Tag Archives: future tech

Smart Dust: computers and people

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SMART DUST: People and computers living in perfect harmony?

COMPUTERS have advanced so splendidly in the past few years that electricians are now able to make micro-computers the size of pinheads. The proposed applications for computers of this size range from modifying the weather to controlling the electrical infrastructure of large cities. Of course, it is wise to be wary of anything that is powerful and to analyse critically the potential of such technology before it involuntarily becomes an integral part of our lives.

Smartdust

Dr Kristofer Pister demonstrating the size of smart dust particles (Images: newilluminati.blog-city.com)

Smart dust is one particular brand of microcomputers that has been hailed as a society-changing element that will greatly improve and change the way we live our daily lives. Devised by Dr Kristofer Pister from the University of California in 2001, smart dust is able to gather information from its surrounding environment and send this to people or other computers.

A smart dust particle or mote is a wireless sensor that has four basic functions — sensing, computation, communication and power — all built into one tiny package. With smart dust being so low powered and inexpensive, the idea is to spread it everywhere — in every building, on every street, in every electrical device and ultimately, in or on every human being.

What smart dust is able to do is create a large invisible network that, in theory, would be able to manage the infrastructure of even the largest city in the world. Streets and buildings would be able to recognise people and respond accordingly. Workplaces would recognise employees and buzz you into the building. Smart dust could even send a lift to your floor and boot up your PC.

Of course the major concern involves privacy. If all of this information about you is available and gathered by smart dust, who else has access to it? Smart dust would also allow certain people to know exactly where you are at all times and could quite easily turn on you and deny you freedom of movement and access. It may sound like something from a movie, but the amount of control that powerful people could have on the masses via smart dust is certainly something to be cautious of.

What is a good idea is having smart dust monitor our roadways and transport systems. Smart dust scattered on the roads would be able to report potholes and traffic jams to commuters, and smart dust on the railways would be able to accurately report late trains in an instant. Bridges coated in smart dust would be able to report stress fractures, helping to avoid collapse and prevent disaster.

Smartdust

The first smart dust particles created in 2001, which were about the size of a deck of playing cards.

But do we want such fabric dispersed everywhere? Smart dust may be evolving to the microscopic level, but it is by no means undeniably safe. Several news reports were released in the past decade about a similar substance known as global environmental sensors (GEMS) that had been released into the atmosphere to monitor weather conditions. There was very little thought given to these electrical particles being inhaled once they descended to Earth, nor any given to the fact that several micro-organisms could ingest smart dust and die as a result.

It almost seems worth having to boot up your work PC manually and save a termite population in the process.

The Future: energy production and longevity

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THE FUTURE: Drinking water, energy, food production and longevity

WHAT we call “the future” may be closer than we think. The technology and solutions for many global issues already exist both in theory and practice; they just need to be properly implemented. Growing populations, clean drinking water, electricity, food production and even longevity are all on the cards within the coming decades…

Energy production in major cities

electricityFIRSTLY let’s just get something out of the way here. The whole energy crisis mumbo-jumbo is a complete myth. When there is something like load-shedding, this is the result of inefficiency. There is no longer a need to burn finite fossil fuels to produce electricity. Geothermal energy alone (which comes from the Earth) could power the entire planet for billions of years to come.

What’s more likely to happen, however, is that cities will use a combination of sustainable and renewable energy sources. We are all already familiar with tidal, wind and solar power, but some scientists are looking at heavy pedestrian areas as a possible energy source.

American inventor Elizabeth Redmond is looking at ways of generating electricity from human kinetic energy­, or foot traffic, using what she calls the POWERleap Flooring system. Thin and spongy smart panels which contain micro generators, produce piezoelectricity from applied mechanical pressure.

Power is produced and stored on the spot as people walk over them and go about their daily business. Placing these panels over busy sidewalks or pedestrian areas would produce enough electricity to power a large portion of a city’s electrical infrastructure (traffic lights, elevators­ etc.). Not only that, but sidewalks and cities would be a lot quieter too.

Longevity and Ageing

Anti-AgeingIT would be such a shame if all of this was to come to pass and we weren’t around to experience it. Exercise and diet aside, genetics are the way forward if we wish to enjoy longer life spans.

A good start for advancing longevity would be to have a personal copy of your genome or genetic profile. Iceland is already having its entire population profiled, which is a logical start as Iceland is a relatively small and closed population. Having­ an accurate copy of your body’s instruction manual, will allow you to take preventive measures in advance before the unfavourable genes strike.

Advances in modern medicine are also promising to extend our lives within the coming decades. A longevity gene has already been isolated which is currently extending the life span of mice two-fold. Fortunately we all possess this gene, it’s just a matter of triggering it. It may very well be possible to simply pop a “longevity pill” in the near future. You might also be delighted to know that the active ingredient for the longevity gene is found in red wine.

