By Dick Pelletier
Energy is the life-blood of America – it affects our economy, standard of living and national security. And our prime current energy source – oil – is a product we can no longer afford.
High gas prices, air pollution, and global warming are part of the problem, but more important are the tensions brought about with countries that supply this non-renewable energy. For decades, these tensions have directly or indirectly been at the root of most global conflicts.
In a “Wired Magazine” article, Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall say concerns about oil supply are indirectly responsible for our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have caused strained relationships with our allies. And clashes with the Muslim world, mired in oil interests, finally brought the unthinkable to our shores – the “9-11” World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
Schwartz and Randall believe there’s only one way to insulate the U.S. from oil’s corrosive power. “We must develop an alternative energy,” they say. “Hydrogen stores energy more effectively than batteries, burns twice as efficiently in a fuel cell as gasoline does in an internal combustion engine, and leaves only water. It’s plentiful, clean, and capable of powering cars, homes and factories.”
Today’s energy situation is reminiscent of Soviet cold war times. In 1957, Russia launched the first satellite into space, and in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in orbit. Afraid Soviet space domination would make our country unable to defend itself, President Kennedy announced Apollo, a 10-year, $100 billion program (in today’s dollars) to land a man on the moon. Eight years later, Neil Armstrong made his “giant step for mankind” and America quickly regained world leadership.
Schwartz and Randall believe we face a similar threat today from foreign oil dependency. “As President Kennedy responded to Soviet space superiority,” they said, “Our next president must respond to foreign oil by making energy independence a national priority to be achieved within 10 years.”
By Dick Pelletier
You enter the supermarket, grab an electronic cart that recognizes you from your touch, toss in some bags and begin shopping. The monitor on your ‘smart cart’ displays products, price, and total amount spent; and even subtracts items returned to the shelf.
As you wind through the aisles, the cart’s voice recognizes products you’re running low on, and offers special discounts just for you. When finished shopping, simply tap a ‘chipped’ finger indicating payment preference and walk out the door – no more lines or grocery clerks to deal with. On exit, select an option to deactivate or encrypt all chips, which protects your privacy by preventing evildoers from tracking you or your merchandise.
After putting items away at home, the milk might say, “I expire in nine days, would you like a 24-hour reminder”, or the hat you purchased may say, “Hey Dick, why not wear me now, you know how great I make you look”.
By 2012, experts believe the above scenarios could be happening at stores everywhere.
Milwaukee futurist David Zach agrees that voice-enabled chips will increase efficiency. Clothes could remark, “Don’t wash me with colors”; cars may cry out, “I need oil”, and a glass might tell the bartender, “he’s had enough”.
Wearable computer maker Vocollect believes their voice-enabled machines can team up with RFID (Radio Frequency ID) chips used to identify items, and create an enormous array of exciting applications.
By Dick Pelletier
Cyberkinetics of Foxborough Massachusetts has begun FDA-approved clinical trials with BrainGate, a device that enables paralyzed people to control computers directly with their brains – and eventually could help them regain complete mobility.
Most handicapped people are satisfied if they can get a rudimentary connection to the outside world. BrainGate enables them to achieve far more than that. By controlling the computer cursor, patients can access Internet information, TV entertainment, and control lights and appliances – with just their thoughts.
And as this amazing technology advances, researchers believe it could enable brain signals to bypass damaged nerve tissues and restore mobility to paralyzed limbs. “The goal of BrainGate is to develop a fast, reliable, and unobtrusive connection between the brain of a severely disabled person and a personal computer” said Cyberkinetics President Tim Surgenor.
BrainGate may sound like science fiction, but its not. The device is smaller than a dime and contains 100 wires thinner than human hairs which connect with the portion of the brain that controls motor activity. The wires detect when neurons are fired and sends those signals through a tiny connector mounted on the skull to a computer.
Implanted into the brains of five handicapped patients, the device is already showing great promise. A 25-year-old quadriplegic has successfully been able to switch on lights, adjust the volume on a TV, change channels, and read e-mail using only his thoughts. And he was able to do these tasks while carrying on a conversation and moving his head at the same time.
By Dick Pelletier
At the First Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology held in Washington DC, researchers discussed the possibilities expected of this new wonder science, including glittering visions of abundance and long, healthy life spans.
Within 20 years, a small Star Trek-like replicator called a “nanofactory” could sit on your kitchen counter and let you order up any product you want – food, clothing, appliances, or whatever your dreams desire – at little or no cost.
Nanofactories work by collecting atoms from something as inexpensive as dirt or seawater, and using software downloaded from the Internet, directs those atoms to “grow” into the final product. A nanofactory can even “grow” another nanofactory.
