The Future of Currency: Bitcoin Hitting the Streets

bitcoinFor those familiar with digital currencies, the name Bitcoin ought to ring a bell. Developed back in 2009, this “cryptocurrency” – i.e. it uses cryptography to control the creation and transfer of money – was created as a form of online payment for products and services. Since that time, it has become the subject of scrutiny, legislative bans, volatile pricing, and a hailed as a hardinger of the coming age of “distributed currency”.

Unlike precious metals or more traditional forms of currency, which hold value because they are backed by a country or are used to manufacture goods, Bitcoin is only buoyed by market demand. There are only 12.3 million virtual Bitcoins in circulation and those “coins” are traded through a Peer-to-Peer computer network, much as people used to share music files.

bitcoin1What’s especially interesting is the fact that the creator of this new form of currency remains unknown. It is assumed that it originated with a programer from Japan, due to the fact that its first mention came in a 2008 paper published under the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto”. It became operational roughly a year later with the release of the first open source Bitcoin client and the issuance of the first physical bitcoin.

And in an interesting and personally-relevant development, it now seems that a Bitcoin ATM is coming to my old hometown of Ottawa. In this respect, the nation’s capitol is joining other major cities around the globe as municipalities that dispense the crypto currency, in spite of the fact that it is still not recognized by any national banking institutions, or financial regulating bodies.

future_money_bitcoinWhat’s more, the publicly-traded cryptocurrency has seen its stock go through repeated highs and lows over the past few years, being subject to both bubbles and price drops as countries like India and China prohibited its use. But with these machines hitting the streets, a trend which began back in November with the distribution of Robocoin ATMs, there is speculation that the digital currency might just be here to stay.

Part of the appeal of cryptocurrencies is that they allow for anonymity, hence why bitcoin has been linked to a number of illegal activities, such as on the shuttered drug marketplace Silk Road. And because its value is strictly tied to speculators, and not backed by any tangible measure or authority, speculators are able to ratchet up demand and push the stock value higher.

future_money2But Bitcoin is also starting to be accepted as a mainstream form of payment for U.S.-centric sites like OkCupid and WordPress. And back in October of 2013, China’s web giant Baidu accounced that it would start accepting Bitcoin payments for a firewall security service it sells. And though the Chinese government put the brakes on Bitcoin exchanges by December, the number of mainstream institutions opening up its coffers to it is growing.

These include Richard Branson’s private space tourism company Virgin Galactic, the Sacramento Kings, the e-commerce giant Paypal, and Overstock.com, a major online retailer. And popular use is also growing, as evidenced by the visualization below which shows downloads of bitcoin client software since 2008, broken down by different operating systems.

bitcoin_globalWhat the graphic shows is quite indicative. All over the world, particularly in developed countries and areas of economic growth – the Eastern US, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Australia and Southeast Asia – the Bitcoin software is being downloaded and used to oversee online exchanges in good and services.

And ultimately, those who believe in the service and choose to invest in it are doing so based on the promise that it will someday streamline monetary transactions and free the world from the financial manipulation of big government and big banks, breakdown the financial walls between nations, and remake the worldwide economy. In short, it will breakdown centralized economies and allow a “distributed economy” to takes its place.

bitcoin_popmapAdmittedly, the service is still flawed in a number of respects. For example, people who chose to collect bitcoins in the past were dissuaded from spending them since their value kept going up. The problem is, if economic incentives encourage people to hoard their bitcoins rather than spend them, the currency will never fulfill its role as the future of money.

Another problem is the one arising from the currency’s “deflationary nature”. Because the system was designed to allow the creation of only a finite number of bitcoins, there will come a point where, as demand rises, the value of the currency will only go up (making the price of goods and services fall, hence the term deflation). And that could lead to hoarding on an even larger scale.

bitcoin-atm-flagshipBut according to many economists who have closely followed the progress of the digital money, Bitcoin’s recent ups and downs are to be expected from a currency so young, and one that is just now attracting major attention from the mainstream population. The bottom could fall out of the market, but the currency could just as easily stabilize and reach a point where its value is consistent enough that people no longer hoard the stuff.

So at this point, its difficult to say what the future will hold for the new miracle money known as Bitcoin. But when it comes to cryptocurrencies in general, time seems to be on their side. Ever since the Internet Revolution took off, the possibilities for creating a new, de-centralized world order – research, development, politics and business are open and inclusive in ways like never before – has been emerging.

Sources: ottawacitizen.com, wired.com, fastcoexist.com, bbc.co.uk, uxblog.idvsolutions.com

Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int

Your Reputation: The Currency of the Future

reputation_marketingNot too long ago, I did something I haven’t done in a long time and wrote a conceptual post, one which dealt with the concept of the “Internet of Things” and where its leading us. In that spirit, and in the hopes of tackling another concept which has been intriguing me of late, I wanted to delve into this thing known as Reputation Marketing, also known as the Trust Economy.

