Friday, August 22, 2014

Next Technologies!

To conclude my recent spate of science and technology roundups, I'll do one a final sweep of S&T news...
Let's start with a fascinating rumination on future Infrastructure… major projects -- such as Tube Transportation networks and atmospheric water harvesters -- that might consume (and be well-worth) hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, and returning far, far more in benefits. Take a look at this article 2050 and the Future of Infrastructure by futurist Thomas Frey...though he left out half a dozen that I mention in EARTH, alone!  

An article - The Trouble with High-Speed Trains - covers the challenges facing high-velocity maglevs -- as well as Elon Musk's Hyperloop.

NEXT-TECH.JPLooking ahead: Five “next” technologies. For example: DARPA researchers have fabricated a prototype with three gyroscopes, three accelerometers and a highly accurate master clock on a chip that fits easily on the face of a penny.

Now, a new catalytic system for converting carbon dioxide (CO2) to methanol — a key commodity used to create a wide range of industrial chemicals and fuels. You still need a source of hydrogen, so energy must be put in, upstream, by splitting water… another area of developing research. Along those same lines, researchers at Brown University use copper foam to turn CO2 into useful chemicals -- including chemicals currently made from fossil fuels.

A new transparent sheet can harvest solar energy -- mounted on windows -- without blocking the view.

Researchers at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California Institute of Technology, and Pennsylvania State University have developed a 3D printing process that transitions from one metal or alloy to another in a single object.

Now here is a cool innovation… literally! A doorless refrigerator that saves energy and reduces food spoilage.

== Ah… more singularity stuff ==

An excellent background article on Programmable Matter, this piece nevertheless commits the typical flaw of ignoring the role that excellent hard science fiction has played in enhancing, exploring and drawing attention to a potentially groundbreaking field.

Hacking-matterIn this case, I highly recommend the works of my colleague Wil McCarthy, such as Hacking Matter: Levitating Chairs, Quantum Mirages and the Infinite Weightlessness of Programmable Atoms.

Google Glass hack allows brain wave control. An EEG headset can be used to measure when certain parts of the brain show a greater level of activity. Within Google Glass's "screen" - a small window that appears in the corner of the wearer's right eye - a white horizontal line is shown. As a user concentrates, the white line rises up the screen. Once it reaches the top, a picture is taken using Glass's inbuilt camera. So much for the claim that people will always be warned by: "OK Glass, take a picture" - or by seeing the user tapping and swiping on the side of the device. But seriously, you expected that to last? This is the future.

Can we create Dyson spheres?

A tech forecast of mine from 20 years ago is coming true today at MIT… a needle table that responds to the user’s motions and emulates him/her in moving objects around.  We aren’t yet at the exercise floor I portrayed in my short story, “NatuLife.” But clearly it is coming.

Smart roofs to help NYC Cops fight crime, via ShotSpotter sensors. Now keep the cops professional by watching them.

Microsoft Research introduced “Project Adam” AI machine-learning object recognition software at its 2014 Microsoft Research Faculty Summit. The goal of Project Adam is to enable software to visually recognize any object .

A California startup is developing flexible, rechargeable batteries that can be printed cheaply on commonly used industrial screen printers.

== Programming and SciFi ==

Regarding a longstanding complaint over a lack of reliable-easy access to entry-level (and universal) programming languages… from my famous “Why Can't Johnny Code?” essay… the makers of Scratch have now come up with Scratch Jr, aiming it squarely at kids in the 5-7 year old range. Interesting.

Sci-Fi-novels-science.jpgAnd finally… here are Ten Sci Fi Novels that will make you more passionate about science! Glad to be included -- with my novel, The Practice Effect.

Pessimists are fools.


Paul451 said...

SpaceX suffered a mid-air explosion of their Falcon9R test vehicle (also known as Grasshopper V2):

Alex Tolley said...

Completely OT, but this is what sousveillance is about. A Ferguson police offer demontrating his unfitness to serve the public in a speech he gave). The issue for me is that this needs a mechanism to work, not just a topical response by news media putting pressure on police departments. The lesson will be - keep your mouth shut. It probably won't be a learned lesson for many people as celebrities are showing us every day.

Alex Tolley said...

re: fast trains. The motion sickness prblem is easily fixed. Make trains more like aircraft - use small windows. Display motion stabilized video of the surroundings instead.

Hyperloop would be impractically expensive if underground as the BBC article atates. It is meant to be suspended pipes that have a small footprint.

Re: DARPA PNT. Isn't that just inertial navigation? What is old is new.

re: CO2 to methanol catalysis. I'll be impressed when they can do this more efficiently than micro organisms, at industrial scale to make a difference in the use of CO2 sources and more cheaply than natural systems.

re: 3D printing of different metals together. I had assumed this was the key technology behind the 3D printed rocket engines at Aerojet and Tesla. Clearly this is an important technique to make complex machines and machine parts. Some threads ago, there was an item about controlling crystal sizes, which really just emulated some traditional metal working techniques. This blows way past those techniques to allow creation of truly interesting structures.

Paul451 said...

