FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Census Data Reveals American Trends

Last week, the US Census Bureau released its 2007 Statistical Abstract of the United States, a cornucopia of statistical and demographic data that attempts to paint a picture of America. Among the more interesting (if not always surprising) trends noted in the Abstract are:

  • Americans, as a nation, are the heaviest people in the world, but also taller than ever.
  • We consume more media -- TV, radio, movies and Internet -- than ever before.
  • Consumption of bottled water has increased ten-fold since 1980.
  • The size of the average new single-family home has grown to 2,227 square feet in 2005 from 1,905 square feet in 1990.
  • Manufacturing jobs decreased by 18% between 2000 and 2005.
  • The number of female doctors more than doubled between 1980 and 2004. Women earning professional degrees increased from 2,000 in 1970 to 41,000 in 2004.
  • More than half of US households owned some form of stock of mutual fund in 2005.

Althe Census Bureau doesn't attempt to interpret the implications of these trends, noted sociologist Robert Putnam says of them:

The large master trend here is that over the last hundred years, technology has privatized our leisure time... The distinctive effect of technology has been to enable us to get entertainment and information while remaining entirely alone. That is from many points of view very efficient. I also think it’s fundamentally bad because the lack of social contact, the social isolation means that we don’t share information and values and outlook that we should.

Source: New York Times

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"Smart Soles" Adjust for Running, Walking

Think you're "gellin'" now? A California company called Outland Research is developing a "smart" shoe sole that can adjust to different activities, such as walking, running or playing sports. This will allow the shoe to offer optimal foot support under a variety of conditions.

The sole operates by filling bladders with an electrically-activated liquid within milliseconds when extra cushioning or support is needed. The liquid can also firm up when necessary.

Such a shoe could be controlled manually or even through a wireless device. Or, the shoe could be self-adjusting, sensing different movements and wear conditions. Currently, the project is in the patent stage, with no word on when a product will reach the market.

Sources: NewScientist, twenty1f

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Approaching a New Paradigm

John Petersen of the futurist Arlington Institute believes that the world will undergo such upheavel over the next few years that we will emerge into a new paradigm that will challenge our most basic assumptions about technology, the economy, politics, the environment, and even spirituality:

The new world, as in all paradigm shifts, would not make much sense from our present perspective. Never having seen group larger than a clan, a hunter-gatherer contemplating the future would have been hard-pressed to envision a world that included people living in towns and villages. Similarly, the future that may arrive with 2012 would necessarily seem strange in the context of most of our upbringing.

Petersen believes that powerful forces are gathering to bring about explosive change within the next five years -- change that will be the most profound and disruptive since the arrival of homo sapiens on the planet:

Perhaps we are about to experience another punctuation in the equilibrium of human evolution. Patterns from the past suggest that the time is right for another one. The question is, are we ready? If the change that seems to be forming on the horizon is anything like it appears it might be, then all humans will need to move into a new mode of living and thinking in order to survive the transition.

Monday, December 18, 2006

One-Room Schoolhouses Fading into History

Among many examples of Americana that are falling victim to progress and social change is the iconic one-room schoolhouse. Particularly in the rural western US, small schools that have a single teacher have closed at a rapid rate over the past few decades. Of the 24,000 one-room schools that existed in 1959, only 300 remain today.

High per-student costs, district consolidations, desegregation efforts and a general population decline in rural areas have all conspired to take their toll on one-room schools. Despite local efforts to preserve them, the one-room schoolhouse appears to be a species on the verge of extinction. One must wonder, however, how these rural residents could employ teleconferencing and mobile technology such as that used by telecommuters to educate their children effectively at a reasonable cost. For instance, scarce teachers could be "wired" into outlying schools via teleconference with the need for them to travel long distances.

Source: CNN.com

Your Life in a Box

Imagine having every moment of your life recorded and available for instant playback anytime, anywhere. Appealing or not, it's theoretically possible within the next 20 years, according to computer scientists:

Prof Nigel Shadbolt, president of the British Computer Society and professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton, said: "In 20 years' time it will be possible to record high quality digital video of an entire lifetime of human memories. It's not a question of whether it will happen; it's already happening."

Scientists say that such a device could be as small as a sugar cube.

Naturally, such a powerful device begs a number of questions. Who, for instance, will have access to this information? What exactly would one want to do with it? Could we even process this level of data?

Source: Telegraph

10 Tech Concepts for 2007

Popular Mechanics has selected the top 10 technologies that we'll be talking about in the coming year. Among them: bendable concrete, body area network (allowing your cell phone to control and secure all your personal devices), smart pills (that contain transmitters), data clouds and video on the net (VoN).

