Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wielding The Mindscape

To accomplish any task or control any piece of technology, our brains send electrical signals to various parts of our body that control how we move and accomplish the task, all machines require some kind of input from a person to function, to tell them when to do what, this input starts in the brain and travels down to your fingers, telling them what to do.

But what if you could intercept those signals with technology as they traveled through your nervous system?  Signaling directly to a machine would be a far more efficient control mechanism than using a mouse or typing.  This idea has been around for a while and has experienced many breakthroughs, but recently a video went viral on youtube that showed how sophisticated this technology has become.  It's short and you can watch it here:

Emotive Insight is a small wearable scanner that fits on your head and reads your brain waves, this information can then be displayed or used as input for a variety of purposes.  One of the earliest versions of this concept is called Mindflex, its basically a similar headset that lets you control a ball that levitates over a platform, the ball responds to changes in your brain activity so you can consciously manipulate how the ball moves.

Emotive Insight is similar but designed to be used with a variety of technologies, many interesting concepts are shown in the video, including controlling an RC car and helicopter, non invasive brain scans, driving a (real) car, bypassing paralyzing injuries, and controlling video games with your mind.  This just scratches the surface for the potential application of this technology, one can imagine next generation computer interfaces that are controlled by the mind, no keyboard or mouse required, or even lights, doors, refrigerator, thermostat, all wired up to respond to your mental commands.

Maybe the coolest part of the video besides the RC helicopter was the person driving the car, it's interesting to imagine people controlling vehicles with their minds, what if you used this to control a standard military UAV such as the reaper?  It might be hard to imagine but one could theoretically control whole squads of reaper drones using this technology, or even squads made of up of various robots serving different utility functions.

There is also the potential for telepathic type abilities, using the brain scanner for sending and receiving messages to and from another person.  This incredible possibility involves some complex technological feats, but with headsets like the Insight, we are getting closer.  One of the biggest difficulties will likely be encoding the information in a way that's easy for your brain to create or receive, you might have to learn a sort of neural morris code that could be transmitted over brain waves, it isn't as simple as thinking a word and having it appear on the screen, this type of thing is probably possible but it is further off than simple mind to computer interface.

So this technology is coming very soon and is very hacker friendly, in the video they even show how it hooks into a simple micro controller to interface with any desired machine.  The things people will use this for are probably unimaginable at this moment, and it is exciting to see something so sleek and functional coming out of kickstarter.  It is probable that this technology will become pervasive in society along with things like Google Glass and Occulus Rift, they are the heralds of wearable tech and the revolution is just on the horizon.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Googled Mind

Living in the age of information can be both incredible and overwhelming, with so much out there how can anyone be sure what is important to know or do?  With the world changing more and more, can we even be sure the conventional model of knowledge is still applicable to the situation?

In most math classes, children are first taught how to add without a calculator, then later introduced to the calculator and shown how to bypass the difficult arithmetic steps.  One might say you transition from knowing how to do math in your head to knowing how to make a machine do math, but look at the benefits, memorizing a small set of commands lets you carry out exceedingly complex operations on the calculator.

In the same way, information technology like Google is coming to replace memorizing facts from books, with smartphones and wireless internet you can search for almost any fact instantly, so is it a waste of brain power to memorize facts?  Well of course not, because the more facts that you know, the more you can train your intuition and see connections between pieces of information.  The beauty of Google search is to add almost any piece of information to your mind at will, this allows people to conduct investigations in reality the same way you can imagine investigating maths with a calculator.

One can imagine the focus of future education shifting from memorizing facts to learning how to find facts, in the same way as math shifted from learning arithmetic to learning how to operate a calculator.  Of course, the computer makes all sorts of things obsolete, why learn to spell when you can spell check your documents, why use a phone when you can instant message, why buy a cd when you can get a digital version from Itunes?  All these abilities come from the fact that we can store information in electromagnetic bits, we can build music, pictures, video, books and many other useful things out of these bits and then store them on tiny hard drives.

By connecting computers together it is possible to send and receive information to and from almost any computer in the world, now that computers are inside phones, most people are connected anywhere and anytime, this capability has become part of humanity and enables us to know anything the internet knows, provided we know how to search for it.  Ultimately learning how to seek out and process information will be the key to staying relevant in an ever changing world, just as education once moved from oral tradition to written record, soon humanity will shift from written and memorized learning to digital and functional learning;  the emphasis will be on using computers to do things rather than learning how to do things for yourself.

