Writing for HeroX and Universe Today!

good_news_farnsworthGood news, everyone! My services as a freelance writer were recently enlisted by the good folks who run HeroX and Universe Today. Thanks to my old friend and mentor, Fraser Cain (who consequently got me started in the indie publishing bizz), I’m going to be bringing the experience I’ve garnered writing my own blog to a more professional format – writing about space exploration, innovation and technological development.

As you can imagine, this means I’ll be doing less in the way of writing for this here website. But I promise I’ll still be around! After all, I’ve got lost more work to do on my stories, and there are always articles and headlines that need to be written about that I won’t get a chance to cover at those other sites. So rest assured, storiesbywilliams will be in operation for a long time to come.

XPRIZE_GooglePlus_Cover_2120x1192For those unfamiliar, HeroX is a spinoff of the XPRIZE Foundation, the non-profit organization that runs public competitions intended to encourage technological development and innovation. It’s directors includes such luminaries as Google’s Elon Musk and Larry Page, director James Cameron, author and columnist Arianna Huffington, and businessman/ philanthropist Ratan Tata, and more. In short, they are kind of a big deal!

Fraser Cain, founder of Universe Today, began HeroX as a way of combining the best of the XPRIZE with a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter. Basically, the site brings together people with ideas for new inventions, finds the people with the talent and resources to make them happen, and funnels contributions and donations to them to bankroll their research and development.

big_bangUniverse Today, on the other hand, is kind of an old stomping ground for me. Years back, I did articles for them that dealt with a range of topics, including geology, natural science, physics, environmentalism, and astronomy. In both cases, I’ll be doing write ups on news items that involve technological development and innovation, and doing interviews with some of the people in the business.

If possible, I’ll try to link articles done for these sources to this page so people can check them out. And stay tuned for more updates on the upcoming release of Flash Forward, Oscar Mike, and my various other projects. Peace out!

Judgement Day Update: Terminators at I/O 2014

google_terminatorsWe’ve all thought about it… the day when super-intelligent computer becomes self-aware and unleashes a nuclear holocaust, followed shortly thereafter by the rise of the machines (cue theme from Terminator). But as it turns out, when the robot army does come to exterminate humanity, at two humans might be safe – Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to be precise.

Basically, they’ve uploaded a killer-robots.txt file to their servers that instructs T-800 and T-1000 Terminators to spare the company’s co-founders (or “disallow” their deaths). Such was the subject of a totally tongue-in-cheek presentation at this year’s Google I/O at the Moscone Center in San Fransisco, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Robots.txt file.

https://i0.wp.com/www.product-reviews.net/wp-content/uploads/Google-IO-2014-keynote-dated-live-stream-as-normal1.jpgThis tool, which was created in 1994, instructs search engines and other automated bots to avoid crawling certain pages or directories of a website. The industry has done a remarkable job staying true to the simple text file in the two decades since; Google, Bing, and Yahoo still obey its directives. The changes they uploaded read like this, just in case you’re planning on adding your name to the “disallow” list:

Screen_shot_2014-07-03_at_7.15.23_pm

While that tool didn’t exactly take the rise of the machines into account, it’s appearance on the Google’s website as an Easter egg did add some levity to a company that is already being accused of facilitating in the creation of killer robots. Calling Google’s proposed line or robots “killer” does seem both premature and extreme, that did not stop a protester from interrupting the I/O 2014 keynote address.

Google_Terminators_WideBasically, as Google’s senior VP of technical infrastructure Urs Hölze spoke about their cloud platform, the unidentified man stood up and began screaming “You all work for a totalitarian company that builds machines that kill people!” As you can see from the video below, Hölze did his best to take the interruptions in stride and continued with the presentation. The protestor was later escorted out by security.

This wasn’t the first time that Google has been the source of controversy over the prospect of building “killer robots”. Ever since Google acquired Boston Dynamics and seven other robots companies in the space of six months (between and June and Dec of 2013), there has been some fear that the company has a killer machine in the works that it will attempt to sell to the armed forces.

campaign_killerrobotsNaturally, this is all part of a general sense of anxiety that surrounds developments being made across multiple fields. Whereas some concerns have crystallized into dedicated and intelligent calls for banning autonomous killer machines in advance – aka. the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots – others have resulted in the kinds of irrational outbreaks observed at this year’s I/O.

Needless to say, if Google does begin developing killer robots, or just starts militarizing its line of Boston Dynamics acquisitions, we can expect that just about everyone who can access (or hack their way into) the Robots.txt file to be adding their names. And it might not be too soon to update the list to include the T-X, Replicants, and any other killer robots we can think of!