Friday, December 15, 2006

Cell Phone Predictions for 2007

Roman Polz of Agere Systems lists his predictions for the mobile phone market for the coming year. Among the most interesting:

  • CD-Quality Music Will Be The Killer Cell Phone Application
  • The Earliest and Most Frequent Users of Mobile TV Will be People Riding Trains To and From Work
  • India Will be the Fastest Growing Cell Phone Market for the Next Several Years
  • Simultaneous Cell Phone Applications Will Be Crucial; Those Who Don't Offer Them Will Lose Out to Those Who Do
  • 3G Cell Phones Will Not Be All About Merely Enabling the Connected Lifestyle, but Rather Perfecting the Connected Lifestyle

Source: Converge!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"Porta-People": The Newest Tool in Remote Conferencing

With all the talk of the mobile and global workforce, those who work outside the office often remain at a disadvantage when it comes to meetings and other forms of real-time collaboration. Conference calls only convey so much information, and those on the call -- as opposed to those physically in the room -- are often forgotten about in the course of the conversation. Plus, callers can only hear the discussion, missing out slides, whiteboard drawings, and other visual nuances.

To help solve those problems, Sun Microsystems has developed a "porta-person" device that allows a remote worker to more actively participate in meetings. The device includes a video screen through which the participant can show their face or display other information, stereo speakers, stereo microphones, and a camera that provides the participant with a panoramic view of the room. The device also pivots, allowing the participant to point it toward a speaker. "It's definitely a much more present' feeling," says Sun researcher Jonathan Kaplan. "Being able to move the box lets you grab people's attention, which is very hard to do when you are just on the phone."

No word on when the "porta-person" device could appear on the market. But with 14,000 of its 38,000 employees telecommuting on any given day, Sun might be its own best customer.

Source: MIT Technology Review

Monday, December 11, 2006

Product Development, Web 2.0 Style

First they transformed media. Now, blogs, YouTube-style video sites and other Web 2.0 technologies are poised to change the way products are designed and manufactured.

CrowdSpirit is a website that attempts to harness the "wisdom of crowds" to develop new consumer products. Through "crowdsourcing," site members can vote on concepts to develop, decide on specifications, and even select funding options. Members can also participate in testing, marketing and product support.

Currently, CrowdSpirit is focusing on consumer electronics in a price range below $200. The concept is in its infancy, with key strategies such as how to compensate members for their efforts still to be decided.

Source: Springwise

NASA Plans Permanent Moon Base

Last week, NASA announced plans to develop a permanent manned base on the moon, both for scientific purposes and to serve as a launch point for possible manned missions to Mars. Construction will likely begin in 2020, the date that President Bush has targeted for a return of humans to the moon.

The lunar base will be most likely built at one of the moon's poles to take advantage of relatively stable temperatures and steady sunlight for solar power. The project will be funded with money budgeted for the space shuttle after the shuttle program is phased out in 2010, and may be an international effort (particularly since the European Space Agency is considering unmanned lunar landers).

Last August, NASA awarded Lockheed Martin the contract for developing the rocket and lander system that will take astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972. Further details, including a base design and a precise timetable, have yet to be developed.

But beyond serving as a way station for a Mars mission, what scientific or financial benefit is there to a permanent moon base? Good question, writes Gregg Easterbrook of Slate.

Source: BBC

US Government Releases Nanotechnology Report

The National Materials Advisory Board has released a congressionally-mandated report on the the National Nanotechnology Initiative, covering the current state and future potential of nanotechnology. Among other things, the report examines the possibility of nanoscale machinery to create materials at the molecular level.

Groups such as the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology are hopeful that this report will accelerate federal funding for nanotech initiatives. However, the CRN warns of drastic unintended consequences of developing such powerful technology too quickly or with too little understanding: "[W]ithout adequate understanding and preparation, exponential atom-by-atom construction of advanced products could have catastrophic results. Conclusions published in this report should create a new level of urgency in preparing for molecular manufacturing."

Source: KurzweilAI.net

NYC Trans Fat Ban May Start a Trend

The recently passed ban on the use of trans fats in restaurant food in New York City may be precedent setting, as national restaurant chains comply by changing their recipes. Additionally, other US cities may follow New York City's lead in adopting such bans, as they did with bans on smoking in restaurants and other public places.

Under the ban, restaurants will need to eliminate trans fats in their foods by July 2007; bakeries will have until July 2008.

Trans fats increase the risk of heart attack and stroke by raising the level of "bad" cholesterol (LDL). Says New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, "We know that trans fats increase the chance of heart attack, stroke and death, and they don't have to be there... People are no longer dying of typhoid fever. They are dying of heart disease."

The National Restaurant Association opposes the ban and is threatening to sue to block it. Meanwhile, fast-food chains Wendy's and McDonald's, as well as Dunkin Donuts, have pledged to voluntarily reduce the amounts of trans fats in their foods. With these industry pacesetters taking the lead, trans fat reduction may become a national trend, with or without legislation.

Source: tvnz.co.nz

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Restaurants Embracing Self-Service Technology

Two out of three US restaurant operators are implementing or testing self-service technology that would allow customers to place orders through kiosks or online. A recent survey by Channel Media and Market Research has also found that many of the respondents plan to install self-service solutions in 2007.

