I was pleased this spring to join 5 other leading futurists as resident advisers on the future for Fast Company and their online endeavor FastCo Exist. We are called The Futurist Forum and our task is to imagine the future. The image above is a page from the May 2013 edition of Fast Company Magazine introducing the 6 experts to the magazine’s readers.
We each will be contributing articles periodically and participating in webcasts and online conversations. You can find my initial piece here, on the future of transportation. I highlight the prospects for solar roadways and a magnetic induction system for buses from the Wave company.
Check out the other’s in this forum, as they have very interesting things to say.
Screenshot: The Veronica Mars Movie Kickstarter page
I’m amazed to see the impressive things being funded on Kickstarter lately. Veronica Mars fans everywhere broke Kickstarter records by garnering support from 91,585 backers to revive the cancelled-too-early-TV-show for a Veronica Mars Movie. With over 63,000 backers, OUYA raised over $8.5M to create a TV game console, powered by Android and open for all app developer contributions. The system is inexpensive, crowdfunded and open-sourced, which to me confirms the exciting declaration on OUYA’s Kickstarter page: “The possibilities are limitless.”
The idea of crowdsourcing as an endless source of possibility swept over me again when I found this Kickstarter for microprocessors the size and cost of a pack of gum. This exciting project was funded by 709 eager backers for more than $23,000 over the initial goal. A campaign for microprocessors doesn’t seem too exciting until you dig into the details:
This ultra-low cost development platform for micro-robotics can be easily assembled with through-hole components and a soldering iron
The purpose of this Kickstarter is to make a platform for future projects in the Robotics club, which will be documented and made open source for everyone to share
What if everyone had easy and inexpensive access to making their own microprocessors? What will we be able to achieve in minutes, without even leaving the house? What if we get to vote for the media we want to consume and fund the startups we want to see created? In this era of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, we’re customizing more and more of our lives and it’s getting easier and easier to do. I’m excited to see projects like these succeed because they remind me that it’s not only possible for us to create our own customized futures for ourselves, but it’s seems likely that one day it will be probable.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to share a few ideas about the future of transportation, and the future in which transportation will take place, to the 2013 Texas Transportation Forum. I will share the whole presentation in a bit, but one of the slides I used had the classic Arctic ice map from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. It was the map from September 16, 2012 when the ice reached its lowest level recorded since measurements have been made, after the summer melt.
The point I was making was that the loss of Arctic ice is hypothesized to be related to unusual behavior in the jet stream, namely leading it to dip further south, and to get stuck in fixed positions for longer periods of time. This then contributes to longer heat and cold waves, longer droughts and rain storms, and so on. Thus, I suggested not terribly originally that future transportation systems must be planned to be more resilient, and of course I implied that they ought to be less carbon intensive.
What I did not note is a fact that I’ve been aware of but came across again today, that it is not just the area of ice that is declining through the years of observation, but even more dramatically, the volume of ice. That is, each summer the ice melts and in most summers more of the ice melts than previously. Each winter the ice re-freezes. But at the end of the freezing season, the ice is not as thick as previously, and thus is easier to melt in the next melt season. It is only recently that we’ve been able to monitor ice thickness and volume using the ESA CryoSat 2 space craft which uses “a high-resolution synthetic aperture radar altimeter, which fires pulses of microwave energy down towards the ice” and thus enable measurements of ice thickness.
The findings are pretty startling. A recent report summarized at the University of Washington concludes that “the summer minimum in Arctic sea ice is one-fifth of what it was in 1980…” The area of ice has fallen by half, but the total volume even more.
The Arctic is a canary in the coal mine. There is great uncertainty about what an ice free late summer in the Arctic will mean. Release of methane? Harsher storms? We apparently are going to find out in the coming decades. One thing it does not mean, by the way, is easier access to oil. It turns out that an Arctic with less ice is more dangerous to drilling rigs and oil platforms. Why? Because while pack ice is dangerous enough, less ice means very large pieces of ice floating and moving more quickly than in the past. It also means more stormy seas. So the Artic may turn out to be more difficult to fully exploit for fossil fuels than currently assumed (and yes, I am sure we all get the multiple levels of irony.)
To help us visualize the loss of ice volume Andy Lee Robinson has produced a nice little video showing the progression.
Within the last 24-hours two rather amazing announcements have been made about proof of concept breakthroughs in the future of digital data storage. First, MIT announced a successful experiment with molecular storage using a “supramolecule” consisting of graphene (a substance we are going to be hearing more and more about in new materials) attached to zinc atoms. The resulting structure is made of molecules one nanometer in size, and capable of storing a terabyte of data per square inch, a 1000-times leap above today’s performance.
Graphene fragments attached to zinc atoms. Graphic by Christine Daniloff, MIT
At the same time, researchers at the EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute announced success in using DNA to store digital data. In their approach, artificially created DNA has been programed to store data ranging from an mp3 of the Martin Luther King “Dream” speech, to jpeg photos, to a pdf of the Watson and Crick original paper on DNA, and then these kind of data have been successfully decoded from the DNA. The DNA with this material encoded looks like a bit of dust, say the researchers. Since, as the researchers point out, DNA is known to last in good form for thousands of years, this approach may provide a remarkably stable form of data storage, requiring no power, and only requiring a machine that can read DNA to decode, a technology that is likely to exist so long as humans do. DNA can also store huge amounts of data – a cup of DNA could store 100 million hours of high definition video.
The amount of data in the world in increasing rapidly, and people want and need ready access. Plus, the challenge of storing digital information for a long time is one that has not been solved yet and needs an urgent solution. Perhaps in these experiments we see pathways to the future of data storage.
Both developments were published the in Journal Nature; the links here are to primary announcement sources.