Science and Technology

The Future of Apple Is the iPad 2


Matthew Yglesias makes a smart point about Apple and the iPad:

The iPad is already the market leader to such an extent that simply coming out with a better one doesn’t change the landscape. But if Apple’s supply chain allows them to ramp up production of a new high-end product while continuing to sell the iPad 2 in volume as a cheaper option, that shakes up the landscape.

Self-Driving Cars Can't Come Soon Enough

A thing of the past, eventually. (Flickr/huggs2)

So how long will it be before this whole "driving ourselves around in cars" thing is done with? Atrios predicts that "a whole lot of public money will be spent setting up a 'driverless car' system that will never actually work." Kevin Drum is much more optimistic — he predicts that "There will be a transition period that's likely to be messy—though probably no messier than today's all-human traffic nightmare—but eventually you won't even be allowed to drive a car. Every car on the road will be automated, and our grandchildren will be gobsmacked to learn that anything as unreliable as a human being was ever allowed to pilot a two-ton metal box traveling 60 miles an hour."

I'm with Kevin on this — technologically speaking, the ability for cars to drive themselves is coming really soon (see this recent article in Wired for a primer). Yes, it will be difficult to get to the fully automated system where the cars speak to the roads and to each other, but between here and there, there are many incremental steps that can and will be taken to get judgment out of human hands. The transition won't be because technology is inadequate but because it'll take time for the old dumb cars to wear out and be taken off the road. High-end cars already park themselves and override you in tricky traffic situations, and they're getting better every year. But I'd like to emphasize Kevin's point: people suck at driving. Not you, of course—you're a great driver! But as a group, we're just not up to it. Let's look at some data from the Transportation Department.

In 2009, the last year for which they appear to have data, there were 30,797 fatal car accidents in the United States. These crashes killed 24,474 vehicle occupants, 4,462 motorcyclists, 4,092 pedestrians, 630 bicycle riders, and 150 "unknown" people, for a total of 33,808 vehicle crash deaths. In other words, that's about a September 11 every month or so on our roads.

The good news is that these numbers have declined in the last couple of years—total deaths were over 43,000 in 2005. But they're still incredibly high. And think about it: do you know anyone who was killed or seriously injured in a car accident? I'll bet you do. The autonomous cars can't get here soon enough.

When the World Is Your iPhone

If your iPhone is the center of your existence, you might be wondering what life is going to look like in a couple of decades as this kind of technology advances. Corning, the company that you might associate with things like dishes, but these days makes things like the glass on that iPhone, has the answer. Unlike, say, Kodak—another large upstate New York-based company that flourished in the 20th century—Corning has managed to adapt to recent technological changes and find its niche (although it had a fourth quarter slump, the company is still extremely profitable). And guess what they think the future is: more glass! Everywhere! Just take a look at the glass-based techno-utopia they're promising in this video:

It may not turn out exactly like this, but it actually seems a pretty plausible projection of where we're headed. I'd be pretty surprised if 20 years from now we're still carrying around powerful computers in our pockets, each of which has huge amounts of storage space to hold software and things like music. It seems more likely that the devices themselves will become far simpler, providing little more than a connection—to a vastly more complex Internet, and to thousands of other devices in our homes, cars, the businesses we interact with, and so on, while most of the storage and actual computing is done in the cloud. This is what's known as "the Internet of things," when everything in our environments, from our phones to our toasters to our shoes to the ground we walk on, is all connected. In visions like Corning's, of course, it's all clean and friendly and full of wonder. What they don't show is a couple using their beautiful glass interface to go over their iTunes bill. All that cool stuff ain't gonna be free. And if you think there are privacy concerns now because Google is recording your web history, just wait until every step you take and interaction you have is instantly turned into trackable, sortable data.

Faster-Than-Light Travel Just Got That Much Harder

Of the theoretical means for achieving faster-than-light travel, the most plausible one is the “warp” drive, where a ship travels at superluminal speeds by creating a bubble of space behind it, while compressing the space in front of it. The ship would not move inside of the bubble, but would be carried along with it, like a wave. The upside of this is that it achieves FTL speeds while avoiding time dileation and other relativistic effects. In other words, you can travel across the galaxy and not worry that thousands of years have elapsed on Earth in your absence.

Copyright Fight Hits the Lab

The Research Works Act keeps the battle started by SOPA and PIPA in the headlines.

(AP Photo/ailatan)

This week, the scientific publishing giant Elsevier, which produces thousands of academic journals, and Representatives Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, and Darrell Issa, a California Republican, withdrew their support for the Research Works Act after public outcry from public-access advocates. Currently, some federal agencies require that researchers who rely on government funding make their resulting journal publications freely accessible online.

Today's Robot News

UPenn GRASP lab nano quadrotor

The geek superstars at the University of Pennsylvania's GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, & Perception) lab have taught their nano quadrotors—and if you know robots, you know that UPenn's are among the coolest of quadcopters—to play the James Bond theme. My judgment that this is awesome is unaffected by the fact that I went to grad school at UPenn. Just watch until the end for the guitar:

And Rick Santorum thinks college is for snobs!

Do You Know What Your Voter Wants to Hear?

Street view on Google maps still sort of wows me. I'm still not sure I'm prepared for the power of being able to see almost every house in America, block by block. So it's really no surprise that VoterMapping blew my mind. 

