Featured Image - PackBot

Featured Company - Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics, originating from MIT, is a current developer of cutting edge robotics. This company is known for its DARPA-funded research, and it continues to produce products that are likely to revolutionize military operations in the future.

Over the last several years, Boston Dynamics' most popular project has been BigDog, a four-legged robot designed as a twenty-first century pack mule for soldiers. Amazingly, this robot can walk over very uneven terrain and even stabilize itself when pushed sideways. BigDog can carry over 300 pounds of whatever a soldier needs: weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, maybe even a wounded soldier. While BigDog is impressive, DARPA wants even more capability for a final design, calling the desired product a Legged Squad Support System (LS3). Boston Dynamics is working on a prototype for the LS3 which it calls AlphaDog. The goal is a robot that can carry 400 pounds, function with minimal noise, and walk twenty miles without refueling.

The most impressive project today is definitely the PETMAN, or Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin. This humanoid robot is over five feet tall and about 180 pounds in weight. It was designed for testing military uniforms, but we all know how versatile the human body can be. Perhaps terminators and robot butlers are not so distant a possibility. After all, would it be so strange for people to prefer robots to fight wars rather than friends and family members? And might wealthy families invest in upgradable, tireless android servants instead of traditional domestic workers?


Metamaterials are no longer the only option for invisibility. For years that technology has been the source of hope for some future invisibility cloak, but so far only certain frequencies of light can be affected. Carbon nanotubes, on the other hand, can be used to bend all frequencies of visible light right now. Researchers at the University of Texas have used a sheet of carbon nanotubes to artificially create the mirage effect.

The mirage effect can often be seen on hot days when the sun heats paved roads. Sometimes you can see a puddle of water far down a road, but you know it is just an illusion. How does it happen? The air in contact with the pavement is much hotter than surrounding air. This temperature difference bends light so that instead of seeing the road, you see a warped image of the sky (which closely resembles reflecting water). Wherever there is an extreme temperature difference, there will be this mirage effect. The metallic bodies of cars can effectively heat the air around them, but carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are better. When an electric current passes through a sheet of CNTs, heat is quickly produced and dissipated. In the demonstration video, water was used instead of air. Like flicking a switch, the mirage effect can be activated and deactivated at will. This is a very convenient quality of the technology.
The CNTs seem a preferable alternative to metamaterials. The main drawbacks are excessive heat and possibly limited angles of cloaking. On the positive side, CNTs are much more durable than metamaterials and can bend all colors at once. Metamaterials have difficulty bending more than one color of light at a time. Indeed, it is hard to make a metamaterial that works with visible light at all. Rather than a small sheet, imagine a blanket of CNTs. With the press of a button that blanket becomes a personal wall of invisibility. With some advanced insulation on the inner side, the blanket might be able to hide a person, small car, or other item of interest. The main obstacles to this dream are the high cost of producing CNTs and supplying the energy necessary for what is essentially a high-tech electric heater.

Featured Image - Tractography


Video games often present players with virtual worlds that can be explored and manipulated. Playful exploration is a key aspect of the learning and creative processes. Just think about how difficult it is to learn when you are bored. If you are having fun, like playing a new game, you tend to learn rules and strategies much more easily. As young children playing is our primary occupation, but, as we progress through public schooling, our method of learning is forced to become quiet listening and frantic memorization. The lack of exploration and experimentation stifles creativity in students. Video games provide environments where experimentation and exploration are highly encouraged and beneficial. Is it any wonder that so many kids hate school and love video games?

Virtual worlds allow a player to take risks, explore freely, and test the rules that govern how those worlds function. The interactivity of video games can make players more engaged and mentally stimulated than quietly sitting in a classroom. Players have to act, observe any reactions, hypothesize appropriate courses of action, and act again to achieve goals set by the games. All this thinking and focus is good exercise for the brain, and it improves problem solving ability.

The demanding hand-eye coordination required for some video games is also a good thing. Some surgeons actually play video games to prepare for surgery with very satisfying results. First-person shooters, while sometimes criticized for their violence, improve hand-eye coordination and reaction times for players. Perhaps martial artists should play video games, and vice versa, for synergistic benefits.

The Nintendo Wii has become a fun tool for physical fitness. No longer sitting on the couch, Wii players are up and moving—burning calories in front of the TV instead of gaining them. Dance Dance Revolution has been a popular video game that also has its players exercising and having fun at the same time. Now the Xbox 360 Kinect is encouraging exercise in the living room. With its visual feedback of the player, the Kinect helps correct posture and body movement. This could be an invaluable tool for learning martial arts, yoga, dancing, etc.

Even creating video games can be beneficial. There is the obvious benefit of earning money. The video game industry earns tens of billions of dollars a year in the United States alone. To make a good game, collaboration is needed between artists, programmers, marketers, writers, and many more talented people. Programming is a good way to hone one's logic, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.

Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) allow players to meet other people from around the globe and communicate with them in real time. Players make friends, improve social skills, and sometimes even experience romance via video games. Some players even end up marrying people they meet in MMOs.

Playing video games can be a source of income as well as a hobby. There is a definite need for players to test games for bugs and glitches before they are sold to the public. Gaming competitions often reward winners with cash and other prizes. People have even created virtual economies in online games such as Second Life. People design virtual merchandise that is purchased by players with real world money.

