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Empowering the people

Change frightens us. The uncertainty of the new, the potential for disruption, it’s one of the reasons that our species seeks to anticipate the future – so we can avoid and hopefully survive the worst it has to throw at us.

Self-replicated RepRap parts
Self-replicated RepRap parts

But change also has a huge potential to improve our lives and empower us. The recent accomplishments of the RepRap project are a case in point. Headed by Dr. Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath’s Center for Biomimetics, RepRap is short for replicating rapid prototyping machine. In use by industry for about a quarter century now, prototypers are essentially 3D inkjet printers capable of creating parts by laying down thin layers of resin following a computer-driven design. Almost any basic object can be created using this technique, from dinnerware to engine parts. What makes RepRap different is that it’s the first prototyper capable of copying itself. And it’s open source.

While there are still a handful of its own parts that RepRap can’t copy and all of it still has to be hand assembled, the potential for a self-replicating replicator is enormous. Distributed to people in the developing world, such a technology could quickly raise their standard of living, providing necessities many of the rest of us have long taken for granted. Of course, such a technology would be tremendously disruptive to industry, but that can hardly be justification for billions to continue living and dying in unnecessary poverty.

Like RepRap, many other new and developing technologies have the potential to heal, to enable, to lift up vast numbers of people. DEKA’s water purification system, the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader, solar energy solutions and worldwide immunization programs are but a few of the recent implementations of technology that have the ability to change the lives of millions for the better.

A changing world can be a frightening place, but it can be a very hopeful place as well.

Vanishing computers

Computers are disappearing. 

Now before you panic (or in a few cases, jump for joy), what I mean to say is computers are disappearing from view.  They’ll still be here, more powerful and in greater numbers than ever.  We’ll just not be seeing a growing proportion of them.

Consider:

Intel 80 core research chip
Intel 80 core research chip
  • Last year Intel unveiled a postage stamp-sized 80-core research chip as powerful as a 1996 supercomputer which at that time took up 2,000 square feet.  The new chip requires about 1/10,000th as much power as that supercomputer did. 
  • Wireless technology is available in more of our environment at continually increasing transmission speeds.  The recent auction of 700Mhz spectrum will allow for the delivery of a wide range of new software services via wireless.
  • GPS and other positioning technologies are being developed with greater degrees of accuracy and granularity at ever-lower cost.
  • RFID is becoming increasingly capable.  Identification, sensor-integration, data storage, firewalled access and encrypted communication are just some of their current features.  Grains so small they qualify as powder can be embedded in just about anything imaginable.  Even under your skin.
  • Cloud computing is taking off.  With its growth, more and more of our processing needs can be off-loaded to distant, unseen servers, which will provide processing-on-demand and greatly reduce wasted processing cycles.
  • Display technology is shrinking.  Texas Instruments recently demonstrated a prototype DLP pico-projector which is small enough to fit in a cell phone.  Wearable displays and retinal projection technology will become increasingly available in the near future. 
  • Emotive headset
    Emotive headset

    Several companies have recently demonstrated the ability to translate thoughts into commands that can be used to control games and other applications.  Emotiv Systems plans to ship its first-gen neuroheadsets in late 2008.

All of these technologies are becoming increasingly capable even as their cost is plummeting.  This is how technology works.  Many of us can remember when a not very sophisticated calculator cost as much as a current-day PS3.  And that’s not even in adjusted dollars.

So how does this change the way we’ll use computers?  Well, for one, they’ll soon be with us everywhere, all the time.  If you have enough computing power in your pocket or woven into your clothes or embedded under your skin to control basic I/O functions, various forms of wireless, GPS and cloud computing can do the rest.  Clunky old keyboards, mice and monitors will be a thing of the past.  RFID in clothing, jewelry or even under your fingertips will make gesture recognition input possible.  Wearable displays have the potential to provide heads-up information anywhere you go, augmenting your environment with different layers and levels of information.  Contextual overlays will be driven by a mix of geographic data and proximity detection, while being controlled and modified by personal preference filters.

And brainwave I/O is only just getting started.

A new era is coming.  Get ready to say goodbye to your computer.

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