Category: Daily Life

Where there’s a $300k printed hamburger, there’s hope of rebirth.

Nokia-Lumia-820-2It looks like a dead business. It speaks like a dead business. And those who work there say it feels like a dead business. But Nokia may, in fact, be on the cusp of rebirth.

Last Friday the world looked up and nodded as the Woolworth’s of the mobile phone industry released 3D print designs for the body of a current mobile phone, the Lumina 820. Interesting, certainly. But hardly earth-shattering.

Not, at least, until Monday. When we all caught up with the implications.

Nokia says it wants to move away from global to local production. The phone casing is the easiest component to start this journey. However, the rest of the mobile can follow.

And once the economics work out (speculate away as to when that’ll be) whole phones will be built more cheaply in each individual market. And they’ll be a chance to customise for each location.

We know this is the way the world is going. The advent of 3D printing almost makes it a foregone conclusion. So with Nokia apparently out of the blocks first – and with Apple or Samsung rather unlikely to follow any time soon – will this be the idea that saves our favourite ’90s phone-maker?

Well, it’s certainly innovative. And Nokia needs to be that – in spades – to escape its death-spiral.

But…

And this is a big but:

Is this the right kind of innovation from Finland?

Firstly, we don’t know when the economics of local printing will work. And it remains possible that, to a certain extent, they never will. Today, a printed hamburger would set you back $300,000.

Secondly, Nokia’s core issues are not related to its supply chain. What it lacks (or at least did until recently) is a decent smartphone people want to buy.

So it’s quite possible Nokia won’t be around when the local supply chain revolution kicks in.

But why then does the squirmy, excited feeling remain in the pit of our stomachs? Why is this a significant announcement?

Most importantly it shows that 3D printing is being taken seriously by those with enough capital to make a proper impact on the shape of the world. Nokia may be the first to announce such plans. But others – if not the other grown-ups of its own industry – will follow. Perhaps rather shortly?

More emotionally, this is Nokia showing that it can still think different. And have the courage to back a conviction. To mix a couple of clichéd metaphors – its back’s against the wall and that’s put fire in it’s belly.

And that’s a big deal. Many of us still have fond memories of phones that worked. That crashed so little you didn’t think of them as computers. All the while being utterly intuitive to use.

So what else does it have up its sleeve? Is there an advance in the pipeline that’ll steal market share? This felt impossible. Now? We’re not so sure.

And what does this say about the process of innovation? We all know the answer. But it’s still a surprise every time it’s illustrated so vividly:

Invention is born of necessity.

When things are working, you comfortably float on, not fixing it. Because ‘it’ ain’t broke.

Consider Apple. Can’t you just hear them in the boardroom? Those loyal to Jobs are, currently quite politely, reminding the assembled company that they haven’t invented a major new paradigm for three years. And that their lifeblood is inventing major new paradigms. So they’d better get that TV out into the marketplace. Quickly. And in ship-shape fashion.

But the others are feigning attention. Looking at the sales figures and wondering why anyone would be stupid enough to take a risk. Rome burns. They fiddle.

And all of us are guilty of that sometimes. To change our behaviour we need to change our context.

And Nokia’s context was changed. Substantially. Almost overnight. The only question – still mostly unanswered given the rope it has to hang itself – is how it reacts. Like Kodak or Yahoo!? Or like Apple before the iPod? For Apple, let us remind ourselves, was three-quarts dead. With one foot and a half in the grave.

Because if innovation is again taking the lead at Nokia, rumours of the Fin’s death might very well have been exaggerated.

They know better than us that the real local manufacturing revolution is probably a decade away. But they’re thinking long-term. And that has to give you confidence. The terminally ill don’t plan much.

Which, if you want one, is a Reason to Believe again.

But whatever you decide, one thing’s for sure. This soap opera of innovation and technology is highly entertaining. And it’ll keep on rolling.

Coming soon: voice-control, holodecks and The Borg

What a week for Star Trek fans. Was the universe conspiring to bring their favourite technologies closer to reality?

