Tag Archives: future

Has The World Economy Spiraled Into A Permanent Downturn, Or Is There Light At The End Of The Tunnel?

With the economy being what it is, it is no wonder that many people are starting to question whether it will ever return to its former glory. In the history of mankind, an economic downturn has never lasted as long as it has in recent years. It all started in 2008, when the sub prime housing catastrophe started hitting the mainstream media. And the economy wasn’t even doing very well in the years prior to 2008. Why is the recent economic downturn taking so long to recover?

There are many things to factor in. But the most important one has to be, beyond the shadow of any doubt, technology. As long as there has been an economy, it was always technology that has led to bubbles, which sadly always tend to implode. The most recent technology bubble the world has experienced is the IT boom in the nineties. Back in those days, every guy that had read a “How To Build Websites For Dummies” book was able to get a job building websites.

Everything was possible. The sky was the limit. The economic upturn knew no boundaries. Surely, this would just go on and on forever. Or would it? As it turns out, people often have an inflated expectation of the limits of any given contemporary technology. In the case of the IT boom, it was assumed by many budding IT companies that it was possible to create endless supplies of cheaply created software and sell it at extremely high prices. As it turns out, the demand for cheap software had its limit after all.

Many shattered illusions later, the world economy has seen other revolutionary technological advancements. The epitome of this advancement is definitely the rise of the smartphone and the tablet. Who in the year 2000 would ever have thought that by the year 2010 we’d have mobile gadgets that seemed to come straight from an episode of Star Trek? The mobile device revolution has opened up a whole new world for both gadget manufacturers as well as software developers worldwide.

And while mobile gadgets have certainly contributed to the growth of the Internet and also the quality of life, there is one thing that they haven’t contributed to… the number of jobs available! And if there is anything that counts when it comes to getting the economy going again, it is jobs. Many media outlets are speaking of a jobless recovery. And every single time that the jobless recovery is mentioned, another thing is mentioned as well… robotics.

It was at the beginning of 2011 that Google came up with the world’s first self driving car which, at the time of writing, already has a registered 300,000 miles driven without accident. Then there is IBM’s Watson computer, also introduced at the beginning of 2011. Watson was able to beat Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings in a competition of answering knowledge questions. These accomplishments in artificial intelligence and robotics have quite the transformative impact on the world’s economy.

Take Google’s autonomous car, for instance. It has the potential to replace many, many jobs. Taxi drivers, truck drivers, limousine drivers and more. It is estimated that a total of 10% of all jobs in the USA are related to transport. Can Google’s autonomous car wipe out 10% of all jobs in the coming few years?

What about Watson? Watson has recently been fed many decades worth of cancer diagnostics and is now able to come up with cancer treatment plans based on a patient’s diagnosis. Doctors are saying that Watson’s proposed treatment plans are better than the ones they themselves can come up with. Watson is essentially a knowledge dispensing machine. How many percent of all jobs have something to do with the dispensing of knowledge? Next to medical workers, I imagine lawyers would also be at risk of losing their jobs because of this technology.

Currently, Amazon and many other companies, have replaced their warehouse staff with robots. Robots are cheaper than human staff and work all day long without complaint. They are more efficient at their jobs. Because of these warehouse robots, big companies are making more money than ever… with fewer personnel.

Is there no hope, then, for the common people? Is technology destined to increase the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor even more?

No, not by a long shot.

Technology has always increased the quality of life for everybody. The economic crisis of the 1930s robbed many people of their homes. But that was because people in those days didn’t own a lot more than just their house and some basic furniture. These days, everybody owns a car, a computer, multiple mobile devices, a television and whatnot. A financial crisis in the 21st century means having to give up a lot of luxuries. But not necessarily the house.

Sure, people have lost their houses in the recent financial crisis. But not nearly as many lost their house in recent years as in the 1930s.

Technology is poised to keep increasing the quality of life. And just as the financial crisis of current times isn’t nearly as bad as the crisis in the 1930, so too will a financial crisis of 2030 not be nearly as bad as the current one.

And while it is true that technology keeps on replacing human jobs as automation continues, it is also true that technology makes life cheaper. When new technology is first released, it is expensive. As new technology ages and is replaced by yet newer technology, the price comes down. This is the reason why you can buy a more powerful smartphone every year for the exact same $500.

A good example of a technology that can lower the price of living, is solar power. Solar power is said to reach ‘grid parity’ (read: just as cheap as conventional energy sources) in the USA this year, 2013. Solar power has already reached grid parity in Spain in December 2012. Other countries in both Europe as well as the USA will surely follow.

There are many more advances possible when it comes to solar technology. Solar power has the potential to become extremely cheap. Battery technology is improving as well. Better battery technology makes it easier to store solar power. Solar power that is cheap and easy to store, will eventually attract the attention of power supply companies worldwide. They will switch from convential energy sources to solar power. Competition will drive prices down.

Energy prices worldwide have the potential to come plummeting down in the next decade or two. Lower energy prices translates to a lower cost of living. A lower cost of living will restore purchasing power to the people. Greater purchasing power will cause consumers to spend more money. Consumers spending more money, in turn, leads to a better economy.

