How Technology Brought Us Closer to the Future in 2014
Dec17

How Technology Brought Us Closer to the Future in 2014

ShareBY JASON DORRIER       DECEMBER 17 2014 As the year draws to a close, it’s worth glancing over our shoulder. What technologies and themes were brightest in 2014? Read on. (And keep in mind, attempting such a summation is ambitious to the extreme—let us know what we missed!) Illumina Breaks DNA Reading ‘Sound Barrier’  In January, Illumina announced that their latest DNA sequencing machine can transcribe 18,000 human genomes a year for $1,000 each—down from hundreds of millions a decade ago. The $1,000 genome enables broad genomic studies that may yield insights into the origins of disease. To date, some 225,000 genomes have been sequenced, and genomic pioneer Craig Venter believes we’ll sequence 5 million by 2020. Next steps include perfecting intelligent software to analyze all that data. Mars Ambitions, Reusable Rockets, and 3D Space Printers According to Elon Musk, billionaire space entrepreneur, humans have to become a multi-planetary species if we’re to survive. Musk hopes to begin colonizing Mars in the 2030s, but we’ll have to first reduce the cost of space travel. He believes reusable rockets, which the firm began testing in 2014, may slash launch costs by a factor of 100. Beyond cutting cost, space explorers need greater independence from the ground. Singularity University space startup, Made In Space launched, installed, and began testing the first 3D printer in orbit this year. Astronauts will use the printer to make tools and parts—kicking off space manufacturing and setting a 3D printing precedent for future space explorers. Wearables Struggle, Virtual Reality Attracts Big Bets Tech is officially searching for the next big computer interface, the next smartphone revolution. Despite high expectations, Google Glass struggled to find its footing. Glass is half price on eBay, lost its lead developer (and others), app developers are losing interest—and even Sergey Brin forgot to wear his at a big tech event. Though Glass is finding niche uses (hospitals, for example, are adopting Glass for use by surgeons), the lesson seems to be miniaturization isn’t sufficient for the mainstream. Design and practicality matter. Glass may need a redesign, a must-have use, or both. Other wearables also searched for the golden formula. Though everyone seemed to release a smartwatch, none wowed. A recent poll found only 20% of respondents wanted a smartwatch. The most common reason (51%) folks weren’t interested? They didn’t see the point. Apple weighed in with the much-anticipated Apple Watch. The watch is expensive and isn’t particularly novel (though well designed)—out next year, its success remains uncertain. Meanwhile, thanks to its virtual reality Rift headset (still under development), 18-month-old Oculus was acquired by Facebook for a whopping $2 billion. Google made its own VR contribution—a stripped down, smartphone-basedcardboard headset—while Oculus worked with Samsung to finish its more polished smartphone-based Gear VR goggles (now on sale). Will Oculus release their...

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Proof that The End of Moore’s Law is Not The End of The Singularity
Dec05

Proof that The End of Moore’s Law is Not The End of The Singularity

Share Posted by Eric Klien During the last few years, the semiconductor industry has been having a harder and harder time miniaturizing transistors with the latest problem being Intel’s delayed roll-out of its new 14 nm process. The best way to confirm this slowdown in progress of computing power is to try to run your current programs on a 6-year-old computer. You will likely have few problems since computers have not sped up greatly during the past 6 years. If you had tried this experiment a decade ago you would have found a 6-year-old computer to be close to useless as Intel and others were able to get much greater gains per year in performance than they are getting today. Many are unaware of this problem as improvements in software and the current trend to have software rely on specialized GPUs instead of CPUs has made this slowdown in performance gains less evident to the end user. (The more specialized a chip is, the faster it runs.) But despite such workarounds, people are already changing their habits such as upgrading their personal computers less often. Recently people upgraded their ancient Windows XP machines only because Microsoft forced them to by discontinuing support for the still popular Windows XP operating system. (Windows XP was the second most popular desktop operating system in the world the day after Microsoft ended all support for it. At that point it was a 12-year-old operating system.) It would be unlikely that AIs would become as smart as us by 2029 as Ray Kurzweil has predicted if we depended on Moore’s Law to create the hardware for AIs to run on. But all is not lost. Previously, electromechanical technology gave way to relays, then to vacuum tubes, then to solid-state transistors, and finally to today’s integrated circuits. One possibility for the sixth paradigm to provide exponential growth of computing has been to go from 2D integrated circuits to 3D integrated circuits. There have been small incremental steps in this direction, for example Intel introduced 3D tri-gate transistors with its first 22 nm chips in 2012. While these chips were slightly taller than the previous generation, performance gains were not great from this technology. (Intel is simply making its transistors taller and thinner. They are not stacking such transistors on top of each other.) But quietly this year, 3D technology has finally taken off. The recently released Samsung 850 Pro which uses 42 nm flash memory is competitive with competing products that use 19 nm flash memory. Considering that, for a regular flat chip, 42 nm memory is (42 × 42) / (19 × 19) = 4.9 times as big and therefore 4.9 times less productive to...

