Today on boydfuturist: Advances in computing (and one genetic bombshell.)
I’ll begin with some technical advances in computing during the last week or so. First, Kurzweilai.net links to an article reporting that computer component maker NEC has demonstrated 1.15Tb/s optical transmission speeds over 10,000km (or about 6,200mi). Although it’s probably too soon to hope for internet upgrades for consumers (and might be for the foreseeable future, given the United States’ abysmal internet infrastructure) I can at least dream of upgrading my 300kb/s eventually. This sort of hi-speed internet capability will be vital for the increasing mounds of data that are being sent and received thanks to mobile phones, embedded movies, video conferencing, video gaming, and other hi-bandwidth applications.
To handle the increasing amounts of data, both locally generated and transmitted over the internet, computers are going to need more memory. I suppose I’m dating myself to say that I remember when memory was measured in megabytes, and that 16GB of RAM seems outrageous to me even as I installed it for less than $100 in my buddy’s computer. But we’re going to need more, and it’s going to have to fit in increasingly smaller spaces as we miniaturize computers down to the nano scale. Fortunately, researchers at IBM have stored a byte of memory in a mere 12 atoms, or about 100 times as dense as current materials. Until we can safely and cheaply cool home computers to near absolute zero this won’t be much use at home, but it shows that there is potential to pack a lot of memory into very tiny spaces.
What sort of applications could use such vast amounts of data? Lots, it turns out. Erin Rapacki argues that we ought to begin scanning the “real” world. By scanning every object in the real world in 3-D, we could give computers a vast data set that allows them to recognize virtually any object that they pick up. It turns out that this sort of project is being crowd sourced, with websites being set up for people to upload 3-D scans using their Xbox Kinect to form one enormous database. I have to wonder if increasing reliance on 3-D printers will speed up this process, since any object that we want to print from a 3-D printer needs to be scanned (or built as a file) in 3-D to begin with. Imagine one day being able to download the “Sears Hardware Collection” file and printing whatever tool it is you need at will.
Vinod Khosla argues that computers will take over many of the jobs in the healthcare field, resulting in staggering amounts of data transmitted across the world in the blink of an eye. Whether or not he’s right, there’s no question that healthcare is becoming more automated, scans are taking up more data, and genomics is coming along right behind to fill up whatever empty HDDs are left. It turns out that devices are being created that allow people to control robots with their mind. Given the amount of data the brain creates, no doubt finely tuned devices that will give the same or better performance as natural limbs and organs will need to transmit and/or receive large amounts of information as well. However, even as technology becomes more omnipresent, people are already asking questions about its impact on our biological brains. Just as we start to wonder how technology impacts our biological brain, however, comes news from MIT that they have succeeded in creating a synthetic version of a biological neuron. While we’re hardly ready to build a brain from scratch, this suggests that doing so is not out of the question.
Finally, some non-computing news that is huge. Biologists are now saying that they have the ability to sequence woolly mammoth DNA, replace the relevant bits in an elephant egg, and implant what will be a woolly mammoth into a female elephant. Scientists have said this before, but haven’t had a complete genome to work with because their samples were damaged. Difficulty: Woolly mammoths have been extinct for thousands of years. Isn’t this how Jurassic Park started and, if so, can it be long before Paris Hilton is walking around with a mini-T-Rex in her purse?
I, for one, certainly hope not.
Only five days in to 2012, and mind-blowing articles are already dropping.
According to Pentagon scientists (reported by Physorg.com and others), Cornell students have created a device that splits beams of light, hiding an event from sight. They’re calling it a time cloak. For around 40 picoseconds (trillionths of a second) the scientists are able to create a gap in the light by using a time-lens to split the light into slower red and faster blue components. This makes anything occurring in the gap invisible. In theory scientists could make the device effective for a few millions of a second, or perhaps even a few thousandths of a second, but a device large enough to erase a whole second would need to be approximately 18,600mi long. Even for someone like me who envisions mechanical implants for humans and perhaps even brain uploading into a computer, this article is fantastic. I’d love to see some confirmations of this technology and a better explanation for how, exactly, it works. Still, it seems it won’t be a very effective Ring of Gyges anytime soon, if at all.
Researchers in Japan, meanwhile, have created super sensitive sensors out of carbon nanotubes. The sensor is flexible enough to be woven into clothing, and can be stretched to three times its normal size. In addition to rehabilitation uses, this sort of sensor seems great for the blossoming world of controllerless video game systems like the Xbox Kinect. Such sensors are also implantable into people receiving organs (biological or otherwise) or could just be used to record biometrics in your everyday clothing.
Finally, Klaus Stadlmann gives a TED Talk about inventing the world’s smallest 3-D printer. It seems to be about the size of a Playstation 2, and can print in incredible detail. I thought the talk was a little dry, but still interesting.
There have been several interesting brain articles in the last few days. Forbes ticks down their top-10 brain articles from 2011, including memory-assisting chips, using magnetism to affect moral judgments, potential treatments for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and thought-controlled apps for your cell phone. Although the brain is still largely mysterious, scientists are making massive amounts of progress on all fronts yearly.
