Tag Archives: technology

Imagine How Much Worse MAs Could Be

Absent legal protections, social norms, and hard-coded and hardware-based preventative measures against this sort of thing: Your Devices’ Latest Feature? They Can Spy On Your Every Move

At least you can turn off your laptop: when it is shut, the camera can see only “the other side” of the laptop. But this quick fix doesn’t apply to sound recording devices, like microphones. For example, your phone could listen to conversations in the room even when it appears to be off. So could your TV, or other smart appliances in your home. Some gadgets – such as Amazon’s Echo – are explicitly designed to be voice activated and constantly at the ready to act on your spoken commands.

It’s not just audio and video recording we need to be concerned about. Your smart home monitor knows how many people are in your house and in which rooms at what times. Your smart water meter knows every time a toilet is flushed in your home. Your alarm clock knows what time you woke up each day last month. Your refrigerator knows every time you filled a glass of cold water. Your cellphone has a GPS built into it that can track your location, and hence record your movements. Yes, you can turn off location tracking, but does that mean the phone isn’t keeping track of your location? And do you really know for sure your GPS is off simply because your phone’s screen says it is? At the very least, your service provider knows where you are based on the cellphone towers your phone is communicating with.

We all love our smart gadgets. But beyond the convenience factor, the fact that our devices are networked means they can communicate in ways we don’t want them to, in addition to all the ways that we do.

We touch on this briefly in In the Shadow of Ares, and it becomes more of an issue (in unexpected ways) in Ghosts of Tharsis. In short, because MAs not only provide all the user functions described in the article but also Mars-specific functions such as air quality and radiation monitoring essential to individual safety, settlers are effectively obliged to have one on them and active at all times. In Shadow, Amber herself observes that people would not use MAs if they believed that others could use the devices to spy on them – or even just track their whereabouts – routinely and casually (and she uses this fact to mixed results in the climax of the book).

I see this becoming a serious public concern over the next few years. The Apple matter was probably only for public consumption, to forestall the inevitable realization that government agencies can already read any information on your phone. It’s naive to believe that their abilities extend only to realtime access to the devices’ microphones and cameras. It may turn out that people are so enamored of their electronic gadgets that continual automated monitoring of their every move by “pre-crime” algorithms, say, seems a small price to pay for ever-improving attention-whoring capabilities.

Something will eventually bring the privacy threats of information technology, social media, and networked devices to greater public attention. The longer the government (and non-government players) are able to continue unchecked, the more likely it is someone will get careless or over-eager and provoke a scandal even bigger than the Apple, “Fappening”, or News of the World foofooraws. Regular people may feel little or no sympathy for terrorists, trampy starlets, or media/society personalities who have their privacy invaded, but let them realize that everything in their own daily lives – from their bathroom habits to their commuting patterns to their casual conversations to their whereabouts at every second to their political views to their shopping lists to their browsing habits to their employers’ trade secrets to their kids names, schools, and bathtub pictures – are routinely monitored, cataloged, and cross-referenced without their knowledge, and that short of ditching all of this technology they’ve allowed themselves to become dependent on there is no way to block these invasions of their personal privacy, we may actually move towards the protections described in the Ares Project universe.

The Aliens are Coming! Again…

Fans of big budget, cheesy Sci-Fi will be glad to learn that the first trailer is out for Independence Day: Resurgence.  It’s due in theaters June 2016, and picks up 20 years after the initial attack.  My personal hope is for something more serious than the original.  Roland Emmerich returns to direct, although he and Dean Devlin only get a character credit.  The screenplay is by Carter Blanchard,  James A Woods and Nicholas Wright, all with paper-thin writing credits so it’s hard to know what to expect.

Anyway, the official site has some interesting backstory details that had me intrigued.  First is the alternate timeline.  Picking up in 1996, and anticipating an eventual return by the invaders, the surviving Earthlings have adopted the aliens’ technology and have been preparing.  Apparently we have a Moon base and also bases on Mars and Saturn’s moon Rhea.

Additionally, there is also a reference to the impact of alien technology on consumer gadgets.  That sounded particularly intriguing at first, until I read the details that mention “breakout consumer products that were inspired by alien weaponry – including the touchscreen smartphone, bladeless fans, drones, and airport security scanners”.  OK, that’s as stupid as it is disappointing.

