Tag: change (page 18 of 90)

Elon Musk drops space plans into Seattle’s lap




Excerpt from seattletimes.com

Elon Musk thought three major trends would drive the future: the Internet, the quest for sustainable energy and space exploration. He’s got skin in all three games.

Of all the newcomers we’ve seen here lately, one of the more interesting is Elon Musk.

The famous entrepreneur isn’t going to live here, at least not yet. But earlier this month he did announce plans to bulk up an engineering center near Seattle for his SpaceX venture. The invitation-only event was held in the shadow of the Space Needle.
If the plan happens, SpaceX would join Planetary Resources and Blue Origin in a budding Puget Sound space hub. With talent from Boeing, the aerospace cluster and University of Washington, this offers fascinating potential for the region’s future.

Elon Musk sounds like the name of a character from a novel that would invariably include the sentence, “he had not yet decided whether to use his powers for good or for evil.”

He is said to have been the inspiration for the character Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr. in the “Iron Man” movies. He’s also been compared to Steve Jobs and even Thomas Edison.

The real Musk seems like a nice-enough chap, at least based on his ubiquitous appearances in TED talks and other venues.

Even the semidishy essay in Marie Claire magazine by his first wife, Justine, is mostly about the challenge to the marriage as Musk became very rich, very young, started running with a celebrity crowd and exhibited the monomaniacal behavior common to the entrepreneurial tribe.

A native of South Africa, Musk emigrated to Canada and finally to the United States, where he received degrees from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School. He left Stanford’s Ph.D. program in applied physics after two days to start a business.
In 1995, he co-founded Zip2, an early Internet venture for newspapers. Four years later, he co-founded what would become PayPal. With money from eBay’s acquisition of PayPal, he started SpaceX. He also invested in Tesla Motors, the electric-car company, eventually becoming chief executive. Then there’s Solar City, a major provider of solar-power systems.

Musk has said that early on he sensed three major trends would drive the future: the Internet, the quest for sustainable energy and space exploration. He’s got skin in all three games.

At age 43, Musk is seven years younger than Jeff Bezos and more than 15 years younger than Bill Gates.

His achievements haven’t come without controversy. Tesla played off several states against each other for a battery factory. Nevada, desperate to diversify its low-wage economy, won, if you can call it that.

The price tag was $1.4 billion in incentives and whether it ever pays off for the state is a big question. A Fortune magazine investigation showed Musk not merely as a visionary but also a master manipulator with a shaky deal. Musk, no shrinking violet, fired back on his blog.

SpaceX is a combination of the practical and the hyperambitious, some would say dreamy.

On the practical side, the company is one of those chosen by the U.S. government to resupply the International Space Station. Musk also hopes to put 4,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit to provide inexpensive Internet access worldwide.

The satellite venture will be based here, with no financial incentives from the state.

But he also wants to make space travel less expensive, generate “a lot of money” through SpaceX, and eventually establish a Mars colony.

“SpaceX, or some combination of companies and governments, needs to make progress in the direction of making life multiplanetary, of establishing a base on another planet, on Mars — being the only realistic option — and then building that base up until we’re a true multiplanet species,” he said during a TED presentation.

It’s heady stuff. And attractive enough to lead Google and Fidelity Investments to commit $1 billion to SpaceX.

Also, in contrast with the “rent-seeking” and financial plays of so many of the superwealthy, Musk actually wants to create jobs and solve practical problems.

If there’s a cautionary note, it is that market forces alone can’t address many of our most serious challenges. Indeed, in some cases they make them worse.

Worsening income inequality is the work of the hidden hand, unfettered by antitrust regulation, progressive taxation, unions and protections against race-to-the-bottom globalization.

If the hidden costs of spewing more carbon into the atmosphere are not priced in, we have today’s market failure exacerbating climate change. Electric cars won’t fix that as long as the distortions favoring fossil fuels remain.

So a broken, compromised government that’s cutting research dollars and failing to invest in education and forward-leaning infrastructure is a major impediment.

The United States did not reach the moon because of a clever billionaire, but through a national endeavor to serve the public good. I know, that’s “so 20th century.” 

Also, as Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon might argue, visionaries such as Thomas Edison grabbed relatively low-hanging fruit, with electrification creating huge numbers of jobs. 

Merely recovering the lost demand of the Great Recession has proved difficult. Another electrificationlike revolution that lifts all boats seems improbable.

I’m not sure that’s true. But it will take more than Iron Man to rescue the many Americans still suffering.

