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What Science Fiction Writers Have Learned About Predicting The Future of Technology - CIO.com - Business Technology Leadership

CIO invited noted science fiction authors Larry Niven, Robert Sawyer, Nancy Kress and Charles Stross to share their thoughts on technology-related predictions, including lessons learned in the "business" of imagining what the future might be like. Here's what they had to say.
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Researchers at Hewlett-Packard claim to have discovered the long-fabled memristor (memory resistor), completing the basic electrical toolbox of resistor, capacitor, and inductor. It's existence was first postulated in the 1970s but nobody had ever observed one, or had reason to try to make one, until now.

They created the memristor by doping titanium dioxide, resulting in a device in which the dopant migrates in the direction of the current. Apply a voltage in one direction and the dopant migrates into the pure titanium dioxide, lowering the resistance. Reverse the polarity and the dopant begins to migrate back, increasing the resistance. Most importantly, when power is removed, the circuit "remembers" the previously-applied voltage, encoded by the dopant, as well as how long the voltage was applied. This has potential application for emulating neural synapses, making it possible to build dense neural networks on-chip. They are now working to find out how to integrate titanium dioxide components with silicon-bsed devices.
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Woman claims she affects electrical devices - However, her claim has yet to withstand an empirical test of her abilities. Termed "sliders", she is one of many people who claim that their presence causes electrical devices to die, flicker, or otherwise go wonky. Found on Improbable Research.

Early Daylight Savings Time means no savings at all - With the new daylight savings time almost upon us we turn to this recently-released study, found via Slashdot, which concludes that Daylight Savings Time in general results in greater energy use and greater cost to consumers.

MagLev mouse for better haptics - Haptics, the ability to transmit touch information, is an emerging field, and  one research team may have come up with an easier way to do it. They use a bowl lined with electromagnets and a mouse containing a magnet and an LED. As one moves the mouse over the bowl, it's position is determined using the LED, and in response the magnetic field is subtly changed to emulate changes in resistance to the mouse's motion as if it were moving over the surface. The magnets are strong enough to make a surface feel solid, resisting with as much as 30 newtons of force, and do so with six degrees of freedom. They are currently working on commercializing the technology.

Nine Inch Nails sidesteps recording label to sell new album online - Trent Raznor continues his experiment with selling product online by offering the first nine of 36 songs from his latest CD online for free. For $5 you can download the entire CD, along with "extras", or you can get the 2-disc set with plenty of extras for $10. The result: he sold out of the $300 Limited Edition set which includes a copy of the music on vinyl version in a signed and numbered package with a few days of release, netting him an estimated $750,000.
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Last week's news was filled with the lead-up and fall-out to the U.S.'s $60 million  duck-shoot of it's own failed spy satellite, but there is more to this story according to Wired magazine. Specifically, the satellite, known as USA-193, is believed to be part of the doomed Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program. Boeing was originally contracted back in 1999 to build the first of a constellation of small satellites to gather information on enemy activities.  Six years and $10 billion (US) later, the FIA was nowhere in sight and the program was $4 billion over-budget. Lockheed took over in 2005, costing the Pentagon another $500 million in termination fees, and by 2006 the USA-193 was launched but died soon after when its on-board computer failed repeated attempts to reboot.

This brings us to 2008 with a satellite-turned-space-debris worth $10.5 billion(US) has finally decided to come back to roost. The White House deemed the satellite a danger, at least officially, and decided to put another $60 million(US) into shooting it down. At 10:26 p.m. EST on February 20th, the satellite, now travelling at 17,000 mph was shoot down at an altitude of 247 km with a modified SM-3 missile, worth an estimated $9.5 million(US). The whole thing was even captured on video and released to the waiting public on YouTube. Officials announced shortly thereafter that the 2,300 kg satellite was destroyed with the debris posing no risk to those of us on earth, particularly the 450 kg of toxic hydrazine that it carried.

So why does it cost $60 million to shoot down a satellite? Well, two warships, each with a modified SM-3 were on standby in case the first one missed. With each missile worth $9.5 million, the cost in armaments alone could have been as high as $30 million. As it turned out, only one was needed. Each of these missiles was originally designed to hit other missiles, not a satellite that travels at about twice the speed of a missile. Also, they were designed as heat-seekers but this won't work to track a satellite. As a result, new sensors had to be installed and new software written to control it, requiring the expertise of about 200 people. The original system worked 80% of the time in testing, but this time the missile had to hit it first time out, with results being broadcast around the globe, and they had only a 10 second window within which to acquire the target and launch. Now add in keeping three warships on alert, as well as tracking the satellite, and it's easy to add another $30 million to the price tag.

