone, regardless of political or religious persuasion, involved in protecting natural resources. Hopefully, someone in the White House will be listening...

UPDATE: WorldChanging has a followup post on the topic listing a number of faith-based environmental organizations, both Christian and non-Christian.

Source: WorldChanging

Define "Journalism"

David Folkenflick of NPR's Morning Edition discusses the current state of journalism in the wake of blogging, the 24-hour news cycle, partisan commentators, media figures who are paid to advance an agenda, and the general lack of confidence in today's reporting. (Audio file; supports RealPlayer and Windows Media Player)

Source: unmediated

Outsourcing Surgery

The trend toward outsourcing to Asia is not stopping with IT. Increasingly, patients are travelling to India, Thailand and elsewhere for surgical procedures, paying a fraction of what they would pay in the West.

An echocardiogram that would cost $800 in the US costs only $16 in India, and a $200,000 heart surgery would run you only $6,700. Hospital systems such as Apollo Hospitals in India and Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, have begun to establish international reputations and run highly profitable operations.

If the US moves toward individual healthcare accounts, in which individuals will be responsible for saving and spending their own healthcare dollars, these very inexpensive Asian facilities might suddenly look very attractive, especially for complex, expensive procedures. US and European healthcare providers would need to re-evaluate their business models and work harder to either lower costs or attract patients.

Source: Bloomberg, Smart Mobs

Are Men an Endangered Species?

Oxford University genetics professor Bryan Sykes has a startling thesis in his book Adam's Curse: A Future Without Men (2004, Norton). He states that the human Y chromosome has decayed so badly over the milennia that men will eventually be rendered sterile.

Don't worry, guys -- you're okay. It's your descendants you neeed to be worried about. By Sykes' calculation, fertility will drop to 1% of the present-day level within 5,000 generations. That's approximately 125,000 years from now.

Normally, this would spell the end of the species; Sykes believes that many have become extinct because of Y chromsome decay. But we humans have technology on our side -- and some choices to make.

One solution is to apply genetic engineering to repair the Y chromosome, ensuring that men remain fertile. The other, more radical notion is to abandon the natural methods of reproduction and conceive all future humans artificially. Researchers have found that it's not even necessary to have sperm to do this! By fusing two mouse eggs, researchers have created viable mouse embryos (though only one out of 457 egg fusions survived to adulthood).

The clincher with the latter method is that all offspring are female. Sykes speculates on what a women-only world would be like, though such a world would be totally dependent on genetic technology for its survival.

Needless to say, Sykes' theories are controversial. But they are exactly the type of deep futurism worth pondering.

Source: World Future Society

African Labor Force Threatened By AIDS

So many people in sub-Saharan Africa are afflicted by HIV/AIDS that the disease is beginning to cut into the region's labor force. Within the next five years, the pool of working-age men and women in the hardest-hit areas will shrink by 9%... and could be cut by up to 40% by 2015.

This will not only affect multinational corporations in Africa looking to hire local workers, but may well affect the region's ability to develop economically. In response, some corporations are beefing up their healthcare offerings to employees. Developed countries may also find it beneficial invest in HIV/AIDS prevention in Africa to help affected areas become and remain economically viable.

Sources: United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, World Future Society

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Biodegradable Cell Phones

The last thing the world needs are more useless, outdated cell phones. But with the average cell phone user upgrading his or her model every 18 months, unwanted cell phones are beginning to cause a waste management problem. It seems that we'll be flooded with the things.

Or will we? Researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK have developed a new type of polymer cell phone casing that will break down into compost when discarded. In fact, their prototype can even contain a seed of the flower of your choice! So someday soon, instead of throwing your old phone in the trash, perhaps you'll simply plant it in your back yard and be rewarded with a lovely flower.

Sources: University of Warwick, World Future Society

Friday, February 11, 2005

NASA: 2005 Could Be Warmest Year Ever

Between man-made carbon dioxide trapping heat in the atmosphere and a predicted weak El Nino, NASA climatologists are predicting that 2005 could be the warmest year ever recorded. The current record-holder is the year 1998.