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Virtual Reality May Become the Next Great Media Platform—But Can It Fool All Five Senses?
Sep28

Virtual Reality May Become the Next Great Media Platform—But Can It Fool All Five Senses?

ShareBY JASON DORRIER   SEPT 28 Jason Silva calls technologies of media “engines of empathy.” They allow us to look through someone else’s eyes, experience someone else’s story—and develop a sense of compassion and understanding for them, and perhaps for others more generally. But he says, while today cinema is the “the cathedral of communication technology,” looking to the future, there is another great medium looming—virtual reality. Expanding on the possibilities embodied in the Oculus Rift, Silva envisions a future when we inhabit not virtual realities but “real virtualities.” A time when we discard today’s blunt tools of communication to cloak ourselves in thought and dreams. It’s an electrifying vision of the future, one many science fiction fans have imagined. At present, we’re nowhere near the full digital duplication and manipulation of reality Silva describes. But if we don’t dream a thing, it’ll never come to pass. Sometimes we can see the long potential of tech and are awed by it, even though we don’t know how to make it happen yet. All new technologies begin in the mind’s eye like this. “We live in condensations of our imagination,” Terence McKenna says. Realization can take years; the engineering process can fizzle and reignite—go through a roller coaster of inflated expectations and extreme disillusion. Eventually, we get close enough to the dream to call it a sibling, if not an identical twin. So, what will it take to get to Silva’s real virtuality? Let’s take a (brief) stroll through the five senses and see how close we are to digitally fooling them. Sight Two items crucial to immersive visuals are imperceptible latency (that is, no delay between our head moving and the scene before us adjusting) and high resolution. With a high-performance PC and LED- and sensor-based motion tracking, the Oculus Rift has the first one almost nailed for seated VR. As you move your head, the scene in front of you adapts almost seamlessly—as it would in the real world. This is why the Rift is so exciting, it not only makes such immersion possible, it does so affordably. But what about resolution? It’s acceptable, but could be better. Currently, the Rift uses a high-definition display—the latest prototype is rumored to be about 2,600 pixels across. You can’t see the dark edges separating pixels (as you could in the first developer kit) but the graphics still aren’t as sharp as they could be. Displays about 4,000 and even 8,000 (4K and 8K) pixels across are near, and they get us closer to ideal resolution—but even they won’t be enough. “To get to the point where you can’t see pixels, I think some...

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Beyond the Hype and Hope of 3D Printing: What Consumers Should Expect
Apr29

