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From self-driving cars that come pick you up to computers that respond to your brain waves instead of your fingers, futuristic technology may not be as far off as you think. In the spirit of the new year, Tech Tuesday explores predictions for what inventions are looming in 2013 and beyond.
- Patrick Tucker Deputy Editor, The Futurist magazine
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. What if your car could drop you off and go find its own parking pace -- place, guided not by a driver in a jaunty cap but by a camera and a string of algorithms? What if your computer could read your brainwaves so you didn't need to type? What if you could hire a robot to take care of your aging parents in their own home?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFuturistic fantasies? Maybe, but not as far in the future as you might think. Experts say innovations in human brain research, artificial intelligence, robotics and space travel could change the way we live in the not-too-distant future, taking humans out of the equation more often and letting technology take over. In fact, researchers around the world are already at work on these technologies and much more.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn the spirit of the New Year, Tech Tuesday peers into the future to explore some predictions about which technologies could come to fruition in 2013 and beyond. Joining us in studio is Patrick Tucker. He is deputy editor of The Futurist Magazine. Patrick Tucker, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. PATRICK TUCKERHey. Thank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIYou too can join us. Just call 800-433-8850 if you want to join the conversation, that is. What new technology are you waiting to see this year or sometime soon? 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Patrick, let's start with the human body, particularly the brain. What is functional magnetic resonance, and how is it helping researchers develop better prosthetic limbs?
TUCKERWell, functional magnetic resonance or functional magnetic resonance imaging is a technology that was first developed in the 1990s, and what it does is it takes a picture of hemoglobin flow into the brain. So it's basically where the parts of your brain are attracting more blood flow.
TUCKERAnd what's amazing about this is that this reveals a lot of the inner processes of human thought and can even reveal to a certain extent what we intend to do so long as the intention is understood within a very narrow frame. For instance, a bunch of researchers out of Canada have found that looking at FMRI data, excuse me...
NNAMDILooking at MRI data, yes.
TUCKERYeah. Functional magnetic resonance imaging data, it's particularly from parts of the brain associated with motion or movement, sends -- from that they can define whether or not someone is intending to move their arm and how they're going to move their arm. So what this basically means is that scientists have figure out how to define a future human movement entirely from brainwaves right now.
TUCKERThis FMRI and other types of brain imaging and other types of brain signal analysis like EEG and MEG, which is electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography, are going to play, I think, a really big role in future personal computer interfaces. And we're going to see it most nearly, in the shortest term, in the form of much better prosthetics. So what the ability to see these signals does is make prosthetics much more usable.
TUCKERI mean, 10 years ago, prosthetics were, I mean, these things that you strapped on to your body and they were dumb, and you moved them, you know, manually to what position you wanted to be in. And now, a lot of veterans coming back who have unfortunately lost limbs and many amputees who lost limb for other reason are encountering this entirely new generation of prosthetics that have a brain-computer interface component that can, in very little limited way, read some of these signals, and it makes them far more functional.
TUCKERAnd so we're on the road to do something much more like a fully functional prosthetic limb because of breakthroughs that have occurred in brain-computer interface technology from functional magnetic resonance imaging and other brain signal analysis techniques.
NNAMDISo in that nanosecond before I move my arm, my brain actually gives it that instruction. And now, there is technology that can understand that instruction coming from my brain. How could harnessing brain waves transform the way we interact with our computers by taking keyboards out of the equation?
TUCKERWell, this is actually something that's already been demonstrated at the University of Wisconsin. A researcher had figured out how to send a tweet entirely with his electromagnetic brain wave. So it requires a lot of training. You have to sort of train yourself to think, to release these signals in a very particular way. But if you can do that -- and this researcher did. He used a -- he would follow a keyboard with his eye, but the signal that was being picked up wasn't from retina. It was his from motor cortex.
TUCKERAnd that -- with a computer algorithm, he was able to turn that into a clear command for -- that showed up on the computer that allowed him to punch him the different letters in and then send a tweet entirely using electromagnetic energy coming out of his brain. So when we think about movement, we actually release this huge burst of electrical energy from our brain. We don't really see it, but it's a really big one.
TUCKERAnd in addition to learning how to send a tweet, another researcher named Deniz Erdogmus at Northeastern University and his students actually created a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner that you could steer entirely with EEG signals, entirely with brain waves. It's sort of amazing. I mean, so this -- because over the Internet, you can actually take the vacuum cleaner and move it really far away from the person and steer it around entirely with EEG signals.
