Volume 8, Number 5
March 30, 2005
Edited by John L. Petersen
In This Issue:
At The Arlington Institute, we believe that to understand the future, you need to have an open mind and cast a very wide net. To that end, FUTUREdition explores a cross-disciplinary palette of issues, from the frontiers of science and technology to major developments in mass media, geopolitics, the environment, and social perspectives.
Ray Kurzweil is an accomplished inventor, but he is best known for his wild prognostications about the future. “I was smitten by the power of ideas to change the world,” says Mr Kurzweil. It is as good a way as any to explain how a shy boy growing up in a financially pinched household in Queens, New York, managed to transform himself into a restless thinker who has since founded nine businesses, written five books (with a sixth on the way), won the American National Medal of Technology and the Lemelson-MIT prize for invention and innovation, and who relentlessly preaches the gospel of accelerating technological advance that will soon strain our ability to comprehend what lies ahead.
Like his boyhood hero, Tom Swift, Mr Kurzweil cannot seem to keep his fingers out of the future. He keeps venturing on to the bleeding edge—his critics say the lunatic fringe—of science to imagine futures where computers are as intelligent as we are, millions live in virtual reality and immortality is not only possible, but likely. It will all unfold, he says, over the next 25 years as overlapping technological revolutions in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics render the world radically different from the place it is today.
- Customers of a German supermarket chain will soon be able to pay for their shopping by having their fingerprint scanned at the check-out
- Translation software can develop an understanding of languages by scanning through thousands of previously translated documents
- Finally, software that aims to make encrypted email communications simple enough for even computer novices
- The next step in transportation fuel efficiency is “plug-in” hybrids.
- To combat a shrinking population, a small town in northern Japan has decided to give a cash award to each woman who has a third child
House of Commons Passes U.K. Biometric ID Plan
California Man Sets Off Nuclear Alert Detector
Courtrooms Could Host Virtual Crime Scenes
AI am the Law
Grand Odyssey Futurecast System
House of Commons Passes U.K. Biometric ID Plan – (Computer World – February 11, 2005)
The British Parliament’s House of Commons has easily passed a bill to establish a system of biometric identity cards and a central database of all of its citizens. However, the ID card bill may hit stiff opposition in the House of Lords. The Identity Cards Bill, seeks to create by 2010 a system of ID cards with embedded chips that carry personal information and biometric identifiers including name, address and biometric information such as fingerprints, facial scans and iris scans, all of which will be included in a massive database called the National Identification Register.
California Man Sets Off Nuclear Alert Detector – (Associated Press – March 2, 2005)
A man who recently had received radiation treatment for a medical condition set off a nuclear alert detector on a fire engine, prompting police to close down a roadway in Escondido, California while authorities searched for a nuclear weapon. The Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District engine crew’s radiation monitor sounded when the man and his friend walked past the crew. The radiation monitor was purchased with Homeland Defense Department grant money and is used 24 hours a day on each fire truck in the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District, according to Capt. Dale Mosby.
Fingerprint Food – (Reuters – March 12, 2005)
Customers of a German supermarket chain will soon be able to pay for their shopping by placing their finger on a scanner at the check-out, saving up to 40 seconds spent scrabbling for coins or cards. An Edeka store in the German town of Ruelzheim has piloted the technology since November and now the company plans to equip its stores across the region. The scanner compares the shopper’s fingerprint with those stored in its database along with account details. “All customers need do is register once with their identity card and bank details, then they can shop straight away,” said the store manager.
Courtrooms Could Host Virtual Crime Scenes – (New Scientist – March 10, 2005)
Lawyers, judges and jurors could soon explore crime scenes in three dimensions in the courtroom, in the same way that video gamers explore virtual worlds. Software called instant Scene Modeler (iSM) re-creates an interactive 3D model from a few hundred frames of a scene captured by a special video camera. iSM creates a virtual model of the scene that can then be explored from any angle by using a set of algorithms called SIFT (Scale Invariant Feature Transform). iSM also could be used to help geologists explore mines remotely, or even allow space scientists to investigate the Martian landscape. A police force in Canada is currently testing the technology and the company is talking to mining companies.