And be sure to check out the video of the “killer robot” protester speaking out at 2014 I/O:


Sources: 
theverge.com, (2)

Tech News: Google Seeking “Conscious Homes”

nest_therm1In Google’s drive for world supremacy, a good number of start-ups and developers have been bought up. Between their acquisition of eight robotics companies in the space of sixth months back in 2013 to their ongoing  buyout of anyone in the business of aerospace, voice and facial recognition, and artificial intelligence, Google seems determined to have a controlling interest in all fields of innovation.

And in what is their second-largest acquisition to date, Google announced earlier this month that they intend get in on the business of smart homes. The company in question is known as Nest Labs, a home automation company that was founded by former Apple engineers Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers in 2010 and is behind the creation of The Learning Thermostat and the Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector.

nest-thermostatThe Learning Thermostat, the company’s flagship product, works by learning a home’s heating and cooling preferences over time, removing the need for manual adjustments or programming. Wi-Fi networking and a series of apps also let users control and monitor the unit Nest from afar, consistent with one of the biggest tenets of smart home technology, which is connectivity.

Similarly, the Nest Protect, a combination smoke and carbon monoxide detector, works by differentiating between burnt toast and real fires. Whenever it detects smoke, one alarm goes off, which can be quieted by simply waving your hand in front of it. But in a real fire, or where deadly carbon monoxide is detected, a much louder alarm sounds to alert its owners.

nest_smoke_detector_(1_of_9)_1_610x407In addition, the device sends a daily battery status report to the Nest mobile app, which is the same one that controls the thermostats, and is capable of connecting with other units in the home. And, since Nest is building a platform for all its devices, if a Nest thermostat is installed in the same home, the Protect and automatically shut it down in the event that carbon monoxide is detected.

According to a statement released by co-f0under Tony Fadell, Nest will continue to be run in-house, but will be partnered with Google in their drive to create a conscious home. On his blog, Fadell explained his company’s decision to join forces with the tech giant:

Google will help us fully realize our vision of the conscious home and allow us to change the world faster than we ever could if we continued to go it alone. We’ve had great momentum, but this is a rocket ship. Google has the business resources, global scale, and platform reach to accelerate Nest growth across hardware, software, and services for the home globally.

smarthomeYes, and I’m guessing that the $3.2 billion price tag added a little push as well! Needless to say, some wondered why Apple didn’t try to snatch up this burgeoning company, seeing as how its being run by two of its former employees. But according to Fadell, Google founder Sergey Brin “instantly got what we were doing and so did the rest of the Google team” when they got a Nest demo at the 2011 TED conference.

In a press release, Google CEO Larry Page had this to say about bringing Nest into their fold:

They’re already delivering amazing products you can buy right now – thermostats that save energy and smoke/[carbon monoxide] alarms that can help keep your family safe. We are excited to bring great experiences to more homes in more countries and fulfill their dreams!

machine_learningBut according to some, this latest act by Google goes way beyond wanting to develop devices. Sara Watson at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society is one such person, who believes Google is now a company obsessed with viewing everyday activities as “information problems” to be solved by machine learning and algorithms.

Consider Google’s fleet of self-driving vehicles as an example, not to mention their many forays into smartphone and deep learning technology. The home is no different, and a Google-enabled smart home of the future, using a platform such as the Google Now app – which already gathers data on users’ travel habits – could adapt energy usage to your life in even more sophisticated ways.

Larry_PageSeen in these terms, Google’s long terms plans of being at the forefront of the new technological paradigm  – where smart technology knows and anticipates and everything is at our fingertips – certainly becomes more clear. I imagine that their next goal will be to facilitate the creation of household AIs, machine minds that monitor everything within our household, provide maintenance, and ensure energy efficiency.

However, another theory has it that this is in keeping with Google’s push into robotics, led by the former head of Android, Andy Rubin. According to Alexis C. Madrigal of the Atlantic, Nest always thought of itself as a robotics company, as evidence by the fact that their VP of technology is none other than Yoky Matsuoka – a roboticist and artificial intelligence expert from the University of Washington.

yokymatsuoka1During an interview with Madrigal back in 2012, she explained why this was. Apparently, Matsuoka saw Nest as being positioned right in a place where it could help machine and human intelligence work together:

The intersection of neuroscience and robotics is about how the human brain learns to do things and how machine learning comes in to augment that.

In short, Nest is a cryptorobotics company that deals in sensing, automation, and control. It may not make a personable, humanoid robot, but it is producing machine intelligences that can do things in the physical world. Seen in this respect, the acquisition was not so much part of Google’s drive to possess all our personal information, but a mere step along the way towards the creation of a working artificial intelligence.

It’s a Brave New World, and it seems that people like Musk, Page, and a slew of futurists that are determined to make it happen, are at the center of it.