This wild technology sounds like science fiction, but its not. Foresight Institute sociologist Bryan Bruns said nanotech will provide solutions for some 2.7 billion people now living on less than $2 per day, and eliminate poverty worldwide.
Bruns envisions a “2025 Whole Earth Catalog” which would offer economic water filtration systems that purify 100,000 gallons of water a day; inexpensive solar roofing panels that come in rolls like Saran Wrap; powerful inexpensive computers that fit inside eyeglass frames; and suitcase-size nanoclinics with a full range of diagnostics and treatments.
“Turn trash into treasure”, could become the slogan of the 2020s. Nanorefineries will break down unwanted consumer items, sewage sludge, and other waste materials, and re-build them into food, clothing, or household items.
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing’s Robert Freitas added, “not only will nanotech provide us with a lot of cool stuff and eliminate global poverty; it will also help us live a really long time”. Freitas predicted by 2015, nanoproducts will diagnose illnesses and destroy cancer cells – and by mid-2020s, tiny cell-repair mechanisms will roam through our bodies keeping us strong, youthful, and forever healthy.
By Dick Pelletier
By some fortuitous circumstance I was born on October 26, 1930, the day the government announced that world population had exceeded two billion people, so I figure that was me.
In the early 1930s, President Hoover announced that “Prosperity is just around the corner,” but he could not have been more wrong. One-eighth of the population owned seven-eighths of the nation’s wealth – a formula for disaster – and the “Great Depression” was on.
My five siblings and I were raised on a farm near Hermiston, Oregon. Our home had no electricity and few modern conveniences. We bathed in a small tub in the kitchen with little privacy, drank water from a hand pump in the back yard, and made bathroom trips to a two-seater outhouse.
In 1938 we finally connected to the electric grid and quickly replaced the outhouse with an indoor toilet, installed electric lights throughout the house, and built an indoor shower. Then in 1939, another miracle arrived – our first telephone was installed. The world was looking better.
Jet travel didn’t exist in the 1930s; a five-day ocean trip was the main way to go from America to Europe, and wireless meant the wood-paneled Zenith radio in the living room.
But America’s mastery of the physical and biological world would grow tremendously. Life expectancy soared from about 50 years in 1930 to nearly 80 today, and the Green Revolution transformed agriculture, which now provides food for a world population that exceeds 6.5 billion.
In late 1930s, President Roosevelt, emboldened by his “New Deal” legislation which ended the depression, authorized the “Manhattan Project”, an aggressive effort to build an atomic bomb and use it to hasten the end of World War II.
By Dick Pelletier
“Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the Mars Inter-Dimensional Express. In a few moments, our spacecraft will transfer into a parallel dimension where we will achieve greater than light-speed travel. As we get underway, be sure to glance out your window and watch the solar system flash by at dizzying speeds, truly, the most breathtaking views you will ever observe. Our expected arrival at Branson Colony is noon Martian time.”
This scenario may sound like fantasy, but physicists, encouraged by recent interest in the work of German scientist Burkhard Heim, believe his hyperspace propulsion idea could become a proven concept over the next two decades. Heim’s theory adds two forces to Einstein’s four-dimensional space-time: one, a repulsive anti-gravity force similar to dark energy that appears to expand the universe; the other force would accelerate spacecraft without using any fuel.
If the Heim idea works, it will radically change space travel. Forget spending six months or more crammed in a rocket on the way to Mars, a round trip on the hyperdrive could take as little as five hours. Worries about astronauts’ muscles wasting away will disappear. What’s more, the device will put travel to the stars within reach for the first time.
The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics awards prizes for the best papers presented each year. Last year’s winner went to a paper authored by physicist Jochem Hauser, calling for experimental tests of Heim’s theory. “This hyperdrive motor,” Hauser said, “would propel a craft through another dimension at enormous speeds. It could reach a star eleven light years away in just eighty days.”
By Dick Pelletier
Mapping the human genome was a great accomplishment, but genes are little more than a list of chemicals – much like a parts list for a jumbo jet. The list isn’t much good unless you know what each part does and how it fits with other parts. Scientists are just now beginning to understand these inter-workings with our genes – how they keep our bodies young and fit, or allow aging and sickness to take over.
Recently, scientists at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have, for the first time, revealed the “controlling elements” of the yeast genome – findings that can immediately be used towards deciphering the human genome.
The key to understanding how genes are controlled lies in tiny bits of chemicals called regulators that intermittently land on a region of DNA and switch that cell’s genes on or off. This switching responds to temperature changes in the body, availability of certain nutrients, and outside chemical messengers. If switched the wrong way, genes can make diabetes, cancer, and other debilitating diseases begin their horrifying trip – if switched the right way, they protect us.
