Category Archives: The Modern World

Up-to-the-minute factual stuff, from the front lines of humanity’s evolution.

Screenshot of Meta smartglasses promo

It’s 2014: Welcome to the Future

There’s a buzz in the January air, and it’s the feeling of the future.

I noticed something in 2013. For the first time in my experience, there were tangible moments when the future — in all its strange, heady, tech-infused, rapidly-accelerating unusualness — felt like it was really happening. It didn’t seem just around the corner, or the province of a distant tomorrow that you had to squint to perceive. The future was here, now, all around me.

For a moment. Then, quickly, it was back to business as usual in the mundane present. However, a heck of a lot of futuristic things happened in 2013. It occurred to me that this experience of the future will become more and more ubiquitous as technology, science, and society evolve rapidly. I have a hunch that, in 2014, many more people will begin to feel that they are living in the future.

So, without further ado, here is what’s coming in 2014 that will make you feel like science fiction isn’t so, well, fictitious anymore: Continue reading It’s 2014: Welcome to the Future

Screenshot of Siri's response to "Are you a robot?"

When Robots Lie

Last week, a particularly weird piece of artificial intelligence news made a splash in the internet ocean. TIME magazine’s Washington bureau chief Michael Scherer got a phone call from a telemarketer named Samantha West, who was selling health insurance. She was friendly and cheerful, but something about her bugged Scherer.

“Are you a robot?” he asked her.

With a little laugh, she insisted that she was a real person. Still, something was off. Scherer pressed her on several points that would have been simple to an ordinary human being, but Samantha — or Samantha-bot — was unable to answer. Later, other TIME reporters called her back. Here are the conversations they had:

Now, as it turns out, Samantha West is not precisely a robot. The company “employing” her revealed a couple days ago to TIME that Samantha West is simply a soundboard of pre-recorded statements and questions, which is operated by a live human. The technology does not yet exist to build a stand-alone bot capable of what Samantha West does over the phone. Though automated, she is not autonomous, and therein lies a small difference.

But Samantha West grabbed my curiosity nonetheless. After hearing her story, my mother and I played around with Apple’s virtual assistant Siri on the iPad, who is most definitely a robot. However, Siri refused to admit this when we asked, making evasive statements like, “I’m an assistant. Isn’t that all that matters?” and “I don’t really like these arbitrary categories.”

I set out to discover if this was just a fluke, or if there are other chatbots around that also do not acknowledge they are robots. Continue reading When Robots Lie


Think you that our technology is so impressive?

Ponder this: The mightiest ship that mankind has ever sailed across the seven seas is put to shame by the humble coconut.

A coconut palm
Image via El Bibliomata on Flickr. Reused under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license.

Continue reading Coconuts

Noisy book with sound effects.

Noisy Books

Some technologies can ruin the very thing they try to improve.

I happened across one of these recently. The conquest of e-readers, tablets, laptops, smartphones, and their ilk over the bound and printed book means that authors can do a lot more things in their e-books than traditional books permitted. They can embed images, video, expandable notes, links between chapters, interactive content, and other obvious things to enhance the text. And, less obviously, they could include sound.

Not merely sound such as, “Here’s a recording of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech to go along with this chapter on the civil rights movement.” Sound such as, “Here is a soundtrack for the book”. Author Nathan Bransford tipped me off to this in his recent blog post Sound effects for books?, which mentions a company, Booktrack, that offers this ability. On Booktrack, users can assemble an audio track from music and other sounds to accompany a text, either their own writing or one from Booktrack’s public domain library. The completed book and audio can then be published for all the world to read and hear.

My immediate reaction to the idea was, “Ugh, no.” However, since I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, I pointed my browser to Booktrack and explored a few of the texts. After ten minutes I was done, wholly convinced: audio accompaniment to a book is a horrible idea. Continue reading Noisy Books

When we predict everything, what if we’re wrong?

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Bierce was being funny when he wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, but his definition of history seems pretty well on target. Or so we might think, given the usual portrayal of history as the speeches, battles, and poor-to-middling decisions of kings, beggars, and senators making the same mistakes over and over again.

That “over and over again” is a problem. If history were just about the decisions of individual human beings, we’d expect their actions to look like chaos on all scales. That doesn’t happen. We see plenty of chaotic behavior in normal life, but the further we zoom out, and the larger the time scale we examine, the more regular and repetitive history appears. To explain this regularity, people have proposed plenty of theories of history, ranging from the reasonable to the bizarre. One problem with most of them is that they tend to be qualitative, or concept-based, rather than quantitative, or based on consistent relationships between numerical data. When you’re trying to systematically predict or describe events, a quantitative theory goes a lot further than a qualitative one.

So I was pleasantly surprised several days ago, when I stumbled across this post on the Long Now Foundation‘s blog: Conway’s Game of Life and Three Millennia of Human History. The post briefly describes a remarkable computer simulation of 3,000 years of Eurasian history, recently conducted by ecologist Peter Turchin and his colleagues.

Simulation? History? That means a quantitative model. I was curious.  I dove into Turchin’s report, which you can read here, along with its supporting documents.

Turchin and company created their simulation very simply: they took a map of Africa and Eurasia and chopped it up into “cells” of 100 kilometers square. Each cell was classified as sea or land; land cells were assigned elevation and further classified as desert, steppe, or agricultural land. Every agricultural cell was supplied with a “community” that could possess two types of social traits: military technology and ultrasociality. (Ultrasociality, as the study defines it, is humans’ “ability to live and cooperate in huge groups of genetically unrelated individuals.”) Agricultural cells were randomly populated with ultrasociality traits, while military technology traits were granted initially to cells bordering the steppe, and spread outward from there (a way to simulate the effect of the steppe highway on the transmission and development of military techniques, most notably mounted warfare). The cells were programmed to attack their neighbors. Victorious cells built multi-cell empires, imposing their ultrasociality traits on the vanquished. Victory was more probable over cells with low elevations and fewer ultrasociality and military technology traits than their attackers. Continue reading When we predict everything, what if we’re wrong?