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With innovators from around the globe digging in, public moon travel may be only 20 years away



moon
Image Credit: hkeita/Shutterstock


Excerpt from  venturebeat.com
By Vivek Wadhwa

Five teams competing for the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE have just been awarded a combined $5.25 million for meeting significant milestones in developing a robot that can safely land on the surface of the moon, travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send mooncasts back to the Earth. A tiny startup from India, Team Indus, with no experience in robotics or space flight just won $1 million of this prize. It stood head to head with companies that had been funded by billionaires, had received the assistance of NASA, and had the support of leading universities.
The good news is that governments no longer have a monopoly on space exploration. In two or three decades, we will have entrepreneurs taking us on private spaceflights to the moon. That is what has become possible.

What has changed since the days of the Apollo moon landings is that the cost of building technologies has dropped exponentially. What cost billions of dollars then costs millions now, and sometimes even less. Our smartphones have computers that are more powerful than the Cray supercomputers of yesteryear — which had strict export controls and cost tens of millions of dollars. We carry high-definition cameras in our pockets that are more powerful than those on NASA spacecraft. The cameras in the Mars Curiosity Rover, for example, have a resolution of 2 megapixels with 8GB of flash memory, the same as our clunky first-generation iPhones. The Apollo Guidance Computer, which took humans to the moon in 1966, had a 2.048 MHz processor — slower than those you find in calculators and musical greeting cards.

The same technologies as are available in the United States and Europe are available worldwide. Innovation has globalized.
I met Team Indus while I was in Mumbai to speak at INK last November. When they told me they were competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. I didn’t take them seriously because I had seen their counterpart in Silicon Valley, Moon Express, which has the support of tech moguls such as Naveen Jain. How could a scrawny little startup in Bangalore take on Naveen Jain, former NASA engineer Bob Richards, and NASA itself, I thought. The Moon Express team is a force of nature, has the advantage of being on the NASA Ames Research campus, and has been given R&D worth billions of dollars by NASA.

Team Indus was also up against Astrobotic, which is a spinoff from the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, and Israel-based SpaceIL, which has the backing of the country’s top research institutes.

The company’s win blew my mind. Even though the subject of my INK talk was how Indian entrepreneurs could help change the world, I didn’t think it was already happening.

(See my Jan. 1 story on the Indian tech scene and watch this talk to learn more: Why India shouldn’t be succeeding but is.)

The Bangalore-based startup was founded by former I.T. executive Rahul Narayan and four of his friends: an Air Force pilot, a marketing executive, an investment banker, and an aerospace engineer. None of the team had experience in building spacecraft or robots, yet they were able to build technology that could navigate to the moon.

Narayan says he expects completion of his space mission to cost around $30 million. Moon Express chief executive Bob Richards estimates $50 million. These numbers are higher than the $20 million prize that they hope to win. But both see far greater opportunities: They hope to be pioneers in what could be a trillion-dollar industry. Richards is looking to mine the moon for minerals and bring them back to Earth. Each payload could be worth billions.

The Google Lunar XPRIZE has 26 teams competing from around the world. Collectively, they will spend in the hundreds of millions of dollars on their efforts. For them, it is not all about winning the contest; many of the losers will still commercialize their space technologies or put their knowledge to use in other fields. This is the power of such competitions. They lead entrants to spend multiples of the offered purse on innovative solutions. And they motivate people outside the industry, such as Narayan, to enter it with out-of-the-box thinking.

Innovation prizes are not new. In fact, a number of celebrated historical feats were made possible, in part, by the desire to win these prizes. In the 1920s, New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize to the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris. Several unsuccessful attempts were made before an American airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh won the competition in 1927 with his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis
Lindbergh’s achievement made him a national hero and a global celebrity. And it sparked the interest and investment that led to the modern aviation industry.

That is what I expect will come of the Lunar XPRIZE. And that is why I am looking forward to booking my round-trip ticket to the moon one summer in the 2030s.

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Gullies suggest comet Vesta once had flowing water on its surface



This image of the giant asteroid Vesta was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, as part of a rotation characterization sequence on July 24, 2011


Excerpt from natmonitor.com

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is currently approaching the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter. However, from 2011 to 2013 Dawn collected extensive data on Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt and one of the largest known comets in our solar system.

The data collected from Vesta is still being analyzed and will continue to be for years to come. As the data is examined interesting new information about the giant asteroid is coming to light. Vesta which is very cold and has no atmosphere has long thought to be dry. A new study published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters casts doubt on that assumption.
While there are certainly no rivers and lakes on Vesta, photographs taken by Dawn show evidence of short lived flows of water mobilized material on the surface.