While things may seem bad at the moment, rest assured that the economy is still moving from upturn to downturn to upturn, ad infinitum. There will be better times. And they might arrive here sooner than you think!

Science Academies: renewable power tech ready for big growth

The US National Academies of Science has looked at the potential for renewable power in its home country, and determined that current solar and wind technologies could probably scale to supply 20 percent of our electricity. Beyond that, however, we’re going to need to fix the grid.

A number of renewable energy technologies are poised for significant growth. Wind turbine production is booked for several years, while several companies have reached the point where they’re able to produce a Gigawatt of capacity annually. Although the US has started from a small base, these power sources have grown at an annual rate of about 20 percent for most of the past decade, a period in which demand only grew about one percent annually. The US National Academies of science has now examined the prospects for continued growth, and sees no limits within the next decade and beyond, but, should growth continue, there are going to have to be significant changes to our national grid.

The report was prepared as part of the America’s Energy Future Project, which is supported by everyone from General Electric to the Kavli and Keck charitable foundations. It’s the second of several planned reports; the next one will target prospects for energy-efficient technology.

The report excludes hydropower, which is renewable, but constrained by the availability of appropriate water resources. At the moment, these other sources—geothermal, solar, biomass, and wind—account for about 2.5 percent of US electricity generating capacity, and estimates are that, under a business-as-usual scenario, they would reach eight percent by 2030. The report addresses the question of whether they’d be capable of scaling, should the US determine it wanted to increase reliance on these technologies (the total available solar and wind energy within the US, at 13.9 million TWh, dwarfs any reasonable future projections of demand). The authors limited their consideration of biomass use because they felt it was likely that the government would promote its use as a transportation fuel.


The future of robots is rat-shaped

If so, it will be time to scream… but out of joy, rather than fear, for it could be a turning point in the history of robotics.

Psikharpax — named after a cunning king of the , according to a tale attributed to Homer — is the brainchild of European researchers who believe it may push back a frontier in .

Scientists have strived for decades to make a robot that can do some more than make repetitive, programmed gestures. These are fine for making cars or amusing small children, but are of little help in the real world.

One of the biggest obstacles is learning ability. Without the smarts to figure out dangers and opportunities, a robot is helpless without human intervention.

“The autonomy of robots today is similar to that of an insect,” snorts Guillot, a researcher at France’s Institute for Intelligent Systems and Robotics (ISIR), one of the “Psikharpax” team.

Such failures mean it is time to change tack, argue some roboticist.


Building The Exascale Computer

What if we gave scientists machines that dwarf today’s most powerful supercomputers? What could they tell us about the nature of, say, a nuclear explosion? Indeed, what else could they discover about the world? This is the story of the quest for an exascale computer – and how it might change our lives.

What is exascale?

One exaflop is 1,000 times faster than a petaflop. The fastest computer in the world is currently the IBM-based Roadrunner, which is located in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Roadrunner runs at an astounding one petaflop, which equates to more than 1,000 trillion operations per second. The supercomputer has 129,600 processing cores and takes up more room than a small house, yet it’s still not quite fast enough to run some of the most intense global weather simulations, nuclear tests and brain modelling tasks that modern science demands. For example, the lab currently uses the processing power of Roadrunner to run complex visual cortex and cellular modelling experiments in almost real- time. In the next six months, the computer will be used for nuclear simulation and stockpile tests to make sure that the US nuclear weapon reserves are safe. However, when exascale calculations become a reality in the future, the lab could step up to running tests on ocean and atmosphere interactions. These are not currently possible because the data streams involved are simply too large. The move to exascale is therefore critical, because researchers require increasingly fast results from their experiments.


Growing Organs in the Lab

This research isn’t something that might happen in the distant future.  It’s being used today to grow fresh organs, open up new ways to study disease and the immune system, and reduce the need for organ transplants. Organ-farming laboratories are popping up across the planet, and showing impressive results. Here we look at the state of the union of a rapidly advancing field called tissue engineering: what’s been accomplished so far, and what’s right around the corner.

Patients who undergo organ transplants require loads of toxic drugs to suppress their immune systems; otherwise their body might reject the organ. But tissue engineering could make organ transplants a thing of the past. By using a patient’s cells to grow new types of tissue in the lab, researchers are finding new ways to custom-engineer you new body parts by using your own cells.

At the cutting edge of organ engineering is Tengion, a clinical-stage biotech company based outside of Philadelphia. Their most successful research to date led to the creation of the Neo-Bladder. Tengion takes some of your cells and grows them in culture for five to seven weeks around a biodegradable scaffold. When the organ is ready, it can be transplanted without the need to suppress the patient’s immune system (because the organ was grown from the patient’s own cells, it carries no risk of rejection). Once the organ is in, the scaffold degrades and the bladder adapts to its new (old) home.


Iranian scientists claim they have cloned a goat


Iranian scientists have cloned a goat and plan future experiments they hope will lead to a treatment for stroke patients, the leader of the research said Wednesday. The female goat, named Hana, was born early Wednesday in the city of Isfahan in central Iran, said Dr. Mohammed Hossein Nasr e Isfahani, head of the Royan Research Institute.