First Intel predicted voice-control would be as big as touch within the ‘next few years’. Those of us who have fallen out of love with Siri might find that difficult to believe. But Mooly Elen reckons the world is close to cracking a computer that can be told to drop out of Warp.

Not that this feat would be unique, according to another report. Based on the latest estimates that there are 17 billion Earth-sized worlds out there, Gizmodo crunched the numbers down to ‘reveal’ that 79.9 million alien civilisations might have developed Warp Capability. Science? Hardly. Fiction? Definitely. But thought-provoking nevertheless.

But if we do get meet Warp-Capable-Aliens, it seems we’ll be more Borg than human by that time. As Ramez Naam points out, we’re already a good way down the line with neurotech implants. Next stop, brain-to-brain communication.

We always suspected the Borg were really us, just with funny lumps on the side of the face.

And as we cruise along in our starship, the crew’s entertainment needs will almost certainly be met in a holodeck. Whilst not actually at CES, Microsoft still used the platform to reveal its IllumiRooom, a Kinect-plus-projector combination that turns an entire room into a screen.

Not impressed? Then consider the possibilities for nanoscale antennas that are able to control light. Lifelike holograms suddenly seem achievable.

As does interstellar space travel, once you find out we’re starting to get to grips with Dark Matter. Because we may have even found a new force that affects it. That’s truly significant, given we’d only found four Fundamental Forces in the universe previously. And that’d be a fifth – the only one to interact with the Dark Stuff.

But if that’s too speculative and theoretical for you, you’ll be pleased to know that booking a hotel room in space for 2016 is a practical possibility right now. Sure, it’ll cost close to a million bucks all-in for five nights. But the living quarters are a lot more spacious than you might imagine. Astronauts on the ISS will be looking on in envy.

And even the less well-off will continue to experience new realities.

With all our devices perpetually connected they’re going to start learning what we like. Then they’ll co-operate to predict what we need. Before giving us access to it in the most cost-effective manner. All before we realised something new was available.

And maybe that something will be the latest mobile, controlled by gestures as well as voice. Or some new pharmaceuticals, made effective by a perfect, man-made type of glass. Or a self-adjusting pillow, a ‘Twitter Holiday Butler‘, a screen made of mist, a microwave zapper for garden weeds or a TV that’ll change channels when you give it that special look.

But consider the downsides too. With everything connected your data exhaust fumes will make you as identifiable as your (newly discovered) linguistic fingerprint. So you’ll be pleased to know there’s now a reason for demanding online privacy.

Once-upon a time there was no easy comeback to the assertion that: ‘If you’re doing nothing wrong, there’s nothing to be afraid of. So why would you want privacy?’

TechDirt retorted with the best answer yet:

Everyone has something to hide and usually no one cares. By surveilling everyone, you catch the benign breaches of law and taboo. If the public are all guilty, the executive part of the government can selectively enforce laws, essentially giving them both judicial and legislative power, which defeats the whole point of separation of powers.

Which also means the police will have time to catch the real cyber-criminals. Like the hacker who created a virus and started taunting the Japanese police with a series of riddles in their effort to catch him. His latest was strapped to a cat. The detail of this story reads like a particularly over-the-top Scandinavian crime novel. Perhaps he’s watched The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo a few too many times.

Next, he’ll be hiding messages in Skype packets.

Or perhaps his schadenfreude is driven by a messy break-up. Looks like the science of not being dumped came a few weeks too late for him.

Or perhaps he’s a gadget freak and couldn’t afford to check-out the best of the latest at CES.

But all his posturings could be even more futile than they first seem. Seas may rise a lot higher, a lot quicker – up to 3ft by 2100. And higher seas mean angrier volcanoes.

So let’s hope, in the words of IBM’s free-thinking supercomputer, it’s all ‘bullshit’.

Because recharging batteries as you walk isn’t going to damp down the next Vesuvius.

And if we don’t solve that crisis then the rate at which we get hold of that lovely Star Trek tech might just slow to something less than exponential.

A possibility we’d rather not have to consider.