Video games can also enhance school learning. Young children are often given simple games that challenge their math, spelling, and other skills. Yet, older kids playing video games is viewed with a very different attitude. There is a lot of unseen potential for games being applied to adolescents' education. Reading from a textbook can be boring for many students. Video games often introduce players to new ideas and give unique perspectives on events which can make textbook content feel more relevant. For instance, the game Age of Empires allows one to control small armies, manage resources, and strategize attacks against opposing civilizations. Reading about Sir William Wallace's exploits is much more interesting after virtually leading his troops into battle. The numerous World War II games create a similar interest in their period of history. Maybe future games will be embraced by teachers as interactive means to educate students.

There are plenty of reasons why video games are beneficial. The negative aspects of gaming should not be overlooked (perhaps the most prevalent one is addiction) but any human activity has its occasional shortcomings. With the proper attitude and ingenuity, video games should greatly benefit their players.


Steve Jobs is no longer with us. His absence will be felt by countless people, as this man has left many astounding marks on the pages of history. He helped create the personal computer industry and made computers more user-friendly. After driving his company to greatness, he was fired from it and later returned to make it great again. He was honored with a medal by President Reagan. He brought us the iPod, a device that has become an integral part of American culture. Apple's computers have been symbols of individuality and creativity. The iPad might fundamentally change how people view and use computers from now on. His demand for greatness from both himself and his company created an air of excellence and uniqueness that few people have. What direction will the tech industries take now that he is gone? Who could to hope to fill the gap left from his death? How will Apple continue to innovate without his direction?


It would be amazing to record your thoughts with a computer, would it not? The continuing efforts of researchers at UC Berkeley are making that possibility more feasible every year. Their latest experiment involves reconstructing videos based on fMRI readings. First a subject is shown various movie trailers while their brain is scanned. A computer correlates patterns in the fMRI data with visual patterns in the trailers. For part two of the experiment, the subject watches movie trailers while being scanned again. This time, however, the computer analyzes millions of seconds of YouTube videos to find clips that closely match the brain scan data. The matching clips are overlapped into a single video that very roughly resembles what the subject was viewing.

So far the clarity of the reconstructed videos is extremely limited. But the scientists' work is still quite astonishing. They can create videos of what people see just by scanning their brains! In the future this should result in the ability to create videos just by imagining them and clicking record on a computer. That would create quite a stir on YouTube. Recording dreams would fulfill a longtime wish for many. Perhaps within the next few decades there will be a slim headset that one puts on before going to bed. In the morning, a nearby computer has wirelessly received the brain activity information and generated an easily watched video file. After watching your own dream with the benefit of wakefulness, you might upload it to YouTube, email it to your psychiatrist, or just file it away for later viewing.

There are still a few obstacles to get through before we can do all that. First of all, MRI machines take up most of a room, and being scanned by one is like laying in a coffin. Researchers at the University of Toronto are working on using ultrasound headsets to scan brain activity, but sonic waves are not yet as capable as magnetic ones. Another limitation is that fMRI and ultrasound collect data on blood flow in the brain, not the electric and chemical signals between neurons. This is an indirect way of scanning thoughts, and it will always mean a delay between when a thought occurs and when the equipment actually detects it. An ideal setup would be a headset that can scan for the signals between neurons instead of measuring blood flow. 

UPDATE (09-29-11): Swiss and Japanese researchers are working on cars that can read a driver's thoughts, such as knowing that a right turn is coming up.


As quickly as technology improves our security, it also endangers our privacy. Over the course of human history, one persistent dream has been that of flight. People enjoy watching birds soar through the air, and many marvel at Superman's aerobatic abilities. The Wright brothers used technology to achieve this dream, but technology might soon turn the open air into a source of fear instead of aspiration.

Take the ingenious Nano Hummingbird (from AeroVironment), for instance. With a built-in camera it could effectively aid humans in discovering hidden terrorists and trapped disaster victims. But in the wrong hands it could be used to spy on unsuspecting civilians. It can hover in front of windows to observe from a distance, or, if the window is open just enough, it could enter a room and land in a dark corner for longer periods of surveillance.

Another looming threat is a small quadrocopter with the ability to hack wireless networks. The toy-sized robot, named SkyNET (yes, that is its real name) by its creators, was demonstrated at WOOT '11 last month. The SkyNET drone can fly around a neighborhood via remote control. Once its target is found, it can land on the roof of a house or building near the wireless network. Then the drone uses on-board software to hack the network. Worst of all, the drone can use the compromised computers to form a botnet, adding to the resources of the person in control of SkyNET. If that was not enough, the drone can also track cellphones. All this, and the SkyNET drone costs just a few hundred dollars to build.

The SmartBird (by Festo) is a wondrous feat of engineering. Like the Nano Hummingbird it could be used for surveillance, especially scouting uneven terrain. If it were solar-powered, it might even be used to take close-up footage of migrating birds. Disguised among a flock of geese, it could also scan neighborhoods and stalk unwitting travelers.

