Spy Tools of the Future


What if spies could decode sound vibrations passing through leaves, water and other everyday objects?

Spies of the future will use algorithms to gather information that humans could never dream of capturing. In an astounding breakthrough, scientists are learning how to decode “intelligible speech” by analyzing videotaped sound vibrations. Science Daily has more:

researchers at MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe have developed an algorithm that can reconstruct an audio signal by analyzing minute vibrations of objects depicted in video. In one set of experiments, they were able to recover intelligible speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag photographed from 15 feet away through soundproof glass. In other experiments, they extracted useful audio signals from videos of aluminum foil, the surface of a glass of water, and even the leaves of a potted plant.

In this hypothetical future, no space would be completely sound-proof. To keep a secret, you would have to control your invisible vibrations. This technology could also be used to reconstruct conversations from silent movies and Super-8 cameras.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell proved that they could use portable cameras on wearable devices like Google Glass to capture and decode passwords. Wired has more about this breakthrough:

they could use video from wearables like Google Glass and the Samsung smartwatch to surreptitiously pick up four-digit PIN codes typed onto an iPad from almost 10 feet away—and from nearly 150 feet with a high-def camcorder. Their software, which used a custom-coded video recognition algorithm that tracks the shadows from finger taps, could spot the codes even when the video didn’t capture any images on the target devices’ displays.

How could spies of the future use these new technologies? How could people keep secrets in this kind of world?

(Vibrating Energy image via Franco)

Robobees & the Future


Should we create a new world with technology or preserve the life around us?

Greenpeace created a darkly satirical video about “NewBees,” exploring a dystopic future where we replace dying species with robotic creatures.

Greenpeace explained the video, linking these fictional “robobees” to corporate interests:

If we carry on with chemically intensive agriculture model, it is quite possible that we may affect our pollinating insects to such a degree that we reach a global “pollination crisis.” This is the imaginary future we do not want. This future where bees and the biodiversity they help maintain, have finally fallen victim to chemically intensive industrial agriculture. So, here is the question: should we create a new world or save our own?

Are you scared of this kind of robotic future?

On Reddit, the video provoked a sprawling debate about how we should handle ecology and our future on the planet. One reader wrote: “Greenpeace asks, ‘Should we create a new world or save our own?,’ in stunning new video depicting robotic bees. I ask, why don’t we do both?”

Another reader had this comment:

Maybe that speaks to how wide the gulf between ideologies can be sometimes. It literally provoked no negative emotions at all, like the creators and I have completely different value judgments. I had no clue this ad was supposed to scare me or make me feel unease. It’s like showing an ad for genetically engineered crops… it makes me think we’re making technical advances that can help us overcome the sometimes-irreversible damage we’ve done to our own ecosystem.

The video was meant to encourage people to sign a petition to save the bees:

Bees and other pollinating insects play an essential role in ecosystems. A third of all our food depends on their pollination. A world without pollinators would be devastating for food production. Who would pollinate all the crops? Hand-pollination is extremely labour-intensive, slow and expensive. The economic value of bees’ pollination work has been estimated around € 265 billion annually, worldwide. So, also from a purely economic point of view, it pays to protect the bees. Insecticides in particular pose the most direct risk to pollinators. As their name indicates, these are chemicals designed to kill insects, and they are widely applied in the environment, mostly around cropland areas.

What do you think? You can watch the complete video here:

City of the Future


What do you think your favorite city will look like in one hundred years?

Architect Rem Koolhaas has completed a “vertical city” complex in Rotterdam, bringing a new style of multi-purpose skyscrapers to the city skyline. Bennett Stein wrote about the new buildings for KCRW’s Design & Architecture blog, calling the creator “the Godzilla of architecture.”

Here’s an excerpt from Stein’s essay:

 It’s a diva of biomimetics–you swear it’s a living, sentient thing that watches you as you watch it. And it loves itself so much it’s looking in the mirror all the time—wait a minute, it is a mirror. The building has a reflective shiny exterior of glass and steel which is repeated on the interior in planes of reflective glass and steel.

On a page celebrating the completion of the massive complex, the architecture firm described the new design (pictured above):

The three stacked and interconnecting towers of De Rotterdam rise 44 floors to a height of 150 meters and span a width of over 100 meters … Office employees, residents and hotel guests are brought together in conference, sport and restaurant facilities. The building’s shared plinth is the location of the lobbies to each of the towers, creating a pedestrianized public hub by means of a common hall.

Stein compared the building to the work of Swiss architect Le Corbusier. The 20th Century architect imagined rebuilding Paris with “tall, concrete cruciform towers set in green, wooded parks.”  

In a famous essay about the future of the city, Le Corbusier wrote:

We must create a mass-production state of mind:
A state of mind for building mass-production housing.
A state of mind for living in mass-production housing.
A state of mind for conceiving mass-production housing.

Could you live in this kind of city? Or do you hope for a different kind?

Story Written by Computer


Will computers of the future write novels, TV scripts or blog posts like this?

Back in 1969, the idea of a computer generated TV show produced Turn-On, one of “the most infamous flops in TV history.”

