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Preview: FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

An examination of futurism/futurology, emerging trends, disruptive innovations... and all their unintended consequences. You can also subscribe to an RSS feed, as well as a podcast. Also visit the main FutureWire website, futures wiki, or e-mail.

Last Build Date: Thu, 17 Sep 2015 06:58:14 +0000


Unintended Consequences of Biofuels

Wed, 08 Aug 2007 22:00:00 +0000

Biofuels, particluarly those derived from ethanol, have been heralded as an ideal way to wean us off of polluting and increasingly expensive fossil fuels. While we may have no choice but to rely on biofuels in the future, some futurists are sounding the alarm about the unintended consequences of biofuel reliance. In July, the futurist think tank Global Business Network noted that crop growth for biofuels could come at the expense of the world food supply. Others are citing the phenomenon of "agflation," or the increased price of all things agricultural, from produce to dairy products to real estate in rural areas. Indeed, manufacturers of all types are beginning to notice higher prices for animal by-products used in products such as soaps.

While market forces may eventually correct agflation-driven price increases, the time is now to understand that energy solutions such as biofuel are not "magic bullets" without impact in other areas, and to mitigate those impacts.

Source: Techdirt

MIT Demonstrates "Wireless Electricity"

Wed, 18 Jul 2007 20:35:00 +0000

The ability to direct and transmit electrical power through the air, without wires, took a further step from the theoretical to the practical in June when a group of MIT researchers demonstrated their "WiTricity" concept.

The technology works by transmitting electricity as a magnetic field oscillating at a specific frequency. Through "magnetically coupled resonance," the "receiver" can capture the electricity, making for an efficient and safe method of over-the-air transfer.

Wireless transmission of electricity has been understood in theory since the work of Nikolai Tesla in the 19th Century. Safe, efficient and cost-effective wireless electricity could hold countless beenfits, from eliminating the need to install costly copper wiring to lowered reliance on batteries for small devices. However, despite the success of WiTricity, the technology has a long way to go before it is deployed commercially... not to mention the need to better understand side effects such as interference and possible effects on health and the environment.

Source: Self Service World

How to Stop -- Or Live With -- Global Warming

Tue, 17 Jul 2007 21:19:00 +0000

According to research at Princeton, current technologies are capable of stopping (or at least slowing) the rate of global warming by 2050 if properly applied. Using a mix-and-match approach, students who participated in a game-like experiment found that the current portfolio of energy-saving policies and technologies (flourescent bulbs, nuclear power, wind turbines, reducing deforestation, etc.) could indeed keep global greenhouse gases constant over the next 50 years. The trick is to apply these solutions to developing countries, where rapid industrial growth will put them on track to overtake the developed world in greenhouse gas output within the next several decades.

Meanwhile, Live Science has a top-10 list of side effects of global warming, such as more severe allergies, more sinkholes from permafrost melting, a less dense upper atmosphere that will affect how satellites orbit the earth, more forest fires and rapid deterioration of ancient ruins. Perhaps the strangest prediction of all: mountains that lose their glaciers and permanent snow caps will actually "grow" as the weight on them decreases.

The End of "Cheap Food"?

Wed, 11 Jul 2007 20:45:00 +0000

From the end of World War II until now, most nations have enjoyed plentiful and relatively inexpensive food supplies. But now, according to the well-known futurist think tank Global Business Network, that era may be ending.

GBN cites the near doubling of corn prices on the world market in the past year as evidence that this trend has already begun. Factors that are driving up prices include increased demand by the growing world population, as well as the growth of Asian economies. The latter is significant because, as economies prosper, meat consumption increases... and with it, the need for livestock feed. Increasing consumption of bio-fuels will stress grain supplies even further. Throw global warming into the mix (crop yields can fall by up to 5% for every 0.9 degree F rise in temperature) , and the stage is set for possibly much higher food prices worldwide, shortages, and ultimately, mass starvation in the poorest countries.

Writes GBN's Gwynne Dyer, PhD, "In the early stages of this process, higher food prices will help millions of farmers who have been scraping along on very poor returns for their effort because political power lies in the cities, but later it gets uglier. The price of food relative to average income is heading for levels that have not been seen since the early 19th century, and it will not come down again in our lifetimes." [Emphasis added]

Source: Arlington Institute

The iPhone Revolution?

Tue, 03 Jul 2007 19:22:00 +0000

The iPhone, released to the public last Friday, is one of the most hyped devices in memory. But is all the excitement justified?

