September 7, 2012
It’s been a month since Curiosity’s remarkable soft landing on the surface of Mars. (Video) Remember the massive, supersonic parachute that slowed the spacecraft’s descent from 1,000 down to 200 miles per hour, and the sky crane that lowered the rover on 20-foot long cables the rest of the way, touching down at a speed of under two miles per hour?
And who can forget the unnerving “Seven Minutes of Terror,” the time that would pass before NASA scientists here on Earth would know if they had pulled it off or trashed a $350 million vehicle.
Science and drama? Now that’s a special occasion.
But, sadly, the thrills are gone. A few days ago, the big news from Mars was that Curiosity had traveled 100 feet. Or a little more than three first downs in an NFL game. Yesterday’s press release from NASA announced that the rover had extended its arm.
I know, I know, all this is being orchestrated by scientists about 60 million miles away. That is truly amazing. And this is how science is done. It’s methodical and repetitive.
But we have become a jaded bunch here on 21st century Earth and soon enough most of us will likely lose interest in reports of a machine digging in dirt, even if it is Martian dirt.
Now Curiosity is all about the science. But we’d rather have the fiction.
Submarines in space
No need to fret, though. NASA still has plenty of imagination when it comes to exploring the universe. Or at least it’s willing to put up seed money for ideas that now seem as fanciful as lowering a rover on to the surface of Mars once did. Last month, as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, NASA provided funding to further study 28 different concepts with just the right touch of crazy.
Here are eight of the more intriguing ones:
1) It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a wing: Flying wings aren’t new, but a star-shaped aircraft designed by a team at the University of Miami would take the concept in a new direction. Literally. Called a “Supersonic Bi-Directional Flying Wing,” it would fly sideways. It would take off in a conventional manner, then rotate 90 degrees in flight for supersonic travel. Its inventors see the wing flying from New York to Tokyo in four hours without producing a sonic boom, thanks to its unique design.
2) Sailing on Venus: Venus is one of the nastier spots in our solar system, with its average temperature of 450 degrees Centigrade and thick atmosphere of corrosive gases. But a group of NASA scientists has come up with a concept for a vehicle they say could scoot along its surface. It’s a rover powered by a sail that would take advantage of the planet’s strong winds tied to its extremely high atmospheric pressure.
3) Breaking the ice: Jupiter’s moon Europa has three times as much water as Earth, but it’s all under a thick layer of ice. That hasn’t discouraged a group of scientists at Virginia Tech who have proposed the idea of a heavy, heated torpedo that would melt the ice, then release a robotic underwater glider/submarine to explore the mysterious world beneath it.
4) Could you do that with cheese?: A big challenge to settling our moon is the need for astronauts to bring building materials with them. But a University of Southern California engineer may have developed a technology to get around that. It’s called Contour Crafting and it would allow structures to be built on the moon layer by layer using a paste made of heated-up lunar soil.
5) Pump you up: One of the risks of long space trips for astronauts is the tendency of their muscles to atrophy in zero gravity. Calves alone can lose up to 20 percent of their mass. But a scientist named Kevin Duda has created something he calls the V2 suit. It would use gyroscopes and accelerometers to track different body parts and add “viscous resistance” to mimic the sensation of gravity where it’s needed.
6) On a roll: Think tumbleweeds. That’s the basic concept behind “super ball bots,” round robots of interlocking rods and cables that would land on a planet, then be directed to roll to areas of interest. The idea is based on Buckminster Fuller’s design of round structures with no rigid connections. They’re lightweight, but amazingly stable and durable.
7) Print my ride: NASA scientists have proposed the idea of printable spacecraft--flat sheets embedded with all the electronics a robotic spacecraft needs — sensors for gathering information, data processing, data downlink and a communications system. In theory at least, multiple sheets of spacecraft could float around a planet gathering data.
8) Waste not, want not: Finally, there’s Water Walls. It’s a concept where walls filled with water would not only recycle astronauts’ waste, but would also protect them from radiation and purify the air. The walls can’t talk, at least not yet.
Video bonus: The bi-directional flying wing is so cool it comes with a soundtrack.
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August 20, 2012
Last week The Voice was back. I’m not referring to the treacly TV show or the latest crooner chased down by TMZ. I’m talking about Julia Child.
