Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Addendum to 3D Printing

There was one more thing I wanted to mention in my 3D printing article but neglected to include.

3D printing has transformed physical objects into information technology. What does this mean? Since any item that you may wish to print can be expressed as a digital file, you can manipulate them like a digital file. For instance, let's say that you've just designed a guitar. But rather than print it out, you can email it someone and they can print it out (sans the strings). Emailing musical instruments; how cool is that?

Or maybe you want to bring your guitar with you on your vacation, but it doesn't fit in your luggage. Keep the file on a flash drive and carry it in your pocket instead! Then when you get to your destination, find a 3D printer (they won't be so hard to find in just a few years) and print it out there. Problem solved.

Monday, October 15, 2012

3D Printing

Historically, if you wanted to purchase a product, you could either go to the store, or order one via a catalog or online. Both of these methods have drawbacks. Going to the store is time consuming and limits you to what the store has in stock. Ordering online, gives you a much bigger selection, but you usually have to wait several days for your item to arrive. Furthermore, if the product you were looking for didn’t exist, you were out of luck.

Now there is a new way to get what you need; 3D printing.

3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, is very much like the name suggests; a printer that prints physical objects in three dimensions.

And don’t think that they’re printing in ink like their 2D counterparts. They can print in numerous different materials, such as plastic, nylon and rubber to name a few.

How does it work? Actually, it’s surprisingly simple. First you design the product you want with a special software program (this step is not necessarily required. I’ll explain why shortly). Then you send the design to your printer, which starts building the product.

The machine looks like a large hollow box with glass windows that allows you to see inside it, much like a jewelry case.

Inside, there are tubes with nozzles, similar to the ones you would use to squeeze frosting onto a cake. Except instead of frosting, these tubes squeeze out the materials needed to build your object.

Starting at the bottom, it slowly, layer by layer builds your object. Each layer is only a fraction of a millimeter thick, so you can be very detailed with your object.

The process can take up to a few hours, but once it’s done, you have a brand new item. From an adjustable monkey wrench, to a figurine or even a working flute, you can print it all. (Watch this amazing video of a man playing a printed flute.)
Even sneakers have been printed with 3D printers, and the number of items successfully printed is growing daily.

One of the most amazing things about 3D printing is that you don’t actually have to design your own objects. If you go to the website, you can browse thousands of already designed objects. When you find one that you like, simply click on that item and then click on the DOWNLOADS button. This will let you send the file(s) to your printer where it will start downloading. Best of all, all the items on the site can be downloaded for free!

With 3-D printing, products are less expensive and more varied than traditionally manufactured products. And with a little bit of know how, you can design your own products that don’t exist elsewhere. Does your favorite recipe call for 2 and a half teaspoons of sugar? Make a two and a half teaspoon measuring cup! Did you step on an extension from your vacuum cleaner and now it’s cracked? Don’t pay a fortune ordering a new piece from the manufacturer; print a new one yourself!

No more waiting in line at the store to check out. No more waiting for UPS to deliver your package (or even not having it delivered because you weren’t home). If you need something, just print it!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Future of Books

Books. They’ve been around in one form or another for over 1500 years. From the hand written scrolls and codices of antiquity and the middle ages to the more familiar printed books of the modern era, these vehicles of information transmission have been used to tell humanity’s story.

Read by rich and poor, young and old, they have been there to provide information and entertainment to anyone who cares to pick one up. You have always been able to rely on a book for a good diversion from whatever it is you might be doing. As Ernest Hemingway said, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.”

Wherever you go you are likely to find books. They are as ubiquitous as food, water, and even the air we breathe. And just as food, water and air are the inalienable rights of man, public libraries have ensured that this is true for books as well.

A world without books would be a sad place indeed. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “I can not live without books.” Well, if President Jefferson were alive today, the next few years might very well kill him.