John McCormick of Baseline suggests that the iPhone could blow the market for handheld rich Internet applications wide open, even though the iPhone was designed for the consumer rather than the enterprise market. Om Malik concurs, noting the significance of the built-in Safari browser that brings the full Web experience to mobile phones for the first time. Smart Mobs opines that mobile phones (not just the iPhone) represent a mass medium unto themselves that are revolutionizing the fundamental ways in which we communicate.

UPDATE: Read a contrarian view...

Bird Population Falls Over Past 40 Years

Wed, 20 Jun 2007 20:33:00 +0000

A recent study by the National Audubon Society has found that bird populations -- even those of common, robust species such as grackles -- have fallen drastically over the past 40 years. The populations of whiporwills and bobwhites have fallen by well over 80 percent, a drop so great that these once-common birds are now seldom seen or heard in the eastern US. Deforestation is partly to blame, as well as global warming, which appears to be affecting arctic birds especially hard. Because cold-climate birds must migrate farther north each year to reach their shrinking habitat, they rarely migrate below the northernmost regions of the US.

"These are not rare or exotic birds we're talking about -- these are the birds that visit our feeders and congregate at nearby lakes and seashores and yet they are disappearing day by day," said Carol Browner, Audubon board chairperson and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Clinton administration. "Their decline tells us we have serious work to do, from protecting local habitats to addressing the huge threats from global warming."

Source: Boston Globe

Self-Healing Plastic

Fri, 15 Jun 2007 20:32:00 +0000

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have developed a nanotechnology polymer that can "heal" itself by filling in cracks and tears automatically. Although self-healing plastic is not an entirely new concept, the UIUC material is different because it can repair itself multiple times without any intervention.

The material could have important uses where making repairs is difficult, where materials are under enormous stress and/or where material failure would be catastrophic -- such as in implanted medical devices, airplane and spacecraft components, and microprocessors. The UIUC researchers emphasize, however, that practical applications are years away, and that initial products will be highly expensive.

Source: MIT Technology Review

Britain Piloting First Biofueled Train

Fri, 15 Jun 2007 20:25:00 +0000

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group has embarked on yet another venture -- Virgin Trains, which seeks to replace traditional diesel trains with models run on biofuel.

Virgin Trains' pilot project will test a train running on 20% biological material (typically a type of vegetable oil) in Britain for six months. If the test is successful, Virgin Trains will use the 20% mix full-time, with an eye toward engines run purely on biofuel. Virgin Trains says that switching to biodiesel could cut emissions by 14%.

Source: MSNBC

Microsoft Introduces "Tabletop" PC

Wed, 30 May 2007 20:07:00 +0000

As computing devices get smaller and smaller, Microsoft is bucking the trend with its Microsoft Surface "tabletop" PC, code-named "Milan." The device, about the size of a small desk, allows the user to draw and write on the surface with a brush or fingers. Instead of using a mouse or keyboard, the user manipulates digital elements on the surface with his or her hands.

The first of the Milan devices will be shipped to corporate customers to be used as kiosks... providing Milan with crucial exposure while allowing Microsoft to work out any kinks before offering surface computing to home and office users. At any rate, the average consumer will be forgiven for not pouncing on the first available units, which cost approximately $10,000 each.

Source: ZDNet

The Risks of Autonomous Robots

Tue, 22 May 2007 20:53:00 +0000

Anyone familiar with the Terminator or Matrix movies has an idea of the dangers of intelligent machines running amok. But as scientists develop ever more autonomous robots, such warnings are moving from speculation to reality very quickly.

Samsung, for example, has developed an armed robotic sentry for use in patrolling the tense border between North and South Korea. Such military applications alarm robotic ethicists, who suggest that society is not ready to confront the consequences of autonomous robots designed to kill. They are also concerned about the growing use of robots to care for the elderly, particularly in Japan. Is society, they ask, truly ready to entrust its most frail members to these machines, particularly since our experience with them is relatively limited? Or, could an automated, autonomous nursing home prove to be a "dumping ground" for those whose care is too inconvenient?

Source: BBC

Is True Global Democracy the Next Great Political Movement?

Tue, 22 May 2007 18:53:00 +0000

A near-universal disillusionment with traditional forms of government is driving new expressions of democracy around the world, underscored by a growing awareness of global issues and Internet-based connectivity. Paul Hawken of Orion magazine describes how many of the networking trends evident over the last decade are coalescing to create new ways for socially- and politically-minded groups to organize and make a difference:

This is the first time in history that a large social movement is not bound together by an "ism." What binds it together is ideas, not ideologies. This unnamed movement's big contribution is the absence of one big idea; in its stead it offers thousands of practical and useful ideas. In place of isms are processes, concerns, and compassion. The movement demonstrates a pliable, resonant, and generous side of humanity...