LAPCAT A2 - a supersonic plane - in flight.

Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 3

This is the final post in a series of three exploring the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The first post, discussing regional transportation, is here; the second post examined ideas for local transit.

In this series of posts, I have described possibilities for how people will travel over short-to-medium distances perhaps twenty or thirty years from now. Locally (meaning within a metropolitan area), my bets are on personal rapid transit in the form of podcars (perhaps suspended from guideways like SkyTran) and self-driving taxis. To travel greater distances, between cities in heavily-populated regions, I’ve predicted that we will use something betweeen tube capsules, like in Elon Musk’s Hyperloop idea, and high-speed rail.

But what about traveling long distances, such as between New York and Los Angeles, or London and Hong Kong? Global transportation is the final tier of future transit technologies. More importantly, when we behold the full picture of local, regional, and global transportation, broad trends emerge that whisper of how we will live and travel in the middle of the 21st century.

Imagine, for a moment, that it’s 2035, and you’re preparing to travel to Shanghai, Dubai, Buenos Aires, or some other city on the opposite side of the globe, across continents and oceans. Today, you would almost certainly be boarding an airplane for a not-very-comfortable sixteen-hour sojourn in a cramped seat. For most destinations in the world, I doubt this will change by 2035, and perhaps never will, unless teleportation becomes a reality. (Sorry.) But, to connect certain important regions, pairs of the so-called “global cities“, new methods may appear. Continue reading Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 3

Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 2

This is the second post in a series of three about the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The first post is here; the third will be published in a few days.

Decades ago, clever people conceived that north-central New Mexico, where I live, could use commuter rail service along the Rio Grande. In 2003, governor Bill Richardson espoused the idea, and over the next five years, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express was planned, built, and opened—with great fanfare. Today, Rail Runner trains whiz every couple hours along a line running from Belen, north through Albuquerque, and up to my home city of Santa Fe. I have never been on one.

Why not? After all, I like trains! I also visit Albuquerque regularly for errands and pleasure. The problem is the location of the stations. In Albuquerque, the rail line runs through older residential and agricultural areas, with the main station downtown: not an optimal situation for this city. Albuquerque is big, sprawling north, south, east and west for miles. Important areas in the city are far apart. The Rail Runner has established bus links to several of these points, and desperate travelers could always call a cab. But taxicabs and buses are slow and expensive, and for someone, like me, who may want to spend the day in Albuquerque, do some errands, and return home in the evening, these options are slow and unforgiving.

This illustrates a decisive factor of regional-scale transport: as nice as the service between cities may be, if it leaves you with few options at either end, the service becomes essentially useless to many people. This is a problem today, and it will be a problem for futuristic systems, like the Hyperloop, that would connect not just towns and cities, but whole metropolitan areas. In my previous post discussing Hyperloop-style transit systems, I speculated how new technologies might change regional transportation, as speed becomes increasingly important to travelers. What happens, twenty years from now, when you disembark from a Hyperloop-inspired capsule, and need to reach your destination several miles away, cheaply and quickly? This is the domain of local transit, and it demands speed and efficiency at least as much as the regional variety. There are a few developing technologies that might foot the future’s bill, and mix things up along the way. Continue reading Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 2

sketch of Elon Musk's alpha design of the Hyperloop

Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 1

This is the first post in a series of three about the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The next two will be published over the coming week.

You’ve probably heard about the Hyperloop. Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, made public his concepts for the futuristic transit system eleven days ago, and it has attracted at least as much attention as real megaprojects towards which investors have paid cold, hard cash. First, there was gushing praise and excitement at such a techno-romantic idea, then the critics showed up en masse, armed with those lethal anti-imagination weapons: accounting books and technical data. Who is right? They both are. The Hyperloop proposal itself has flaws, but as an idea, it can tell us a lot about how we might be traveling during the next century.

I won’t bore you with a detailed description of the Hyperloop (I recommend you read Musk’s actual proposal for that), or an involved treatment of its faults (the best I have seen is Alon Levy’s careful analysis over at Pedestrian Observations). Instead, in this and two subsequent posts, I will take you on a tour of possibilities for the future of transportation, and how they might integrate with and transform our society. The Hyperloop’s design offers a nice place to start.

Elon Musk’s inspirations for the Hyperloop appear to have been (merited) frustration with California’s halting, expensive high-speed-rail project, and wanting to seek out a “new mode of transport – a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars and boats” that would be safer, faster, cheaper, more durable, more convenient, and more sustainable than current options. Continue reading Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 1

When we’re all iPeople

Two days ago, I came across this video of Marshall Davis Jones performing his poem “Touchscreen”. It struck me powerfully, both by the vigor of his expression onstage and by the incisiveness of his message about technology. Watch it yourself before you read on:

That was in 2011—merely two years ago. Today, technology has grown even more intimate with our personal experience and interactions. Google Glass is a real thing now, smartwatches are arriving at an online store near you, and there’s worry that the family television, one of the last remaining centers of regular familial activity, will be replaced by the screens of single-user devices. We are experiencing a greater and greater chunk of our lives not directly, nor in the physical company of others, but through our ever-present gadgets. Continue reading When we’re all iPeople