Tag: technology

Pessimism in Historical Perspective

Pessimism about potentially life-enhancing technologies is not new. The Twitter account Pessimist’s Archive (a favorite of the internet guru Marc Andreessen) chronicles the unending stream of pessimism with old newspaper excerpts. 

Pessimistic reactions range from merely doubtful (such as this response to the idea of gas lighting in 1809, or this one to the concept of anesthesia in 1839) to outright alarmist (such as this 1999 warning that e-commerce “threatens to destroy more than it could ever create”). 

In some cases, the pessimists insist that an older technology is superior to a new one. Some, for example, have claimed that an abacus is superior to a computer and a pocket calculator, while others claimed that horses are longer-lasting than the dangerous “automobile terror.” 

Are We Entering The Age of Exponential Growth?

In his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines, the famed futurist Ray Kurzweil proposed “The Law of Accelerating Returns.” According to Kurzweil’s law, “the rate of change in a wide variety of evolutionary systems (including but not limited to the growth of technologies) tends to increase exponentially.” I mention Kurzweil’s observation, because it is sure beginning to feel like we are entering an age of colossal and rapid change. Consider the following:

According to The Telegraph, “Genes which make people intelligent have been discovered [by researchers at the Imperial College London] and scientists believe they could be manipulated to boost brain power.” This could usher in an era of super-smart humans and accelerate the already fast process of scientific discovery.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has successfully “blasted off from Cape Canaveral, delivered communications satellites to orbit before its main-stage booster returned to a landing pad.” Put differently, space flight has just become much cheaper since main-stage booster rockets, which were previously non-reusable, are also very expensive.

Some Post-Thanksgiving Reasons To Be Thankful

In this post-Thanksgiving atmosphere, here is another installment in Human Progress’s series of posts on incremental (and sometimes revolutionary) ways in which our world is becoming a better place. This week we look at anti-aging drugs, falling maternal mortality deaths and death rates, prosthetic hands with a sense of touch and a potential breakthrough in air travel. 

British Company to ‘Transform’ Air and Space Travel with Pioneering New Engine Design 

BAE Systems has recently bought a minority stake of a small technology company called Reaction Engine. The support of BAE will allow Reaction Engine to continue working on its breakthrough engine, known as Sabre. This versatile engine can be used for both air and space travel, reaching up to five times the speed of sound for air travel and twenty-five times the speed of sound for space travel. Using these high rates of speed, it could be possible to fly anywhere in the world in four hours within the next ten to fifteen years. Reaction Engine hopes that the first Sabre engine will be tested within the decade. 

World’s First Anti-Aging Drug Could See Humans Live to 120 

The aging process is not inevitable. Our cells contain a DNA blueprint that can, theoretically, keep our bodies functioning forever. However, overtime our cells divide rapidly, leading to an increased likelihood of “errors” occurring. These “errors” cause diseases like cancer and dementia. Recently, the FDA approved a human trial for a drug called Metformin, which has been proven to increase the lifespan of animals. The trial contains around 3,000 people who are between the ages of 70 and 80. If similar results occur with humans as with animals, the human lifespan could increase by up to 50 percent. 

Maternal Mortality Falls by Almost 50% - UN Report 

The United Nations has been monitoring maternal mortality, which is defined as the number of mothers who die during pregnancy or shortly thereafter, for a number of decades. According to a recent report, global maternal mortality has dropped from 532,000 deaths in 1990 to 303,000 in 2015. That’s a reduction of 44 percent. Eastern Asia made the most substantial progress, with maternal mortality rates dropping from 95 deaths for every 100,000 live births to 27. Maternal mortality, once ubiquitous throughout the world, is now almost exclusively (99 percent) found in poor countries. Once again, economic development and income growth are the keys to further progress. 

A Prosthetic Hand that Can Feel 

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have recently created a prosthetic hand that allows the patient to not only grip objects more accurately, but also enjoy a sense of touch. The technology works by creating a connection between the artificial hand and the brain. When the prosthetic hand senses pressure, it sends a neural code to the brain through an artificial pathway. Igor Spetic, who lost his hand about five years ago due to a workplace accident, is one of the first patients to receive the artificial hand. Because of his newly acquired treatment, Igor is now able to cut up fruits and vegetables, confidently grip cups, and open bags and containers. Researchers are currently developing a wireless version of this technology, which they hope to have finished within the next five years.

Exciting New Technological Developments

In another installment of our series on how science and technology are working to improve lives and solve problems, we sum up some exciting new developments in robotics and 3-D printing, and even news on a sonic tractor beam right out of Star Wars.