AI am the Law – (Economist – March 12, 2005)
Software that gives legal advice could shake up the legal profession by dispensing faster and fairer justice. Given the choice, who would you rather trust to safeguard your future: a bloodsucking lawyer or a cold, calculating computer? It is a choice that you may well encounter in the not-too-distant future, as software based on “artificial intelligence” (AI) starts to dispense legal advice. Instead of paying a lawyer by the hour, you will soon have the option of consulting intelligent legal services via the web.
Grand Odyssey Futurecast System – (TechNovelgy – March 26, 2005)
An animated film showing at the Aichi Expo 2005 in Japan, has a very special star – you! Visitors to the Mitsui-Toshiba Pavilion get a high resolution digital full-face scan; these faces are edited into that performance of the “film” in real-time. Every person who enters the theater gets a role; a Toshiba supercomputer inserts the necessary information and presents the one-time-only film. At a recent showing, a grandmother in the second row was surprised to discover that her screen persona was a space commando, barking out orders to a squadron that comprised her daughter-in-law and a young couple in the fourth row.
Mars Pictures Reveal Frozen Sea
Under-ice Antarctic Lake to Unveil Prehistoric Ocean World
Brain Reconstruction Hints at ‘Hobbit’ Intelligence
New Research On the Minds of Plants
Mars Pictures Reveal Frozen Sea – (BBC News – February 22, 2005)
A huge, frozen sea lies just below the surface of Mars, say a team of European scientists. Their assessment is based on pictures of the planet’s near-equatorial Elysium region that show plated and rutted features. The team think a catastrophic event flooded the landscape five million years ago and then froze out. The fact that there have been warm and wet places beneath the surface of Mars since before life began on Earth, and that some are probably still there, means that there is a possibility that primitive micro-organisms survive on Mars today.
Under-ice Antarctic Lake to Unveil Prehistoric Ocean World – (Pravda – February 19, 2005)
Having drilled an extremely deep well in Antarctica, Russian scientists will uncover a lake, which was formed not less than 500 million years ago. The drilling of the well on the Antarctic station Vostok was started in 1970 and was stopped in 1998 at the depth of 3,623 meters, when only 130 meters were left to reach the water surface at the request of the international community because the technology then used for the drilling could pollute the lake and cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem of the ancient waters. New technology is now available.
Brain Reconstruction Hints at ‘Hobbit’ Intelligence – (New Scientist – March 3, 2005)
Analysis of the diminutive cranium of Homo floresiensis – a tiny hobbit-like human that lived in Indonesia just 13,000 years ago – confirms it as a unique species and reveals remarkably advanced features for such a small brain. The discovery of H. floresiensis alters the picture of human evolution, showing that it have continued until very recently and was more diverse than previously thought.
New Research On the Minds of Plants – (Christian Science Monitor – March 3, 2005)
Even those researchers skeptical of the evolving paradigm of “plant intelligence” acknowledge that, down to the simplest magnolia or fern, flora have the smarts of the forest. Some scientists say they carefully consider their environment, speculate on the future, conquer territory and enemies, and are often capable of forethought – revelations that could affect everyone from gardeners to philosophers. Not only can plants communicate with each other and with insects by coded gas exhalations, scientists say now, they can perform Euclidean geometry calculations through cellular computations and, like a peeved boss, remember the tiniest transgression for months. To a growing number of biologists, the fact that plants are now known to challenge and exert power over other species is proof of a basic intellect.
Air Pollution Damages Babies in Womb
Cheap At-Home Genetic Testing
Busy Brains May Stave Off Alzheimer’s
Beyond Steroids: Designer Genes
Air Pollution Damages Babies in Womb – (Reuters – February 15, 2005)
Babies’ DNA can be damaged even before they are born if their mothers breathe polluted air. “Although the study was conducted in Manhattan neighborhoods, exhaust pollutants are prevalent in all urban areas, and therefore the study results are relevant to populations in other urban areas,” said Dr. Frederica Perera, who led the study. The kind of chromosomal damage found was the type that tends to linger, making people more susceptible to cancer.