The bagless inventor’s ancestors won’t be breathing smart dust.

headSo today brings a fundamental challenge to Life on the Edge’s deeply-held worldview. And you’ve already probably guessed how much we genuinely appreciate one of those.

You either get to over-turn your outmoded paradigm. An exciting event all-round. Or you get to reaffirm what you believe to be true.

Either way, that’s a big win.

Today’s challenge comes from Robert J. Gordon at the National Bureau of Economic Research (BNER). In a properly academic paper he asks: ‘Is U.S. economic growth over?’ And he contends that, to all intents and purposes, it probably is.

<Pause to let you inspect the impact crater that may have made in your mind.>

Obviously that conflicts somewhat with LotE’s current view. As we opined less than a few day’s before Christmas, our narrative would have you believe that, with the onset of ever-wider Artificial Intelligence, we’ll move into the fastest period of economic growth ever seen. And that this will continue to accelerate beyond any visible technological event horizon.

On the contrary, says Gordon. We had precious little growth before 1750. There can be no assumption that the rapidity of Twentieth Century development will continue. In fact, all evidence points to a slowdown over the last eight years. And given the challenges the US economy faces – demography; education; inequality; globalisation; energy/environment; and the overhang of debt – the slowdown will continue. With no discernible manner of change.

So what’s a group of semi-sentient apes to think? Well, first things first. We’re talking about the future here. And so we don’t have the data to prove anything. In fact, there is by definition a complete absence of fact. It is a metaphysical, impossible discussion. Necessarily theoretical.

However, we can examine the logic of both arguments.

Gordon’s analysis assumes that the computing revolution has effectively run it’s course – at least in terms of its ability to make us more efficient and increase our output. It kicked off around 1960 and gave us a growth spurt between 1996 and 2004.

Exact empirical validation aside, we’d have little quibble with this.

What we would challenge is Gordon’s apparent view of the future.

Borrowing heavily from the thoughts of Robin Hanson’s Big History analysis, we would argue that the initial computing revolution is merely the fag-end of the manufacturing revolution.

Up until recently we only had narrow-AI machines that were capable of following narrow sets of rules to create narrow sets of outcomes within highly constrained environments.

Even super-computers could be described in these terms.

The move to wider-AI is coming as computers begin to solve much more complex problems. Machines are now capable of following complex sets of rules to create broad sets of outcomes within less constrained environments.

Self-driving cars, for instance.

Start networking wider-AI devices together and collectively they could start taking all sorts of decisions. Add in Big Data with some analysis tools and they might even get creative.

How much more productive will that be? How much more labour (will that still be the right word?) will it inject into the economy? The same amount, as Gordon rightly points out, that was introduced through women joining the workforce in the 20th century? Or considerably more?

So if we accept that wide-AI is on its way, it seems reasonable to expect this to have a fundamental effect on growth rates globally.

Gordon’s analysis is based on this not being the case. On the computing revolution being spent.

And therein lies your choice. Is the rate of change accelerating exponentially?

We think that the very existence of this blog implies that it is. We exist therefore it is, if you will.

Taken from today’s daily news, here’s a list of some things humanity knows how to do now that it didn’t know only a short while before:

1. Using helium instead of air in hard drives could make them significantly more efficient;
2. You can now take a bath with your phone and expect it to survive;
3. It’s possible, with existing technologies, to launch a PC-on-a-HDMI-stick and make computing even more portable than ever;
4. Budding Han Solos will be pleased that laser weapons are a reality (we’re aware of the dubious mortality of that statement, btw – no more emails please); and
5. Scientists think that slimy, ocean-dwelling bacteria and their use of quantum physics will help develop more efficient solar power.

But most compelling of all Google is spending heavily on a piece of wider-AI, an agent that will help search out everything you’re interested in and deliver updates as-and-when they are available in the manner most convenient to you.

That line of enquiry sounds growth-generating to us. Imagine what one could achieve if new information were available the moment it was released without the need to look for it. What if other machines could also do something useful with it?

