Archive for September, 2009

Surrogates: Life… Only Shallower

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 25, 2009 4:38 pm

surrogates_poster425The world of Surrogates, people venture forth into the world via sleek and sexy avatars from the comfort of elaborate wireless hookups in their bedrooms. Life…Only Better goes the technology tagline. In theory, the scene won’t take place for another half century – unless you’re watching the film in Los Angeles, in which case it all looks strikingly familiar.

Surrogates – which opens today – stars Bruce Willis as a police detective trying to track down the killer with a weapon that can disable avatars while simultaneously killing their users. While his avatar is younger, stronger and has a full head of hair, back home, he’s lost the connection with his wife, who only interacts as an avatar.

The cautionary tale looks at a technology that’s meant to give mobility and a new lease on life to the wheelchair-bound or hideously disfigured and has been usurped by a pleasure-seeking populace. Think Second Life on acid. It’s easier to shell-out money for an avatar than a gym membership.

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District 9: Smart Guns That Read Your DNA

By Eric Wolff | September 15, 2009 12:26 pm

It’s not much of a spoiler to say the aliens in District 9 have the snazziest trigger lock around. The Prawns, as they are known in the movie, have some strange ideas for safety, though. Their trigger lock is DNA-encoded not to keep little Prawns away from dangerous gear, but to prevent any other species from activating the weapons. (That’s the sort of detail that raises all sorts of questions about just who the Prawns were fighting that they needed this kind of security, and whether the enemy also had DNA-locked rifles.)

While the Prawns seem to have mastered DNA-detecting technology, it remains a bit beyond our reach out here in the real, human world. But that may be the next big frontier in biometrics. Because, let’s face it, the typical kinds of biometric security used in of the lairs of movie super-villains isn’t science-fiction anymore—it’s reality.

Fingerprint scan? We can do that on a laptop, or even a mere thumb drive. Palm scan? Pssh. Placing a hand on the scanner is passé. Retinal scan? Of course. Facial recognition? Voice recognition? Done and done. All of these different biometrics has been exploited by security companies trying to make money in a world where verifying authenticity is becoming an increasing problem. But the biological signature big business and national governments really want to capture is DNA. Unlike our faces and voices, it never changes. Unlike our fingerprints, it’s very difficult to fake. And except for identical twins, it’s totally unique to each individual (and it may soon be possible to distinguish even identical twins [pdf]). Because this technology would be so valuable, everyone from the Austrian national government to major corporations is toiling away (pdf) in their R&D departments to  develop a DNA biometric lock.

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Robots! Clean Your Drives Daily: PSA's from the Future

By Sam Lowry | September 8, 2009 4:24 pm


Via Hero Complex come these ingenious public service announcements and travel posters from a near future in which time travel is possible and robots are self-cleaning.  Designed by artist Amy Martin, the posters are $20 each and proceeds benefit 826LA, a non-profit writing center for kids 6 to 18.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Robots, Time Travel

The Elegant Way to Save Earth From Asteroid Destruction

By Eric Wolff | September 4, 2009 5:10 pm

The one fact in Deep Impact that we can all agree on is that we should not allow the Earth to get hit by a large meteor. Depending on its size, it could potentially destroy anything from a city to the entire planet. And nations it doesn’t destroy outright would still have to deal with big atmospheric and weather problems caused by dust and debris. General badness all around.

Where common sense and the film divide is just how best to dodge an oncoming meteor. I wrote a while back on the idea of painting one side of the asteroid black while beaming heat onto it, causing the asteroid to shift course. It’s a neat idea, but not nearly as neat as the gravity tractor, not just because this approach is more elegant, but because there’s a British company called EADS Astrium that announced last week that they could actually build one if it were needed.

solar-sail.jpgThe idea for the tug first proposed by NASA scientists Edward Lu and Stanley Love in a paper in Nature in 2005. The pair realized that sure, we could change an asteroid’s course by docking a rocket onto the asteroid and pushing it, but landing on an asteroid is really hard: The asteroid is an extremely fast-moving target, and often it rotates asymmetrically around its axis, meaning that a lumpy part of the asteroid could smash a relatively teeny rocket in its rotational path. But, the scientists argued, the spaceship could hover 200 meters or more above the asteroid and use their mutual gravitational attraction to form a “towline” between the two. Then ship could use its own propulsion to slowly pull the asteroid to another course. It would have to push very gently to avoid breaking the bond and flying away, but over the course of 15 to 20 years, the asteroid could be persuaded to miss our planet.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Apocalypse, Astronomy

Can You Feel Me Now?

