News from Space: Planet Hunting Flower-Shaped Starshade

nasa-starshadeWith over 1800 extra-solar planets discovered in the past 30 years, the search for life beyond our Solar System has begun anew. Astronomers believe that every star in the galaxy has a planet, and that one fifth of these might harbor life. The greatest challenge, though, is in being able to spot these “Earth-like” exoplanets. Due to the fact that they emit very little light compared to their parent stars (usually less than one-millionth the level of radiance), direct imaging is extremely rare and difficult.

As such, astronomers rely predominantly on is what is known as Transit Detection – spotting the planet’s as they cross in front of the star’s disc. This too presents difficulties, because the transit method requires that part of the planet’s orbit intersect a line-of-sight between the host star and Earth. The probability that an exoplanet will be in a randomly oriented orbit that can allow for it be observed in front of its star is therefore somewhat small.

starshade-8Luckily, engineers and astronomers at NASA and other federal space agencies are considering the possibility of evening these odds with new technology and equipment. Once such effort comes from Princeton’s High Contrast Imaging Laboratory, where Jeremy Kasdin and his team are working on a revolutionary space-based observatory known as a “starshade” – a flower petal-shaped device that allows a telescope to photograph planets from 50,000 kilometers away.

Essentially, the starshade blocks light from distant stars that ordinarily outshine their dim planets, making a clear view impossible. When paired with a space telescope, the starshade adds a new and powerful instrument to NASA’s cosmic detection toolkit. The flower-shaped petals are part of what makes the starshade so effective. The starshade is also unique in that, unlike most space-based instruments, it’s one part of a two-spacecraft observation system.

starshade-foldedAs Dr. Stuasrt Shaklan, NASA Jet Propulsion Labratory’s lead engineer on the starshade project, explaned:

The shape of the petals, when seen from far away, creates a softer edge that causes less bending of light waves. Less light bending means that the starshade shadow is very dark, so the telescope can take images of the planets without being overwhelmed by starlight… We can use a pre-existing space telescope to take the pictures. The starshade has thrusters that will allow it to move around in order to block the light from different stars.

This process presents a number of engineering challenges that Shaklan and his team are working hard to unravel, from positioning the starshade precisely in space, to ensuring that it can be deployed accurately. To address these, his research group will create a smaller scale starshade at Princeton to verify that the design blocks the light as predicted by the computer simulations. Concurrently, the JPL team will test the deployment of a near-full scale starshade system in the lab to measure its accuracy.

starshade_petalsDespite these challenges, the starshade approach could offer planet-hunters many advantages, thanks in no small part to its simplicity. Light from the star never reaches the telescope because it’s blocked by the starshade, which allows the telescope system to be simpler. Another advantage of the starshade approach is that it can be used with a multi-purpose space telescope designed to make observations that could be useful to astronomers working in fields other than exoplanets.

As part of NASA’s New World’s Mission, the starshade engineers are optimistic that refining their technology could be the key to major exoplanet discoveries in the near future. And given that over 800 planets have been detected so far in 2014 – that’s almost half of the 1800 that have been detected in total – anything that can assist in their detection process at this point is likely to lead to an explosion in planetary discoveries.

And with one-fifth of these planets being a possible candidate for life… well, you don’t have to do the math to know that the outcome will be might exciting! In the meantime, enjoy this video from TED Talks, where Professor Jeremy Kasdin speaks about the starshade project:


News from Space: NASA’s Future Spacesuit

z-seriessuit1It’s no secret that the human race is poised on a new generation of space exploration and travel. With future missions based on towing asteroids to Earth, building settlements on the Moon, and walking on Mars, NASA and other space agencies are eying their aging hardware and looking for design modifications. From shuttles, to rockets, to capsules, everything is getting an overhaul. And now, NASA is looking to create the next generation of space suits, and is looking to the public’s for help.

They are called the Z-series, a revolutionary new suit that is designed for walking on Mars as well as floating around in space and performing spacewalks. This new series is expected to replace the current aging design, which has been in continuous use on both space flights and aboard the International Space Station since 1982. In addition to updated technology and functionality, the new spacesuit also has an updated look.