Cheap At-Home Genetic Testing – (Technology Review – March 7, 2005)
An increasing number of online startups are marketing tests that can show predisposition to any number of maladies, from breast cancer to blood clotting. They are exploiting the blizzard of genetic discoveries reported almost daily since scientists published the complete map of all human genes five years ago. The tests are cheap, easy to administer, often just a cotton swab inside the cheek, and the results are available online, cutting out the visit to the doctor’s office. Plus, the companies note, the test results aren’t usually jotted down on official medical histories, which keeps sensitive information away from insurance companies. Still, as the popularity of at-home genetic tests soars, so do questions about whether they will be correctly interpreted. Skeptics fret that the online companies don’t have the expertise to properly explain the often complicated results.
Busy Brains May Stave Off Alzheimer’s – (EurekAlert – March 10, 2005)
Mice who keep their brains and bodies busy in an “enriched” environment of chew toys, running wheels, and tunnels have lower levels of the peptides and brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease compared to mice raised in more sparse conditions, according to a new study in the journal Cell. Levels of b-amyloid peptides, which clump together to form the brain “tangles” or plaques that are toxic to nerve cells in Alzheimer’s disease, were significantly lower in the enriched mice. The enriched mice may have been better equipped than their less-stimulated counterparts to sweep these peptides out of the brain, according to the research analysis.
Beyond Steroids: Designer Genes – (Washington Post – March 17, 2005)
Steroids, after all, are very 20th century. In a few years, the phrase whispered among would-be home-run hitters and Olympic contenders could well be: gene doping. By manipulating the human genetic code, by adding and subtracting genes to replace defective or missing ones, researchers may unlock cures for a variety of diseases, from Parkinson’s to muscular dystrophy to certain cancers. At the same time, researchers are starting to see a more mundane, but culturally significant, sideline to gene therapy: the potential to create nearly superhuman athletes. Gene doping hasn’t moved out of the research clinic yet, as far as is known. But the possibility that it will – and soon – has moved the World Anti-Doping Agency, which governs Olympic drug testing, to establish a panel to monitor its development.
Compression algorithms harnessed to fight HIV
New Form of HIV Brings Alarm, Not Surprise
Compression algorithms harnessed to fight HIV – (New Scientist – February 24, 2005)
The algorithms for digital compression and span recognition, developed by Microsoft, are being adapted for vaccine development in collaboration with researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle and Royal Perth Hospital in Western Australia. Because HIV mutates rapidly, vaccines developed to counteract one strain may not be effective against another variant. But algorithms capable of finding patterns in digital information might also help identify key genetic features across many different strains of HIV. This could enable them to engineer an HIV vaccine that is effective against several strains at once.
New Form of HIV Brings Alarm, Not Surprise – (New York Times – February 13, 2005)
New York City health officials have detected the rare strain of H.I.V. in one man whose case they described as particularly worrisome because it merged two unusual features: resistance to nearly all anti-retroviral drugs used to treat the infection, and stunningly swift progression from infection to full-fledged AIDS. Scientists say that only with more testing will they hope to determine how virulent the strain is and how specific to this one man its effects are.
Software Learns to Translate by Reading Up
Voicemail Software Recognizes Callers’ Emotions
Simple Snoop-Proof Email Launched
Ultra Fast Wi-fi Nears Completion
First Inmarsat-4 Satellite
3D Printer to Churn Out Copies of Itself
Software Learns to Translate by Reading Up – (New Scientist – February 22, 2005)
Translation software that develops an understanding of languages by scanning through thousands of previously translated documents has been released by US researchers. Most existing translation software uses hand-coded rules for transposing words and phrases, but the new software takes a statistical approach, building probabilistic rules about words, phrases and syntactic structures. The developers founded a company called Language Weaver to sell the software as an automated translation tool that can translate to or from English with four languages – Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish.
Voicemail Software Recognizes Callers’ Emotions – (New Scientist – January 11, 2005)
A voicemail system that labels messages according to the caller’s tone of voice could soon be helping people identify which messages are the most urgent. It works by extracting the distribution of volume, pitch and speech rate – the ratio of words to pauses – in the first 10 seconds of each message, and then comparing them with eight stored “acoustical fingerprints” that roughly represent eight emotional states: urgent or not urgent; formal or informal; happy or sad; excited or calm. In tests on real-life messages, the software was able to tell the difference between excited and calm and between happy and sad, but found it harder to distinguish between formal and informal, and urgent and non-urgent.