From: 2050 and the Future of Infrastructure
" 'Smart roads are fast roads. Travel speed will be increased at the same time safety is improved.' "

Errr, no. We've added crumple-zones, seatbelts, airbags, ABS, and increasingly ESC, seen the corresponding drop in road deaths per driven mile, and yet speed limits have dropped over and over.

Re: Space-based solar power
Always thought that an ideal first market would be for a lunar facility, to deal with that 2-week night, in a location where the customer is willing to pay a lot more than usual.

Re: Mass energy storage
In 15-20 years, Tesla is going to have a lot of battery packs being traded/upgraded from early model electric cars, where they've lost enough range to be annoying to drivers, but are still holding, say, 50-75% of their original capacity. Before they are stripped and recycled for lithium, there may be a secondary market for home storage... If only there was a way for Musk to leverage that... Oh wait, he also owns Solar City, whose business model is you let them install free panels and they sell you cheaper power. So they'll be able to add storage options for their customers, via a simple plug'n'play battery pack, and not only store daytime solar for off-peak, but also buy cheap off-peak power and sell it back to the grid on-peak, being able to control the distributed array of battery packs installed in customer's homes to maximise profits, giving the customers yet cheaper power as a side-effect.

Regular utilities wouldn't be able to convince enough people to let them install remotely controlled battery packs in their homes, but Solar City can.

And with sufficient storage, electricity becomes a commodity rather than a service. It's a total game changer. (Also a nice back up for that little Carrington problem.)

Mark said...


I don't understand your complaint about "fast roads" at all. Of course computers can theoretically drive both faster and safer than humans. Sure, there is that "theoretically" in the sentence, it still needs to be proved, but using seatbelts as a counter example makes no sense at all.

locumranch said...

It's nice to read a post with an empiric and/or scientific basis, especially after the last one violated basic mathematical principles by its attempt to add to or multiply by an immeasurable like infinity, giving us yet another definition for an Optimist:

One who expects an integer after multiplying and/or dividing by either infinity or zero.

I also apologise, btw, for accidently giving away the plot for 'The Practice Effect' (above).


Jonathan S. said...

locum, perhaps you should actually study mathematics before saying what's "impossible". Mathematicians contemplate seven multiple infinities before breakfast.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Locum
You need to read some basic mathematics
Look up
Rational numbers
Irrational numbers
Levels of infinity
Hilbert's Hotel

It will open your eyes - its fun
Weird - but fun

Paul451 said...

"Of course computers can theoretically drive both faster and safer than humans. Sure, there is that "theoretically" "

And that was my point. Saying that driverless cars will allow faster roads ignores actual history. As we've made cars safer, authorities also often cut speed limits (and enforced those limits more pedantically.) There is no way in hell authorities will raise the speed limit for driverless cars.

Google is already getting grief because they programmed their driverless vehicles to travel up to 10kmh over the local limits in order to keep up with traffic flow as they believed that if traffic was flowing 5-10kmh above the limit it would be more dangerous to stick to the limit and become a moving obstacle. Authorities disagreed... loudly. Likewise, Google's vehicles weren't to have manual controls, just a go-button. Californian authorities insisted on having a full manual control, even though there's been plenty of research suggesting that "taking over" from an autopilot during an emergency actually increases the risk. For cars, a big red Stop button which cuts the engine power, and signals the autopilot to stop as safely as it can, is better.

I'm willing to bet that in many jurisdictions, the first generation of autonomous cars will be required to travel below the speed limit, and with greater than normal inter-vehicle gaps. And those restrictions will remain even if they later ban drivers from freeways and other high speed roads.

[Two local examples. A local rural road had a 110kmh limit for at least the 30 years that I've been using it, in spite of broken edges and no outer lane markings. Council widened the lanes, added proper outside lane markings (which made the road much safer at night), and, having improved the safety of the road dramatically, lowered the speed limit. Just this last week, a truck lost its brakes on a down-hill stretch of a different freeway, crashing and killing someone in a car. The speed limit was 110kmh, the truck was going just 70kmh when it lost its brakes (and 150kmh when it crashed), and instead of installing another arrestor-bed (sand/gravel pit) at the bottom of the hill (as its own advisers had recommended several years ago), they are reducing the limit for all vehicles on that major freeway to 60kmh. In the last decade, I can't recall ever seeing a speed limit raised because, say, a problem road was made safer, no matter how many people complain.]

[3-6mph (5-10kmh), 68mph (110kmh), 93mph (150kmh), 43mph (70kmh), 37mph (60kmh) for US readers.]

tl;dr - If robo-cars are allowed to travel faster than regular cars, I will eat my hat.

Tony Fisk said...

Just to add to the fun, there are also an infinite number of transcendental numbers (inexpressible as a logarithm) between every irrational number.

As far as I am aware, we only know two of them: 'π' and 'e'

Tony Fisk said...

(... lies in wait for someone to pounce triumphantly with more.)

David Brin said...

Guys I already tried. He IS getting better! And occasionally is cogently worth the effort.

Tony Fisk said...