NASA_suitThe first design was unveiled back in December of 2012 with the Z-1, which bore a striking resemblance to Buzz Lightyear’s own spacesuit. The new version (the Z-2 series), which has different joint designs and a more durable torso, also comes with a trio of “flashy” cover designs that were made in collaboration with fashion students at Philadelphia University, and were inspired by biomimicry, the evolution of technology, and even – supposedly – street fashion.

z-seriessuit2And unlike the current microgravity suits, the Z-series is designed for walking in extra-terrestrial environments where gravity is the norm (i.e. the Moon and Mars). Intrinsic to the new design is flexibility: it makes it much easier to walk, bend, and pick things up off the surface of a planet or moon. It also goes on quite differently. Whereas the old suit is pulled on like a pair of pants and a shirt, the new version has a handy door built into the back so someone can climb inside.

As Bobby Jones, an engineer for ILC, the company that worked on the new design explained:

There are a lot of fundamental design differences between developing a microgravity suit versus a planetary walking suit. A lot of that has to do with how much mobility is built into the lower torso. With microgravity you’re using your arms to move around and your feet just hang out there. You can dock the suit up to your habitat or vehicle and leave it outside, so you don’t drag dust and other things into your cabin,” Jones explains.

z-seriessuit4As previously noted, anyone can help decide among the three cover designs by casting a vote on NASA’s website. One option, inspired by underwater creatures (and known as the “Biomimicry” suit), employs glowing wires to help the suit stay visible at night. A second version – known as the “Technology” suit – pays homage to past spacesuits and uses light-emitting patches along with wire. The third option, inspired by “Trends in Society”, uses electroluminescent wire and a bright color scheme to mimic the appearance of sportswear and the emerging world of wearable technologies.

NASA says the final design is “reflective of what everyday clothes may look like in the not too distant future,” pulling in elements of sportswear and wearable tech. NASA will move forward with the most popular cover in the public vote, and plans to have the suit ready for testing by the end of the year. And they are hardly alone in looking to create suits that can handle the challenges of future exploration. For example, it’s also worth checking out this MIT professor Dava Newman sleek Mars spacesuit, aka. the “Spiderman Spacesuit”, that is currently in development.

In the meantime, check out this video from Ted Talks where Newman showcases her Spiderman suit. And be sure to head over to the Johnson Space Center’s website and cast your vote for what NASA’s next-generation spacesuit will look like.


News From Space: Luna Rings and Spidersuits!

space_cameraSpace is becoming a very interesting place, thanks to numerous innovations that are looking ahead to the next great leap in exploration. With the Moon and Mars firmly fixed as the intended targets for future manned missions, everything from proposed settlements and construction projects are being plotted, and the requisite tools are being fashioned.

For instance, the Shimizu Corporation (the designers of the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid), a Japanese construction firm, has proposed a radical idea for bringing solar energy to the world. Taking the concept of space-based solar power a step further, Shimizu has proposed the creation of a “Luna Ring” – an array of solar cells around the Moon’s 11000 km (6800 mile) equator to harvest solar energy and beam it back to Earth.

lunaringThe plan involves using materials derived from lunar soil itself, and then using them to build an array that will measure some 400 km (250 miles) thick. Since the Moon’s equator receives a steady amount of exposure to the Sun, the photovoltaic ring would be able to generate a continuous amount of electricity, which it would then beam down to Earth from the near side of the Moon.

It’s an ambitious idea that calls for assembling machinery transported from Earth and using tele-operated robots to do the actual construction on the Moon’s surface, once it all arrives. The project would involve multiple phases, to be spread out over a period of about thirty years, and which relies on multiple strategies to make it happen.

lunaring-1For example, the firm claims that water – a necessary prerequisite for construction – could be produced by reducing lunar soil with hydrogen imported from Earth. The company also proposes extracting local regolith to fashion “lunar concrete”, and utilizing solar-heat treatment processes to fashion it into bricks, ceramics, and glass fibers.

The remotely-controlled robots would also be responsible for other construction tasks, such as excavating the surrounding landscape, leveling the ground, laying out solar panel-studded concrete, and laying embedded cables that would run from the ring to a series of transmission stations located on the Earth-facing side of the Moon.

space-based-solarpowerPower could be beamed to the Earth through microwave power transmission antennas, about 20 m (65 ft) in diameter, and a series of high density lasers, both of which would be guided by radio beacons. Microwave power receiving antennas on Earth, located offshore or in areas with little cloud cover, could convert the received microwave power into DC electricity and send it to where it was needed.