As a side note, the debris caused by the distruction of this spy satellite resulted in the February 29th launch of it's successor being delayed for approximately two weeks until March 11th. No word on what that cost.
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Whales 2, Bush 1 - In the latest fight between the courts and the Navy over sonar testing, a federal judge in Hawaii order the Navy to suspending testing of their high-powered sonar when whales are within 500 feet of the ship. Just to recap, California courts issued an order to stop sonar tests off Southern California, in response to which Bush signed a decree declaring the Navy except from having to be concerned about how tests affect whales, which a judge promptly ruled as being worth crap-all.

The end is nigh! - Our days are numbered. The sun will expand, then swallow our planet whole.... in 7.6 billion years. Those of you who plan to be around then may start panicking now. The rest of us will sit back and enjoy a cold one.

The robots wars are coming - According to this New Scientist article, there is now a rush among governments to develop robot soldiers, able to kill autonomously without concern for morals or ethics. Countries developing robotic soldiers include the U.S., several European nations, Canada, Singapore, and Israel. Currently-deployed systems (such as those used by the U.S.) have a human in the loop, but research is now being devoted to autonomously identifying threats.

Help in sight for Newfoundlanders - For nine generations, some Newfoundlanders have been dropping dead in the prime of their lives, but recent research has identified a genetic marker to  identify those at risk. The gene causes a condition known as Type 5 Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC) in which heart cells in the right ventricle are replaced with fatty, fibrous tissue. Men carrying this gene have a life expectancy of 41, women of 71. If detected, the person can be monitored until it is certain whether or not the condition has manifest itself, and those with the condition can be treated with defibrillator implants.

Bush finally agrees to binding emission limits - After refusing to sign onto Kyoto (unlike Canada that signed but refuses to do anything), the U.S. is finally ready to sign an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In response, Europe is complaining that the agreement lacks any time frame within which to meet the emission limits.

This is your brain on video games - A recent study has concluded that playing video games stimulates parts of the brain associated with reward and addiction more in men than in women.

Rubber heal thyself - French researchers have developed a material made from urine and vegetable oil that retains a strong self-adhesion when cut, allowing it to stitch itself back together after being cut. Unlike normal rubber, which is made up of long strands linked by covalent bonds, the new material uses shorter strands linked by hydrogen bonds. The inventors are now looking commercializing the product.
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A 57 year-old man, blinded since a workplace accident, had his eyesight restored thanks to an operation in which a portion of his son's canine tooth was used to hold an artificial cornea. He says he now looks a bit like Terminator, but is happy to be able to see his family again.

Found on [personal profile] interactiveleaf.
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Australian researchers have developed a form of self-cleaning fabric by coating wool fabric with anatase titanium oxide which is known to destroy dirt and microorganisms when exposed to sunlight. In this photo, red wine was poured one the fabric (first column), but after 20 hours the stain had almost completely disappeared (bottom row is the treated wool fabric). They are now working to commercialize the process.
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U.S. scientists has developed  a set of brush-like fibres that can be woven into clothing to generate electricity from movement. Each wire consists of a Kevlar stalk onto which zinc oxide nanowires are grown, although just about any material could be used as the stalk, including hair. Wires are paired with one being coated in gold, and when the brush together they generate electricity. They expect that they can eventually generate 80 milliwatts per square metre of fabric... but that fabric may be dry-clean only. Zinc oxide is highly sensitive to moisture.  
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Canon has copyright a method for using the iris pattern of the photographer to watermark photos they take. The photographer would register their iris by looking at a dot through the viewfinder and pressing the shutter button. The iris information is then embedded as metadata in all images taken by that user. A camera with this feature would allow up to five registered users. Click on the image to read the patent details.

Found on Slashdot.
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A multi-national group of researchers is developing a robot for rescue missions employing artificial whiskers to help it navigate. The whiskers would be used to generate a 3D model of the environment to augment a visual system. To this end, they are studying exactly how the average rat is capable of using its whiskers to navigate and obtain information about its environment.
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The Skysails cargo ship has completed a successful maiden voyage, demonstrating that the kite was able to reduce fuel consumption by 15%, saving the company more than $1000 for every day it was deployed.