Why is this, you might ask? No one is claiming that novels and history are going to stop being written down. It is merely the method by which they will be read that is changing. Namely, E-books or electronic books. Advancing technology has allowed for devices such as Barnes and Noble’s Nook and’s Kindle to supplant physical books. And they are gaining widespread acceptance very quickly. In fact, has been selling more e-books than paper ones since April of 2011.

For those of you who don’t know, these devices, E-readers, operate in much the same way that a regular book does, but with several advantages. Rather than each book being a separate, individual item, these devices can store hundreds of books apiece. You can conceivably have your entire library on this one small device. That is a major space saver. It also makes it easier to carry your books around with you. This is important especially for school children. With the weight of their textbooks, children are at risk of back injuries. In fact in 2001 over 7,000 emergency room visits were attributed to children’s backpacks being too heavy. With an E-reader (or even some sort of tablet PC) most of that weight could be eliminated.

Purchasing new books is also easier. In the 20th century, if you wanted a new book, you would have to go to your local bookstore or library to pick one up. Then the internet came along, allowing you to order books online. Much simpler, but you still had to wait several days for your books to arrive. With an E-reader, you use the device to look for a book in much the same way you might on But once you purchase it, instead of waiting several days for your book to arrive, it is on your device and ready to be ready within 60 seconds.

Besides safety and convenience, there is also the environmental impact. Approximately 30 million trees are felled annually for book production in the United States alone. This figure should reduce dramatically over the coming years as more people switch away from paper books to digital books.

And while it’s true that an E-reader can’t reproduce the smell and feel of a well read paper book, this perhaps is a small price to pay for the numerous benefits that E-readers provide.

In the future people will still be reading just as they are today. Entire new worlds of ideas and adventures will still await the curious mind that seeks them. But you won’t have to head to the bookshelf to access them; you’ll have to look no further than your pocket.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Future of Organ Replacement

This is a repost of an article that I had to take down when I sold it to Enough time has passed that I can now repost it.

There are approximately 105,000 people currently on the waiting list for solid organ transplant in the United States. 18 of those people die every day. These deaths are due entirely to the fact that there are far more people on the waiting list than there are available organs. Kidney transplant patients often have to endure months or even years of being hooked up to a dialysis machine and heart transplant patients may spend just as much time stuck in a hospital bed due to heart failure. In both these cases, patients are waiting for an organ that might never come.
But what if they didn’t have to rely on a donor to receive a new organ? What if all they needed were a few cells from their own body?

Consider the case of 36 year old Andemariam Beyene, who had advanced inoperable tracheal cancer. As little as five years ago, this would have been a death sentence. But since it occurred in 2011, doctors were able to use cutting edge techniques to grow Beyene a new trachea from his own stem cells.

To make the new trachea, doctors started with a glass replica that was created based on 3-D scans of Beyene‘s own trachea.  It was then coated with polyethylene glycol, a substance porous enough to allow Beyene’s stem cells to grow into it.  The artificial trachea needed only two days in a bioreactor before it was ready to be implanted into Beyene. This whole process took just one week. Additionally, since the new trachea was made from his own cells, Beyene doesn’t have to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life.

While the above incident is certainly a medical breakthrough, why is this new treatment method such a game changer? There are several reasons. First, any organ that can be regrown from a patient’s own cells negates the need for said patient to be on a donor list; they would no longer need someone else’s organ to replace their own.
If everybody on the organ transplant waiting list could have the organ they required grown from their own body in just a few days, none of them would have to die from lack of a compatible organ. They could have their old organ swapped out with the new one, spend a little time recuperating and be out of the hospital relatively quickly. Needless to say, this would save billions in healthcare costs, which is always a happy side effect of medical advances.

The second benefit relates to the age of the patient. In today’s world, if you are 80 years old and you need a new heart, chances are you’re not going to get it. Any donor hearts that are available will go to someone younger than you. However, if you can have a new heart grown from your own body, then as long as you are healthy enough for the surgery (and have the money to pay for it) you can get that new heart, which should be as strong and healthy as your own was when you were much younger.