The company claims that it’s system could beam up to 13,000 terawatts of power around-the-clock, which is roughly two-thirds of what is used by the world on average per year. With such an array looming in space, and a few satellites circling the planet to pick up the slack, Earth’s energy needs could be met for the foreseable future, and all without a single drop of oil or brick of coal.

The proposed timeline has actual construction beginning as soon as 2035.

biosuitAnd naturally, when manned missions are again mounted into space, the crews will need the proper equipment to live, thrive and survive. And since much of the space suit technology is several decades old, space agencies and private companies are partnering to find new and innovative gear with which to equip the men and women who will brave the dangers of space and planetary exploration.

Consider the Biosuit, which is a prime example of a next-generation technology designed to tackle the challenges of manned missions to Mars. Created by Dava Newman, an MIT aerospace engineering professor, this Spiderman-like suit is a sleeker, lighter alternative to the standard EVA suits that weigh approximately 135 kilograms (300 pounds).

biosuit_dava_newmanFor over a decade now, Newman has been working on a suit that is specifically designed for Mars exploration. At this year’s TEDWomen event in San Francisco, she showcased her concept and demonstrated how its ergonomic design will allow astronauts to explore the difficult terrain of the Red Planet without tripping over the bulk they carry with the current EVA suits.

The reason the suit is sleek is because it’s pressurized close to the skin, which is possible thanks to tension lines in the suit. These are coincidentally what give it it’s Spiderman-like appearance, contributing to its aesthetic appeal as well. These lines are specifically designed to flex as the astronauts ends their arms or knees, thus replacing hard panels with soft, tensile fabric.

biosuit1Active materials, such as nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys, allow the nylon and spandex suit to be shrink-wrapped around the skin even tighter. This is especially important, in that it gets closer Newman to her goal of designing a suit that can contain 30% of the atmosphere’s pressure – the level necessary to keep someone alive in space.

Another benefit of the BioSuit is its resiliency. If it gets punctured, an astronaut can fix it with a new type of space-grade Ace Bandage. And perhaps most importantly, traditional suits can only be fitted to people 5′ 5″ and taller, essentially eliminating short women and men from the astronaut program. The BioSuit, on the other hand, can be built for smaller people, making things more inclusive in the future.

Mars_simulationNewman is designing the suit for space, but she also has some Earth-bound uses in mind . Thanks to evidence that showcases the benefits of compression to the muscles and cardiovascular system, the technology behind the Biosuit could be used to increase athletic performance or even help boost mobility for people with cerebral palsy. As Newman herself put it:

We’ll probably send a dozen or so people to Mars in my lifetime. I hope I see it. But imagine if we could help kids with CP just move around a little bit better.

With proper funding, Newman believes she could complete the suit design in two to three years. It would be a boon to NASA, as it appears to be significantly cheaper to make than traditional spacesuits. Funding isn’t in place yet, but Newman still hopeful that the BioSuit will be ready for the first human mission to Mars, which are slated for sometime in 2030.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of the TEDWomen talk featuring Newman and her Biosuit demonstration:

Sources: gizmag, fastcoexist, blog.ted

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:


Ted Talks: The Age of the Industrial Internet

Tedtalks_marco_internetofthingsI came across another interesting and fascinating TED Talk recently. In this lecture, famed economist Marco Annunziata spoke about a rather popular subject – “The Internet of Things”, and how it is shaping our society. This term is thrown around a lot lately, and it refers to a growing phenomenon in our world where uniquely identifiable objects are connected to virtual representations in an Internet-like structure.

Basically, the concept postulates that if all objects and people in daily life were equipped with identifiers, they could be managed and inventoried by computers. By equipping all objects in the world with minuscule machine-readable identifiers, daily life could be transformed. How this is likely to look is the subject of Annunziata’s talk, beginning with the past two hundred years and the two major waves of innovation humanity went through.

Internet_of_ThingsThe first came with the Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760-1903), which permanently altered our lives with factories, machinery, railways, electricity, air travel, etc. The second wave came with the Internet Revolution (ca. 1980 – 2000), which has once again changed our lives permanently with computing power, data networks, and unprecedented access to information and communication.