Discover Magazine reports that anesthesia might be the key to better understanding how consciousness works. Apparently it’s not unusual for patients under anesthesia to wake up, then go back under and never remember that they woke up. I’ve talked a bit about the problem of recognizing consciousness before (one essentially has to rely on reports of consciousness, but consciousness itself cannot be directly tested for) and this article does a good job of reiterating the problem. The researchers hope that by putting people under and eliciting subjective reports of consciousness after the fact, they will be better able to pin down just what it is that makes a person conscious.
Medicalxpress.com posted an article in December asking Why Aren’t We Smarter Already? The authors suggest that there is an upper-limit to various brain functions, and that while drugs and other things could potentially bring low-scoring individuals up, those already at or near peak performance would see little or no gain from the same drugs. If this is right, then there is reason to doubt that mind-enhancing drugs (say, Adderall) could make the smartest people even smarter. Yet, the article only talks about improving the mind that we have, and not about whether it is possible to create an artificial brain (or introduce artificial implants into a biological brain) that -could- break past these natural barriers. It’s no secret that the body is well, but not optimally, designed, and that the same is true of the brain shouldn’t really be surprising.
TechCrunch offers a predictive list of technologies coming in 2012 in an article penned by tech luminary and SingularityU professor Daniel Kraft. According to Daniel, A.I. will become increasingly helpful in determining diseases, from cheap phone apps that detect cancer with their cameras to A.I. assisted diagnoses in remote villages. 3-D printing will continue to advance, massive increases in patient data will be shared on social network sites like patientslikeme.com, and videoconferencing technology like Skype will increasingly allow doctors to examine patients without an office visit. All good things.
Last, but not least, a team of scientists at USC have recently mapped an entire human genome in 3-D. They hope to be able to evaluate genomes not just based on their genetic make-up, but also their physical structure. Because genomes take up three dimensions in the body, a 3-D map should be a lot more accurate than the standard model.
The New York Times recently wrote an article about MakerBot, a consumer grade 3-D printer that uses plastic to create physical objects like piggy banks and Darth Vader heads. Although the technology for 3-D printing has been around for quite some time, MakerBot is one of the first 3-D printers affordable enough for a home user (although, at $1300 or so, it is an expensive home purchase.) As the article states, MakerBot’s creators encourage its users to share their designs, and one creation can be printed by another user by transferring a data file just like a picture or sound clip is transferred now.
One of the well known side effects of the easy information transferability created by the internet is piracy. Entire websites are dedicated to allowing users to share information, some of it legal; much of it copyrighted, and the users of such sites are often well ahead of attempts by the music, video, and game industries to stop illegal sharing. Complicated digital rights management software, verification codes, periodic authenticity checks, and other creative methods of ensuring that only legitimate users (read: purchasers) of software, games, and movies can use those products have had virtually no impact on the ability of relatively unsophisticated users to share and use unpaid for software. Even lawsuits have not deterred the majority of illicit downloaders. Despite the best efforts of the various distribution agencies, software is often “cracked” (the protection scheme is disabled) within days of release – sometimes the software is available on sharing websites even before release to the general public. Worse, the data protection schemes employed by the distribution companies sometimes cause legitimate users unforeseen trouble, from an inability to use the software they’ve purchased to the failure of other components of their system and, in some cases, the digital rights management (DRM) software has compromised users computers and left them vulnerable to hacks and virii.
The distribution companies insist that piracy has cost their industries hundreds of millions of dollars. Pirates often point out record profits and suggest that the distribution companies are overstating their damages (and particularly when pirates have been sued in court for hundred of thousands of dollars in damages stemming from their sharing a few dozen songs.) Whichever group you sympathize with, there is no disputing that there has been -some- impact on the distribution agencies. However, because only software can take advantage of the internet’s transferability, the impact of piracy has so far been limited to information: Music, movies, books, and the like are sharable whereas physical objects like coffee mugs and televisions have been outside the scope of pirates.
MakerBot, however, introduces the potential for piracy of physical objects, and the existing permissive (if illegal) information sharing culture suggests that users will readily take advantage of MakerBot’s ability to create physical objects on demand. Whereas the CD-RW took the traditionally difficult task of pressing CD’s for sale and allowed users to burn their own music discs for mere pennies, MakerBot and its ilk could put an end to the endless trinkets purchased by people for lack of any other way to acquire those objects. Certainly plastic cups, ping pong balls, and army men are printable by MakerBot, but if those are printable then why not Legos, Tupperware, and ice trays? If plastic can be printed now (and think of all the things made of plastic that you use) how long will it be before steel and glass are likewise printable? What about hybrid objects?
MakerBot introduces the possibility that, before too long, schematics for Playstations will be shared just like the information for Playstation games are now. When hybrid products are printable at home, interesting possibilities arise, including the potential to print a newer, more efficient printer. Technology, by creating the next product that will replace it, feeds on its own momentum and, aside from the cost of materials and the capabilities of the printer, there is no reason why people could not print whatever television, home appliance, or vehicle suits their fancy. After all, if you could print your own Lamborghini for pennies on the dollar as compared to the MSRP, wouldn’t you at least consider the possibility?
If information piracy has taught us anything, it’s that distribution companies cannot stop the sharing of information. MakerBot’s creators have tried to encourage a culture of sharing, and their users seem to be buying into the idea. I doubt that Lego is shaking in their corporate boots just now, but perhaps they ought to consider making something other than a plastic block soon.