While it’s true that at present most organs can not yet be grown in the lab, things are moving forward rapidly.
Currently, tracheas have been grown in the lab and successfully implanted into patients. This has also been done with bladders and urethras.  Research has also begun into growing livers, hearts, kidneys, pancreases and thymus glands.

The rate at which medical technology is advancing is truly astounding. In the coming years and decades, we will be entering a new era of health and longevity. Gone will be the days of organ transplant wait lists. Gone will be the days when we require an external donor, who often never materializes, to get the organ we need to continue living.  If you find that any of your organs have stopped functioning properly, whether from traumatic injury, disease, or simply old age, just grow yourself a new one!

The Future is Illuminating

This is a repost of an article that I had to take down when I sold it to Enough time has passed that I can now repost it.

It has been 130 years since the first practical light bulbs began to light up the world. In 1881, the Savoy Theatre in the City of Westminster, London was fitted with incandescent light bulbs, becoming the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity.

Since then, there have been great strides made in lighting technology. For the most part, advances have been incremental in nature, such as tweaking existing designs to produce a better bulb. But every once in a while a major breakthrough came along that completely changed the game.

The first major shift in light bulb technology came with the advent of the fluorescent bulb. One of the first prototypes was designed and built in 1934 by a team of engineers led by George E. Inman at General Electric’s Nela Park (Ohio) engineering laboratory. The immediate advantages of fluorescent bulbs over incandescent are operating life and energy efficiency. The average incandescent lasts on average 1,000 hours while the average fluorescent lasts for 10,000 hours. Also, because incandescent bulbs lose much of their energy as heat, just 5% of the energy they consume is converted to light. Fluorescent bulbs on the other hand, convert from 20% to 25% of their energy to light.

A disadvantage of fluorescents bulbs, however, is that they require mercury vapor to work. While this doesn’t make them unsafe to operate, the bulbs cannot be disposed of with regular household garbage due to the toxicity of the mercury. There is also a potential health risk if a bulb breaks.

In 1962 the latest and greatest form of artificial illumination was invented; the light emitting diode (LED). Initially, these bulbs could only emit low intensity red light, but in the ensuing years, versions covering the entire visible, ultraviolet and infrared spectrums have become available. In recent years, they have reached a level of illumination suitable for most applications of indoor lighting.

The advantages of LED bulbs over fluorescent ones are quite similar to that of fluorescent over incandescent: greater energy efficiency and longer operating life. LEDs last for 100,000 hours (compared to 10,000 for fluorescent and 1,000 for incandescent), so based on an assumed usage of 4 to 8 hours per day, LED light bulbs would only have to be changed once or twice in the average person’s lifetime. Also, unlike the 5% efficiency of incandescent or the 25-30% efficiency of fluorescents, LEDs have an efficiency rating of 30%. As an added benefit, LEDs do not contain mercury.

Researchers estimate that, because of their increased energy efficiency, a worldwide switch to LEDs, because of their increased energy efficiency, would enable the closure of 560 power plants and result in annual CO2 savings equivalent to the output of all the cars on the planet. A 2010 US Department of Energy report estimates that if the entire US switched over to LEDs, the savings would amount to $20 billion per year.

One of the challenges preventing this from happening has been the high initial cost of LEDs. Even today, after many decades of improvements, most LED bulbs still set you back anywhere from 10 to 30 dollars. The primary reason for this is because LEDs are grown on sapphire substrates, a costly process.

In January of this year however, researchers at Osram Opto Semiconductors (the second largest lighting manufacturer in the world) announced they were able to grow LEDs on silicon instead of sapphire, with no reduction in quality. In fact, researchers reported that they were able to produce LEDs with efficiencies of up to 58%. This should bring the cost of producing bulbs down tremendously as silicon is a much less expensive substrate than sapphire. Best of all, Osram says that these new LEDs could become commercially available in as little as 2 years.

With steadily falling manufacturing costs and ever increasing efficiencies, it’s reasonable to assume that before the decade is over, LEDs will be as prevalent in homes and offices as incandescent and fluorescent bulbs are today. This should translate into tremendous energy savings, which is good for the planet and good for the wallet.

