Category Archives: Sci-tech

World could run on renewables in 20 years

At least, that’s according to an American research team. What’s particularly interesting is that they’ve factored in the economic impact, so it’s not just a case of “we have the technology, this is how fast we can deploy it” but also “this is how it can work feasibly”.

To quote the CNet article:

the world’s energy could be originated from 50 percent wind, 40 percent solar, 4 percent geothermal, 4 percent hydroelectric, and 2 percent wave and tidal power

Their suggestions read like science fiction, or at least the sort of science fiction imagined by people like me, born in the 1980s. Public transport running on hydrogen fuel cells. Airplanes powered by liquid hydrogen. That this sort of stuff is relatively feasible is still amazing to me and gives me some small hope that we may not blow the planet half to hell before my (as yet unconceived) children grow up. Although, as the article makes clear, it all hinges on the development and deployment of effective long-range energy networks.

Click here for a presentation of parts of the report. The full report is here and here. For more of Candace Lombardi’s work, go here.

A tale of two green-car markets

The Japanese market is apparently embracing more eco-friendly hybrid vehicles at a much greater rate than the US, largely due to a more wide-ranging incentive scheme. The sale stats don’t lie, as we can see (I’m including the hyperlinks from the original article to make it easier to follow up on what’s going on):

In Japan, where hybrids are now tax-free and gas prices are 78 percent higher than in the U.S., a hybrid (Honda’s Insight) topped the charts for vehicle sales for the first time ever in April. And Toyota’s gen-3 Prius, which took the crown last month, is doing well enough that the company has reportedly brought back overtime and started recruiting workers from other Toyota factories to keep up with booming demand. Chief Prius engineer Akihiko Otsuka told the New York Times recently that he expects hybrid sales to “push up the entire car market.”

Yet a Honda executive has just announced that the company expects to miss its sales targets for the Insight by as much as 33 percent this year in the U.S. That’s partly because of relatively low gas prices — they’ve dropped as much as 35 percent in the last year. As J.D. Power and Associates powertrain analyst Mike Omotoso told us recently, “When gas is cheap we tend to buy large vehicles without too much concern for the environment.”

Robot soldiers

It’s a maxim in journalism that when a headline is a question, the answer is usually no. And so you have to be concerned when you read “Can robots make ethical decisions in battle?”

That said, the scientist quoted knows his stuff.

“My research hypothesis is that intelligent robots can behave more ethically in the battlefield than humans currently can,” said Ronald Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech, who is designing software for battlefield robots under contract with the U.S. Army. “That’s the case I make.”

His research has a very solid background:

In a report to the army last year, Arkin described some of the potential benefits of autonomous fighting robots. For one thing, they can be designed without an instinct for self-preservation and, as a result, no tendency to lash out in fear. They can be built to show no anger or recklessness, Arkin wrote, and they can be made invulnerable to what he called “the psychological problem of ‘scenario fulfillment,”‘ which causes people to absorb new information more easily if it agrees with their pre-existing ideas.

Arkin’s report drew on a 2006 survey by the surgeon general of the army, which found that fewer than half of soldiers and marines serving in Iraq said that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and 17 percent said all civilians should be treated as insurgents. More than one-third said torture was acceptable under some conditions, and fewer than half said they would report a colleague for unethical battlefield behavior.

Troops who were stressed, angry, anxious or mourning lost colleagues or who had handled the dead were more likely to say they had mistreated civilian noncombatants, the survey said. (The survey can be read by searching for 1117mhatreport at

Of course, the problem is that just because a robot can, in theory, make less judgemental decisions does not necessarily mean these are better. The human element, where the individual brings his or her experience and intuition to bear on a situation, is lost. I would raise the concern that an automated defence system could open fire when there is no need to, simply because it is programmed to take certain actions and cannot ‘read’ the circumstances.

Atkins is fully aware of these challenges, which is good because it means there is some action being taken to address them. Ultimately, a higher use of technology, which could potentially lead to fewer human casualties, can only be a good thing.