This might seem frighting at first but just remember how great spell check is, then remember the list of things that you don't know how to do that you depend on for things that you want, are you prepared to stop doing things like using a computer or even using metal objects just because you don't know how to make them yourself?  In the same way, it might seem weird that no one needs to know how to spell anymore, just like no one needs to do arithmetic if they don't want to, but really these things are adaptations that ultimately give us the capability to do greater and more challenging things still.

It is also worth considering the fact that using Google, a calculator or even spell check requires a levels of skill, there is even the idea of "Google Fu", a contest of skill between seekers of information. The view that searching the internet for knowledge is a skill with important applications for everyday life is becoming more and more widespread as people begin to experiment with technology for themselves.  These tools allow for a kind of augmentation, an upgrade of our human abilities, the opportunity to connect with a global mind, to speak with individuals from all over the world and to hear stories from every different walk of life.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

That Robot Took My Job

In the early days of machines, gears leavers and other simple contraptions allowed humans to do work beyond their ordinary physical capability.  In the industrial age, machinery became common place and people imagined a day when machines would replace all human workers, unfortunately this was far off because machines require a level of operation and maintenance, but in the computer age self managing machines may be on the horizon.

Using complex networks systems to manage robotic workers is the ultimate goal of automation, to remove the human from the process of production by creating powerful enough artificial intelligence to manage the self maintenance process.  One might wonder what purpose humans will have at all in the factories of the near future, though humans will probably maintain oversight of the automated processes, most humans are sure to abandon such tasks and take up more fulfilling pursuits.

What is the point of technology if not to free humanity from drudgery?  For some people in society technology and economics has become a tool of control, these people benefit off the work of the masses and give very little back to society, creating a massive gap between rich and poor.  Automation has the potential to create a situation where no workers are needed, production, distribution, maintenance, all these things are handled by robots with no need to economically coerce vulnerable people into hard labor.

As long as  our society has at its core a system that requires each person to labor in order to survive, we will never overcome the concept of labor itself.  The difference between economically coerced labor and freely undertaken labor is important, humans have a natural instinct to be creative and to undertake beneficial tasks, there is a myth that if people where left to themselves they would be lazy and do nothing, some people even say that people would be depressed unless forced to work.  This is an absurd notion, based on no observation outside the paradigm of our economic system, in other words we hardly can imagine what an uncoerced human would be like.

All the evidence points to the idea that people when left to their own devices are extremely productive, maybe not in the way multi-national corporations would like, but they create works of art, music, stories, plant gardens, build structures, invent machines, ect.  We live in a culture that has an unfortunate disdain for art, especially art that isn't worth money, artists tend to be thrown under the bus and never rewarded or recognized for their work.

Another part of the problem is that people are inhibited from doing art because of they are tasked with laboring to survive, and so what are ultimately useless service jobs are coveted as means of survival.  If these jobs could be done by robotic workers, it would allow all of the people currently trapped in hard labor to escape, but in order for society advance to this degree, the government must supply all people with a universal basic income.

Universal basic income is a simple idea, the government cuts each individual a check for twenty thousand dollars or so each year, no welfare, no housing or food aid, just money directly to each person without any oversight.  The money itself could come from the huge amounts being wasted on bureaucracy within the welfare system, we spend lots of money to hire people who's job it is to dole out what little is left to those in need, it would be much simpler to just give out money to each person instead.

Whats more, the United States and other European countries should institute such a policy world wide for each person.  The whole thing can come from America's defense budget, because what better defense is there for America than feeding the world?  With a global universal basic income humanity can be freed from forced labor, but it is important that the trend of automation continue, because without automation we could still face many of the economic stumbling blocks that caused this situation in the first place.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Quest For Immortality: The Technological Fountain Of Youth

If there is one thing that humanity has always sought it is immortality, once through religion and mysticism alone, but now by technological means as well.  One of the most prominent advocates for technological immortality is Ray Kurzwiel, futurist, entrepreneur and currently Google's engineering director.

Ray Kurzwiel is a well known futurist and forward thinker who has stated many times that he plans on living forever.  He reiterated that statement yesterday in a talk given at a Wall Street Journal network conference in San Diego, making it clear that he fully believes immortality will be possible within his life time.
This may seem optimistic, but his ideas are based on the trend of exponential growth, here is a video of Ray explaining the growth of information technology:

Due to the pervasive nature of communications today we are experiencing exponential growth in a wide variety of technology, Kurzweil believes this will lead to breakthroughs in nano technology and biotechnology that will allow for humans to be effectively immortal.  The possibility of these technologies have been firmly established, the only thing in question is the timeline, one must wonder if the trend of exponential growth will continue or end with the maximum miniaturization of computer microprocessors.