“Nobody expected to find evidence of water on Vesta. The surface is very cold and there is no atmosphere, so any water on the surface evaporates. However, Vesta is proving to be a very interesting and complex planetary body,” said Jennifer Scully, postgraduate researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles in a statement.

The research could change some basic assumptions in planetary science.

“These results, and many others from the Dawn mission, show that Vesta is home to many processes that were previously thought to be exclusive to planets. We look forward to uncovering even more insights and mysteries when Dawn studies Ceres,” said UCLA’s Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission.
The curved gullies on vesta are very different from what would be expected from dry material flows, say the researchers.

“We’re not suggesting that there was a river-like flow of water. We’re suggesting a process similar to debris flows, where a small amount of water mobilizes the sandy and rocky particles into a flow. These features on Vesta share many characteristics with those formed by debris flows on Earth and Mars,“ said Scully.

The leading theory so far is that Vesta has small patches of ice beneath the surface, possibly deposited by impacts from other comets. Later impacts could have heated the ice enough to thaw some of the water, releasing it into the crater.

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NASA’s Dawn spacecraft releases new images of dwarf planet Ceres

ceres-012015.jpg
This processed image, taken Jan. 13, 2015, shows the dwarf planet Ceres as seen from the Dawn spacecraft. The image hints at craters on the surface of Ceres. Dawn's framing camera took this image at 238,000 miles from Ceres. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)


Excerpt from foxnews.com

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is approaching the dwarf planet Ceres and new images released Monday show a closer view of the planet’s surface.
"We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission director, according to a news release from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The NASA spacecraft is scheduled to conduct a 16-month study of Ceres and will send increasingly better and better images as it gets closer to the planet. It is the first time a spacecraft has ever visited a dwarf planet.
"Already, the [latest] images hint at first surface structures such as craters," said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.
The images, taken by Dawn 238,000 miles from Ceres on January 13, are at about 80 percent the resolution of Hubble Space Telescope images taken in 2003 and 2004. The next set of images to be released by Dawn – at the end of January – will be the clearest yet, NASA says.
Ceres, which lies between Mars and Jupiter, has an average diameter of 590 miles and is the largest body in the main asteroid belt. It is believed to contain a large amount of ice and scientists say the surface of the planet could be concealing an ocean.
"The team is very excited to examine the surface of Ceres in never-before-seen detail," said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission. "We look forward to the surprises this mysterious world may bring."
The Dawn spacecraft has already delivered more than 30,000 images of Vesta – the second largest body in the main asteroid belt – during an orbit in 2011 and 2012.

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A Thin Sheet of Reality: The Universe as a Hologram ~ Video



What we touch. What we smell. What we feel. They're all part of our reality. But what if life as we know it reflects only one side of the full story? Some of the world's leading physicists think that this may be the case. They believe that our reality is a projection—sort of like a hologram—of laws and processes that exist on a thin surface surrounding us at the edge of the universe. Although the notion seems outlandish, it's a long-standing theory that initially emerged years ago from scientists studying black holes; recently, a breakthrough in string theory propelled the idea into the mainstream of physics. What took place was an intriguing discussion on the cutting-edge results that may just change the way we view reality.

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Consciousness Mechanics: The Movie ~ A Must See Presentation!




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Introduction – 00:00:53

The Experience of Time – 00:03:10

Parallel Universes – 00:09:45

Reality’s Change Rate – 00:17:44

Fields of Activity – 00:24:25

States of Consciousness – 00:30:00

A Reality of Symbols – 00:37:25

The Mirror Principle – 00:42:35

The Nature of Infinity – 00:48:06

The Spacetime Illusion – 00:52:50

The Herenow Reality – 00:56:26

Existence and Nonexistence – 01:00:11

Axioms of Change – 01:06:11

The Law of Probability – 01:08:55

Continuous Discontinuity – 01:12:10

Dimensional Mirrors – 01:16:30

Trichotomies of Experience – 01:18:35

The Observing Ego – 01:27:35

Interconnectivity – 01:31:41

Cole’s Paradox – 01:34:30

Universality – 01:37:22

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Stunning 3-D Models Reveal Bizarre Double Star Ready to Explode


Picture of Eta Carinae star in the southern constellation of Carina
The supermassive star pair Eta Carinae erupted in the 1840s and produced this double-lobed cloud of dust called the Homunculus Nebula.

