Showing posts with label Extras. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Extras. Show all posts

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suffers catastrophic failure during flight test

It’s been a bad week for commercial space flight. Earlier this week, the Antares rocket developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded on takeoff and now Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is confirmed destroyed. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon or the Antares rocket, SpaceShipTwo was designed to be lifted to launch altitude by the purpose-built transport aircraft, White Knight Two.
It’s currently being reported that one of the two pilots was killed, while the other is being treated for serious injuries, but as with most sudden-event reporting, a great deal of contradictory information is still zinging around the airwaves. Some reports indicate neither pilot has been found, while the BBC is claiming one is still alive.
Virgin’s official Twitter account noted the initial release at 10:07, the ignition of the rocket seconds later (same time stamp) and officially noted the explosion (defined at that point as an “anomaly”) at 10:13 AM. All reports indicate that the explosion happened relatively soon after engine ignition.
Meanwhile, photos of the wreckage have already surfaced online:
Space Ship Two
As anomalies go, that one is a doozy. Virgin is promising an update and statement, but has only said it will work with authorities to investigate the spacecraft’s destruction and is principally concerned with the fate of the two pilots.
Today’s launch was supposed to be a triumphant return to powered testing for the first time since January. Earlier this month, Virgin Galactic conducted successful unpowered test flights of the suborbital spacecraft and had even joked about taking Richard Branson into space as a Christmas present. The company has drawn the ire of critics who claimed its much-publicized pre-sales events, in which celebrities and the rich and famous paid to reserve seats on hypothetical flights, were little more than fundraising efforts on the backs of credulous enthusiasts.
The original SpaceShipOne won the coveted Ansari X Prize for successfully reaching space twice in two weeks; SpaceShipTwo was based on that design. Virgin Galactic had previously hoped to begin manned flights within 2015, but that effort will likely be halted as all eyes turn to post-launch analysis and disaster response.

An interview with Zoltan Istvan, leader of the Transhumanist Party and 2016 presidential contender

A cyberpunk/transhumanist, kinda
ExtremeTech has never been particularly interested in politics. That being said, as the focus of politics and politicians inexorably shifts towards technology, we might just jump in the water for a dip.
Many might imagine that concerns of a more socio-political nature — like who is able to accrue what particular powers or possessions, and from whom — would persist independently of technological influence. Others, like the Transhumanist Party founder Zoltan Istvan, might offer that socio-political issues already are, at heart, technological issues. Now seizing the day, and a rapidly expanding number of like-minded transhumanists, Istvan has announced that he will be a contender in the 2016 US presidential race.
IstvanIf you haven’t heard of transhumanism, or you’re not quite sure what it means, I suggest you readour introductory story about transhumanismbefore diving into the rest of this story. In short, though, transhumanism (sometimes referred to as H+) is about improving or transforming the human condition through technology. Brain implants, genetic engineering, bionic limbs, indefinite life extension — these are all examples of the topics (and elective surgeries) that a transhumanist would be interested in.

The Transhumanist Wager

In his recent book The Tranhumanist Wager Istvan outlines three laws:
  1. A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else.
  2. A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible — so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First Law.
  3. A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe — so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws.
If energetically adopted, these deceptively simple maxims ultimately compel the individual to pursue a technologically enhanced and extended life. Zoltan and other supporters of transhumanism have come to see the choice to accept or reject these principles as something far more fundamental than the choice between liberal or conservative principles. In other words, it is a more compact predictor, a simpler explanation of your worldview, motivations, and actions than any current party provides.
It is for these reasons that Zoltan has founded the Transhumanist Party and is now taking this first major step to grow it. At this point in the game, the next major step — getting access to all the state ballots — could prove challenging. With these ideas in mind, we present an interview with (possibly) the next US president: Zoltan Istvan.
Zoltan Istvan
Why did you decide to run for the US presidency?
Zoltan Istvan – The most important goal of the Transhumanist Party and my 2016 presidential campaign is to spread awareness of transhumanism and to address the issue that society will be greatly changed by radical science and technology in the next 5-15 years. Most people are unaware how significant these changes could be. For example, we might all be getting brain implants soon, or using driverless cars, or having personal drones follow us around and do our shopping for us. Things like anonymity in the social media age, gender roles, exoskeleton suits for unfit people, ectogenesis, and the promise of immersive virtual reality could significantly change the way society views itself. Transhumanism seeks to address these issues with forward-thinking ideas, safeguards, and policies. It aims to be a bridge to a scientific and tech-dominated future, regardless what the species may eventually become.
While the Transhumanist Party has almost no chance of winning this election, its goal is to get on as many state ballots as possible, so people will see its promise and recognize what it stands for. By doing so, we’ll let citizens know an exciting political movement is afoot that focuses on using technology and science to enhance the human species. And maybe sometime in the future, many people will want to join it. Furthermore, I’m hopeful other political parties will take notice of transhumanism and incorporate its ideas into their own philosophies.
On a final note, it’s my hope that others will start to run for various political offices, both locally and nationally, under the Transhumanist Party banner. This way we can show the country that future politics should be far more science and technology inspired. This would be a great step for the direction of the America.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Your next smartphone or EV will recharge to 70% in just two minutes, thanks to new lithium-ion battery tech