TUCKERThere was a researcher out of China that figured out a way to steer a drone, the small-like, you know, consumer-bought drone with these brain signals. And the steering isn't really robust yet. It doesn't look -- it doesn't fire under seams like as you might hope, but he is steering this thing with his brain. This is a technology that's actually been around for a really long time, but we're only now beginning to understand the potential of it.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Patrick Tucker. He is deputy editor of The Futurist magazine. And we're talking about the future, 2013 and beyond, and what technology might be able to do for us. Transportation is another area where technology could change our daily routine in dramatic ways. Driverless cars are already a reality. Google's testing them on the streets in California and Nevada. How would wider adoption of self-driving cars change the way we design our communities and the way we make land-use decisions?
TUCKERSo this is one of the things I'm personally really excited about in terms of the potential of this technology to really change the way we live in the future. I had the opportunity to talk a little bit with Sebastian Thrun of Google. And every one at Google is really nervous about folks in the press getting too excited about this technology because the next thing you know then Google has to spend a lot of time telling everybody, you know, it's not available yet, you know, please, be patient. We're not exactly sure when we're going to release it, but...
NNAMDIBecause with so many million drivers...
NNAMDI...each of us has our own ideas about why this may or may not work.
TUCKERYes, right, exactly. And why it could be a terrible idea and whatnot. But when you talk to Thrun, here's how he envisions it, here's how he thinks that -- he sees this working to change human life. So right now, your car sits idle about 97 percent of the time. You take it to work. You leave it in the parking lot. You take it home, you leave it in front of your house, and it's just sitting there. This is a tremendously wasteful, you know, use of a machine.
TUCKERAnd in addition, when we are using it, we're creating traffic because we don't know how to use these things. We drive too fast. We drive too slow. We don't communicate with other drivers except in little gestures. Forty percent of traffic in any city, 40 percent of the traffic that, you know, our listeners are encountering in the streets of Washington, D.C., right now is people looking for parking. So self-driving cars, how does this change this?
TUCKERWell, imagine that instead of looking for parking, you can summon your self-driving car to you by phone. You get in, and you can drive it around if you want. Or the car does the driving, and you simply serve as backup. And right now, when they test this stuff on the streets of Palo Alto and in Nevada, there's always a human backup driver involved, if not directly in the car then monitoring the vehicle from afar because it's still in testing phase.
TUCKERBut you get in the car, the car would fare you to where you wanted to be. You would get out, and then the car would go and find itself a parking spot, and it could park much farther away. It could park, I mean, miles away. And this would change a lot of the ways we design cities. We wouldn't have to allocate so much parking space directly next to centers where there's a lot of traffic.
TUCKERWe wouldn't have to design streets so large that we -- they would also have to accommodate a bunch of vehicles that are sitting inactive 97 percent of the time. I mean, it -- and it's a really simple technology. And yet the promise is that in 20 years, we're going to look back on the way we use cars today and just think that this was the dumbest way to use any machine ever. And that's a huge change, I think, and it's one that I'm really excited about. So one of the other potential features that has opened up by self-driving car technology is much more cooperative car ownership. And...
NNAMDICar sharing -- Zipcars and other car-sharing programs already offer the option of using a car when you need one without the hassle of owning it and paying the cost of taking care of it. How does the Getaround program create a new puddle for car sharing?
TUCKERRight. So the -- when you add the self-driving cars to cooperative ownership models, cooperative ownership startups that already exists...
TUCKER...then you open up this future where like Getaround, you can...
NNAMDIAnd driverless cars, yes.
TUCKERDriverless cars, right. So Getaround is this service. It's a startup out of San Francisco, a couple of kids from Silicon University who spoke about it at our conference, the World Future Society conference a little while ago. Here's how it works. It's a device that you put in your car, and what it does is when a -- it receives a code from somebody's iPhone. It unlocks the car, and it starts the car.
TUCKERSo with this device in your car, you can rent it out to people online. You open up your computer in the morning. You see a bunch of potential applicants who want to rent your car for the day. And you know that it's going to sit idle 97 percent of the time. So you look through their profiles, you see who looks trustworthy. The entire thing is ensured by Berkshire Hathaway anyway. You click yes and go in to rent to that person.
TUCKERThat person gets a code on their phone through an app. They take their phone over to your car. They, you know, press a button, and the car -- the device in the car receives the code, unlocks, starts the car, and that person can take your car around wherever they want until the code expires, which is going to be defined by the contract.
TUCKERSo now instead of having Hertz and Dollar and all these places that need to rent us cars at the airport, you can rent anybody's car. And this looks forward to a future where we just sort of need fewer cars, right? And so everybody can -- I mean, you have the opportunity for more people to get much more out of fewer cars. And I think that that's probably a very good thing.
NNAMDIHave you spoken with Hertz and Dollar about this business model at all?