Simple Snoop-Proof Email Launched – (New Scientist – January 15, 2005)
Finally, software that aims to make encrypted email communications simple enough for even computer novices to use. Ciphire, developed by Ciphire Labs in Munich, Germany, uses a technique called “public key cryptography” to sign and encrypt email messages. Once loaded on to a computer hard drive the software performs all of the complex tasks involved behind the scenes. Ciphire also works with almost any email software client – like Microsoft Outlook, for example – without requiring prior configuration.
Ultra Fast Wi-fi Nears Completion – (BBC News – March 4, 2005)
Ultra high speed wi-fi connections moved closer to reality on Thursday when Intel said it would list standards for the technology later this year. Intel is developing ultra-wideband technology (UWB) which would allow fast data transfer but with low power needs. UWB is tipped to be used for wireless transfer of video in the home or office and for use in wireless USB devices which need low power consumption. A rival UWB standard is being developed by Motorola and chip firm Freescale.
First Inmarsat-4 Satellite – (EADS Space – March 8, 2005)
Inmarsat has purchased three I-4 spacecraft to provide its Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN), a new service that will bring seamless mobile voice and broadband Internet connectivity around the world. These will enable Inmarsat to address a wide area covering most of Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as the Indian Ocean. A second satellite is planned for launch in summer 2005 to cover South America, most of North America, the Atlantic Ocean and part of the Pacific Ocean. A third satellite is also at an advanced stage of production. This will extend coverage of mobile networks for telephony, data and high speed Internet access to laptop and palm-sized terminals and will enable business travelers, disaster relief workers, field-based oil researchers, journalists, etc. to operate a virtual office anywhere in the satellite footprint, including on maritime or air routes.
3D Printer to Churn Out Copies of Itself – (New Scientist – March 18, 2005)
A self-replicating 3D printer that spawns new, improved versions of itself is in development. 3D printing – also known as “rapid prototyping” – transforms a blueprint on a computer into a real object by building up a succession of layers. The material is bonded by either fusing it with a laser or by using alternating layers of glue. They are used by industry to develop parts for devices such as aircraft engines, spaceships and hearing aids and cost around $25,000. But Adrian Bowyer, at the University of Bath in the UK, reasons that prices would plummet to around $500 if every machine was capable of building hundreds more at no cost beyond that of the raw materials.
In Pictures: How the World is Changing
Gigantic Solar Storms Slash Ozone Levels
Farmers to be Paid for Protecting Countryside
‘I Have a Nightmare’
In Pictures: How the World is Changing – (BBC News – no date)
A picture is worth a thousand words. Take a look.
Gigantic Solar Storms Slash Ozone Levels – (New Scientist – March 2, 2005)
The gigantic solar storms of November 2003 severely depleted the ozone layer above the Arctic for as long as eight months, suggest newly released satellite observations. Ozone levels were reduced to just 40% of normal spring levels in 2004. Researchers with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado have used seven satellites to study ozone in the upper region of the stratosphere, which contains about one-fifth of the stratosphere’s supply and lies at an altitude of about 40 kilometers. Their observations show that nature can mimic manmade damage by increasing levels of nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, which lead to the breakdown of ozone.
Farmers to be Paid for Protecting Countryside – (Independent – March 6, 2005)
England’s farmers are officially guardians of the countryside. Their new role was signaled yesterday by the British government in the biggest shift in the way in which agriculture is funded for more than 30 years. In future all farmers will be eligible for annual payments for environmental protection and enhancement work on their land. They will be able to add thousands of pounds to their income, for a range of work that includes looking after hedgerows, providing habitat for birds and small mammals, creating wildflower plots for bees and other beneficial insects, and protecting ponds from pesticides and fertilizers, to encouraging wildlife such as frogs and newts.