Lastly, the figurative “fly on the wall” may soon become literal reality. Researchers at Harvard are designing robots that fly like insects and are of similar size. In recent years DARPA has been funding the development of mind-controlled insects. So far scientists have implanted computer chips in large beetles that enable remote control of their flight direction. With ever-shrinking electronics, it would not be too surprising to see remote-controlled flies in the next decade or so. What if they did this with stinging insects? As one commenter pointed out on Popular Science, an augmented wasp or bee might make the perfect assassination weapon. Scientists have also developed a tiny generator that harvests energy from an insect's beating wings to power the mind-control chip. In fact, the generator provides a surplus of energy. With a little electricity to spare, what else might DARPA want to add to these cyborg bugs? A camera, microphone, or tracking device? In the future, when espionage agents talk about bugs, they will mean real live bugs. 

 UPDATE (09-28-11): It seems the statement about a flock of geese was prophetic. The Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, in Switzerland, is developing UAVs that are programmed to fly in flocks, just like geese. 

UPDATE (09-29-11): UC Berkeley has a couple of robots that fly like giant insects. 

Featured Image - Global Hawk

Featured Image - Ooh, technology!



Finally, a major step towards flexible display screens has been made. UCLA has developed a stretchy sheet of plastic that glows blue when given an electric current. It is a combination of carbon nanotubes and polymer layers. The future possibilities for this kind of technology are endless. The first thing that comes to my mind is a super-portable, resilient computer screen. Imagine a newspaper that plays videos, and you get the idea. As smartphones become more and more capable, it might be convenient to keep an external monitor in your pocket. As you sip your morning coffee, you could pull out a folded-up sheet of plastic. Unfold it, plug it into your iPhone, and have the iPhone download the latest news stories to be displayed like an old-fashioned newspaper. Better yet, go to YouTube, and you have videos playing on a high-definition display. If touch-sensitivity was included, then you could fold the sheet in half for a makeshift laptop. The flexible screen would serve as keyboard and monitor, and the iPhone would do all the computing.

There are other exciting applications, too. Think about safety—construction workers and other people exposed to traffic dangers. Instead of vests that reflect light, they could wear ones that glow in the dark like neon signs. Traffic cones that glow, too. Clothes with computer displays would come in handy. Again, smartphones might be crucial. A jacket covered with the flexible screen could enable a user to access a smartphone without taking it out of its pocket. Connected to a smartphone, a [smart-jacket?] could show the time of day on its sleeve, like a watch. If the user wants to dial a number, then the sleeve shows a keypad. For self-expression or advertising purposes, the front and back of the jacket become personal billboards. The jacket might even be used for camouflage. Imagine wallpaper and curtains that, once wirelessly connected to your computer, can illuminate a room from all angles. What strange lighting effects that might produce! Selecting a picture or video instantly turns an entire wall into a panoramic vista. Interior design would be radically changed by walls that can change color and pattern at the press of a button. Do you have any ideas?

Featured Image - NASA Helios

Featured Company - AeroVironment

This company is based in California and was founded by Paul MacCready. AeroVironment specializes in flying machines, most notably unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and solar-powered airplanes. Innovation has been a prime goal of this company for something like forty years. This company created an all-electric, solar-powered airplane, named Solar Challenger, that successfully flew from France to England in 1981. No fuel! Think about that for a second: an international flight that used zero gallons of fuel. In the same decade, AeroVironment collaborated on the GM Sunraycer, a solar-powered car that won the first World Solar Challenge.

Two of the most significant projects that AeroVironment has today are Raven and Global Observer. The Raven is a UAV that is small enough to be launched by hand. Over 13,000 have been made, and many of them are used by the United States military (especially in Iraq). Various foreign countries also use the Raven, such as the U.K. and Netherlands. Once launched, the Raven can fly for over an hour, reaching speeds exceeding thirty miles per hour and altitudes around two miles up.

The Global Observer is still in development, but it is very promising. It is a high-altitude UAV that should become a versatile alternative to some space satellites. Soaring eleven miles above Earth, the Global Observer burns hydrogen to power its four motors for up to a week. When it runs low on fuel, it will be relieved by a second Global Observer and land for refueling. It may require two UAVs to take the place of one satellite, but flying on hydrogen is cheaper than launching a huge rocket into space. Some of the desired uses for the Global Observer include spying on terrorists, capturing real-time data on weather and natural disasters, and serving as as communication relay.

AeroVironment's latest innovation is called the Nano Hummingbird. This miniscule UAV is capable of flying in any direction and hovering, just like a live hummingbird. It has a built-in camera for surveillance and weighs less than one AA battery. Its wingspan is only six inches long! The DARPA-funded Nano Hummingbird is likely to generate controversy in the coming years. While such devices are great for spying on terrorists, the possibility exists of spying on local citizens (either by the government or other citizens). America has been struggling to find a satisfactory balance between security and privacy lately, and the Nano Hummingbird will not make that struggle any easier. But it will probably save some soldiers' lives and make their jobs a little safer.

Featured Image - Infosys building

Featured Company - Gridbots

Gridbots is a robotics company based in Ahmedabad, India. It was founded by Pulkit Gaur, who has been awarded a TED fellowship. His company focuses on developing robots that are “more intelligent” and can be used in everyday life. Gridbots' products range from smart surveillance cameras to telepresence robots. This company also makes educational robots; ones that are user-friendly and designed for experimentation. The Turtle, for instance, is called the “do it yourself robot,” and it is claimed to have an assembly time of just fifteen minutes. It is accompanied by visual programming software and preset behavior modes to make first-timers' experiences that much easier.