Now, in the modern era, we are entering into a new phase of innovation, one which he refers to as the “Industrial Internet”. Judging by current research and marketing trends, this wave is characterized by intelligent machines, advanced analytics, and the creativity of people at work. It is a marriage of minds and machines, and once again, our lives will be permanently altered by it.

internet_of_things_beechamIn the course of the twelve minute lecture, Annunziata explains how the emergence of machines that can see, feel, sense and react will lead to an age where the technology we depend upon will operate with far greater efficiently. Naturally, there are many who would suspect that this all boils down to AIs doing the thinking for us, but in fact, it’s much more complicated than that.

Think of a world where we would be able to network and communicate with all of our devices – not just our smartphones or computers, but everything from our car keys to our cars and home appliances. By all things being marked and represented in a virtual internet-like environment, we could communicate with or remotely check on things that are halfway across the world.

Think of the implications! As someone who is currently very fascinated with how the world will look in the not-too-distant future, and how people will interact with it, I can tell you this stuff is science fiction gold! Check it out and be sure to follow the link at the bottom of the page to comment.


The Future is Here: Crowdfunded Flying Cars!

flying_carsYes, after years of expectations and failed promises, flying cars have finally arrived! Okay, arrived may be a bit of a strong word. But the prototype has been built, and all that’s needed now is some final safety testing to get FAA approval. Then, aerospace inventor Paul Moller will have realized his thirty-year dream of bringing a viable flying car to the market. And to raise money for these tests, he’s mounted a crowdfunding campaign.

Known as the M400X (aka. Skycar), this car is the a vertical take-off and landing vehicle that is also capable of horizontal flight. Powered by eight ethanol-fueled engines, it is designed to cruise at a speed of 500 km/h (315 mph) at a of height of 7600 meters (25,000 feet), or 320 km/h (200 mph) at sea level. A four-seat model that is about the size of a large SUV, this car weighs only 545 kilograms (1,200 lbs), thanks to a carbon fiber and Kevlar composite shell.

flying_cars1In total, it is expected to be able to fly for roughly 1200 (750 miles) without refueling, giving it a fuel economy of roughly 10 km/liter (25 mpg). In addition, a top land speed of 50 km/h (30 mph) makes short-distance street travel feasible. In these respects, it is far more sophisticated than other flying car designs – such as the Airbike and Terrafugia – in that it does not require an airport runway to take off and land, but can taxi when it needs to cover only a small stretch of ground.

The campaign began last month over at Indiegogo and will run to January 4th 2014, by which time, Moller and his company (Moller Int) hope to raise $958,000 of the $1.89 million needed to install the motors and FAA-required safety elements in the vehicle. Naturally, every donation comes with a prize, depending on the amount of money donated. And the grand prize, for a cool $15,000 dollars, is a chance to ride shotgun on the maiden voyage of the Skycar.

flying_cars_m400xOf that total, $932,000 has already been pledged by Nitroturbodyne – an FAA-designated engineering firm handling flight testing – and a former Moller subsidiary named Freedom Motors, which built the rotary engines, and the CliC protective goggles. By going the crowdfunding route, as opposed to corporate sponsorships, stock shares, or venture capital, Moller Int. hopes to raise the money faster while retaining more company control.

Moller, an inventor and TED talker, was also a professor of aeronautics at the University of California before starting the company in 1983. According to him, the decision to crowdfunds was a way of ensuring that public participation in the project, without the need for centralized measures like stocks:

We didn’t want to dilute the stock value by issuing more shares. Crowdfunding is a way for the average person to make a direct contribution towards a specific project without having to buy stock. This way, we can give really nice gifts and make people part of a team that can help make this happen.

All proceeds from the Indiegogo campaign will be used to prepare the Skycar for a June public unveiling where it will conduct an official test flight at an altitude of 600 meters (2,000 feet). Another six months of testing to meet FAA requirements will follow, before donors get their guest flights. After that, Moller will donate the M400 to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

flying_cars2From there, he’ll focus on a smaller, two-person Skycar M200 (seen above), which will be made available to the public in about five years time – assuming all goes according to plan. If you have any interest in donating to this cause, which will see a millennial dream become a reality at long last, just go to the Indiegogo page and pledge what you like. Then start saving your pennies for the when the 200 model hits the market. It’s likely to be pricey!

And in the meantime, be sure to check out this promotional video from Moller International:



The Future is Here: Lab-Grown Burger Gets a Taste Test

labmeat0Yesterday, the world’s first lab-grown hamburger was cooked, served, and eaten. And according to an article from The Week, it passed the taste test. The taste test took place in London, where Mark Post, the man who had grown the patty in his lab at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, allowed two independent tasters to sample one of his hamburger patties.