Beyond the Hype and Hope of 3D Printing: What Consumers Should Expect

ShareBY JASON DORRIERON   APR 29, 2014   The latest 3D printing Kickstarter smash hit, the Micro, raised its target $50,000 in eleven minutes. The Micro bills itself as the first truly consumer 3D printer—it plugs in with a USB cable, costs $299, and has raised nearly $3 million (and counting). In a quick survey, we recently counted no fewer than 35 funded 3D printer Kickstarter campaigns, and more were unfunded. CES 2014 featured some 30 3D printing booths. Even Martha Stewart is getting in on the action. 3D printing is hot, fires the imagination, and has all kinds of potential. 3D printing, however, is not for you. Or at least, that’s one prominent storyline. Beyond the hype, consumer 3D printers can’t make anything your heart desires—they mostly make junk, and there are only so many synthetic orange dinosaurs in top hats one person can collect. While this argument is true, after a fashion, the field is continuously improving. And not so long ago, affordable consumer 3D printers didn’t exist at all. The selection of desktop machines is growing. Desktop printers are increasingly available for around $1,000 or less. And setup is easier. Whether the printer connects by WiFi or USB, more printers are nearing plug-and-play. The Micro, for example, connects to your computer by USB. At 2.2 pounds, it’s lightweight compared to the3D Systems Cube at 9.5 pounds and more than that for higher-end models. Its auto-leveling and auto-calibration aim to reduce user intervention. The Micro’s software includes a touch interface for ease of use (though realistically, we wonder how many people will be using it with a touch screen) and allows users to shop 3D files online and store them in a library, ready to print. We won’t say it’s the “most” or the “first,” but according to M3D, their printer is comparatively quiet and power efficient. So, is it the first truly consumer 3D printer? We don’t know exactly what that means. If we did, we’d probably be rolling in dough right now. (Though the Micro is clearly on to something—they’re on pace to beat Kickstarter records set by Pebble and Oculus.) But what will it take for 3D printers to become standard household equipment like their less alluring 2D counterparts? Cost, speed, quality, ease, materials, and a reason to buy (that isn’t starry-eyed gear love) are a few key drivers worth tracking. First, cost. 3D printers in the sub-$1,000 range are often DIY machines (like the open source RepRap) requiring assembly. Pre-assembled consumer printers tend to be more expensive, like the 3D Systems Cube($1,300) or Zim (funded on Kickstarter) that will retail for about $899. The Micro, meanwhile,...

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New Method Points to Cheaper, More Flexible Wearable Computers
Apr18

New Method Points to Cheaper, More Flexible Wearable Computers

ShareBY CAMERON SCOTT   APRIL 18  2014 It could be easy to conclude, eyeing the number of Fitbits, Fuel bands and competitors in a roomful of people in London, New York or San Francisco, that wearable computing has already arrived. But wearables are at the stage personal computers were back in the days of floppy disks. To take but one problem: The wristbands that aim to monitor body processes don’t have a stable connection to the body. Flexible electronic componentry is one plausible solution, making it possible for wearable electronics to sit directly on the skin as an adhesive patch, for example. University of Illinois materials scientist John Rogers has pioneered flexible electronic patches in a series of influential papers. The trouble is, it’s taken years to amass the manufacturing refinements and economies of scale that make computer chips cheap enough for many of us to own several computerized devices, and using the new flexible parts would scuttle cost savings. So Rogers is now proposing a Plan B: a wearable electronic patch that incorporates standard silicon chips. The patch uses a microfluidic construction with wires folded to allow it to bend and flex around the rigid off-the-shelf chips. The patch doesn’t need wires for power, either, because it relies on a resonant inductive coupling charger. “Our original epidermal devices exploited specialized device geometries. But chip-scale devices, batteries, capacitors and other components must be re-formulated for these platforms. There’s a lot of value in complementing this specialized strategy with our new concepts in microfluidics and origami interconnects to enable compatibility with commercial off-the-shelf parts for accelerated development, reduced costs and expanded options in device types,” Rogers said in a news release. The latest patch is essentially a thin elastic envelope filled with fluid. The chip components sit suspended on tiny raised supports; tightly folded wires connect the electronics components, including power inductors, sensors and transmitters to track and communicate health data. Folded like origami, the wires can unfold in any direction to accommodate twisting and stretching of the patch while the chips remain in place. Cheaper than nanotechnology-based electronics patches, the computerized patch works as well as clunky conventional sensors like those used for EKG and EEG monitoring and picks up less noise than consumer fitness trackers, according to a recent study co-authored by Rogers and Yonggang Huang of Northwestern University and published in the journal Science. The researchers hope that it’s a magical combination that will let doctors get better data sooner, enabling them to provide better diagnoses. “If we can continuously monitor our health with a comfortable, small device that attaches to our skin, it could be possible to catch...

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