Featured Image - Fuel Cell Bus

Featured Image - Last Shuttle Mission

Featured Company - Festo

Some companies are currently pushing the limits of new technology and design solutions. They are developing futuristic, exotic products to meet the needs of a world that demands extreme engineering. One of these companies is Festo, an industrial engineering and design company in Germany. Of primary interest to this blog is the Bionic Learning Network, a part of Festo that specializes in designs “inspired by nature” and collaborates with universities and other companies.

Festo's Bionic Learning Network has created some really cool products that challenge everyday views of robotics. Take the “bionic handling assistant” for example. Robotic arms are usually rigid, powerful, and jerky in their movements. Festo's alternative (whose appearance resembles the tentacles of Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2) is instead elegant, gentle, graceful, pneumatically powered, and was inspired by the elephant's trunk. Other projects created by Festo include modular robots, flying robot penguins, 3D printers, moving walls, flying robot jellyfish, and ion-propelled lighter-than-air robots that are reminiscent of Naboo starships. Can you imagine being able to honestly cite work on “bionic plasma drives” and flying robot penguins for your job history? What fun those Germans are having!

Another remarkable invention from Festo is the SmartBird. This feat of biomimicry is uncanny. The lightweight robotic bird has a mounted camera and flaps its wings like a real bird. This product has obvious applications in reconnaissance. The possibility, or perhaps inevitability, of robotic avian spies reminds me of a movie scene. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the heroes are followed by a flock of birds. One of them exclaims, “Spies of Saruman!” Maybe someday such a situation will be replicated in the real world. Imagine terrorists peering out of a cave, sighting a flock of birds and muttering to themselves, “Spies of America!”

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Stem cells. That is the term that brings hope for a new revolution in medicine. One day, some think, doctors will be able to grow new organs in the lab, on demand, for patients instead of waiting for donors. The concept of an organ donor might fade out of public awareness because it will no longer be needed in developed countries. Virtually any tissue damage in the body will be easily healed. Nerve damage, especially that of the spinal cord, will be mended without worry of paralysis. Collapsed lungs could be replaced with new ones. Faulty hearts could be switched with ones that have been carefully grown in controlled laboratory environments. In fact, any organ could be replaceable if we can ever fully understand and utilize stem cells. Additionally, patients will not need immunosuppressive drugs to protect their new organs. Just what are stem cells, anyway?

In the earliest stage of gestation, a baby (an embryo at this time) is made up entirely of cells that serve no function except to multiply. These are embryonic stem cells. An embryo's cells are constantly dividing so the baby can grow. At some point, the cells start to differentiate, or decide what functions they will perform in the fully formed baby's body. Some stem cells will become heart cells, some nerve cells, and still others will become bone cells. Every tissue in the body needs cells that are specialized for specific functions. This is a remarkable feat: one type of cell changes into every other type needed for the body to work.

After birth, there are some remaining stem cells that will be present into adulthood. Stem cells found throughout an adult body are called adult or somatic stem cells. These cells are naturally used by the body for producing specialized cells, developing tissues during adolescence, and healing injuries.

So, what is stopping us from using stem cells to make new organs? Harvesting them is one problem. Obtaining stem cells from an embryo means destruction of it, considered by many to be the death/murder of a baby. Adult stem cells are ethically permissible, but they are more difficult to harvest (like extracting bone marrow) and less abundant. Stem cells are present in amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood, but these are conventionally disposed of after birth. Another way to get stem cells could be reversing the differentiation process. Some scientists have been able to turn skin cells into stem cells.

Another problem is successfully utilizing stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can differentiate into any type of cell. Many adult stem cells are merely multipotent, meaning they can only differentiate into a limited selection of cell types. Embryonic stem cells, if they come from someone other than the patient, can pose a similar risk as donor organs. A new heart is not so great if the immune system tries to destroy it. Ideally, a patient's replacement organs would be grown from his/her own stem cells. Another risk is that of tumor formation. After all, cancer is characterized by cells that stop performing their designated functions and rampantly multiply.

Once we gain mastery over stem cells, we should reap great benefits. And scientists are making significant progress. Blindness by macular degeneration is being experimentally treated with retinal cells that were grown from stem cells. Multiple gels have been developed that stimulate the body's stem cells into action for greater healing ability than is normally possible. Tracheas, or windpipes, have been grown from patients' adult stem cells and transplanted successfully in Europe. Dentistry might someday be changed, too. Mice have had new teeth grown from stem cells and transplanted. Imagine future senior citizens that, while they are chronologically quite elderly, have organs that are as biologically youthful as their grandchildren.

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The University of Tokyo and Sony are working on a new gadget, called PosessedHand, that could enable people to play songs on the guitar without having to learn them. The device simply straps onto a user's forearm and is completely noninvasive. It sends electrical impulses into the arm, but the electricity is too weak to force the hand to move. A user just gets a gentle sensation of how to move the hand and fingers. Basically, this device could instruct you how to play a song that you have never learned, potentially in real time.