Thanks to LEDs the future looks bright.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

New Ways to Work From Home

Working from home is a dream that many people have. The idea of not having to wake up insanely early just so you can sit in traffic for an hour appeals to many people. Working in your pajamas, taking a nap on your lunch break with no one the wiser; there are numerous reasons why working from home is an exciting prospect. In fact, nearly 10 percent of the global workforce does this every day.

Twenty years ago, if you wanted to work from home, chances were you couldn’t. Computers were rudimentary. There was no email, internet, instant messaging, or cell phones. It just wasn’t feasible for most people. These days however, everybody from software engineers to writers to paralegals never need to set foot in an office. And the number of people working from home will continue to grow as technology continues to advance.

A major obstacle that is still holding many professionals back from working at home is the need to physically attend meetings. One technology that’s set to change all this is telepresence. With telepresence technology, different people in different locations throughout the world can all participate in the same meeting in a way that has not been possible in previous years.

I’ll give you an example to better demonstrate what I mean. Let’s say that your company schedules a meeting. Even if you’re someone who typically works from home, you might be required to go into the office for this meeting. Although it is possible to attend a meeting virtually, many companies prefer their employees to physically be there, as it can guarantee full participation from all parties. If you go to a meeting via the phone, who knows what you’re doing on your end of the line. But with telepresence technology, this is no longer a concern.

In the conference room at the office, in addition to the traditional table and chairs, you now also have several large monitors lining the wall. Each of these monitors has the ability to connect with one or many individuals throughout the world and give them a live feed into the meeting. Likewise, the people in the conference room can see all of these telecommuters on the monitors. Now, even if you’re the one giving the presentation, everyone attending the meeting, whether they’re at the office or in some other location, will be able to see you quite clearly. Because the video feed is high definition, these telecommuters are as close to actually being in that conference room as they can get without physically being there.

You want to work from home but your boss needs you at that meeting? Telepresence technology. Problem solved.

This is just one of many emerging technologies that will enable greater numbers of people to work from home regardless of their profession. And who knows? Maybe soon you’ll be one of them. Just make sure that before your next meeting you have a tie that matches your pajamas.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


A subject that has held some interest for me these past few years is the area of meta-materials. These are man-made materials that have special properties that do not exist in nature. Among the many unique properties that these materials have, the one that I find especially fascinating is their negative refractive Index (RI).

First, a short optics lesson. The reason we are able to see is due to light striking an object, bouncing off said object, and then entering our eyes. The way the light hits our eyes is determined in part by the RI of the object that we are looking at, and in part by the RI of the medium the light is traveling through (e.g. water, air, etc.) If you want to understand the effect that RI has on our vision, take for example a pencil in a glass of water. The portion below the surface appears to jut off at an angle due to the difference between the indices of refraction of air and water (FIGURE 1).

Now, even though different materials and media have different RIs, all of them have a POSITIVE RI. In other words, they all cause light to be bent in the same direction, if at different angles. This was true for every object under the sun until the advent of meta-materials. Meta-materials have a NEGATIVE RI. They cause light to be bent in the opposite direction (FIGURE 2).

This characteristic has many interesting effects, but the one I want to focus on is the ability to make things invisible. You read that correctly; invisible. Like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

The math describing how such a thing is possible is perhaps beyond the ken of the average person, but conceptually, it’s actually quite easy to understand. Instead of having a positive RI and causing the light to reflect off of the object and into our eyes, a meta-material object, with its negative RI, causes light to be bent completely around the object, rendering it invisible. To better help you understand, visualize a boulder in a stream. When the water of the stream (light) encounters the boulder (the meta-material object), it parts to go around the boulder and reforms on the other side. If one were to look at the water just a few feet beyond the boulder there would be no evidence that the boulder is there.