Last year was the fourth warmest year recorded. The second and third warmest years were 2002 and 2003, respectively.

Source: CNN.com

Orb Media Networks Your Devices

The San Jose Mercury News reviews a startup company called Orb Networks that is developing a service called Orb Media, which is designed to network all your digital devices -- PC, laptop, cell phone and PDA -- and allow you to access all your media anytime, anywhere.

The article says, "You could, for example, watch a Bay Area TV station's evening news show on your laptop in a New York hotel room, display family photos on your cell phone when visiting a friend's house, or listen to your music collection on your PDA using the WiFi wireless network at a neighborhood Starbucks. You can even, from a remote location, program your computer to record a TV show for later remote viewing."

Though the article determines that the bandwidth, computing power and price are currently out of most people's range, it suggests that Orb could be on to something truly big.

Jeff Gannon is a Product of Disrupted Media

If anyone doubts that technology and our nation's growing political divisiveness have combined to alter news media, the recent controversy surrounding White House correspondent Jeff Gannon should be sufficient proof. Gannon, as you may be aware, resigned from his position as a correspondent for the conservative-leaning Talon News service after questions about his credentials were raised. Naturally, liberals and conservatives have very different takes on the matter. Timothy Karr of MediaCitizen has written an excellent comprehensive summary.

Politics aside, the Gannon controversy illustrates several points about how the media has changed in the past few years:

  1. No one finds it remarkable that a news organization such as Talon is unabashedly conservative. More and more, news organizations will declare political allegiances rather than attempting to be "unbiased."
  2. Talon wouldn't and couldn't exist without the Internet. Its main outlet is its website, from which webmasters and bloggers can easily reference posted stories. This increases Talon's reach exponentially.
  3. The controversy has been magnified by bloggers of all political persuasions, thereby forcing the mainstream media to pay attention. Before the Internet, a story such as this would have been an obscure filler item, if it was covered at all. Since the 2004 Presidental election, we've seen the power of the blogosphere increase steadily, with no end in sight. In essence, bloggers have replaced many of the old-time beat reporters and "stringers" that were systematically eliminated from the mainstream press in waves of cost-cutting over the years. As media observer Daniel Conover writes, "It must be clear now that blogs and websites are providing the bulk of significant real-time reporting on MSM [mainstream media] matters. Those of us who work in the MSM and care about these issues turn to these 'non-official' sources to get the scoop on our industry, and I don't expect that to change any time soon."
  4. It also raises the question of who qualifies as a legitimate journalist. Before the Internet, working for a legitimate print or broadcast news medium made one a journalist. It also helped to have a degree in journalism or a related subject. Today, we must ask ourselves whether bloggers qualify as journalists, and if so, which ones. Liberals will likely claim that conservative bloggers are bogus, and vice versa.
  5. Controversies in this new age can take some particularly ugly turns. Gannon's detractors have linked him to ventures involving gay pornography and prostitution, while Gannon claims that his family members -- including his elderly mother -- have been harrassed since the story became national news. In this post-Monica Lewinsky era, a cardinal rule of politics is to tag your opponent to a sex scandal -- the kinkier, the better.

The Gannon incident is certainly not the last such controversy, as we seem to have entered a "perfect storm" of technological power, information reach and political friction.

Is FutureFashion the Future of Fashion?

As New York City immersed itself in Fashion Week, a novel fashion revue captured special attention. FutureFashion highlighted designs that featured recycled and organic fabrics. Less about technology than about sustainability and environmental awareness, FutureFashion featured the works of such noted designers as Oscar de la Renta, Derek Lam, Daryl K and Diane von Furstenberg.

The show featured pieces made out of organic wool, bamboo and hemp, as well as less orthodox materials such as recycled polyester.

For those seeking something more technologically oriented, Technology Enabled Clothing has received a patent for a "personal area network" -- essentially a jacket or vest in which the wearer can store and network a variety of personal electronic devices. Wires can be run throughout the garmet, enabling each device to interact and receive power.