According to Cambridge scholar and founder of the Methuselah Foundation, Aubrey DeGrey, keeping our bodies young and youthful is just a matter of maintenance. DeGrey believes that we can combat ageing by treating it as a simple engineering problem. “When things break, we can fix them”, says DeGrey.

DeGrey’s Methuselah Foundation is offering a whopping grand prize of $4,5 million (roughly R31,5 million) to the research group that can most successfully extend the life span of lab mice by breaking the world record for the oldest mouse. The “Mprize” is designed to directly accelerate the development of revolutionary new life extension therapies, and it’s working.

The Future: What comes next?

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THE FUTURE: clean Drinking water, electricity, food production and longevity

WHAT we call “the future” may be closer than we think. The technology and solutions for many global issues already exist both in theory and practice; they just need to be properly implemented. Growing populations, clean drinking water, electricity, food production and even longevity are all on the cards within the coming decades…

Distilling fresh drinking water

Water splashDESPITE our little Earth being more than two-thirds water­, only three percent of this is drinkable. To make matters worse, a large portion of this miniscule percentage is either polluted or contaminated. Despite what some doomsayers might say, a lack of fresh water is single-handedly the biggest threat to the survival of our species and many others.

So how can we produce more of it cheaply? Simple. Boil dirty water beyond recognition. Boiling water at extreme temperatures not only kills germs, but rising water vapour leaves behind any sediment or pollutants, which don’t vaporise. Water vapour collected via this distilling process is highly pure and drinkable.

American inventor of the Segway, Dean Kamen, has invented a small portable device that can produce clean drinking water from any source — even ocean water and sewage. He calls it the Slingshot, which is designed to produce 1000 litres of clean drinking water a day and can be manufactured for under $2 000 (roughly R14 000).

Of course it takes huge amounts of energy to boil water at such temperatures. To counter this, Kamen uses­ a heat-exchange device which is powered by heat and produces the energy needed to create heat. This closed loop of energy allows the Slingshot to run on less power than a toaster.

Food production in major cities

Sky farmIT is estimated that about 80% of what grows in the ground can be grown indoors under controlled environments. Indoor farms and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) make so much sense when we consider that the majority of the world’s population lives in densely populated urban areas.

Furthermore, growing food directly where it’s needed, will result in lower inflation and therefore cheaper food. No fuel or transport costs would affect the price of staple foodstuffs. Weather conditions would no longer be an issue and we would no longer need to worry about farm attacks.

According to Dr Dickson Despommier from the University of Columbia, a 30-story high sky farm about the size of one New York city block, could consistently feed around 50 000 people per year. The logic is quite simple: to produce food where the people live. The result would be being able to get freshly picked fruit and vegetables easily and cheaply on a daily basis.

Link: The Vertical Farm

Brain Builders

TED TALK: Building a 3D model of the mammalian brain

HERE’S something that might blow your neo cortex. Neuroscientists are confident that within the next 10 years they will be able to construct an artificial human brain that functions very much like the real thing.

This is according to brain expert Henry Markram — director of Blue Brain, a supercomputing project that models components of the mammalian brain to precise cellular detail — and simulate their activity in 3D. Markram’s ultimate goal is to build a detailed, realistic­ computer model of the entire human brain.

Talk of neurology tends to be very scientific by nature, so I have attempted to dissect Markram’s work from a talk he gave at TED — a small non-profit organisation devoted to “ideas worth spreading”. TED started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from the three worlds of technology, entertainment and design, and the talks given in these fields are simply fantastic.

The neo cortical column

The holy grail of neuroscience is understanding the design of the neo cortical column, which could inevitably help us better understand perception and reality (Photos: Blue Brain)

BUILDING A BRAIN

Understanding the human brain is a key step in evolution that will better equip human beings to understand one another and the societies in which they live. Being able to study and experiment with working models of the human brain will also do away with the need for animal experimentation.

In his talk, Markram pointed out that there are over two billion people on the planet today suffering from mental disorders. The drugs that are used to treat such disorders are largely empirical and far from conclusive. Understanding the human brain may lead to more concrete solutions to treating people with such disorders.

Henry MarkramThere are many theories regarding how the brain works. One that is drawing the most attention according to Markram (pictured right) is one that theorises how the brain creates or builds a version of the universe and projects this around us. This particular theory has been part of philosophical debate for centuries. However, with brain simulation, this theory can finally be tested and explored further.

Markram highlights decisions as the main factor influencing our perceptual bubbles. Upon walking into a room for example, one has to immediately process all kinds of information regarding what you see. Decisions regarding the size of the room, its dimensions, the height to the roof, all the objects in the room etc. have to be made in an instant. Markram posits that 99% of what we see is not what enters through our eyeballs, but rather what we infer about that room.