The samplers were food writer and journalist Josh Schonwald and Austrian food trends researcher Hanni Rützler. After biting into a piece of the cooked meat in front of reporters, Schonwald claimed that “It had a familiar mouthfeel. [The difference] is the absence of fat.” Naturally, both tasters were careful not to comment on whether the burger was “good” or not, as any such judgements might seem premature and could hurt its chances for sales at this point.

lab-grown-burgerThis lab-grown patty took two years and $325,000 to produce. And as sources revealed, the money came from Google co-founder and TED speaker Sergey Brin. Worth an estimated $20 billion, Brin has a history of investing in cooky projects – everything from driverless cars to trips to the moon. And as he told The Guardian, he was moved to invest in the technology for animal welfare reasons and believes it has “the capability to transform how we view the world”.

lab-grown-burger_postThe hamburger was grown in Post’s lab using bovine skeletal muscle stem cells that were collected from a piece of fresh beef. The cells were grown by “feeding” them calf serum and commercially available growth medium to initiate multiplication and prompt them to develop into muscle cells over time. Once they differentiated into muscle cells, they were given simple nutrient sources and exercised in a bioreactor, helping the muscle to “bulk up.”

The resulting five-ounce burger, cooked by chef Richard McGeown for Schonwald and Rützler, was made using 20,000 strips of cultured meat – about 40 billion cow cells – and took about three months to produce. As Post joked, this is significantly less time than it takes to raise a cow. And while the arrival of in-vitro meat has been predicted and heralded for decades, but now that it’s finally here, people are not sure how to respond.

labmeat1On the one hand, it offers a range of possibilities for producing sustainable, cheap meat that could help meet global needs using only a laboratory. On the other, there’s no telling how long it will be before consumers will be comfortable eating something grown in a petri dish from stem cells. Between the absence of fat and the stigma that is sure to remain in place for some time, getting people to buy “lab-grown” might be difficult.

But then again, the same issues apply to 3D printed food and other forms of synthesized food. Designed and developed as a means of meeting world hunger and future population growth, and with sustainability and nutritional balance in mind, some degree of hesitation and resistance is to be expected. However, attitudes are likely to shift as time goes on and increased demand forces people to rethink the concept of “what’s for dinner”.

And while you’re thinking the issue over, be sure to check out this video of Mark Post speaking about his lab-grown burger at TEDx Haarlem:


The Future is Here: The Cybernetic “Third Eye”

neil_harbissonAchromatopsia is a rare form of color blindness that effects one in thirty-five thousand people. One such individual is Neil Harbisson, who was born with the genetic mutation that rob him of the ability to see the world in anything other than black and white. But since 2004, he has been able to “hear” color, thanks to a body modification that has provided with him with a cybernetic third eye.

EyeborgThis device is known as the “eyeborg”, and given that it constitutes a cybernetic enhancement, some have taken to calling Harbisson a genuine cyborg. For others, he’s an example of a posthuman era where cybernetic enhancements will be the norm. In either case, the function of the eyeborg works was described in the following way in an article by Nautilus entitled “Encounters with the Posthuman”:

It transposes color into a continuous electronic beep, exploiting the fact that both light and sound are made up of waves of various frequencies. Red, at the bottom of the visual spectrum and with the lowest frequency, sounds the lowest, and violet, at the top, sounds highest. A chip at the back of Harbisson’s head performs the necessary computations, and a pressure-pad allows color-related sound to be conducted to Harbisson’s inner ear through the vibration of his skull, leaving his outer ears free for normal noise. Harbisson, who has perfect pitch, has learned to link these notes back to the colors that produced them.

Harbisson’s brain doesn’t convert those sounds back into visual information, so he still doesn’t know exactly what the color blue looks like. But he knows what it sounds like. As he explained to an audience at a TED Talks segment, he used to dress based on appearances. Now, he dresses in a way that sounds good. For example, the pink blazer, blue shirt and yellow pants he was wearing for the talk formed a C Major chord.

neil_harbisson1This may sound like an abstract replacement for actual color perception, but in many ways, the eyeborg surpasses human chromatic perception. For example, the device is capable of distinguishing 360 different hues, he can hear ultraviolet and infrared. So basically, you don’t need a UV index when you have the cybernetic third eye. All you need to do is take a look outside and instantly know if you need sunblock or not.