Sources: cnet.news.com, (2), newscientist.com, nest.com, theatlantic.com

Immortality Inc: Google’s “Calico”

calico-header-640x353Google has always been famous for investing in speculative ventures and future trends. Between their robot cars, Google Glass, the development of AI (the Google Brain), high-speed travel (the Hyperloop), and alternative energy, their seems to be no limit to what Musk and Page’s company will take on. And now, with Calico, Google has made the burgeoning industry of life-extension its business.

The newly formed company has set itself to “focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.” Those were the words of Google co-founder Larry Page, who issued a two-part press release back in September. From this, it is known that Calico will focus on life extension and improvement. But in what way and with what business model, the company has yet to explain.

DNA-1What does seem clear at this point is that Art Levinson, the chairman of Apple and former CEO of Genentech (a pioneer in biotech) will be the one to head up this new venture. His history working his way from a research scientist on up to CEO of Genentech makes him the natural choice, since he will bring medical connections and credibility to a company that’s currently low on both.

Google Health, the company’s last foray into the health industry, was a failure for the company. This site, which began in 2008 and shut down in 2011, was a personal health information centralization service that allowed Google users to volunteer their health records. Once entered, the site would provide them with a merged health record, information on conditions, and possible interactions between drugs, conditions, and allergies.

Larry_PageIn addition, the reasons for the company’s venture into the realm of health and aging may have something to do with Larry Page’s own recent health concerns. For years, Page has struggled with vocal nerve strain, which led him to make a significant donation to research into the problem. But clearly, Calico aims to go beyond simple health problems and cures for known diseases.

google.cover.inddIn a comment to Time Magazine, Page stated that a cure for cancer would only extent the average human lifespan by 3 years. They want to think bigger than that, which could mean addressing the actual causes of aging, the molecular processes that break down cells. Given that Google Ventures included life extension technology as part of their recent bid to attract engineering students, Google’s top brass might have a slightly different idea.

And while this might all sound a bit farfetched, the concept of life-extension and even clinical immortality have been serious pursuits for some time. We tend to think of aging as a fact of life, something that is as inevitable as it is irreversible. However, a number of plausible scenarios have already been discussed that could slow or even end this process, ranging from genetic manipulation, nanotechnology, implant technology, and cellular therapy.

Fountain_of_Eternal_Life_cropWhether or not Calico will get into any of these fields remains to be seen. But keeping in mind that this is the company that has proposed setting aside land for no-hold barred experimentation and even talked about building a Space Elevator with a straight face. I wouldn’t be surprised if they started building cryogentic tanks and jars for preserving disembodies brains before long!

Source: extremetech.com, (2), content.time.com

Google CEO Wants Land Set Aside for Experimentation

future-city-1Back in May, Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page hosted a rare Q&A session with the attendees of the Google I/O keynote speech. During this time, he gave some rather unfiltered and unabashed answers to some serious questions, one of which was how he and others should focus on reducing negativity and focusing on changing the world.

Page responded by saying that “the pace of change is increasing” and that “we haven’t adapted systems to deal with that.” He was also sure to point out that “not all change is good” and said that we need to build “mechanisms to allow experimentation.” Towards that end, he claimed that an area of the world should be set aside for unregulated scientific experimentation. His exact words were:

There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation. And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world… some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.

So basically he’s looking for a large chunk of real-estate to conduct beta tests in it. What could possibly go wrong?

detroit_experimentOne rather creative suggestion comes from Roy Klabin of PolicyMic, who suggest that an aging and dilapidated Detroit might be just the locale Page and his associates are looking for. This past week, the city declared bankruptcy, and began offering to sell city assets and eradicate retirement funds to meet its $18 billion debt obligations.

What’s more, he suggests that SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who’s always after innovation, should team up with Google. Between the two giants, there’s more than enough investment capital to pull Detroit out of debt and work to rehabilitate the city’s economy. Hell, with a little work, the city could be transformed back into the industrial hub it once was.

And due to a mass exodus of industry and working people from the city, there is no shortage of space. Already the city is considering converting segments of former urban sprawl into farming and agricultural land. But looking farther afield, Klabin sees no reason why these space couldn’t be made available for advanced construction projects involving arcologies and other sustainable-living structures.

dragonfly-vertical-farm-for-a-future-new-york-1Not a bad idea, really. With cities like Boston, New York, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Moscow, Chendu, Tokyo and Masdar City all proposing or even working towards the creation of arcologies, there’s no reason why the former Industrial Heartland – now known as the “Rust Belt” – shouldn’t be getting in on the action.

Naturally, there are some who would express fear over the idea, not to mention Page’s blunt choice of words. But Page did stress the need for positive change, not aimless experimentation. And future generations will need housing and food, and to be able to provide these things in a way that doesn’t burden their environment the way urban sprawl does. Might as well get a jump on things!