So on balance, our worldview appears to be reaffirmed. But what it does remind us is that any view of the future is only that – a view. And there may be other reasons why we’ve got it all horribly, desperately wrong.

Because today we were also reminded that those far mightier and much cleverer than us are sometimes spectacularly misguided.

Today Sir James Dyson, inventor of the bag less vacuum cleaner, denounced the government’s obsession with ‘Silicon Roundabout’ and for valuing ‘the glamour of web fads’ over ‘more tangible technology’ to boost export revenues.

We’ll leave you to draw your own detailed conclusions. But was it telling that Sir James chose to talk to The Radio Times?

We were depressed that such a great mind appears to have disappeared up its own suction pipe. So if you need cheering up as another of your heroes bites the proverbial, just remember that one day your ancestors may breathe in smart dust and exhale pure data.

Goodness knows what Dyson’s and Gordon’s children’s children’s children will be up to though.

The light, froth and soft soap (powder) of Vegas

washingmachine2 copyAnd so it all began.

The bluster and general irrelevance of another Consumer Entertainment Show (CES) is upon us.

It’s hard to ignore the shiny baubles of mobile gaming devices from unexpected sources. And see-through, neon washing machines are definitely a source of amusement. Although nowhere near as useful as a complete range of home appliances that can be controlled from your phone.

And we completely forgot about the prospect of bendy mobiles in the wake of paper-thin bendy computers. Especially after getting breathless at thought of never losing a bag again.

But the constant screams of higher clock speeds and better screens flashing before our eyes soon became a little like a cheese-grater on the brain. At least Forbes recognised CES’s unnecessary irrelevance this year.

Fortunately, there was plenty of news from outside the crazed circus in Vegas, where light was definitely the topic of the day.

Roads are going to glow in the dark. And in the snow. Meanwhile we discovered you can make a 55-watt bulb from bleach, water and a plastic bottle.

But for those addicted to electricity it appears coal might again be the future. We can now make it from plant matter overnight, rather than waiting for nature to take millions of years. And this new stuff is carbon-neutral.

Mobile phone addicts also got a dose of good news. It’s reckoned clinics to treat their addiction will be up and running this year.

Maybe they’ll be decorated with a soothing flavour of LED wallpaper. Maybe the all-robot rock band will make a guest appearance.

But nothing would be as intellectually satisfying as this:

A young geek claimed to have written a programming language that would delete code that contained mistakes. Best of all, some people took him seriously.

Now that really put a smile on our faces.

A day for the angry, aggressive, paranoid, depressed and guilt-ridden.

man in trashcanWhere did all the Christmas cheer go?

Everyone we’re meeting is rather enjoying the Festive Season. But that conviviality and air of expectant relaxation was not reflected in the news today. No sir. Not at all.

First-up for the suspicious minds among us was the Twitter lie detector. Trustworthy updates are, apparently, longer, include links, have a more negative tone and feature swearing more prominently. So that was hardly happy news either. Those long aggressive tweets may be depressing. But they’re truthful.

If that doesn’t give you enough re-assurance, the truly paranoid can now pack a bug detector without fear of making a social faux pas. They’ve made one thin enough to slip into your wallet or purse. No more unseemly wires.

But if guilt’s more your thing then try this one for size. Cloud computing is now consuming a not-inconsiderable percentage of the world’s energy output. And that means we’re all due a cross ticking off.

Then anger was properly roused over Instagram. The new Ts&Cs mean it can sell your pics – in return for no cash. And you can’t opt out from this state of affairs. Your face might even appear in their advertising. We predict a riot. Others felt it was tantamount to Facebook’s newest acquisition committing suicide, all rather publicly. And Starbucks knows how quickly big corporates need to fall in to popular opinion these days. So perhaps more to come?

With that prospect in mind it was hardly cheering to learn that a single microbe might have been responsible for the greatest mass extinction event in Earth’s history, killing 90% of all living things. ‘Could history repeat?’ we heard a depressed someone shout from the back.

So thank goodness there was some respite.

Allergy sufferers can now test what’s in their food using a new smartphone widget-and-app combo. While cutting-edge marketers have been re-designated ‘media hackers’. But in a good way.