‘I Have a Nightmare’ – (New York Times – March 12, 2005)
Op-Ed: The U.S. environmental movement is unable to win on even its very top priorities, even though it has the advantage of mostly being right. Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may be approved soon, and there’s been no progress whatsoever in the U.S. on what may be the single most important issue to Earth in the long run: climate change.
The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that environmental groups are too often alarmists. They have an awful track record, so they’ve lost credibility with the public. Some do great work, but others can be the left’s equivalents of the neocons: brimming with moral clarity and ideological zeal, but empty of nuance.
Hollow Nanospheres and Nanocrystals
Teeny, Tiny Tech
‘Millipede’ Small Scale MEMS Prototype
Hollow Nanospheres and Nanocrystals – (EurekAlert – February 22, 2005)
Using high-intensity ultrasound, University of Illinois professor Ken Suslick has created hollow nanospheres and the first hollow nanocrystals. The nanospheres could be used in microelectronics, drug delivery and as catalysts for making environmentally friendly fuels. Hollow nanospheres crafted from molybdenum disulfide could serve as a superior catalyst for removing sulfur-containing compounds from gasoline and other fossil fuels.
Teeny, Tiny Tech – (Washington Times – February 10, 2005)
Developments are under way that could wipe batteries off the face of the Earth. Researchers at the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), a consortium of Oregon educational institutions, say they have made significant breakthroughs in a power source that essentially turns 20 pounds of batteries into 8 ounces of fuel the size of a cigarette lighter. The immediate aim is to use nanotechnology to replace cumbersome military batteries and eventually power everything “from cell phones up to systems that run a tank,” said Kevin Drost, ONAMI’s co-director of research.
‘Millipede’ Small Scale MEMS Prototype – (PhysOrg – March 12, 2005)
Given the rapidly increasing data volumes that are downloaded onto mobile devices such as cell phones and PDAs, there is a growing demand for suitable storage media with more and more capacity. Using revolutionary nanotechnology, scientists at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, Switzerland, have made it to the millionths of a millimeter range, achieving data storage densities of more than one terabit (1000 gigabit) per square inch, equivalent to storing the content of 25 DVDs on an area the size of a postage stamp.
TERRORISM AND THE FUTURE OF WARFARE
Rays to Nab Nuclear Smugglers
Night-vision Camera Turns Night into Day
Rays to Nab Nuclear Smugglers – (BBC News – February 21, 2005)
US researchers plan to use energetic particles that shower Earth from space to detect smuggled nuclear material held in vehicles and cargo containers. When cosmic rays hit the upper atmosphere, they produce muons, which are charged particles similar to electrons. Their electric charges make them very easy to detect and they can penetrate heavy metal and thick rock. Indeed, with an average energy of three billion electron volts, most muons can penetrate about 1.8m of lead. The scattering of muons can therefore easily detect uranium, plutonium or the shielding material that would have to surround them to make these materials undetectable by other methods.
Night-vision Camera Turns Night into Day – (New Scientist – February 12, 2005)
A revolutionary night-vision system developed for the Dutch military makes night-time video images look as clear and colorful as those shot in broad daylight. The detectors in common night-vision cameras only pick up a limited range of wavelengths and do not give enough information to generate a color image, while thermal imaging cameras pick up no color information at all. The new system works by sampling the colors in daytime scenes of the same kind as are being viewed, and mapping them onto the night-vision images. The effect is dramatic, making obstacles and terrain much easier to cope with at night.
Robots That Act Like Rats
IBM Computing Algorithm Thinks Like an Animal
Robots That Act Like Rats – (UC Davis – February 14, 2005)
Researchers have recorded the behavior of rat pups and built rat-like robots with the same basic senses and motor skills to see how behavior can emerge from a simple set of rules. Seven to 10-day-old rat pups, blind and deaf, do not seem to do a whole lot. Videotaped in a rectangular arena, they move about until they hit a wall, feel their way along until their nose goes into a corner, then mostly stay put. But when the robotic “rats” were put into a rectangular arena like that used for experiments with real rats, the robots showed a new behavior.