NNAMDIElectric cars offer the potential not only to use power but to give some back. They could both take power from the electric grid and put power back into it. How could cars of the future play a role that's similar to the one, say, that solar panels on the roof of your house play today?
TUCKERRight. Well, this particular forecast is related to a specific plan that comes out of Technology University of Delft. And what the researchers there are trying to do is create a system where your electric car, when it's in park at a particular spot, creates electricity from hydrogen fuel. So it powers a generator that's turning hydrogen or biofuel into electricity.
TUCKERAnd a lot of people don't understand that hydrogen doesn't just turn into electricity. It also -- it needs to be running through a process. And so what this scheme, this program from the University of Delft envisions is these in park that are electric cars, the electricity in the battery would go towards creating this new electricity from hydrogen or biofuel.
TUCKERAnd this, again, is one of those futures that opens up when you get rid of the idea of individual car ownership because when you can have a car that ties into our larger grid because you don't -- and you don't own it, so you're not as worried about, you know, what happens to it, then what happens is that -- especially if it's an electric car -- you have the potential for creating a surplus of usable electricity.
TUCKERSo instead of sucking energy, cars of the future actually help our grid create an energy surplus. There is another idea, another program that's very related to that. It's from MIT. It's called Smart Cities program. And...
NNAMDIYep. That's -- as a matter of fact, if you'll hold for a second, we need to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about the Smart Cities program with Patrick Tucker. He is deputy editor of The Futurist magazine. And we'll talk with you if you call 800-433-8850. What new technology are you waiting to see this year or sometime soon? If you control the purse strings, where would you put the research dollars to develop new technologies? You can also send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday. We're talking the technology of the future, this year 2013 and beyond with Patrick Tucker, deputy editor of The Futurist magazine. Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Channel your inner George Jetson. What would you like a robot to do in your house? 800-433-8850. We started talking about this before the break, Patrick Tucker. Researchers at MIT have developed the Smart Cities pilot program that's being tested in Boston.
NNAMDIIt tackles what's called the first-mile, last-mile problem in transportation planning, how to get people to and from the bus stop or the Metro station where they can pick up public transportation. How does it work and how would self-driving cars make it even better?
TUCKERSo this is something that Ryan Chin -- he's the developer of the program at MIT -- wrote about for The Futurist magazine. This is a fantastic program that I think provides a real model for what the urban centers of the future could work like and how people in them could operate and commute. So it's -- the Smart Cities program has three components. There's a car. It's a small car, and it's a wonderfully designed little thing with motors in every wheel as opposed to one big motor. So it can do 360-degrees turn. But it's a car, a bicycle and a moped.
TUCKERYou pay a subscription and you get access to a fleet of all of these. So it's cooperative ownership like Zipcar -- like Getaround. And the way it works is you can -- with your subscription -- take, say, a bicycle to the grocery store, pick up your groceries, take the car back home. So it's public transportation, except it solves this, like you said, first-mile, last-mile problem. And that's -- speaks to the fact that public transportation in the form of buses, in the form of subways is usually about a mile away from wherever you are.
TUCKERAnd this really cuts down on how attractive it is for people to use because people don't want to walk a mile with groceries. A car seems much more versatile, and this Smart Cities program answers that. And because the cars are cooperatively owned, again, what he envisions is that when you park them on city streets, they would tie into the grid
TUCKERThey're electric, so the lithium ion battery would help cycle electricity through the larger circuit, through the larger grid, and they would, instead of sucking power, be powered neutral or, depending if they're used for, like, you know, in conjunction with this scheme from University of Delft, even potentially power positive. So this, to me, sounds like a much smarter way to get around than what we're stuck with today.
TUCKERBut the thing with the -- why self-driving cars makes this much more realizable is that you don't want to have a situation where everybody took their bike to the store and everybody took the car home and then the cars are just sort of stuck at the store, right, I mean, at home and -- when they're supposed to be at the store for people to carry around.
TUCKERSo if you added self-driving car component and when the car drops people off at home, it could then go back to some place where people are much more likely to use the car and perhaps drop off a bike at the person's house. Then all of a sudden this looks like a perfect transportation solution for lots of people. Perfect in the minds of a futurist, not necessarily in the mind of everybody yet, but I think it's a big improvement over what we've got today.
NNAMDIOn to the phones. Here is Laura in Arlington, Va. Laura, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LAURAHi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm interested in talking about 3-D printing.
LAURAI can see that being a great thing in the future just to replace household items using the plans from within the (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWell, that may not be in the future. That may be right now.
LAURAYeah, true that.
TUCKERThere are a lot of 3-D printers that are on the market. One called RepRap has been around really since 2005, and the price has gone down on these just exponentially. It's really much cheaper now to start 3-D printing than it was a decade ago.
