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The next wave
[May 14, 2011]

The next wave

(New Scientist Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) The next wave: robotravelling the way to new etiquette The ability to drop John Malkovich-style into the mind of a robot on the other side of the world will create new social rules AUGMENTED CITIES Our cities could soon be painted with secrets we cannot see with the naked eye. The streets, buildings and sometimes even the citizens themselves would teem with virtual information. With the help of augmented reality (AR) you could see the occupancy level of a hotel emblazoned on its walls and read a restaurant's reviews as you walk past. The people you meet might even reveal their names and job titles before you say a word.

AR is about to create a new layer over the cityscape by adding graphical information from apps and the internet onto objects in your field-of-view as you peer around. The cameras and enhanced glasses needed for AR are getting smaller, smarter and better designed, and may soon transform how we experience the space and objects around us. "Information would be seamlessly attached to aid our decision-making," says James Alliban, a London-based designer and AR artist.

The augmented city will be built from a myriad of sources, from advertisers to our social networks. Take shopping. Pranav Mistry, an AR researcher at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, describes how "hovering" ads in the grocery store might school like tropical fish, leading you to the day's best deals. Items on the shelves might be virtually tagged with price, crowdsourced reviews and information about their origins. Is that broccoli sustainably farmed? Just ask it. "The information actually becomes part of the object itself," Mistry says.


This inevitably means that more of our decisions will be outsourced to our devices and the internet. This could lead us to depend too heavily on technology. "Once this device is taken away, the user is at a disadvantage, having effectively lost a part of his or her brain," says Alliban.

AR may disrupt more than just our encounters with inert objects, says Keiichi Matsuda, a London-based architect and AR designer. Information about people compiled from social network profiles and other internet sources could be displayed when you meet them. There might be little need for small-talk. "Having information readily available at any time would have quite a transformative effect on our social interaction," he says.

Clearly, such personal displays would exacerbate privacy fears. If your device could one day connect a random person on the street to their Facebook profile, it would be hard to stay anonymous.

Still, overall AR is likely to allow us to navigate through a richer, more vibrant world. And few would complain if they had the opportunity to dial up a bit of sunshine to overlay a grey sky. MacGregor Campbell The next wave: the fully augmented city A city's streets, buildings and even citizens are about to be painted with a vibrant array of virtual information and adverts ROBOTRAVEL You wouldn't rest your feet on a colleague during a meeting. But what if your workmate was a robot controlled by a co-worker many kilometres away?- would it still be rude? This is typical of the new etiquette questions that will be raised by remote-controlled telepresence robots, which allow you to transport your "self" anywhere in the world to take a look around. A roving version of you, these robots could alter the way we travel and interact with each other.

Today's telepresence robots, such as VGo Communication's VGo and the Anybots' QB, are simple video screens on wheels, with a camera and microphone to allow their driver to move them around their surroundings and talk to people. The devices can be operated through a web browser.

While it may seem gimmicky, the fact that telepresence robots offer their controllers a mobile physical presence in another place has a powerful influence on social interactions. "They help to foster a closer connection," says Katherine Tsui, a robotics researcher at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Video-conferencing has already changed the way businesses operate and the "closeness" of remote communication. Telepresence is the next step.

The robots could radically improve the lives of people who are housebound too. Leila Takayama at robotics company Willow Garage in Menlo Park, California, has been studying how old people respond to the technology. They embraced the idea of getting out and walking around a park or museum.

If telepresence catches on, it could create new social rules. For one, you can't screen a visit from a robot like you would a phone call?- the controller's face is there peering at you. "It's one thing for someone not to answer your email or phone call, but it's another for them to ignore you when you walk up to them as a robot and start a conversation," says Tsui.

We are also used to treating machines with less respect than a human, so where will this technology leave concepts like personal space and harassment? If you turn down somebody's volume or push them over, will that break acceptable social norms? Helen Knight Lexicon of tomorrow: Digital litter -noun Redundant or outdated virtual information strewn across the streets and buildings of an augmented city. The restaurant closed down months ago, but its digital litter remains Lexicon of tomorrow: TELLY -verb To operate a telepresence robot. Eleanor tellied in for her job interview The next wave: the ethics of merging brain and machine Forging a direct link between our brains and computers is set to challenge our notions of identity, culpability and the acceptable limits of human enhancement BRAIN-MACHINE MERGERS EVOLVED INVENTION We are on the cusp of a new era in the history of invention. That's the implication of software that can automatically "evolve" technology, and create designs that often no human would come up with. It's already transforming fields as diverse as robot locomotion, computer security and drug design.

Genetic algorithms mimic natural selection by describing a design as if it were a genome constructed from segments. Each segment describes a parameter of the invention, varying from its shape, say, to much finer grained aspects, such as electrical resistance or a chemical's molecular affinities. By randomly changing some segments?- or "mutating" them?- the algorithm improves the design. The best results are then bred together to improve things further.