Sources: TreeHugger, Smart Mobs

Hormone Spray Increases Women's Sex Drive

An Australian company called Acrux has developed a testosterone-based spray that it says can increase women's libido. The spray was originally developed for post-menopausal women, but has been shown to work with women of all ages.

The spray is still in its trial stages, and will not likely appear on the market for several years. However, trials conducted so far are highly encouraging. Known side effects include an increase in facial hair, hair loss, oily skin and acne. (The good news: your wife's frisky in the bedroom again. The bad news: she's bald, has zits and is growing a beard...)

Aside from improving couples' love lives the way that Viagra benefitted men, the implications of such a drug are staggering. Could a hyper-concentrated dose turn the most frigid ice queen into a raving sex maniac? Could it be sprayed on someone unwittingly, thereby replacing roofies as the cad's dope of choice? Would it really improve relationships, or would a suddenly sex-charged woman be tempted to stray? And what could it's effect be if used on men?

Sources: BBC News, Boing Boing

Napster's Gamble

In its Super Bowl commercial, Napster unveiled its new business strategy -- one it hopes will be profitable yet provide customers with the downloadable music they want.

For $15 per month, Napster To Go customers can download as much music as they want from Napster's 1-million-song catalog. Customers can listen to the music through the Napster client, or download them to an MP3 player.

It's all fun and games... until the customer lets his/her subscription lapse. Then they lose all their music. Oh, and about that MP3 player. Only models with built-in clocks will work with Napster; these will be aware of the owner's subscription status and will disable the music of any deadbeats. So if you're an iPod user and want to subscribe to Napster To Go, you're out of luck. You'll have to buy a compliant model like the iRiver H10 or the Creative Zen Micro.

Is subscribing to a music service really a viable business model? $15 per month (or $180 a year) may be too steep for many, especially young people who would make up the bulk of the service's customer base. Will customers appreciate having their music collections, in effect, held hostage? Or will the appeal of an "all you can eat" service outweigh any inconvenience and cost? Only time -- or the first hack of the timeout function -- will tell.

Source: ZDNet

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Can't Afford That New Luxury Purse? Then Rent It!

Blame Paris Hilton... Demand for luxury handbags and accessories from such pricey designers as Coach, Louis Vuitton or Gucci has never been higher. But the number of women interested in these products far outstrips the number who can actually afford to buy them. How, then, to bring such luxury goods to the masses?

A web-based membership program called Bag Borrow or Steal may have the answer. It applies subscription principles from online retailers like Netflix to rent expensive handbags to its status-conscious members. For as little as $19.95 per month (plus $9.95 when returning a bag), members can "borrow" a designer handbag that would cost hundreds of dollars otherwise. Members can return the bag whenever they like, or "steal" (i.e. keep) it if they really like it. Another benefit to Bag Borrow or Steal is that it ensures its members are kept up to date with the latest styles.

The Internet makes subscription services such as this possible, keeping costs to a minimum while ensuring the widest reach. It's also a way for businesses to satisfy the insatiable demand for upscale merchandise that would normally be beyond the price range of most consumers.

Source: Springwise

Online Jihad

Websites run by radical Islamic groups are providing detailed information on how to hack and launch denial-of-service attacks on "zionist" web presences. Some of these sites also contain instructions for harassing prominent American, European and Israeli politicians. This, on top of content for active and would-be terrorists already being posted on jihadist sites. The SITE Institute, which tracks terrorist activity, maintains a website with links to several terrorist-run Internet resources.

All indications are that this trend is growing, along with the amount of damage that terror-minded hackers could do. The downside of Internet-enabled enterprise systems is that they can conceivably be attacked from anywhere in the world. In one case, a disgruntled employee of an Australian public utility hacked the computer that managed the sewer system, causing raw sewage to be dumped into the water supply. Though that incident wasn't terror-related, it's an example of what can be done with technology, a little know-how and some creativity.