The promise of this unnamed movement is to offer solutions to what appear to be insoluble dilemmas: poverty, global climate change, terrorism, ecological degradation, polarization of income, loss of culture. It is not burdened with a syndrome of trying to save the world; it is trying to remake the world.

Source: AlterNet

Outsourced Journalism

Tue, 15 May 2007 18:47:00 +0000

Add writing and reporting to the list of jobs that are now being outsourced. Although native foreign correspondents have been around for decades, news sources such as one in Pasadena, California, have begun outsourcing its local news coverage to reporters in India:

James Macpherson, editor and publisher of the Pasadena Now website, hired two reporters last weekend to cover the Pasadena City Council. One lives in Mumbai and will be paid $12,000 a year. The other will work in Bangalore for $7,200. The council broadcasts its meetings on the Web. From nearly 9,000 miles away, the outsourced journalists plan to watch, then write their stories while their boss sleeps — India is 12.5 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time.

“A lot of the routine stuff we do can be done by really talented people in another time zone at much lower wages,” said Macpherson, 51, who used to run a clothing
business with manufacturing help from Vietnam and India.

Although this might be an isolated case, it could catch on if publishers perceive a real cost savings. Or not, if they sense a loss of a connection to the communities they are covering.

Source: unmediated

IBM's "Five in Five"

Fri, 04 May 2007 20:33:00 +0000

IBM has released a report outlining "five innovations that will change our lives over the next five years." The "big five" concepts -- though not completely new -- are:

  • We will be able to access healthcare remotely, from just about anywhere in the world
  • Real-time speech translation-once a vision only in science fiction-will become the norm
  • There will be a 3-D Internet
  • Technologies the size of a few atoms will address areas of environmental importance
  • Our mobile phones will come close to reading our minds

First Step Toward Organ Regeneration in Humans

Fri, 04 May 2007 20:26:00 +0000

Research conducted at Stanford University suggests that humans may one day be able to regenerate damaged organs and nerves, and possibly even regrow limbs. This research has focused on primitive animals such as the sea squirt, which can heal itself in ways that higher-order animals cannot. By understanding the way in which animals repair damaged body parts, scientists hope to be able to replicate such processes in humans.

Source: Biology News Net

Bruce Sterling on Earth-Friendly Pervasive Computing

Mon, 30 Apr 2007 19:35:00 +0000

Noting that the word "computer" is disappearing from technologists' vocabularies, science fiction author and futurist Bruce Sterling believes that as the Internet subsumes computing, we are truly on the path toward a highly embedded wireless network in which nearly everything is a node:

In 2007 the computer gave up taking over the world. Instead the world took over the computer. The Internet became a wholly owned subset of Reality 2.0. When the actual world invades the virtual world, it scatters the computer into tiny physical pieces, some no bigger than dust. “Intelligent printing,” another modern darling, is semiconductor ink sprayed on cardboard. There’s never been a humbler, cheaper “computer.”

Sterling envisions a world in which the chips that drive it are powered by tiny amounts of ambient energy -- nearly any form of heat or light will do. Such chips would have such low power requirements that they wouldn't need a dedicated power source, and would use up hardly any natural resources.

Source: Futurismic

The Future of TV News

Wed, 25 Apr 2007 20:42:00 +0000

If news websites can allow users to subscribe to certain news categories, will TV news be able to do the same thing someday? Dave Winer of Scripting News muses on the possibilities, including the ability to block out categories in which the user has no interest. He even provides a mockup of an interface.

Is Tesla Getting the Electric Car Right?

Fri, 13 Apr 2007 20:52:00 +0000

If the internal combustion engine is the technology environmentalists love to hate, the electric car is the technology everyone else hates to love. Electrics have long had the reputation for being underpowered, inefficient, and no more eco-friendly than any other type of car, as the electricity needed to run them normally comes from fossil fuels.

Enter Tesla Motors, a California-based startup that has developed the Tesla Roadster, a stylish, high-performance electric car that can reportedly go from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds and travel up to 250 miles between charges. The Roadster is still in the prototype stage, but just as important as the car itself is the way that Tesla proposes to fuel it. Tesla envisions a distributed network of charging stations that draw power from sustainable, environmentally friendly sources.

Source: Long Tail

Stem-Cell Treatment Cures Type 1 Diabetes

Thu, 12 Apr 2007 20:12:00 +0000

A clinical trial involving patients with type 1 diabetes (aka: juvenile diabetes) and stem cell therapy has shown that treatment with stem cells can help such patients produce their own insulin.

