Emerging Technologies, Fuelling New Paradigms


Emerging Technologies

      Published by Steven Novella

Most Fridays I submit a blog post to Swift, the official blog of the JREF. The article I submitted this morning is about a new study demonstrating  a brain-machine-interface (BMI) that allows a rhesus monkey to control two robotic arms at the same time. This is a technology I have been following here at NeuroLogica, blogging about it whenever I think a cool breakthrough is made.

The topic touches on several areas simultaneously that I find fascinating – neuroscience, computer technology, virtual reality, and predicting future technology. I make the point, as I often do, that predicting future technology has a terrible track record, with the only reasonable conclusion being that it is very difficult.

It’s fun to look back at past future predictions and see what people generally got right and what they got wrong, and then see if we can learn any general lessons that we can apply to predicting future technology.

Major Hurdles

For example, we are not all flying around with jetpacks or taking our flying car to work. This has become, in fact, a cliche of failed future technologies. I think the lesson here is that both of these technologies suffer from a major hurdle – fuel is heavy, and if you have to carry your fuel around with you it quickly becomes prohibitive. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to overcome this limitation with chemical fuel or batteries.

In other words, whenever the viability of a technology depends upon making a major breakthrough that changes the game with respect to some major limitation imposed by the laws of physics, you cannot count on that technology succeeding in the short to medium term. Long term – all bets are off.

The coming hydrogen economy is another example. It turns out, safely and efficiently storing for convenient release large amounts of hydrogen is a non-trivial technical problem that will not be solved as a matter of course.

Incremental Advance

By contrast, even in the 1980s, but certainly by the early 1990′s the promise of the coming internet was in the air. I remember reading fiction, popular science articles, and talking about how the world will change when information becomes digital and ubiquitous. No one predicted ebay and Twitter specifically, but certainly online commerce and communication were anticipated.

The difference here is that computer and electronic technologies had a proven track record of continuous incremental improvement, and that was all that was necessary for the dreams of the internet to become reality. You can extrapolate incremental progress much more reliably that massive breakthroughs.

Not So Fast

Smartphones, also anticipated for decades, are now a reality. The additional lesson here is that sometimes it takes longer than we predict for a technology to mature. I remember people desperately trying to make use of early portable computing devices in the 1990s (like the Newton and other PDA). I was there, using my PDA, but the functionality was just not sufficient to make it easier than a paper notebook. I’m sure some people made it work for them, but widespread adoption was just not happening.

Now, 20 years later, smartphones have finally achieved the promise of portable personal computing devices. People use smartphones not only for communication, but to quickly look up information, to update their Twitter feed, to listen to music and podcasts, as still and video cameras, and as portable GPS devices. They are still rapidly increasing in power and utility, but they have definitely passed the bar of general adoption.

As PDAs, carrying around a small computer was not that useful. It took the development of other applications to really make the technology useful, such as GPS, the internet, MP3s, and miniaturized cameras.

Yes, But What Is It Good For?

Perhaps the most difficult prediction involves how a new technology will be used. Microwaves were developed for cooking. It turns out, they are terrible tools for cooking. The technology might have completely died on the vine, except it turns out they are really convenient for heating food – defrosting, rewarming, and, of course, making popcorn. They quickly became indispensable.

Segways were supposed to change the way people move about a city. They utterly failed in this goal. However, they enjoy a niche for security guards to move around malls and airports.

This is, in my opinion, the trickiest part of predicting future technology adoption. Even when the technology itself is viable, it’s hard to predict how millions of people will react to the technology. Why are we not all using video-phones all the time? In the 1980s I would have sworn they would be in wide adoption as soon as the technology was available. Now I could, if I chose, make every phone call a video call, but I choose not to. For most calls, it’s just not worth it. I’d rather not have to look into a camera and worry about what I am doing.

Likewise, who would have thought that people would prefer texting to talking on the phone? That was a real shocker to me.

Sometimes the adoption of a specific technology depends upon someone finding a good use for it. The technology itself may be viable, but utilization really determines whether or not it will be adopted. There is no substitute for the real-world experiment of millions of people getting their hands on a technology or application and seeing if they like it.

The Future

Will all this in mind, what are the technologies that I think are likely to have a huge impact on our future? This is a huge topic, and maybe I’ll dedicate a future blog post to exploring this further, but let me name some that come to mind.

Carbon nanotubes and graphene are the plastics and the semi-conductors of the 21st century rolled into one. This material is strong and has interesting and changeable conductive properties that make them potentially usable in small, energy efficient and flexible electronics. The major limitation right now is mass producing carbon nanofibers in long lengths and large amounts efficiently and with sufficient quality. This seems to be an area of steady progress, however.

This may seem like an easy one, but stem cells clearly have tremendous potential. However, I would have to file this one under – major breakthrough still necessary in order to achieve the full potential of stem cell technology. I also think this is one that will mature 2-3 decades later than popularly anticipated. Maybe by the middle of the 21st century we will begin to see the promise of growing or regenerating organs, reversing degenerative diseases, and healing major damage and disease with stem cells.

And to bring the article back around to the original topic – brain-machine interfaces in all manifestations. The ability to affect brain function with electricity and the ability to communicate between external devices (going in both directions – sensory input and motor or other output device) mediated by a computer chip has massive implications.

On the one hand, this is a new paradigm in treating the brain by altering its function. Right now the major medical intervention for brain function is pharmacological, but this approach has inherent limits. The brain is not only a chemical organ, however, it is an electrical organ, and increasingly we are seeing electrical devices, such as deep brain stimulation, to treat neurological diseases.