Found on [personal profile] theweaselking
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A new type of holographic display material has been developed that can be refreshed in minutes. The developers hope to be able to reduce the refresh rate to the 30 frames-per-second required for video. If they achieve this goal, holography could become a viable alternative to current 3D displays that often require the use of special glasses. LCD displays have also been developed to display video  information in 3D (there was one on display at the Electronic Imaging conference I attended last week... very cool but the image was distorted from some viewpoints). Moreover, they claim that the material can also be used storing large amounts of information. They use a photoreactive polymer to which they apply a 9000 volt charge during the writing process. Once the information is written, a 4000 volt charge is required to maintain the image.
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Thanks to [profile] lyanna_beth for pointing out this article. Researches at Simon Fraser University have developed a knee brace that generates electricity from the swing in your step. The device could provide power to anything from prosthetics to cell phones, but doesn't appear t increase walking effort greatly. Clicking on the photo takes you to the New Scientist article where you can see a video of the device in action. You can also check out this BBC new article for additional information.
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A machine that generates perpetual energy, but not, according to Thane Heins, the Ottawa-based inventor, a perpetual motion machine. He refuses to use the term because there are negative associations attached to it. But this inventor believes he has designed a device that draws energy from both braking an acceleration, resulting in very little energy loss. At least that is the claim, and Dr. Riadh Habash of the University of Ottawa was unable to explain what is, in fact happening. As a result, the inventor was asked to demonstrate his device to Dr. Markus Zahn of MIT, who was impressed the the potential of the device, but unable to figure out what is, in fact, happening to generate the observed effect.

While the Toronto Star article focused (understandably) on the inventor, PhysOrg focused on the technology. If you look at the picture of his experimental setup, the disks on the wheel are magnets and the device behind it is an induction motor. The motor was overcharged which results in a back-EMF in a wire coil (I assume the red object to the left of the wheel) which in turn generates a large electromagnetic field. The magnets pass though the field resulting in, one would expect, a retarding force as the magnets push though the field, eventually slowing the motor down. What has been observed to occur is that the field in the coil induces the flywheel to spin faster, increasing the back-EMF which in turn increases the field strength. To the average observer it might appear that energy is being generated for nothing, but what it may, in fact, be doing is increasing the overall motor efficiency by making better use of the electromotive forces. And it is this increase in motor efficiency that has people at UofO and MIT interested.
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MIT researchers have developed a microchip based on standard fabrication methods that uses as little as 10% of the power of current microchips. They used a scalable voltage approach to deal with the issue of switching errors (where the divide between a 1 and a 0 becomes lost in low-voltage noise), resulting in increasing the number of transistors used each memory cell from 6 to 8. As expected, the cost of reducing voltage and reducing processing speed, but the chip is expected to find use in various medical and military devices that could benefit from ultra-low voltage operation.
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The British Ministry of Defense reports that some wind farms can interfere with military radar, rendering aircraft  flying over the turbines virtually invisible. The MoD is working with government and wind farm owners to find a solution to the problem.  Britain plans to greatly increase the number of turbines in operation so this problem could become far more widespread if not immediately addressed.
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Canadian songwriters propose collective licensing - This Slashdot article links to a proposal by the Songwriters Association of Canada in which each internet and wireless customer in Canada pays a $5 yearly fee, and in return can freely share any and all music they purchase as they see fit. They money would be distributed among songwriters, performers, music publishers and record labels.

Stanford offers free conversion of photos to 3D - Researchers at Stanford university have made available a new online service (http://make3d.stanford.edu/) to test drive a new process that attempts to infer 3D structures from a single 2D image. The process uses a Markov Random Field to infer the position and orientation of each a 3D patch corresponding to each point in the image, and from that generate a mesh model. The original image is then laid over the 3D mesh to allow you to perform a limited fly-through of the image.

You can save lives or save money - A research group in the Netherlands has determined that smokers and obese people cost less to a health care system in the long run because they die sooner. Meanwhile, thin and healthy people cost the system the most because they tended to live longest. The conclusion was that reducing smoking and obesity rates will increase, not decrease, overall health care costs.

US privacy board is running on empty - In 2007, the Privacy and Civil Liberty Oversight Board was created  to keep an eye on US anti-terrorist activities to ensure that the privacy and civil liberties of US citizens were being safeguarded. The terms for all members of the board expired on January 30th, but no candidates have yet been nominated to sit on the board.

Shapeshifting robots from magnetic swarms - New Scientist reports on attempts by US researchers to build "claytronic" robots that cling together, allowing them to assume any shape. Follow the link to view a video of what they envision to be the outcome of this research. In larger test robots, electromagnetism was used to share power, communicate, move, and sense their environment. The test robots had wheels, but they were unpowered so they could only maneuver using their electromagnets and by working together.

January 2010

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