Excerpt from news.nationalgeographic.com

The star system Eta Carinae sends out the brightest flares yet recorded.

SEATTLE—Armed with a 3-D printer, a supercomputer, and several space telescopes, astronomers have gotten their best look yet at one of the galaxy's biggest, weirdest double star systems.

Surprising new observations of the system, known as Eta Carinae, described Wednesday at the American Astronomical Society's annual winter meeting, include a set of oddly bright flares that might signal a change in the two stars' billowing stellar winds. What's more, 3-D printed simulations show unexpected anatomy within the star system's churning, tempestuous center.

Scientists have kept a close eye on Eta Carinae since the 1840s, when a series of unexpected eruptions briefly transformed it into the brightest star in the southern sky. At any time, the unstable system could explode in a spectacular supernova. (Don't worry—Earth will be fine. But the light show will be unforgettable.)

The new observations don't pin down when Eta Carinae might explode, but they are helping astronomers better understand the turbulent pair.

"It's not only the most massive and luminous object that's close to us, but it's also extremely erratic," says astronomer Michael Corcoran of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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The Future of Technology in 2015?




Excerpt from
cnet.com


The year gone by brought us more robots, worries about artificial intelligence, and difficult lessons on space travel. The big question: where's it all taking us?

Every year, we capture a little bit more of the future -- and yet the future insists on staying ever out of reach.
Consider space travel. Humans have been traveling beyond the atmosphere for more than 50 years now -- but aside from a few overnights on the moon four decades ago, we have yet to venture beyond low Earth orbit.
Or robots. They help build our cars and clean our kitchen floors, but no one would mistake a Kuka or a Roomba for the replicants in "Blade Runner." Siri, Cortana and Alexa, meanwhile, are bringing some personality to the gadgets in our pockets and our houses. Still, that's a long way from HAL or that lad David from the movie "A.I. Artificial Intelligence."
Self-driving cars? Still in low gear, and carrying some bureaucratic baggage that prevents them from ditching certain technology of yesteryear, like steering wheels.
And even when these sci-fi things arrive, will we embrace them? A Pew study earlier this year found that Americans are decidedly undecided. Among the poll respondents, 48 percent said they would like to take a ride in a driverless car, but 50 percent would not. And only 3 percent said they would like to own one.
"Despite their general optimism about the long-term impact of technological change," Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center wrote in the report, "Americans express significant reservations about some of these potentially short-term developments" such as US airspace being opened to personal drones, robot caregivers for the elderly or wearable or implantable computing devices that would feed them information.
Let's take a look at how much of the future we grasped in 2014 and what we could gain in 2015.

Space travel: 'Space flight is hard'

In 2014, earthlings scored an unprecedented achievement in space exploration when the European Space Agency landed a spacecraft on a speeding comet, with the potential to learn more about the origins of life. No, Bruce Willis wasn't aboard. Nobody was. But when the 220-pound Philae lander, carried to its destination by the Rosetta orbiter, touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on November 12, some 300 million miles from Earth, the celebration was well-earned.
A shadow quickly fell on the jubilation, however. Philae could not stick its first landing, bouncing into a darker corner of the comet where its solar panels would not receive enough sunlight to charge the lander's batteries. After two days and just a handful of initial readings sent home, it shut down. For good? Backers have allowed for a ray of hope as the comet passes closer to the sun in 2015. "I think within the team there is no doubt that [Philae] will wake up," lead lander scientist Jean-Pierre Bibring said in December. "And the question is OK, in what shape? My suspicion is we'll be in good shape."
The trip for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has been much longer: 3 billion miles, all the way to Pluto and the edge of the solar system. Almost nine years after it left Earth, New Horizons in early December came out of hibernation to begin its mission: to explore "a new class of planets we've never seen, in a place we've never been before," said project scientist Hal Weaver. In January, it will begin taking photos and readings of Pluto, and by mid-July, when it swoops closest to Pluto, it will have sent back detailed information about the dwarf planet and its moon, en route to even deeper space.