Education on the Cheap


Publicly funded online schools run by private companies have been controversial with teachers groups and some education advocates since they started to take off a few years ago. But the concept of educating kids by computer has a strong appeal—not just among lawmakers but also among portfolio managers and investors. The two biggest companies offering online education—K12, Inc. and Connections Academy—are both for-profit, and until recently K12 had been a stock-market favorite. But an article this week on Seeking Alpha, a major investment website, casts doubt on the long-term profitability of K12 in light of poor student results.

Smile For the Camera, Citizen

A taste of what's to come (Flickr/webjones)

The last few years have not been good to people who care deeply about privacy. Every few months, some new story comes to light about how corporations or government are gathering, sorting, and storing huge amounts of information about us, and after a brief spate of interest, people generally go back to what they were doing before. "My iPhone is tracking my movements? Wow, that's creepy. But is Siri awesome, or what? I can't wait for the iPhone 5..." But what if the invasion of your privacy was a little more physical? Alexis Madrigal suggests that when drone aircraft start buzzing over our houses, we may finally get off our duffs and demand some limits to the spying:

Drones, in my mind, make it clear how many of our feelings about privacy rest on the assumption that surveillance is time consuming or difficult. If someone smokes a joint in her backyard, she are making the (pretty good) calculation that a police officer is not watching. In our cars, we assume we can quickly send a text message at a red light or not wear our seatbelts for a few minutes or drive a few miles over the speed limit. We don't expect that someone is watching our every move and that gives the law some give, a bendiness that reflects it's a human construction...

Let's look at one example of how drones change the privacy equation. We tend to think of our homes as having a perimeter. Property maps are two-dimensional, we talk about property lines as if they were burned into the ground. There are access points in two-dimensional space -- paths and roads -- that channel visitors through a small number of places. We can build fences or plant hedges and they need not be high to mark the territory out.

A flying drone with a zoom lens, though, makes that whole sense of two-dimensional privacy an anachronism. If one wanted privacy from the government or other citizens, one would have to defend the entire volume of airspace reaching up from one's property to several hundred feet up, if not much farther. This vastly increases the cost of physically hiding one's activities.

Quite so. But if ordinary people are going to restrain the use of surveillance drones over our domestic airspace, we'd better get on it. Police departments that have spent the last decade militarizing their operations are champing at the bit to get some eyes in the sky -- think how helpful it could be to have a drone following a fleeing suspect, or hovering over a drug corner. Private companies are getting into the act too, for things like photographing properties for sale. And I'll bet it won't be long before corporations find all kinds of creating uses for drones, like tracking our movements and habits in public spaces to gain new insights into consumer behavior...

Q&A: What to Make of Facebook's IPO


Not being particularly tech-savvy, I've found following the Facebook-going-public news to be a bit perplexing. Sure, I know that the Internet behemoth just filed its IPO registration yesterday, revealing for the first time that the company has been profitable for three years and brought in $3.7 billion in revenue in 2011. But what does that mean? And what does Facebook's entry into the public market mean for the Internet? For Google? For the hundreds of millions who use the site?

Facebook Bares Its Soul

The company's initial public offering files reveal what its aspirations are, even as competitors play catch-up.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

"Facebook exists to make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company," Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg writes in the letter included in the initial public offering (IPO) filings his company deposited with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) yesterday. "These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits." Facebook's $5 billion IPO filing reveals much about the economics and inner workings of the company. You can read elsewhere for the specifics on that front.

Indiana Wades into the Culture Wars

Indiana is hardly a state known for its intense culture wars and political battles. Mostly, it's known for one of the greatest sports movies of all time. But this year, Indiana is entering territory usually occupied by places like Kansas and Texas. The state legislature is not only about to pass a controversial bill to decrease union power; a measure to teach creationism has already passed out of the state Senate's Education Committee.

Newt's Final Frontier

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA—I'm an avowed space nerd who would love nothing more than to see a human land on Mars during my lifetime. So last night's debate was the most entertaining for me of the unending series in this year's election. Thanks to vapid moderation from CNN's Wolf Blitzer, the majority of the debate was devoted to personal life questions better suited for Oprah's couch than a debate stage. He ended the night by asking the candidates why they were the most electable candidate, essentially requesting each of them to offer a shorter version of their usual stump speeches.

And Then There Was Light, Man

Mimicking a familiar format, Alan Lightman's Mr. g fails to create a unique world.

As an undergraduate student, in order to acquire financial aid, I agreed to take a special first-year seminar called The Creative Process. In the class, we discussed such questions as “What is art?” and, in more concrete form, “Why do we refer to the urinal in the bathroom as simply a place for waste when we call the urinal on the gallery wall a masterpiece?” Halfway through the semester, the professor, a 50-year-old woman with dyed-black, bobbed hair and a necklace that featured a grapefruit-size bust of Jack Skellington, instructed us to consume—to consume—the book Einstein’s Dreams, which, despite its name, was fiction. I did not have high expectations.

The End of the Internet?

As Wikipedia and Google protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a rival bill offers a middle road to protecting copyrights.

Nancy Scola/yfrog

Google featured a censored doodle in protest of proposed SOPA legislation Wednesday.