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Kickstarter is a good place to find new technology (and rubbish, but that’s a different matter).  This one was actually reported on by the BBC (in passing at the end of this article), which is how I found it.

Imagine powering your phone just from walking around.  The developers reckon they can charge an iPhone from the amount of walking the average person does in a day.  In today’s sedentary world, that’s quite impressive!

I want one.  Or two, rather, one for each shoe.

Not only does it reduce our dependence on traditional means of generating electricity, but it also encourages people to get more exercise.  That’s win-win as far as I can see.  It’s no wonder they’ve already met their funding target.

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The Rapyuta Database is a project by European scientists – part of the Robo Earth project which aims to help standardise the way robots look at the world.  It can describe objects that they have met in terms they will understand, which means they won’t have to figure out how to deal with items they’ve never seen before.

…the goal of RoboEarth is to allow robotic systems to benefit from the experience of other robots, paving the way for rapid advances in machine cognition and behaviour, and ultimately, for more subtle and sophisticated human-machine interaction.

It can also help do complicated computations, helping those which need to do lots of number-crunching just to get around, like self-driving cars.

For those who understand what it means:

Robots can start their own computational environment, launch any computational node uploaded by the developer, and communicate with the launched nodes using the WebSockets protocol.

It is, the developers believe, a necessary step in getting robots out of the assembly line and into closer interaction with humans.  Otherwise each robot needs to do everything itself, and the cost of development and processing power would be enormous.

Which all sounds fine and dandy.  It’s hard to know what others think of the idea, since their blog doesn’t have much in the way of comments on it.

But to me it sounds eerily like the start of something bigger.

Something dangerous.

Something like a cross between this and this.

What will the office of the future look like?

Paperless or Wallpapered?

The phrase “office of the future” dates back to the 1940s.  It used to refer to the paperless office (and anyone who works in an office these days can tell you how that one turned out).  This article from 1975 makes for an interesting read, balancing optimism with realism in such a way as to actually get pretty close to the truth.

Pake says that in 1995 his office will be completely different; there will be a TV-display terminal with keyboard sitting on his desk. “I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button,” he says. “I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world.”

 The question that amused me was this, though: “Can desk-top terminals be made “friendly” enough so that executives will use them?”.  A good question indeed!

Missing in Action or confusingly omnipresent?

Some people are suggesting that it won’t exist at all – everyone will work from home.  I don’t think that will catch on.  Sure, a lot of people will be more mobile, but humans are social creatures.  If we all stayed at home and only interacted through the internet I for one would go stir crazy!

And some people’s offices travel with them wherever they go – a bunch of fully staffed offices are already scattered around the world, ready to be hired by the hour, day, week, or year.

Another vision

So if we go to the office, will it be the same as it is now?  Better technology is pretty much a given.  Personalised lighting and temperature control, computers which actually work at a decent speed (unlike the ones in my office, which suck).  Some people, however, are suggesting that offices will be slightly… greener.

Roots instead of foundations, walls covered in pipes of algae which absorb any nasties from the building (and then get recycled into bio fuel), canteens serving food grown on the walls and roof.  Apparently the possibilities are endless.  Will the office of the future be not just carbon-neutral, but actually generate power?

Have you ever watched a TV show where the main character decides to murder their ex-husband’s daughter’s dog, and been utterly confused as to the reason why?  How about someone who walks up to a complete stranger in the street and kisses them?  How would you like the ability to ask your TV for a summary of the reasons behind it?

That possibility is coming closer.  With all the episodes that are now stored in digital TV recorders (a whole week’s TV plus every episode of the six different series’ you are watching, for example), all we need is the software to analyse them, and it’s here.

StoryVisualizer, created by scientists in France, can analyse the faces, surroundings, and key phrases spoken by the characters in a show and stitch together a summary of the parts of the plot that contain them.  At the moment it’s PC based, but it won’t be long before it’s integrated into TVs – perhaps in combination with a Siri-like command structure (“TV, show me what Jimmy Olsen did which led to him jumping out of the plane without a parachute.”).

I can see it being useful if you’ve had a long break from a show and lost the plot, something which given the lunacy that surrounds TV scheduling these days seems to be ever more common.

 

Japanese phone users will soon have the option to have their conversations translated as they talk, using the new app from NTT Docomo, one of the country’s mobile networks.  The app provides a translation, both written and spoken, after a short pause.

They aren’t the only ones working on this, either.  France’s Alcatel-Lucent is developing a version for landlines (more tricky because of the lower sound quality), and their ultimate aim is to be able to do conference calls with many people, in many different languages, with each person hearing the conversation in their own language.  They even have a project to make a synthetic voice that sounds like your real one.