Here too, the concept has been batted around of late, and even addressed in a Ted Talks lecture (see below). And much like the Internet of Things, it addresses a growing trend that is the result of the digital revolution and everything we do online. To break it down succinctly, Reputation Marketing states that as more and more of our activities are quantified online, our behavior will become commodified, and our actions will become the new currency.

Facebook Reece ElliottAt the heart of this trend is such things as social media, online shopping, and online reviews. With everything from used goods, furniture, clothing and cars to accommodations up for review, people are turning to web-based recommendations like never before. In fact, a 2012 study done by Neilsen Media Research suggested that 70% of all consumers trust online reviews,  which are now second only to personal recommendations.

For some, this represents a positive development, since it means we are moving away from the depersonalized world of institutional production toward a new economy built on social connections and rewards. One such person is Marina Gorbis, who explores the development of what she calls socialstructing in her book The Nature Of The Future: Dispatches From The Socialstructed World. 

NatureOfTheFuture_cover_sml_01In Gorbis’ view, in addition to new opportunities, socialstructing will present new challenges as well. For one, there will be exciting opportunities to create new kinds of social organizations – systems for producing not merely goods but also meaning, purpose, and greater good. But at the same time, there is a possibility that this form of creation will bring new inequities, and new opportunities for abuse.

But at the same time, Gorbis was sure to point out the potential negative consequences. In the same way that one acquires friends on Facebook, or followers on Twitter, people in the near future could be able to hoard social connections for the sake of money, fame, or social standing. Basically, we need to understand the potential disadvantages of socialstructing if we are to minimize the potential pitfalls.

future_money_bitcoinOne such development she points to as an example is the rise of social currencies, such as Paypal, Bitcoin, and others. These operate much differently than regular currencies, as they are intended to facilitate social flows that often operate not on market principles but on intrinsic motivations to belong, to be respected, or to gain emotional support. But once these connections and flows begin to be measured, they may acquire a value of their own.

Basically, if we begin to value these currencies, motivations will arise (not necessarily altruistic ones) to acquire them. So instead of turning market transactions into social flows, we might be turning social interactions into market commodities. In the words of sociologist Chase, we would be applying ontic measurements to ontological phenomena. Or as she puts it in her book:

We created social technologies. Our next task is to create social organizations: systems for creating not merely goods but also meaning, purpose, and greater good. Can we imagine a society of “private wealth holders whose main objective is to lead good lives, not to turn their wealth into capital?” asks political economist Robert Skidelsky. Or better yet, might they turn their wealth into a different kind of capital—social, emotional, or spiritual? Our technologies are giving us an unprecedented opportunity to do so.

botsman-tedAnother person who sees this as a positive development is Rachel Botsman – consultant, author, former director at the William J. Clinton Foundation, and founder of the Collaborative Lab. In her ongoing series of lectures, consultations, and her book What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, she addresses the transformative power collaboration will have, giving rise to such things as “reputation capital” and the “reputation economy”.

In her 2012 Ted Talks lecture she explained how there’s been an explosion of collaborative consumption in recent years. This has embraced everything from the web-powered sharing of cars, to apartments, and even skills. In short, people are realizing the power of technology to enable the sharing and exchange of assets, skills and spaces in ways and on a scale that was never before possible.

collaborative_consumptionBut the real magic behind collaborative consumption, she explained, isn’t in the inventory or the money. It’s in using technology to build trust between strangers, something which is rarely available in the current industrialized, commodities market. Whereas this top-down economic model relies on depersonalized methods like brand name recognition and advertising to encourage consumption, this new model is far more open and democratic.

It is for this reason, and because of the potential it has for empowerment, that Botsman is such an advocate of this emerging trend. In addition to offering opportunities for micro-entrepreneurs , it also provides people with the chance to make human connections and rediscover a “humanness” that has been lost along the way. By engaging in marketplaces that are built on personal relationships, as opposed to “empty transactions”, people are able to reconnect.

future_moneyThe irony in this, as she states, is that this emerging trend is actually taking us back to old market principles which were thought to have been abandoned with modern industrial economy. Much like how Envisioning Technology predicted with their recent infographic, The Future of Money, this decentralizing, distributed trend has more in common with bartering and shopping at the local agora.

Basically, these behaviors – which predate all the rationalization and vertical/horizontal integration that’s been taking place the industrial revolution – are hardwired into us, but are being updated to take place in the “Facebook age”. Through connections enables by internet access and a worldwide network of optic cables, we are able to circumvent the impersonal economic structures of the 20th century and build something that is more akin to our needs.

future_money2Or, as Botsman summarized it in her article with Wired UK:

Imagine a world where banks take into account your online reputation alongside traditional credit ratings to determine your loan; where headhunters hire you based on the expertise you’ve demonstrated on online forums such as Quora… where traditional business cards are replaced by profiles of your digital trustworthiness, updated in real-time. Where reputation data becomes the window into how we behave, what motivates us, how our peers view us and ultimately whether we can or can’t be trusted…

Another potential irony is the fact that although online shopping does allow people to avoid face-to-face interactions at their local store, it also draws customers to businesses that they may not have otherwise heard about. What’s more, online reviews of local businesses are becoming a boon to entrepreneurs, expanding on the traditional power of written reviews and word of mouth.