To date, very few regulators have been identified. Locating their landing sites is essential to identifying their function, and therein lays the rub – gene regulators are hard to find. They typically just land on a small stretch of DNA, do their job, and then take off again. And owing to the vastness of the genome, locating just one gene regulator with conventional lab tools can take many years.
But the MIT team developed a method for scanning an entire genome and quickly identifying the precise landing sites for its gene regulators. As a result, scientists now understand how genes and their regulators “talk” to each other. The next challenge is to scale the platform so it can tackle the human genome, something that the researchers are gearing up to do now.
By Dick Pelletier
Neurons made from exotic nanomaterials could one day enable humans to survive even the most horrendous accident, and as a bonus, provide amazing new capabilities.
Nanoengineer John Burch, co-designer of the nanofactory video, Productive Nanosystems from Molecules to Superproducts, predicts that by mid-2030s, we could be replacing brain cells with damage-resistant nanomaterials that process thoughts much faster than today’s biological brains.
“The new brain would include our same consciousness, memories and personality that existed before the conversion,” Burch says, “but it would run much faster and would increase our memory a thousand-fold.”
In addition, others experts say, this futuristic brain will allow us to control the speed of our thoughts; we could jump from 100 milliseconds, the response time of today’s brains, to 50 nanoseconds, millions of times faster.
Creating thoughts at this speed would, in our mind at least, slow everything down. Our perception would speed up, but activities would appear to slow down as our brain ran faster. Events that seem like minutes would actually be happening in seconds.
Burch describes how we would switch to the new brain. A daily pill would supply nanomaterials and instructions for nanobots to format new neurons and position them next to existing biological brain cells to be replaced. These changes would be unnoticeable to us, but within six months, we would be enjoying our new brain.
The new brain will allow wireless interface with computers and other digital technologies. We could access the Internet, control electronics, and make phone calls, with just our thoughts. Or we could understand complicated subjects – even speak a new language – without need for study.
By Dick Pelletier
Although it may sound puzzling, there is a logical reason for the economy to maintain a respectable national GDP, even though unemployment is on the rise – businesses are becoming more profitable by installing robotic and other automation equipment which performs work that eliminates many jobs.
The first automation systems that replaced jobs in a big way arrived about 30 years ago, when gas stations began using new electronic pumps that enabled drivers to dispense their own gas. Employees were no longer needed to “fill her up” and wash the windows. Those jobs had just been “outsourced” to the customer.
More customer-outsourcing was soon to follow. People began using the Internet to access account information from their banks, credit card companies, department stores, and other businesses. Thousands of customer service jobs were now “outsourced” to the customer. Unemployment was on the rise.
Although there are a multitude of nice grocery stores in Las Vegas, I shop mostly at Smith’s and Albertsons. Why? Well sure, they have an adequate selection and decent prices, but the main reason I prefer these stores is self-checkout. After gathering my groceries, I head to one of the self-checkout machines, which are almost always empty, and scan and punch my way quickly out the door. Several cashiers have been eliminated.
The next big wave of automation promises to come from radio frequency identification tags. RFID tags will soon be used in most stores at point-of-sale checkout replacing all cashiers. Sensors detect purchases and automatically charge your ATM or credit card – or direct you to a cash machine. Customers save time and merchants expand their price competitiveness by eliminating more employees.
Wall-Mart, Target, The Home Depot, Kroger, Safeway, and most other stores are expected to jump on the RFID bandwagon in the next decade.
By Dick Pelletier
Throw away the mouse and keyboard. New technologies are about to provide us with personal avatars – computerized images of our choice – connected to the Internet, and displayed on wall-size screens. Avatars will understand us, listen to our demands, and anticipate our needs.
Most people think interactive systems like these are a long ways off, but two trends are quickening the pace. Improved speech-recognition systems will soon enable people to converse with computers in normal-spoken English, and entrepreneurs are flooding to the Internet creating new business applications that take advantage of speech recognition.
IBM and Microsoft expect to soon eliminate all of the errors in today’s speech recognition software, and create systems that will mimic human speech perfectly without flaws. The MIT Project Oxygen new voice-machine interface can look you in the eye, let you ask questions in casual English, and answer them. Close your eyes and you think you’re talking with a human.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates claims that by 2012, voice-enabled “smart” systems will allow us to converse naturally and comfortably, directly to flat panel displays. On command, our personal avatar will appear on the display. She (or he) will help us shop, work, learn, and conduct business and social relationships on the Internet. Computers will disappear and become part of the display.
Amtrak, Wells Fargo, and Land’s End are taking advantage of these new systems. They plan to replace keypad-menu call centers with speech-recognition systems to save money and improve customer relations. General Motors OnStar and Lexus DVD Nav systems are adding more than 1 million new subscribers each year. Analysts believe most businesses will convert to automatic speech systems as the technology matures.