TUCKERSo what 3-D printers are, for users that aren't exactly sure what they are, they -- you take a material and you put it into this machine, and the machine sort of -- it creates a three-dimensional object in layers, one layer after another after another, in sort of the way your old dot matrix printer would layer ink on top of letters to create a big black spot. Except in this case, what the result is is an object of some sort.
TUCKERSo they got -- people used to use them in architecture design, little resin prototypes of buildings. So you would have like a model that you could bring in to show at a presentation. And now we're beginning to understand that you can use them for a really wide variety of things. You can make cups. You can make different pieces of art. You can even make shoes.
TUCKERAt the World Future Society conference last year, we had a kid -- he's 17. He's a 17-year-old kid, and he had developed this machine that takes household plastics and melts it down into a resin that's usable in 3-D printing. So folks like Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, have said that this is going to be just an enormous change in the way we buy things and in the way we make things in the future.
TUCKERAnd it's already giving rise to not just, you know, new businesses, but new like ancillary businesses on the side, like taking your household plastics and turning it into something that you can 3-D print with. I think that it's probably five or so years before, like, it reaches really mainstream adoption because there are still some limitations in terms of, you know, the stuff that you can make with it and they're are pretty big limitations.
TUCKERBut I think that those are going to fall away, and you're going to see a lot more people making a lot more stuff inside their house. And this could change a lot of the way we buy things, a lot of the stuff we buy.
TUCKERAnd it's also -- I should add -- a lot more sustainable than the way we buy things now where we buy, you know, a number of products, replacement parts, things like that that are manufactured really far away that have -- perhaps in places where there are no labor or environmental laws or protections to, you know, to protect environment, to protect workers, and then they must be shipped here.
TUCKERIt sort of makes a lot more sense environmentally and sustainably if, let's say, you need a replacement, like, cover for you laptop. If you can print that at home, then this is a much sounder solution, not just for the consumer, but also for the environment.
NNAMDII've seen friends of mine who have printed cases for their cell phones or -- and they're showing them off. They've done them on 3-D printers, not in their own homes necessarily, but people can look forward to having those in their homes. Laura, thank you very much for your call. I wanted to talk about robots on the moon, but I will get back to that later because I think people might be more interested in their function on Earth. The Japanese are pioneers in using robots and personal settings like the home to help people with everyday activities, especially older people, right?
TUCKERYes, yes. This is true. So this is sort of a long involved story. The -- personal robotics has been the sort of holy grail of AI and the bane of many futurists for a very long time because everyone keeps waiting, well, when do I get my personal robot assistant? And it turns out -- they discovered very early on in the 1950s -- that while artificial intelligence was really useful in lots of well-defined logical domains, like figuring out the optimal way to play chess against any move, machine vision is really hard.
TUCKEROur environment is just way too chaotic for a machine to know, you know, what to do with it. Our brain took millions of years to negotiate this extremely chaotic environment. And what's happened in the last few years is that machine vision, A, has started to really catch up. And we're learning how to translate our extremely chaotic external environment into something like usable code that a robot can understand. But Japan is way ahead of the United States in personal robotics for a couple of reasons.
TUCKERNumber one, they -- the Japanese government and Japanese corporations began investing really heavily in personal robotic technology, a technology that they knew wasn't going to pay off for 20 or 30 years, and they did this very early on. And they did this because they know that Japan faces this huge demographic problem.
TUCKERDemographically speaking, it's the oldest country on Earth, and they knew that they're going to need to put something in the homes of people that were getting -- their rapidly aging population. So that's aspect of it. Number two is advances in machine vision, which I've gone -- touched on. And number three is, believe it or not, bandwidths because what they've discovered...
NNAMDII believe it.
TUCKERYeah, believe it. Right, right.
TUCKERSo I mean, 'cause we think of these two technologies as being extremely separate, right? There's humanoid robotics that are -- they're not exactly like they've made on "The Jetsons," but they are capable of folding laundry, picking people up, putting people down, escorting them through grocery stores. And then there's bandwidth, which is the Internet -- which is the speed of the Internet.
TUCKERAnd we think of these two things as completely separate. And it turns out, really, they're not because what Japan has discovered is that you need a tele-operator for the robot, at least part of the time, in order for the robot to learn. So what they have when they test these personal robotic prototypes in shopping malls, in nursing homes, in grocery stores in Japan is that you need somebody standing by to help the robot just sort of, you know, remotely if it gets stuck, if it gets caught.
TUCKERAnd the goal is to reduce the role of the human operator and increase the autonomy of the robot so you've got one human operator that can serve as stand-by or like first-base coach for like 20 of them. But this requires bandwidth. This requires, you know, a great, big Internet connection. Japan made another decision very early on, very wise, full of foresight to invest in that. And we sort of have it.