Quick comment on driverless car discussion: the tendency has been for drivers to drive more recklessly as more safety features are added. This isn't to say drivers are turning into hoons, but I doubt the same psychology will apply to AI drivers.

What driverless cars *will* be useful for is to move share vehicles between pick-up and drop-off points. Someone a while back estimated that such a system is extremely fuel efficient (even beating bicycles.. there was a bit of a discussion about that one)

locumranch said...

What Duncan and Jonathon describe as the 'mathematics' of infinity is not mathematics but an unsupported and unsupportable non-empiric (a priori) philosophy.

Cantor's 'Levels of Infinity' and Hibert's (Infinity) Hotel paradox both rely on the exploitation of negative and imaginary numbers to suggest that something called a 'Countable Infinity Set' can exist even though such an 'infinite set' would be 'uncountable' in the realm of real numbers.

In effect, Cantor's transfinite argument is a circular one which 'begs the question' by (first) positing that infinity is 'countable' and (then)concludes that the mere act of plus-one counting confirms a multiplicity of infinities.

Unfortunately for Cantor, real numbers are much less malleable than imaginary ones, and it is this real lack of numerical malleability which (first) denies us the assumption of multiplicity and (then)forces us to conclude that an infinity based on real numbers is by definition 'uncountable'.

I, too, can 'conceive' of seven multiple infinities & many other impossibilities before breakfast but, unlike some of you, I know that 'conceiving' of something does not necessarily make it true.


Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Locum

Better read all that again,
You obviously have not got it the first time

Incidentally we are talking "real" numbers here - even the irrational and transendental

Paul451 said...


LarryHart said...


Of course computers can theoretically drive both faster and safer than humans. Sure, there is that "theoretically" in the sentence, it still needs to be proved...

A favorite line of mine, attributed to Yogi Berra:

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is."

LarryHart said...

Tony Fisk:

Just to add to the fun, there are also an infinite number of transcendental numbers (inexpressible as a logarithm) between every irrational number.

As far as I am aware, we only know two of them: 'π' and 'e'

This is embarrassing to admit, because 35 years ago, I was a math major, but the skills have rusted.

Wasn't the very definition of 'e' tied in with a concept of 'natural logarithms'?

LarryHart said...


and it is this real lack of numerical malleability which (first) denies us the assumption of multiplicity and (then)forces us to conclude that an infinity based on real numbers is by definition 'uncountable'.

"Countable" has a more specific meaning in the mathematical world.

Of course, you can't count to infinity, so you can't count all of the integers. But you can count all of the integers between zero and any particular integer.

The same statement does not hold for real numbers.

That's why the infinite set of integers is considered "countable" and the infinite set of real numbers is not.

(I do remember that much from my college days)

locumranch said...

Listen to Larry.

An infinite set of integers can only be considered 'countable' if it is bounded by zero & any particular integer, meaning that a 'countable infinity set' assumes finite (as in non-infinite) limits which, if accepted, beg the existence of transfinite numbers, much in the same manner that Zeno argues his Paradoxes of Motion.

In this way, Cantor betrays himself as a philosopher rather than a mathematician, and further study reveals that many of his mathematical proofs are (in actuality) recursive metaphysical argument masquerading as mathematics:


LarryHart said...


I think you have a lot of trouble with colorful language. The entire disagreement here seems to be over the usage of "countable". You're using "countable" to mean "finite", and mathematicians have a different meaning for the term. You sound like you want to take issue with the use of that particular word to mean something other than "finite".

But I don't think anyone else cares about that as an issue. The important thing is that mathematicians refer to the infinite set of integers as being different in kind from the infinite set of real numbers, and "countable" is a reasonably-understood analogy to make it a perfectly Cromulent word to use [/Simpsons].

LarryHart said...

Off on a mathematical tangent here, but talk of pi and "e" got me remembering the Golden Ratio, which I seem to recall (with a bit of irony) is itself irrational. Approximately 0.618, and its reciprical is approximately 1.618, which is not coincidence, but rather the whole point.

What is coincidence, though, is that this is also the approximate ratio of a kilometer to a mile.

Does anyone else feel like that should be significant somehow?

Jumper said...

locum seems to be proposing an uber-Feynmanian mathematical philosophy such that, no, "countables" are not actually in the set of countables. While I tend to applaud uber-Fenmanian thought, as shortcuts to the bottom line are interesting and bear fruit in the form of time saved, I understand the nomenclature is not tied to the folk etymology of the words.

David Brin said...

One does not have to count all integers to prove they constitute and infinity. "Countable" means there is no bonded length within which a finite number of integers cannot be counted.

But the Hilbert-Cantor magic does not have to involve some infinity that is "out there." It can be proved there is an infinite number (uncountable) of rational numbers between each and every integer. That fact proves that there are "levels" of infinity. It is not philosophy, it is math.

And there's an infinite amount of irrationals between each rational. Sorry, that's math again.



Jumper said...

Some contingent of my friends here will enjoy the essays here:

Warning: possible angertainment

Jumper said...

Matt G said...

So would The Uplift War count as a prediction for the Google Glass brainwave interface?