The stem cells, created from the patients' own blood, proved effective in 13 of 15 subjects in the trial, who no longer need daily insulin injections. However, more studies are needed to verify the findings and learn more about exactly how the therapy works. Experts believe that a widely-available stem cell treatment for type 1 diabetes is at least five years away. The research, furthermore, does not address type 2 diabetes.

The findings were published in the most recent edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Source: London Times

DIY Mobile Networks

Thu, 12 Apr 2007 20:02:00 +0000

Ever dreamed of having your own mobile phone network? If so, Sonopia offers customizable, "virtual" mobile networks for small businesses and nonprofit groups. Partnering with Verizon, Sonopia has offered networks to churches, rock bands, sports teams, and the National Wildlife Fund. Nonprofits can offers as an incentive to prospective customers a donation of profits to charitable causes.

Sonopia charges no setup fees, so even the smallest groups -- and even individuals -- can establish their own mobile networks.

Source: Springwise

Top Ten Emerging Technologies for the Environment

Wed, 11 Apr 2007 20:03:00 +0000

Live Science has ranked the top ten emerging environmental technologies in a slide show format. Among the top-rated concepts (not all of which are new) that have the promise to reduce waste, conserve energy and protect natural resources are electronic paper, decontaminating microbes, and energy from waves and ocean temperature.

UK Government Envisions a Grim Future

Mon, 09 Apr 2007 14:22:00 +0000

In trying to analyze future threats to Britain's armed forces, the UK Ministry of Defence has created a chilling future scenario of global instability and devastating weapons.

Taking into account familiar threats such as global warming and the growing population in political "hot spots" such as the Middle East, the study also notes threats such as:

  • Self-directed weapons that need little or no human control

  • Implanatable information chips wired directly to the brain

  • "Flashmobs" that could be mobilized instantly by criminal or terrorist groups

  • A revival of Marxism and other radical political movements

  • The continued growth of militant Islam

Much of this instability will be driven by declining resources coupled with increasing numbers of people living in cities.

Source: Guardian

Apple Announces iPhone Release Date

Mon, 02 Apr 2007 13:59:00 +0000

Mark your calendar for Saturday, June 11 -- that's the date that Cingular has announced that it will begin selling Apple's long-anticipated iPhone. That date is also the first day of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference.

Source: Crave

Remote-Controlled Pigeons

Tue, 27 Feb 2007 19:20:00 +0000

Chinese scientists have reportedly been able to control a pigeon's flight remotely through electrodes that stimulated different parts of the bird's brain. Scientists at the Robot Engineering Technology Research Center at Shandong University were able to send the pigeon commands to fly left, right, up and down. It is reportedly the first such successful experiment in the world, and could have important implications for neurology and even remote mind control.

Source: MSNBC

Sutures from Bacteria

Tue, 27 Feb 2007 16:19:00 +0000

Sounds icky, but it's true -- the FDA has approved a polymer suture made from modified bacteria using recombinant DNA technology.

The material in Tepha Medical Devices' TephaFLEX Absorbable Suture breaks down in the body as a deep wound or surgical incision heals, improving the healing process and preventing infection. Recombinant DNA allows the manufacture of materials from organisms that would be difficult if not impossible to produce otherwise.

Lights out for incandescent lights?

Tue, 27 Feb 2007 14:24:00 +0000

The incandescent electric light was one of the paradigm-shifting inventions of the last 125 years, transforming the way people live, work and play. But the era of the incandescent light bulb may be drawing to a close.

Though more expensive up front, compact flourescent light bulbs are far more efficient -- and environmentally friendly -- than incandescent bulbs, using less electricity and lasting longer while providing the same amount of light. For that reason, local and state governments have been encouraging the adoption of compact flourescent bulbs, largely through subsidizing their cost. However, Australia is moving toward banning incandescent bulbs altogether by 2010. By enforcing minimum energy performance standards, selling incandescent bulbs would effectively be illegal. In the US, California is considering a similar measure that would outlaw sales of incandescent lights by 2012. The measure is significant because, as the nation's most populous state, California is a trendsetter in environmental and health legislation. Indeed, state governments in Connecticut and New Jersey (ironically, where Edison developed his light) are considering similar bans on incandescent lights.

The private sector is also jumping on the compact flourescent bandwagon. Retailers plan to increase shares of the bulbs substantially, and light bulb manufacturer Philips will stop manufacturing incandescent bulbs by 2016.

By switching to compact flourescent bulbs on a national level, Australia could cut its greenhouse gas emissions by four tons per year.

Source: International Herald Tribune