The world is changing rapidly. There are always new ideas, new techniques, new ways to look at old problems, new problems to be solved. There is no shortage of truly innovative technologies to be found and examined.
This week’s round-up contains everything from anti-aging technology to robotic warfare to innovations around personal identity.
Reversing Aging By Decades in Humans
A new bioengineering technique has been discovered by Stanford Medical Center scientists which can extend the length of human telomeres, which are protective caps we have on the end of our chromosomes designed to stop the tips of the chromosomes from falling to pieces.
As we age, it is normal for our chromosomes to gradually lose bits at each end with each cell division. Over time, however, our chromosomes reach a point of no return – some critical point where our DNA refuses to let itself shrink any further. As individual cells reach this point they stop dividing and start to die. This is effectively what happens to us as our body ages.
A team of Stanford Medical Center scientists, led by Helen Blau, have developed a bioengineered RNA, creating a telomere-extending protein. The result is that cells continue to multiply as they did when they were younger, splitting and multiplying up to a further forty times.
The treatment they use is only temporary, meaning that the cells have not been immortalised. So bad news you can’t be forever young just yet. As a consolation prize you can watch this 80’s gem: Forever Young by Alphaville.
Even in the very short-term, before the techniques can be put into practical medical use, this finding will help scientists understand how aging affects the molecular machinery of cells.
Why is this important?
Human beings have been seeking the fountain of youth in some form or another since the beginning of humankind. Beyond the obvious vanity-driven desire for a return to youthfulness, this innovation could bring about new ways of treating, or potentially even preventing, diseases related to aging. When I think about any innovation that extends life I worry about it’s impact on our booming population and over-taxed planet. On a positive note I’m hoping that extended life allows humans to look at the world with a longer-term view of their actions.
Virtual Reality – What’s next beyond Oculus VR?
The field of virtual reality gaming is continually advancing. There have been a few recent innovations that have been made public.
The Stem System is a full immersion wireless, motion tracking platform for video games, virtual reality (VR), and more. The various bits of the system work together to monitor your position, movement and orientation in 3D space.This will have a huge impact on gaming. It is designed to be usable with virtually any game, and there are already a number of games supported by the system. When you combine it with a virtual reality headset, like the Oculus Rift, you end up with a highly immersive gaming experience, as demonstrated in this lightsaber fight.
FOVE is an eye-tracking head-mount display, which also has huge gaming potential. The headset senses your head position and orientation, which is combined with eye-tracking technology. Some of the games that have been designed to let you use this technology enable you to control devices simply by altering your gaze, for instance in one game you can fire lasers from your eyes, visibly destroying the enemy on your screen.
Less of a game, but nonetheless a fun 3D experience, is Faceshift, which can create a 3D avatar of you, using your voice and expressions, but animating them on the avatar. In many ways this is the first domestic use of the sort of technology that has been used for a few years in the movies, creating characters like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It essentially uses facial-tracking software with a high degree of precision which is used to drive real-time character animations.
Why is this important?
Oculus VR might be the poster child of virtual reality, yet ultimately virtual reality is about immersion. Oculus, in it’s current form, only satisfies one of your senses. Technologies like the Stem System and FOVE are critically mimicking how humans interact with the world. The Stem System understands how you move through a three dimensional space and FOVE helps to understand what you’re actually looking at as opposed to just making sure you can see what’s around you like with the Oculus Rift.
Faceshift is important as they are thinking about how to represent the user in the virtual world as a virtualized avatar. Real-time mapping of facial expressions to an avatar are an important step of that, as passing a user’s voice is only part of the identity we create for ourselves online. I’ve had some experience with avatars at my previous startup and I am now working with real-time facial analysis at my new role, so I can vouch for how challenging this work is.
Think about what the internet or video games looked like 10 years ago. Now think 10 years into the future. Virtual Reality is much closer than most people think.
Digital Drivers’ Licenses
Around 40 states are working on a projects to introduce a digital driver’s licence in the form of a fully-secured smartphone app. The states are working with a vendor, MorphoTrust USA, on the development of the app, with the hope that there will be a pilot program underway this year, with a full roll-out in 2016.
As things like Apple Pay and Google Wallet drive us toward digitizing our financial transactions the need for our wallet is in decline. Your ID would be one of the last remaining reasons to carry a wallet in the future. The digital driver’s licence will even reduce that need. Of course that won’t do you any good if you’re out of batteries!