Restaurants are embracing self-service because of speed, customer satisfaction, accuracy and customer data capture capabilities. The biggest reported challenges involve cost and integration with existing systems.

Source: Kioskmarketplace.com

Zune No Threat to iPod... For Now

Zune, Microsoft's answer to Apple's iPod MP3 player, made waves when it debuted last month. However, sales have been slow, and critics have panned some of its advanced features. For now at least, the Zune is hardly a category killer, and the iPod's position as the MP3 player of record is safe.

The $250, 30GB player, for instance, allows owners to wirelessly swap songs. But this feature restricts swapped songs to being played three times in three days before expiring. Reports have also surfaced that the Zune isn't compatible with Windows Vista. However, the Zune has earned good marks for magnetic headphones, clear display and (perhaps most important) good sound.

Microsoft hopes to sell 1 million Zunes by the middle of 2007. However, this would hardly put a dent in the iPod's market, as Apple sold 39 million iPods this past year. Meanwhile, electronics websites show the popularity of the Zune far beneath that of other MP3 players. However, Microsoft appears optimistic and committed to the Zune. Bryan Lee, corporate vice president for Microsoft's entertainment group, calls the projected sales, modest as they may seem alongside iPod figures, "pretty awesome."

RELATED: Michael Kanellos of ZDNet comments on why he thinks the recently announced Apple phone is a bad move.

Source: CNN.com

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Big Pictures from Little Gadgets

Users of mobile devices who want to display their pictures and videos to others -- or who at least want to see them on a bigger screen -- may soon have their wish. A Redmond, WA company called Microvision has developed a "microprojector" that will allow cell phones and iPods to project images on a wall or screen. The project uses mirrors and compact lasers that have only recently become commercially available.

Such technology comes at a time when cell phone manufacturers are actively looking at ways to integrate projectors into their products. And, as with many technologies with social implications, microprojectors have the potential to (once again) change the way people communicate, increasing the sharing of videos and photos, and potentially encouraging more image-based communications in business.

Microvision doesn't expect to have a commercial product available until 2008. And then, microprojectors will have to be economical and energy-efficient enough to be practical for the mass market.

Source: MIT Technology Review

One in Seven Mexican Workers Now Work in US

Rather than being a short-term political or border-control issue, immigration from Mexico to the US appears to be a significant migration trend, one that isn't likely to change anytime soon. A recent report has found that the US currently has 7 million workers from Mexico, an increase of 2 million from six years ago... meaning that one in 7 Mexican workers now works in the United States.

Ironically, one cause of the increase may be better border enforcement, effectively trapping Mexicans in the US who might otherwise cross the border back to Mexico.

In 2005, 9.4% of native Mexicans were living in the US, and 14% of working Mexicans had jobs in the US (as opposed to 2.5% of working Canadians). This year, Mexicans accounted for nearly 5% of the total US civilian workforce.

Source: Reuters (via Yahoo)

Next Generation of Cruise Ships to be "Floating Towns"

The growing popularity of Caribbean and Mediterranean cruise-ship vacations is prompting cruise lines to build ever larger ships. The next generation of cruise ships on the drawing board -- due for launch in 2009 -- will be as long as four football fields (twice as long as the Titanic) and will carry up to 6,000 passengers.

The ships will be virtually self-sustaining, containing their own shopping malls, wave pools for surfing, entire "theatre districts," and even their own sewage treatment plants. These "superjumbo" ships reflect the cruise lines' strategy to market their ships not as forms of transportation, but as destinations in of themselves, competing with resorts such as Disney World and Las Vegas.

In 2005, bookings on cruise liners rose by 7.5% over the previous year. Bookings are expected to rise an additional 30% between now and 2009.

Source: AFP (via Yahoo)

Monday, December 04, 2006

Scientist Says Climate Change Could Wipe Out Nine Tenths of Humanity

James Lovelock, the controversial climate scientist who developed the gaia theory of a living planet in the 1960s, believes that global warming is much more dangerous than even his most pessimistic colleagues believe. Figuring that the Earth's average temperature could rise by 6 degrees C by the end of the century, Lovelock believes that a warmer planet could only support 500 million people -- a tenth of the Earth's current population.

Lovelock also acknowledges that simply cutting back on emissions is not as simple a solution as it might seem. Forcing developing countries such as China to curtail their industrial development, he says, could lead to a massive economic collapse and even widespread starvation.

Source: Reuters

GM Announces New, Improved Hybrids

General Motors has announced an initiative to develop a line of hybrid vehicles that use less gas and more electricity. In part to catch up to hybrid leaders Toyota and Honda, and in part to build its image as a "green" company, GM says it will develop "plug-in" hybrid technology over the next several years. As the name suggests, plug-in hybrids plug into a regular electrical outlet to charge, and have more powerful batteries than regular hybrids. However, economical batteries are still under development, and GM might not have a marketable plug-in hybrid vehicle until the end of the decade.

Source: Washington Post