There's no reason to believe that radicals of all stripes won't take advantage of blogging, podcasting and videocasting to get their messages out to the true believers. Today's terrorist wannabes don't have to go to the Middle East anymore to get their training; they can log on from their bedrooms (or wherever), receive motivation, training and instructions online, and commit acts of terror with a few clicks of a mouse. Then, they won't be wannabes anymore.

Source: Newsweek

Catholicism Migrates Southward

The center of gravity for America's Catholic population is moving from the Northeast and Midwest to the South, due to southern migration and an influx of Catholic Hispanics.

Many of these Catholic congregations are taking on characteristics of the evangelical Protestant "Bible belt" churches that dominate the region. These parishes tend to be more conservative and more readily accept papal authority -- including teachings about birth control and abortion -- than their Northern brethren.

Meanwhile, established dioceses in the Northeast are seeing declining populations, and are being forced to close churches and parochial schools. If this demographic trend continues -- combined with possibility of a new pope in the near future -- the face of American Catholicism will change, attracting new believers while driving away others.

Sources: TIME, Queens Chronicle

Computer Analysis Finds Origin of Hope Diamond

Researchers at the Smithsonian Institution have used computer simulation to determine that the infamous Hope Diamond was cut from the French Blue diamond, one of France's crown jewels.

The 69-carat French Blue was cut for King Louis XIV of France from a massive stone found in India in 1668. The French Blue vanished during the French Revolution, but the 45-carat Hope Diamond mysteriously appeared in London 20 years later and was bought by its namesake, Henry Philip Hope.

The researchers were able to confirm that the Hope had been cut from the French Blue by analyzing detailed illustrations of the French crown jewels made in 1700. Using powerful computer analysis, gemologists could see how cuts in both diamonds matched. "This new Hope Diamond research would not have been possible 10 years ago," said Smithsonian gem curator Jeffrey Post. "What is exciting is that we are constantly learning new information about our collections as we apply new high-tech research methods."

The Hope Diamond has a storied history, having been associated with bouts of bad luck for its owners over the years. It is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

Source: CNN.com

Podcasting for Beginners

Blogger Lisa Williams has created a short online video called "Four Minutes About Podcasting," which is exactly what the title says. Aside from being an entertaining take on the subject, the video should be essential viewing for anyone looking to get up to speed on the technology. (RealPlayer required for viewing.)

Also, USA Today has an article highlighting podcasting, its potential as a disruptive technology, and podcast pioneer Adam Curry. It also notes that Microsoft is taking baby steps into the podcasting space while Apple, curiously, stays on the sidelines. Will Apple miss out on the next big thing as a result, even though its iPod is the device that's driving interest? After all, as Lisa Williams' video points out, you don't need an iPod to enjoy podcasting...

UPDATE: Forbes has a piece on how podcasting may pose an unexpected challenge to satellite radio, especially if cars become fitted with wireless data antennas that allow listeners to download podcasts on the road.

Source: unmediated

Tagging People

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine makes a modest proposal: XML-like tags for people's biographical information, allowing them to interact more fluidly and uniformly in cyberspace. As an example he cites David Gailbraith's one-line bio tag on his blog, as well as the use of Technorati and Flickr tags for blog content.

Evan as he makes this suggestion, Jarvis ponders the consequences of such tagging:

So I started to wonder how I'd be tagged. Would I tag myself? Would the crowd tag me? Would a machine (based on my content and the links to it)? Would it be some Frankensteiny combination?

Would tags go to war with each other? Would the Democrats for whom I'm not conservative enough slap the Republicans for whom I'm too liberal or would it all average out to centrist?

Would the tagee have the right to modify tags (like a credit report) or would that be self-promotion?

In the end, it needs to be a way for people to find people as well as content and comment and communities.

Such thinking has a long way to go -- including whether or not this is even a good idea -- but it provides some insight into how our identities and digital personas might be managed. A tag could conceivably become the Social Security number of the future, providing the foundation for one's identity. The fundamental question, then, concerns control: will we own tags associated with us, or will someone else?