The PosessedHand has been met with some controversy. It could help users play better while wearing it, but they might not actually learn anything. While using it, you can just complacently follow the impulses. The brain does not need to be very active, so a player's skill might not improve at all. Musicians worry that genuine talent might suffer from the use of the device.

Another possible use for this type of gadget is for sign language. An interpreter's job would be much easier if the device told the hands what to do in real time. A computer could record speech, convert it to text, then to sign language, and the corresponding signals would be sent to the hands. What you get is real time, flawless translating from speech to sign language, and the translator does not even need to learn any signs.

So far the best application of artificially stimulating muscles is in helping victims of paralysis. As mentioned in the prosthetics post, medical science is still unable to reliably heal nerve damage. But the utilization of electrodes seems to be making better progress. A young man who was made paraplegic by a car collision has had electrodes implanted in his lower spinal chord. Within a week he could keep his balance while standing. He has also regained bladder and bowel control. The doctors are quick to advise caution, but this story is a great source of hope for anyone in similar circumstances. It shows the promise that electrode technology holds for humanity.

If you strengthened the electrical impulses from the PosessedHand, then the muscles would move involuntarily. There would be no need for the user's attention. This concept has already been employed for some physical fitness gadgets. It is easy to suppose expanding this technology for the entire body. Imagine a suit, perhaps even a tuxedo, that electrically controls a wearer's muscles with great precision and sophistication. At the touch of a button, a user can perform dance sequences, execute advanced martial arts techniques, or play musical instruments without any prior knowledge. If the suit could also detect and understand brain signals, then paralytics could use it as a noninvasive solution to their paralysis.

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Prosthetic limbs. When an arm or leg is lost—either by amputation or injury—it cannot be regenerated as some salamanders are able to do. Our ability to regrow body parts is limited to our fingertips. The only option for an amputee is to get an artificial appendage, made of plastic and metal rather than flesh and bone.

Prosthetics is an ever-advancing field of technology. Last century, hands were replaced by mechanical hooks, but nowadays you can get a sophisticated robotic hand, including an opposable thumb. Mechanisms of the past relied on physical movements of the shoulder and arm to operate, but the newest prostheses sense electrical signals generated when users simply think of using their hands.

Prostheses are no longer limited to amputees, though. People with paralysis are getting involved. Multiple patients in Austria have chosen to have their hands amputated and replaced with prosthetic ones. They had nerve damage in their arms, rendering their hands paralyzed and useless. They could have endured years of surgery and rehabilitation with little chance of success. But circuits and software are more easily and reliably manipulated than nerves and sinew. So those patients chose the option with a greater chance of success and shorter recovery time.

Artificial body parts are helping many people. A tiny camera can be placed inside or near the eye and connected to brain, some day giving sight to the blind. Carbon-fiber “feet” can enable an amputee to race with Olympic sprinters. Faulty hearts have been replaced with inorganic ones. Soon artificial kidneys might become available. But what if prostheses become better than natural parts?

In the future, prosthetic technology will continue to improve and be more widely used. Given the progress that has already been made, it is not unreasonable to speculate that someday a bionic hand will be superior to a fully functional, natural hand. Those patients in Austria made a logical choice: they exchanged useless hands for functional ones. If, some day, you are better off exchanging your properly working hand for a much more capable and versatile—albeit artificial—hand, would you? Natural appendages degrade with age, but inorganic parts can be updated and replaced with relative ease. Customization could be easy, too. Instead of a hand, you could have a tentacle, claw, multi-tool, or even scissors. How about eyes? Would you trade one or your eyes for a cybernetic one that could see infrared and ultraviolet light? Would you give an eye for an eye that could see in the dark and through walls? Maybe far in the future we will have whole prosthetic bodies available.

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NASA is phasing the Space Shuttle out of service. Without the Space Shuttle, how will we send people into space? The Saturn V rockets of the Apollo program were effective, but they used vast amounts of fuel. It is time for some innovation. We have relied on chemical fuel rockets for half a century. We need a better way of getting to space.

One major drawback for chemical rockets is the weight of the fuel itself. The fuel's combustion has to generate enough thrust to lift both the fuel and the rocket/payload. The Space Shuttle has a mass of 100,000 kilograms, but when combined with its rockets there are 2,000,000 kilograms that need to lift off the ground. The energy for thrust is stored in the fuel's chemical bonds, and the energy density is limited. It might be better to store the energy on the ground, and beam that energy to the spacecraft during liftoff. That way, a lot of energy can be combined with less fuel to produce the same or more thrust. A powerful laser facility would act as a launch base. With a constant supply of energy, it could launch commercial satellites much more often—and more cheaply—than rockets. If you want to launch two rockets in one day, then you need to build two rockets. With laser propulsion, you only need to build one laser facility and fire up the lasers twice.

A vessel built for laser propulsion focuses (with optics or heat exchangers) laser beams from the ground to ignite either some propellant or just the air below. A continuous or pulsating (depending on the type of laser) explosion is created, but without combustion of conventional rocket fuel. The vessel gets its propelling energy from the light of the laser beam, not chemical bonds in expensive fuel, and the “lightcraft” is propelled upwards. This is the principle behind laser propulsion.