fast-charging batteries

Scientists at Nangyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore have developed a new lithium-ion battery that can be recharged to 70% capacity in just two minutes. In addition to being able to charge your smartphone or electric car in just a few minutes, this new lithium-ion battery (LIB) can also endure more than 10,000 charge/discharge cycles — or about 20 times more than current LIBs. Perhaps most excitingly, though, NTU’s new Li-ion tech has already been patented, is compatible with existing battery manufacturing processes, and has “attracted interest from the industry.” Unlike many other lithium-ion battery advances, this one might actually hit the market within a couple of years.
As you’re probably aware, modern life (perhaps a little unnervingly or depressingly) is inextricably linked to batteries. How long a device lasts on battery power, and how long it takes to recharge, have a direct impact on most aspects of our work and social lives — and it’s only going to get worse as wearable computing, electric vehicles, and the internet of things take hold. While we do occasionally see incremental changes and improvements to battery technology, we are still mostly beholden to lithium-ion battery tech that was commercialized by Sony way back in 1991. NTU’s new lithium-ion battery design, which allows for ultra-fast recharging and extreme endurance, could be the big breakthrough that we desperately need.
Titanium dioxide (titania)
Titanium dioxide — otherwise known as that cheap white powder that’s used in paint, sunscreen, solar panels, and more.
NTU’s new battery, developed by Chen Xiaodong and friends, replaces the LIB’s customary graphite anode with a gel of titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanotubes. It’s news to me, but apparently titanium dioxide — a very cheap, plentiful substance that you might know as titania — is very good at storing lithium ions, and thus electrical charge. By using a nanostructured gel, the surface area of the anode — and thus its ability to quickly pick up lots and lots of lithium ions — is dramatically increased. The NTU research paper seems to mostly focus on the process used to create these titanium dioxide nanotubes. In short, though, they just stirred a mixture of titanium dioxide and sodium hydroxide — at at just the right temperature, the stirring encourages the TiO2 to form long nanotubes. Suffice it to say, this simple process is “easy to integrate” into current production processes. [DOI: 10.1002/adma.201470238 - "Nanotubes: Mechanical Force-Driven Growth of Elongated Bending TiO2-based Nanotubular Materials for Ultrafast Rechargeable Lithium Ion Batteries"]
Read: Stanford creates ‘Holy Grail’ lithium battery, could triple smartphone and EV battery life
Currently, one of the biggest problems of lithium-ion batteries is that they can’t be charged very quickly. By replacing the graphite anode with NTU’s titanium dioxide gel, the researchers say they’ve created LIBs that can be recharged to 70% capacity in just two minutes. Furthermore, because the new gel is much more resistant to microfracturing and dendrite formation, the new batteries have extreme endurance of over 10,000 charge/discharge cycles — about 20 times more than current LIBs. This second feature is obviously big news for electric vehicles like the Tesla Model S, which will need a costly replacement battery pack every few years. “With our nanotechnology, electric cars would be able to increase their range dramatically with just five minutes of charging, which is on par with the time needed to pump petrol for current cars,” says Chen. The first feature — ultra-fast recharging — is awesome news for just about everyone.
NTU Singapore says the new LIB technology has already been patented (presumably the method of making TiO2 nanotubes), and has attracted interest from the industry. Chen says the first generation of fast-charging batteries should hit the market within two years. In the meantime, software-based fast charging solutions and power-saving modes should keep us out of the electro-mobility chasm for a little longer.