“With the birth of Hana, Iran is among five countries in the world cloning a baby goat,” said Isfahani, an embryologist.

In 2006 Iran became the first country in the Middle East to announce it had cloned a sheep. Two and a half years later, that animal is healthy, the institute said.

The effort is part of Iran’s quest to become a regional powerhouse in advanced science and technology by 2025. In particular, Iran is striving for achievements in medicine and in aerospace and nuclear technology.

Iran’s nuclear work has led to an international showdown over Western claims that it wants to develop atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear activity is aimed at generating electricity, not the bomb.

The cloning of sheep and other animals could lead to advances in medical research, including using cloned animals to produce human antibodies against diseases, Isfahani said.


Simulated brain closer to thought


A detailed simulation of a small region of a brain built molecule by molecule has been constructed and has recreated experimental results from real brains.

The “Blue Brain” has been put in a virtual body, and observing it gives the first indications of the molecular and neural basis of thought and memory.

Scaling the simulation to the human brain is only a matter of money, says the project’s head.

The work was presented at the European Future Technologies meeting in Prague.

The Blue Brain project launched in 2005 as the most ambitious brain simulation effort ever undertaken.

While many computer simulations have attempted to code in “brain-like” computation or to mimic parts of the nervous systems and brains of a variety of animals, the Blue Brain project was conceived to reverse-engineer mammal brains from real laboratory data and to build up a computer model down to the level of the molecules that make them up.

The first phase of the project is now complete; researchers have modeled the neocortical column – a unit of the mammalian brain known as the neocortex which is responsible for higher brain functions and thought.


The Future of Machine Intelligence

In early March 2009, 100 intellectual adventurers journeyed from various corners of Europe, Asia, America and Australasia to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Arlington Virginia, to take part in the Second Conference on Artificial General Intelligence, AGI-09: a conference aimed explicitly at the grand goal of the AI field, the creation of thinking machines with general intelligence at the human level and ultimately beyond.

While the majority of the crowd hailed from academic institutions, major firms like Google, GE, AT&T and Autodesk were also represented, along with a substantial contingent of entrepreneurs involved with AI startups, and independent researchers. The conference benefited from sponsorship by several organizations, including KurzweilAI.net, Japanese entrepreneur and investor Joi Ito’s Joi Labs, Itamar Arel’s Machine Intelligence Lab at the University of Tennessee, the University of Memphis, Novamente LLC, Rick Schwall, and the Enhanced Education Foundation.

Since I was the chair of the conference and played a large role in its organization – along with a number of extremely competent and passionate colleagues – my opinion must be considered rather subjective … but, be that as it may, my strong feeling is that the conference was an unqualified success! Admittedly, none of the research papers were written and presented by an AI program, which is evidence that the field still has a long way to go to meet its goals. Still, a great number of fascinating ideas and mathematical and experimental results were reported, building confidence in the research community that real progress toward advanced AGI is occurring.


Researchers Find That Genes Determine Brain’s Processing Speed

In a study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson and colleagues used a new type of brain-imaging scanner to show that intelligence is strongly influenced by the quality of the brain’s axons, or wiring that sends signals throughout the brain. The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes information. And since the integrity of the brain’s wiring is influenced by genes, the genes we inherit play a far greater role in intelligence than was previously thought.

Genes appear to influence intelligence by determining how well nerve axons are encased in myelin — the fatty sheath of “insulation” that coats our axons and allows for fast signaling bursts in our brains. The thicker the myelin, the faster the nerve impulses.

Thompson and his colleagues scanned the brains of 23 sets of identical twins and 23 sets of fraternal twins. Since identical twins share the same genes while fraternal twins share about half their genes, the researchers were able to compare each group to show that myelin integrity was determined genetically in many parts of the brain that are key for intelligence. These include the parietal lobes, which are responsible for spatial reasoning, visual processing and logic, and the corpus callosum, which pulls together information from both sides of the body.


Future shock: The PC of 2019

For those of you who want the world at your fingertips, the wait is almost over.

The future PC promises to put nearly everything you could need or want right in your palm.

Think of a souped-up version of today’s smartphone, with a monitor that unrolls into a larger screen and a biometric security system that lets you access everything in your professional and personal life from anywhere, with all the data residing in the cloud. Wave it at your car to unlock the door. Order and pay for your morning coffee with a touch of a button. Plug it into a docking station and project that big presentation to your clients. Book a weekend getaway with just a few clicks.

“PCs are going from engines or tools to portals and enablers. The vision of what they’ll be in the future is a partner. They’ll be participating in the higher cognitive tasks of what people do to get their jobs done,” says Andrew Chien, director of research at Intel Corp.

The personal computer has been a corporate workhorse for decades. And while it has evolved, becoming slimmer and more mobile, in many ways it still resembles those old terminals tethered to the mainframe. But the next decade will bring dramatic changes, as the PC evolves past the standard desktop and laptop units to amalgamations of computing devices and their peripherals.

This future PC will be smarter, too. It could discreetly remind you of the name of an acquaintance and alert you when it’s time to take your medicine. It will be your colleague, your butler — and possibly your friend.