Stories tagged technology

The U.S. Marines this week demonstrated their new robotic mule in training exercises in Hawaii. The walking robot can carry up to 400 pounds of gear up to 20 miles before needing to be refueled. The Marines are hoping the robot will be able to lighten the loads of ground forces. Pretty cool, huh?

And, of course, Dave Letterman has already come up with a Top Ten list for the robotic mule:

Here's a long, but very inspirational, report on a 14-year-old Michigan girl who is rebuilding a Pontiac Fiero car all on her own. Her goal, to drive it on her 16th birthday.


Is this your brain on technology?
Is this your brain on technology?Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
This story on NewScientist's Culture Lab blog suggests that, because we've invented technologies that can do some of our thinking for us, humans are losing the need for biological intelligence. Think about it (if you still can, har har): computers can think much faster and keep track of much more data than one person's brain can, but cognition-saving devices go back much further than that. Writing and number systems allowed us to store and calculate information through physical media instead of memorization, and devices like the abacus (and then the slide rule and the electronic calculator) allowed us to do arithmetic with our fingers. Be honest: when have you used those times-tables you had to memorize? With all this technology, why would we still need the ability to memorize and calculate inside our brains?

Interesting point, right? If everything we ever used our brains for could be done better by a computer, I'd agree. But another way to look at the situation is to say that because technology can do the grunt work for us, our brains are free for higher-level processes of creativity and analysis. If I want to make up a story, I don't have to keep repeating the beginning over and over in my head so I don't forget it--I can write it down and then spend my mental energy thinking up the rest of the story instead. Landing humans on the moon or a rover on Mars takes calculation and computer power, but it couldn't have happened without human imagination to conceive of, and human ingenuity to solve, the obstacles that those feats presented.

What do you think? Will "outsourcing" our thinking to technology make us dumber, or will it free our brains up for other, more advanced kinds of thought?


What does the future hold in store, Arthur?
What does the future hold in store, Arthur?Courtesy Mamyjomarash
Oh, hey there, Buzzketeers! Do you know what day it is today? That's right: it's Wednesday! It's also July 11, and twenty-nine years ago today, one JGordon burst screaming from his mother's thoracic cavity, covered in gore and bits of sternum. He would go on to grow a beard, to grow taller and weaker than any other member of his family, and to learn about childbirth from the movie Alien. And also to use the Internet.

Who could have predicted any of that? Sure, my mother and father consulted the stars, the entrails of guinea pigs, and their massive probability crunching computer (which runs on star dust and rodent entrails, coincidentally), and they predicted some things correctly. Their son would never have a tail. Their son would have an older brother. Their son would likely be male, if he wasn't female. Their son would accidentally staple a Kleenex to his finger in 7th grade. But how could they have guessed the rest? Could anyone have?

Yes! Sit back and let your mind-holes be cracked wide open by black and white footage of Arthur C. Clarke taking a break from writing about ape frenzies to tell us about how things would be. Now that we can compare "would be" with "are be," it's pretty uncanny.

Here A-Clarke essentially predicts LOLCats:

And here Wart tells us how much we will like Facebook:

And here ACC shows us how much we will be into nehru collars in a couple years:

(I guess he also has some things to say about private spaceflight, nanotech materials, and other stuff.)

Man oh man! If only Sir Arthur was around today to tell me what the next 29 years have in store! Super strong robotic arms, maybe?


I'm not complaining: But astronaut ice cream is old news. I need new gifts all the time.
I'm not complaining: But astronaut ice cream is old news. I need new gifts all the time.Courtesy Raiden256
I like to think of myself as a fair man.

With this in mind, I try to live my life under two basic philosophies: an eye for an eye, and you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Sometimes I mix and match those ideas, but the essential thing is that my life is a series of reciprocated acts of scratching and eye gouging, and I think I’m better off for it. So, to make sure I’m being fair, I often find myself asking, “What have you ever done for me?”

Like, hey, Mom, what have you ever done for me? Birth? Well that was probably an accident. And what have you done for me lately?

Oh, hello, stranger. You want me to call the police? Maybe, but what have you ever done for me? Because from where I stand, all I think you’ve ever done for me is ruin my walk with your crying, and I’m on a 450-minute calling plan. I need those minutes for prank phone calling the animal shelter.

Why, sure, doctor, I’d love to pay you. But what have you ever done for me? You took that worm out of my eyeball? That’s pretty good, but I don’t know if it’s $2500 good. Here’s $37.25, and let’s call it square.

And so on. It works out pretty well, I think. Obviously it best applies to direct interactions, but I believe it’s reasonable to apply it to all things, which is why I spend most of my free time making lists of things (e.g. pineapples, leather, Gorbachev, Roman numerals, NASA, whispering, stickiness, shoe, minty, etc.) and then examining just what each item has done for me, so that I can better understand the balance of our relationship. As you may have guessed, I’m currently on “NASA.”

And so … NASA: what has it ever done for me?

My initial thought was, “very little.” I mean, it’s not that I don’t appreciate space ships and moon men, and all that. It has all been very inspiring. But, NASA, what have you done for me lately? I’ve never been given the chance to take a crack at microgravity, or to punch someone wearing a spacesuit in the stomach while wearing a spacesuit myself. Those are the kinds of things that could pull NASA up from the eye-plucking category into the back-scratching category, but they just haven’t happened.