The show only survived for a single episode, generating a stack of angry responses from viewers. The Dangerous Minds blog described the show:

The premise of Turn-On was that the show had been generated by a computer, at that time a heady concept indeed, as few people had ever had any real-life contact with such an object. Replacing the colorful and groovy sets of Laugh-In was a blank, featureless landscape taking place inside a large white orb

While it is very hard to find existing copies of the television show, Dangerous Minds provided a glimpse of the lost program:

The ostensible “host” was a young Tim Conway, who apparently spent the entire episode seeking to kill himself. Much of the audio track of the show was not a laugh track but was instead supplied by a Moog synthesizer, which was also quite a new sensory experience for audiences to deal with.

The AMC show Mad Men discussed Turn-On in “The Monolith” episode for a few seconds, also referencing 2001: A Space Odyssey and still timely fears about our digital future.

What do you think? Computer algorithms can already write articles. Will they ever write stories?

In the photograph above, photographer Steve Jurvetson captured the CDC 6600, a $10 million supercomputer that was “the fastest machine in the world from 1964-1969.”

Creating Rules for Artificial Intelligence

What ethical guidelines should we establish as we enter the age of artificial intelligence?

Google reportedly paid more than $500 million to acquire DeepMind Technologies, a company working to develop artificial intelligence, starting with “simulations, e-commerce and games.”

According to The Information, the deal also included a provision to create a special ethics board:

The DeepMind-Google ethics board, which DeepMind pushed for, will devise rules for how Google can and can’t use the technology. The structure of the board is unclear.

Over at Reddit, hundreds of readers debated what kind of ethical framework we would need for artificial intelligence. Some readers wondered if AI should have emotions, as one writer summarized:

AI should be given the full range of human emotion because it will then behave in a way we can understand and ideally grow alongside. If we make it a crippled chimpanzee, at some point technoethicists will correct that and when they do we’ll have to explain to our AI equals (or superiors) why we neutered and enslaved them for decades or centuries and why they shouldn’t do the same to us. They’re not Roombas or a better mousetrap, they’re intelligence and intelligence deserves respect.

Another wondered about what kind of rules we will set for the humans who create artificial intelligence:

at some point in the future there will exist A.I with a complexity that matches or exceeds that of the human brain … they may enjoy taking orders, and should therefore not be treated the same as humans. But, do you believe that this complex entity is entitled to no freedoms whatsoever? I personally am of the persuasion that the now simple act of creation may have vast and challenging implications. For instance, wouldn’t you agree that it may be inhumane to destroy such an entity wantonly? These are the questions that will define the moral quandary of our children’s generation.

The reader Ozimandius made this point:

if you design an AI to want to treat us well, doing that WILL give it pleasure. Pleasure and pain are just evolutionarily adapted responses to our environment – a properly designed AI could think it was blissful to be given orders and accomplish them. It could feel ecstasy by figuring out how to maximize pleasure for humans.
The idea that it needs to be fully free to do what it wants seems to be projecting from some of our own personal values which need not be a part of an AI’s value system at all.

What do you think?

Image via Saad Faruque

How To Hack Your Brainwaves


What if any creator could build a powerful and affordable brain-interface device at home?

A team of scientists have raised more than $215,000 on Kickstarter to build a simple Electroencephalography (EEG) device that anyone can use to help “unlock the mysteries of the human brain” by measuring electrical activity inside your head.

The device includes a collection of wearable electrodes, an amplifier that measures the electrical activity in your brain and a built in “signal processing computer” that records the data to feed to your computer.

The device also includes a 3D printable headset, allowing you to customize the layout of electrodes on the device. Here’s more:

OpenBCI is a low-cost, programmable, open-source EEG platform that gives anybody with a computer access to their brainwaves. Our vision is to realize the potential of the open-source movement to accelerate innovation in brain science through collaborative hardware and software development … We feel that the biggest challenges in understanding what makes us who we are cannot be solved by a company, an institution, or even an entire field of science. Rather, we believe these discoveries will be made through an open forum of shared knowledge and concerted effort by people from many different disciplines.

What would you do if you could connect any digital device to your brain?

Artists, writers, videogame makers and other amateur scientists could use the device to build futuristic experiences.

The makers explained:

Both neurofeedback and biofeedback are starting to be used more frequently by artists, musicians, dancers, and other creative individuals who want to find new ways of connecting people with the world around them, making more immersive experiences. There’s great potential for research in psychology and behavior studies with portable EEG devices that can record brain activity in real-world environments. As the tools for interfacing the brain become more widely available, we will see BCIs come out of medical facilities and labs and become a bigger part of our everyday lives. We envision BCIs revolutionizing everything from neural gaming and augmented reality to meditation and concentration aids.

These People Might Get a One-Way Ticket To Mars


Would you leave your family and friends forever with a one-way ticket to Mars?

Just in time for the New Year, the Mars One project notified 1,058 aspiring astronauts that they had made the first cut from more than 200,000 applicants for a potential one-way trip to Mars in 2025. They would help set up Earth’s first colony on the red planet.