New MasterCard combines a fingerprint sensor with NFC

For awhile now, there's been a number of companies trying to simplify payments for everyone. Google did so with Wallet and, most recently, Apple announced it would be doing something similar with the soon-to-be-launched Apple Pay, among others. Not surprisingly, MasterCard's, synonymous with paying for stuff, is working on a product of its own. In partnership with Zwipe, a company that focuses on biometric tech, MasterCard has built a charge plate with a built-in fingerprint sensor and NFC, albeit for trial purposes. The Zwipe MasterCard, as it is currently known, is said to be extremely secure -- all data is stored directly on the card, rather than an outside database, for example.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Belgian brewery to reduce truck use with underground beer pipeline

De Halve Maan
In order to cut down on the number of trucks it puts on the streets, Brouwerij De Halve Maan is working with the city of Bruges to construct an underground beer pipeline. While the brewing still happens at its original site, filtration, bottling and shipping operations were moved outside of town in 2010. To get the tasty beverages from point A to point B, dozens of trucks go back and forth each day, but not for much longer. Folks familiar with the Cleveland, Ohio-based Great Lakes Brewing Company may recall that it uses an underground system to send its suds from a production facility to a taproom/pub across the street. The effort in Belgium will be much more elaborate though, replacing the 3-mile tanker route with 1.8 miles of polyethylene pipe, and cutting transit time to between 15 and 20 minutes. De Halve Maan claims the system can send out 6,000 liters per hour -- on top of cutting traffic and reducing emissions. What's more, the brewery (er, brouwerij) will foot the bill for installation and road repairs, reducing the financial burden on the city.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Tesla Gigafactory, Blue Lagoon and an electric unicycle

Tesla has emerged as one of the world's most exciting and successful electric vehicle manufacturers -- and now the Silicon Valley company is getting into the battery business in a big way. Tesla CEO Elon Musk just unveiled new images of the company's $5 billion battery "gigafactory" -- and he also broke the news that it will be powered entirely by renewable energy! Most vehicles fall into a specific category: sedan, pickup truck, station wagon, etc. -- but Toyota's new U Squared concept is the Swiss Army knife of cars. The insanely flexible vehicle folds out to seat up to four passengers, or you can fold down three seats and roll out an array of racks, movable rails and storage trays to accommodate everything from surfboards and bikes to bulky equipment.
In other transportation news, we showcased the world's smallest (and cutest) electric car, and designer Austin Marhold has created a tiny electric unicycle that weighs just 24 pounds and fits between your shins. The self-balancing unicycle is reportedly very intuitive to ride, lightweight and portable. A family of four recently embarked on a 6,200-mile e-bike trip across the country. If they make it, they'll break the world record for an e-bike trip, and they'll be promoting clean transportation alternatives along the way. And a man from Oregon has transformed a school bus into a rustic mobile cabin using salvaged shingles made from leftover forest cuttings.
When we think about renewable energy, solar, wind and hydropower might be the first sources that come to mind -- but they aren't the only natural sources of clean energy. Geothermal energy powers much of Iceland, and it also provides an incredibly unique water source for the country's biggest and most famous spa. The stunning Blue Lagoon, named for its milky turquoise hue, is fed by runoff water from the nearby geothermal plant, and its waters are as healing as they are luminous. Current solar technology tends to be expensive and difficult to produce -- but a team of Australian researchers found a way to change all that by upgrading existing printers to spit out a solar cell every two seconds! In other energy news, a nonprofit organization called Solar Sister is distributing solar-powered products like lanterns and cellphone chargers through women's rural networks in Africa. The Indian government recently announced plans to install as many as 2,200 solar-powered mobile communication towers throughout the country in hopes that mobile technology can push development in economically weak regions. And in Russia, a researcher is exploring whether cloud power could provide some of our clean energy and water needs. The scientist has created a tethered blimp that captures water from the clouds with a mesh that hangs vertically in the air and sends water to a hydropower plant on the ground via conduit attachments.
In design news, iPhone fans may have been salivating this past week at Apple's announcement on Tuesday, but all we could focus on was the Apple Watch, which got us all hot under the collar with its health- and fitness-tracking sensors and apps. Speaking of Apple, did you know that Steve Jobs was a low-tech parent? When an interviewer asked what Jobs' kids thought of the iPad, Jobs replied, "They haven't used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home." We're in agreement with the idea of limiting children's access to screen-based technology for their own health and development, which is why we're thrilled that a new, decidedly low-tech Waldorf School just opened up in lower Manhattan. And as far as innovative toys go, the Dino Pet is one of the wildest we've ever seen -- the living lamp glows in the dark due to the bioluminescent dinoflagellates it contains.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Finally, a hydroponic farm that runs on goldfish poop