In honor of what would have been her 100th birthday, America’s first real TV chef was all over the airwaves. Or at least her voice was, a voice that, on first hearing, sounded like it could set off car alarms, or maybe was a car alarm. But it was all part of the package, a presence as genuine as it was gangly. There was nothing snooty about Julia as she taught Americans French cooking. If you dropped a piece of lamb and you were alone in the kitchen, she once confided to viewers, just pick it up. No one had to know.
So it was no small irony that the day after her birthday, the New Scientist’s website published a piece about how robots, sensors and augmented reality are now being used to train novice chefs. It’s good that Julia never had to hear about this.
Something’s watching you
Nonetheless, this is where cooking is headed, a future where precision and skill in the kitchen will have as much to do with what’s watching as who’s training.
Consider the setup that computer scientist Yu Suzuki and his team have created in a test kitchen at Kyoto Sangyo University. They’ve installed cameras and projectors on the ceiling that project cooking instructions right on the ingredients.
So, let’s say you want to filet a fish. Once you place it on a chopping board, the camera detects its size and shape and the projector then overlays the equivalent of a virtual dotted line showing you where to make the cut. In a macabre twist, instructive word bubbles appear at the fish’s mouth to ensure that his gutting is done properly.
So far, because the scientists have to program each process manually, Suzuki’s system can teach people only how to prepare fish and peel onions. But he promises that once it’s automated, its repertoire will grow quickly.
Do the right thing
Then there’s Jinna Lei, a robotics Ph.D. student at the University of Washington. She’s also using cameras in the kitchen, specifically Kinect-like depth-sensing cameras capable of recording both the shape and appearance of kitchen objects. And that allows them to track cooking actions, such as whether a certain ingredient has been poured into a bowl.
Eventually, says Lei, the system should be able to alert the cook if he or she makes a mistake. Already, she’s tested it with a cake-baking video and it was able to identify, in seconds, the start and end points of 17 different recipe actions.
Still another chef-teaching technique has been developed by researcher Thomas Ploetz at the University of Newcastle in the U.K. He has installed sensors in kitchen utensils which record when and how they’re used by the novice cooks. And since they hear their instructions from a computer in French, the chefs learn both cooking and French.
Now that Julia would have loved.
Here are more recent innovations on the food front:
- Oodles of noodles: A Chinese restaurateur has started mass-producing robots that can tirelessly hand-slice noodles into a pot of boiling water. One robot costs about $2,000 in American dollars; a human doing the same job in China would make about $4,700 a year. (That’s right, $4,700.)
- I, Sushi Master: Meanwhile, in Japan, a new robot is cranking out 2,500 perfect sushi rolls an hour. The machine injects a puff of air into each tofu skin to open it up fully, then a second robotic probe tucks the sushi rice inside the corners.
- The printer needs more meat: A startup in Missouri is promoting the idea that one day hamburgers could be produced on a 3-D printer. The company, Modern Meadow, thinks it will be able to “print” slivers of environmentally-friendly, in-vitro meat. I know, doesn’t
sound too tasty, but Pay Pal co-founder and billionaire Peter Thiel has kicked in about $300,000 to see if it could actually work.
- Can you earn rewards for banning cell phone yakking?: If they can make a game out of running a farm, why not one where you manage a restaurant? So now there’s a game app called Cafeteria Nipponica where you hire staff, create dishes, maybe set up a mobile phone campaign to get customers in the door. And if you really get serious, you can try your hand at trying to run three restaurants at the same time.
- Do we really need to make it easier to buy donuts?: Dunkin’ Donuts has gone the Starbucks route and is now offering a mobile payment app that lets you set up your own donut account where you can pay at the counter by scanning your phone over a barcode. You can even use the app to send donut gift cards to your friends, for which they will either love you or hate you. Probably both.
Video bonus: In case you forgot what a charmer Julia Child could be, watch this 1987 clip where she whips out a blow torch to grill up a burger for David Letterman. And for a bonus bonus, here’s a great new remix of Julia at her snappy best.
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July 30, 2012
Not long ago, banner ads showing coffins draped with American flags started appearing on websites in Yemen. They had been placed by supporters of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Their message was that Americans were the enemy and Al Qaeda was killing them.
A few days later people working for the U.S. State Department posted banners on the same websites, only this time the coffins were covered with Yemeni flags, photoshopped into the image. The message also had changed. This time it said that most of the people killed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were Yemen.
For all the attention paid to drone strikes and intelligence coups, the daily grind of counterterrorism is as much a digital parry and thrust, a continuous war of words and ideas played out on websites, chat rooms, forums, blogs and Twitter feeds. Now, experts will tell you, it’s all about the cyber-narrative.