And at the risk of making a shameless plug, this all puts me in mind of a short story I wrote back in April, as part of the April 2013 A to Z Challenge. It was called Repute, and deals with a young executive in charge of hiring new talent, in part based on what I referred to as their Reputation Index Placement (RIP), which was basically a tabulation of their digital presence. Like I said, the concept has been on mind for some time!

And of course, be sure to check out Botsman full lecture below:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, wired.co.uk, ted.com
, envisioning.io

The Future of Transit: Elon Musk’s Hyperloop

hyperloopThe high-speed transit tube. It’s been a staple of science fiction for many years. Remember the tubes cars in Logan’s Run, the elevators in the Jetsons, or the tubes that shoot people around New New York in Futurama? Much like flying cars, they are a feature of a futuristic society that people have been waiting on. And thanks to Elon Musk, it might finally be coming true.

Yes, the same man that brought us the Tesla electric car, PayPal, and SpaceX is now working on a design for a high-speed transit system that works the same way as the pneumatic tube. In a series of statements and documents released yesterday, the billionaire entrepreneur unveiled his concept for a tube that could whisk passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes – half the time it takes an airplane.

hyperloop1In the newly released documents, Musk outlined the basic design, which would consist of a low-pressure steel tube that houses capsules which move back and forth. The aluminum capsules (or pods) would have skis on the bottom containing holes that pump out air, creating an air cushion. They would be propelled forward with magnets found on the skis as well as an electromagnetic pulse generated by a series of electric motors.

Linear electric motors placed at each destination would slow the pods down by absorbing their kinetic energy. That energy would then be put back into battery packs and used to accelerate the next pods, or stored for future use. Solar panels on top of the tubes would also provide energy. The pods, which have room for 28 people each, could leave every 30 seconds – transporting up to 7.4 million people on each route (SF to LA or vice versa).

hyperloop2At 1290 kilometers per hour (800 mph) the above ground Hyperloop system would be dramatically faster than a bullet train or even an airplane. Alongside boats, planes, trains and automobiles, Musk claims that the train would constitute a “fifth form” of transportation. And of course, safety would be paramount, with each pod being spaced apart by 8 km (5 miles), and the system would have an emergency brake.

The system would also be designed to deal with seismic shifts, which are common in California. In order to mitigate earthquake risk, the system would be built on pylons (the tube wouldn’t be rigidly fixed at any point). Adjustable lateral and vertical dampers would be placed inside the pylons to “absorb the small length changes between pylons due to thermal changes, as well as long form subtle height changes.”

hyperloop3What’s more, Musk was sure to play up the comfort value of the ride:

Once you’re traveling the speed you wouldn’t notice the speed at all. It would be really smooth, like you’re riding on a cushion of air. Maximum G-force of about half a G, comparable to what you might feel in an airplane but far less than what you would feel in a rollercoaster. Really quiet.

Musk estimates that price tag per ride would be $20 per person, making the Hyperloop more reasonably priced than train, plane, or automobile. The whole project would cost an estimated $6 billion if it contained “people-only pods,” but would be priced at $10 billion if it had pods for both people and cars.

As it stands, its not entirely clear when the Hyperloop would be up and running. What’s more, its unclear what tole Musk would play in its creation. Since he is currently occupied with developing things like a nationwide Supercharger network for Tesla and launching satellites with SpaceX, he thinks it could be three to four years before a demo could be finished. As for a full system that would run from LA to San Francisco, that could take between seven to ten.

hyperloop4In any event, the concept is open-source, and Musk is calling on inventors, engineers and investors to get involved. Given that it is a rather elegant solution to the problem of transit, such an idea is not likely to remain idle for too long. Originally inspired by the sad state of $70 billion California’s high-speed rail initiative, the Hyperloop could easily prove to be another transportation initiative that is never completed. At the same time, it might prove to be a “leapfrog maneuver”, bypassing lightrail completely and ushering in something better.

It might sound like a fantasy, but Musk has a reputation for making the impossible a reality. What’s more, engineers from both Tesla and SpaceX have been working on the concept for close to a year and some are now dedicated to it full-time. And given that nations like China, India, Russia and the EU are in need of expanded transit systems, don’t be surprised if we see something similar emerging overseas.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the concept, courtesy of Elon Musk and CBC news:


Sources: cbc.ca, fastcoexist.com