Everything that we have ever eaten has probably, at some point, been in contact with some poop. Plants grow in soil that's mixed with horse poop, and at some point a careless burger joint employee has touched your meal after a tricky bathroom break. The sooner that we admit the role poop plays in our survival, the sooner that we can turn it to our advantage. For instance, wouldn't it be great if we could harness the power of poop to grow herbs, purify water and look after a goldfish at the same time? You bet your ass (the part of your body where poop lives) it would, which is why Dutch startup EcoBird is launching its aquaponic farm on Kickstarter.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Browse astronaut photos taken from the ISS with this handy map

While you're gearing up for the weekend, why not peruse a collection of photos snapped from high above Earth's surface. Thanks to Dave MacLean's interactive map, you can do just that with over 650 images taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The cartographic library plots the location each photograph was captured, color-coded orbiter on Expeditions 40 and 41. On top of that, you're able to see exactly were the ISS is currently in orbit. Pretty neat, if you ask us.

Casio's new action cam detaches from its own touchscreen viewfinder

If you haven't quite got on the action cam bandwagon, or you're looking for a viewfinder bigger than a postage stamp, perhaps Casio's EXILIM "freestyle" camera will do the job. Coming in orange, camo green and white options, it's made of two different parts -- the lens and a separate screen that can be used both attached and detached. In a sign of the times, there's also a foldable docking option that makes it ideal for selfies. If you fold the lens back onto the display, then you have something closer to a typical camera -- albeit one with a tiny screen. The camera will, naturally, arrive with a plethora of straps, clips and tripod accessories to ensure it attaches to everything adventurous in your life and both parts are water- and dust-proof (IPX6 certified, of course).

Casio's new 'split-camera' action cam (hands-on)

The camera itself has an f2.8 lens and contrast-based auto-focus, with intelligent and multifocus modes which should help ensure it captures what you want it to. The Exilim EX-FR10 will snap photos at 14-megapixels and video at 1080p resolution, and Casio says the battery should last around 75 minutes for continuous movie recording. If you're mostly shooting stills, then expect it to last much much longer - once detached, the two-inch LCD touchscreen controller will extend the camera's view up to 5 meters. It will degrade after that, but Casio tells us that you'll still be able to capture with the shutter button up to 10 meters away. Both devices can be charged through the micro-USB port, while storage is microSD card-based -- like most action cams.
Once you've captured your adventures/water-fights, the images and video can be delivered through the aforementioned USB connection, as well as Bluetooth and WiFi. We got to play with one, and the device has a nice rough finish that ensured that it was easy to grip -- you can also tell by the styling and color choices that it's cut from the same cloth as Casio's G-Shock. The hinge is also hardy -- it maintains the angle you set it at when you bend it into place. The biggest concern here (despite the presence of waterproof smartphones), is the price: in Japan it's set to land at 50,000 yen. It might well look hardier and cooler than aGoPro, and once you factor in a wireless viewer for the Hero3+, the price is close, but you're going to have to pay a little more for Casio's action cam -- it translates to roughly $480.

Tokyo's Shibuya gets a big-screen Google voice search terminal

Arguably, the whole convenience of Google's search and map skills (and by association, thevoice-guided version) is the fact it's on your smartphone -- which is right in your pocket. However, In a bid to explain to Tokyo-ites that there's more to the eminently tech-friendlyShibuya outside of That Starbucks and the scramble-crossing, Google's erected a temporary structure right outside the station. Not only can you make voice search requests for the nearest tech store or... french patisserie, it'll display a map and directions on a huge 138-inch screen -- which you can then take a photo of, presumably, with your smartphone.
As you can see, the interface looks almost identical to voice-based interactions on Android phones. There's a giant mic to pick up your commands over the throngs of people constantly ducking in and out of the nearby station. From our time with it, Google's robots still found it hard to pull out simple commands from the buzz of the crowds. When it does pick it up, it'll then parse what you're saying and offer up suggestions just like, well, Google voice search. The collaboration with Shibuya's tourist board and local businesses aims to offer visitors some navigational help when getting around. Given the area's reputation for tangled back-alleys and hidden shops, you might need all the assistance you can get