And the State Department, specifically a group within it called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, is taking on this role with tools and techniques few could have imagined in the days after 9/11. Among other things, they’re training people to be trolls.
Hit them with your best shot
It’s part of something called Viral Peace. As yet, it’s a small project with a miniscule budget by federal government standards, but this gives you a sense of what’s now in play when it comes to counterterrorism tactics. The man behind it, a former Silicon Valley geek named Shahed Amanullah, believes that impressionable young men and women can be discouraged from becoming terrorists by challenging and undercutting extremists online, which is where they do most of their recruiting.
As he told Wired in a recent interview, Amanullah intends to use “logic, humor, satire, religious arguments, not just to confront them, but to undermine and demoralize them.”
To that end he sent two members of his team to Muslim countries–Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Phillipines, Pakistan–where they met with young adults who had already developed online followings. Better for them to do the trolling instead of people who’d be seen as mouthpieces of the U.S. government.
How effective this guerilla strategy of ridicule and rebuke will ultimately be is anyone’s guess, although people who monitor extremists online say they generally don’t respond well to being challenged. But it’s clear that the strategy of using the Web to take on terrorists goes all the way to the top of the State Department.
None other than Hillary Clinton was the one who proudly revealed the story of the photoshopped coffins.
Have I got a story for you
Meanwhile, over at the Pentagon, the focus on controlling the narrative has taken an even more intriguing turn. DARPA, the Defense Department agency that funds cutting-edge research, is underwriting a study of what happens in the brain to incite political violence and how reshaping the narrative can help make people less radical.
The concept is called Narrative Networks and it looks at how stories affect the brain and human behavior, with the goal of finding ways to present narratives that help persuade people not to become terrorists.
Critics have already railed that it has all the makings of a new form of mind control, that with the highly sophisticated brain scans available today, a government could get a far better sense of how to refine messaging to make it more effective at changing people’s minds.
One of the researchers on the project, Paul Zak, of Claremont Graduate University in California, studies how listening to stories affects the brain’s release of oxytocin, known as the “love” or “trust” hormone. He says the purpose of the research is to see what kind of messages would help people view the military in the best possible light.
“We’re not in the business of reading people’s minds or implanting thoughts,” says Greg Berns, an Emory University professor also doing brain research for DARPA. “By understanding the biology of what causes people to go to war, we might begin to understand how to mitigate it.”
The fight stuff
Here’s more of the latest research into devices geared to 21st century warfare:
- Inner vision: Veritas Scientific is developing for the Pentagon a helmet it says will help identify enemies. When placed on a person’s head, it would use sensors to read their brain’s reactions to images flashed on the helmet’s visor, such as specs for how to make a bomb.
- Think fast: U.S. soldiers may soon be able to use a new technology called Sentinel, binoculars connected to a computer that would actually speed up the brain’s normal thought-processing so threats can be identified more quickly.
- Shock troops: Next month some U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan will start carrying a small pack called a Soldier Body Unit. Developed by the Georgia Tech Research Institute, it’s equipped with sensors that will measure the force of blasts that soldiers have been exposed to, and help doctors know if he or she has suffered a concussion.
- That’s what he said: In May DARPA awarded a $7 million contract for the first phase of a project to create software that not only would translate all aspects of a foreign language, –including slang, regional dialects, and text messaging lingo–but would do it in real time.
- Sound effects: And earlier this month DARPA unveiled a technique for putting out a fire using only sound. By playing a low-frequency bass note through two speakers pointed at the flame, researchers were able to increase air velocity and create a wider and cooler flame that sputtered out.
Video bonus: DARPA’s also been very big on funding robots. Here’s its AlphaDog Robot lugging 400 pounds over rugged terrain.
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July 16, 2012
But Sherlock Holmes, now he would have been impressed. The logic, the science, the compilation of data–all the stuff of Holmesian detective work.
I’m talking about something known as predictive policing–gathering loads of data and applying algorithms to deduce where and when crimes are most likely to occur. Late last month, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it will be expanding its use of software created by a California startup named PredPol.
For the past six months, police in that city’s Foothill precinct have been following the advice of a computer and the result, according the the LAPD, is a 25 percent drop in reported burglaries in the neighborhoods to which they were directed. Now the LAPD has started using algorithm-driven policing in five more precincts covering more than 1 million people.