TUCKERSo the reason this looks like much more of a firm part of the near future in Japan is because of investments that they made 30 years ago and very heavily. In the United States, it seems more speculative and pretty far away because our robotics industry is dominated almost entirely by military contractors. We design robots to, you know, shoot and perhaps to carry, you know, equipment but not in -- for personal robotic settings. And...
NNAMDIWell, you had the opportunity to see the Japanese robots that are learning how to approach people in a shopping mall who looked lost and offer them directions. How do they work, and what are their potential uses? How do they know people look lost?
TUCKERYeah, this is -- all right. So this was a lot of fun. This was something that I got to do in 2010 as part of -- to take a look at this pilot project that was going on. So in a shopping mall in Osaka, they took this robot, and they wanted the robot to go and approach people and tell them -- that looked lost and say, now, come to the shoe store or come get some ice cream, or, you look lost, can I help you?
TUCKERBut the question is, how do you teach a robot to understand and recognize this really uniquely human state of being that is lost or, conversely, how do you teach a robot to stay away from someone who's clearly in a hurry? I mean, what are the signals we send out that suggest our state of being in, you know, lost or in a hurry? You can teach a robot to understand these things, and you've accomplished something, I mean, really tremendous.
TUCKERSo here's what they did. They outfitted this particular area of this mall in Osaka with these laser sensors, and they just took readings, data sets day in, day out of people moving through the mall, until they finally had enough data that they could crunch, you know, numerically, the difference between somebody who was moving through the mall very quickly, usually around noon, usually right through the center, someone to stay away from and somebody who is lingering, hanging out near the periphery, perhaps stopping by the map or just moving in the same spots sort of over and over again.
TUCKERThis suggested someone that was lost , that weight be open to approach, and they were able to teach the robot based on these variables how to stay away from people that it was going to crash into, approach people that would welcome a conversation with it and then engage those people in conversation, and they did it to me. I was walking around and a robot came up to me and said, you know, konnichiwa. And I said, konnichiwa. And my Japanese has suffered some in the last year but basically invited me to come and try on shoes because I was a size 10 1/2.
NNAMDIWell, you know, the difference, of course, in an American mall is that people would think that the person who is lingering might be just a mugger. You don't want a robot to get mugged.
NNAMDIRobots are already used in factories but mostly on a large scale. How will the robot called Baxter help smaller businesses automate production and energize the manufacturing economy in the United States?
TUCKERSo this is a subject that we've been looking at for a little while, and Baxter is the creation of a roboticist named Rodney Brooks. He'll be writing about it in the May-June issue of The Futurist magazine, assuming I can find the time to get back and edit his piece.
TUCKERSo he's a wonderful roboticist. He's one of these guys -- he's one of these geniuses that is - whose intellect is matched only by his charisma. And he's the brain behind Roomba, the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. Before that, he got his job like most American roboticist in the West, designing stuff for the military like the military PackBot.
TUCKERSo his newest creation is called Baxter. And what it is a completely different type of factory robot. Number one, it retails for about $22,000 which is much cheaper than factory robots in other -- that you'll find in different types of environments. But it's also far more versatile. See, factory robots, as they were originally created, were these -- especially in Japan, are these enormous machines that are -- do extremely specific functions.
TUCKERThey look like they're made for that function. They only perform that function. You have to design an entire assembly line around them. They're very hard to upgrade. Most of them aren't, you know, don't have upgradeable software. And so they're only useful for designing extremely high-value goods like cars or really expensive electronics. They're not good at designing stuff that is cheaper or that -- where the design changes really rapidly.
TUCKERTo design stuff like that, you need a human workforce. And this is what China is, right? I mean, this is why so much manufacturing activity migrated to China. And increasingly, as prices go down, the stuff that is cheap enough and that upgrades enough where, you know, the design changes so quickly, has come to include not just, you know, toys and textiles but also electronics.
TUCKERAnd this is why, you know, we've seen this huge loss of manufacturing activity in the United States because you want a really inexpensive workforces designing all of that. Now, what Baxter does is offer the opportunity to create some of those low-cost goods, electronics, toys and whatnot back into the United States. And this essentially returns some of that manufacturing activity here. It does not necessarily in turn return jobs, which is an important point.
NNAMDIWe have a tweet from Derek, who says, "Yes, the robots will take all of our jobs. We'll be compensated with perfectly, lovely wooden chairs."