3D-printed mesh gives man with half a skull hope for recovery

People have been patching up their bodies with foreign parts for ages now, but 3D printing has only made that process easier, faster and more emblematic of hope. Case in point: a Chinese farmer named Hu fell three stories in a construction accident, and he has a shot at a normal life again thanks to a 3D-printed titanium mesh that doctors installed where the left side of his skull used to be. The accident left Hu with impaired vision and an inability to speak or write, so surgeons at Xijing Hospital in northwest China took him under the knife for three hours to return his skull cavity to its normal shape. It's too soon to tell if his normal brain function will return, though -- doctors hope his gray matter will slowly start to regenerate now that it has the space to grow. This isn't the first time 3D printed parts have complemented someone's cranium -- doctors in the Netherlands replaced most of a woman's skull with 3D printed plastic after it was discovered that the bone surrounding her brain was slowly growing thicker and threatening her cognitive future

Home-made vibrating gloves train your finger muscles to touch type (video)

You know what can teach you Braille and piano a lot more quickly than traditional means? Vibrating gloves, or gloves with haptic feedback, if you will. In fact, IEEE Spectrum senior editor David Schneider was so intrigued by the idea, that he put together his own version to serve as a haptic touch-typing tutor for his 11-year-old son. He admits that his gloves (made using transistors, $14 worth of vibration motors purchased from eBay and long cords connecting them to an Arduino Nano board) aren't as sleek as Georgia Tech's piano-teaching ones. But, hey, they worked, and once he created a program to go along with them, they did their job well enough.
Schneider's program displays one among the 100 most common English words at random on screen -- it does so one letter at a time, sending vibrations to the right finger as the letters appear. Not bad for something he merely cobbled together. But (as he realized later on), the program would've been a lot more fun and effective if it were more of a typing game than a boring digital tutor.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Software on your smartphone can speed up lithium-ion battery charging by up to 6x

Low battery

As you’re probably aware, lithium-ion batteries — as in, the battery in your smartphone, tablet, laptop — generally hold less charge as time goes by. There are many reasons for LIBs to lose charge and efficiency, but one of the most pesky is the creation of dendrites – mossy deposits of lithium that ooze out of cracks in the anode that form during charging (the sudden influx of ions caused by recharging causes the anode to expand and crack). These dendrites can reach out towards the electrolyte and cause short circuits, seriously reducing the battery’s capacity. [Read: How a lithium-ion battery works.]A startup in ×California, with the rather odd name of ×Qnovo, says it has developed a new way of rapidly recharging conventional lithium-ion batteries. With Qnovo’s technology, you can get six hours of phone life from just 15 minutes of charging — compared to just 1-2 hours from conventional charging. The secret, according to ×Qnovo, is that no two batteries are identical — and knowing exactly how much power you can pump into the battery without damaging it can significantly improve recharge times.
Now, device makers already know that charging a lithium-ion battery is pretty dangerous because of dendrite formation. So, to ensure the dendrites don’t form, the amount of current flowing into the battery is reduced to a trickle. This results in longer battery life, which is good — but also significantly longer recharge times. [Read: How USB charging works, or how to avoid blowing up your smartphone.]
Qnovo closed-loop lithium-ion battery charging method
Qnovo closed-loop lithium-ion battery charging method
Qnovo is offering a different solution. Rather than simply reducing the charging current to the “lowest common denominator” that definitely won’t damage the battery, ×Qnovo has designed an intelligent feedback loop that constantly checks the battery’s status to ensure that it gets the optimal amount of current. Apparently, simply by simply sending a pulse into the battery, and then registering the voltage response, ×Qnovo can work out the battery’s temperature, age, and other factors that affect charging. By continually polling the battery as it charges, the current can be constantly tweaked. The Qnovo website notes that this doesn’t just help batteries of different ages, either: Even two batteries made on the same day, at the same factory, can behave significantly differently.
The end result, according to ×Qnovo, is somewhere between three and six times faster charging — plus your battery stays healthier for longer, apparently. Qnovo is offering two solutions: A piece of software (that runs on your phone/laptop) that improves charging speed, or a special chip that manages your device’s charging circuitry. The chip is more effective, but obviously it’s easier to get device makers to install a piece of software on a phone, rather than redesign a circuit board.
Obviously, if there’s a simple software solution that can both speed up charging and increase battery longevity, then ×Qnovo could be onto something big. While mobile devices are still severely restricted by total battery capacity, faster charging would certainly give mobile computing another big boost (not that it really needs one, mind you)