OUR BRAIN IN EVOLUTION

If you are an evolutionist, you may know that it took the universe 11 billion years to develop the brain into what it is today. The exciting news is that this development has by no means slowed down. On the contrary, our brains are currently evolving faster than ever before. In fact, because of the restrictiveness of our skulls, we can already see how the growing brain has starting to fold in on itself to accommodate more grey matter.

BrainThe neo cortex is the latest evolutionary achievement. This is arranged in columns and is where all our more complex functions occur. The holy grail of neuroscience is understanding the design of the neocortical column, which could inevitably help us better understand perception and reality.

Neuroscientists have systematically dissected the neo cortex over the past 15 years. Understanding how the neo cortex works largely involves understanding how our neurons are arranged and communicate with each other.

The biggest design secret of the human brain, according to Markram, is diversity. Not only is every neuron different, but their arrangement differs too in each and every human being. What we do all share is the same fabric and chemistry, which is how we can all perceive and understand the same reality­. This is also believed to be species-specific, which might explain why we can’t communicate across species — more naturally at least.

To create a working model of the neo cortex of a rodent (consisting of 10 000 neurons), Markram and his team required an entire laptop to power a single­ neuron. A refrigerator-sized supercomputer was built (basically consisting of 10 000 laptops) and neuroscientists have began to gain the first glimpse of what happens in our brains when they receive a stimulus.

Stimulating stuff!

Automated governance ?

AUTOMATED GOVERNANCE: Computer-controlled city centers

IT was predicted that in the year 2010 planes would consist of a single pilot and a dog. The job of the pilot would be to feed the dog; the reason for the dog is to bite the pilot if he or she touches anything.

artificial intelligenceMany people have developed a genuine fear that artificial intelligence could one day take over the world if it got too advanced and somehow became self-aware. Hollywood is largely to blame for this unnecessary fear. The Matrix trilogy is a prime culprit.

In truth, certain sections of society have become more automated or controlled by AI without many of us even being aware of it. Before, pilots used to quite literally guess what altitudes they were flying at, what the weather may be like higher up and use all their skills and praying power to land a plan safely. Today, we use machines to ascertain such information. No questions asked.

One could cite several examples of how our society is gradually moving closer to automated governance — where room for human error is becoming less of a worry. But why are we not making more use of AI forms of governance? We all know that power breeds corruption in governance. History has tried to teach us this for centuries. There is no need to point any fingers.

Automated governance: An artificially intelligent city

Future City

Computer-controlled city centres are the beginnings of an automated governance system

Image: CG4TV.com

Imagine, if you will, a round city that is built around a central computerized hub. In this hub would exist all forms of governance that keep the city running safely and smoothly. Citizens would be able to approach this AI hub and input questions to receive information, such as “how abundant is the city’s water supply”? If there is a water shortage the automated city-brain could offer calculated suggestions on how best to distribute what’s left.

A centralized, automated hub could constantly monitor the air, the earth and the water supply and gather all demographic information relating to a city, which could then be called up on request. Having a machine monitor the air and automatically eliminate contaminants is not new technology. We don’t all have to live in domes to experience the benefits of such. So why aren’t we making use of it?

The illusion is that AI could get dangerously out of control and start using our air and water for its own evil purposes (that is, of course, once a machine­ learns morality and the difference between good and evil).

A different argument is that a computer of that size and capacity would be very expensive to build. This is also not true. A lot of money is spent every year on sociological research — most of which could be saved by having a computer do the work for us. Quantitative research especially would also be far more accurate in an automated governance system.

Automated governance: AI for mayor?

This proposed form of automated governance is not as radical as you may think. It does not supersede all forms of human decision making. Rather, it suggests that we should no longer fear machines, but instead apply them intelligently enough to improve the standard of human living and create sustainable city life.

Sustainable round city

Sustainable round city

In such a city there would still be a need for a mayoral figure of some kind — a democratically elected person to take every citizen’s inputs into account and make the final digital commands. The rest is just paperwork really.

Of course, it would also be wise to start small when it comes to societal reconstruction. As creatures of habit, we are all set in our ways and many people fear change.

However­, I don’t see what’s stopping the powers that be from at least experimenting with such an idea. Perhaps their job security is at stake.

So if any of you are planning on building a city any time soon, please consider automated governance and understand how much better our cities of the future could be. And if that isn’t enough to make the public feel safe and secure, we could always have two guard dogs instead of one.

  • If you were intrigued by this article on automated governance, I would highly recommend giving the documentary film Future by Design a discerning watch. Alternatively, I have written five related articles based on the film, which you can find under A Resource Based Economy.
  1. Part 1: The power of the planet
  2. Part 2: A world without money
  3. Part 3: Incentive to work in a moneyless society
  4. Part 4: Future by Design
  5. Part 5: Smart Homes