IBM Computing Algorithm Thinks Like an Animal – (C/Net – March 22, 2005)
Charles Peck and James Kozloski of IBM’s Biometaphorical Computing team say they have created a mathematical model that mimics the behavior of neocortal minicolumns, thin strands of tissue that aggregate impulses from neurons. Further research could one day lead to robots that can “see” like humans and/or make appropriate decisions when bombarded with sensory information. The mathematical model created at IBM simulates the behavior of 500,000 minicolumns connected by 400 million connections. With it, “we were able to demonstrate self-organization” and behavior similar to that seen in the real world, Peck said.
The New Age of Sail
Imagine: 500 Miles Per Gallon
The New Age of Sail – (New Scientist – February 26, 2005)
Sail power is being revived. The idea isn’t to propel a ship by wind alone – a conventional diesel engine will help it along on days when the wind is blowing from the wrong direction, is too strong or dies away entirely. Engineers from the Hamburg company SkySails have been testing the potential of high-tech kites to pull a ship across the ocean by hitching a ride on winds high above the waves. And since the kite reduces the need to use engines, the team at SkySails believes it can halve the amount of fuel a ship burns.
Imagine: 500 Miles Per Gallon – (Newsweek International – March 7, 2005)
Ever since September 11, 2001, there have been many calls for Manhattan Projects and Marshall Plans for research on energy efficiency and alternate fuels. Beneath the din lies a little-noticed reality – the solution is already with us. You can already buy a hybrid car that runs on a battery and petroleum. The next step is “plug-in” hybrids, with powerful batteries that are recharged at night like laptops, cell phones and iPods. Ford, Honda and Toyota already make simple hybrids. Daimler Chrysler is introducing a plug-in version soon. In many states in the American Middle West you can already buy a car that can use any petroleum, or ethanol, or methanol – in any combination. Ford, for example, makes a number of its models with “flexible-fuel tanks.”
Polling the ‘Cell Phone Only’ Crowd
More Dutch to Emigrate as Muslim Influx Tips Scales
Japan Town to Pay Women Who Have 3rd Kid
Polling the ‘Cell Phone Only’ Crowd – (Associated Press – February 25, 2005)
They’re mainly young, single and urban. They move frequently, usually renting rather than owning their homes. Pollsters call them “cell phone only” because they don’t own traditional phones. The cell-phone-only population is growing fast. In 2001, it comprised about a half-percent of the population. Now it’s estimated at 7 percent. Among people age 15 to 24, almost one in five have only cell phones, according to Clyde Tucker, a researcher at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As this hard-to-track population grows, so does the problem of accurately incorporating them into polling and scientific surveys that seek to measure everything from health and business practices to political attitudes.
More Dutch to Emigrate as Muslim Influx Tips Scales – (New York Times – February 27, 2005)
The Netherlands is a magnet for immigrants, but statistics suggest there is a quickening flight of the white middle class. Dutch people pulling up roots said they felt a general pessimism about their small and crowded country and about the social tensions that had grown along with the waves of newcomers. There is more than the concern about the rising complications of absorbing newcomers, now one-tenth of the population, many of them from largely Muslim countries. Many Dutch also seem bewildered that their country, run for decades on a cozy, political consensus, now seems so tense and prickly and bent on confrontation. Those leaving have been mostly lured by large English-speaking nations like Australia, New Zealand and Canada, where they say they hope to feel less constricted.
Japan Town to Pay Women Who Have 3rd Kid – (Associated Press – March 3, 2005)
To combat a shrinking population, a small town in northern Japan has decided to give a cash award worth about $9,600 to each female resident who has a third child. Yamatsuri, where the population has fallen from 7,400 a decade ago to 7,000 this year, is not alone among Japanese towns who are losing people. Demographers predict Japan’s population will peak at about 127.7 million next year and fall rapidly over the next half-century to about 100 million. The situation is raising concerns about how future generations will support the growing ranks of elderly and how businesses will survive as the labor pool shrinks.
We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims. ~ R. Buckminster Fuller
A special thanks to Bernard Calil, Neil Freer, Abe Hudson, Helen Huang, Humera Khan, Robert Knight, KurzweilAI, Sher Patterson-Black, Diane Petersen, John C. Petersen, the Schwartzreport, Joel Snell, and Steve Ujvarosy, our contributors to this issue. If you see something we should know about, do send it along – thanks.