PredPol’s software, which previously had been tested in Santa Cruz–burglaries there dropped by 19 percent–actually evolved from a program used to predict earthquakes. Now it crunches years of crime data, particularly location and time, and refines it with what’s known about criminal behavior, such as the tendency of burglars to work the neighborhoods they know best.
Before each shift, officers are given maps marked with red boxes of likely hot spots for property crimes, in some cases zeroing in on areas as small as 500 feet wide. They’re told that whenever they’re not on calls, they should spend time in one of the boxes, preferably at least 15 minutes of every two hours. The focus is less on solving crimes, and more on preventing them by establishing a high profile in crime zones the computer has targeted.
Taking it to the streets
So, isn’t this pretty much what police always have done? Don’t they figure out patterns and spend most of their time patrolling high-crime areas? Well, yes and no. Good cops know trouble spots and veteran ones rely on what they’ve learned about a place over the years. But that’s largely based on personal experience and instinct, not statistical analysis.
It’s also true that many cities already have embraced CompStat, a law enforcement strategy launched in New York City in the mid-1990s and built around analysis of crime reports. CompStat was a big leap forward in applying data to crime-fighting, but it was still more about looking back than projecting forward.
PredPol and similar software that IBM has developed for police departments in Memphis and just recently, in Charleston, South Carolina, is far more precise and timely, with the data recalibrated daily. And while it might take a human analyst hours or even days to spot a pattern, the computer can connect the dots in seconds.
At the very least, say boosters of predictive policing, the software allows police to spend more time on the street instead of sitting in strategy sessions. Computers can handle more of the planning–which make this even more appealing to all the police departments losing officers to budget cuts.
Bad search results
But, as is often the case when computers call the shots, algorithmic crime-fighting makes some people nervous. Critics say it could easily lead to racial profiling or reinforcing stereotypes about certain neighborhoods, that once a computer identifies an area as a hot spot, it lowers the bar for what qualifies as suspicious behavior.
It’s only a matter of time, argues Andrew Ferguson, a Washington D.C. law professor, before a search based on predictive policing gets challenged in court. Here’s his take, from a recent interview with the Charleston (S.C.) City Paper:
“I think what you would say is the worst case — and I don’t even think this is that far-fetched — is that there will be a case where someone gets stopped on a street corner for suspicion of burglary. It’ll go before a court, and they’ll say, ‘OK, officer, what was your reasonable suspicion for stopping this person?’
“And he’ll say, ‘The computer told me,’ essentially, right? ‘The computer said look out for burglaries, I saw this guy in the location, so I stopped him because he looked like a burglar.’ And race, class, all of those things obviously are a part of it. And the judge will then just defer.
“How are you going to cross-examine the computer?”
21st century crime busting
Here are more examples of how technology is changing law enforcement:
- The eyes have it: As part of a project to expand on its old fingerprint database, the FBI is adding server space to store iris scans. More jails now are using high-res cameras to create images of prisoners’ irises when they’re booked.
- Smartphone justice: Britain’s Scotland Yard has created a smartphone app called Facewatch that encourages Londoners to help find criminals. Users enter their postal code and they’re shown pictures of suspects who may be in their areas. If they recognize somebody, they can tap on the image and send in that person’s name.
- Face to face: Engineers at Michigan State University have created algorithms that could make it easier to track down criminals by matching sketches made by police artists with images in a database of mug shots. That can make sketches, often based on unreliable traumamtic memories, more effective in solving crimes.
- Let’s go toss some robots: Police and firefighters have started using the Recon Scout Throwbot, an eight-inch long robot that can be thrown like a football, but lands upright and transmits video through its camera.
- The devil made me not do it: Researchers in Oregon say their analysis of more than 25 years of data suggests that crime rates tend to be lower in societies where many people believe in Hell and God’s punitive nature than in those where most people put their faith in a forgiving God.
Video bonus: For old times sake, spend a little time with Peter Falk as Columbo, the ultimate low-tech detective.
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July 12, 2012
Yesterday the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, as it had 32 times before, voted to repeal what’s become known as Obamacare. There is no chance the Democratic Senate will follow suit.
So, until the November election, it looks like health care at the national level will pretty much live in the Land of Swirling Rhetoric and Symbolic Gestures.
This is unfortunate because it’s a slice of our future that’s pockmarked with some ugly realities. Here’s a personal favorite: Two years ago, more than 40 million people 65 years or older lived in the U.S. By mid-century, more than twice that many people–roughly 88 million–will be that old. That’s one out of every five Americans.