Scaling up payloads should be easier with laser propulsion. With rocket-propelled spacecraft, you need more or bigger rockets to launch heavier payloads. As mentioned earlier, the weight of the fuel itself is a problem. But with laser propulsion, you can simply add more lasers on the ground and aim them all at the same point. This way you get more thrust without adding more heavy fuel tanks.

One problem is keeping the lightcraft stable during launch. Current scaled-down prototypes spin at high rates in order to fly straight up. Such spinning might not be desirable for a full scale lightcraft. If the whole vessel rotated while carrying passengers, they would get sick, or worse. Perhaps a large gyro could be used instead of spinning the whole craft, but that would add to the overall weight.

Another obstacle for laser propulsion is the power of lasers. It takes about one megawatt of laser power to lift one kilogram of lightcraft into space. The Space Shuttle weighs about 100,000 kilograms so launching a lightcraft as massive as a Space Shuttle would require around 100,000 megawatts (100 gigawatts) of laser power. To put this into perspective, think about some real-world lasers and their outputs. Common laser pointers have power ratings under 5 milliwatts (0.000005 megawatts). The military laser, ZEUS, has a power rating of 10 kilowatts (0.01 megawatts). The Nova laser, part of a nuclear fusion project, was capable of 16 terawatts (16,000,000 megawatts) in very short bursts. Roughly, you would need 10,000,000 ZEUS lasers to send a Space Shuttle into low orbit, or 500,000 to send a 5,000 kg Apollo lunar module. Considering the energy supply for such laser power, a nuclear power plant generally produces around 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

The limitations in engineering and powering of lasers makes lightcraft best suited for very small satellites. This could be beneficial for research institutions and companies that want to put equipment into orbit but cannot afford big rockets. Also, cargo and spacecraft could be sent up in pieces, then assembled in orbit. Perhaps in the future rockets will be limited to large payloads, and lasers will routinely launch anything under a certain weight limit. With technology improving all the time, microsatellites might become common and affordable.

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This summer, there will be laptops for sale that run on Google's Chrome operating system. For five hundred dollars you get a computer that lasts around eight hours per charge, uses up-to-date software, and even has some free 3G access (100MB). With any luck, the new operating system will run much smoother than Windows. The most interesting aspect is in how the laptops function. Most of the data storage and processing does not occur within the laptops themselves, unlike most computers, but on the internet. These “Chromebooks” might just be the way of the future.

As soon as you buy a traditional computer, it begins to depreciate. New, more powerful computers are constantly being put on the market, and products from previous years are rendered obsolete. The same principle applies to virtually all electronics, especially cellphones and cameras. You want the fastest computer available right now, but in a few months' time there will be a new line of even faster ones. What if you only had to buy a new computer every decade to keep up with the times?

The internet is a worldwide network of computers. If you could relegate an individual computer's processing to the many computers of the internet, then that computer would exceed the limitations of its own specifications. The process is analogous to a desktop computer. When you edit a typed essay on a desktop, the text file is stored in the CPU. But you see the file with a monitor, and you edit the file with a keyboard and mouse. With a Chromebook, you may see and edit a file from the laptop itself, but the actual file is stored and processed on Google's servers. This is called “cloud computing.” Because most of the computing performance happens on the internet, you should not need to buy a new Chromebook nearly as often as a conventional laptop.

What's the catch? The obvious weakness of this technology is the internet connection. If you lose your connection, then you do not have access to your files. For people with constant, stable connections, this trade-off could be very acceptable. Another problem is on the servers' end. What if the company hosting your files goes out of business? Or some sort of damage happens to the servers? Then all your files would be lost forever, unless you had a backup hard drive, of course.

Cloud computing might revolutionize the computer industry. Imagine, in the future, buying a laptop for a few hundred dollars, but—because it uses cloud computing—its performance will be on par with conventional laptops that cost over a thousand dollars. You never need to worry about updating your software since it happens automatically. If market growth is manageable, then the computing power should steadily increase as Google updates its servers' hardware. Perhaps for an hourly fee, you can boost your computer's processing speed to that of a supercomputer. As Google increases its data storage capacity, your own allotment grows, too, like with inbox storage on Gmail. That way, you can store more and more data without buying additional hard drives. Data storage and processing might one day be treated similarly as electricity and warehouse space. Computing will be a centralized commodity, and personal computers will be simple interfaces that access that resource from a distance. Cloud computing could also radically change the video game industry. Game consoles currently require expensive processors and graphics cards, but someday they may become slim and cheap interfaces. Imagine just buying a game controller without the console. The controller communicates with your Chromebook which is connected to the internet. Signals from the controller are sent to a gaming computer network, where those signals are interpreted. The game's response is sent back to the computer and displayed on the screen. This all happens so fast that you cannot perceive any delay. Eventually, a Chromebook, controller, and a fast internet connection might be all you need to play video games from any platform. What will that do to the industry? This separation of interface from actual computing may become a growing trend. It is quite probable that we will eventually have low-cost laptops that are constantly connected to cloud networks, making them portable supercomputers.