Still, I’ll try to reserve judgment for the final product.  As much as I am hoping for more realistic science fiction like what we were recently treated to with The Martian, I don’t mind the occasional alien shoot-em-up.

A Martian Odyssey: We Can Do It

Robert Zubrin’s latest op-ed piece, published here in the National Review, invokes the pioneering and resourceful spirit of Homer’s Odysseus in advocating Humans-to-Mars.  In addition to tying in the recent NASA announcement about liquid water on Mars and the movie The Martian, Zubrin gives the back of his hand to Ed Regis, philosopher and author of a recent New York Times op-ed piece rife with inaccuracies about the hazards of a mission to Mars.

Icehouses on Mars?

Mars icehouseThe winning design in the first stage of NASA’s 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge competition was a structure made out of water ice.  Apparently the translucence was part of the appeal, although the on-line summary doesn’t detail structural considerations for pressurized applications.

At least future Martians will know where to go to grab a cold one.

Gemini Mars

As anticipated in my prior post, the Mars Society is moving forward with plans to advocate a Mars flyby mission:

As part of the effort to provide the currently adrift U.S. space program with real direction that could get the humans to Mars program underway, the Mars Society will launch an international student engineering contest to design the Gemini Mars mission, creating a plan for a two-person Mars flyby that could be placed on the desk of the President-elect in late 2016 and be completed by the end of his or her second term.

The Gemini Mars mission has some similarities to the previously proposed Inspiration Mars mission, but eliminates its principle weakness by avoiding the use of a rarely-employed high energy trajectory that imposed excessive technology development, launch capacity and schedule demands on the mission. Instead, much easier and more frequently-used low energy trajectories will be employed.

Commenting on the planned contest, Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin said, “We are calling this mission Gemini Mars, not just because it will have a crew of two, but because we aim to have it serve to open the way to the Red Planet in the same way that the 1960s Gemini program paved the way to the Moon.” Further details on the contest rules will be released in the near future.

This represents a significant shift in Mars advocacy efforts, and one that I hope will–finally–bear fruit.  But will the eventual President-elect support such a mission?  It’s way too early to tell.

Hard to Keep Up With The Technology

It’s stuff like this that makes it hard to write science fiction set very far into the future – Gesture control is wave of the future:

Touchless computers are coming to a store near you, likely sometime next year. These are computers that operate with simple hand gestures — either through the use of sensitive sound-wave recognition or via cameras, similar to Microsoft’s Kinect. And they are being developed and tested right now…

Because its technology depends on sound waves, the user can gesture beyond the edges of the computer screen. For instance, swiping toward the screen could reveal a set of icons, and swiping your hand away from the computer could close an application.

“It’s much more comfortable,” Kjolerbakken said. “You can sit back and don’t have to be in physical contact with the device. You don’t get fingerprints on the screen.”

So, we imagined smart phones and multiplatform integration with roaming displays and such before they became reality, but we still have physical interfaces when it comes to screens and even telepresence (the latter in the form of gloves or rings, depending on the vintage of the equipment). One could imagine Amber using something like this (in a more explicit form than what we describe) in the scenes where she is assembling survey data on the wallscreen using her MA, or the famous scene in Minority Report in which Tom Cruise sorts through data on a large screen being “upgraded” to eliminate his gesture-sensing gloves.

I’m not persuaded yet, though, that this new technology will be all that revolutionary in real life. Given the way I use a computer, it won’t offer me any useful new capability (at least none that I can think of without having actually tried it out). I use a keyboard for text input and editing, a trackball for video and photo editing, and a mouse and spaceball for CAD work, all of which involve fine-detail control that a finger-sized object poked into a vague spot in space can’t provide. This latter method is perhaps compatible with or an improvement in some way over how people use touchscreens on app-based devices (the implementation on which the article focuses), but having used a tablet over the weekend, I can’t say I much like the currently available version anyway…sloppy, laggy, inaccurate, and slow.

I’ll gladly accept a seamless voice interface, though.

A New Era?

Friday’s ISS docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule received a good bit of media attention, but likely not anything near what it deserved.  Much of the public was at least peripherally aware that a private spacecraft (albeit heavily subsidized by NASA) had successfully launched and docked with the orbiting outpost, but aside from the delivery of needed supplies, most could probably not articulate the true significance of the mission. 