And thanks to what some are calling the “New Industrial Revolution” – a trend that embraces nanofabrication, self-assembling DNA structures, cybernetics, and 3D printing – opportunities exist to rebuild our global economy in a way that is cleaner, more efficient and more sustainable. Anyone with space to offer and an open mind can get in on the ground floor. The only question is, what are they willing to give up?

venus_projectThere’s also a precedent here for what is being proposed. The famous American architect and designer Jacque Fresco has been advocating something similar for decades. Believing that society needs to reshape the way it lives, works, and produces, he created the Venus Project – a series of designs for a future living space that would incorporate new technologies, smarter materials and building methods, and alternative forms of energy.

And then there’s the kind of work being proposed by designer Mitchell Joachim and Terreform ONE (Open Network Ecology). And amongst their many proposed design concepts is one where cities use vertical towers filled with energy-creating algae (pictured below) to generate power. But even more ambitious is their plan to “urbaneer” Brooklyn’s Navy Yard by turning natural ecological tissues into viable buildings.

future-city2This concept also calls to mind Arconsanti, the brainchild of architect Paolo Solari, who invented the concept of arcology. His proposed future city began construction back in the 1970 in central Arizona, but remains incomplete. Designed to incorporate such things as 3D architecture, vertical farming, and clean, renewable energy, this unfinished city still stands as the blueprint for Solari’s vision of a future where architecture and ecology could be combined.

What’s more, this kind of innovation and development will come in mighty handy when it comes to time to build colonies on the Moon and Mars. Already, numerous Earth cities and settlements are being considered as possible blueprints for extra-Terran settlement – places like Las Vegas, Dubai, Arviat, Black Rock City and the Pueblos and pre-Columbian New Mexico.

Black Rock City - home to "Burning Man" - shown in a Martian crater
Black Rock City – home to “Burning Man” – shown in a Martian crater

These are all prime examples of cities built to withstand dry, inhospitable environments. As such, sustainability and resource management play a major role in each of their designs. But given the pace at which technology is advancing and the opportunities it presents for high-tech living that is also environmentally friendly, some test models will need to be made.

And building them would also provide an opportunity to test out some of the latest proposed construction methods, one that do away with the brutally inefficient building process and replace it with things like drones, constructive bacteria, additive manufacturing, and advanced computer modelling. At some point, a large-scale project to see how these methods work together will be in order.

Let’s just hope Page’s ideas for a beta-testing settlement doesn’t turn into a modern day Laputa!

And be sure to check out this video from the Venus Project, where Jacque Fresco explains his inspirations and ideas for a future settlement:


Sources:
1.
Elon Musk and Google Should Purchase and Transform a Bankrupt Detroit (http://www.policymic.com/)
2. Larry Page wants to ‘set aside a part of the world’ for unregulated experimentation (theverge.com)

3. Six Earth Cities That Will Provide Blueprints for Martian Settlements (io9.com)
4. The Venus Project (thevenusproject.org)
5. Arcosanti Website (arcosanti.org)
6. Terreform ONE website (terreform.org)

The Future is Here: Asteroid Mining!

The concept is not entirely new. In fact, it’s been a staple of science fiction for some time. Moving mining operations, refineries and even heavy industry to the Asteroid Belt as a way of reducing environmental stress and taking advantage of the sheer abundance of natural resources there. It was the concept behind Ben Bova’s The Asteroid Wars trilogy, and was even mentioned as early as 1898 in Garrett P. Serviss’ story Edison’s Conquest of Mars.

But as they say, science fiction leads to science fact. And when it comes to mining the asteroid belt, it seems some wealthy financiers and visionaries are hoping to get in on the ground floor. The company’s name is Planetary Resources, and its backers include James Cameron (of Aliens and Terminator fame) and Google founder Larry Page. Between these three forces, the idea and development capital are being made to being the commercial exploitation of our system’s many, many rocks.

The plan call for the development of viable space craft which will be able to fly out to the Belt, harvest materials, and then return. However, the long term projections involve the creation of mining colonies, heavily automated facilities that will be capable of taking in harvested rocks and ore and convert them to useable materials before they are ever brought back to Earth. After all, while every asteroid is a potential goldmine (literally!), the goal here is to eventually move the majority of the smelting and other potentially harmful operations off of Earth, into space and into orbit.

Click on the link below to read the full article and video below to learn the full extent of the company’s plans. Who knows? If the prospect looks good, maybe Cameron will want to buy the rights to Bova’s series and start making a series of promotional movies 😉

CBC News – Planetary Resources Inc.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/04/23/space-mining.html