Also in December, NASA made a first test spaceflight of its Orion capsule on a quick morning jaunt out and back, to just over 3,600 miles above Earth (or approximately 15 times higher than the International Space Station). The distance was trivial compared to those those traveled by Rosetta and New Horizons, and crewed missions won't begin till 2021, but the ambitions are great -- in the 2030s, Orion is expected to carry humans to Mars.
In late March 2015, two humans will head to the ISS to take up residence for a full year, in what would be a record sleepover in orbit. "If a mission to Mars is going to take a three-year round trip," said NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who will be joined in the effort by Russia's Mikhail Kornienko, "we need to know better how our body and our physiology performs over durations longer than what we've previously on the space station investigated, which is six months."
There were more sobering moments, too, in 2014. In October, Virgin Galactic's sleek, experimental SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry deep-pocketed tourists into space, crashed in the Mojave Desert during a test flight, killing one test pilot and injuring the other. Virgin founder Richard Branson had hoped his vessel would make its first commercial flight by the end of this year or in early 2015, and what comes next remains to be seen. Branson, though, expressed optimism: "Space flight is hard -- but worth it," he said in a blog post shortly after the crash, and in a press conference, he vowed "We'll learn from this, and move forward together." Virgin Galactic could begin testing its next spaceship as soon as early 2015.
The crash of SpaceShipTwo came just a few days after the explosion of an Orbital Sciences rocket lofting an unmanned spacecraft with supplies bound for the International Space Station. And in July, Elon Musk's SpaceX had suffered the loss of one of its Falcon 9 rockets during a test flight. Musk intoned, via Twitter, that "rockets are tricky..."
Still, it was on the whole a good year for SpaceX. In May, it unveiled its first manned spacecraft, the Dragon V2, intended for trips to and from the space station, and in September, it won a $2.6 billion contract from NASA to become one of the first private companies (the other being Boeing) to ferry astronauts to the ISS, beginning as early as 2017. Oh, and SpaceX also has plans to launch microsatellites to establish low-cost Internet service around the globe, saying in November to expect an announcement about that in two to three months -- that is, early in 2015.
One more thing to watch for next year: another launch of the super-secret X-37B space place to do whatever it does during its marathon trips into orbit. The third spaceflight of an X-37B -- a robotic vehicle that, at 29 feet in length, looks like a miniature space shuttle -- ended in October after an astonishing 22 months circling the Earth, conducting "on-orbit experiments."

Self-driving cars: Asleep at what wheel?

Spacecraft aren't the only vehicles capable of autonomous travel -- increasingly, cars are, too. Automakers are toiling toward self-driving cars, and Elon Musk -- whose name comes up again and again when we talk about the near horizon for sci-fi tech -- says we're less than a decade away from capturing that aspect of the future. In October, speaking in his guise as founder of Tesla Motors, Musk said: "Like maybe five or six years from now I think we'll be able to achieve true autonomous driving where you could literally get in the car, go to sleep and wake up at your destination." (He also allowed that we should tack on a few years after that before government regulators give that technology their blessing.)
Prototype, unbound: Google's ride of the future, as it looks today Google
That comment came as Musk unveiled a new autopilot feature -- characterizing it as a sort of super cruise control, rather than actual autonomy -- for Tesla's existing line of electric cars. Every Model S manufactured since late September includes new sensor hardware to enable those autopilot capabilities (such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance and automated parking), to be followed by an over-the-air software update to enable those features.
Google has long been working on its own robo-cars, and until this year, that meant taking existing models -- a Prius here, a Lexus there -- and buckling on extraneous gear. Then in May, the tech titan took the wraps off a completely new prototype that it had built from scratch. (In December, it showed off the first fully functional prototype.) It looked rather like a cartoon car, but the real news was that there was no steering wheel, gas pedal or brake pedal -- no need for human controls when software and sensors are there to do the work.
Or not so fast. In August, California's Department of Motor Vehicles declared that Google's test vehicles will need those manual controls after all -- for safety's sake. The company agreed to comply with the state's rules, which went into effect in September, when it began testing the cars on private roads in October.
Regardless of who's making your future robo-car, the vehicle is going to have to be not just smart, but actually thoughtful. It's not enough for the car to know how far it is from nearby cars or what the road conditions are. The machine may well have to make no-win decisions, just as human drivers sometimes do in instantaneous, life-and-death emergencies. "The car is calculating a lot of consequences of its actions," Chris Gerdes, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, said at the Web Summit conference in Dublin, Ireland, in November. "Should it hit the person without a helmet? The larger car or the smaller car?"

Robots: Legging it out

So when do the robots finally become our overlords? Probably not in 2015, but there's sure to be more hand-wringing about both the machines and the artificial intelligence that could -- someday -- make them a match for homo sapiens. At the moment, the threat seems more mundane: when do we lose our jobs to a robot?
The inquisitive folks at Pew took that very topic to nearly 1,900 experts, including Vint Cerf, vice president at Google; Web guru Tim Bray; Justin Reich of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society; and Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft. According to the resulting report, published in August, the group was almost evenly split -- 48 percent thought it likely that, by 2025, robots and digital agents will have displaced significant numbers of blue- and white-collar workers, perhaps even to the point of breakdowns in the social order, while 52 percent "have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution."