Besides reducing our reliance on Russia for access to space, this mission hopefully represents the genesis of a vibrant space-based economy dominated by private enterprise. 

And in my lifetime no less.

 If that vision comes to pass, May 25, 2012 could become nearly as significant as  July 20, 1969.  Or not.  Will the fledgling industry be crippled by excessive regulation?  Will shortsighted policy decisions gut the exploration programs that are arguably a proper role for public-sector programs?

Combined with last month’s announcement by Planetary Resources, I’m hopeful.  This despite the recent, foolish decision by the Obama Administration to abandon future robotic Mars missions.

Design Fiction

Over at Slate, author Bruce Sterling shares some thoughts on “design fiction“, the use of (science) fiction to imagine and explore new technology:

Slate: What’s one design fiction that people might be familiar with?
Sterling: In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the guy’s holding what’s clearly an iPad. It just really looks like one, right? This actually showed up in the recent lawsuits between Samsung and Apple. That’s kind of a successful design fiction in the sense that it’s a diegetic prototype. You see an iPad in this movie and your response is not just, “Oh, what’s that’s that?” But “That would be cool if it existed.”

Yes, yes, it’s all very interesting, but this sort of thing has been one of the roles of science fiction at least since Heinlein’s first story, Lifeline. What’s really interesting here is this video…note the cameo appearance of MAs, scroll screens, and wall screens, almost exactly as we envisioned them in In the Shadow of Ares.

Now that’s impressive.

Life Imitates Art: Solar Power Paint

Looks like researchers at Notre Dame are well on their way to developing the solar-power paint we mention in In the Shadow of Ares‘Sunbelievable’ Solar Paint Could Power Home Appliances, Scientists Say:

The paint, dubbed “Sunbelievable” by developers at the University of Notre Dame, looks no different from any other paint used to coat home exteriors and other surfaces. But when hit by light, the semiconducting particles within Sunbelievable produce small amounts of electricity that researchers hope they can magnify in great enough amounts to power home appliances, Science Daily reported.

“We want to do something transformative, to move beyond current silicon-based solar technology,” research leader and Notre Dame professor Prashant Kamat said. “By incorporating power-producing nanoparticles, called quantum dots, into a spreadable compound, we’ve made a one-coat solar paint that can be applied to any conductive surface without special equipment.”

Unfortunately the paint is far from ready to be sold commercially, Kamat explained.

“The best light-to-energy conversion efficiency we’ve reached so far is 1 percent, which is well behind the usual 10 to 15 percent efficiency of commercial silicon solar cells,” Kamat said. “But this paint can be made cheaply and in large quantities. If we can improve the efficiency somewhat, we may be able to make a real difference in meeting energy needs in the future.”

The article helpfully points out that a typical household requires 285 square feet of silicon solar panels to supply its power needs at 10-15% efficiency, which means that same house would need around 3000 square feet of Sunbelievable at its current conversion efficiency. Ignoring incidence angles on painted surfaces, etc., that really isn’t an excessively large area for many American houses – especially if roof surfaces can be included.

No Need to “Fall Back” on Mars

If you remembered to set your clocks last night to “fall back” for the return to standard time, then you enjoyed an extra hour of sleep this morning.  ABC News makes some  dubious claims in a recent article, Daylight Savings Time Ends This Weekend, and It’s Healthy:

…many doctors say the return to standard time — and the extra hour of sleep you get in the morning — can be healthy.

Uh, we’re talking about one morning, right?  Or are the authors under the impression that we get an extra hour every morning that standard time is in effect?  Of course, the extra hour in the fall (and the corresponding loss of an hour in the spring) is the function of the switch from one convention to the other, and is not inherent to either.

Personally I prefer daylight savings time, as I find an hour of sunlight more useful in the evening than in the morning.  Who works in the yard or plays catch with the kids at the crack of dawn, versus after work?  My preference would be to go with DST year around.

The article did provide me with an insight for getting the perceived benefits of additional sleep every day, regardless of the timekeeping convention.  According to Steven Feinsilver, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, we have difficulty with the “spring forward” time change due to biology:

…our basic circadian rhythm (the ‘body clock’) actually seems  to be programmed for a longer than 24 hour day.  It runs a little slow.

Every day on Mars (its rotational period) is 24 hours and 37 minutes long.  Sign me up for that.