Tuesday Edition: CES Tech, Robots, and Power
There’s no shortage of articles talking about the abundance of technology throughout most of the year, but during the first couple weeks of January many of the big players come out for the Consumer Electronics Show to debut their newest and coolest gadgets right here in Las Vegas. While consumer tech isn’t generally what I’m interested in, in some cases something really interesting comes along. I’ll share a few of those stories here, then share a few interesting articles about robots and artificial intelligence I came across and finally I’ll share an article discussing one way we could have vast amounts of sustainable power without excessive pollution or nuclear waste.
First, the Washington Post reports about the top trends to watch from CES. More powerful smart phones, lighter and more powerful notebooks, and green energy (especially coupled with automotive technology) are the big stories identified. In general, we’re seeing what we should expect; Moore’s Law playing out in ever more powerful devices with a corresponding increase in data production. Google is working to augment TV, 4G phone service continues to roll out (and, hopefully, improve) and cars are continuing to transition off of gasoline-fueled engines.
Samsung unveiled a new TV at CES with an interesting feature: upgradeability. As technology advances more rapidly, products become obsolete (or at least outdated) more quickly. It’s virtually impossible to buy a phone at the beginning of the year and have it still be cutting edge at the end of the year and computers are outpaced almost quarterly. TV’s are no exception, and Samsung seems to be targeting those consumers who want to have the newest functionality without having to buy a new TV every year or two. But I wonder whether this is more of a gimmick than a practical help. TV’s tend to upgrade in two main ways: they get bigger for the same price, and they get new functionality. The move from standard definition to high definition was the biggest jump, as the move from 2-D to 3-D hasn’t really caught on. There have been lighting upgrades, from bulbs to LEDs and plasma to OLEDs. Most of these upgrades couldn’t be accomplished with an expansion slot; nothing but a new TV would make the TV bigger, or the lighting source different. Arguably an upgrade slot could convert a TV from 2-D to 3-D (a new video card can do that in a computer) and could add new functionality like Netflix / GoogleTV / Gamefly capability. The slot probably isn’t big enough to give a TV an integrated Bluray player, or whatever comes next. Because so many things change so rapidly, the expansion slot probably won’t be able to keep up with multiple developments at the same time, and even if it could it’s unlikely to change the underlying hardware, leading to a TV that uses the new features about as well as a 5 year old computer would play Crysis: That is, poorly. But … it is an interesting idea, and I look forward to seeing how it plays out.
Other consumer tech articles for products not being debuted at CES have circulated around the net. The new Windows 8 smartphones and computers, with the help of a company named Tobii, can be controlled just by looking at what you want to select. Assuming this sort of technology catches on (and, if only to improve access for disabled people, I imagine it will) we can expect more natural input and selection from our devices soon. I imagine it wouldn’t be too hard to introduce this into a car with a Heads Up Display (HUD) to allow for truly hands-free control over the onboard electronics. Durdu Guney, out of Michigan Technological University, has created an extremely hi-resolution camera that can be attached to a cell phone. While the camera won’t be used to shoot photos of friends, it could be used to take a look at cells in your blood or check for infection through an on-board app. Finally, scientists in Tokyo have created touchable holograms, adding a new dimension of reality to projected displays. In addition to the uses they discuss in the video, it’s difficult to imagine this not leading directly to the most awesome video games yet, let alone holodeck-style simulations.
All these new devices are transmuting, receiving, and using vast amounts of data. Indeed, CNN Money projects that within 10 years, entire new types of jobs will focus just on sorting through all that data. While that would be nice if it were true, I have to imagine A.I. will be taking over most of that responsibility, as even the NSA is likely going to have trouble sorting through the constant stream of data coming from upwards of 50 Billion digital devices. According to the New York Times, if these trends continue it is increasingly likely that much of this data will come from a relatively small number of users.
Exciting things are afoot in the world of robotics, too. Researchers in Munich have succeeded in creating a more human-like face on a robot. If spontaneous facial movement can be coupled with excellent A.I., robots might start to seem to have more emotions and become less distinguishable from humans. This will likely increase the attachment people feel toward their robots, and might make them more pleasant to deal with in person. Other robots, however, are already ready for prime time. In South Korea, for instance, robots are about to be used to help secure prisons during the evening. South Korea has been very aggressive in integrating robots into society, pledging a robot in every kindergarten classroom by next year. They’ve also been aggressive about militarizing robots; integrating them into the front lines.
Finally, in the biggest story of the day, the Mother Nature Network reports that Japanese scientists have created a new wind turbine design that promises to triple power output from wind turbines. Although short on details, if the financial data in the article is right, with a decent grid the US could satisfy almost all of its power needs much more cheaply than by using other means of energy production. No doubt it would be an expensive national project, but we haven’t had a good reconstruction for a long time, and lots of people need work. This might be a way to solve two problems at the same time.