But before you rush out to Macy’s to buy yourself some cream that will make those varicose veins disappear, keep in mind that a few big obstacles remain before we have true invisibility. A meta-material can only affect light waves if it has structural features smaller than the wavelength of the light wave it's trying to affect. In addition, scientists have been finding it difficult to make objects invisible across more than a few frequencies of light at a time. Thus far, scientists have had some success making objects invisible to the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which has a wavelength of a millimeter or more. But causing objects to become invisible to the visible portion of the spectrum, which has a wavelength of 400-750 nanometers -or billionths of a meter- is considerably harder to accomplish. 

While it might be a while before invisibility via meta-materials is perfected and made available, it’s certainly exciting to think of all the ways it will be harnessed once it does get here.
Aside from the obvious military applications, there would be many practical consumer applications. For years, there has been opposition to building a wind farm off of Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts. One of the primary concerns has been residents’ fears that large wind turbines will spoil the view. If these wind turbines were built out of meta-materials that rendered them invisible, this would not be a problem. Just erect fences around the bottom of each turbine to prevent ships from running into them and voilĂ ! Problem solved. The same solution could be applied to unsightly cell towers. Now you see it, now you don’t.
What if you buy a ticket to a baseball game and your seat is behind a support pillar? Does it mean you won’t be able to see the game? Not if the portion of the pillar at eye level has been made invisible by applying a meta-material coating to its surface.

These are clearly just a few of the many applications such a wondrous invention will make possible. What other ways will we be able to utilize this technology? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Or maybe we won’t see; after all, they will be invisible.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Future is Fusion

So I'm back from my vacation. Hooray! Vacations can be fun, but after a while you just want to get back home. Anyway, this next piece is somewhat more technical than my previous pieces, but I hope that you'll enjoy it nonetheless.

Energy Today

We are currently experiencing an energy crisis. For over 150 years now we have been extracting energy from the earth in the form of oil and gas. For a long time this was seen as a good thing -- these fuels were the energy backbone that helped to build the modern world. In fact, more than half of all energy production in the United States is derived from oil and gas. However, oil and gas are very polluting forms of energy. Combustion of these resources releases a slew of harmful substances that include mercury and sulfur dioxide, as well as vast amounts of carbon dioxide.

Even if one were to ignore the health and environmental effects of burning fossil fuels for energy, it’s hard to ignore the fact that we’re running out. After a century and a half of extraction, the world’s oil and gas reserves are vastly depleted. As the remaining stocks decline even further, oil and gas prices will continue to rise. This in turn causes those products that are dependent on oil and gas to rise in price.

This is where alternative energy comes into play. For several decades now, solar, wind, wave, and geothermal power as well as biofuel, hydroelectric power, and even people power have been an ever growing part of the energy mix that powers our world. All these technologies are wonderful in their own right, and they are certainly helping to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but I feel that they are only partial solutions and intermediary technologies on the way to something even better; something that will permanently and completely solve our energy crisis: Fusion power.

Fusion Power

Fusion power, as you might know, is caused when atomic nuclei fuse together, simultaneously creating a heavier nucleus and releasing enormous quantities of energy. A fusion power plant would be able to create these reactions and harness that energy to power our planet.

Fully functional fusion plants generate no pollution and exceedingly small amounts of CO2 during operation, and are almost completely environmentally benign. A fusion plant requires only 3 things to operate; deuterium, (an isotope of hydrogen) which is readily available and extractable from water; lithium, (also readily available in sea water or the ground) and tritium (another isotope of hydrogen) which can actually be created as a byproduct of the fusion process, thereby allowing it to be made on site.

Fusion plants are also significantly more efficient at creating usable energy than any other method currently available. A 1,000-megawatt fusion power plant would consume around 100 kilograms of deuterium and three tons of lithium in a year whilst generating 7 billion kilowatt-hours. To generate the same amount of electricity, a coal-fired power plant would need around 1.5 million tons of coal.

So we’ve determined that fusion is both cleaner and more efficient than other available methods. But what about safety? Isn’t there a radiation risk? After last years Fukushima disaster, many people are wary of anything nuclear. Have no fear. Fusion plants cannot meltdown... ever. By their very nature, such an event is entirely impossible.