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 4, 2009 4:49 pm

Not surprisingly, the latest big trend in communication (social media) has spawned the latest big trend in market research: sentiment analysis, the art/science of using Internet and social media chatter to gauge public feeling about a company.

Consultants like Newssift, ScoutLabs, and Jodange use complex algorithms to scan keywords in remarks about corporations made on Twitter and Facebook, then categorize them as positive or negative via filters—the companies say they can even parse sarcasm, slang, and other linguistic nuances. Filters can sift through levels of positivity/negativity, intensity. Some can also identify more influential opinions from those social-media hubs and tastemakers. As the tech becomes increasingly sophisticated, it may become more prevalent in standard search engines or predict future developments like stock price fluctuations.

Companies are interested in measure online opinion, of course, because the perception of the company or its products can have a strong effect on its chances for success. They’ve also used the approach to sort out technical or customer service glitches.

More casual users who don’t want to sink money into a professional system can tap simpler versions like Tweetfeel, Twendz, and Twitrratr for topic-based opinions.

—Guest-blogger Susan Karlin

Codex Futurius: When Houses Grow on Trees

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 3, 2009 6:24 pm

Yes. It’s true. After a little summer slow-down, it is time for the return of the Codex Futurius, this blog’s never-ending quest to explore the big science of science fiction. This question on futuristic materials was fielded by Sidney Perkowitz, a physicist at Emory University. Thanks much to Dr. Perkowitz for the solid (ha) info and to Jennifer Ouellette, the director the NAS’ Science and Entertainment Exchange (SEEx) program, for connecting us with him.

Will we use metal in the future? What else would we build things out of? Might we use organic technology (machines and buildings made of or from biological organisms) instead?”
In The Graduate, that iconic film from 1967, bewildered 20-something Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) gets some career advice from a businessman who leans close and intones “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” Benjamin didn’t follow that advice, but the rest of the world did, and in spades. By 1979, global production of plastic had exceeded that of steel and is still growing, reaching over 200 million tons this year. There’s no doubt that plastic will continue to play a major role in how we make things, but it won’t replace everything.

In some ways, plastic is the material of the future, the latest step in humanity’s long upward trek through the ages of stone, bronze, iron, and steel. The word “plastic” comes from Greek roots meaning “capable of being molded.” Compared to metals and other materials, plastic is infinitely versatile. With its ability to shape-shift and to take on different mechanical and optical properties, it shows up in a huge spectrum of applications from packaging and plumbing to toys, medical supplies, and computers. And unlike iron and steel, plastic doesn’t rust.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Codex Futurius, Materials

Canadian Mathematicians Model Zombie Outbreak

By Sam Lowry | September 3, 2009 5:46 pm

Maybe because I’m still watching the True Blood Season 1 DVD and have to hold my ears whenever it comes up in conversation, but I think the vampire phenomenon has sort of played itself out.

I predict we’re going to look back at the release of the original, Swedish Let the Right One In as the vampires’ artistic high point.  I also predict that the release of the American version will mark the end of the whole bloody, sexy craze.

So what’s next for fans of the undead?  Zombies.

Anticipating public demand for a government response to the growing threat, mathematicians at the University of Ottawa have published an epidemiological model of an outbreak of zombie infection. [viaTalking Squid]

This comes just a few months after the Boston Police confirmed via Twitter that they would promptly inform the public in the event of a zombie attack.  [via Consumerist]

And we’re just one month away from the release of the new Woody Harrelson movie Zombieland.  I’m telling you, people.  Zombies.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Mathematics
MORE ABOUT: Zombieland, Zombies

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