Still, for all of the startling skills that robots have acquired so far, they're often not all there yet. Here's some of what we saw from the robot world in 2014:
Teamwork: Researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne in May showed off their "Roombots," cog-like robotic balls that can join forces to, say, help a table move across a room or change its height.
A sense of balance: We don't know if Boston Dynamics' humanoid Atlas is ready to trim bonsai trees, but it has learned this much from "The Karate Kid" (the original from the 1980s) -- it can stand on cinder blocks and hold its balance in a crane stance while moving its arms up and down.
Catlike jumps: MIT's cheetah-bot gets higher marks for locomotion. Fed a new algorithm, it can run across a lawn and bound like a cat. And quietly, too. "Our robot can be silent and as efficient as animals. The only things you hear are the feet hitting the ground," MIT's Sangbae Kim, a professor of mechanical engineering, told MIT News. "This is kind of a new paradigm where we're controlling force in a highly dynamic situation. Any legged robot should be able to do this in the future."
Sign language: Toshiba's humanoid Aiko Chihira communicated in Japanese sign language at the CEATEC show in October. Her rudimentary skills, limited for the moment to simple messages such as signed greetings, are expected to blossom by 2020 into areas such as speech synthesis and speech recognition.
Dance skills: Robotic pole dancers? Tobit Software brought a pair, controllable by an Android smartphone, to the Cebit trade show in Germany in March. More lifelike was the animatronic sculpture at a gallery in New York that same month -- but what was up with that witch mask?
Emotional ambition: Eventually, we'll all have humanoid companions -- at least, that's always been one school of thought on our robotic future. One early candidate for that honor could be Pepper, from Softbank and Aldebaran Robotics, which say the 4-foot-tall Pepper is the first robot to read emotions. This emo-bot is expected to go on sale in Japan in February.

Ray guns: Ship shape

Damn the photon torpedoes, and full speed ahead. That could be the motto for the US Navy, which in 2014 deployed a prototype laser weapon -- just one -- aboard a vessel in the Persian Gulf. Through some three months of testing, the device "locked on and destroyed the targets we designated with near-instantaneous lethality," Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research, said in a statement. Those targets were rather modest -- small objects mounted aboard a speeding small boat, a diminutive Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle, and so on -- but the point was made: the laser weapon, operated by a controller like those used for video games, held up well, even in adverse conditions.

Artificial intelligence: Danger, Will Robinson?

What happens when robots and other smart machines can not only do, but also think? Will they appreciate us for all our quirky human high and low points, and learn to live with us? Or do they take a hard look at a species that's run its course and either turn us into natural resources, "Matrix"-style, or rain down destruction?
laser-weapon-system-on-uss-ponce.jpg
When the machines take over, will they be packing laser weapons like this one the US Navy just tried out? John F. Williams/US Navy
As we look ahead to the reboot of the "Terminator" film franchise in 2015, we can't help but recall some of the dire thoughts about artificial intelligence from two people high in the tech pantheon, the very busy Musk and the theoretically inclined Stephen Hawking.
Musk himself more than once in 2014 invoked the likes of the "Terminator" movies and the "scary outcomes" that make them such thrilling popcorn fare. Except that he sees a potentially scary reality evolving. In an interview with CNBC in June, he spoke of his investment in AI-minded companies like Vicarious and Deep Mind, saying: "I like to just keep an eye on what's going on with artificial intelligence. I think there is potentially a dangerous outcome."
He has put his anxieties into some particularly colorful phrases. In August, for instance, Musk tweeted that AI is "potentially more dangerous than nukes." And in October, he said this at a symposium at MIT: "With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. ... You know all those stories where there's the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and he's like... yeah, he's sure he can control the demon, [but] it doesn't work out."
Musk has a kindred spirit in Stephen Hawking. The physicist allowed in May that AI could be the "biggest event in human history," and not necessarily in a good way. A month later, he was telling John Oliver, on HBO's "Last Week Tonight," that "artificial intelligence could be a real danger in the not too distant future." How so? "It could design improvements to itself and outsmart us all."
But Google's Eric Schmidt, is having none of that pessimism. At a summit on innovation in December, the executive chairman of the far-thinking tech titan -- which in October teamed up with Oxford University to speed up research on artificial intelligence -- said that while our worries may be natural, "they're also misguided."

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