Sources: EMERGIC.org, BuzzMachine

Michael Jackson, Au Naturel

Yesterday we reported on a "mirror" that allows people to view themselves as they age. In a related vein, forensic artist Stephen Mancusi has created an alternative "age progression" view of Michael Jackson as he would appear today if he had never had any plastic surgery.

As you can see, the King of Pop appears slightly different here than the way we're used to seeing him. To me, he looks a bit like Ted Lange, the actor who played Isaac the bartender on The Love Boat.

The picture was created by applying standard forensic aging trends to a childhood picture of Jackson. Read more about the art and science of forensic art on Stephen Mancusi's website.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

A Glimpse of Your Future Self

Developers at the Accenture Technology Lab in Nice, France, are developing a "mirror" that will image and age people virtually, allowing them to see themselves as they age.

The associated computer can build a model of the "future you" based on lifestyle, simulating your aged appearance based on current personal habits. If you overeat and don't exercise much, for instance, you'll have more pounds added to you than if you follow a healthy diet and work out regularly. Similarly, smoking and heavy alcohol use will also affect your future appearance.

Don't like what you see? The system's creators say that's the point; the positive or negative reinforcement that comes from seeing one's future self will hopefully encourage healthy habits and discourage unhealthy ones.

Source: Protein Feed

Air Force Looks at Teleportation Possibilities

Imagine the power of being able to move people and objects through time and space instantaneously. Anyone who's even a casual fan of science fiction knows this... but now, the U.S. Air Force is apparently taking a very serious look at ways to "beam me up, Scotty."

Dr. Eric Davis, a theoretical physicist, has investigated the possibilities of teleportation and believes that it's wholly possible, and completely in line with Einstein's theory of relativity. Among the possible approaches are wormholes a la Stargate and the alien craft described in the Carl Sagan novel (and Jodie Foster movie) Contact.

As Dr. Davis describes it, "Teleportation isn't dematerialization, which is what Star Trek sci-fi method does. Teleportation is to take the animate or inanimate object and literally move it instantaneously across space time or through dimensions."

The Air Force has reportedly spent $25,000 on a preliminary study. Other countries, including China, are supposedly looking at similar teleportation technology and have had encouraging results.

Government waste? Hoax? Clever Air Force strategy to recruit geeks? Or pure visionary genius? Maybe someone will be teleported from the future to set the record straight...

Source: KLAS-TV

IT, R&D Winners in Bush 2006 Budget

President Bush's proposed budget for 2006 attempts to address the current huge deficits with cuts to dozens of federal programs. Information technology, however, is not only spared but gets an increase.

The 2006 budget grants IT initiatives $65.1 billion, or a 7% increase over last year's spending. Defense, Homeland Security and the National Science Foundation -- whose budget has been increased by 26% -- will receive the bulk of this increase. In addition, the buddget proposes to make the R&D tax credit permanent. The tax credit was initiatied in 1981 as a temporary measure, but has been continually renewed.

However, other science and technology spending would drop by nearly $1 billion, reducing funds for space exploration, agriculture research and alternative energy development. The budget also proposes to eliminate the Advanced Technology Program, designed to assist the private sector in "high-risk, high-payoff" technological development. Critics of the cut argue that the Advanced Technology Program, though relatively small, is an effective initiative that should be spared.

Of course, all this could be rendered moot once Congress, lobbyists and "special interests" start to sink their teeth into the budget. The final product will likely be quite different from the White House's original proposal.

UPDATE: One science loser in the White House budget is the National Institutes of Health, along with other health services. While NIH is tagged for a budget increase, that increase (0.7%) does not keep up with inflation.

Source: Computerworld

Geotagging Becoming a Reality

Ever since cell phones became ubiquitous, technologists have been predicting the advent of "geotagging," or the sending of messages based on proximity. For instance, if you walk past a store, you might receive a text message inviting you to stop in and receive a special offer.