TUCKERWell, this is actually an important point. I mean, Derek brings up an important point, and this is something that we've covered in the magazine a lot as well. There's a great article that we ran in March-April 2012 by Andrew McAffee and Erik Brynjolfsson. And they've written a book called "Race Against The Machine." And they point out that we're at a really interesting historical turning point with automation.
TUCKERIn the past, what history has shown is that productivity gains and productivity gains through automation have -- while first creating a bump in unemployment have gone on to create more employment 10 years later. So some new technology comes, people get thrown off out of the job. But 10 years later, as a result of the added productivity, there are more jobs.
TUCKERAnd what they argue, what Andrew McAffee and Erik Brynjolfsson argue in The Futurist magazine -- they recently picked up on "60 Minutes" talking about this as well -- is that that historical trend is beginning to change. That no longer is productivity resulting in net job growth after 10 years. So this is something that we have to talk about as a society.
NNAMDIThis progress could be a problem.
NNAMDIHere is Victor in Fairfax, Va. Victor, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VICTORHello, Kojo. I had a question for your guest about the earlier topic with the biofuel, power plant-type vehicles. And it seems that biofuels, since they're a hydrocarbon-based fuel as any other fuel, even though you extracted the hydrogen out to make the electricity, there still would be a component of carbon left over. I wanted to know if that is released as carbon dioxide, or what exactly goes on with that?
TUCKERWell, so here's the thing about biofuels 'cause Rita brings up a very good point. A biofuel system is -- can be net carbon negative. But when you burn anything, you're releasing carbon. That's what burning is. So these things only -- we've had a really weird kind of dysfunctional relationship with biofuels. I think that it's a relationship that can be much better so long as we understand that we have to be growing a lot more plant than we're burning.
TUCKERAs long as that equation is there, then biofuels are a net gain for humanity. But he's absolutely right. I mean, it is a -- it's something you're burning. You're releasing carbon into the atmosphere in any type of biofuel. Hydrogen, depending on where you get it, a little bit less so. But at the same time, I think that one of the most potentially exciting and disruptive fuels of the future that we've been hearing a little bit more of in the last five years and I think we'll be hearing a lot more of very shortly is halophytic algae that's been genetically engineered to absorb more nitrogen in the air.
TUCKERSo algae, if it's saltwater algae -- it doesn't compete with crops for fresh water -- is a great fuel source. It's a lipid, so you can get a burnable fuel just like an olive press. You can actually grow it for food as well. So if you could irrigate, say, parts of what is today wasteland with salt water, you could -- and grow this halophytic algae in it, then you could feed and fuel our entire planet. And as long as there was more algae than we were burning, it would be carbon negative.
TUCKERBut it has to be an algae that doesn't yet exist, and this is why this is a future fuel. This is exactly what Craig Venter is working on in California, is creating a type of algae that doesn't require -- have the same nitrogen requirements as regular saltwater algae. And I think that when that happens, we're going to have a really big discussion about how to fuel our cars in the future.
NNAMDIVictor, thank you very much for your call. Got to take another short break. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850, or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. How would you like to harness big data to improve your everyday life? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur Tech Tuesday guest is Patrick Tucker. He is deputy editor of The Futurist magazine. Patrick, another universe the technology is poised to transform is the cloud. Not only will it store an incredible volume of data, but it will be able to help us make sense of it. How will data in the cloud become more transparent and more useful?
TUCKERSo we've had this relationship with data that in no way resembles the future of our relationship with data. Right now, we think of the data that we create as being primarily stuff that we sit down and we type into a keyboard, and it shows up on the Internet or it shows up in a database somewhere.
TUCKERAnd only in the last few years have we begun to understand that data is also something that we make when we carry our GPS-enabled phone around with us when we swipe a Metro card to get into the subway and in Washington, D.C., when we swipe it again to get out of the subway when we use a magnetic key card to enter or exit a building.
TUCKERWe view these as little isolated actions that have no relevance to our future to anyone looking at us to creating any sort of broad picture of where we're going to go or what we're going to do. And this is primarily what's called unstructured data. It's definitely big data, but it's unstructured. It needs to be labeled. It's stuck in a database. It's stuck in a device. It's not yet talking or being merged into one great big picture. And this is -- when this begins to happen -- it is happening sort of slowly. It is happening.
TUCKERBut when we get all of these different data, little bits of data that we make through unconscious action, through much more regular action, and it -- we're able to turn it into a great, big picture of where we're going and what we're going to do, then the big change that we're going to find is that so many different aspects of human life -- where we're going, what we're going to do, what's going to happen to us, what our day is going to be like, what work is going to be like -- all of that becomes much more predictable.
NNAMDIIf people can manipulate data more efficiently, they can carry a lot more information. We can carry a lot more information in our pockets on our smartphones. How could mobile apps give us much more information about a business we might want to patronize or lead us to go in or to steer clear of that business?