Based on the ever increasing connectivity, it is possible to imagine that information technology allows all types of technology to grow at an exponential rate because of the increased innovation from decentralized creativity.  Based on the massive amounts of data collected by Ray Kurzwiel and the visible trends in DIY and crowd funding/sourcing, it is not hard to imagine that the exponential function will continue onward.

One of the other theoretical immortality trends that Ray predicts is the download of human consciousness into computers, this effectively allows you to transfer your consciousness from one body to another making your mind effectively immortal.  As controversial of an idea as this is it has relatively high amounts of support in the technology world and is considered the holy grail of cybernetics, this connects into the idea of an artificial intelligence singularity, which Ray Kurzweil also predicts in the 2040's, this is the notion of artificially intelligent computers designing more sophisticated version of themselves with exponential progress twords super intelligence.  Kurzweil and others in the field believe that this super intelligent computer will not be something outside of ourselves as is depicted in most sci fi, but something that we integrate with and become.

This is a complex and confusing vision of the future, it leaves us with uncertainty about ideas of the nature of self and the relativity of human morality, this is precisely why this technology and its implications must be discussed before they manifest.  Without proper preparation, the coming of artificial intelligence could spell extinction for humanity, but with adequate forethought, it could herald a golden age of peace and bounty.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

UAV: Delivery Boy Or Angel Of Death?

Many of you may remember a few months back when Amazon announced it's upcoming "Prime Air" delivery system, using a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to fly packages to the customer's front door.  This announcement created a great deal of controversy, which ultimately boils down to issues people have with drones in general.  Learn more about Prime Air here:

Naturally, this reaction is due to the ever increasing use of drones by the military to carry out extrajudicial assassination across the world, people are afraid that such technology will only further remove human beings from the consequences of their actions during war.  Yesterday independent journalists Glen Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill released a new set of Snowden's documents revealing that the targeted assassination program uses communications metadata to decide on targets for a strike.  Learn more about it here:

So in a way, many peoples worst fear about drones has already come true, though in a far removed location.  Drones that fly the skies and target you based on your electronic footprint and the GPS location of your phone;  People are worried about the mass popularity of drones being created through programs like Prime Air because they are allowing so called "killer drones" to be swept under the carpet.

Is it to late for drones?  Can they be turned from the dark side?  It is certainly true that the nature of any robot reflects the nature of its creator, and so we can imagine in the home brew robot movement that many trends of robotic activity will emerge, some good and some bad.  Its hard in some ways not to imbue robots with their own will, but it must be remembered that robots are a tool, like a shovel or a saw, the user determines what sort of function the tool carries out.

We humans have many problems, but as long as we use only a hammer, these problems will all look like nails, but humanities true gift is the imagination to create new tools for solving problems.  The robots and UAV's are new tools, but we must recognize them for such and stop treating them as hammers, or their true potential will be wasted and the problems of earth will spiral out of control.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Prospectors On The Final Frontier

Being able to go into space is an incredible achievement, but one must ask what the goal of going to space is?  Besides ambiguous science and maintaining the fleet of satellites in earths orbit, whats really the point?  According to NASA and others involved in space technology, one of the primary goals is to mine for resources in outer space or on other planets.Yesterday NASA announced it was looking for private companies to help search for resources like helium and rare earth metals, because of NASA's limited budget they are working with companies such as Planetary Resources in order to speed up the complex process.  You can read more about this here:

So is this the beginning of a new space rush?  If the technology cooperates it is quite possible we will start mining huge amounts of raw material from asteroids and the moon.  The abundance of raw materials in space is thought to be incredible, but what might be more revolutionary is the possibilities that mining in space opens up for every day people and for the earth itself.

Colonizing another planet like Mars would give people the opportunity for a new life, as well as taking stress off the system here on earth.  This would create the possibility for radical change on earth in the direction of environmental protection and ecological stability, especially when combined with renewable technology like solar power and electric cars.  Colonizing Mars could allow a great many people trapped in cities to leave the planet, this could do a great deal to reduce humanities impact on the environment.