Now, Siemens is developing a system to make geotagging practical. Called "digital graffiti," the technology allows SMS messages or pictures to be sent not to a recipient or even a group of recipients, but to a location, where other users in that location could receive it. A Siemens spokesperson describes potential applications: "Imagine a foreman walking through a plant and making notes of things to check for the maintenance crew on the production floor, or a friend who really knows his way around an area leaving tips of places to go for less familiar buddies." Digital graffiti could also be used in military, crowd control, traffic control and emergency management scenarios, alerting users to everything from danger zones to traffic congestion points.

Such technology might be useful in a controlled environment such as an enterprise, but the risks for spam and other abuse could make it more detrimental, even though Siemens is building in safeguards that allow users to control what messages they receive. Creative uses for the technology, as well as the pitfalls, will emerge as it is tested and discussed. Widespread rollout of digital graffiti is two years away.

Sources: Future Now, PCWorld

Who Will Inherit Your Digital Assets?

If, God forbid, something were to happen to you tomorrow, who would inherit your e-mail? Your blog? Your website? Your laptop that's protected by a password? Would you want anybody to have access to these, or would you want your digital assets to effectively die with you?

Ethical questions such as these are being asked more and more as digital media becomes more secure, and a greater part of our lives. The issue of accessing e-mail of the deceased recently gained national attention when the parents of a Marine reservist killed in Iraq sued his ISP to gain access to his e-mail account. The parents claim that they are entitled to their son's e-mail just as they would be his personal papers and other material assets. The ISP, though, claims that by releasing the information to the parents, it would be violating its own privacy policy.

Instructions for accessing digital assets will surely become a standard part of wills and advance directives, perhaps using a set of public/private keys to ensure anthenticity of access. ISPs and online service providers could also create special protocols for allowing certain individuals "back door" access to accounts as well. But even this is risky. How would an ISP know whether it is receiving a legitimate request? Will they need to see a copy of a death certificate? Would the heirs need to obtain a court order?

There are no easy answers, and this dilemma illustrates just one more way how technology is charging ahead of our ethical and legal framework. As the information in our lives increasingly goes digital, addressing the challenge fairly will become ever more important.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Cell Phones Vulnerable to Hacking

Security experts warn that as cell phones become more sophisticated, they become more vulnerable to viruses, worms and hack attempts.

Up till now, cell phone hacks have been failry rare, affecting only a few operating systems and phone models. But as Bluetooth and other short-range wireless protocols become more common, the avenues for intrusion become much wider. Security in phones that use these protocols is typically weak, making it easy for intruders to get inside a phone.

Who would want to hack a phone? For starters, address books in phones could be seen as an attractive asset to be pirated. Hackers will also find sinister ways to leverage phones' advanced features, such as cameras, Internet access and GPS. A phone that uses WiFi or VoIP could be vulnerable to hackers anywhere in the world.

Source: CNN/Money

From Darwinian Evolution to Cultural Evolution

Carl Woese, the world's foremost authority on microbial biology, published an article in June 2004 postulating that humans and technology have ended the era of classic Darwinian evolution (natural selection).

Woese theorizes that Darwinian evolution didn't exist in the very earliest days of life on Earth. Instead, very similar life forms engaged in what he calls "horizontal gene transfer," thorough which all life forms could exchange genetic characteristics. Only when one life form became clearly different and superior to the others that natural selection began.

Now, as humans have become the dominant species on Earth, our technology is progressing so rapidly that it's far outpaced Darwinian evolution. As a result:

[C]ultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence that we call globalization. And now, in the last 30 years, Homo sapiens has revived the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species will no longer exist, and the evolution of life will again be communal.

In the post-Darwinian era, biotechnology will be domesticated. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners, who will use gene transfer to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also, biotech games for children, played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of the general public, will give us an explosion of biodiversity. Designing genomes will be a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators and diversity to our fauna and flora.

The notion of genetics as a plaything is sure to trigger ethical and moral debate. If someone can manipulate genomes as a hobby, how hard would it be for a terrorist to weaponize life forms in the same vein? How easily could good intentions go horribly awry? Anyone who has seen or read Jurassic Park can understand these dangers. Nonetheless, Woese brings a new and useful line of thinking to the question of how life developed and where it's headed.