To better explain the veracity of this claim, a brief (but by no means complete) explanation of how a fusion reactor works is in order.

How a Fusion Reactor Works

To create fusion (and electricity) in a fusion reactor several precise steps must be undertaken. First, hydrogen atoms must be heated up until they turn into superheated plasma. Then, through the use of a toroidal (donut shaped) magnetic field, the plasma is compressed to the point of fusion. The fusion process releases super-energetic neutrons (which are magnetically neutral and therefore are not contained by the magnetic field) that shoot out from the fusing plasma and are absorbed by what is known as a lithium blanket that surrounds the whole process. The absorption of these neutrons heats the lithium blanket. That heat is then transferred to a heat exchanger to make steam. The steam in turn drives electrical turbines to produce electricity.

As I mentioned, a magnetic field is required to compress the superheated plasma into fusing. The reason that a magnetic field is used rather than some other method is because the plasma created is so hot that if it came into contact with anything corporeal, it would instantly vaporize it. But what if the magnetic field failed and the plasma escaped? The magnetic field is created by superconducting magnets that line the walls of the fusion chamber. If the plasma were to somehow escape the confines of the magnetic field, it would instantly vaporize these magnets. Without the magnets, the magnetic field would immediately destabilize, and without the presence of the magnetic field, the compression of the plasma would cease, instantly halting the fusion reaction. This is why a runaway fusion reaction is impossible.

So now we know that not only is fusion cleaner and more efficient, but it’s completely safe as well. That begs the question: where are all the fusion plants?

What Still Needs to be Done

The simple answer is that the technology is not quite there yet. Thus far, every experimental fusion reactor ever built has been unable to attain net usable power. In other words, creating the fusion reaction has always required the input of more energy than the reaction itself creates. Another major problem has been sustainability of the reaction. The longest sustained fusion reaction on record only lasted for around five seconds before the process collapsed.

But things are changing.

Construction is currently underway to build ITER, an internationally funded and operated nuclear fusion research project, which when completed around 2018-2019, will be the world’s largest and most advanced experimental fusion reactor. It is expected to produce 500 megawatts of output power from only 50 megawatts of input power, or ten times the amount of energy put in. This would make it the first fusion reactor to ever achieve net usable power. And while the current record for a sustained fusion reaction is 5 seconds, ITER it is hoped, will be able to sustain a reaction for 500 seconds.

But it doesn’t stop there, either. The successor to ITER, DEMO, is expected to produce 25 times as much power as it consumes, and be able to sustain a reaction indefinitely. And if ITER and DEMO are successful, then the next step is to build commercial fusion reactors. If all goes as planned, these reactors should start producing electricity by the 2040s.

As things stand today, commercial fusion reactors are still around 30 years away. It might seem like a long wait, but mark it on your calendar anyway. For it marks the point at which the world will finally become free from its dependence on fossil fuels.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

I'm going on Vacation

So I know that I just started this blog post, but I am going on vacation. I will not have the time nor consistent computer access that is required to deliver any more blog posts until I get back next Sunday. I apologize to anyone who might be reading this. Somehow life will go on.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Future of Self-Driving Cars

The horseless carriage has come a long way since its humble beginnings. From the steam powered curiosities of the 1700s to the first truly practical models of the late 1800s until the arrival of Henry Ford and his Model T. This of course was the first mass produced and therefore mass affordable car. From that point on, things quickly began to change.

But what do all these vehicles, including more modern ones from the past fifty years, have in common? Every single one requires a human operator. They won’t go anywhere if there isn’t someone behind the wheel working the pedals.
That is starting to change.

History of Self-Driving Cars

Certainly the idea of a self-driving car has been around for a while. In the 1939 World’s Fair such vehicles were depicted in Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit. But many decades would pass until serious consideration was given to the idea. For although the desire was there, the technology was not. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s that working prototypes started to be built.

Even so, these early prototypes lacked the necessary sophistication to do much more than operate on straight and empty stretches of road. This of course is an essentially useless skill in the real world. For a self-driving car to truly be useful, it needs to be able to do many things.