Links of the day

Online censorship hurts us all. “Protecting” artists makes things worse, argues Cory Doctrow. (Guardian/Boing Boing)

Monster steals email addresses and spams it@cork membership. (Tom Raftery)

Walking for a good cause without ever leaving home. Virtual walks allow raise money for charity. (Reuters)

Ebay admits overpaying for the internet phone company Skype. It paid $2.6bn in 2005 and is taking a $1.43bn charge relating to the deal. That’s gotta hurt! (International Herald Tribune)

Woman gives birth to her own grandchildren. Egads… (AP)

News on the al-Dura front: Israeli finding that it was staged. Mohammed al-Dura was reportedly shot by the Israeli army while his fathered tried to shield him. It seems this did not happen. (James Fallows)

Musharraf: Spy chief to lead army. Looks like Pervy might actually step down this time. (CNN)

And simply because I’m feeling nostalgic, here’s the theme to The Secret of Monkey Island played on electric guitar:


I smell a look back at some classic games coming here soon. :)

Robots to the rescue

Japanese researchers hope robots will be the answer to coping with the nation’s aging population.

A vacuuming machine developed by Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd is already cleaning floors in about 10 buildings around the country, including a 54-floor skyscraper in central Tokyo.

The device operates at night after office workers have gone home. It takes elevators to move from one floor to another.

Service robots are probably the most clichéd futurist vision, but the benefits are manifold. Industrial applications like the one above are only the start — it’s only natural researchers look into more domestic uses.

As Japan’s population grows older and its labor force shrinks, researchers say new types of robots will play a major role as there simply won’t be enough people to do these jobs.

“In the type of ageing society that we foresee, the situation will likely get to the point where there will be little choice but to get some help from them (robots),” said Isao Shimoyama, dean of the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Information Science and Technology.

Shimoyama’s group, which is working with the likes of Toyota and Fujistu, aims to have a new generation of the devices up and running within 15 years. Prototypes could be ready in as little as 18 months.

“They may look smart, but they are still quite stupid,” Shimoyama said. “I don’t think they will ever be as smart as humans.”

For a man who’s made robots his field of expertise, he doesn’t seem up to speed. Just a few days ago technologists and investors gathered at the Singularity Summit to discuss artificial intelligence and how to deal with machines that are smarter than humans.

Wendell Wallach predicted we are just years away “from a catastrophic disaster brought about by an autonomous computer system making a decision”. Skynet is what springs to my mind. Wallach specialises in bioethics, and has spoken about the creation of a robotic code of ethics. I could have sworn Asimov established that years ago:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Of course, a sufficiently advanced robot would be capable of overwriting its own programming — this would essentially mark its transition from object to sentience (though I would be willing to debate this).

Next stop: the Moon

Russia plans to start building a base on the Moon by 2027. It aims to land cosmonauts in 2024 and have the facility finished and staffed by 2032.

The former superpower had suggested being part of a joint expedition with NASA, but after this was apparently rejected — although the US agency said in April that it had not received any such proposal — the decision was taken to go solo.

The first step will be finishing work on the ISS, followed by refurbishment of the Soyuz craft. How cosmonauts are going to get to the Moon has gone unmentioned. It might be using thisKliper craft, but there’s just as likely no plan in place at all.

Unless the government rows in behind the federal space agency, Roskosmos, this proposal will never get off the ground (pun, dire as it was, most certainly intended). The agency only has an annual budget of $1.3bn, compared to NASA’s $16.8bn.

In 2005, NASA estimated its coming lunar programme could cost $104bn over 13 years (Apollo cost half that over eight). There’s no reason Russia can’t come up with a way of doing it more cost-efficiently, but doing it on the current budget seems idealistic at best.

It will inevitably turn to space tourism to raise funds. Five have flown so far — each paying $20m-$25m a pop — and one Russian gentleman is set to go into orbit in 2009. It also charges NASA somewhere in the region of $20m per person per flight on its Soyuz capsules to the space station.

Roskosmos chief Anatoly Perminov has said launches of foreign satellites and other commercial services are expected to generate $800 million in sales for Russia’s national space and rocket industry in 2008. This would be useful hard cash for a lunar programme, especially with the timeframe the agency has in mind. It’s unlikely to be enough though.

Collaboration would be the easiest and most efficient avenue to take, but without NASA on board that seems dead in the water. Russia is considering developing satellites and such with several Arab countries, but it’s fair to say these do not have sufficiently developed space programmes to be technically useful in a lunar expedition. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t contribute financially.

Russia isn’t the only nation with the Moon in its sights. China — which sees a successful space programme as a major tool in establishing its international reputation and prestige — and Japan are planning lunar flights by 2022 and 2025, while India might steal a march on both with a mission by 2020.

India is to spend $1.5bn over five years developing the requisite technology, and what it can achieve in this timeframe and on this budget will indicate if Russia can achieve its goals.

Ultimately, the more resources dedicated to lunar exploration and occupation the better. Earth won’t last forever…