Alberta Ministry of Environment strategic planner Christy Foley received one of these highly coveted invitations, but her husband did not. She said that would not change her mind about the mission:

“This dream is so much bigger than one relationship. He recognizes that and he wants to help me reach the stars … He doesn’t want to anchor me to the Earth … When he said that, it made my heart flutter.”

New York City comedian Lauren Reeves made a funny Mars One application video, declaring “I wear my helmet everywhere I go” and poking fun at her lack of qualifications for the trip. She ended up getting picked for the second round and is willing to take the one-way trip for real. She explained in an interview:

“I wasn’t expecting that … I’m a natural athlete … And I think I have a pretty good personality. I’m someone who you’d want to live with and not want to kill.”

26-year-old Alex Marion built a YoutubeTwitter and Facebook page to promote his campaign to join the Mars trip. He posted this inspiring statement on his site:

Enough talk, enough debate, it’s time to do something. Until we then, until people realize their own potential as individuals and as a collective and create a purpose, rather than waiting and hoping, we will forever be doomed to self-destruction through apathy. The moon landing once gave us that glimmer of hope. It was in that moment that people all over the world saw what we could really do. Somehow we lost that, or it wasn’t a dramatic enough example. Either way, I believe that the Mars One mission can do what everything else couldn’t, and finally unite humanity with a higher purpose. Something more than survival or competition. I want to show every person a future not borne of violence, or politics, or economics, but one of peace, cooperation, and unity. To show everyone that we can… go to Mars!

20 year old Oxford student Ryan MacDonald also made the cut, beating hundreds of thousands of other applicants. He had this commentary in the Derby Telegraph:

“For the past few summers I have been getting in to the gym and building up for it. When I have spoken to the physician I will have more of an idea what I will need to do … I think for my family it is still not very real because there is still a long way to go but I am so excited to have got this far.”

30-year-old author Marina Miral received an email from Mars One as well, putting her in the running for the one-way trip to Mars. She told the Times Colonist:

“This might sound a little bit silly, but my dream for my entire life was to go to Starfleet Academy … But that is fictional, so it’s been pretty hard trying to find something that will substitute for that dream.”

(Image via Mars One site)

Howard Camping & the Apocalypse That Never Happened


When will the world end? What do you imagine the apocalypse will be like?

Howard Camping dedicated his life to these mind-bending questions, predicting that the world would end and Jesus would return to the earth during his lifetime. The would-be prophet passed away last weekend. He was 92 years old.

You can read many of Camping’s books for free at the Family Radio website, including Adam When? A Biblical Solution to the Timetable of Mankind (cover image embedded above). In his most famous prediction, Camping thought that the Christian rapture would occur on May 21, 2011, marking the return of Jesus.

The Kernel described his campaign:

“So taken in by the fervour were his listeners, that the campaign to save the world cost around $100 million. Through the sale of television and radio stations, Camping’s followers financed a marketing campaign that rivalled promotional work for Hollywood blockbusters. Many of his listeners chose to donate their own money to the cause, often mortgaging their homes or slipping into financial difficulty. For his listeners, getting into debt was not a problem. After all, it would all be gone by May 2011.”

His Family Radio Network raised millions in a campaign to tell everyone, but the apocalypse never occurred. He also predicted that the world would end on both September 6, 1994 and October 21, 2011, but missed those dates as well. The religious leader finally posted this message in March 2012:

“we now realize that those people who were calling our attention to the Bible’s statement that “of that day and hour knoweth no man” (Matthew 24:36 & Mark 13:32), were right in their understanding of those verses and Family Radio was wrong. Whether God will ever give us any indication of the date of His return is hidden in God’s divine plan. We were even so bold as to insist that the Bible guaranteed that Christ would return on May 21 and that the true believers would be raptured. Yet this incorrect and sinful statement allowed God to get the attention of a great many people who otherwise would not have paid attention … We tremble before God as we humbly ask Him for forgiveness for making that sinful statement. We are so thankful that God is so loving that He will forgive even this sin.”

If you are looking for more apocalyptic inspiration, you can download a free copy of the Book of Revelations, the book of the Bible that has spawned centuries worth of predictions about the end of the world.

Amazon Drone Delivery Fiction


What would the world look like if unmanned drones delivered our packages every day?

Someday soon, the sky could be filled with drones carrying our packages. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced the idea of delivering Amazon packages with unmanned drones this week. The company has been working on an experimental program, hoping to deliver packages with drones by 2015.

Follow this link to watch a drone delivery in action. The company described the new process:

It looks like science fiction, but it’s real. From a technology point of view, we’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is actively working on rules for unmanned aerial vehicles … One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today. We hope the FAA’s rules will be in place as early as sometime in 2015.

The initiative could produce a whole new genre of Amazon Drone Delivery science fiction.

The company stressed “Safety will be our top priority, and our vehicles will be built with multiple redundancies and designed to commercial aviation standards,” but readers speculated about potential problems online. We’ve collected a few reader responses below, but what do you think? What could happen in a world filled with unmanned delivery drones?

At deviantART, you can read more about drone art.