The app would still be optional, with “hard copies” of licences being available in the foreseeable future. While there will always be innovators, happy to be the first to implement new technology, there will also always be laggards and technophobes, who will drag their feet at changes such as this.
When you (or a law enforcement officer) open up the app there will be all of the usual information shown on a licence, for example your name, address, birthdate, photo, signature and driving-related details like whether you currently have valid driver’s licence and what class it is.
For security purposes there will be facial, fingerprint or voice recognition, allied with a requirement for the entry of a PIN code.
The concept has rung a few alarm bells for libertarians, concerned that the app may provide access to other information stored on the phone. It has also raised a few practical questions like how an officer deals with a phone with a flat battery, and indeed how would they “confiscate” a licence without physically taking the phone.
The developers, and proponents of the app, have come up with proposals to reduce the concerns, for instance they have proposed locking a smartphone when the licence is on the screen, and giving officers their own mobile apps to use when checking licences, so that there is no need to take a phone out of the owner’s view.
Why is this important?
As the world becomes increasingly digitized former abstractions of our identity are becoming obsolete. How can we tell for certain that somebody is who they say they are? Does a small piece of plastic with a picture that looks vaguely like the person sitting in the driver’s seat with a similar looking squiggle for a signature, actually prove that person’s identity?
We must remember that much of what we use to establish our identity is really simple abstract tools designed to help machines understand who we are.
The security measures that will go with this app are a good example of how things are developing. Yes, there will still be the relatively old-fashioned need for a PIN code, but the other security measures more reflect how computers can determine that you are uniquely you. For instance if you use facial recognition it will recognize the picture as you because it will have remembered the width of your smile, the color of your eyes, the length of your nose and the shape of your face.
The days where one unlicensed brother, who can remember his sibling’s birthday and has a family resemblance, can pretend to be his fully-licenced brother when stopped by a law enforcement officer, will soon be over.
A New Dawn For Sports: Robotic Fighting
After a hiatus of more than a decade an old television favorite returns to national t.v. No, I’m not talking about the new dawns of Doctor Who or Star Trek, or even the soon-to-be-aired new version of Thunderbirds, I’m talking about the great Battlebots challenge.
Battlebots fought their way through five series in the early 2000s. It was a formative experience for many technology-lovers of the era, as home-made robots battled (actually it was more realistic than some of the wrestling that was a favorite on t.v. with the kids at the time).
And they are about to commence battle again! Hopefully by now, they will have fixed the problem of robots getting stuck if you flip them onto their back, which made some of the old battles a little too formulaic.
Why is this important?
Here are multiple reasons why this innovation is important – not necessarily ranked in order of importance.
It’s important because it’s awesome. Seriously? Robots fighting?
It’s important because I made a bet in 2009 with several friends who said that this would never happen. To ensure that they never forgot said bet I documented this prediction on TakeMeToYourLeader in this post.
Beyond the sheer joy I get from these kind of advancements I think the best part about this kind of innovation is that it has a network effect. Public interest in robotics drives further investment, which drives further innovation, which will drive further public interest, and then the loop continues. These mainstream displays in Robotics are good for the entire field as robots continue to become an everyday part of our reality.
Portable Energy Windmill
One of the real problems that emergency services face whenever there is a natural disaster is that the essential services have often been knocked out, and it can be quite some time before repair crews can get out there to repair them, even to a level that is usable solely by the emergency team.
Windstream Technologies were asked to come up with a solution to this problem; to find a way that would get emergency services up and running much more quickly in their quest to find and help survivors.
They developed the MobileMill. This is a portable trailer, that can be towed behind any vehicle, that collects solar and wind power, and which can enter the disaster sites before the electricity has been reconnected.
The MobileMill combines solar photovoltaic panels and vertical axis wind turbines. It can be made operational within one minute of its arrival in the disaster zone and it instantly starts producing renewable energy. It includes an 18 kWh battery array which can power emergency services for up to three days.
It can easily be turned into a full mobile control centre, powering the necessary computers and radios.
Why is this important?
The importance is fairly obvious. The first few hours of a disaster are vitally important, particularly for people who are trapped and in need of rescue. Unfortunately there have been too many times in the past where the disaster relief team have been hamstrung by a lack of power and communications. Anything that can speed up their first response has to be very positive.
This is a great innovation that everyone can feel good about. I hope they develop it fast and are able to use it in the field in the near future.