Well, imagine my surprise when I saw this: NASA’s “Spinoff” page. Spinoff is basically NASA’s way of saying, “here’s what we’ve done for you, you ungrateful little punk.” I don’t like being spoken to that way, even when I’m the one who invented the less than cordial paraphrasing, but they and I have a point. Spinoff is about all the ways that NASA science makes it into the lives of norms—not just inventions like Tang (which, as it happens, NASA didn’t actually invent), but technologies that directly impact our everyday lives, and that create thousands of jobs and billions of dollars. It’s difficult to fully quantify the benefits from NASA tech, but NASA estimates that technologies featured in Spinoff since the year 2000 have saved about 12,000 lives, and extended or enhanced 86 million more; that efficiency engineering developments have saved companies about $6.2 billion; that NASA partners have created about 9,200 jobs; and that agency partner companies have generated $1.2 billion in revenue with the help of NASA technology.

I’m not going to list individual developments here because there are just tons of them, and because I’m super lazy, but they range from more aerodynamic semi-trucks, to better fire-extinguishing systems, to advances in energy efficiency, to … well, right, tons of stuff. But I would highly recommend taking a look at NASA’s 2011 Spinoff book, which can be found (free) in PDF form here. It’s over 200 pages, but it’s an entertaining and informative skim (or an informative read, I guess, but what has reading ever done for me?)

Check it out—it’s pretty interesting, and it should help you avoid a lengthy, crushing comeback when you ask NASA what it’s done for you lately. (That can be very embarrassing.)

It's Friday, and you know what that means... Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
Today's Science Friday video:
If the term "sample" reminds you more of a cheese tasting than music making, this video is for you. DJ, music producer and clothing designer Aaron LaCrate walks us through Sampling 101--taking a snippet of a song and repurposing it in another work. LaCrate explains the process but doesn't sample in his own music -- to "clear" a lifted beat for use is complicated, and expensive.

This past week on November 17th, the Leonid Meteor Shower sent meteors streaming down on Earth. "Shooting stars," or meteors, are actually bits of debris in space that burn up upon entering the earth's atmosphere at high speed. Technically, the meteors don't run into the Earth, the Earth runs into the meteors.

The trail of debris in space that the Earth encounters every November 17th was laid down by the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The comet orbits the sun and has made many orbits, laying down a trail of dust and debris on each pass. The comet was first recorded in the year 1366 and has an orbit period of 33 years.

This year was not a spectacular show. The peak, the time when earth passes though the densest part of the trail, only produced about 20 meteors per hour. There have been spectacular years when the Leonids produce meteor storms. These tend to occur every 33 years and there can be thousands of meteors per hour. The next storm probably won't be until around the year 2042.

This year, it was cloudy at my home so I "observed" the shower in a completely different way. I listened to it.

Let me explain.

The US Air Force runs the Space Surveillance Radar in Kickapoo, Texas. There's a lot of junk in space and when the government is flying multimillion dollar craft up there they want to keep them safe. Twenty-four hours a day the space radar puts out 800 kilowatts of continuous wave power at 216.98 Mhz. It sounds like a steady tone on a receiver. The primary mission is to monitor everything in orbit. It can detect objects as small as 10 centimeters orbiting at up to 30,000 km above earth. The radar works by having the signal bounce off objects and reflect the signal back to a number of listening stations.

During a meteor shower, meteors streak through the atmosphere and create a trail of ionized dust. The radio signal reflects off this trail and we can hear the signal of the radar change. Space Weather Radio, a private group, has a listening station set up by Stan Nelson on the roof of his house a couple hundred miles away in Roswell, NM. Space Weather Radio streams the signal over the web and you can listen in. During a meteor shower, you can recognize meteors by the sound.

I recoded for an hour and successfully heard the signature sound of meteors streaking through the atmosphere. For sure a cool experience on an otherwise cloudy night.

More Information
Hear recordings of meteors from the 2010 Leonids
Listen to Space Weather Radio Live

While you've got just four days left to see real samples of the Dead Sea Scrolls here at the Science Museum of Minnesota, in a few months you'll be able to view many of them in the comfort of your own home, local library or anywhere with Internet access. Google and the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced this week that they are working together to put digitized versions of 900 sections of scrolls on the net in the coming months. Here's the full story and a photo slide show about the process.


Quest for the best optical display

Better resolution displays
Better resolution displaysCourtesy Yutaka Tsutano

I have been waiting for the new iPod Touch. I want a display screen so sharp, it looks like a photograph. The "retina display" creates an image out of pixels that are only 78 nanometers. How small is that? Well, more than 300 of these pixels are packed in each inch. Supposedly this is the limit for human perception, or as some fanboys might say, "It doesn't get any better than this!"

Plasmonic nanoresonators

University of Michigan researchers can do better, though, Their paper in Nature Communications titled, Plasmonic nanoresonators for high-resolution colour filtering and spectral imaging explains how pixels of only 10 microns can be produced.

Such pixel densities could make the technology useful in projection displays, as well as wearable, bendable or extremely compact displays, according to the researchers.

How does it work?

The resonators are kind of like a light filter. Two nano thin layers of metal selectively allow light to pass through small sets of slits. The slit spacing determines which wavelength of light makes it through the slits.

Red light emanates from slits set around 360 nanometers apart; green from those about 270 nanometers apart, and blue from those approximately 225 nanometers apart. The differently spaced gratings essentially catch different wavelengths of light and resonantly transmit through the stacks.

These displays are simpler, use fewer parts, are more efficient, and should be cheaper to make. I am not going to wait, though.

Robots have been developed to do lots of useful everyday tasks. But how about marrying people? Earlier this month a couple in Tokyo took their vows in the presences of I-Fairy, a robotic preacher. Above is video from the ceremony, but you'll need to speak Japanese to know exactly what's going on. Here's more info on the robot wedding, including why this couple would select an electronic version of the clergy.