A self-driving car must be aware of its surroundings to a very precise degree. Whether that means knowing where all the surrounding vehicles are and what speed and direction they are heading, or being aware of pedestrians that might cross its path, or being able to distinguish a child running in front of it from a wind blow plastic bag, there is no room for error. In addition, it must also understand the laws of the road as well as knowing how to get to where you want it to go.

Does all this seem very futuristic to you? You may be surprised to know that the technology required for these tasks is already largely here.

While it’s true that refinements are always being made, cars that drive just as well as, and in fact even better than the best human drivers have been on real city streets and highways for a while. Although this has been limited to just a few prototypes being tested by companies such as Google, these prototypes have still managed to perform flawlessly. Google recently announced that one of their autonomous vehicles has passed the 200,000 mile mark. This feat was achieved on highways and city streets-- roads that are shared by human drivers and pedestrians and all the unexpected events that normally occur while driving a car. Amazingly, all of this was accomplished without a single accident.

Adoption of Self-Driving Cars

There are certain obstacles that still remain, before self-driving cars become commonplace. Consider the legal challenge. For instance, thus far Nevada is the only state that has passed legislation allowing self-driving cars on the road. All states and countries will need to pass such legislation before these cars will be allowed within their jurisdictions.

Consider also the human element, namely the average citizen’s desire to have such vehicles. Many people express concern when they think of vehicles weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds driving around on their own. But carmakers are playing it smart. Rather than implementing drastic changes from one model year to the next, they are transferring control from the driver to the car in incremental steps.

Systems are starting to be incorporated into cars that can detect if a driver is falling asleep, and then through auditory cues (like a loud beeping) inform the driver that he should pull over for a quick nap. At some point this will advance to a system that might pull the car over for you. Then there are lane detection technologies that can alert the driver that he is drifting out of his lane. Ford’s Lane Keeping Assist System uses cameras to keep track of the position of your car relative to the lanes. If you start to drift into another lane without putting on your blinker, it will cause the steering wheel to vibrate. If you still don’t take corrective action, it will give the steering wheel a gentle nudge that will take your car back to the center of your own lane.

If technologies such as these are implemented gradually over the course of a decade or so, each one taking a little more control away from the driver, then by perhaps the mid 2020’s to 2030’s cars will be fully autonomous. And it will be gradual enough that people will be comfortable with it, especially as they become aware of the corresponding drop in traffic accidents and fatalities. Almost 33,000 people died on U.S roads in 2010. This will change with self-driving cars.

Advantages of Self-Driving Cars

After all, cars don’t get tired or drunk or distracted. They also have vastly improved reaction times. Not only will your car be able to brake much faster than you, it will actually be in communication with the cars around it. When the car in front of yours has to brake, before there is any outward indication that this is about to happen, it will already be wirelessly communicating its intention to do so with your car. And with built in heat sensors, such a car will see a child darting out into the street from between two parked cars before he is even visible to you.

There are many other benefits besides safety.
One of the most difficult events in an older person's life is being told that they are too old to drive. Perhaps they can’t see so well anymore or their reaction time has gotten too slow. Without their cars, many of them are forced to stay at home. With significantly less socialization, depression can set in. For an older person, this can end up being deadly. But with a self-driving car, all they would need to be able to do is get into the car and tell it where to go. The car would do the rest. Then during the commute, they could read a book, or take a nap.

Another benefit of self-driving cars will be financial. There are over 2 million tractor trailers currently on American roads. Each and every one of these requires a driver to operate it. These drivers require training ($) and salaries ($$). They also get sick ($), get paid vacation ($), and under current federal guidelines are legally unable to drive more than 11 hours a day before taking a 10 hour break.