Sources: MIT Technology Review, KurzweilAI.net

TiVo Releases Super Bowl Viewer Stats

Although it's a bit unsettling that TiVo can collect such statistics about its customers, the resulting knowledge base is nonetheless instructive concerning viewing habits. TiVo has released viewer statistics for this past Super Bowl -- statistics that created a stir last year when it was revealed how many TiVo customers repeatedly viewed the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction."

The most watched and replayed moments were the GoDaddy.com commercial, the instructions for voting for game MVP via text messaging, the fourth-quarter interception, and the game's final minutes. Viewing bottomed out during the pre-game events and immediately before and after Paul McCartney's halftime show. But overall, viewship remained relatively steady throughout the game.

Such statistics may prove more relevant and useful than the traditional Nielsen ratings, and allow TV programming executives to see reaction to TV shows in real time. So far they can glean that sex sells, sports fans like dramatic plays and texting, and the lull between gametime and halftime festivities is the time when everybody hits either the bathroom or the refrigerator.

Speaking of traditional ratings, Fox reported that the ratings for Super Bowl XXXIX were off from last year. Last Sunday, 86 million viewers tuned in, versus 88 million for last year's game, making it the lowest-rated Super Bowl in six years. Nonetheless, the Super Bowl remains the highest-rated TV event of the year.

Source: Engadget

Alaska Town Considers Its Own Nuclear Power Plant

Last week we repoted on the town of Mink, Louisiana, which got its very first telephone installations. Now another remote US town is considering a technological leap of a very different sort.

The town of Galena, Alaska, depends on expensive diesel fuel for its electricity. Now, the town is considering a less costly alternative: a miniature nuclear power plant.

Fueling the town is expensive not only because diesel fuel must be shipped long distances during the warm weather, but because the town experiences up to 20 hours of darkness a day and frequent subzero temperatures. In response, Toshiba is offering to make Galena a test bed for its "microreactor" that is virtually maintenance-free and generates 10 megawatts of electricity. The reactor would operate underground and could run for up to 30 years without refueling.

Most appealing of all to Galena residents, the cost of electricity from the microreactor would be 10 cents per kilowatt hour, nearly a third of what they are currently paying.

Assuming the project goes on schedule -- and there is opposition to it, especially from the local Native American tribes -- the reactor would be operational by 2010. If successful, the reactor could bring economical energy to remote communities throughout the world.

Sources: Seattle Post-Intelligencer (reprinted from the New York Times), Smart Mobs

License to Clone

The Roslin Institute, the Scottish research organization that cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996, has received a license to clone human embryos from the British government. The institute will not be cloning babies, but will used their techniques to study how nerve cells degenerate, and how nerve- and muscle wasting diseases could be treated or reversed. The embryos will be used for their stem cells, which can be used to create neurons for the treatment of nerve disorders.

Needless to say, this is a highly controversial development both inside and outside of Britain. If successful, though, the Roslin Institute's research would give Britain a leadership position in therapeutic cloning and genetic treatments.

Source: Yahoo (AP)

Off-Peopling: Tomorrow's Employment Challenge

Futurist Richard Samson of the EraNova Institute has written extensively about the future phenomenon of "off-peopling" for some time. Now, off-peopling has gained attention from the mainstream press.

Unlike outsourcing, in which jobs are shifted from high-wage earners to low-wage earners, jobs in an off-peopling scenario are shifted from humans to machines. Historically, jobs involving physical danger, monotony and backbreaking work are the ones to be off-peopled. Robots, for instance, don't get bored, don't complain, can be easily fixed if "injured", and can work round-the-clock if necessary.

However, Samson argues that off-peopling has begun to hit white-collar and professional positions. Ever used software that prepares your taxes or generates legal documents? If so, you've effectively off-peopled your tax advisor and attorney. As robots and computers become more sophisticated and interconnected, and can use complex reasoning in their tasks, they will displace more and more people who once thought their jobs were safe from such encroachment.