These and other extension of human abilities are what led Harbisson to found the Cyborg Foundation, a society that is working to create cybernetic devices that compensate for and augment human senses. These include the “fingerborg” that replaces a finger with a camera, a “speedborg” that conveys how fast an object is moving with earlobe vibrations and–according to a promotional film–a “cybernetic nose” that allows people to perceive smells through electromagnetic signals.

steve-mann1In addition to helping people become cyborgs, the foundation claims to fight for cyborg rights. While this might sounds like something out of science fiction, the recent backlash against wearers of Google glasses and the assault on Steve Mann are indications that such a society is increasingly necessary. In addition, Harbisson wants to find ways to fix devices like his eyeborg permanently to his skull, and recharge it with his blood.

For more information on the eyeborg and Project Cyborg, check out Harbisson’s website here. Neil Harbisson’s Project Cyborg promotional video is also available on Vimeo. And be sure to watch the video of Neil Harbisson at the TED Talks lecture:


The Birth of an Idea: The Computer Coat!

optical_computer1I’ve been thinking… which is not something novel for me, it just so happens that my thoughts have been a bit more focused lately. Specifically, I have an idea for an invention: something futuristic, practical, that could very well be part of our collective, computing future. With all the developments in the field of personal computing lately, and I my ongoing efforts to keep track of them, I hoped I might eventually come up with an idea of my own.

Consider, the growth in smartphones and personal digital assistants. In the last few years, we’ve seen companies produce working prototypes for paper-thin, flexible, and durable electronics. Then consider the growth in projection touchscreens, portable computing, and augmented reality. Could it be that there’s some middle ground here for something that incorporates all of the above?

Pranav Mistry 5Ever since I saw Pranav Mistry’s demonstration of a wearable computer that could interface with others, project its screen onto any surface, and be operated through simple gestures from the user, I’ve been looking for a way to work this into fiction. But in the years since Mistry talked to and showed off his “Sixth Sense Technology”, the possibilities have grown and been refined.

papertab-touchAnd then something happened. While at school, I noticed one of the kids wearing a jacket that had a hole near the lapel with a headphones icon above it. The little tunnel worked into the coat was designed to keep the chord to your iPod or phone safe and tucked away, and it got me thinking! Wires running through a coat, inset electrical gear, all the advancements made in the last few years. Who thinks about this kind of stuff, anyway? Who cares, it was the birth of an idea!

headphonesFor example, its no longer necessary to carry computer components that are big and bulky on your person. With thin, flexible electronics, much like the new Papertab, all the components one would need could be thin enough and flexible enough to be worked into the inlay of a coat. These could include the CPU, a wireless router, and a hard drive.

Paper-thin zinc batteries, also under development, could be worked into the coast as well, with a power cord connected to them so they could be jacked into a socket and recharged. And since they too are paper-thin, they could be expected to move and shift with the coat, along with all the other electronics, without fear of breakage or malfunction.

flexbatteryAnd of course, there would be the screen itself, via a small camera and projector in the collar, which could be placed and interfaced with on any flat surface. Or, forget the projector entirely and just connect the whole thing to a set of glasses. Google’s doing a good job on those, as is DARPA with their development of AR contact lenses. Either one will do in a pinch, and could be wirelessly or wired to the coat itself.

google_glass1Addendum: Shortly after publishing this, I realized that a power cord is totally unnecessary! Thanks to two key technologies, it could be possible to recharge the batteries using a combination of flexible graphene solar panels and some M13 peizoelectric virus packs. The former could be attached to the back, where they would be wired to the coats power system, and the M13 packs could be placed in the arms, where the user’s movement would be harnessed to generate electricity. Total self-sufficiency, baby!

powerbuttonAnd then how about a wrist segment where some basic controls, such as the power switch and a little screen are? This little screen could act as a prompt, telling you you have emails, texts, tweets, and updates available for download. Oh, and lets not forget a USB port, where you can plug in an external hard drive, flash drive, or just hook up to another computer.

So that’s my idea, in a nutshell. I plan to work it into my fiction at the first available opportunity, as I consider it an idea that hasn’t been proposed yet, not without freaky nanotech being involved! Look for it, and in the meantime, check out the video of Pranav Mistry on TED talks back in 2010 when he first proposed 6th Sense Tech. Oh, and just in case, you heard about the Computer Coat here first, patent pending!