Until now your average desktop computer didn't have the processing power to crunch through millions of generations and chuck out the undesirable mutants. That's now changed, so genetic algorithms are poised to have a profound effect on R&D, says John Koza at Stanford University in California, who has pioneered their use in engineering design. He has "bred" designs for efficient radio antennas this way. What's really interesting, he says, is that it is not always clear why the evolved invention works: no human would have come up with his antenna's weird, zigzag shape. In addition, software can be set to design around existing patents.

Evolved invention is catching on in all sorts of fields, says Robert Plotkin, whose 2009 book Genie in the Machine tracked the rise of the technique. Drug discovery firms are becoming big users, for instance, evolving new molecular mechanisms to reach receptors no human would have thought of. The technique has also been used to improve the walking gaits of robots. "Most of the evolved inventions are not necessarily dramatic?- but they are producing a steady stream of improvements," says Hod Lipson, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "The big picture is that they are having a profound cumulative effect in accelerating innovation." Still, don't expect to hear inventors admitting they use genetic algorithms anytime soon: they will likely still take the credit for the work, says Lipson. Paul Marks Of all the ways that we have been aided by technology, forging a direct link between our brains and computers is the most intimate yet. Brain-machine interfaces (BMI) are poised to challenge our notions of identity, culpability and the acceptable limits of human enhancement.

BMIs work by eavesdropping on the electromagnetic signals generated by your brain. Invasive forms involve implanting electrodes into the grey matter or beneath the skull, and so far have been tested in a handful of paralysed people. Various groups are working on developing wheelchairs, robots and computers that can be controlled by brain signals alone. Krishna Shenoy of Stanford University is developing algorithms to improve the accuracy of implants for controlling a cursor on a screen. He believes BMIs will soon match or even surpass traditional ways to control computers.

Non-invasive techniques record electroencephalogram (EEG) signals along the scalp. These brainwaves have been used for playing games, steering a car and even to allow soldiers to communicate "telepathically".

As they become more widespread these technologies will raise ethical questions. Medical ethicist Jens Clausen of Tübingen University in Germany points out that training people to generate the appropriate neural signals to control machines might have effects on mood and behaviour, as well as memory and speech. There is also the issue of culpability. Could a future criminal blame their behaviour on an implant? Fortunately, similar questions have been tackled in the past, says Clausen. Behavioural side effects are common in medicine. And we already have technologies where responsibility is not always clear cut. Fault in a car accident, for instance, could lie with the driver, manufacturer or mechanic.

In principle, BMIs might eventually boost mental function, such as memory, by connecting to an external information processor that augments cognition. This is ethically much more problematic, as such changes might lead to changes in the individual's preferences and ultimately their sense of self.

One of the key questions to emerge will be how widely BMIs should be used. To what extent should healthy people be allowed to enhance their brainpower? And will they want to? Already, many deaf people have resisted cochlear implants to improve their hearing because they don't regard deafness as a disability. Brain implants that surpass natural human limits could even create elites and underclasses. The wealthy can already buy access to expensive medical treatments, so it would hardly be without precedent. Nic Fleming The next wave: a 3D printer for anything Jewellery, buildings, and even body organs. Soon it will be possible to "print" almost any 3D object The next wave: evolving a new era of invention We are about to enter a new period in the history of technology, thanks to software that can "evolve" designs that we could never dream of 3D  PRINTING It's early evening and you pull the car into the drive of your new home that was erected in just two days. Since it is your wife's birthday, you are clutching a personalised gold necklace that you picked up from the printer. For dinner tonight, you won't need to do any chopping or peeling?- ingredients just go straight into your kitchen fabricator.

Creating objects, buildings and food on demand will soon become commonplace, thanks to 3D printing. To produce an object, a 3D printer pipes out the chosen material?- metal or plastic, say?- one thin layer at a time to build up the required shape. Early printers used plaster or resins, which were sometimes brittle or slow to dry. New materials, such as ABS plastics and photopolymers, offer greater flexibility and robustness to help 3D printers create a wider variety of objects.

Smaller scale 3D printing is already used for making personalised jewellery and customised industrial parts. And it is increasingly being employed on a grander scale?- for example, in trial projects where buildings are constructed by huge gantry robots that pour fast-setting concrete.

Biofabrication is also being combined with 3D printing to produce artificial bones. Sangeeta Bhatia, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has created tissue that can be used to bioprint human livers, knows what she is hoping for: "Someday, personalised organs on demand." Combined with other tissue culture methods, this could reduce possible complications by producing organs that are tailored to fit the recipient's needs precisely. No more using adult organs for children, for instance.