Beyond that, the ability to interface a brain and a computer essentially brings neuroscience into the computer age, which further means that applications will benefit from the continued incremental advance of computer technology. It may take a few more decades than we hope or anticipate, but we can now clearly see the day when paralyzed patients can control robot legs or arms through BMI, where we can enter a virtual world and not only control but actually mentally occupy an avatar, and where people can control anything technological in their environment through thought alone.

In short, it has been demonstrated that it is possible for humans to merge with their machines. I know this sounds like hyperbole and science fiction, but the science is pretty solid if immature.

This technology is coming. What remains to be seen is what applications will develop, and how will people react

Top 10 Reasons Humans Are Obsessed With the Apocalypse


Top 10 Reasons Humans Are Obsessed With the Apocalypse
by Alpha

Readers – the end is nigh. Any day of the week there always seems to be some terminal apocalypse just around the corner, poised to finally bring ruin to us all – and severe distress to the gullible. This is true not only in relation to the 2012 Mayan prediction, but regularly throughout human history – going right back to pre-Roman times.

Why our fixation? Writing strictly on a not-for-prophet basis, here are the Top 10 reasons for our obsession…

 

10

An inflated sense of self-importance

El-Mito-Narciso-El-Psicoanalisis-L-Zvvden

Much stems from our difficulty in grasping the tiny walk-on part we all have amid the sprawling enormity of deep time. The human brain just can’t compute the vastness of it. For many, the world doesn’t only revolve around us – it stops around us too. 1 in 7 people in the world right now believe it will all end during their lifetime.

9

It provides a sense of meaning

Transience-Of-Life-Daniel-Kansky

The idea of an apocalypse pushes all the right buttons at a psychological level because the idea of ‘there’s no meaning’ is a little freaky. It represents the fundamental struggle between order and chaos.

Human societies have always tried to create some kind of framework of meaning to give history and our own personal lives some kind of significance.

8

It’s about a basic human need: power

Preaching Crowd Ii

Apocalyptic predictions are a way for people to try to control the way their (and others’) world works.

The one thing we can never predict is the time and manner of our own deaths. What you get during times of particular discontent – war, famine or general bad times – is a rise in apocalyptic preaching and ideas. And at those times we seem to lap it up like there’s no tomorrow.

7

It’s a collective death wish
 Rev Jim Jones

Immanuel Velikovsky, writer on ancient catastrophes, had an unsettling theory that mankind blocks its memory of the failure of civilizations of the past, while simultaneously desiring those catastrophes – much like a collective death wish.

Considering war, global warming, financial collapse and other ways we might collectively destroy ourselves – this is a little worrying. But we need to distinguish between the end of our species (far more likely) and the end of the planet (highly unlikely).

6

We’re all bored
 Bored Worker Cropped Crop380W-Denverprblog-Com

Life can seem grindingly dull sometimes. Same job, groundhog day – yawn, as the hipsters say.

Wouldn’t a little injection of chaos alleviate all that crap? After all, aren’t depictions of apocalyptic events from the movies downright sexy? We’re sure we’d have Milla Jovovich or Megan Fox running around in tight leather pants saving the world. Might spice up a dull Wednesday morning, non?

5
It’s predicted…
 The-End-Is-Near-Apocalypse-631

…by every single religion. Those in the West are probably most aware of Christian eschatology (religious theory about the end of the world). Until recently it was taken as a given by many believers that the Second Coming and the end of the world were imminent. It’s easier to control a population that clings to a terror of some looming destruction, after all.
4

It’s common sense
 Nuclear-Bomb-Explosion

Robert Oppenheimer had a bet going with other members of the Manhattan Project as to whether the first atom bomb (that they were about to set off) would start a chain reaction that would destroy the earth’s atmosphere. Thank God the other guy didn’t win.

When the Cold War was going on, the most likely culprit for the apocalypse was nuclear weapons – and they certainly came close. Right now it might be a catastrophic climate change scenario that leaves the planet more or less intact, minus humanity – or too much bad rap music causing mass insanity.

3

There are no consequences if there’s no tomorrow
 Screen Shot 2013-01-02 At 9.53.03 Pm

When you’re mortgaged up to your eyeballs, hideously in debt, overworked, underpaid, totally depressed about the global financial meltdown and climate change, a little apocalyptic event might seem like a breath of fresh air.

The power to erase the past is a potent force indeed. After all, you didn’t really want to have to pay off those credit cards for the rest of your life did you?

2

It makes us understand ourselves better
 Know Yourself

Look at any half-decent apocalyptic sci-fi movie. It’s an excellent opportunity to examine our species as a whole.

Good fiction revolves around conflict on a personal level, and there aren’t many scenarios that allow the same style of broad speculation as a good old apocalyptic event. Bring on those zombies, mutants, aliens, because when the going gets tough… you know the rest.

1

You’re right
 

Sun-Huge-W-Three-Snow-Geese--Improved- V5W6852--Bosque-Del-Apache-Nwr,-San-Antonio,-Nm

It’s easy to mock those who have tried to predict an apocalypse and failed, but thinking about the ways the world might end, or the timing of that end, may be fulfilling a basic human need.

End of the world believers, whether religious or not, have one thing going for them. The world will, one day, end. The planet can’t last forever – astronomers predict the planet only has around another 7.5 billion years until it’s engulfed by our Sun.

In the meantime: if we do have only the briefest cameo as a small species of carbon-based bipeds in a seemingly interminable epic, shouldn’t we make the most of it in these brief moments we’re on stage?