TUCKERRight. So, right now, we have access to data about businesses that we might want to engage with, and it's sort of stuck online in these forums and things and Yelps. Right, right, right.
NNAMDIYeah. I go to Yelp to check out my restaurant review or whatever.
TUCKERRight, exactly. And that's information that we access in one, increasingly, one particular place, which is, you know, while we're sitting down. And what's increasingly going to happen is that as we go about our day, as we pull out our smartphones, or, you know, put on our Google glasses, we're going to be interacting not just with these Yelp reviews that are going to provide us with, like, augmented intelligence about businesses we're considering patronizing, about interactions we're considering happening, but also other sources of data about those things.
TUCKERAnd all of that will merge together in one sort of seamless picture that's tailored specifically to our needs. So instead of just seeing Yelp reviews when you're considering going to a restaurant, you might also see how a restaurant's -- you know, a restaurant's sustainability rating, even their, you know, last quarter profits, where they source their fish, where they source their meat...
NNAMDIHow they pay their employees.
TUCKER...how they pay their employees, whether they're considered a good investment, their plans for the future, even stuff as seemingly esoteric but that actually exists like who primarily goes there and to -- you know, who patronizes that business primarily and who do they expect to patronize that business in the future. So this is a ton of information to consider or think about when you're just debating whether or not to walk through that door and patronize that business.
TUCKERBut machine learning opens up the possibility of a message coming to you that's tailored specifically to the information you most want to know, and that could be like a score, like you could walk around. This is a little bit speculative, but all it is is taking a bunch of different sets of data that exist right now, merging them together and delivering it in the form of, like, an app interface that would be most useful to the largest number of consumers.
TUCKERYou would walk up to a business, you would open your phone, you would see this -- a score, like a 98 percent match, and that's business match to you on the basis of criteria that you use to judge different businesses. It's sort of like OkCupid, but for the entire world.
NNAMDIWell, let's talk a little bit about how jurisdictions and developers need to plan in the future because we got a tweet from Jennifer, who points us to a commentary that she wrote in The Washington Post Capital Business section about why the planners, say, in Tysons, should be looking less at widening highways and adding off-ramps and more at driverless buses and cars. Have we come to a time where jurisdictions can't -- should already begin to start anticipating driverless vehicles in their development plans?
TUCKERNo. We were at that time about 10 years ago.
TUCKERWe were. This is -- the idea of perpetuating our completely dysfunctional, you know, method of stirring traffic just because traffic is clogged is -- I mean, on its phase, its neurotic.
TUCKERSo we've -- you could have figured out that this technology was a potential 10 years ago, but now it's definitely time to consider the possibility of far fewer cars and to move aggressively through urban planning towards a future where that's more easily realizable, instead of continuously planning for ever wider streets, ever more parking, ever more vehicles sitting around being idle 97 percent of the time. So I think that that's probably long overdue.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Paige in Kensington, which I'd like to pair with a call we are having from Ashley in Ashburn, Va. Paige writes, "The topic calls to mind my frustration at the fact that I, like 60 others at just my little pre-school, drive to school and drive back to pick up every single day. Because of car seats, it's hard to carpool. It would really help really conserve maternal energy to have a self-driving device that could accommodate different children safely." And then here is Ashley in Ashburn, Va. Ashley, your turn.
ASHLEYHi. I was, you know, you like said, I have two small children. And, while I love the idea of not having to worry about having my own car and all of the maintenance and damage on the environment that that does, you know, the first-mile, last-mile scenario and implementing that in the exurbs out in Ashburn where I live, getting my kids to home from day care and their various activities, you know, hauling a car seat.
ASHLEYThey didn't help for, you know, an infant forward-facing, rear-facing, you know, my toddler with boosters. And, you know, how does all that fit in? Maybe it's just my lack of imagination, but I'm having trouble imaging how that would work.
TUCKERNo. I think that you're dead on that your particular circumstance -- being part of a cooperative ownership model might not exactly work for you. You're right. That totally sounds like a headache, having to truck of bunch of different car seats around and use them in different cooperatively on the vehicles. But it's -- I think that what guys like Ryan Chin and Sebastian Thrun and myself are imaging is something more like a hybrid and ensemble model.
TUCKERFor instance, if you have a spouse or someone that you live with who takes a car to work every day and that's all they do with it, that's a much better candidate for a cooperative ownership model than you. But you have to admit that if you had a private car that had some self-driving capability, even that would also be a big time and convenient saver for you, too, because the car could come pick you up. And as they get older, potentially go pick them up from like soccer and take them home, which would be, I think, we can all say kind of awesome, right?