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Have you ever thought about it? Surfing the web is a new and unique experience in humanity's history. Never before have we been given access to so much information and at such speed as today. The internet is fundamentally changing how we interact with each other and the world around us. What, specifically, does this mean for our brains, our thought patterns, and our culture?

The internet is perhaps the most influential invention ever contrived. The spread of ideas has long been the source of change in the world. Throughout history people have killed and been killed for the sake of spreading or halting information. The old sayings, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and “loose lips sink ships,” are testament to the power of ideas. A connection to the internet allows people to share and find ideas almost instantaneously. This means a lot of change can happen to societies very quickly. Political alliances can be forged through social networking. Scientists can share theories and data with each other very easily. Money can be exchanged and earned in new ways. Children in poor countries can benefit from the academic resources of wealthy nations. These are macroscopic effects, but changes to a single brain are microscopic in scope.

The brain is marvelously able to change its “wiring” in order to adapt to different environments. This plasticity allows people to adjust to new careers, learn to read, cope with blindness, and much more. As a person gets accustomed to using the internet, that person's brain “rewires” itself to interact more effectively with cyberspace. The internet is full of distractions, namely links and advertisements. It also makes being distracted very pleasing. Stray thoughts are easily pursued by opening additional browser tabs and using search engines. You could be right in the middle of reading a news article when you think about what tomorrow's weather will be like. A couple clicks later and you are dreading the impending snow storm. Then you go back to the article and try to remember where you left off. A few minutes later you think about checking your email and promptly do so. All along you might have been receiving and responding to text messages on your phone. From your perspective this may seem like harmless multitasking, but your brain is being spoiled by instant gratification. Over long periods of time, excessive internet use can make people generally impatient and prone to distraction. The brain learns that distractions are okay and interruptions are enjoyable. We like constant updates nowadays, but previous generations were accustomed to longer periods of sustained attention—focusing on each task until it was finished. For them, mail was received once a day or even less often. They read about topics one at a time and usually in some logical order. Today, reading on the internet is directed by the stream of consciousness, and topics can be quite random. Switching between multiple webpages will break a reader's concentration and increase the cognitive load. That means your brain must work harder to keep track of what you are reading, and less mental energy is used to absorb and process the information on those pages. In accordance with that change in behavior, the brain becomes better at managing multiple tasks and worse at reading comprehension.

Slow reading is good for maximizing the intellectual benefit of textual information. But information is no longer a scarce commodity. Rather than straining to get new information, we are now striving to contend with an overabundance of content. People are finding new ways to organize, search, and analyze the vast amounts of data provided by the internet. On a personal level, people tend to forgo slow reading and adopt skimming as their primary reading method. With so much content to absorb, it is difficult to slow down one's reading for fear of missing out on something. People learn about more varied topics, but they have only a passable understanding of each one. In this way, the internet makes more people “well-rounded,” but it subtly hinders any achievement of expertise by overfeeding us with content. Where does this copious content come from, anyway?

The internet creates a two-way stream of information. Not only can data be downloaded, but it can be uploaded, too. Every time someone sends a tweet, uploads a video, creates a blog post, edits a Wikipedia page, or updates a social networking profile, that person is contributing to internet content. Try to imagine one million YouTube users, and each one uploads a one minute video on the same day. In just one day, YouTube would have acquired one million minutes of video content. Without any interruptions (eating, sleeping, etc.), it would take someone almost two years to watch all those videos. Think about that!

All this exchange of content makes people dependent and addicted to internet use. The anguish some people experience when their internet connections fail, or when their cellphones are missing, is evidence of this. GPS devices in cars are great, but, when they do not work properly, many people can find themselves distressingly lost. Texting for some people has become so important that interrupting conversations and work is acceptable and commonplace. When the phone beckons, all must pause for a couple lines of text to be read and then answered. Such behavior would have been considered deplorable in the twentieth century, but nowadays it is rather normal.

For good or bad, the internet is helping extinguish many aspects of life from the last century. One of the most precious things would be free time for deep thinking. The Industrial Revolution made us more productive and efficient so we could have more time to spend on family, hobbies, etc. Now we cannot get enough work-hours to earn all the money we want. And when we are not at work, the internet tempts us with countless new things—videos, articles, games, messages. Sooner or later we have to squeeze in time for sleeping, although not enough for most of us. Where is the time for thinking? For daydreaming, meditating, getting a perspective on our lives? We are losing that time to the internet, much like earlier generations lost it to watching television. When there is time to just sit and think, many of us cannot stand it and languish for access to a computer. Spending time face-to-face with family members and friends is diminishing as well. Video on demand, texting, and other forms of personalized content use eliminate the need for shared experiences. Why watch television with your family when you can watch your shows any time you want on the internet. You no longer have to be in the same room with someone for conversation if you can text or video-conference with them. MP3 players make listening to radios and jukeboxes unnecessary.

What will future internet users be like? Without self-restraint, they will be even more impatient and easily distracted than today. Their writing will be painfully concise. Perhaps the average book's word count will go down. Textbooks, or curricula in general, will be customized excerpts from the online collection of all human knowledge. Nearly all of people's education will come from the internet, not parents and teachers. They will appear to live in separate worlds from an external observer. As they navigate physical environments, earphones let them listen to anything they want. Tiny screens let them see anything they want. And the internet gives them any information they might need in daily tasks. Using the internet as a second brain, they will appear much more knowledgeable and capable than us. They will be more productive because of their connection to cyberspace, but this augmentation will come at a cost. Future users will feel anxious whenever they are disconnected. Sleep deprivation will be a major health concern. The physical world will seem less real than the digital one. Take the internet away, and its users might struggle to cope even with mundane situations. With the internet, they may eventually seem omniscient.