The Robots Chasing Amazon

In 2012, Amazon bought the warehouse robot maker, Kiva Systems, in order to keep the technology away from its competitors. This created a gap in demand for warehouse robots, giving Fetch Robotics and Harvest Automation a chance to enter the market. Both of these companies have created robots that follow warehouse employees around for the purpose of collecting and moving the inventory items that they take off the shelves. These robots have greatly improved efficiency and are cheaper than hiring more workers or introducing more infrastructure, such as conveyor belts. Fetch Robotics currently sells these robots for $25,000, while Harvest Automation will sell them for $15,000 or rent them for $1,000 a month beginning next year. Currently these robots are designed to work alongside warehouse employees, but Fetch Robotics has already begun working on warehouse robots that grab the items from the shelves themselves.

Robot Builder Designed for Construction Sites

Recently at ETH Zurich, a robot that is able to lay bricks in various designs was created. It is the first robot that can lay bricks without rigid design constraints, which could make construction sites much more efficient. The robot consists of a robotic arm attached to a mobile base unit and two computer systems. The first computer controls the arm, while the second generates a 3D version of the construction site, allowing it to envision its location. It is hoped that in the future, construction workers and these robots will be able to work together in order to efficiently erect various structures. ETH Zurich is also working on two other projects. One is a robot that can analyze pieces of rubble and then assemble them into a structure. The second robot uses the 3D-printing of mesh, along with the use of concrete filler, to replace older methods of using molds for making concrete pieces. A new robotic fabrication facility will hopefully open by September of 2016. 

3D-printed hip and knee joints coming to a hospital near you

A new breakthrough has occurred in the world of hip and knee surgery. Dr. Clarke has created a technique where virtual models of patient’s bodies are generated for two purposes: One being so surgeons are able to practice the procedure beforehand. The second being so precision instruments for the surgery can be made. Currently, because the size and shape of everyone’s hip and knee joints are different, surgery involves a “trial and error” procedure in order to discover the correct fitting of instruments for an individual’s joint. But Dr. Clarke’s cutting-edge technique allows surgeons to know the size and shape of the patient’s joint beforehand, which lets them use 3D-printing to create surgical instruments that perfectly fit the specific person. This technique diminishes recovery time, allows for smaller incisions, and reduces blood loss.

Star Wars style sonic tractor beam invented by scientists              

It has been portrayed in movies like Star Wars and Star Trek, but now it is a reality. Researches have created a tractor beam that can move, rotate, and suspend a four millimeter plastic bead in mid-air. It uses sixty-four miniature loud speakers that emit high frequency sound waves, which the human ear cannot detect. However, in order to lift larger objects, lower frequencies that humans can detect would have to be used, which poses an unfavorable sound problem. Other implications of this technology include performing surgical procedures inside the human body without making any incisions.  

Everything Is On Sale Compared to 1979

Wage appreciation, or lack thereof, does not tell us everything we need to know about our standard of living. Wages often fail to capture changes that come from competition and technological breakthroughs. 

One—much underutilized—way in which we can get a sense of the improvements in our standard of living is to look at the number of hours an average employee needs to work in order to buy commonly used items. When cost is measured in terms of hours worked, almost everything in 2015 is “on sale” when compared to the same product in 1979. 

Consider two common kitchen appliances: the microwave and the refrigerator.

Those are some impressive discounts! Look at the data for yourself and you will find that the trend of falling prices, when measured in hours of labor, is widespread. The main exceptions when it comes to the cost of living are the highly distorted healthcare, education and housing markets. In contrast, when market competition thrives, it tends to bring down prices and raise living standards for all of us. 

Yet More Breakthroughs in Science and Technology

Here is yet another installment in the series on incremental change in science and technology. As ever, check out data on the improving state of the world at www.humanprogress.org.

Prawn Sex-Change Boosts Yields   

Male prawns grow faster and get to be 60% larger than female prawns. As such, they are more economically valuable. By slicing the prawn genome, scientists from the Ben Gurion University found, it is possible to generate all-male populations of prawns. In trials, female prawns were injected with a molecule that silenced certain genes thus allowing for all-male prawn yields. This method eliminates the need for chemicals or hormones, which have been used to increase prawn yields in the past. The breakthrough in prawn yields could also be used in the fight against bilharzia in Africa. Bilharzia is carried by snails and prawns are snails’ natural predators. By increasing prawn yields, snail populationscould be controlled more easily.   

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Human Ingenuity and the Future of Food

A recent article in Business Insider showing what the ancestors of modern fruits and vegetables looked like painted a bleak picture. A carrot was indistinguishable from any skinny brown root yanked up from the earth at random. Corn looked nearly as thin and insubstantial as a blade of grass. Peaches were once tiny berries with more pit than flesh. Bananas were the least recognizable of all, lacking the best features associated with their modern counterparts: the convenient peel and the seedless interior. How did these barely edible plants transform into the appetizing fruits and vegetables we know today? The answer is human ingenuity and millennia of genetic modification.

(Photo Credit: Genetic Literacy Project and Shutterstock via Business Insider).

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