Little Box Challenge opens for submissions

These days, if you’re an engineer, inventor or just a tinkerer with a garage, you don’t have to look far for a juicy opportunity: there are cash prize challenges dedicated to landing on the moonbuilding a self-driving carcleaning the oceans, or inventing an extra-clever robot. Today, together with the IEEE, we’re adding one more: shrinking a big box into a little box. 


Of course, there’s more to it than that. Especially when the big box is a power inverter, a picnic cooler-sizeddevice used to convert the energy that comes from solar, electric vehicles & wind (DC power) into something you can use in your home (AC power). We want to shrink it down to the size of a small laptop, roughly 1/10th of its current size. Put a little more technically, we’re looking for someone to build a kW-scale inverter with a power density greater than 50W per cubic inch. Do it best and we’ll give you a million bucks.
There will be obstacles to overcome (like the conventional wisdom of engineering). But whoever gets it done will help change the future of electricity. A smaller inverter could help create low-cost microgrids in remote parts of the world. Or allow you to keep the lights on during a blackout via your electric car’s battery. Or enable advances we haven’t even thought of yet.

Either way, we think it’s time to shine a light on the humble inverter, and the potential that lies in making it much, much smaller

Monday, 30 June 2014

Why computers of the next digital age will be invisible

The author Douglas Adams once made a witty point about technology: the inventions we label “technologies” are simply those which haven’t yet become an invisible, effortless part of our lives.

“We no longer think of chairs as technology,” he argued. “But there was a time when we hadn’t worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often ‘crash’ when we tried to use them. Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs…and we will cease to be aware of the things.”

Adams’s prediction was prescient. Computers have been such a prominent, dazzling force in our lives for the past few decades that it’s easy to forget that subsequent generations might not even consider them to be technology. Today, screens draw constant attention to themselves and these high-visibility machines are a demanding, delightful pit into which we pour our waking hours. Yet we are on the cusp of the moment when computing finally slips beneath our awareness – and this development will bring both dangers and benefits.

Computer scientists have been predicting such a moment for decades. The phrase “ubiquitous computing” was coined at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the late 1980s by the scientist Mark Weiser, and described a world in which computers would become what Weiser later termed “calm technologies”: unseen, silent servants, available everywhere and anywhere.

Although we may not think about it as such, computing capability of this kind has been a fact of life for several years. What we are only beginning to see, however, is a movement away from screens towards self-effacing rather than attention-hungry machines.

Take Google Glass. Recent news stories have focused more on intrusion than invisibility. (There’s even a young word, “Glassholes”, describing the kind of users who get kicked out of cafes). Beyond the hand-wringing, though, Glass represents the tip of a rapidly-emerging iceberg of devices that are “invisible” in the most literal sense: because a user’s primary interface with them is not through looking at or typing onto a screen, but via speech, location and movement.

This category also includes everything from discrete smartwatches and fitness devices to voice-activated in-car services. Equally surreptitious are the rising number of “smart” buildings – from shops and museums to cars and offices – that interface with smartphones and apps almost without us noticing, and offer enhancements ranging from streamlining payments to “knowing” our light, temperature and room preferences.

Intelligent cloud

The consequences of all this will be profound. Consider what it means to have a primarily spoken rather than screen-based relationship with a computer. When you’re speaking and listening rather than reading off a screen, you’re not researching and comparing results, or selecting from a list – you’re being given answers. Or, more precisely, you’re being given one answer, customised to match not only your profile and preferences, but where you are, what you’re doing, and who with.

Google researchers, for example, have spoken about the idea of an “intelligent cloud” that answers your questions directly, adapted to match its increasingly intimate knowledge about you and everybody else. Where is the best restaurant nearby? How do I get here? Why should I buy that?