In other countries, particularly in Europe, it will be even worse, with a stunningly high percentage of their populations expected to be on the downhill side of 60. In Spain, 37 percent of the people will be that old. In Japan, it will be even higher, maybe as high as 43 percent.
No question that a whole lot more people in the world are going to need help taking care of themselves. Which is why there’s a big push now to see how much of that load can be handled by technology–from wearable sensors to helper robots.
Here are 10 tech tools that are making it easier for old folks to avoid spending their final years in nursing homes:
1) One day we will all be Kinected: Researchers at the University of Missouri are testing to see if they can use Kinect motion sensors—yes, the ones originally designed for xBox games–to monitor elderly residents in another state. This is considered less intrusive than using actual video cameras since they’d be seeing only silhouette images. The system’s already being used at an independent living facility near the Missouri campus; now, with the help of a National Science Foundation grant, the scientists are going to see how well it works in keeping in touch with old people in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
2) But there’s still no curmudgeon meter: They were introduced in Japan two years ago and now wireless sensors that attach to your chest and track heart beat, body surface temperature, stress levels and movements have a good chance of becoming a standard part of the senior wardrobe. All that data, gathered on what’s called a “human recorder system,” is then transmitted to a mobile phone or PC.
3) A bed that gets up with you: Here’s another invention from Japan, where already more than 20 percent of the population is over 65. Panasonic has developed a bed that easily converts into a wheelchair so that an elderly person can become mobile without actually having to get up out of bed. But Panasonic hasn’t stopped there. It also has created a robot that shampoos and blow-dries your hair. As yet, it doesn’t give advice.
4) Smell the virtual grapes: You can’t expect seniors to do a lot of cycling in traffic, but those trying to stay in shape by using stationary bikes can get bored pretty quickly. A study in Schenectady, New York earlier this year, though, found that elderly people not only were more likely to get back on the bike if they had virtual reality images of France or California or outer space in front of them, but also that the faux scenery kept their brains sharper.
5) The nurse is always in: It’s not exactly a magic pendant, but Nurse Alert can do a pretty decent job of protecting people. The device, which you can wear around your neck or carry in your pocket, gives you 24-hour access to nurses. There’s an emergency button that connects a person directly to a monitoring center and also a non-emergency button that patches you through to a “Nurse Triage Call Center.” Another feature can detect if the person with the pendant falls down. It automatically alerts the nurse center. If the person doesn’t respond to a nurse, emergency crews are called.
6) Robots with helper people: Now here’s a different spin on outsourcing. Willow Garage, a California robotics company, is exploring the idea of having human workers remotely help robots take care of elderly people. Called the Heaphy Project, it would involve having a person remotely control a robot using just a Web browser. Say an elderly person dropped something; the worker, who could be on the other side of the planet, would be able to see what happened through a video feed, then guide the robot to pick it up.
7) Only my phone really knows me: It wasn’t designed specifically for seniors, but a new Android-based smartphone called LifeWatch V will be able to help them let their doctors know how they’re doing between checkups. By holding his finger over sensors on the phone, a person can get an electrocardiogram reading or data on their stress levels, heart rate, body fat and temperature. The phone can also be used to help diabetics monitor their blood sugar levels. All of the info is automatically stored in the cloud and can easily be forwarded to a doctor’s office.
8) But he doesn’t do zumba: When you’re 80, you’re not looking for buff in a fitness instructor. So who cares if Taizo the robot looks like the the Michelin Man after bariatric surgery? Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and a spin-off called General Robotix created the small humanoid bot a few years ago to lead classes of seniors in stretching and light exercises. He can bust 30 moves.
9) Beware of cuteness overload: While we’re talking robots, you can’t leave out Kabochan, a doll-like robot that’s been a big hit with elderly folks in Japan since it went on the market late last year. It’s modeled after a three-year-old boy–one that knows 400 phrases, responds to light, sound and movement and never throws a fit. What’s not to like?
10) Your memory cheat sheet: When people talk about Google glasses, no one mentions old people. But can you imagine how much sweeter old age could be if you never had to worry about remembering a name or place or anything else? Who needs a memory when you can augment reality?
Video bonus: Here’s a demo clip of Kabochan, the little robot doll that’s become so popular among seniors in Japan. Be prepared, though, it may make you very afraid of your future.
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