It's a dramatic example, but it demonstrates how far the influence of 3D printers could reach as their price falls. Industrial manufacturing could be transformed, with companies able to deliver many more designs and parts on demand. Alternatively, consumers could bypass large-scale manufacturing altogether and have objects printed locally or in their own homes. Global import and export patterns could shift dramatically.

Eventually, almost anything could conceivably be printed, copied or customised. Conjuring up anything you want could be as easy as pushing a button. Bobbie Johnson Lexicon of tomorrow: FAB -verb To create an object using a 3D printer. Short for "fabricate". John fabbed a pretty necklace for his wife Lexicon of tomorrow: Exocortex Lexicon of tomorrow: EVO -noun An artificial external information processor that augments the brain's high-level cognition. Julia used her exocortex to access the memory of her tenth birthday -noun An invention created by a genetic algorithm. Sean patented his evo TEXT MINING For around 20 years, starting in the 1980s, the political scientist Philip Tetlock sought predictions from people considered knowledgeable. His experts, 280 of them, were the kind of folk who, in their work as TV pundits or government advisors, opined on matters such as the rise of China or security in the Middle East. As time passed, he checked their forecasts. The results were dismal. "Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world... are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys," wrote one reviewer of Tetlock's work.

Not so for a powerful new method of forecasting called "text mining". It draws on the vast amount of data available online. By sampling the sentiments expressed in the torrent of blog posts, tweets and Facebook updates, you can gain unprecedented insights into the mood of the world and use it to predict what is to come.

Researchers have already developed a measure of national anxiety levels powerful enough to improve forecasts of stock market movements. Others have used Google search queries as a forecasting tool. Many searches for certain job-related terms, for example, indicates that unemployment is rising.

That's just the beginning. Several companies are now archiving whole swathes of the internet in a bid to create more powerful forecasting. WiseWindow, based in Irvine, California, claims to monitor opinions expressed by over 77 million people on Facebook and other social media sites. The firm mines the data for clues to consumer sentiment and emerging trends, which companies buy in the hope of getting an edge over competitors. Such companies' forecasts have not been tested in depth, at least not publicly. But if these endeavours prove as successful as the studies based on tweets and search terms, forecasting could get a lot better.

This could be good news for all of us. If governments can get a better handle on economic trends, for example, they might be able to nip recessions in the bud. Could an early-warning system based on social media have helped to prevent the financial crisis of 2008? It's too early to make such a bold claim, but the work done so far suggests that the idea is not fanciful.

Yet there is also a down side. The blog posts and tweets in which we share our thoughts and feelings are all now a target for advertisers. We are all part of a vast market research project, whether we like it or not. Jim Giles n The next wave: text mining for tomorrow Drawing on sentiments expressed in the torrent of blog posts, tweets and facebook updates offers a powerful way to predict what's to come The next wave: digital wallets to ramp up spending The ability to pay with a swipe of our phones will disrupt the payment industry?- and our spending patterns too DIGITAL WALLETS Anthropologists know there are three things most of us now carry with us wherever we go: our keys, our wallets and our cellphones. Digital wallets could fold the last two into a single item?- and perhaps eradicate cash altogether. Could it change how we spend too? A digital wallet is a chip inside your phone that uses wireless "near-field communications" technology. Pre-charged with money or able to request a sum from your bank later, the wallet hands over payment when you swipe it over a retailer's card reader. Cellphone users in Japan have used them for years, but the technology is only now emerging in a big way elsewhere. It is set to transform the payment industry, because mobile and web companies such as Apple, Nokia and Google are keen to rub shoulders with incumbents like Visa.

Since your phone signal can pinpoint where you are, it means businesses could conceivably monitor your location as well as your spending patterns, which would be valuable data to retailers. Businesses could direct personal advertisements at shoppers whenever they step in store.

Processing such payments is less expensive than credit cards, so they can cope with very small transactions. And they are faster, too: swipe payments speed up processing.

Retailers know that faster transaction times mean shorter queues, so digital wallets could bump up sales. But the technology could also prompt us to spend more. Credit cards encourage higher expenditure than paying with cash. But a large pilot held by Citibank in India in 2009 found that contactless payments are even worse. In shops and restaurants across Bangalore, customers who only had to swipe spent as much as 230 per cent the usual amount. Bobbie Johnson Lexicon of tomorrow: Lexicon of tomorrow: Sentiment analysis Tugger -noun A criminal who steals money by brushing past a phone with an illicit device. Portmanteau of "touch mugging". The tugger stole Vivienne's cash without her knowing -noun A method for gauging the real-time emotions and opinions of a demographic or region using text mining. The political analyst performed a sentiment analysis of tweets in Virginia ahead of the election (c) 2011 Reed Business Information - UK. All Rights Reserved.

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