Self-driving trucks need none of these things. Without having to pay driver salaries, the shipping of goods-- a major component of cost to virtually any product you can think of-- will be significantly cheaper, thereby reducing the price of just about anything you might ever want to buy. And since the trucks can drive continuously from their starting point to their destination without any breaks, (except perhaps the occasional 5 minute fuel break) products will reach their destination much faster. (And for those skeptics who wonder how a truck will be able to fuel itself, consider that within ten or so years most new vehicles sold will be electric powered rather than gas powered. To charge itself up, a car or truck will simply pull itself into a charging bay, where by using inductive charging technology (which already exists), a plate built into the floor of the bay will wirelessly transmit electricity to the vehicle’s battery.)

A Day in the Life of a Self-Driving Car

Unlike many other technology driven gadgets, self-driving cars are not a nicety—they will actually change your life. Let’s say that you are a working parent. Needless to say, your kids’ schedules rarely coincide with your own. If you work 9-5 and your kids get out of school at 2, unless they can walk home, someone needs to pick them up. And what if they need to go to soccer practice or ballet lessons? These are things that require either your time or your money (to hire someone else to do it). But picture the following day-in the-life-of scenario, which illustrates how big a change a self-driving car can truly have.

8:30 A.M.

You get into your car, which automatically starts and drives you to work. You don’t even need to request a destination as it already knows your schedule. While on your way, rather than having to concentrate on driving, you can do other things. Put on your makeup, shave, watch the morning news on the onboard TV, or get an early start on the day’s work. All in all, this is a more efficient use of your time.

8:50 A.M.

Your car drops you off right in front of your work. You get out and head straight into the office while your car looks around for a parking spot on its own.

2:00 P.M.

The car is already waiting at your children’s school. Your two kids, let’s say 14 year old Tommy and 12 year old Sue, pile into the car. The car heads off for Tommy’s soccer practice and drops him off. Then, it heads directly home with Sue since it knows that she only has ballet on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There is no way for the kids to have the car take them anywhere else as the on-board computer knows to only accept commands from you. (Unless there is an emergency. If the car’s occupants press the emergency medical override, the car can immediately drive to the nearest hospital, and in fact send a notification of your imminent arrival along with a full description of the car so that doctors will know what vehicle to look for.)

But what if Tommy’s soccer practice was cancelled that day? No problem. When Tommy finds out that his practice is cancelled he gives you a call. You use your computer or smart phone to access the cars internet-enabled computer over a password protected and secure channel. You feed it new, one time instructions to take Tommy home with Sue instead of to practice.

You no longer need to leave the office early just because your kids have different schedules from you. And when you’re ready to leave work, your car is waiting right in front of the building for you. Your own private chauffer ready to take you home, or to wherever else you might want to go.

Letting Your Car Drive You Off Into the Sunset

You’ve just experienced some of the major advantages that self-driving cars will bring to society, and what you’ve seen is far from a complete list. And of course future refinements will continue to bring new benefits that can’t even be dreamt of today.
And who knows-- some time in the not so distant future, you might find yourself doing that dreaming. Perhaps while you’re behind the wheel of your car. But don’t worry; your car can handle it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Hello and welcome to my blog!

The focus of this blog will primarily be science and technology. More specifically, how emerging technology and technological trends will shape the future. The world is changing rapidly, and we’re fortunate enough to be along for the ride.

The world of today is very different from the world of yesterday, and the world of tomorrow is going to be unimaginably different. Augmented reality, holographic video, self driving cars, ubiquitous computing, artificial intelligence, fusion reactors, advanced space travel, and perhaps even indefinite lifespan. As Michio Kaku is fond of saying in his latest book “Physics of the Future,” with the technology that is being developed and that will be emerging over the coming decades, we will attain powers akin to those of the ancient Gods of mythology.

It’s true that with all that humanity has accomplished thus far there are still many problems to overcome. We are still killing each other in wars, there is still hatred and bigotry and the like. And most likely, without a fundamental change in human nature, we will always have these problems to some degree.

Even so, technology is paving the way to a brighter future. Human ingenuity is the most powerful tool in the universe, and I am a firm believer that with a little bit of time and effort most problems can be solved.

The future is going to be a fantastic place, and I hope to see you there!