ASHLEYAside from the safety concerns, but sure.
NNAMDIWell, she mentioned the safety concerns.
NNAMDIAnd when we began the broadcast, I said that there are millions of drivers, who have millions of questions about the safety concerns. But one has to, I guess, understand that that would be probably one of the first considerations of the people who designed driverless cars.
TUCKERRight. Exactly. So if they're not safe or safer than -- and they have to actually be, I think. And I think that Sebastian Thrun would agree with this. He said so publicly. They'd have to be not only safer than regular drivers statistically, they have to be a lot safer than regular drivers before you see something like really wide-scale adoption. And yet, I think that that potential is certainly there. So for these cars...
NNAMDIYeah. A lot people say, being a lot safer than regular drivers is not that difficult.
TUCKERRight. Exactly. So far this -- they've done about 300,000 miles of -- on these cars. And they get into an accident one about every six months, which is pretty mediocre. Let's be generous. Let's just say it's pretty mediocre, but they are improving exponentially, which is the amazing thing. Now, here's the weird thing about this is that safety is going to be a function of density.
TUCKERThat means that as you get much more of these driverless cars on the road, in that effect is that they all become much safer because they can communicate with one another about speed, about destination, about velocity in a way that, you know, individual hunks of metal being driven by angry primates cannot, right? 'Cause that's where -- this is the system that we have right now.
TUCKERWe have, you know, egotistical, emotional, you know, primates driving these extremely dangerous machines. So I completely agree with you. I think that that's definitely going to be an aspect of -- their adoption is making sure they're safer than what we've got now. I just think that that's something that is also inevitable.
NNAMDIThank you very much for you call, Ashley. We move on, therefore, to Jason in Burke, Va. Jason, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JASONHi, Kojo. I was wondering about the big data and so much data coming in to us and being available to us. I know -- I'm an educator, and I have lots of data about my students coming in all the time. And I have a difficult time sometimes analyzing that and then I analyze it. And I then have this paralysis about what to do. What's the best way to proceed? And with so much information coming in and available to us, is there research on how, you know, we are dealing with this analysis paralysis type of situation that potentially is out there, like we, you know...
NNAMDIYou seem to be suggesting, Patrick Tucker, that we now can develop analysis by way of algorithms.
TUCKERYeah. We can do a lot of different analysis of -- it's also different types of learning. I think that your caller brings up an extremely important point. We're in very early days of this. And right now, a lot of people that are trying to be -- to pioneer the field of IT in the classroom are just being confronted with massive amounts of data that they're not exactly sure how to deal with, exactly sure how to wait, exactly sure how its relevant to student performance.
TUCKERAnd the reason is because you are brave, and you are courageous, and you are taking on the challenge, so that the people that come behind you, the challenge will be less costly in terms of time and energy for them. So, first, thank you for even attempting it. But this is not to say that your frustration is necessarily going to be the way it's going to be in the future. I had a wonderful conversation with Andre Ng. He's the -- he's professor of machine learning at Stanford.
TUCKERAnd he has developed a enormous massively online course called Coursera. And what they're beginning to do right now is looking at all this telemetric information that students can create when they go online to take a course, where they stop a lesson, where they rewind it, where they speed ahead. He is doing the work in figuring out a machine learning algorithm to make that makes sense to educators.
TUCKERSo in the future, you would get -- instead of just a bunch of different unstructured data points that might be relevant, you would get a much clear understanding of how different students are interacting with different lessons, where their problem points are, what their learning style is, and that what's going to be just much more useful to you.
NNAMDIJason, thank you very much for your call. We're almost out of time, Patrick Tucker, but it may eventually be possible -- it's my understanding -- to harness noise vibrations and other low-level energy to power our gadgets. It's something researchers at Georgia Tech apparently are working on.
TUCKERRight. We are surrounded by energy that we're not actually using. So researchers at Georgia Tech are developing techniques for converting ambient microwave energy into DC power. And you could use that for small devices like wireless sensors, which is the most near application. University of Buffalo physicist Surajit Sen is studying ways to use different vibrations produced on roads in airport runaways as energy sources.
TUCKERI saw a couple of kids out of MIT a couple years ago that were using piezoelectrics in, like, subway platforms to power little bits of the subway station's operation. And piezoelectrics is just the energy of friction. So all of this energy that we created had been lost to the ether, and we're only now beginning to wake up to its existence. And it'll be part of our energy portfolio, small part portfolio.
NNAMDIWell, that -- well, my engineer is yelling at me that it's time to end the show. I can use that energy to power my mobile device. Patrick Tucker is deputy editor of The Futurist magazine. Thank you so much for joining us.
TUCKERHey, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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