Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Nov 08 2013

Emerging Technologies

Most Fridays I submit a blog post to Swift, the official blog of the JREF. The article I submitted this morning is about a new study demonstrating  a brain-machine-interface (BMI) that allows a rhesus monkey to control two robotic arms at the same time. This is a technology I have been following here at NeuroLogica, blogging about it whenever I think a cool breakthrough is made.

The topic touches on several areas simultaneously that I find fascinating – neuroscience, computer technology, virtual reality, and predicting future technology. I make the point, as I often do, that predicting future technology has a terrible track record, with the only reasonable conclusion being that it is very difficult.

It’s fun to look back at past future predictions and see what people generally got right and what they got wrong, and then see if we can learn any general lessons that we can apply to predicting future technology.

Major Hurdles

For example, we are not all flying around with jetpacks or taking our flying car to work. This has become, in fact, a cliche of failed future technologies. I think the lesson here is that both of these technologies suffer from a major hurdle – fuel is heavy, and if you have to carry your fuel around with you it quickly becomes prohibitive. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to overcome this limitation with chemical fuel or batteries.

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Oct 31 2013

Thorium Reactors

Published by under Technology

Thorium is a radioactive element (atomic number 90), discovered by a Norwegian and named after the Norse god, Thor. It is fairly common in the earth’s crust, widely distributed throughout the world, with the largest deposits in Australia, the US, Turkey, and India.

If advocates have their way, you may be hearing more about thorium in the future. It is a potential fuel for nuclear reactors. We have not yet fully developed the technology for building thorium reactors, and the debate is on over whether or not this is a useful investment of energy development funds.

Carbon emissions and global climate change have raised the stakes of this controversy. I am with Bill Nye in advocating searching for the win-wins in combating carbon emissions – rather than asking people to sacrifice, find ways of improving their lives while lowering carbon emissions. The question is, is thorium a potential win-win?

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Jul 25 2013

Mission to Mars

Published by under Technology

In the decades prior to December 17, 1903, when the Wright Brothers flew for the first time at Kitty Hawk, the invention of the heavier-than-air flying machine was highly anticipated. There was a buzz. Many teams were working on the invention, and there were many false premature reports of sightings.

Today I get the same feeling about a mission to Mars. It seems that we’re just ready for such a mission, and multiple teams are proposing concepts for how to get there.

The latest proposal comes from scientists at the Imperial College London. They do not suggest any new technology or techniques, but simply put together a plan for addressing all the technical hurdles to such a mission. Their proposal is for a three person crew to travel to Mars and be safely returned home.

Here are the issues that need to be addressed on such a mission.

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Apr 18 2013

Predicting the Future

An Iranian inventor claims to have created a machine that can predict an individual’s future 5-8 years in advance. Ali Razeghi claims to have registered “The Aryayek Time Traveling Machine” with the state-run Centre for Strategic Inventions, but the Iranian government denies this.

Details are, as you might suspect, sketchy. Razeghi claims his machine works by a complex “algorithm.” It sounds like it’s a machine, not just computer software. Also he claims that the machine works by simply touching the user.

Obviously this is nonsense, but stories like this (now spread far and wide by the internet) always raise the question for skeptics and scientists – how do we address scientific claims that are “impossible,” and is it even meaningful to characterize anything as impossible given the limitations of human knowledge?

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Apr 15 2013

Twitterpated

Published by under Technology

Social media has been getting a bad rap recently. Blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media outlets have certainly had a dramatic impact on how people communicate. They are powerful tools and many people have put them to good use.

There are some unintended consequences as well, and as a society we are still learning to adapt to this new factor in our lives. There are issues of privacy, the rules of social behavior, and the ethics of spreading dubious information online.

We discussed two related issues recently on the SGU. The first was about the recent paper, “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation,” by Lewandowsky. Essentially Lewandowsky wrote a paper about conspiracy theories around the denial of global warming. Part of the backlash against that paper by self-described global warming skeptics included further conspiracy theories about the paper. Lewandowsky could not resist the irony, hence his subsequent paper.

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Apr 09 2013

Assessing Solar Energy

Published by under Technology

I’m a big fan of solar energy, and specifically photovoltaics (PV). The earth is bathed in free clean energy, far more than we need to run our civilization, and all we have to do is harvest it. But, of course, it’s not that simple.

There are many ways to calculate the efficiency and effectiveness of PV technology. One way it to calculate its cost-effectiveness compared to other forms of energy. The bottom line for any consumer is this – if you install PV in your residence, what is the total cost of installation and maintenance compared to the cost savings of the energy produced?

You can also think about the energy efficiency of PV – what is the total energy cost of manufacturing, maintaining, and disposing of PV across its lifetime compared to the amount of electricity it generates.

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Apr 01 2013

Brain to Brain Interface

We are seeing the beginning of technology to interface computers and brains. I have been writing about brain-machine-interface (BMI) technology, and brain-machine-brain interface technology. Now we have a report of brain to brain communication, which is currently as close as we can come to telepathy.

Actually, the technology is – brain to machine to another machine and then to another brain – technology. Imagine having a computer chip implanted in your brain that can read your brain activity. This information is then transferred to a computer chip implanted in someone else’s brain, who can then access that information.

If this exchange were happening in real time through wireless transfer with sufficient resolution, that would essentially be telepathy.

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Mar 07 2013

Online Illness Early Detection

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

Any intervention that interacts with a large system is bound to have unintended consequences. This concept is often brought up in the context of government – laws are passed to have a certain desired effect but have unintended secondary effects, often in opposition to what was desired.

Technology also can have unforeseen results. It is conventional wisdom, for example, that the invention of the cotton gin, intended to make cotton processing more efficient, also has the consequence of making slaves in much higher demand, leading ultimately to the civil war.

Arguably one of the biggest technological creations of our generation is the internet. It has transformed the way we access information. Predictions as to its utility were all over the place, some fairly accurate in certain respects, others way off.

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Feb 28 2013

Tattoo Electrodes

Headlines read: “Temporary tattoos could make electronic telepathy and telekinesis possible.” The technology is actually quite cool and interesting, but it is distressing how much of the mainstream reporting has been calculated to misinform for the sake of some cheap sensationalism. The technology is interesting enough without turning it into science fiction.

The temporary tattoos are really skin surface electrodes that can read electrical signals, such as EEG signals from the brain. They can also incorporate other sensors, like heat or light sensors. They can contain antenna to receive energy or communication, and wireless technology to communicate to devices.

The electrode circuits are also thin (100 microns), flexible, and small. Combining several features into such a small device is the real advance here, expanding the number of feasible applications of such technology.

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Feb 26 2013

Neuroscience of User Friendly

Published by under Technology

I have been involved in assessing and implementing several medical informatics applications, as electronic medical records (EMR), expert systems, and other software applications are becoming more common in my field. For this reason I have had to explain to others specific details of what I mean by “user friendly.” I’m a nerd, so I just like becoming super reductionist about such things. It also occurred to me that there are some findings of neuroscience that are relevant to the question.

In colloquial terms “user friendly” means a software application that is easy to use. There are several aspects to ease of use, however. I am coming at this from the perspective of an experienced user, not a programmer, so consider this a (somewhat cranky) user’s guide to being user-friendly. The types of issues I list below are actually all related and interact with each other, but I find it helpful to consider them as distinct issues.

Intuitive

One aspect is often referred to as “intuitiveness.” An application is said to be intuitive if it is easy to figure out how to use it without specific instructions, reading the manual, or extensive prior specific knowledge. Functions should be labeled in plain language that makes their use obvious. Remember all the jokes about Windows users having to click the ‘Start’ button in order to shut down the computer?

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