Our relationships with computers, in this context, may come to feel more like companionship than sitting down to “use” a device: a lifelong conversation with systems that know many things about us more intimately than most mere people.

Such invisibility begs several questions. If our computers provide such firm answers, but keep their workings and presence below our awareness, will we be too quick to trust the information that they provide – or too willing to take their models of the world for the real thing? As motorists already know to their cost, even a sat-nav’s suggestions can be hopelessly wrong.

That’s not to mention the potential for surveillance. More than a decade ago, critics of ubiquitous computing suggested it is “the feverish dream of spooks and spies – a bug in every object”. Given this year’s revelations about the NSA monitoring our communication, it was a prescient fear, and one that has had recent commentators reaching for that familiar adjective “Orwellian.”

There are, of course, causes for celebration about this technology too: hopes for a world in which computers, like chairs, simply support us without draining a particle more of our time, attention or effort than required. And in any case, subsequent generations may not share the same concerns as us. As Douglas Adams put it, everything that already exists when you’re born is just normal – but “anything that gets invented after you’re 30 is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it.”

Yet as computers slip ever further beneath our awareness, it is important that we continue to ask certain questions. What should an unseen machine be permitted to hear and see of our own, and others’, lives? Can we trust what they tell us? And how do we switch them off?

Invisible computers are here. But we must remember to keep at least some of their facets within sight.

Pay for Coffee Using Only the Palm of Your Hand

A new company uses palm scanners that identify each customer's vein pattern.
Waiting in a long line at the supermarket while the person at the register rummages for cash can try anyone's patience.
Inspired by such an incident, Fredrik Leifland, a student at Lund University in Sweden, thought of a way to speed up the payment process, and created Quixter — a company that uses vein recognition technology to let customers make purchases using only the palms of their hands
Biometric identification, or programing a computer to identify someone based on human characteristics, is not a new concept. Vein scanning technology, specifically, has existed for several years, and customers in Japan already use it as a quick way to withdraw cash from an ATM. However, this is the first time vein scanning has been adapted as a payment method.

DARPA's Most Challenging Robot Contest Set for June 2015

The CHIMP robot participates in DARPA's robotics challenge.

Will robots ever be able to save the day in the aftermath of a tsunami or nuclear meltdown? The U.S. military has been trying to find out.
Through its Robotics Challenge, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has pushed teams of engineers to build machines that can carry out a series of tricky tasks and navigate a grueling obstacle course in a mock disaster zone.
Next year, the ongoing contest will draw to a close with a final round of competition in Southern California, DARPA officials announced today.

US Missile Defense System Finally Meets With Success

The United States military announced this week that on June 22, a so-called interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and successfully destroyed a mock enemy warhead high over the Pacific Ocean.
The successful test of the nation's ground-based missile defense system was a landmark event for the military and the government contractors responsible for developing and maintaining the country's ground-based defenses.
The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system tested on Sunday (June 22) had previously failed its last four tests, the first of which was carried out in December 2008,reported the Los Angeles Times. Sunday's successful interception marks the first time in six years that the system proved effective at destroying a test target.
Missile Interceptor Test - June 22, 2014

Attack on Reuters Makes Mockery of Cyber Security (Op-Ed)

Cyber war, syrian electronic armyOne big security issue that has arisen lately concerns control of news media. National boundaries have become blurred on the internet, and the control any nation can have over information dissemination has been eroded – on news websites but especially on open platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Witness the activities of the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a pro-Assad group of “hacktivists”, which despite limited resources managed to compromise one of the leading news agencies in the world. It wasn’t even the first time – it has already attacked the agency several times before, not to mention its other attacks on the Financial Times, Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press.

Fantasy Fitness Tracker: 8 Absolutely Must-Have Features

As more and more fitness trackers hit the market, many of these devices seem to excel in some areas, but fall short in others. We wondered: what if we could combine the best features of the most popular fitness trackers to make a "fantasy" tracker? Here are the top features we would include.
A screen you can see without pushing buttons
Our fantasy fitness tracker would have a screen that lights up without requiring the press of a button. A few fitness trackers and smartwatches have this feature — including Basis and Samsung's Gear 2 — their screens automatically light when you twist your wrist. This way, you can see the screen (and your stats) even if your hands are full, or you're in the middle of a workout. An alternative would be to have a screen that's always on, like that of the Garmin Vivofit

A pile of fitness trackers


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