The Twitter lie detector was also balanced by discovering the micro-blogging service now feeds into TV ratings – on the same day it announced 200million active users-a-month.

And finally, more medical innovation. Scorpion venom is to light-up brain cancer during tumor ops. And a hardy perennial of 3D design is being pressed into creating human tissue and organs.

So not all bad after all. Where there was dark, there was also light. Where there was yang there was also ying.

Maybe it’s just us not feeling the Christmas cheer?

Homemade silicon, man-made tornadoes and a future made by Google.

LHC2‘Man-made’ and ‘homemade’ were definitely the buzwords of the day.

We’ll be watching the man-made moon collisions, as two gravity-mapping satellites make their crash landings 10pm UK time.

On a more positive note tornadoes of human creation are being touted as the latest clean power-source. Which seems far more palatable – and effective – than the wee-power of a couple of weeks ago.

And if you want to make a microchip in the comfort of your own home, that now seems feasible too. Although no-one’s yet suggesting that you can create God Particles at home.

Not least because there seems to be some confusion at CERN over exactly how many types of those pesky Higgs Boson they’ve found. Would one of those touch-feely-smelly computers predicted by IBM help the world’s brightest physicists read the data? Or perhaps we should set the artificial intelligences building video games of their own devising on the problem?

But all of this ignores the really big news of the day, at least from an Edge Tech perspective. Redoubtable futurologist Ray Kurzweil has just been given the top engineering job at Google. This seems to suggest the search behemoth fully intends to keep inventing the future.

That’s exactly the statement of intent we like to see but let’s just hope this holy alliance remembers the Prime Directive of ‘Don’t be evil’.

And if all these ideas has delayed your progress and you’re now running late, there’s an app for that too. It can’t teleport you to where you need to be instantly. But it will tell you when you’ll arrive – and help make your excuses to those left waiting.

Maybe you know someone who could use a copy for Christmas?

 

Can we solve the financial crisis by adopting electronic money?

Chancellor+George+OsborneWe definitely can, says Miles Kimball over on Quartz. And the American professor reckons the UK could lead the way.

His thesis works something like this: the switch to electronic money could allow the government to set negative interest rates, incentivising us all to spend rather than save. This additional demand would pick the economy up a treat.

We say the unintended consequences of this policy might be utterly disastrous. And whether the potential triple-dip recession is bad enough to warrant such a risk is arguable. But hell yes! What an idea.

So it has to be worthy of urgent, serious study. Because, as the founder of Netscape commented earlier, we’re certainly in a tech – as well as a general – depression. And who doesn’t want electronic money?

Although, as NASA pointed out, the world is not about to end. So perhaps it is an over-reaction.

That said, we’re going to need some pretty strong medicine to make the nasty economic-monsters go away. And we doubt that building ‘Digital Layers’ in our homes for Minority-Report type control in every room is going to be enough. Not least because our money’s on voice-control. Do you want to waving your arms around the whole time? It’s just going to make you tired.

Meanwhile, free electricity from underwater turbines in rivers sounds like a great idea. But hardly sufficient. And don’t get us started on those Pepsi-flavoured crisps. Apple’s Siri doesn’t look like (s)he’ll be making much of a contribution either. Not while being out-fashioned by Android, whose users can now shop-by-voice.

And don’t look to those pixels on your screen either. The Geeks have declared that the vector graphic shall inherit whatever’s left of the earth once the economy finally recovers.

So maybe it’s down to the auto-makers. They’ve got some pretty nifty ideas about what cars will do and look like in 2020.

But who wants to wait that long? So let’s all urge UK Chancellor George Osborne to take a risk on Mr Kimball’s gamble.

But if Osborne’s not listening, perhaps our new favourite economist can petition his own President. The campaign? Please, Mr President, will you make  a New Year’s resolution not to start a war? And then you might not need to invest in the rather-icky injectable battle wound foam.

Maybe Obama could concentrate instead on funding research into those gushing rivers of water found on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Now there’s a policy we could all support?