Colonizing another planet involves a process known as "Terraforming", this is literally transforming the world from one that is inhospitable to one that is rich in atmosphere and life.  At this moment in time, we don't have the technology to approach this massive task, but we can imagine creating artificial closed environments such as domes or even underground cities.  Large complexes of green houses could create food and maintain atmospheric stability inside the settlement, self sufficiency would be the key to this kind of operation.

Entrepreneur Elon Musk has made it his goal to get to Mars, he first imagined sending a greenhouse to Mars as a public relations stunt to attract interest for building a Mars colony.  He has since gone on to found the private rocket company Space X and develop cheaper and more efficient rocket technology to help speed up his quest for the red planet.

Ultimately it is hard to imagine what kind of benefits and dangers space colonization could have, both for the colonizers and those who stay behind on earth.  The best scenario is that humanity uses this as an opportunity to clean up our act and let the earth be maintained as a place of growth and beauty.  It is a reasonable goal to imagine moving most industry into the vastness of space, there are countless uninhabited moons and worlds to mine and settle, we should leave what is left of our own planet and concentrate on the resources that wait in the sky.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Camping In The Age Of Energy

Futurism spends a lot of time imagining things like rocket ships or artificial intelligence, but what about  camping?  Not everyone likes camping, but if you do, you might wonder what is the future of camping?  How will technological development in the years to come impact peoples experiences and capabilities while living in the wild?

Assuming that the environment can be protected and remains in something like the current state, the main differences of future camping will be in the gear you can get, advancements in material science are even now crafting the next generation of outdoor gear with incredible functionality.  At the base of it all is the possibility of light weight, efficient solar panels providing energy at almost any location, combined with advanced battery technology, this could herald a breakthrough in personal autonomy.

Besides increased ability to gather your own energy, new technology will provide super efficient lights and computers, meaning you will have more power and need less of it.  Advances in LED technology have yielded incredibly functional lights that produce huge volumes of brightness for tiny amounts of electricity, these diodes are so bright they can be used as a streetlight.  Similar advances in computer technology have led to miniaturization on an incredible scale, we are familiar with some of its potential in smartphones, as these devices become more power efficient it will become easier and easier to stay connected wherever you go.

Google wants to create a world wireless network using balloons high up in the atmosphere to transmit signals allowing anyone anywhere in the world to have free wireless access, basically with a smartphone you could be online anywhere.  Read about Google's plan here:

But with all these flashy lights and electric gadgets, what kind of tent will be available in the future?  This comes to the advanced materials, such as carbon nano tubes or graphene that make possible light weight and sophisticated technology.  These same kinds of innovations can be used to create clothing and tents that are intensely resistant to the environment and the elements, it is likely that the tent of the future will be compact, light wight, and very insulated

Using nano materials to build light wight super strong materials is becoming a big industry with the rise of substances like graphene.  Graphene is a hexagonal carbon lattice a single atom thick, despite being very thin it is incredibly, almost unimaginably strong, some have theorized that you could make a very strong tent from this material or something like it, because of the strength of graphene, you could theoretically inflate it with air to give it structure.  Having the nano material tent inflate would give the added advantage of needing no tent poles or other structural materials that add weight to your bag, only a small solar powered air pump is required.

So now that you have your tent, your computer, your lights, what about provisions?  So you walked all the way out here with just your bag, where are you going to get food and water?  This is where a very futuristic technology comes in, something that is predicted by experts in the field of nano technology to be on the horizon in twenty years, this is the nano printer, a molecular assembling machine that can build any substance or object from basic constituent elements.  This device would operate similarly to the replicator on startrek but it would take an input of dirt and air, with a solar panel to power the system.  It could theoretically be small enough to fit on a desk and would interface with a computer where you could control what kind of stuff the machine was creating.

In theory you could create almost any item, food, water, tools, medicine, ect, all you need is the computer file that tells the printer what to create, these files could be downloaded from the internet and printed on demand.  Armed with this technology, one can imagine camping in the future has some interesting possibilities.

Obviously the printer is a little further down the road, but most of these technologies exist now, or are quickly reaching their apex, solar power and battery technology are experiencing great advances, electric car technology as well will allow a greater ability of movement and transportation of materials to distant locations.  Cell phones and computers are power efficient enough to have some use in the wild and Google's balloon plan is in the works, whats more, many powerful material advanced have been made over the years with graphene and carbon nano tubes, with these trends on the rise, the future of camping is coming soon.