Too much internet use reduces our ability to concentrate, and its distractions hinder the learning process. Depending on your point of view, that is okay because the internet holds more information than we could ever hope to absorb. We just need to make sure that relevant information is available whenever it is needed. Some old-fashioned moderation would protect our mental focus from significantly deteriorating. If we take the time to contemplate what we learn once in a while, then our brains should experience intellectual prosperity. So far we have seen a net benefit from the internet, and, hopefully, we will continue to adapt to our technologies without losing ourselves in the process.

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Computers have become ubiquitous in modern life. We get news updates, find driving directions, communicate with one another, write papers, make calculations, and perform countless other tasks with the aid of various computers. Yet, as these fabulous tools increasingly permeate our lives, they remain undercapitalized in most classroom settings. Many kids learn to text with their cellphones years before they learn to type on keyboards. Why?

Public schools seem to be built for intellectual stagnation. The most apparent academic goal in most students' minds is surviving the next test or exam. Grades are everything. Is there any consideration for the interests and talents of the students? No. You must learn these subjects, by this date, or you are a failure. If you excel linguistically and are passionate about history but have trouble with math, then your education will be plagued by a spotty record and perhaps impressions of inadequacy. Math adepts who are uninterested and unskilled in other classes will experience the same problems. The often uncompromising attitude of school authority “kills creativity” and subdues individual excellence. People's abilities shine most when they have the freedom to follow their passions.

What does that have to do with technology, especially computers? Computers allow us to exceed the academic limits of previous generations. Why memorize lists and tables of numerous facts when you can access them at will with a search query? Hard drives store raw information so that we can focus on interpreting and utilizing data instead of memorizing it. Email and satellite transmissions make long-distance communication nearly instantaneous. Software plots data faster, more accurately, and in more ways than a single human ever could by hand. People can do so much more with the aid of technology, and we are constantly finding new ways to exploit it. Government officials do not appear to care about a potential leap in human-computer capability. They just want test scores so they can rank with other countries. The quantification of students eases the task of assigning value to them and their schools. Much of the time schools are focused on improving standardized test scores and fail to devote energy towards exploring how students learn—much less how to improve their learning experience.

One problem that schools face is a shortage of teachers and a surplus of students. Standardization and mass production are themes that seem natural for dealing with this dilemma. Working out standardized problems with pencil and paper, in addition to reading standardized texts, is the classic approach that has emerged for cramming information and skills into students' brains. Is this still a valid method of learning, considering today's technology? With computers and the internet, a student can find countless sources of information regarding any topic in class. The versatility of computers enables any student to express their knowledge in myriad ways—slide-show presentations, animations, typed essays, etc. In light of this, the dull exams of today seem unnecessary. A common complaint for schools is the infrequent buying of new textbooks. The internet allows access to free, legal, easily updated textbooks written by qualified experts who value education above profit. Using digital textbooks and unconventional methods of assessing academic progress reduce the use of physical resources like paper. In this way, going digital is also going green.

Many schools seem to be in denial about the ubiquity of computers. Computer skills are more important than ever and can be very lucrative. But some schools do not even teach their students how to touch-type. Why is programming—or, at the very least, computer literacy—not a major subject alongside social studies and math? Programming develops language and logic skills while empowering individuals to innovate with software. Knowing how to use computers is necessary for countless careers, but that importance is overlooked by many teachers and administrators. The internet gives people access to vast amounts of knowledge, but students are severely limited in time that is allowed to explore it.

America's ideal economic model is one that provides individual freedom and allows personal experimentation. Ideally, citizens are free to buy what they want and start businesses selling what they want. This results in net economic growth because people will learn how to make a profit and provide for the needs and wants of customers. Such freedom is expected in virtually every facet of life except, it seems, in schooling. Unless you want to change your address, you cannot choose which public school your kids attend. Students have very little choice about what subjects they study until they get to the college level. Students must study the same subjects and devote the same amount of time to each one, and they have no say in the curriculum of those subjects. The administrators get to make all the decisions. This power structure is analogous to a communist state. Everybody gets equal pay, and the people in charge manage all the resources. With this you get low productivity and little innovation. If students had more freedom to choose what subjects they study and how to manage their time, then they would be more productive and creative. They have more freedom outside of school, and they quickly learn how to use cellphones, personal computers, game consoles, etc. as long as their families can afford such things. Once connected to the World Wide Web, a person is free to learn about any topic imaginable. The internet holds much more information than a room full of textbooks, but school systems are too rigid to take advantage of it.

There are some people who are trying to bring public education into the twenty-first century and use technology for academic benefit, but they cannot do it alone. School administrators need to be more open-minded. Teachers need to be willing to learn as much as their students. Parents need to speak up about the quality of their children's education. Students need to care about their education. Today's technology is just too powerful to be wasted.