This is beginning to sound like an episode of Star Trek.  All we need now is for it to be able to analyse new languages and learn them on the fly, and we’ll be set to go!

Some people are not holding their breath, though.

“These kind of real-time technologies have been ‘two to three years away’ for the past decade,” said Benedict Evans, technology expert at Enders Analysis.

 It does bring to mind another question, though.  Language learning, so we are told, helps to stave off the effect of Alzheimer’s.  If we invent technologies which eliminate the need to learn new languages, are we contributing to the declining health of the human species?

In addition to that, there is the consideration that speaking to someone in their own language can be seen as a sign of respect.  One which would be lost if everyone had access to Universal Translators.

What do you think?  Is the ability to communicate with anyone more important than the effort involved to do so?

How hard is it to mine an asteroid?

Planetary Resources is a company that intends to try, and this article at the New Scientist asks some questions about how they might go about it and what problems they might encounter.

Problem 1: The technology for most of this hasn’t been invented yet.

Solution: Lots of money, lots of time, and lots of people working on the problem.

Problem 2: Bringing the asteroid closer to Earth to make it more economically feasible.  Problems with this include overcoming the Sun’s gravitational control, getting the parking trajectory right (assuming they’re going to park it around the Earth), not hitting anything with it.

Solution: Er… lots of money, lots of time, and lots of people working on the problem?

Problem 3: Not floating off into space when you try to dig your shovel into the asteroid.  A problem due to very low gravity and lots of spinning!

Solution: Bolt everything down.  Including the people.  And find a way to mine an entire asteroid from one location.  This sounds like it’s going to involve, you guessed it, lots of money, time, and people working on the problem.

It’s going to take some time to be in a position where we can actively mine asteroids, I think.  It’s also going to involve an awful lot of very intelligent people.  Far from the “space grunt” image that many science fiction novels portray for asteroid miners.

The New Scientist’s Feedback page gives a slightly humourous look at the science world.  This is what they have to say about digital TV:

The UK’s last analogue TV transmitter, in Northern Ireland, is to be turned off on 24 October, rendering a whole range of metaphors outmoded. Tim points to the opening sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the colour of a television, tuned to a dead channel.” Once a cloudy grey, that will now be deep blue.

It made me wonder, what other metaphors are there which won’t make sense in the future?

My husband’s favourite example is from Homer, who refers to the sea as “wine-dark” and the sky “bronze”.  This, it is theorised, has something to do with ancient Greeks having a slightly different colour perception, rather than differences in technology, but the principle is the same.  Once a common perception, it now makes no sense.

Can you think of any metaphors or other phrases which won’t make sense once technology (or human evolution) progresses further?

When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation asked for new toilet designs, I wonder if they suspected what they would get?  28 designs were shown at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle, including such delights as using urine to flush, turning excrement into charcoal, and using microwaves to turn poo into electricity.

The winner, though, was designed by a team from the California Institute of Technology.  It is solar powered, and produces hydrogen and electricity.  The toilet:

filters liquid waste through a “sun-powered electrochemical reactor” that oxidizes the chlorine in the urine and kills microorganisms, allowing the liquid to be recycled back into the toilet

I can’t imagine any story in which the design of toilets would play a major role, but it may be worth bearing in mind that in the future, even the things we think of as unchanging may not be recognisable.

Sainsbury’s have laid over 69,500 solar panels on 169 stores – making them the biggest solar array in Europe.  The CEO, Justin King, said that supermarkets have roof space equivalent to entire football pitches, and it’s time it was put to good use.

I agree.

I would go further.  The country has thousands of miles of roads and motorways – when are we going to get solar panels which are durable enough to cope with traffic pounding over them?  We have hundreds of bridges, we could hang solar panels off the sides of them.  We have the space between train tracks, which doesn’t need to support weight.  And then there are the office buildings, car roofs, and so on.

What other under-utilised spaces can you think of that would be useful as power generators?  Bonus points if the space is currently ugly enough that it would be improved by adding solar panels!

There’s a film, called The Singularity is Near, which is the subject of this article at the New Scientist.  The film itself has to be paid for, but here’s a trailer:

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Frankly, the description given in the NS article gives you a better idea what it’s about.  You should go read that if you’re confused.  It also points out a few holes in the film.  But anyway, I had a point.  I can’t remember what it was…

Ah, yes.  The last line in the trailer is this:

People think that because its been in a movie it can’t happen.

How true do you think that is?  There are certainly plenty of counter-examples.  Moon landings, underwater cameras, jet packs, even adamantium is getting closer to actually existing.

On the other hand, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the White House blown up, and I’m pretty certain that the Secret Service are quite good at preventing that in real life, so I can see why people would stop believing in films.

Opinions please!

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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