Does this mean that we'll all become idle? Hardly, says Samson; we'll simply have to be more creative in the ways that we approach our careers. Samson calls it the "hyper-human economy." Humans will still be required to perform the tasks that machines cannot -- namely, inventing and creating customer "experiences." Creativity will become the hallmark of a lucrative career, whether one continutally looks for new and better ways to satisfy customers or develops new ways to perform tasks.

Monday, February 07, 2005

I'm Too Sexy For My 'Bot

We're just barely getting used to robots that mow our lawns and vacuum our floors. Are we ready for robots that get their freak on?

Kim Jong-Hwan, a South Korean researcher and robotics authority, claims to have developed software-based artificial chromosomes that allow robots express a range of feelings, including romantic desire. What benefit is there in making robots into great lovers? Kim says that in addition to making robots more sensitive and caring, such capacity could be used to one day allow robots to reproduce themselves.

The concept opens up a host of intriguing (albeit very weird) possibilities, with just as many unintended consequences. Could we see an army of robots that behaved like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz ("If I only had a heart...")? Whom, or what, could a robot fall in love with? Would robotic sexual values be in line with ours? How would robots respond to rejection or unrequited love? Could a lonely, unloved robot develop clinical depression or jealous rage? Strange as they may sound, these questions must be asked if technology is headed in this direction.

Source: The Guardian, KurzweilAI.net

iPods as Medical Tools

In a sign that personal media players will have disruptive applications reaching far beyond entertainment, radiologists at UCLA are using photo iPods to manage and share digital images. With the help of an open source software program they wrote, the doctors are able to better manage images at far lower cost.

Normally, radiologists rely on specialized workstations, costing $100,000 each, to view high resolution 3D images. To help cut costs in this area, the radiology team wrote an open source program, OsiriX, that allows them to view the images on Mac desktops. Photo iPods turned out to be a convenient, cost-effective way to store and share the image files, as their storage space is far greater than thumb drives or CD-ROMs.

The images are anonymized to keep the image data private.

Sources: Silicon.com, Emerging Technologies

Consumers Not Embracing RFID

With radio frequency identification (RFID) tags making inroads in retail, healthcare and other areas, more US consumers are aware of them. However, just over 40% of those surveyed think that RFID tags are a good idea.

The survey by BIGresearch found that 35% of those surveyed in 2004 knew what RFID tags were (up from 28% in 2003). A gender gap was apparent in RFID awareness; nearly half the men surveyed knew about RFID, but only 25% of the women were similarly aware.

The majority of those surveyed expressed privacy concerns about RFID, publicized by groups that are urging consumers to boycott retailers who use RFID tags. The most vocal of these groups is Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (Caspian), which operates a website, Spychips.com Those concerned about RFID privacy and security will likely not be heartened by a report that the graduate students at Johns Hopkins have cracked the encryption used by Mobil's Speedpass RFID device for rapid payment at gas pumps.
Sources: eMarketer, RFIDbuzz

Enzyme May Prevent Sunburn, Skin Cancer

Dutch researchers believe that they can manipulate DNA through an enzyme that has been shown to guard against sunburn in mice. Because this enzyme seems to help protect skin cells against damage from ultraviolet rays, such treatment has potential to help humans resist skin cancers.

The enzyme helps DNA repair itself after exposure to excessive sunlight, which can prevent the devleopment of cancerous growths. Normally, humans and most other mammals lack this repair ability naturally.

Sources: Betterhumans.com, Beverly Tang

"Super Chip" On the Way

The Financial Times reports that IBM, Sony and Toshiba will annonce a joint effort to produce a "supercomputer on a chip" that could revolutionize high technology.

The chip, called Cell, has been under development since 2001, contains four parallel processors that increase its computing power exponentially. The Cell could potentially bring supercomputing capabilities to consumer electronics such as PCs and video games.

The first generation of devices to contain the Cell will arrive next year, and will include high-definition TVs, broadband servers and the Sony PlayStation 3.

Source: Minding the Planet